Today I am interviewing Michael Williams, author of the new mythical fiction/magic realism series, the City Quartet.
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DJ: Hey Michael! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Michael: I’ve been around for a while, starting in the mid-1980s, when I was a ground-floor member of the DRAGONLANCE team. I wrote the songs for the original Weis/Hickman books in the series, and contributed several novels to the series. Later on, I published a trilogy for Time/Warner Books, and then a pair of novels, Arcady and Allamanda, released by ROC in the U.S. and Hodder & Stoughton in the U.K. Arcady received some very favorable notice, being long-listed for the Locus Awards.
More recently, I’ve been publishing with smaller presses, which are more amiable to taking chances with experimental, genre-bending work. My recent City Quartet are four novels released by Seventh Star Press.
DJ: What is the City Quartet about?
Michael: The City Quartet are four novels, mythic and magical realist (I call the blend “mythical realism”) set in a city that is and is not Louisville, Kentucky. My fictional Louisville is both historical and imaginal, the streets often identifiable as the real, geographical city, but underlaid with magical pockets and side streets, with neighborhoods transformed by myth and mythological patterns. Four separate stories, one for each novel: a coming-of-age story with ghosts (Trajan’s Arch); a Greek tragedy that the ancient gods revisit (Vine: An Urban Legend); a haunted film festival with a nightmarish, historical secret (Dominic’s Ghosts); a biography of a homeless man who becomes a mythical creature (Tattered Men). When you read one novel, you follow its principal plot, but the plots of the other novels brush against your vision: you will see an important scene from another book play out as secondary to the story you’re in, and major characters in one book will be minor or even cameo characters in another. The books stand on their own, but are interwoven across space and time, so that you don’t have to read them in a specific order, and you can enter the world of the quartet through any of them.
DJ: What were some of your influences for the City Quartet?
Michael: I’m interested in place as a character–how a specific locale interacts with characters, limits them, offers them opportunity. How that place looks different depending on who is looking at it. Some of my influences are novels that center on an imagined or half-imagined place: Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, the Robertson Davies trilogies, Garcia Marquez, William Faulkner. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books are probably the strongest influence.
Thematically, and in terms of ideas, the main influences might be the psychologist James Hillman, Greek mythology, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers will sympathize with them?
Michael: Well, in four books, the reader meets all kinds of characters. The Rackett family (Gabriel, his mother Mary, and his son Dominic) are perhaps the most central: half-Irish, half-Appalachian, three would-be, second-shelf artists, they seem to see how the historical town connects to the mythic town, and they are the ones most affected by the events that take place in the city.
There is also T. Tommy Briscoe–homeless Elvis impersonator, visionary, man about town, who is central to the other two books, brushing against the actions of the entire Quartet, perhaps the resident spirit of the city. He is profane and profound, problematic with substances legal and illegal, storyteller and vagrant. I don’t know if readers will “identify with him”–identification is not important to me–but they will find his otherness compelling and sympathetic, I hope.
DJ: Aside from the main characters in the story, who is a favorite side character or a character with a smaller role in the story? Why?
Michael: John Bulwer runs a bookstore called Dry Salvages in the mythic part of the city. Old hippie, tending toward Buddhism and jazz, friends with Coltrane and Kerouac back in the day, he’s an iconic figure to the shopkeepers and local hipsters, but only a part-time wise old man. His store is based loosely on an old bookshop on Louisville’s Bardstown road, his character an improvisation on the owner of that store, a remarkable dude who championed the strange and apt in the city for years.
DJ: How have the reviews been from readers, bloggers, and reviewers for the first two books of the City Quartet? Is there anything that your audience seems to be particularly enjoying or is eager to find out more about?
Michael: The reviews have ranged from the greatly enthusiastic to the baffled. I’m not always the most popular writer (I’ll own that) but among my favorable audience, the admiration is gratifyingly deep. There seems to be a love affair surrounding homeless Elvis impersonators, so people enjoy Tommy Briscoe in the books where he is central, and look for his weaving tracks through the others.
