MF: Let’s talk about your novel. The Great Perhaps seems to me to be largely a social commentary and might even be called an anti-war book.
JM: The Great Perhaps is my response to writers like Kurt Vonnegut, even down to the first line, “Jonathan Casper has this problem. Anything resembling a cloud causes him to faint.” It’s really a response to Slaughterhouse Five’s first line, “Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.” It’s this flat, declarative, almost scientific statement, and he just kind of moves forward from that.
This book is also a response to Slaughterhouse Five in the way that Vonnegut uses humor, science fiction, and absurdity to get at a serious issue. Vonnegut really gets at the tragedy of war without being dogmatic, and while managing to make Slaughterhouse Five an intimate book.
The war in Iraq is definitely part of this novel, or at least that era. It’s set in 2004, just in the few weeks before the presidential election, and there are all of these questions about war, and about terrorism. It’s just this really weird, complex moment about people struggling with these big questions. And what seemed to happen was that people were overcome by fear, and resorted to these really simple answers.
MF: Can you tell me more about what you mean by simple answers?
JM: I think it’s just kind of symptomatic of the state of the world right now. Because life is suddenly moving so quickly and there’s all this information, you want simple answers, little sound bites. It’s exactly what CNN does – they give you this short 60 second story, and that’s it. Or the one line Yahoo! news summaries. I don’t even read the story on Yahoo! anymore. I just see the headline, and then my wife and I end up having a conversation about some event that neither of us are even informed about.
As this technology increases, it gets simpler and simpler, until at the point of absurdity.
In the book, each of the Caspers is afflicted with some sort of neurological or physiological disease connected to their cowardice. Jonathan’s manifestation is this epilepsy; Amelia gets hives; Thisbe has stress-induced asthma; and the grandfather has this affliction that when he is afraid he can’t really speak.
This is my seventh book, and the most broad or vast in terms of the numbers of character we follow, the time span, and then also there’s just a lot of research I had to do – whether historical or scientific – with the prehistoric squid or the social hierarchy of pigeons, and then trying to make it dramatic as a story at the same time.
MF: Your recent book of short stories, Demons in the Spring, was a finalist for this year’s Story Prize. Let’s talk about that book a bit.
JM: That was my second collection of short stories, which were compiled from 2000-2007. And as I started looking at them all and how they fit together, I realized that the question was one of catastrophe. That during that time period, there was this reoccurring phenomenon of catastrophe. I mean, like huge catastrophes – September 11, the war in Iraq, the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina – HUGE catastrophes.
So the book is really about how people deal with catastrophes –either huge ones, like where this town disappears because of this black hole; or like kind of intimate catastrophes, where this couple has a miscarriage. So that’s really the question – how do you live in this world of catastrophes? So in some ways, it was definitely a self-portrait of that time.
MF: Why is it called Demons in the Spring?
JM: The title and the end pages of the book are references to firecrackers, and there’s actually a reoccurring theme in the book of firecrackers. It’s pretty subtle, but it’s there. And the reason was that originally the Chinese had invented firecrackers, and the reason they did was to scare off demons or ghosts who they thought were responsible for catastrophes and bad luck. And so as I worked with Cody Hudson, who helped me design this book, we tried to create something that would ward off the demons, the ghosts of the past seven years.
MF: What’s your writing routine like?
JM: Well, I used to be able to write four to five hours a day – you know, wake up and sit down and write until I got tired and then eat and go and read. Since my daughter was born, I’m the stay at home dad, so maybe I get an hour a day to work on something, and I spend some of that time looking over what I started the day before.
It’s interesting. I’m working on a much smaller scale, but I’m forced to make really interesting, specific choices. So, what’s happened is that while my patience has developed as a father, my patience with my own work has developed.
And I don’t mind it, you know. I’ll be 35 when The Great Perhaps is published, and this is my seventh book, so I feel pretty fortunate. I felt like the last couple of years I was running a race with myself, trying to prove something. Now I feel a lot more comfortable and confident. I don’t feel like I have to put a book out every year.
MF: How old were you when your first book came out?
JM: I was 22 when I wrote it, and it came out when I was 24. At the time, I thought oh, everybody does that. I had no idea how incredibly lucky, how fortunate I was. And because of it, I was worried I would be thought of as a fluke, or that I didn’t deserve this honor of having my book published. So it actually forced me to keep working, to keep writing.
MF: Are you working on a novel now?
JM: I’m actually working on a play. I have a commission from this theater company in Washington D.C. to do an adaptation of The Boy Detective Fails as a musical. So that’ll happen in July. The script is pretty much done, so now I’m working with the composer on the music and the lyrics.
And I actually have another play I’m working on with a Chicago theater here that I’ve collaborated with in the past.