blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



David Pandolfe: This is David Pandolfe, and I'm here at Virginia Commonwealth University talking with Michael Byers, winner of the 2004 VCU First Novelist Award for his novel Long for This World, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003. Welcome, Michael. We're very pleased to have you here.

Michael Byers: Thank you, David. Very pleased to be here.

DP: One of the aspects of your novel that's so impressive is how convincingly you portray the working life of your main character, geneticist Henry Moss. When reading the novel, one never doubts that the author knows a great deal about this world. Can you talk a little about how you went about researching this character and what types of challenges you faced along the way?

MB: Henry Moss, he's a geneticist, and he does research into mostly a disease called Hickman. And I have to admit that I did sort of cheat when I was learning about how a geneticist works because my dad is a geneticist and a researcher. And so the research, I did as a kid essentially growing up in the lab and spending a lot of time there. I worked there, in fact, in high school filling pipette trays and researching arcane, horrible diseases in the library and opening medical journals to photographs that I really did not want to see and then photocopying them and spending the afternoons watching my dad do his work, which involved not only the sort of more technical aspects of the genetic research but also the family counseling that went along with it. So for me, the book had its origins there in that lab. And so a lot of the research I'd kind of done already. I did, once I got started, I did have to go back and actually check things like how does this process work, how does the administration work, how does the profession arrange itself. Those kinds of things were not things that I knew. But, yeah, I cheated.

DP: So in a sense this book was writing itself for quite a while?

MB: I think that's right.

DP: One of the questions I was going to ask next was, two, actually, did your father go over the manuscript as you were working on it?

MB: Yeah. Yeah, he did. He was great; he was very helpful. It was terrifying actually to show him what I'd done. He knew that I was working on this kind of novel, sort of, I think. I'm not sure he quite understood the central figure geneticist of his generation living in the city where he lived, would, not sure he quite understood how central that character was going to be. But he was really helpful. He did point out to me things that were implausible, inaccurate, and wrong, in the best possible way. And some of those things I changed and some I didn't. But more than that, he helped me understand some of the more dire consequences of what the guy was . . . you know, Henry Moss, he makes a number of unethical decisions, I suppose, during the book, and he helped me understand what that really meant, what that would have meant for a guy like that. And, you know, sort of beyond all that he was, he was encouraging and he said, "You know, this is a very interesting project," and he said, he didn't put the cabosh on it at a fairly vulnerable point in the novel's gestation at which point, you know, if he'd put his foot down on something or said, "You've got it all wrong," could have easily, I think, squashed the whole thing.

DP: I'm assuming you had to go out of your way not to model it too closely to him, too, is he seeing himself in that character?

MB: Oh, I'm sure—

DP: He isn't talking in his sleep like the—

MB: The character himself is not my dad, and that's something that assure him all the time—

DP: Right—

MB: —not that he needs it but also everybody else. And the situation I put him in is not his kind of situation. In fact, even the disease that my character studies has nothing to do with the one that my father does. But my father was the sort of central inspiration for the book. There's no denying it. I used to watch him go off to work every day working on his disorders and his patients' conditions which are all genetic conditions and, therefore, by nature, they're not reparable; you can't heal somebody with a genetic condition. You can now give them therapy for some, in some cases, but for a long while you just couldn't do any of that. And I'd watch him go off and do this work, which seemed to me one of the hardest things you could possibly do, and then come home and be a fairly normal guy. And I was always, I think, struck by that kind of courage, although I don't think I understood the nature of that act. It took me a while to really get to a point where I could see what he was doing every day as an act of courage and an act of hope, I suppose.

DP: It does take its toll on your character Henry in the book. I was going to ask you about the syndrome itself. I guess in real life it's Hutchinson-Gilford Disease. I should explain, too, that it causes accelerated aging in children, who usually die by the time they reach their teens. I was curious why you decided to change the name of the syndrome while I was also curious to know if in your research you ever came into contact with any of the children suffering from it.