In terms of human issues, the books touch often upon relationships between parents and sons. I think I might have complicated and interesting things to say regarding those kinds of dynamics.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing City Quartet?
Michael: Interweaving the books. Dropping hints and connections among the stories. Giving the stories in Trajan’s Arch, for example, a hint of presence in Dominic’s Ghosts, giving the disastrous play that is central to Vine: An Urban Legend, further ink and attention in Dominic’s Ghosts and Tattered Men. Weaving all the stories under a fascination with links and convergences, and thinking about how we are bound together in unrecognized but powerful ways.
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?
Michael: I hope they’ll be getting the jokes. If you read all four of the novels, you’ll find yourself glimpsing the edges of another novel in the one you are reading at the time. So, if they’re saying, “I remember this scene in Trajan’s Arch,” when they are reading Tattered Men, it’s the kind of thing I hope will happen, and it’s a delight of discovery, a sense of being on the inside that is afforded to only the people who read all four books.
DJ: Did you have a goal when you began writing the City Quartet? Was there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme to the story?
Michael: We’re all connected. The delight of the writing was in connecting the stories. The delight in the reading is seeing those connections. A city always implies that our lives are woven together; if we acknowledge those links and treat them with kindness, we’re better off for it.
DJ: I’m always curious when authors finish a series, how close to the original course they stayed when it is finally completed or if it ended up evolving and changing. Did the plot stay the same as you had first imagined it? How about the ending? The evolution of your characters?
Michael: Not at all. A vastly different creature than the one I first imagined. I think that’s a good thing: it’s larger, more unwieldy, and better (I hope) than it was at conception. It surprised me on a number of occasions, but as Robert Frost once said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from City Quartet that you can share with us?
Michael: This is from Trajan’s Arch, when young Gabriel Rackett accompanies his friend and mentor, Trajan Bell, along a creekside half suburban and half-wild. On the way they roust a white owl from hiding, and the startled bird takes off:
Years later, Gabriel would marvel at how he was not surprised at all, how everything—the spontaneous outing and the bare landscape and Trajan’s guiding them on path along the bank, not to mention the very fact that he had been given the bow, that the weapon was in his hands—led to this moment, when Trajan hissed now! and he raised the bow and sighted it on the big bird, knowing all along that he would not shoot, was not supposed to shoot. And over the nocked arrow the owl took shape out of undergrowth and damaged light, as white as an apparition and as silent after it burst, startled, from a tangle of dried branches. Its wings extended, dappling white into a rusty yellow, part bird and part smoke, motionless in a powerful glide, it skimmed the creek bed and veered right, sailing off over the desolate construction ground, leaving behind the smell of burnt leaves and the afterwash of rain.
Gabriel watched the big owl over the arrow point. “Queen of the ghosts,” Trajan whispered, placing his hand on Gabriel’s shoulder.
The owl soared out of sight, and Gabriel turned to Trajan. “It was like she—”
“Not yet, Gabriel. Don’t let her rise into words just yet.”
“What do you mean?” “Keep her in thought,” Trajan insisted. “Keep her image there. Do not even name her parts, or call her what you think she is.”
“But the—” “No.” Trajan shook the boy a little, bracing his hands on Gabriel’s shoulders.
“Not yet. And not even yet.”
DJ: Now that City Quartet is released, what is next for you?
Michael: A student of mine asked me that last fall. My answer was, “What more does a quartet need than a fifth book.” I was being a smartass when I said it, but it makes a perverse sense. The thing I’m working on now is a kind of lyrical piece set in the same magical city–a cross between novel, short fiction, and prose poem. As I said, the smaller presses are more willing to let a writer experiment, and this may be the most experimental thing I’ve done yet.
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B000APBLEY
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
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***City Quartet is available TODAY!!!***
Buy the Book:
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About the Book:
Book Synopsis for Dominic’s Ghosts: Dominic’s Ghosts is a mythic novel set in the contemporary Midwest. Returning to the hometown of his missing father on a search for his own origins, Dominic Rackett is swept up in a murky conspiracy involving a suspicious scholar, a Himalayan legend, and subliminal clues from a silent film festival. As those around him fall prey to rising fear and shrill fanaticism, he follows the branching trails of cinema monsters and figures from a very real past, as phantoms invade the streets of his once-familiar city and one of them, glimpsed in distorted shadows of alleys and urban parks, begins to look uncannily familiar.
