“That night it is something of joke. On TV there is a reporter standing outside with a crowd of people. The news station turns one of their giant lights into the road. One person after the other stands in front of the light. Their shadows grow and stretch the width of the street, then vanish as they move back into the darkness, all except one boy’s, fourteen year-old Myles Veech. He dances and laughs, moving in and out of the light, it making no difference. The light never changes. His silhouette never comes to life, yet he laughs. He looks … free. Nothing about Myles, his laughter, his dancing, his glee, makes you have any reason to believe that three days later he will hang himself with a guitar string, a sun lamp in the corner of the room, shining right on him, no proof of his corpse in the light.”
Gulp. Yeah. Ready for more? Author Mitch James is a skilled writer with the capability to terrify you down to your toes. In his new collection, The Cut Worm, he’s not writing about vampires or werewolves. He writes about us–what would happen to us if we thought the world was ending, if we lost our shadows, if we embraced despair in the snow. Read on for a look into the talented mind of a master of pain in prose.
How’d you come up with the title?
When I was a sophomore in college, I took a literature course where we read William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell,” and in that poem, one of his proverbs is, “The cut worm forgives the plow.” That line has stuck with me, partly because I grew up in the Midwest, and at that time in my life (and earlier) I did some work on farms, and partly because that line just really made me think in a lot of different ways.
One way to see the world is that there is beautiful growth, development, and life all around, meaning life is good. Another is that there is beautiful growth, development, and life all around, but, in nearly every case, something must be drastically altered, maimed, or destroyed in order for that growth, development, and life to occur, yet life is still good.
And yet another way of looking at the world is that because something must be altered, maimed, or destroyed for there to be good in life, life is actually just a really f***ed up jest.
Blake said the cut worm forgives the plow. I wonder, does it? Every time? This chapbook is full of people absorbing the damage of living, but the question remains in each case, is the sacrifice truly bearable? Do we have it in us to always forgive the plow?
Do you have a favorite story in the chapbook … or are you not allowed to say?
There’s not one story that I necessarily like more than another, but I like each for a particular reason and am satisfied with how certain approaches or techniques worked out. For example, “Snow Blind,” “What We Always Did But More,” and “Without a Shadow” are all written very differently, despite the heart of the content in each piece being quite similar. I’m happy with the brevity and power of “What We Always Did But More;” with the success of the generally scorned, second-person perspective in “Without a Shadow;” and ”Snow Blind”, while being its own story, is also in homage to Raymond Carver, and to have somebody say, “Yeah, I want to publish that,” is rewarding. In fact, the editor liked “Snow Blind” the best, which is why the chapbook cover is what it is.
What’s your daily writing routine look like?
I’m a pretty firm believer that writing is a process that starts way before “ink” hits page, so my most important routine is to pay attention. Every person, movement, and change has a cause, and that cause is a story. At some point, though, one must put his or her ass in the chair and write, and that part of my writing routine is like clockwork.
For four to six weeks, I will write Monday through Friday, 3 AM to 5AM. Then, the next two to four weeks (it depends on how much material I have circulating), I will revise old work and send it out for publication. It’s not the amount of time I would like to spend writing and editing, but I learned early on that the people who want money from me don’t give a shit about my fiction or poetry.
Once, in lieu of a check for a water bill, I sent the water company a series of three poems. Three days later, when I flushed the toilet at 3 AM and it didn’t fill back up, I assumed they didn’t care very much for my writing. So it goes.
You’re a teacher, too. What’s harder: writing or teaching?
Teaching is more challenging. The writing part is up to me. I either do it or don’t, so writing is easy. When you’re teaching, you’re working with several people who, like everyone else, have lots of things going on in their lives, things that oftentimes overshadow your class. But I find teaching insanely rewarding and don’t see myself doing anything different for a while, unless, of course, a big publisher wants to write me fat checks for my work.
Who are your biggest literary influences and why?
There are a few. I would say the writer whose work I’m most floored by, the writer who makes me feel it’s a waste of my time to write because my work will always pale in comparison, is Cormac McCarthy. He’s an absolute master. Period. But I also study writers, sometimes even those whose work I’m not overly fond of, so that I can understand the skills they have that make them so unique. I’ve learned the most from Raymond Carver. But sometimes as a writer it is stylistically better to tell than show, and for that I’ve been influenced pretty heavily by John Updike and especially John Cheever, neither of which are my favorite writers but are great when trying to locate and study long pieces of narration that effectively tell rather than show.
Does your wife ever get annoyed being married to a literary geek?
I annoy her for many other reasons, but my love of books and writing is both welcomed and reciprocated by her. I think that having the right kind of partner does matter if you’re an artist. I have a wife who actually admires my drive and dedication to writing and thinking. It’s part of what she loves about me. She is by biggest supporter, hands down. She doesn’t feel like she’s playing second fiddle to my work or intellectual aspirations. But I also consider her too. For example, I write at 3 AM because she will never be awake from 3 AM to 5 AM. I try to do most of my work when we can’t be together, even if that means starting my day at an ungodly time. A little give and take on both sides goes a long way.
Why are books important?
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. There are two reasons.
Check out Mitch’s short story collection, The Cut Worm, on Amazon and get your copy today by clicking HERE. You will not be disappointed!