Fiction Fragments: Michael Arnzen

Last week, Matt Betts stopped by to talk about the upside of writing fan fiction and how it can help novice writers find their voices and improve their craft. This week, horror writer Michael Arnzen joins Girl Meets Monster to talk about his writing process and why humor and horror are so closely related in our psyches.

ArnzenShades18Michael Arnzen holds four Bram Stoker Awards and an International Horror Guild Award for his disturbing (and often funny) fiction, poetry and literary experiments. He has been teaching as a Professor of English in the MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University since 1999. New stories are coming out soon in the anthologies Knee Deep in Little Devils and Collected Christmas Horror Shorts II, with more insanity soon to come. To discover his writing, seek out the books Proverbs for Monsters or 100 Jolts. To see what he’s up to now visit gorelets.com or follow him on twitter @MikeArnzen where he routinely posts news, oddities and random tidbits of terror.

Three Questions

GMM: What inspired this story, and how autobiographical is it? Are you like Reynolds? Do you dread talking about your writing when people put you on the spot?

MA: My process is very loose and I’m always on the lookout for story ideas by twisting things we take for granted, or paying attention to the peculiarities happening around us in everyday life. The idea for “Poe Bread” came to me last time I was visiting Baltimore, the land of Edgar Allan Poe and a place where you can get good Poor Boy sandwiches. I think I made some dumb pun about “Poe Boy” sandwiches at a restaurant, but after I stopped laughing at my own joke, I wondered whether there was a story there, and it mutated into the phrase “Poe Bread” in my mind. As I drove back to Pittsburgh, I mused over a plot that might unfold the meaning of the phrase and started writing the next day to see if the idea had any legs.

All my characters are always extreme or abstract versions of how I imagine I would act or react if I were that kind of person, but even when they might have the kinds of roles I might have — writers, teachers, pet owners, etc. — I don’t really identify with them much beyond that, because they are all always splinters of my personality on some level, even when they are completely unlike me. This is a tough question to answer, but a fitting one to talk about in your “fragments” series, actually… because characters are always fragments of a writer’s identity, while being embellishments, too, at the same time.

So Reynolds is a writer, and I kind of like his imaginary fiction series about dead rock stars (I love pop music and could totally get into writing that!), but I wanted him to be more of the kind of writer that the restaurant owner would fawn over, rather than the kind of writer I am. So he’s probably a lot stuffier and more reserved than I am. I don’t dread talking about my stories (well, not the finished ones), but I do kind of feel uncomfortable with people asking me to explain them. Though I do appreciate it when people read my work and tell me they enjoy it, I really don’t enjoy adulation, because I write to connect with people of a like mind, not to feel superior to them. I like it more when someone says “You’re a sick man, Arnzen!” with a knowing gleam in their eye than when they praise me fannishly.  But I can be a fan boy too, so I understand.  The waiter in the Metallica t-shirt is probably just as much like who I really am, too, if not more so — even though I’ve never waited tables or owned restaurants or baked bread.  It’s all fiction, exploration of the fragments trying to find a whole. And I ain’t done yet.

GMM: Academics have suggested that there is a connection between horror and humor. I think even many lay people would agree that there is a healthy amount of comic relief in horror films. Your work tends to employ humor even though you write about dark things. When did this connection occur to you and/or have you always written horror stories with a thread of humor? Is it just a personality quirk that comes out in your writing?

I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.

MA: It’s funny: even when I’ve tried to write comedy, people tell me that it’s very disturbing or dark or not funny at all.  Or when I’m at a fiction reading, delivering a really devious and dark line with seriousness someone in the audience will erupt with laughter. Sometimes it’s just me, laughing at myself, too.  Fantasy is ludicrous, and the “gross out” often has a humorous (albeit juvenile) appeal, but that absurdity leads to originality and truth in a way that other things don’t. Horror comedy is tricky to write well and I don’t think I’m good at it when I try too hard to be funny.  So I have given up trying to be funny or scary:  I just write in a way that lets myself go, and try to not to censor myself too much.  I think what I’m doing as a writer is just like letting myself dream or be mentally drunk on the page, and to feel that liberty that you don’t get in everyday life.

An interviewer once categorized me as a “dark jester” in a feature story once and I kind of liked that, a lot, because it reminds me of Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse.”  Another writer called my work “sardonic” across the board, and I like that a lot too.  The comedic stuff I’m producing is probably just related to my worldview and my penchant for the absurd and ironic. I grew up with MAD magazine and Saturday Night Live, and love comedies as much as horror movies.  I like to laugh in the face of death and such — it’s a kind of defiance, but also a quirky way of dealing with anxiety and tension. I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.

GMM: What is Poe Bread? I’m dying to know what happens when Reynolds eats it.

MA: Well, it’s only a fragment right now because I haven’t >fully< plotted out what happens, and what I've written has barely gotten to the real story — I gave myself too much liberty to explore character and setting at the beginning, and that's all it really is right now, building up to the very question you asked.  I like to leave a lot of space for new plot directions and other ideas to occur as I write, so I often don't know what I'm doing till I'm doing it, to be honest. I like to think that transfers over to the reader too, where discoveries seem to happen logically and at natural points. But I do know the answer to your questions. Without giving away TOO much, let's just say that there is an old dough "starter" — that is, a baker's saved ball of old dough that gets put into the next batch, and then a ball is taken out of that batch for the next one, ad infinitum — which has been passed down since Poe's day through the bread baking process over the years at this restaurant, and "Poe Bread" contains it. This bread is somewhat magical (or contaminated?) in that it "inspires" Reynolds to write some twisted things… and he becomes both obsessed with the dough and the man who owns it. The two main characters reveal their suspicions about what the dough contains as the story progresses and they begin to do devious things. Does the bread have opiates in it?  Could the starter contain the DNA of Poe himself?  All is revealed in a twisted ending, which I hope echoes the plot of a famous Poe story.