Synopsis of Vine – An Urban Legend: Amateur theatre director Stephen Thorne plots a sensational production of a Greek tragedy in order to ruffle feathers in the small city where he lives. Accompanied by an eccentric and fly-by-night cast and crew, he prepares for opening night, unaware that as he unleashes the play, he has drawn the attention of ancient and powerful forces.
Michael Williams’ VINE: AN URBAN LEGEND weds Greek Tragedy and urban legend with dangerous intoxication, as the drama rushes to its dark and inevitable conclusion.
Synopsis of Trajan’s Arch: Gabriel Rackett stands at the threshold of middle age. He lives north of Chicago and teaches at a small community college. He has written one novel and has no prospects of writing another, his powers stagnated by drink and loss. Into his possession comes a manuscript, written by a childhood friend and neighbor, which ignites his memory and takes him back to his mysterious mentor and the ghosts that haunted his own coming of age. Now, at the ebb of his resources, Gabriel returns to his old haunts through a series of fantastic stories spilling dangerously off the page–tales that will preoccupy and pursue him back to their dark and secret sources.
Synopsis of Tattered Men: When a body washes ashore downstream from the city, the discovery saddens the small neighborhood south of Broadway. A homeless man, T. Tommy Briscoe, whose life had intertwined with a bookstore, a bar, and the city’s outdoor theater had touched many lives at an angle. One was that of Mickey Walsh, a fly-by-night academic and historian, who becomes fascinated with the circumstances surrounding the drowning.
From the beginning there seems to be foul play regarding Briscoe’s death, and, goaded on by his own curiosity and the urging of two old friends, Walsh begins to examine the case when the police give it up. His journey will take him into the long biography of a man who might have turned out otherwise and glorious, but instead fell into and through the underside of history, finding harsh magic and an even harsher world. Despite the story of Tommy’s sad and shortened life, Walsh begins to discover curious patterns, ancient and mythic, in its events—patterns that lead him to secrets surrounding the life and death of Tommy Briscoe and reveal his own mysteries in the searching.
Tattered Men is one of the novels of the City Quartet, an interrelated group of novels that can be read in any order that also includes Dominic’s Ghosts, Trajan’s Arch, and Vine: An Urban Legend.
About the Author:
Over the past 25 years, Michael Williams has written a number of strange novels, from the early “Weasel’s Luck” and “Galen Beknighted” in the best-selling DRAGONLANCE series to the more recent lyrical and experimental “Arcady”, singled out for praise by Locus and Asimov’s magazines.
Williams’ highly anticipated City Quartet was completed by the publication of Tattered Men in October 2019. The four volumes may be read in any order–four stories that intertwine, centered in the same city, where minor characters in one novel become central in another:
“Vine: An Urban Legend” is the story of an amateur stage production In Louisville’s Central Park, gone darkly and divinely wrong.
“Dominic’s Ghosts” takes up the story of a son in search of his father in the midst of a murky conspiracy involving a suspicious scholar, a Himalayan legend, and subliminal clues from a silent film festival.
“Tattered Men” is the account of a disheveled biographer, writing the life story of a homeless man who may have been more than he ever seemed.
And “Trajan’s Arch” is a coming-of-age story replete with ghosts, a testimony to hauntings both natural and supernatural.
Williams was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and spent much of his childhood in the south central part of the state, the red-dirt gothic home of Appalachian foothills and stories of Confederate guerrillas. Through good luck and a roundabout journey, he made his way through New England, New York, Wisconsin, Britain and Ireland, and has ended up less than thirty miles from where he began. He has a Ph.D. in Humanities, and teaches at the University of Louisville, where he focuses on the Modern Fantastic in fiction and film. He is married and has two grown sons.
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