Born and raised on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Michael Garriga comes from a long line of noted outlaws and tall-tale tellers. His whole family’s big and anchored in and around Biloxi. He’s the author of The Book of Duels (Milkweed Editions, 2014) and holds a PhD from Florida State University. Currently, he’s the Chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing at Baldwin Wallace University. He lives in Berea, OH, with his wife of twenty years and two boys and two cats, two of which he really adores and two he’s not really sold on yet.

“The Book of Duels consists of thirty-three short stories, each comprised of three separate dramatic monologues rendered in the final seconds before an ultimate confrontation, and that, when taken together, create a multi-perspective narrative. I often use the term ‘flash fiction’ to describe these works because of the layers of association: firing a pistol (as in most of the stories); a flash in the pan (referring to when a pistol misfires and also to those people quickly forgotten); flash forward and flash backward (two narrative strategies that engage the reader at the emotional level); the speed and brevity of these monologues; and the flash of an epiphany or a moment of yearning in the characters, like a flash bulb going off. That is, Flash Fiction, to me, connotes a moment when characters’ desire for self-knowledge and -awareness dovetails with their epiphany. In one intense moment, who they are, at the deepest level, is revealed or made apparent to themselves or to the readers.” ––Michael Garriga.

Your work often centers around historical or literary figures of the past. What draws you to this kind of subject matter? How do you bring in fresh perspectives while maintaining a relationship with prior texts?

Writing the book was like being a History major but without pop quizzes and tests. I could just languish in the research, but that’s not a good place to stay. Eventually you have to get to writing. Luckily, I’d find a detail or a line or a voice that would set something off in me and then it would go from there. I’ve always loved history, and fiction should be about moments of high stakes and intense drama, I think, and what could be more of that than a duel. Then I expanded them to other stakes: birth, alcoholism, Don Quiote, etc.

I read that you spent half a decade doing research for your flash fiction collection The Book of Duels. What did that process look like for you? 

I often would spend, say, ten weeks researching how Lt. Col. Custer was killed. I did that with Pushkin too, the great Russian writer, and didn’t get a story out of it, but I know a lot more about Russian writers now.

I know you do a lot of work in the flash fiction genre. What about this medium do you gravitate to? Do you think it compliments your individual writing style? 

I have, apparently, intense ADHD, and the quickness of flash fiction works best for my mental space. Also, I write flash in a very similar vein as Robert Olen Butler; he was my advisor/mentor at Florida State. However, my stories consist of three flash pieces—two told by opposing duelists and one by a witness. So, you get three flash fictions that equal to one whole multi-narrated short story at the moment of highest impact. So, I get the flash—like an epiphany, like a flash in the pan, like a light bulb going off—but then get the added benefit of a full story.

Shifting the conversation, you grew up in Mississippi and as I know from taking your Southern Grotesque class, you have a great wealth of knowledge on the southern greats and how each of their unique styles contributed to the genre overall. Do you ever feel pressure to adhere to or continue the literary traditions of those before you?

No, I don’t. I feel the pressure of competition. I try to be as good as them (I am not), but I know the traditions and I try to add to it. TS Eliot said something about the river of tradition, and you just want to add a bend in that river (at least that’s how I remember it). So, I want to take Faulkner, O’Connor, Barry Hannah, and add my rock to their mountain. I know that’s a mixed metaphor, but rivers carve mountains so I’m going to stand by it. 

In that vein, talk about who you feel are some of the biggest influences in your writing life? What are some of their stylistic choices that you find yourself emulating from time to time?

I know Barry Hannah, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, and Robert Olen Butler are always in my head. They play with the music of language, they up the stakes, and they always tried to thrill you, give you something you’ve never heard before. But then you have to try to shake them out of your hair and find your own voice, your own way into story telling. You ingest the traditions and they become part of you, and then you have to allow yourself the freedom go forward. Not backward. Same with Toni Morrison and T.R. Pearson. 

I read my work out loud and listen for any stumbling parts, work on rhythm and musicality as much as I do visuals. All these authors are great mentors for these aesthetics. I don’t think much about theme or how a literary critic might receive the work; I’m more interested in entertaining by diving into a human’s yearning and understanding their drive than I am in anything else. 

You’re a person who is fascinated with the complexity and richness of what it means to tell a story. I know this from both your work and the many childhood or family tales you told in my classes with you. What value do you think our own real-life memories bring to our work in fiction?

***Outside of reading a lot, I fall back on my experiences, family and friends and dreams. I dream vividly and write them down every morning before I get out of bed. There’s always an image in there—a secret room in a house, a dog I never had, my father’s hands. I keep them in a little notebook, and I try to meditate on them and see if any of them start to thrum together. I also love that my family loves to tell stories—crazy wild west type stories. They’ll tilt their head and squint and say, “I ever tell you about….” And they’re immediately in story telling mode. And ever since I was a boy, I was just transfixed. I can tell a thousand Garriga boys stories (that’s my dad and his eight brothers—all of whom lived like ten lives—wild men who I loved and who coddled me like a baby even when I was in my 20s. None of them even finished grade school. They were too busy running moonshine and pawn shops.) My uncle Troy, I was talking about grad school, said, “Oh, I remember school: That was one of the best days of my life.”

Do you have anything you are currently working on?

I’m finishing a book of stories that reads as a novel, but no one should care about what I’m doing until it’s published. 

Last but certainly not least: In the current age of social media obsession, constant work stress, and now AI writing, what do you believe is the reason to hold on to literary art? Do you think there is something we can benefit from, as humans, in literary art that we may not find anywhere else?

Someone told me last week, in a kind of pouting way, that audible books are out selling print books. Yes. We’re back to the campfire, listening to stories. I love it. It’s a way we’ve always connected. Literature is a form of magic. I tell you what’s coming out of my subconscious and devour it, recreate it, and it becomes part of your subconscious. You can’t get much closer than that. In storytelling, we’re both agreeing to a kind of contract: We’re both going into a mutual daydream (or self-hypnosis) in which we try, by only language, to share a deep and meaningful experience. Even if it’s just a stand-up comedian. We, as listeners/readers are giving ourselves over to an experience that isn’t ours, but by the end will certainly be.


––Meagan Chandler, Mid-American Review