Elie Piha, BFR Staff
In the most recent issue of The Kenyon Review, international editor John Kinsella says that “there’s a drive, an enthusiasm, and a shout-out in Australian writing at present that demands it be heard.” Writer Michael Caleb Tasker has lived in Australia for fifteen years and, though not a native of the continent (a problematic phrase itself), he is, I believe, proof of Kinsella’s claim.
Mr. Tasker’s short story “Snowbirds”—the story that won him first place in Fiction Southeast’s 2014 Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize—was what initially caught my attention. He writes:
The women were getting louder and I watched them from the mirror. I recognized two of them, they had asked for dances and money before and I knew they wouldn’t remember us and that they would try their luck again. They saw me watching and smiled their crooked and beaten smiles. I nodded back.
I emailed Mr. Tasker to tell him how much I enjoyed his story. He promptly emailed me back, thanking me for the kind words and offered an author recommendation. I thought, then, that that was that.
A few months ago, I received the Winter issue of Ploughshares and I once again saw Tasker’s name. Following a writer who is rising through the ranks of literary journals is very satisfying, like a scientific discovery or, even, looking in a mirror and catching something new. His most recent story, “The Luckiest Man in Town,” carries the same sensitivity without sentiment, credibility without arrogance, and subtle complexities that I first noticed in “Snowbirds.”
The following interview took place over the phone on February 27, 2017.
Michael Caleb Tasker: I’m honored and yet very nervous… I’ve never been interviewed before.
Elie Piha: When I first emailed you, I think it was two years ago, I was just looking for short story contests myself and I wanted to see what the previous winners – you know – what their pieces looked like and I liked your story, “Snowbirds,” so much. That was the first piece of fan mail I ever sent out.
Tasker: That was the first piece I ever got. Still the only piece I ever got.
Piha: Was “Snowbirds” the first contest that you won?
Tasker: Yeah. It’s my first and still my only that I’ve come first place in.
Piha: Do you remember what you felt when you won that contest?
Tasker: I was really thrilled, stoked, proud. There was a moment of disbelief. Pretty basic.
Piha: From your biography on your website, it sounds like you have had a pretty interesting upbringing, moving around a lot, internationally.
Tasker: Before eighteen, I pretty much lived in Montreal, where I was born, and New Orleans. I did a lot of back and forth, and I did a couple years in Toronto and did two years in Argentina. Now I’m over in Australia.
Piha: How long have you been in Australia?
Tasker: Fifteen years. Something like that.
Piha: I was so happy to see your name on Ploughshares [2016-17 Winter issue].
Tasker: Equally as exciting as winning the Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction contest—such a reputable magazine.
Piha: “The Luckiest Man in Town” seems similar to “Snowbirds” in that it’s very setting driven, like it is a New Orleans tale.
Tasker: I spent a good seven or eight years in New Orleans and it’s a pretty powerful place. Pretty influential. A heavy place, an intense place. But, with that story, I don’t think the inspiration came from the city at all. It just wound up being the setting. I can’t say what inspired that story. I do most of my writing really early in the morning before my family wakes up. I’m kind of in a daze. No coffee or anything. Not quite sure what ends up on a page sometimes. Sometimes it’s absolute crap. This one managed to work all right. Yeah. Inspiration, hell of a question. I don’t know where that comes from.
Piha: It’s exciting to be your first interviewer because I get to ask you all the questions that writers eventually get tired of answering.
Tasker: I just have to think of answers.
Piha: Who influences you?
Tasker: My writing owes a great deal to Steinbeck and Farley Mowat. There are other writers, other books, that mean a lot… John Cheever’s short stories, James Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney, Richard Yates, Jim Thompson, Knut Hamsun, Willa Cather, Teddy Roosevelt, Dickens, Fitzgerald… I love John D. MacDonald, not long ago I read Slam the Big Door and was blown away… I could, and perhaps did, go on. But Steinbeck and Mowat are the big ones.
Piha: When did you first start writing?
Tasker: I don’t really know when I started writing. Not in any real sense. I wrote some small things as a child, in grade three or four, and again as a teen when I’d have some odd burst of creativity and write a couple of whacked out shorts. Always for my own pleasure, not for school. Somewhere in university I wrote my own smelly derivation of a novel I liked… but I don’t really know. I guess it grew slowly but surely… somewhere along the way.
Piha: The first and last lines of “The Luckiest man in Town” were about fear. Does fear influence your writing? Perhaps, a fear of failure, or even success?
Tasker: I’ve never understood that fear of success thing. I probably suffer from a fear of failure, fear of mediocrity. I’ve known people personally who’ve said they’d like to write or act or paint, but that they’re afraid of success. In terms of how fear affects my writing—in this particular story, the fear affected the character and so it drove the story. He had once been a boxer and he was always scared in the ring which kept him safe. He once ended up killing his opponent, that’s why he doesn’t box anymore. After that he’s having nightmares about his wife killing him and he becomes afraid of his wife, and when he’s afraid he becomes violent or deadly. The story, in terms of its structure, is probably closer to a crime genre piece than a so-called literary piece.
