“Editing is the great joy of writing”: An Interview with Michael Bible

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side by side series of the cover of Bible's The Ancient Hours

Michael Bible is, despite credits in Oxford American, Paris Review Daily, and New York Tyrant and four books—Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City and Simple Machines, both in 2011, Sophia (2015), and Empire of Light (2018)—to his name, possibly one of those writers you’ve only heard of in murmurings. With today’s publication of The Ancient Hours, however, a steadily increasing audience is surely coming. A deft novel, the book wraps a diverse community of characters together, while also blending religion, violence, and the consequences of our actions into a slim, rural-tongued package.

In Harmony, North Carolina—Bible’s home state—young Iggy is bullied, isolated, and alone. Even though some loose acquaintances in town still try to reach out to him as they head into their high school years, Iggy seems like a lost cause: “We tried to call him a few times to hang out, put the whole thing behind us, but he never talked to us again,” Bible’s plural narrator says. “We’d mainly put him out of our minds after that. He became a character in stories from our youth even though we sometimes still saw him around school.” Post-high school, Iggy spends time exploring his sexuality, tangling in separate bouts of love with his friends Paul and Cleo. He also takes to snorting painkillers and struggling with his faith. When the residents of Harmony see him next, he is walking a can of gasoline down a church aisle, setting it ablaze, killing twenty-five.

This incident is what propels The Ancient Hours: “Some have called him a monster, a terrorist, a psychopath, but he was also just a kid. We’ve found it impossible to reconcile those facts. In the intervening years, we’ve questioned why Iggy had such disregard for life. Each of us lost something that day and the grief still haunts us.” Through the collective narration of the town, as well as from Iggy’s own perspective, Bible’s novel recounts those fateful moments, shows us the inciting episodes that made Iggy who he was, and walks us through his last days on death row, weaving this concise and brutal story across a small southern locale where every memory, every character, and every recalled piece of dialogue is rife with meaning.

In an age when many novels sprawl, The Ancient Hours is barely one-hundred pages, and this compression is a part of what makes the narrative particularly smart and inviting. In telling the story of Iggy’s crime and its aftermath, Bible doesn’t waste words or squander moments, every event made quick and lean, aggressively to the point: “Now we’ve got gray in our beards,” he writes. “The sky bruises purple. The mall is dead. We’re the old men we promised we’d never become. Spending our days in the corner booth at the Starlight Diner arguing life’s vagaries. Our town, Harmony, is typical. Just like yours. Full of saints and sinners you can’t tell apart.” This compression allows the novel to be swallowed in a single sitting (or two), and it results in a story that doesn’t leave us much breathing room. We sift through the moments just as the characters do, with little time and receding memories. With breathlessness.

Accompanying this brevity is Bible’s use of poetic language, his phrasing unique and engrossing. Take, for instance, this short sentence from Iggy as he awaits his execution: “My life won’t really end at midnight because it ended a million times before.” To build a whole town and its inhabitants in such a thin page count requires language like this, phrasing that can deliver knock-out punches.

Bible could have dwelt exclusively on the perpetrator of the crime and his victims to accomplish this tight narrative, but it would have resulted in a fairly static story. Instead, he focuses on the community as a whole, the town of Harmony and its various inhabitants—Paul, Cleo, Pastor Green, Mayor Presley, Trudy (who saved little Joe McCloud from the church fire), and so many others—all of whom play fundamental roles in Iggy’s life and the tragedy of the church burning. Bible gives us glimpses of their lives alongside Iggy’s, mirroring small-town America—a landscape where each person affects another, where no news is unshared, and where the map of a single incident, especially a bold crime like this, saturates the population. There is great power in faithfully rendering Iggy’s portion of the tale while also giving full attention to the crowd around him, those people inextricably linked to his story.

Bible is a careful craftsman, cutting The Ancient Hours down to its core without losing a diverse cast of characters, a clearly rendered town, and wholly realized emotional resonance. He doesn’t overexplain, doesn’t excessively detail, and doesn’t deviate from the novel’s heart. He stays grounded in the purity of the story, tightly weaving it, allowing no loose threads. We recently spoke about the brevity of the novel and its literary influences, the magnetism of poetry and poetic language, and the juxtaposition between his improvisational drafting and his sharp editing.

J. A. Tyler:Some books right now are door stoppers, but The Ancient Hoursis slim. What brings you to compression or brevity in your work? 

Michael Bible: I love a few long novels but I don’t prefer them. My favorite books are short. Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers, Ray by Barry Hannah, The Stranger by Albert Camus. My favorite writer is Samuel Beckett whose whole body of work is an act of extreme compression. I’m interested in saying the most with the least. Poetry was my first love. I’m obsessed with a video of James Dickey and Robert Penn Warren sitting in a field of yellow flowers talking about how they got into poetry. Dickey says he found it in the war, reading an anthology a girlfriend sent him while listening to the bombs fall. He remembered the line from the poem “Live Blindly and upon the Hour” by Trumbull Stickney. “And all his island shivered into flowers.” The use of the word “shivered” is everything. I think you asked me about the length of my books. Compression and brevity. I like the idea of books that can be read in one or two sittings.

