Interview: Graduate Michael J. DeLuca
Michael J. DeLuca is a 2005 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate who lives in the rapidly suburbifying post-industrial woodlands north of Detroit with wife, kid, cats, perennials, worms and microbes. He is the publisher of Reckoning, a new journal of creative writing on environmental justice. His short fiction has appeared most recently in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Strangelet and Middle Planet. You can find him online at @michaeljdeluca or mossyskull.com.
You attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2005. What made you decide to attend the workshop?
I’d written a very long fantasy novel that didn’t sell and decided it would be a much wiser course not to pour a bunch of time into another novel but work on improving my writing via short fiction instead. So I joined my first-ever Milford method critique group, WriteShop, in Columbus, Ohio, which happened to include Charles Coleman Finlay—who at the time was writing smart, fun, noirish SF for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and now is the editor. Charlie’s a great, perceptive critiquer and teacher, and I think he caught on quickly to the fact that I wanted to get better and didn’t mind working at it. He encouraged me to apply to a six-week workshop. I picked Odyssey, barely knowing the work of any of that year’s guest authors and never having heard of Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos before, based almost entirely on liking what I read about the curriculum—and also that New Hampshire was pretty much my favorite place in the world.
How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?
I had a lot of preconceptions broken down. Jeanne was plain with me about my weaknesses, which were many and deep and I am still chipping away at them now. She made me see that even though I knew I needed to get better, I was still caught up in the romance of my own prose, missing a lot of what was essential in the work of the writers I most admired. She—and my fellow ’05 classmates—made me realize how much I had to learn about compelling characterization, story structure and economy of language. They also helped me see that I was woefully under-read.
Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?
I sold to my first token-paying market in 2004 after writing in earnest for something like three years, but my first professional publication wasn’t until 2007: a story called “The Utter Proximity of God,” which appeared in the first Interfictions anthology. I’d gotten the idea for it in my last week at Odyssey.
It might be easier to talk about what I wasn’t doing wrong. A succinct way to characterize it would be that I was way too caught up in the sound of my own voice. I admired complex, beautiful prose that turned on compelling voice and imagery and big ideas, and that’s what I was trying to write, a lot of the time without managing to tell any story at all.
I also was convinced I knew exactly what constituted the difference between a dependent and an independent clause. Thank you, Jeanne.
How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?
I confess I have never managed to “kill my internal editor”; I do quite a bit of editing on the fly as I hash out what story I’m actually trying to tell. So a first draft takes just shy of forever for me to find the end of, and then often I will immediately start again at the beginning and revise a couple times, then submit it for critique and revise again, then submit it for publication, get rejected a few times, revise once more, submit again and sell it. Not the most succinct process, I grant you, but it seems to be how things go for me.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
I fear my biggest weakness these days is failure to budget time. I have a one-year-old son and a job as a freelancer, both of which encroach on my writing time (and my writing space, since I work from home).
Time constraints aside, I’m still biting off more than I can chew in terms of story premise a lot of the time. I am no less in love with big, beautiful ideas than when I started out, I just know better how to frame them.
Your short story “Dire Wolf” came out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in September 2017, and it’s a story about the environment, among other themes. What were some of the challenges involved in writing a story with strong ties to the changes our environment is going through right now?
I’ve been thinking and writing in that vein a lot for the past few years, so at this point to a degree it’s second nature; I just fall into it. One challenge, for me, is holding onto the conviction that writing about it is going to do any good. At this point, in order to keep writing fiction at all, I need to be able to believe that fiction has the capacity to change minds and make people care, that a story can convince anyone to act in ways they weren’t going to act already. But having been writing about climate change, environmental justice, and humanity’s responsibility to ourselves and to every other living thing to find ways to survive and thrive without destroying what we need to live for this long, I’ve got some solid answers to that question. Of course that’s what fiction does, that’s how stories work: they make you care about the people in them, and in doing so they teach you what it’s like to be someone else.
In a way that’s what “Dire Wolf” is about. The main character is Staggerlee, an American folk hero of the early industrial era in the vein of John Henry or Paul Bunyan, but in a much darker sense: for me he works perfectly as a personification of the blindly destructive aspects of the industrial revolution, the Western expansion and the American dream itself. Staggerlee is an unstoppable destructive force; “Dire Wolf” is about his quest to understand that drive, to find out what he’s fighting for. Because of the way I write, my weaknesses as a writer, I spent right up until the last revision figuring out the answer for myself: that what he wants is to see a reflection of himself, not in another human being, but in nature. And then he realizes his own casual, unconsidered destructiveness has made that impossible.
You recently began editing Reckoning, a journal about environmental justice. What are you looking for in manuscript submissions, and what are the most common problems in the submissions you receive?
I should say I’m not the only one making decisions at Reckoning; we have a brilliant and perceptive staff. And actually the third issue, which we’re reading for now, will be the first in which I’m passing off editorial duties to a guest editor, Sakara Remmu.
But we’re looking for stories that make us care, first and foremost. In a story that’s emotionally compelling, the environmental angle can be pretty slight and I’ll still be hooked. I want personal stories, stories that resist getting jaded or cynical about these hugely complicated problems, but engage with them at the level of individual human fear, grief and hope.
As I think tends to be the case with all themed submission calls, a very common problem is submissions from people who haven’t read the call or any of what we’ve published and whose work doesn’t address the theme. We also see a lot of horror, which has proven to be a very hard sell—I don’t think we’ve actually published any, possibly because horror tends to lead someplace fatalistic and we’re looking for solutions. For similar reasons, I’ve rejected a lot of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction, though we have published a few pieces that fit that description. Another answer to this question is one many editors will give: we see too many stories that just aren’t showing us anything new.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I am currently embroiled in something that started as a short story and is stretching towards novella length, a near-future, environmentalist fantasy set in Detroit, which is taking approximately forever due to the aforementioned one-year-old. Wish me luck.