Michael Griffith’s novel Trophy (Triquarterly) was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best 25 Books of Fiction for 2011. His previous books are Bibliophilia and Spikes, both from Arcade. Griffith’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in VQR, Ninth Letter, Salmagundi, New England Review, The Washington Post, and other periodicals, and he is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in English at the University of Cincinnati, and he also teaches in the Sewanee School of Letters. The founding editor of Yellow Shoe Fiction, an original-fiction series from LSU Press, he is Fiction Editor at Cincinnati Review as well.
“In Others’ Memories We Are as Trophies,” An Interview With Michael Griffith
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Cass Murphy. Of the process she said, “I’m grateful to Michael Griffith for offering readers such an honest and self-deprecating look at his work. He discusses his writing with fun and wit, the same elements that make his novel so memorable.” In this interview, he discusses the format and deeper themes in Trophy.
Superstition Review: The lines that introduce Vada, who is slowly dying beneath a giant stuffed bear, are “Vada Prickett is a corpse. Oh, but that's showy. . . it's more accurate to say that Vada is on the cusp of corpsedom.” Similar questions about the use of language occur throughout the novel, and you’ve said in an interview with The Nervous Breakdown that “there's a chapter called ‘In Defense of the Pun’ in which I verge on the claim that wordplay is one of the principles of Creation.” Where does your fascination with words come from?
Michael Griffith: I was talking with someone recently about the uses and abuses of autobiography in fiction, and it occurred to me that “In Defense of the Pun” is the closest I’ve ever come in fiction to speaking as myself, in earnest-manifesto mode. Of course my TED Talk manqué is eleven lines long, consists of an antic and goofy series of puns, is embedded 200 pages into an irony-encrusted third-person comic novel about dying, and is attributed to a character in the book so as to protect me from any accusation of straight talk. Manifesto doesn’t come as easily for some of us as it does for others.
What I love about wordplay in general is that—like novel-writing, say, or like narrating manically from beneath the killing weight of a stuffed grizzly that’s going in an instant to kill you, or like every other thing we do—it’s improvisatory. You take your messy, compromised, perhaps awful givens, and you simultaneously admit them and try to wriggle out from under them. You make the best of what you’re dealt, and you try to take the accidents you stumble into and make them into something intended, something complete. Messing around with words will never help you, in one way of seeing it . . . but in another, it’s the only thing that will ever save you. (I’m speaking in stupid koans now.)
SR: What made you want to become a writer?
MG: Nothing romantic. I worked in advertising after college, and I fled the prospect of hawking Swedish botanicals and clear gelatin for the rest of my days. Just about the only refuge available for me then was graduate school in writing. And then I discovered that I really loved mucking around in sentences, whether mine or someone else’s, and I was hooked.
SR: In the interview with The Nervous Breakdown, you mentioned that you had a difficult time writing Trophy because of the incredibly short timespan and present tense point of view. What was your process for figuring out how to write this novel? What other methods were you considering?
MG: I tend to start off with some big, fateful decision that seems to me potentially brilliant but that I know will turn out to be idiotic, and that I’ll then have to self-loathingly compensate for and work around for the duration (five years, ten?) of the project. In the case of my first novel, it was the decision—“for immediacy!” (fucking dolt)—to write in first person and present tense. It took me fifty pages to figure out that this required a short timeline, since you can’t very well write, “I sense that nothing of importance will happen over the next nine days, and so I turn off my consciousness, and we’ll resume on the other side.” In the case of Trophy, I began—I may have said something along these lines in the Steve Almond interview, too—and digressions is always said to be the enemy. It’s a word almost always used in complaint, and it’s said to be an enemy of urgency. I wanted to figure out a way to write a book that would refute that claim, that would make digression a life-or-death matter . . . and that along the way would take a few shots at the convention of thinking of our narratives—or, worse, our lives--as paths pre-plotted and straight, as products of intention rather than of accident and incoherence.