JAT: You mention poetry and a love of Beckett, whose novels and plays are extremely lyrical and poetic. Did you write The Ancient Hours with poetry in mind?

MB: I always have poetry in mind. Prose writing should be musical in my opinion. Writing begins and ends at the sentence level. I fell in love with the extremely nerdy side of poetry when I was young. Poetry was always of great interest to me as a child and young adult. Almost to an absurd degree. Early on it was [Robert] Frost, [Walt] Whitman, [Emily] Dickinson. Later John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams. Then even later James Tate, Charles Simic, and David Berman. I read poetry every day. Frank Stanford is God to me. But to answer your question, yes, I thought about poetry while writing The Ancient Hours. I always start with some attempt at poetry. Fiction is what happens.

JAT: Any chance, one day, you’ll write that poetry book instead?

MB: I’ve written one. Prose poems. It’s in the vein of Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End or James Tate’s Return to the City of White Donkeys. Some days I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. Other days I’m embarrassed by it. Who knows, maybe 2021 will be the year I get the courage to show it to people.  
JAT: In one sense, the novel is about the downfall of a single man, but in another way, the book is about the whole town, how all their lives are linked. Was this type of dual composition intended from the onset, or did it occur naturally during the writing process?

MB: To tell the story of this tragedy, a botched self-immolation that kills 25 people, I had to tell the story of the person behind it. What traumas attributed to his act and what traumas resulted from it. Pain begets pain. This happens on the personal level, the level of the individual, but also on a civic level. I think they naturally arrived in different narrative modes.

JAT: Are the surrounding characters then as critical to the story as Iggy himself? Are their roles in the community (and this tragedy) as important as his?

MB: In my mind each character is important to the work as a whole. I believe all the characters are connected by more than the fact that they were affected by the tragedy. They are pressed upon by time’s constant arrival.

JAT: How do you view time when structuring a novel like this? Do you write it as a linear constant, as a malleable substance, or maybe a bit of both?

MB: For this novel I tried to think in cinematic terms. How I could create suspense that wasn’t tied up in a straight-ahead plot. One way I tried to do this was by creating wild gaps in time between sections. I’m mainly interested not in the substance of time, its linear or nonlinear structure, but instead I’m fascinated by the perception of it. Some narrators are clear in their understanding of time. Others bounce between salient moments without restraint. 
JAT: What scene was the genesis of the novel? What image or moment started the story into motion?

MB: I don’t really think in terms of story or scene when I start. I begin with a voice. A character comes alive on the page and then begins to narrate a story. I take dictation. I’m at their service. My writing process is purely improvisational in that way. Everything is off the top of my head as much as possible. I try not to think while I write or plan much in advance, because planning causes narrative doors to close. A character might end up in Panama because I like the sound of the word. Of course, the editing process is a deliberate process, but the early drafts I let myself go wild. 

JAT: In the end, how do you navigate the melding between that wild first draft and a deliberate revision process? Are there ever bits or scenes that are hard but necessary to let go?

MB: I kill all darlings. Everything must go unless critical to the music of the sentence or the story. I don’t hesitate in this whatsoever. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found that one shouldn’t be precious about writing. It’s the death of it. I’m not in love with the sound of my own voice. Quite the opposite. Editing is the great joy of writing. Refining and cutting. It’s more enjoyable in the end than the raw expression of the first draft.

JAT: What are some of the best recent books you’ve read or authors you’ve been digging into?

MB: During lockdown I became obsessed with Virginia Woolf. She’s one of the great writers about time. I reread The Waves and read Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse for the first time. She was a god among mortals, truly. I loved my friend’s books: Ashleigh Bryant Phillip’s instant classic Sleepovers and Bud Smith’s Teenager. I read [Smith’s] in draft form. It’s a beautiful darkly hilarious novel destined to become a smash hit. I just finished Eliot Weinberger’s Angels and Saints and I’m currently starting Joy Williams’s collected stories. I’ve also been researching what might be my next novel, a kind of nonfiction novel, based on the true story about the ax murder of a wealthy family in rural North Carolina in 1906 that triggered the lynching of two innocent sharecroppers. The murder was likely committed by one of our nation’s earliest known serial killers. So I’ve been pouring over old newspapers and reading self-published books about the case. Oh, I recently reread Bruce Chatwin’s classic In Patagonia after seeing [Werner] Herzog’s documentary about him. Great book. As you can tell, I’ve got a lot of time on my hands.