Updated Fri, Jul 27, 2012 8:53 am
For most of the 1990s, Michael Poore was a mainstay in the Athens, Ohio, literary scene (yes, there was one).
I first met him at the weekly poetry readings that he hosted at Casa Nueva. We quickly became friends, later working together at the Athens Public Library, and have remained friends despite geographical differences.
After many years of publishing short stories in various national literary journals, Poore’s first novel was published earlier this month.
Up Jumps the Devil (Ecco, 2012) is an account of the Devil’s time on earth and, more specifically, his time working on his pet project, the United States.
Yes, it’s a comedy of sorts, but it’s also an allegory, a fable and a damn fine story. The book has been hailed by Daniel Wallace, Publisher’s Weekly and others.
I recently asked Poore a few questions about his book, his style of writing and his time in Athens and at Ohio University.
JH: Your novel is a creation story: the creation of America as muddled and molded by the Devil (also known as John Scratch). Did you read a lot of myths and fairy tales and American history books to prepare the story? And were you concerned about getting the history right?
MP: Doing the research is my favorite part of writing, because you can convince yourself you’re working on the book without actually undergoing the strange, much-harder work of putting the words together. So, yes, I did a great deal of reading. And traveling.
I wanted to get the history right and I thought I was doing a fine job of it. But any writer can tell you that no matter how much sweat you put into getting it all right, the second it’s too late and you cast your eye on the printed, published story, all your mistakes come screaming off the page. I won’t go into specifics, but there’s an imperfection or two in Up Jumps the Devil, and if there’s a second printing, I’ll fix them. But for now, it’s an embarrassment and I hope no one notices.
That being said, I always say "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." It’s why I didn’t last in journalism school. That’s a quote from somebody, I forget who. I didn’t look it up.
JH: I’ve told you that my favorite thing about of your short stories--and now this novel--is the love story. I don’t mean that in a cheesy way, but as a hopeless romantic. What draws you to this reoccurring theme?
MP: I think every writer has a kind of story they’re good at telling. Mine does seem to be the love story.
I seem to go through a two-part process in "thinking up" a story. The first part is the big, WOW factor, the soul of the story: A STORM! Death! Crossing the desert! Sworn enemies! The passage of time! But you can’t write a story about those things, on a human level. The lens is too big. So you need something human happening, as it were, in the foreground.
I think Hemingway’s little voice used to tell him "Well, you could have people go hunting" and Jonathan Franzen’s little voice might tell him "You could have the neighbors be assholes," while Rob Zombie’s little voice might tell him "Have one of the undead be pregnant." My little voice tells me "Have them fall in love."
It only sounds cheesy if you assume this is a blessing. But think about what a nasty thing that can be to do to a character. Love can be a virus that makes you see visions while it consumes you. The trick is to navigate the disease so that the happy juice stays ahead of the damage. Love, for my characters and real people, isn’t a reward. It’s a challenge. It tests us. It reveals us.
JH: Some of the story takes place in Ohio. How did growing up in Troy and attending Ohio University influence you as a storyteller and writer?
MP: Places have a terrific impact on me. Growing up in Troy, Ohio, I thought my hometown was ordinary and boring. I think we all feel that way about our homes, growing up.
When I was 18, I went to Athens, Ohio, for college, and I thought Athens was colorful and crazy and dangerous. And I think we all feel the same way about our college towns. But it takes time for a place to outgrow its first impression.
For 25 adult years now, I’ve gotten to know both of these places, and the people I know there. In human terms, that’s a long time. Nothing stays the same over a quarter-century. And I don’t think you really know a place until you’ve seen it go through changes. Same for the people I know. The nutcases I knew and loved 20 years ago are now dads and moms and directors and business owners and things like that. THAT change, that sense of time, is the core of what I write about.
You could say that this same effect would play out anywhere. That’s true, to an extent. But at the same time, I think Ohio has a dual nature that makes it a particularly fertile ground for a writer. On one hand, Ohio is the poster child for "Normal." It looks like farms and cows and and rivertowns and railroad crossings and the Elks Club and more cows. Then, underneath all that, there’s a streak of deep mystery and myth: The Wright Brothers. Neil Armstrong. The Serpent Mound. Annie Oakley. Flight! The moon! Animal magic! Shooting guns!
Ohio is full of haunted places and people, not unlike Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow. Tecumseh and Daniel Boone walked here. The Mound Builders buried their dead here. Ohio is a lightning rod for storyhood.
Most importantly, though, Athens has always had a pretty strong psychedelic culture. You see it in some of the bands that grow up there, and in some of the stores and restaurants and bars. You recall back in the 1990s we had a VERY popular series of poetry readings at Casa Nueva. From 1992-1995, I think, with overflow crowds every other Wednesday. We even published a journal, The Toadfrog Thunder Review, to go with it. Psychedelic culture was a big part of that scene, and it’s a big part of Up Jumps the Devil. That’s not an accident.
JH: Talk about how music shaped this story.
MP: Music is at the heart of Up Jumps the Devil. Three of the principal characters begin in a rock band that plays at Woodstock, and Woodstock has a whole chapter to itself, titled "Wildness and Kindness and War."
See, the Devil wants to improve and motivate the people of earth. In the 20th Century, with the advent of radio and TV, he realizes that he has a chance to really shape our cultural soundtrack. He needs for us to be a little more daring, so he nurtures Rock & Roll as, literally, the Devil’s music. In the context of the book, which is NOT faith-based, this is a compliment.
Having music be an integral part of the story presented a gnarly challenge. The reader can’t HEAR what’s being played and sung. And I think you’re asking for trouble if you try, in any direct way, to describe something like that. For example, there’s a chapter titled "The Bluesmen," inspired by "The Devil Went Down To Georgia," by the Charlie Daniels Band, in which The Devil and a legendary blues musician have a guitar duel, deep in the swamp. It’s not like a musical, onstage, where you can just hire talented people to play instruments. You have to use words.
Our professor, poet Wayne Dodd, often discussed words in musical terms. I’m confident he would approve of the solution I found.
I faced a similar problem with the fictional psychedelic band I created. I tried to make it enough like Jefferson Airplane that readers might already have a head start in hearing the music. Aside from that, I tried to talk about how the music affected people, what it made them see. And a lot of that came from that psychedelic vibe you find in Athens. You know, that vibe we lived in for…how long? I don’t know. I kinda still live in it.
JH: There’s a lot going on across the story of Up Jumps the Devil. Decades and centuries fly by from chapter to chapter. Who's the narrator keeping up with the action?
MP: The short answer is probably "Our Unconscious." The narrator knows whatever he (it is a male voice) needs to know. I didn’t subject his voice to any particular rules, in that regard. He’s sometimes omniscient: He can get inside the Devil’s head, after all. He is even capable of judging the Devil, and telling us what this immortal doesn’t know. On the other hand, the narrator sometimes has questions and uncertainties of his own.
I didn’t set up any particular model and follow it strictly. That’s cookie-cutter writing. The narrator, in my mind, was sitting invisibly deep inside the brains of the characters. Now, one of those characters, if you will, is time itself. Culture and human paradigms. Crowds and nations and whole generations as cultures, and the narrator is privy to and very interested in their psychology. He’s VERY sympathetic, but he’s quite willing to observe horror without turning away. That’s what makes his voice a comic voice. It loves you. But it will eat you if you don’t watch out.
For more information about Up Jumps the Devil, visit www.mikepoorehome.net.