First of all: Michael Wehunt's website is sick. Here, go look and then come back...sick website.
Second of all: Wehunt's collection of short stories, Greener Pastures, is so good--it's going down as one of my top five reads of 2017.
Without too much fanfare, I'd like to just present to you the interview--it really needs no introduction:
Mother Horror: Hi Michael! I’m very excited to have this opportunity to interview you. I read your collection of stories, Greener Pastures, based on a recommendation by Nick Cutter on Twitter! I bought it and then almost immediately, the owners of Nocturnal Reader’s Box told me your book was coming in an upcoming box. But I was pretty proud of myself for picking it up first. Ha! Can you tell me about how being featured in the subscription box was for you? Your book was all over Instagram (#bookstagram)
Michael Wehunt: Thank you, Mother Horror, for having me!
The Nocturnal Reader’s Box was a great experience in more than one way. I think the biggest is realizing how widely popular and admired it is, which is proof that there are a great many dedicated horror fans out there looking for books to read. As an author—particularly in the small-press world—it can seem like the only influential platforms book lovers go to for discoveries are Amazon, Amazon, and Goodreads, which is owned by Amazon. This can shrink your perspective and cultivate the idea that there simply aren’t many readers these days. The Nocturnal Reader’s Box word of mouth, particularly on Instagram, opened a door I hadn’t peeked through before, and it was invigorating as a writer.
The box also helped Greener Pastures find some readers that might have never heard of it due to it not traveling in the same circles as others. Only some of my pastures (hehe) grow in the traditional horror territory, while many of them are grazed by weird fiction creatures and irrigated by less identifiable waters. The term “weird fiction” can be off-putting for some, but that word “weird” has a wide aesthetic range. It can hold a lot inside of it, definitely including horror. And at their hearts, these are horror stories, too. I’m a horror author, too. I’m just trying to explore the human heart while hopefully giving people a few nightmares.
One of the most crucial and exciting things for an author is rippling out to wider readerships, crossing over from sub-subgenre to subgenre to genre. While Greener Pastures had done satisfyingly well in the larger horror world, the Nocturnal Reader’s Box kicked that up a notch, for which I am grateful. And their fans are great! I can tell they’re serious about reading and giving their love to books they feel deserve it. So it really means something that my collection has been, so I’m told, received so well (with many beautifully composed photographs of it, too!).
Mother Horror: Where do you get inspiration for your stories? In other words, what fascinates you? Captures your attention in the natural world? (I loved reading the “behind the story” accounts in the book! I love when authors do that!)
Michael Wehunt: The mundane fascinates me. There is such great beauty in regular life, with its regular people and their regular relationships and regular problems, that I could write about only that and be content and fulfilled. Heartbreak and grief fascinate me, particularly what the mind and heart go through during the loss of a loved one. When I read Raymond Carver for the first time (far later than I should have), I felt the striking of a chord of kinship. Just the machinations of day after day, finding and losing people. I find myself inspired by those who wouldn’t consider themselves inspiring, partly because they wouldn’t. A life with a small scope isn’t a small life.
I love driving down country roads and watching the power lines, where our nature bleeds into truer nature. Walking half a mile into the woods and just standing still, looking at the way the trees cut the sunlight, how a forest sounds different than anything else even though it seems like such a hush, the way the different canopies overhead (skinny pines, thick crowned oaks) frame the sky. More than any of those sensory details, the very fact that I’m in the woods calms and grounds me and almost makes me a truer version of myself, with some of the pretense stripped away. I grew up near the Appalachian Mountains, and as they’re some of the oldest mountains in the world, they’re worn down like an elderly dog’s teeth and heavily forested. So there, too, I am in the woods, and they are like home. And though it’s a rare treat for me, I love being near bodies of water.
The problem, of course, is that I love creepy stuff so much! Creatures, the occult (and religion, if you tilt it and look at it from an only slightly different angle), things under the bed, things that crawl out of the woods, the blank spaces between stars, and so on. So my deepest inspiration of all comes from a place where the uncanny rubs up against the everyday, like the way those power lines hum along the dense tree lines of those country roads. How does the mundane react to the strange or supernatural, and how might the mundane context of a life absorb these things and change with them? I enjoy a straight-up creepy horror story when it’s done well, and I enjoy a strictly literary exploration of a theme with prose I want to linger over, but when the two…not just meet but become symbiotic…that can be beautiful and rarefied. A lot can be explored there.
Mother Horror: Do you carry a messenger bag/man purse? Can you tell us what’s in it right now? Literally everything. If you don’t—what’s in your pockets?
Michael Wehunt: I have a pretty huge messenger bag because I like to keep certain things close to me. In it right now: Blessing the Boats, a poetry collection by Lucille Clifton; Strike Sparks, a retrospective poetry collection by Sharon Olds; my laptop; headphones; a visitor’s guide to Monhegan Island in Maine (from a trip in late August); three tiny pocket notebooks; two pens, both black ink; one yellow highlighter; a pack of gum; a granola bar I didn’t realize was in there and is now going into the trash; a contract with Electric Literature from last year when they reprinted my story “A Thousand Hundred Years” that I haven’t filed away yet for sentimental reasons.