Piha: Crime genre is something you’re drawn to.
Tasker: A lot of my stories, even if they’ve ended up in literary magazines—I guess because of the way I write—they are oftentimes crime pieces, or a piece set around a crime. I read a lot of crime. Donald Westlake—
Piha: —The Parker series.
Tasker: They’re fantastic. In his book Memory, there’s no actual crime that takes place. A guy gets hit in the head with a chair and that’s the extent of the crime throughout. It’s thrilling, but there’s no actual crime and I love that. That mix of crime and literary, that’s probably where my work best exists. Not that I’m doing myself any favors. Most literary magazines don’t want anything with any crime in them and most genre magazines don’t want anything too literary.
Piha: Well, Ploughshares is no small publication.
Tasker: I still can’t believe that I’m in there.
Piha: How often to do you submit a year?
Tasker: Oh, a lot. “The Luckiest Man in Town” had four or five rejections. I’ve had other pieces that got—well, I’m embarrassed to tell you how many times they were rejected. But, you know, they ended up in pretty good places. You’re just at the subjective of what the reader likes or doesn’t like. At a certain point, you get to the logic of “Oh, well, fifteen rejections,” but just because one person doesn’t like it doesn’t mean the next person won’t. I don’t know if I answered that question. I submit a lot.
Piha: You said you’re a morning writer.
Tasker: The last six months I’ve been really slacking. I’m ashamed of it, I haven’t done much recently. But usually that’s the only time I have. I have a four-year-old and I’m pretty busy. I would get up a 4:00 or 4:30 and that hour or two before work is usually best because you’re fresh from sleeping. You’re in just a bit of a daze so that you’re not worrying about what else you have going on in your life.
Piha: As for your writing process. Do you first produce a whole draft, or do you get a few lines out and think about it, then maybe do some outlining?
Tasker: It’s different for every story. I’ll have a basic idea for a character of a story, or I’ll be listening to a song and some phrase or just two little words in that song will make a good title, and a story works itself around that. Generally speaking, I’ll have too many ideas. I’ll write them down and when I come to it, whether it’s a week later or a month later, I’ve done some thinking about it. I’ll write the first 200 to 600 words, usually trying to do that in one or two sittings, and that’ll turn into a 5000-word piece. Once I’ve got that first 600 words, I’ll do a bit of “What should happen here or there” and then it’s fairly organic. Many times, I’ll find out that what I’ve written in my notebook doesn’t work at all and I’ll have to take it in a new direction. As I’m working on the piece, I’ll do a bit of editing on the way. Once I finish a piece I’ll put it away for five to thirty days and work on something else and then I’ll come back to it and edit and do any rewrites that I need to do. Generally that’s how it works. What I am wondering about is novel writing. It’s easy to rewrite a not-very-good 3000-word-piece if you like the idea, but when people rewrite a 100,000-word draft, how does that rewrite work?
Piha: I think I’ve created a few files and titled them “Novel 1,” but it has never got past that. We’ve already talked about fear but, when it comes to sending out stories, getting published—
Tasker: Failure and rejection are just a part of it. It’s quite natural that for every story I write that’s publishable I write one to four that don’t deserve getting published. Maybe I’ve had so many rejections that I’ve just got really thick skin. Or I’ve read enough about other writers who’ve been rejected so many times. It’s just as much persistence as it is actually writing. James Lee Burke famously had one of his early novels rejected by one hundred or so publishers, and then when it got published by a small firm it went on to be nominated for a Pulitzer. I read that story, the Lost Get Back Boogie, when I was 17 years old.
Piha: Did you read a lot growing up?
Tasker: Yes and no. My mother was a big reader and she had to pay me to read my first book when I was in grade two or so. She wanted me to actually get through something. I think it was a children’s book, Uncle Wiggily. Then my first year in Argentina, I was about 14 years old, and I think loneliness and not having any English around got me reading. When I got back to Canada I was the best-read kid in my class.
Piha: You have a master’s degree in professional writing, correct?
Tasker: They changed the degree title half way through. They called it professional writing at first, and it was a lot of nonfiction writing and some journalism, and then they switched it to creative writing. I don’t actually know what I should call the degree, but I’m looking to get my Ph.D. in creative writing. I’m in the application process.
Piha: Do know other writers, spend time with them, or just other artists in general?
Tasker: I’m fairly solitary. I knew some in college. I have a friend who has just written a novel and has just submitted it, but I’m not surrounded by it like I was in college. I love talking about reading, but it’s hard to find people that have anything to say about it.
Postscript: Michael Caleb Tasker’s recent projects are centered around film production and screenwriting. He says, “Movies have always been a big part of my life, been a big influence. Hitchcock, Clint Eastwood (Play Misty for Me and High Plains Drifter are terrific), Rod Serling, I used to see Lawrence of Arabia every year on the big screen.”