If, that is, I finish it. I might need more… inspiration.  And it's lunch time now, so I'll end there.  Bon Appetit!

Poe Bread, by Michael A. Arnzen

Jim Reynolds had long heard of Baltimore Batter but it wasn’t until he was actually sitting in the restaurant bakery, holding a Poor Boy sandwich in both of his hands, that he understood its popularity. The place had that comforting, beery odor of yeast that most good bakeries greeted its guests with — but here it had seeped into the yellowing stone walls and worn wooden tables for a hundred years, if its storefront sign was to be believed, saturating the place like smoke in a whiskey barrel. He loved it. The bakery’s ambience was so out-of-place compared to the other shops in downtown Baltimore that it had felt to Reynolds like stepping into a 19th century painting. And though time had certainly taken its toll on the decor, the disheveled look of the place only made the food taste better. The shrimp on his sandwich was so fresh it virtually wriggled on the bun and the special sauce in his mouth was as tangy as over-sweetened tea. But it was the bread that made him drool between bites. Eggy and warm in his hands, fresh out of the oven. He squeezed the crisping bun like a lover, and devoured.

The waiter — a thirty-something man with covered with both muscles and wrinkles — brought his check early, sliding it under the vertical roll of paper towels that served as a napkin dispenser. He wore a sweaty black Metallica concert t-shirt that had had faded so much it simply read “licca” above a hazy upside-down cross. He stood there, tossing razor-cut jet black bangs to one side like they were getting in his eyes as he diddled impatiently on his pad.

Reynolds slid him his Mastercard and returned to the precious last bite of his Poor Boy.

The waiter snapped up the card, turned, took one step, then pivoted back. “Wait,” he said to himself, then crouched down so that their eyes could meet. “You’re not the Jim Reynolds are you?”

A bit peeved, he swallowed. “Don’t know what you mean. There’s plenty of them in the phone book…”

“Yes,” the waiter grinned, scanning his face. “You’re him! I know you from your book jackets.”

Reynolds smiled. It wasn’t often that readers recognized him.

“Man, I love all your stuff. The Hendrix Appendix, The Joplin Goblin…shit, I’ve read them all. ”

He nodded, never quite knowing what to say when these things happened. “Thank you.”

“You’re a god to me, man. Damn, I wish I had a book you could sign.” The waiter padded his pockets, as though searching for one of them on his person.

“I’ll gladly sign the check,” Reynolds said.

“No way, dude. The sandwich is on the house.”

Reynolds started liking this guy. “In that case,” he said, reaching into his satchel, “I’ve got something else for you.” He pulled out an advanced review copy of his forthcoming rock-horror novel, scribbled something on the title page and passed it to the man.

“Ho-lee shit.” The waiter swiped his hands down his apron and held the book like it was the Shroud of Turin. He read the title aloud: “The Johnny Rotten Corpse. Man!” Then his eyebrows went squiggly. “Wait a minute…ain’t Johnny Rotten still alive?”

“Not in my book.”

The waiter laughed, read the inscription — “Hope the Poor Boy didn’t struggle! Yours, JR” — and shook Jim’s hand when he stood.

“Loved the food. The bread here is amazing.” He shouldered his bag.

“Tell you what,” the waiter said. “Any time you come here, the food’s on me.”

Reynolds’s eyebrows nearly jumped off his forehead. “I couldn’t…”

The waiter held up his hands in protest. “No, as the owner of this place, I set the rules. And I insist.”

“My friend,” Reynolds said, as his esteem for the man rose a notch and he held out a hand for another shake, “I will take you up on this. You can count on it.”

“Come as often as you like,” he said, shaking briskly. “But there’s just one stipulation.”

“What’s that?”

“That I get to sit with you and talk about your books.”

If there was one thing Reynolds hated about being a writer, it was being put on the spot about his work. He never took interview calls and he never attended conventions. He liked being a recluse — the chance to be left alone and be his own boss was what drew him to the profession in the first place. But the smell of bread in his nose and the tastes of yeast and fish still lingering on his tongue made this opportunity just too damned good to pass up. “You’ve got yourself a deal, my friend. Only I can’t promise I’ll be the best company.”

“Psht.” He waved his hand. “I’m sure I’ve seen worse.” A bell dinged from somewhere in the kitchen and the man frowned at the distraction. “For whom the bell tolls,” he muttered, and Reynolds wasn’t sure if he was being literal or referencing Faulkner or reciting Metallica. But it didn’t matter. He found his sneery reaction charming.

Reynolds began to gather up his bag.

“Okay, come back some… wait, don’t leave. I got something you’d appreciate in the back. Sit tight.”

Reynolds watched as he darted past customers and pushed into the “IN” door with his shoulder. He was back through the “OUT” door in what seemed like a heartbeat, carrying a paper bag, with a loaf of black bread nosing out of it.

“Take this, my gift to you.” The owner of Baltimore Batter handed him the bag, and Reynolds could feel lingering heat between his crackling fingers. “It’s the house specialty — a family recipe. It’s called Poe Bread. It inspires.”

Reynolds wanted to thank him, but the man was already back in the kitchen before he had the chance. He looked down at the Poe Bread, cradled in his arm and swaddled in crinkly brown paper like a newborn. “Inspires?”

Next week, Alicia Wright joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a fragment screaming to see the light of day? Show it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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