Mother Horror: I always like to ask what authors have been an influence on you as a writer or in your formative years as a reader BUT let’s change it up a bit and see what authors are on your radar right now? Who are you currently reading? Who do you want to read books from that you haven’t yet?
Michael Wehunt: There’s such a wealth of talent in horror and weird fiction right now. Some call it a golden age and it’s easy to see why. 2017 is the Year of Women Horror Writers Completely Crushing It, which has been wonderful to see. Kristi DeMeester, Nadia Bulkin, S.P. Miskowski, Gwendolyn Kiste, and other notables all saw their debut collections come out this year, and I recommend them all. I expect to see some of these names on award ballots in the coming months.
Perhaps because I was writing my first novel most of the year, I’ve been on a bigger non-dark binge than usual, almost like my habits prior to being an author myself. I think I wanted the horror and darkness in the novel to come from a place that covered my entire experience rather than allowing anything from the past six years, when I began devouring horror and weird fiction, to seep into my book. I always tend to go back and forth between horror/supernatural and non-genre fiction. Those two halves of me overlap heavily, as I mentioned, and I need to keep both tended. I read a lot of poetry, too, slowly. This year's favorite has probably been Sharon Olds, though Mary Oliver infected my novel more. I also mention all this partly to give context to my two favorite books I read this year: The Light of the World, a memoir written by the poet Elizabeth Alexander after her husband suddenly passed away, and Autumn, a novel by Ali Smith. Both are delicate, rich, gorgeous, and heartbreaking in extremely different ways.
Right now I’m reading Shadows & Tall Trees 7, an anthology of “literary horror and weird fiction” stories. My story “Root-Light” is in it, and I’ve been itching to read the others. It has some of my favorite authors in it.
As for authors I've never read, I’ve heard so many good things about Louise Erdrich. Her work apparently blends elements of magical realism into an earthy literary mode. She has a new novel, so a new batch of good things are going around about her right now.
Mother Horror: If you were an ice cream flavor, which one would you be and why?
Michael Wehunt: Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Coffee BuzzBuzzBuzz. I haven’t seen it for a few years now, and I miss it. Coffee ice cream with espresso bean fudge chunks. That is absolute perfection and nothing else will ever come closer to describing my soul. My partner says I should be Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch because it fits me a little better, but I’m going with the buzz. However, there is some dishonesty there. I love coffee very dearly, but I am very low-key and not the spiritual embodiment of caffeine. So regular old chocolate ice cream would be acceptable. My life is pretty boring, really, just the way I like it.
Mother Horror: What things distract you the most from your writing?
In terms of actual distraction, nothing is more of a time vampire than social media, particularly Facebook. I’m definitely not alone in that, and I need to start enforcing strict social media silence time for myself. But what pulls me away from writing far more is day-to-day life. Playing with my dog, spending time with my partner, and going for walks with both. Those aren’t distractions, though. If anything, writing is a distraction from them. Finding a balance between day job, creative job, and the people and pleasures in my life is crucial, and I don’t think I’d write anything at all without that balance.
Earlier in my career, worrying about submissions, comparing myself to other authors, being impatient, not writing as much as I thought I should be, and many other things like that distracted me greatly. I think it’s an important turning point in every author’s career and well-being when they learn (it’s a difficult lesson and one that is never learned entirely) to just let that stuff go. It doesn’t matter as much as you think. Do what you can, when you can, as best you can. Always improve yourself because yourself is all you can improve.
Mother Horror: Is there something you’re working on right now that we can get excited about?
Michael Wehunt: I’m not working on anything especially exciting right now. A couple of months ago I finished writing my first novel, and I’m very excited about it. It’s called The Lighted Hand. Since then I’ve written a short novella and a novelette. I’m hoping all of these find exciting homes in the near future. This week I started a new story, which should bring me very close to the point where I’ll start officially putting my second collection together. I have far more than enough stories for the next book, but like before, I want to be very picky about what I select to go in it and what I do not.
Mother Horror: My favorite question!! Michael Wehunt, as a writer of horror and strange, dark fiction…what scares you?
Michael Wehunt: Death terrifies me. Not so much my own death but losing the ones I love. It’s been pointed out several times (including in the book’s story notes) that many of the stories in Greener Pastures deal extensively with grief and loss, and the reason is because I often write about it in order to explore it in different ways. Grapple with it, so to speak. And in this way, emotions scare me.
When I was young, I was completely and utterly horrified by wasps, hornets, bees, anything that could fly and sting. Phrasing it “when I was young” implies that this was only when I was a child, but this phobia persisted until I had been an adult for a long time. It’s better now, but I still get nervous enough around them to count it as a fear. And yes, wasps and bees do make various appearances in my work.
In a more abstract way, the unknown scares me…or fascinates me, to be more precise. I think it’s largely why I’m drawn beyond the usual villains of horror into the less clear area of weird fiction. Thinking something (a person, a door, a forest, a film, a basement) ominous is X but it turns out to be not even Y but really this undefined Z one never could have considered…or not learning what it is in the end at all. I find masks to be creepy, especially those that look either blank or very realistic. Doppelgängers. Holes in the ground, the smell of rich soil breathing out. Animals acting strangely. Anything that is unnatural, sign me up.