MB: I did, to answer that last question, but I'll get to that in a sec. I changed the name from Hutchinson-Gilford to Hickman mostly because I wanted to feel as though I could do what I wanted with my patients, that I could give them whatever conditions I wanted, that I didn't have to shape the book around a kind of artificial roadblock, if you will. And at the same time I wanted the general outlines of the condition to be essentially the same so that it was a kind of recognizable condition. I changed it, too, out of I suppose respect or trepidation. I didn't want to find myself writing about someone's child, literally about someone's child. In the end, I did end up very much in contact with the Progeria Society, the foundation, who were extremely generous with their time and their information and with their support, I suppose you could say. I wanted to let them know that there was a book that was coming out that had to do with what they dealt with. So I got in contact with them, and the relationship was quite fruitful and a surprise to me in that, you know, I can imagine that if somebody comes along and says, "Hey, we're I'm writing a book about you and I don't, you know, about these, these kids who have this condition—I don't know anything about you," I can imagine that the response would be less generous than it was.

DP: Did you end up meeting any of the kids themselves?

MB: I haven't yet, no, although I've met family members.

DP: Also, I read somewhere that there's been a breakthrough in the disease, the genetic cause for it right around the time the book was coming out.

MB: That's right.

DP: How did that work out for you? Was that a good thing or a bad thing? It's wonderful news, of course, but—

MB: Well, it's great news. It's one of these very strange things where I was, I'd finished the novel, and the novel was going to hit the stores in May of 2003. And I'm sitting downstairs and listening to the radio in the morning and having my breakfast, and I hear the word "Progeria," which is the name of the disease, over the radio, and I think, "Oh, no. Somebody wrote a book about Progeria, and they got to it first." That was my first thought. But then there's the news that they discovered the gene that causes Progeria and discovered the sort of mechanisms by which it works. Wonderful news, and the interesting story about that is that it is also the story of a scientific partnership between American doctors and French doctors, very much what Henry Moss, my character in the book, does not do. Henry, in his hope to find a cure, sort of isolates himself and preserves the information and tries to do what he can do all by himself. And, in fact, the thing that really works in the real world and, of course, how actually medicine happens, is that it's almost always a large collaboration among a number of people. The particular breakthrough that occurred had to do, well, a team that was put together of, as I said, American and French doctors, the team was assembled by two doctors who themselves had a kid with Progeria and were able to, essentially, work the system from the inside and create a team and raise funding and do all that kind of stuff. As a very rare disease, it's the kind of thing that is very hard to find funding for because, you know, there's that kind of heartbreaking calculus that you have to make: how many people will this save?

DP: Are they talking cure or is it just a little bit more understanding?

MB: I think it's more that they understand what happens. I haven't kept up with the medical developments. But what happens is there's a defect in a gene that codes a protein for the cell wall, and when the cell wall is less stable than it should be then the cells tend to break down more easily. The fact that they know how this works is something, but it's, I don't think it's a cure yet, and I don't think that's really on the horizon yet.

DP: Long for This World is a novel very much focused on ethical choices. Henry struggles with his love for his patient, William, and the possibility that by using what he's discovered he can possibly save William's life. He knows that this is unethical and illegal, but he tries anyway. At the same time Henry is very much aware that his discovery could also make him rich. How do these aspects of the plot relate to the atmosphere of Seattle during the time the novel is set? Would it possibly have been different for Henry if he'd been somewhere else or even in Seattle now?

