Literary Story: Structure, Imagination, Enjoyment, Meaning
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Interview – Michael Malone


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Michael Malone Interview 2/26/2009

William H. Coles

Booktour schedule for The Four Corners of the Sky

Michael Malone is a native of North Carolina and lives in Hillsborough, NC. He is a highly successful author of mystery and comedic novels, many set in North Carolina (First Lady, Uncivil Seasons, Time's Witness). His novel The Killing Club rose to #11 on the New York Times bestseller list. His mystery story “Red Clay” received the Edgar Award for Best Short Story in 1997. He is the acclaimed, award-winning head writer of television drama, One Life to Live (1991-96, 2006-07) and Another World (2003-04). He is Visiting Professor at Duke University where he teaches American film studies.

Hillsborough

February 26, 2009

I am here in Hillsborough, North Carolina with Michael Malone, author of many widely enjoyed novels and short stories, and scriptwriter, teacher, lecturer, to talk to him about his profession as a writer and his achievements in so many different disciplines of story telling and the written word.

Thank you, Michael, for your willingness to talk to www.storyinliteraryfiction.com.

MM

Thanks, Bill. Writers will seize any opportunity to talk. We stop writing for a moment.

WHC

I’d like to start with a basic question. What does “story” mean to you?

MM

I think it’s at the heart of what it is to be human to tell stories, to tell narratives of our lives, of the lives of people we know, of our communities, of our country—humans want to tell a story. If you listen to people talk, which you absolutely must do if you want to write fiction, you’ll notice that they talk by telling stories to each other and they tell them [stories] primarily through dialogue:

So I go, “I can’t meet you at five o’clock.”

And he goes, “Then it’s all off between us.”

And I go, “How can you say that to me?”

Talking to you, people will tell you a story, a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end.

WHC

Is this a regional characteristic? Is it more common to use dialogue in the South to tell stories?

MM

In the South they certainly will talk more [smiling]. It will be a longer story. When we first moved down here . . . I’m a native North Carolinian . . . from the North—as I call it—my wife, Maureen [Quilligan], said first of all, “I knew you were crazy, but now I find out everybody is like this down here.” And secondly, she had to learn how to talk. As if you had gone to France and you had to learn how to speak in their style—with their certain social codes. So when you are in the South, you can’t say, “I want to buy a ham. ” You’ve got to say, “What wonderful weather, what a wonderful sky . . . it’s blue as my cousin’s eyes, well his one eye ‘cause one eye got shot out when he went hunting . . .” Then this story stuff starts.

WHC

Does this story stuff [in conversation] that is so essential to this human interaction often contain the elements of beginning, middle, and end?

People want to be writers, but they don’t want to write.

MM

Well, that’s a good question, because I spent a part of my writing life writing serial drama [One Life to Live, Another World]. Serial drama, very famously, has no end. A soap opera is designed never to end.

WHC

But it has some sort of end before the last commercial?

MM

It has arcs within arcs. I had spent years writing “high art” –literary fiction—and in the groves of Academe, teaching literary fiction–and everything in me said, “Beginning, middle, end .” . . So one of the first things I had to learn was not to end things: When I was first talking to Agnes Nixon, who had created One Life to Live and All My Children and so forth . . . a marvelous Southern woman . . . she said, “Michael! What are you doing? Everything in your stories is building to a climax . . .all together everyone falls in love or dies. No! It has to come in waves. One wave crests, another is behind it, another behind that.” She would say, “Turn the diamond slowly. Each facet will sparkle in a different way.” That postponement of the “end” was the source of her famous motto: “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”

But for me, having spent most of my creative life writing short stories and novels, I liked returning to closed narratives–building an arc into an over-arching structure. . . it might take a week, or like The Great Gatsby, a summer; it might take a day—Ulysses; or it might take a year. One novel of mine, Dingley Falls [1990], a creation novel, takes places over a week. Another novel, The Last Noel [2003], takes place over forty years, but only at certain Christmases (every chapter is at a Christmas meeting between the two characters).

WHC

As you speak, I hear you thinking about a timeline that starts the action of a larger arc, and then you have small ends to smaller arcs at the end of each specific [TV] drama.

MM

I came at writing for daytime television from studying Dickens’s way of serializing his novels; that they were serialized makes a huge difference in how he wrote: you are writing and publishing just one chapter [at a time]. Chapter one is already out published there when you are writing chapter two. . . I have a novel coming out in May that I spent many years working on . . .The Four Corners of the Sky . . . it took ten years before I felt I had that novel right. So I go back again and again, revising. In serial you can’t do that.

WHC

So your story is a broad story with many subliminal and subordinate stories within. So when you write a novel, that novel is part of the broader story that is told in your life’s work.