This meant, it turned out, writing a book that divulges its only plot point in its first sentence, then announces that it will be about wasting time . . . and that begs the reader not to notice, for close to 300 pages, just whose time it proposes to waste. Or, more to the point, that tries to persuade the reader that her time isn’t being wasted . . . or better yet, that tries to persuade her to understand the phrase “wasting time” differently.
To come back around: at the start, I thought I’d come up with a clever way of structuring the book without resorting to mere chronology . . . but then it turned out (fucking dolt redux) that if you throw out chronology, your other option for the order in which to tell things is . . . um . . . well, crap, there is so default. That’s what complicated the process—improvising an order that would partake of chronology in some ways but that would also resist or amend it.
SR: The first text that the reader encounters in Trophy is an epilogue, written by a friend of Vada’s in an attempt to humanize his supposedly-comic death. Can you talk about how readers knowing the outcome of the novel from the beginning affects their experience with the story?
MG: That’s a good question, and absolutely central to what I wanted. The idea (dumb as it may be) is this: We all know where Vada’s story, where all our stories, will end . . . and yet, though that knowledge can make everything we do in the brief blip of our lives seem like time-wasting, we still go through with it. It pleased me to cast Vada—sadsack, awkward, battered, about-to-die Vada—for the first time in the role of hero. He’s a man who’s not going to shuffle off until he can figure out a way to wrestle the not-very-pretty circumstances of his life into a narrative of triumph. He doesn’t get to not die (words can’t save you), but he does get to go on his own terms (words, our only salvation!).
SR: The last page of Trophy is Vada imagining himself stuffed and mounted in Wyatt and Darla's trophy room, a “trophy of trophies.” He seems fairly content about this; then he dies and the book ends. The novel got me so invested in its absurdity that I’d like to know... if you happened to write another chapter, what would happen to Vada's body?
MG: I might have ventured there if not for the fact that one of the book’s chief sources and inspirations, the Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, already did so in his amazing The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881), a novel narrated by a corpse and dedicated to the first worm to penetrate his casket. But the fact is that Vada, much as he would like to believe in or stake a claim to an afterlife, doesn’t have that solace. He’s well aware that the only immortality available to him will be in the form of other’s memories, and in others’ memories we are as trophies. He can decide when to go, up to a point, but that’s the far limit for him; his body will be others’ business.
SR: How did you end up choosing the title Trophy for the novel?
MG: I love the idea that trophies are the memories that we choose to keep and polish and lavish attention on—the ones that serve the image of ourselves we want to promote. We bury our losses and preserve our triumphs; that’s how memory works. Which made it seem like a useful metaphor for the novel.
SR: A line introduced in the opening epilogue reappears in “Subtract One,” the novel’s final chapter: “One, Vada remembers, is misery. Two's company. What's three, again? Three is a number to subtract one from.” Unlike in the introduction, the question is answered. Can you talk about how you built Trophy’s themes throughout the novel? How do these relate to what you want readers to take with them?
MG: One thing that changed and grew a lot, as the novel dragged on across years, was Darla’s role, and with it the intricacy and the importance of the “romantic triangle” . . . even if it’s a triangle that Vada has to admit was always a fiction, or at least was always a very different kind from what he wanted to imagine. (His is an obtuse angle.) There’s that vicious old adage—vicious for its accuracy—that reminds us that we all die alone; I wanted, before having to accede to that truth in the end, to undermine it as much as I could, especially by way of play and comedy. There’s a wonderful line from an old Joan Connor story called “The Deposition of the Prince of Whales.” The story is about a nineteenth-century rival of P. T. Barnum who embalms a whole whale, transports it from city to city for exhibition, and gives stem-winding lectures about marine biology and such from a lectern set atop it . . . until, inevitably, the whale starts to reek and collapse. Which leaves the bitter impresario to reflect that “While the hucksters scream, and the carnies play their shell games, and the hawkers hand out flybills . . .the whole of us, from birth, goes on and on, putrefying from within with this primitive knowledge: Memorize it; we are meat.” Which is a grim and dispiriting end . . . except that it’s been preceded by all this imaginative, frolicsome elaboration of the conceit that both contradicts the point and makes it seem all the sadder for having—for one unguarded moment—been forgotten by the unwary reader who started to believe, foolishly, that all could end in triumph. I love the injunction to “Memorize it”—don’t get fooled into happiness again, he says, and we know that that’s as futile (happily for us) as thinking that you can beat death.