MB: Right. The book is set in Seattle in the summer of 1999 when everything was going crazy, when everybody was making all that money. And I place Henry in that situation and allow him to see everybody else doing all the things that they've been doing all their lives anyway and getting rich for it around him. Even just by holding on to their real estate they become multi-milionaires. That was a choice, of course. I mean you, you put a character in a place where you exert the maximum pressure on him and see what he's going to do. So that was part of a sort of narrative choice, but also I wanted to catch that moment in time. I'm from Seattle. I grew up there. It was not always like what it is now. It was, in fact, quite different in the 70's and 80's, a very different kind of place. And as I was there watching it happen, I knew there was something here that I wanted to catch on the wing, as it were, and write about the way that people were changing and neighborhoods were changing and people's relationships to their own careers and their own lives and to the sort of sense of entitlement that a lot of people began to develop there. I wanted to catch all that. And so there was also a kind of independent force that drove me to put this down just as an observer.

DP: Yeah. In a sense, it becomes an historical document, in a way, an historical novel, I guess. But when the novel was published, then, during that dynamic time that Seattle had already . . . the time was fleeting, it was already changing by the time the novel came out and you captured that era. Was the book received any differently than you intended as result of that era having already, I mean, who could have known it would slip by that quickly, and think . . .

MB: Well, I got the sense, as I was writing it, that I was writing a historical novel, that there was that sense in the air that it wasn't going to last, which, again, was one of the reasons why I wanted to catch it. So, no, when it came out in 2003 things were long past the boom, relatively speaking anyway. I mean, Seattle is still doing just fine, and there are still people making a lot of money out there. But there was a kind of a flurry of books that appeared out there about the same time about the same kind of stuff. I think mine was probably the first to come out, but then there were more after.

DP: Another related question. So far much of your published work is set in Seattle or the Pacific Northwest, both your acclaimed short story collection, Coast of Good Intentions, and Long for This World. Recently, you moved to Pittsburgh where you're teaching. I was curious to know how the move has affected your writing, if it has at all. Is your next novel set somewhere other than the Pacific Northwest, or maybe new stories?

MB: Yeah. I'm writing a lot, actually, about Arizona right now.

DP: Really?

MB: I haven't got around—

DP: Had to go somewhere sunny?

MB: Yeah. I haven't got around to Pittsburgh yet. But I have been finding lately that I've been moving away from writing about my hometown. I suppose I'll get back to it eventually because one of the storylines that I am engaged with in one of, in the novel, one of the storylines in the novel takes characters back that direction. But no, not right now. I mean, I've written about Ohio and California recently and Massachusetts and Texas and Fl-, sort of moving around. I'm not sure what exactly is going on, but—

DP: Is that part of maybe traveling more, that you're doing book tours and whatever, you're seeing . . .

MB: I suppose, I mean, one of the things that I'm finding now about the way I write stories, it's changing a little bit that stories that I write now are tending to cobble themselves around a central image or idea or person. Instead of being a more traditional narrative line, they tend to be kind of clumpy and full of stuff that just kind of accumulates like a, against a branch in a stream, pick up the things that are left by the water. And so the driving imagery or concerns are not so much regional anymore and not so much having to do with a place that I feel that kind of luminous attachment to that you feel sometimes to your hometown. There's something else going on. I'm working in a different way now.

DP: These are some of the most realistically drawn characters that I've ever encountered. One thing that struck me is how imperfect they are, each in their own way, but for the most part they're all physically flawed to a certain degree in that none of them are beautiful or particularly handsome, with one exception, and that's Thomas, the asymptomatic positive, whose blood may hold the key to saving William. It may also answer questions regarding human lifespan. I was curious about this character in that this one physically beautiful character is also the novel's only truly horrid person. Why did you make the choices you made with these characters, and was it fun writing Thomas that way?

MB: Well, yeah, it's always fun writing the bad guy.

DP: Right.

