Our fiction editor, Robin Lauzon Parker, recently spoke with Michael Minchin, author of Issue #7’s “In the Bodies of Beautiful Fish.” Here’s what he had to say about the roots of the story, his writing process, and the type of writing that inspires him.
What inspired you to write this story?
In the summer of 1997, when I was nineteen, I worked in a cannery in a small Alaskan fishing village, much like the village in the story. The land and the people and the work, everything about the experience really, was so new, and in some ways shocking, that I knew someday I would write about it. It took me years to understand how to fictionalize that experience. Originally, this story took the form of a novel, which I never quite finished. So, this story is, in a way, a distillation of the novel that never came to be.
What guides your approach to autobiographical fiction? Is your primary concern disguising or protecting the people involved, crafting a more universal story, or something else?
I like to fictionalize as much as possible, especially when it comes to characters. I did live in that village in Alaska, and the details of the place are as close as memory and photographs can help recreate. But Amelia, for example, never existed that year, unfortunately, though some elements of her character did come out of my experiences with actual people. I think part of the fun in writing fiction is seeing how far I can stray from what actually happened. So, I don’t really agonize over disguising or protecting people; I’m just taking bits and pieces of experience and trying to build something new.
What do you hope people take away from this story?
I want to give readers an experience. When I read, that is one thing I’m looking for. I want to experience, in as visceral a sense as possible, what it is to live in another person’s life, to maybe feel something new or do something I’ve never done, see a place I’ve never seen, or see a familiar place in a new way. So, more than anything, I hope readers can live a little through Quinn and feel what it’s like to work in a cannery or feel again what it’s like to be young and helplessly in love.
You manage to achieve a very difficult balance with the ending, between what Quinn wants to happen and what the reader knows most likely will happen. How did this story evolve as you worked on it, especially the ending?
I would write the ending one way and then another, and then I would think about it, for weeks sometimes, and write it again. Originally, what I wanted was for Amelia and Quinn to leave on a plane together at the end of the summer. And, in a strange way, I still want that. But ultimately I came to the conclusion that the plausibility of that ending was suspect; it simply wasn’t true for the characters because of how the story developed and changed during revisions. At one point, the story just moved in a direction I hadn’t intended, and I had to let go of the vision of the two of them leaving on that plane together, which is an image I was kind of addicted to.
Can you talk about your revision process?
I usually write a story all the way through, then think about what I’ve written and try to find the kernel of the story, so to speak. Then I almost always begin again from scratch. Often this approach will lead to radically different stories. I might take just a few lines of dialogue from the original draft and begin something new. In later revisions, once a piece is mostly whole, I’ll begin reading it aloud. I’ll read it over and over and make changes until it sounds right.
How long did this story take to complete from start to finish?
Once I abandoned the novel and made the decision to turn it into a short story, it took about six months.
How did you choose the title for your story?
I’ve always struggled with titles. On better days, titles can seem obvious. On other days, they seem impossible to craft. In the case of “In the Bodies of Beautiful Fish,” it was partly about the sound. But also, I wanted the title to contain particular words that link to essential elements and images within the story.
What other odd or difficult jobs have you held beyond working in a cannery? How do you support your writing career now?
I grew up raking blueberries and picking peas in Maine during summers, from about middle school on. For a few years I worked as a barista in Maine and then on Nantucket Island. (I’m writing a story now set on Nantucket, but it’s not directly related to my work experience.) I’ve also done landscaping on the Maine coast, worked on a trail crew for a year, painted houses, washed dishes, planted strawberries in a renovated airplane hangar on the Canadian border (very strange). I’ve worked in several factories, packing everything from French fries to L.L. Bean goods. I’m forgetting a few things, I’m sure. Now I work as a Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer, something I’ve done for about the last ten years. It is both practical and useful, and slowly it’s beginning to work its way into my writing.
What are you working on now?
Mostly I’m working on short stories, though I have an idea for a novel, and I’ve started writing scenes for that as a way of exploring the main characters. The novel will be set in Maine, not far from where I grew up. I’m working on nonfiction essays and craft essays on the side.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
One of my advisors in graduate school, David Jauss, used to say something like, “Don’t trust your brother, trust your own bad eye.” I’m not sure if he made it up or where it comes from, but it means that, ultimately, you have to trust your own judgment, no matter what other people say about your writing, even if your judgment is flawed. You have to decide what advice is helpful and what advice you shouldn’t pay attention to. Workshops are a prime example of this dilemma. If you try to incorporate the advice of twelve people after a workshop, you can go crazy. Stories can suffer terribly from too many different opinions. So, when in doubt, I always come around to that little saying of David’s. Some advice is extremely helpful, of course. But some just isn’t.
Can you describe your writing process for us?
With two young children and a full-time job, I write whenever I can, as much as I can. If you give me a rainy Saturday and a quiet room, I’ll write practically the whole day. I write a lot in the basement late at night. The basement in the winter is forty-five degrees, and it’s actually where I wrote much of the Alaska story, which was fitting because it felt like I was in a cannery or one of those cold warehouses where all the frozen fish are stored.
I have a habit of writing to music, usually music without words, but not always. Sometimes I find music to fit the tone of a story and then obsessively listen to certain tracks as I write. Everything, every word, in my mind has to sound just right. So, when I’m reading a story out loud, which I do frequently in the revision process, I’m looking not only for how it’s all put together in a craft sense, but I’m listening carefully to the overall sound.
What is the first story you remember writing?
My first serious story, so to speak, was titled “Of Coffee and Bikes,” and it wasn’t much, though I thought it was at the time. It was about a failed attempt to bike across the country (vaguely autobiographical); I think I wrote about a flat tire. I happily submitted it to Glimmer Train, of all places. Now I cringe thinking of that story, but you know we all have to start somewhere, so I’m glad I wrote it along with all the other duds I’ve written.
What author most inspires you? Or who do you go back to again and again?
Richard Bausch for fiction. I return to his stories, I think, because they are vivid and crisp and give me that visceral experience I crave. I think of Bausch as a painter; maybe it’s strange, but I think of most of my favorite writers as painters actually, because I think good writers have not only the ability to construct well-crafted stories, in a technical sense, but also the ability to show us (paint for us in words) the world as if we were seeing it for the first time. Lauren Groff is another favorite in this regard. And this is one reason I enjoy Robert Vivian’s essays, because of the way that he is able to express his vision through fresh language. And language, far more than content, is what attracts me to any writing. This is also why I read a lot of poetry—for the language and the sounds and the images. For poetry, I can’t get enough of Matthew Dickman’s work.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. For the journey, not just the illustrations.