SR: Even though the reader sees Vada and the other characters in the third person, there are occasional comments made directly to a “you.” Who is speaking in these second person instances, and how does it impact the story?
MG: I wanted to grant Vada as many resources of vocabulary and style as I could, and I wanted the reader not to be driven mad wondering how this twenty-nine-year-old carwash Hose Associate would have come by his knowledge . . . so I opted for a kind of third-person narration that’s so close to first as, for the most part, to merge with it and seem a kind of mask. But every now and again I wanted to remind the reader that there’s some distance there.
SR: There's an interesting kind of spirituality in Trophy; towards the end, Vada remembers baking cookies with Darla, an activity that he calls “devout,” “a rite,” and “a kind of worship.” Alongside these statements are hilarious comments about how ancient chocolate chips might cause “the ratio of suffering to salvation [to] be a little high,” and which equate having to leave cookies overnight with “the disciples [being] crestfallen when they closed the tomb.” Can you describe your process and reasons for combining religious elements with humor in the novel?
MG: I don’t pretend to be able to explain this, but somehow, though I guess the best label for me would be “agnostic,” both my novels have been largely about theology. A lot of Trophy takes the form of an argument with God in whom Vada can’t quite believe, but wishes he could.
I’m a southerner, and steeped in the world of Dixie fundamentalism, which is ripe for satire. But I want that satire to be tempered always by an admiration for genuine, questing, eyes-wide-open faith, whether Christian or otherwise. I feel caught in the middle: I don’t quite understand anyone who doesn’t hunger for belief and sense-making and purpose, but I also can’t understand what makes anyone feel dead-set sure he has hold of the One Truth That Trumps All Others. Both belief in a specific God and atheism require a kind of certainty that, to me, is both enviable and suspect. People who believe they have answers strike me as fascinating (and lucky, in not being bogged down by doubt), but I can’t help noticing how many of them seem to have answers that align perfectly with their worldly ends and tribal allegiances.
SR: What projects are you working on right now?
MG: I’m in the early stages of a new book about a woman who, during the long, sad decline of the American newspaper over the last three decades, takes on more and more duties until she’s the sole employee of a kind of phantom-limb newspaper that consists of all the things that mid-size-city papers have abandoned. She’s especially devoted to obituaries and crossword puzzles, and for now the plan is to have her fall in love in late middle age with another lonely cruciverbalist, with whom she communicates in part through puzzles. Last fall I realized that in order to make this work (or even possibly work), I was going to have to suck it up and put in the ten thousand hours Malcolm Gladwell says I need: I was going to have to learn to devise puzzles myself. I’ve been working on that this semester, and having a blast. So far I have completed six puzzles (three of which have been featured on the Cincinnati Review website as a monthly puzzle challenge), and meanwhile I’ve been taking notes for the novel. I hope to get another four or five puzzles under my belt in the next month, and then I’ll plunge in to the writing.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
MG: It’s a narrow, low-ceilinged attic room on the third floor of our house, a tall brick shotgun in Cincinnati. Weirdly, we discovered a couple of years ago that it’s the room in which, about fifty years ago, a young tinkerer and doctor-to-be named Fogarty figured out how to make the first balloon stent, which became the basis for angioplasty. This knowledge, to my surprise, makes me feel a little better about my own useless experiments. This space has already made its contribution to humankind. The pressure’s off.