MB: Or bad-ish guy, I guess. William Durbin is the kid who Henry is treating unethically with a sort of magic enzyme that he has extracted from a kid who shows up in his lab with this disease or with the gene for the disease but without the disease. This kid is Thomas, and he is a, right, he not only is not aging rapidly, as genetically he should, but he is also sort of eerily, physically perfect, as he should not be, definitely not. So Henry pokes around inside his body, pokes around in his DNA and discovers, in fact, that he's got a second mutation, which saves him from having Hickman. Henry's choice then is to take the stuff that Thomas's body is making and inject it into William, which is unethical. You can't do it. You can't do that without a long experimental protocol, you can't experiment on humans that way. That's what Henry does that he shouldn't do. I actually didn't exactly notice that I was doing this to these people as I was writing it. But I don't know, I don't think I've ever seen a physically perfect human being, and Thomas always seemed a little slippery to me. He was very hard to write. He was hard to describe physically because I wasn't sure exactly how you do that: how do you write somebody who's just not flawed?

DP: Right.

MB: You know? I mean, you, you can go to examples and you can see how it's done, but it often seems to me that people's inner selves are a direct correlary, often, of the way they feel, anyway, about their outer selves, that there's an extraordinarily intimate relationship between the mind and the body, the way the mind feels about being in the body that it's in. And to give people flaws, physical flaws, allows me an in to their head as well. If Sandra is too tall or if her body is, you know, she's flat-chested or something or if she's the daughter of the family who plays basketball, or if Henry doesn't like the way his face looks, it gives you a way to get into, inside the guy's head, or inside Sandra's head and allow her to look out at the world through the mind that lives in the body. And that's just useful in terms of inhabiting a character. And then you can put your character pretty much anywhere, on a sofa, you know, on a balcony and have that character, you know, feel as though you're inhabiting the character's mind as long as you feel your way around inside their body.

DP: Most of them have secrets of some sort. Henry with his discovery, Sandra's relationship with Thomas, Darren's relationship with William, Ilsa's secret discontentment, even Ilsa's mother has a secret: her money. I was curious to know what role you see those secrets playing in the book, and do you see keeping secrets as a fundamental aspect of human nature?

MB: Right, when you're writing a novel some things are intentional and some things are accidental and then made to be intentional later. The secrets in the sort of lines of communication, that was all on purpose—I'm happy to say, I actually did that on purpose—and the other thing that the characters have is that they, some of them tell their secrets, and some don't. Some open lines of communication to other people, and some keep their secrets inside. Some react to horrible news and some don't as much. Some engage in a human relationship with others and some don't. One of the things that I wanted to do was to talk about the way that informa-. . . owning and holding on to information affects you as a person, whether it's a secret or whether it's a way of looking at the world or whether it's a piece of DNA or whether it's a secret shame that you have that you don't want to divulge, the way that those things shape you almost as much as your physical attributes do.

DP: You've published many short stories in prominent literary magazines, and you also published a critically acclaimed collection, Coast of Good Intentions. So, of course, you're well known as a short story writer. However, your first novel is over 400 pages. How difficult was the transition to writing that novel? Were there a lot of adjustments, or did it come pretty naturally? Were you reluctant to take it on?

MB: It's a learning process, of course. I mean, it's not the same—it's not a different art form exactly, but it's as though you're working with different materials. If a short story is, if a short story is a watercolor, and you learn how watercolors act on the paper, then a novel is your painting in oils, and you have to learn how stuff operates different, how . . . it's the same material, the same kind of motion, emotional motion of a character or a plot motion in a story, how that acts differently on the canvas of a, on the bigger canvas of a novel. How you can leave things open in a novel; you don't have to end things right away.

I ended up writing parts of three novels before I wrote this book. Those were, in some ways, learning novels. I had the training wheels on, and, in some ways, they were books that they're useful even in their decrepitude now. They're useful for having been written even though their pages will never see the light of day. It is a different way of handling your materials, and you have to learn how to do that, and there's no way to learn it exactly except to do it. That's anyway what I found, most frustratingly. That, you know, I would get to page 110, and I would realize that I hadn't really started anything. That the novel was just sitting there, nothing was going on. And that was something that I really had to train myself into.

DP: Are you currently writing short stories? Still doing that?

