Please welcome Micaela Morrissette to the blog! She stopped by to talk about her story, “The Familiars”, from The New Black anthology, and more (feel free to throw some writing prompts her way!).
Will you tell us a bit about your story in The New Black and what inspired you to write it?
The concept for “The Familiars” came about when I guessed the wrong ending for Rosemary Timperley’s story “Harry” in The Roald Dahl Book of Ghost Stories. Timperley’s ending was good—she’s an amazing, very little-known writer (somewhat in the creepy/pretty Shirley Jackson vein) whom I discovered through the Dahl anthology—but I had become attached to what I thought was going to happen in her piece. In general, I always believe that guessing the endings of stories and TV shows is one of the best ways to generate your own ideas. It’s a little harder to do it with novels and films, because it’s hard to extract a concept or climax from the immense amount of contextual material that those formats involve. But with shorter-form work, guessing games are the perfect method for staying tightly (competitively!) engaged with the work you’re receiving, while at the same time creating brand-new plots for yourself left and right. Assuming you guess wrong, that is, which I always do.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I have always wanted to be a writer, but I’ve also always wanted to be a marine biologist, a private detective, an astrophysicist, an ad man, and a spirit medium. I haven’t given up on any of those career paths yet. I grew up in rural West Virginia, and the sylvan terrain in which the boy and imaginary friend of “The Familiars” go to play is a very faithful conflation of the woods that surrounded two of my childhood homes. I spent a lot of time in those forests, including many hours with imaginary friends.
What do you like to see in a good story, and what authors or novels have influenced you the most in your work, and your life?
My tastes in fiction are very catholic, and nothing matters to me more than good writing. I can’t stand sloppiness in prose—but otherwise I’ll read anything and everything. I love risky “literary” writers like Don DeLillo, Joy Williams, Shelley Jackson; but I also crave vast quantities of fictional comfort food in the form of Henry James, Colette, Le Carré, Simenon, Tessa Hadley. I like authors who make the banal seem strange, like early Ben Marcus; or who make the bizarre be close and familiar, like Millhauser. I don’t read a whole lot of “genre” work, but Isaac Asimov is a childhood obsession that’s still very pleasurable. Last year a friend bought me one of Small Beer’s beautiful anthologies of Ursula LeGuin stories, which were stellar, obviously. And there’s nothing better than Philip K. Dick’s short fiction. Though his prose is appalling, of course—but it’s all about the conceits with him.
My all-time favorite author is Ivy Compton Burnett. She’s the perfect trifecta: impeccable writing, an utterly odd and uncompromising style, and heaping helpings of melodrama.
What do you enjoy most about reading, and writing, dark fiction?
As a reader, I like to imagine the unimaginable, so the idea of looking into a mind without any “human” qualities such as empathy is very appealing. Classic noir often seems to involve a lot of toughness, dick waving, and general lack of subtlety; so that’s rather boring for me. But I would love to read an exercise in investigating the motivations of a character who is utterly, flawlessly wicked. As a writer, I don’t go to that extreme, perhaps partly because of the difficulty involved, but also because extremity of that kind is less complicated, and therefore less interesting to me, than an uneasy mix of evil and something more sympathetic—kindness, passion, vulnerability. I don’t think that “The Familiars” is actually noir, but I suppose it’s “dark fiction” in that the malevolent friend probably does triumph at the end. And when the reader thinks for the space of a couple pages that the friend has been vanquished, I hope that will be a little heartbreaking—there’s something so delicate and so beautiful about the friend that it might be more wrenching and pathetic to contemplate its defeat than to imagine the suffering of the good little boy, who is just a normal, sweet, sympathetic boy. So I suppose the story is dark in that we’re tempted to root for the bad guy. But it’s not noir, because the evil to which some readers might succumb is exquisite, fragile, enticing. Noir, with its insistence on total blackness, would have to have us root for, or at least accede to the success of, an evil that is brutal, ugly, devoid of all good qualities.
What’s next for you?
You tell me! I’ve come to love working off prompts since doing my MFA at Brown, so I’d be grateful for some writing assignments. But I’m currently trying to revise a story called “I’m on Fire” that started out as a mimicry of three writers I saw read together in Brooklyn last year—Gary Lutz, Ken Sparling, and John Haskell—but that became less like them and more like me as it grew longer, and that now needs to become definitely me if it’s going to be published. It’s about a narrator who lives in an apartment with his multiple, perhaps infinite, wives and husbands. But he feels rather alone nonetheless. Too bad for him! For months now I’ve been starting and abandoning various drafts of a straight-up sci-fi story about a future world where people live to be very very old, meaning that they spend about half of their lives in a state of advanced lunacy as their bodies persist but their minds go completely around the bend. And therefore they spend their four years of high school taking classes in how to be insane. It’s a complete rip-off of an idea that my friend, the electronic artist/musician Peter Bussigel, gave me. A good prompt! At my last attempt at that piece I got forty-two pages in before I realized I’d headed in the completely wrong direction from the very first sentence. But I’m still mulling it over. And of course there’s a novel that I think about all the time, although I never seem to get much done to it. It’s got a rather hideous protagonist who, seduced by his daughter, murders her, then flees to the shelter of a supernatural brothel run by an all-powerful, deeply disturbing madam. And maybe later he’ll take refuge at a cult. I do love a cult!
Micaela Morrissette’s fiction has been anthologized in Best American Fantasy (Prime Books), The Pushcart Prize XXXIII (Pushcart Press), Best Horror of the Year (Night Shade), and The Weird (Tor and Atlantic/Corvus). Periodical publications include Conjunctions (where she is the managing editor), Tor.com, Ninth Letter, and Weird Tales.