Author Michael Parker Speaks on His Stories and Words
February 9, 2011
By Susan Shinn, Catawba College News Service
"That night, standing at the edge of the drive in her mother's boots, staring up at the stars, her arms crossed, her hooded sweatshirt riding up her ribcage, the thrum of trucks far away up the valley and the slow clang of train, the day declining, giving itself up to night, a sweet and willful surrender, nothing left to declare, nothing to talk or even think about, just a confidence that all would be there, in order, in the morning: Maria wanted just that, and only, forever, that."
— "Five Thousand Dollar Car," Michael Parker
Michael Parker visited Catawba College Monday night, the words from his books as refreshing as a long, cold drink of water.
Parker is the author of five novels and two short story collections and his visit to the Catawba College campus was sponsored by the college English Department. He'll be at Literary Bookpost on May 3 to promote his newest book, "The Watery Part of the World."
"I can't wait to get my hands on this book," said Dr. Janice Fuller, Catawba College professor of English and writer-in-residence, who introduced Parker, her longtime friend. Parker is a professor in the MFA writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Fuller said that Colum McCann, this year's featured speaker at the Brady Author's Symposium, calls Parker "big-hearted and fearless."
Catawba sophomore Lizzle Davis of East Bend, who edits the college's literary magazine, "The Arrowhead," calls Parker "a perfect blend of lyric genius and simplicity," as well as a cross between Faulkner and your next-door neighbor. By the end of the evening, it seemed a sure thing that Parker would hire her to become his new blurb writer. Wearing a wrinkled white shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots, Parker promised at least a free book to Davis.
Given the fact that the nearly all of the three dozen people who came to hear Parker were women, he read excerpts about female characters from two novels, "The Watery Part of the World" and "Five Thousand Dollar Car," which he expects to be published in 2013.
"The Watery Part of the World" concerns the fate of Aaron Burr's daughter, Theo, who was shipwrecked off the coast of North Carolina. She may have been taken in by the Outer Banks residents or she may have been killed by pirates. Parker weaves this true story together with the story of the last three inhabitants of one of the barrier islands. The novel is set in both 1818 and the 1970s.
On the other hand, "Five Thousand Dollar Car" is set in West Texas, near the Mexican border. It features a character, Maria, who buys a car with a guy she meets on a used-car lot. She is, of course, grilled by her mother: "What kind is it? What model? What year? How many miles? What was he asking for it? What did you offer? Was it Bobby or Petey you dealt with? Did it drive good? Did you remember to turn on the A/C to see did it work? Does it burn oil?" Maria and her mother then have a one-sentence exchange that goes on, no lie, for nearly two-and-a-half pages, typed, double-spaced.
Parker chose the setting after having taught at the University of West Texas.
"I've been back ever since," he said. "There was a woman involved. West Texas is probably the most beautiful place I've been."
He also said that small towns are about the same everywhere. It's not so much about Southern writers versus writers from other places as much as urban versus small-town writing.
In a question-and-answer session, he was asked about how he decides what details to include in his stories. "Details must reflect the emotional tenor of a scene," he said. "Any kind of landscape is there to reflect the emotion. It's not just window dressing."
He was asked about adverbs. "Don't like 'em," he said. "They tell what's already been shown, like, ‘I hate you,' she said angrily. They're seductive because they sound literary. Use them sparingly."
He was asked how the voices in his novels reflect different areas he's lived.
It's a deliberate choice, he said. You don't have to be in a place to write about it well. But, he added, "You need to hear how people say what they want to do.
It's not dialect. It's syntax. You have to really pay attention to that."
For example, in eastern North Carolina, where Parker grew up, "we use as many prepositions as we possibly can." An example: "He lives way on back up in there off the road."
You eavesdrop a lot in restaurants, Parker added. It's not what people say, it's how they say it.
He was asked how much he writes about actualEvents.
"You take everything from something that's happened to you," Parker said. That comprises the raw material of fiction.
He was asked what he thought about short sentences, since they seemed to be absent from the excerpts he read. That was not the case, he said.
Short sentences break up the action in a novel. Variety of sentences is an integral part of writing, he said.
He did acknowledge the length of that one, pages-long sentence, however. "That's how it is when you are talking to someone who's not listening," he said.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn is a full-time student at Catawba College.