MB: I am. My short stories have tended to be fairly long in the past. I'm working in shorter media, mediums. I'm working, and the stories tend to be shorter now. As I say, they tend to cobble themselves together rather than to be narratives, strictly narrative. I'm finding myself sort of impatient, I suppose, with the usual narrative stuff in a short story, whereas in a novel I can stomach it. I can kind of make myself sit down and make people have conversations and move them around in a room if I need to or move them through a week of time in a paragraph if that's something I need to do, whereas in a story I'm finding myself impatient with that kind of stuff. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I think it does have to do with where the stories are coming from. They're coming from these sort of more fragmentary moments and notions and sort of glimpses into somebody's life or an image, whereas a novel, the novel that I'm working on now has a very broad narrative arc and it goes a long distance, and it's got a big, it's got a heavy gauge to it. It's a big train. The stories that I'm working on have a much narrower . . . I'm doing short shorts and all kinds of things like that, so the short stories that I'm working on now are quite different from the ones that were collected in the first book of stories.

DP: Time in the novel is continuous, but the novel has four parts. I was wondering why you chose to structure it that way.

MB: The novel has four parts, and the novel has four narrative characters, points of view, there are four building blocks of DNA. These things are sort of on purpose. But the narrative, the way the narrative grew was sort of accidental. I started with Henry who's the doctor, and I knew he was, of course, the anchor point of view, and then as I was about 50 pages in, Ilsa, his wife, walked onto the page and just started talking, and I couldn't stop writing her and she was just so fun to write. And then Sandra walked in and said a few things, and then she sort of took off. And then I realized that I'd left out Darren, the son, and so I had to write him as well, and he was the last guy to come along. So it was a, I guess, a kind of a accretionary process, but I found my way toward it that way.

DP: When the primary theme of the novel regards the possibility of prolonging the life of a child on the verge of dying, Henry's seemingly successful neighbor commits suicide for no apparent reason. I like that juxtaposition very much, but I wondered if you'd like to talk about that aspect of the novel.

MB: As Seattle is booming and everybody's real estate values are going up and everybody's getting rich, somebody decides to step offstage and to kill himself for reasons which are never explained or understood. I suppose one of the things I had in my mind there was simply that, to do that juxtaposition and to ask Henry and Ilsa and Darren and Sandra, the family, whose point of view the novel is told from, ask them to open up their point of view a little bit and to admit a kind of intrusion. I suppose also, thematically, I guess, I was interested in the idea of inserting a mutation into the narrative that thing that William Durbin has that makes him a kid with Hickman rather than just a kid is he's got one little thing wrong: he's got a mutation. And I was interested in a sense, doing the same thing to that family, giving them a mutation that they had to deal with, a kind of fatal blow that they then either had to accomodate and adapt to or not, and some of the characters do and some don't.

DP: Charles Baxter's name often comes up in association with yours, and, clearly you two must be good friends. And I understand you met him at Michigan in the MFA program and you two were together there. What was that like? Is there anything you'd like to say about him or what you learned from him?

MB: Of course, it was a great surprise to be admitted to Michigan. I desperately wanted to go there because I wanted to work with Charles Baxter. And one of the glorious moments of my life is when the phone rang, and somebody was calling to tell me I was getting into Michigan, and it was Charlie saying, "Hey, you want to come?"

One loves his work for its, not only its impeccable craftsmanship and its humor and characterological depth, but also for its kind of goodness, and it's not a fake goodness, it's not a cheap goodness. It's a generous, realistic goodness that the characters are flawed and broken and imperfect and yet have a kind of access to an idea about the world in which goodness is a possibility, which is the reason why I loved his work before I met him and meeting him gave me the chance to see that, in fact, he, too, was kind of, he's like that. He's like that. This is why he has so many accolytes, I suppose who come to him and recognize something in him that is truly genuine without being at all, in any way, false or forced. The other extraordinarily valuable thing that Charlie taught us there at Michigan was that you could be a guy with a family, you could have kids and a wife you loved and a son you loved and you could have a house with a room of books and you could still be a writer. You did not have to be the bohemian dude in the turret, which I think a lot of us arrive at an MFA program imagining ourselves as. You can be a fairly functioning human being even if you're not such when you enter an MFA program necessarily. You know, it's something you can shoot for, which is a very simple sort of silly thing to trot out as lesson of Charlie's, but for me anyway, it was one of the most valuable.

DP: Any other mentors or influences you'd care to mention, or who are you reading these days? Anybody new you think is coming along you think deserves some attention?

MB: I just read the great novel by Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty, and he's an English writer and he's not new by any means but he's, I don't know how much attention he gets over here, probably not enough. He's got The Swimming Pool Library and The Folding Star, as well as another novel and then this brand new book which is just, just a fabulous, fabulous description of life in the mid 80's in Thatcher's England told from the point of view of a young man who has come out as a gay man to various people but not to everybody and who finds himself embroiled in a kind of house scandal in the house of an old friend that he's staying. And in addition to being extremely funny and very sad and opening the veil on all kinds of different worlds which, for me, are very exotic, it's just beautifully written, which is what Hollinghurst is known for. But the prose in this book is simply, it's breathtakingly perfect. He does a wonderful job of the hardest thing of all, writing about how minds work, describing the way that a fellow can be caught up in his own preoccupations and obsessions and so forth and recognize it and be able to describe how it works, which is one of the great tricks that you can do as a writer, which is to give your characters all sorts of problems and then to be able to recognize their own situations. It's a book I recommend to everybody and as well as all his others.

DP: Back to your book for one more question here. Long for This World has been described in a couple different ways: "a piercing, scientific, and familial romance." Another called it "a medical ethical thriller." I'm not sure why they tried to pigeon-hole the novel that way. It seems a bit absurd, but do you see it fitting into any particular genre?

MB: The other thing that poeple say about it often is that it has to do with science fiction.

DP: Really?

MB: There's a kind of undercurrent of science fiction sort of resonnating in the background, anyway. The son in the book, who has one of the points of view, Darren, he's 14 and he's a big science fiction fan. And the book had, I suppose, some of its origins in that kind of genre where you take a slightly extrapolative view of the world—what if such and such were true, then what would such and such be?—it's the opposite, I suppose, if it is science fiction, the opposite of hard science fiction which is full of that hard coppery smell of the vacuum of space on the spaceship wings as its landed and the aliens with their intersting language. But the characters do engage in a lot of speculative thinking, particularly Darren, the son, and when he interracts with his friend, William Durbin, who he befriends, the kid who is dying of Hickman. They're the same age. So there's that category to think of, of course it's all silly. One of my favorite books of the last couple years is Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, which is a hard science fiction novel and reads more like a detective story. It's very much in the Raymond Chandler line except it's got, at its core, the given presumption that everybody's, in the future, in the 25th century, everybody's life is recorded moment by moment in every perfect detail on a stack at the base of your brain. And when you need to change bodies you just change stacks. "Cortical stack," they call it, and it's just, it's a super book and it's got all kinds of fun stuff in it and it's very well written as well.

DP: I guess to close, since you've just published your first novel, I was wondering if you might have any advice for those hoping to do the same. Any lessons learned that you'd like to share regarding the process?

MB: Write the book that you actually want to write. I mean, that's one thing that I've figured out. I mean I was about halfway through a book that I really, I liked and that I knew was going to work if I did it the right way and yet which I figured also, I would be ashamed of because it, it was about Bigfoot, and I don't believe in Bigfoot, and yet I had to have a Bigfoot in this book for it to work and I don't think Bigfoot exists. And it would just be silly of me to write a book in which Bigfoot exists because I, it just, I ended up offending myself as I was writng the novel, so I had to stop that. You know, don't be afraid to take risks, I suppose, and to do things that are very hard for you. I think books that are easy to write are ones that you don't need to write. Books that you can write that you set out knowing that you can do are not the ones that you should be doing.  

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