MM

People—critics—have always said about my work that it is various, more various than the novels of others others might be. At times I write in what are called genres. Some people write only detective stories, or only science fiction stories, or only historical novels. My Hillston novels are detective novels [Justin and Cuddy novels] but I have also written in the picaresque genre a Henry Fielding-like [The History of Tom Jones, 1749] large canvas–Handling Sin for instance.

But while I work in different ways, there is going to be a core meaning to all my novels. Whatever I am in my moral beliefs, in my style, in my political beliefs, that will be in all my fiction.

One of the things that draws me to the detective form is its public arena. Crime fiction takes you into the world. For example, the plot of Time's Witness [1989] involves the death penalty. Once you have crime, you have a courthouse, you have lawyers, you have the police. You have a public world of economics and history.

WHC

Expanding rather than constricting.

MM

Whatever I am as a writer will be [in] all the fiction, whatever “the story.”

Talking about story, people often ask me, “Do you write the plot out; do you outline it; do you do a sketch of each chapter?”

Do [I] know exactly where I’m going, “when I start”? No, I don’t. It’s Emerson’s stairway of surprise [Ralph Waldo Emerson, “How can these stairs be climbed save through the process of Reincarnation?” [NOTE--WHC: The quote is from Emerson’s Merlin, I--But mount to paradise/ By the stairway of surprise."]. And it is a surprise. You start ice skating, as he [Emerson] also said. [“In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.”], and you don’t exactly know where you’re going. But what I do . . . and every writer has a different way of doing it . . . I have a substructure coming out of a formal construct, an imitation in the old Renaissance sense of what that means.

So, if in Dingley Falls, I am writing a novel about a town, I know Middlemarch [1874, by George Eliot] is underneath it and other novels like Middlemarch. If I’m writing . . . [say] . . . Handling Sin, that picaresque novel came out of my saying to Maureen [wife] jokingly, “Hey, I’d like to write the funniest novel ever written.” And she said. “Too bad for you, it’s already written. And it’s Don Quixote.” She’s a Renaissance scholar So I went back and read Don Quixote[1605,1615, by Cervantes]. I said, “Okay. That’s the structure!”

What I’m talking about is a blueprint. The structure is going to be a journey. With Handling Sin [1983], I drew a map, literally; the characters are going to go to from North Carolina to New Orleans. And because it’s a novel of a spiritual journey . . . in a particular faith . . . they’re going to start on the Ides of March, they’re going to be here on Monday, here on Thursday; they’re going to be home on Easter Sunday. As for the characters that Raleigh Hayes [Raleigh W. Hayes, insurance agent who is main character] was going to meet, I didn’t . . .

WHC

At that time?

MM

I did know that Raleigh didn’t want to meet anybody, and therefore he was going to need to meet a lot of people, and involve himself in life, in handling the clutter of life.

WHC

And that is what people liked about that novel [the multiple, rich characters].

MM

The Last Noel [2003] had a very different structure: the civil rights movement, in this particular place, these two people meet–African-American boy, Caucasian girl–he’s the grandson of her family’s maid–they meet, and the minute they meet, the reader is resting on other fictional childhood encounters–the meeting of Pip and Estella in Great Expectations [serialized 1860-61 by Charles Dickens] , [and] Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights [1847, by Emily Bronte], that heritage. No novel is ever written that isn’t on the shoulders of every novel that went before.

WHC

How do you maintain drama . . . in the sense of stage drama with conflict, and the changes needed for dramatic conflict, when you consider film and TV . . . and how do you transit story conflict to prose. The transition seems to be a tough one. So, what is drama? How important is conflict? And how do you maintain that conflict in prose?

MM

You could have a modernist novel where two people stare out the window for 200 pages. But I am an absolute fervent believer that something needs to happen. That story telling is about creating an interest in what happens next, about making the reader or the viewer want to know what happens next to people they care about. Now if you take out the part about “people they care about,” you’re left with circumstantial suspense fiction that is just focused on plot. If you leave out plot and just focus on character development.

WHC

Becoming more character sketch, essay oriented . . .?

MM

Yes. I think they [character and plot] have to go together.

I am always telling students when I’m teaching writing–which can’t be taught but can be learned–that if a character just stands here, there’s no story. But all I have to do [for a story] is nervously look at my watch, then look over here, and then look over there–and start pacing, and suddenly the viewer is saying, “What’s the matter? Who is he waiting for? Why didn’t that person show up? Is he in danger?” And then you have your reader wanting to know what happens next.

WHC

That’s a conflict of ideation?

MM

There is contemporary fiction that makes us ask what’s happening now, that wants to play with sequence and time frame—may for example go backward in time—or may have multiple voices, but good fiction, old or new, will have solved the same narrative problems. At the heart there are five core tools to writing fiction: [1] you have to find a voice, [2] you have to have f a sense of place, [3] you have to have believable characters, [4] you have to put the character in action. . . I mean, Aristotle said it long ago. Drama is character in action. And then [5] you bring your unique style to the narrative.

For me, often, what comes first is not the plot, not the story–but the voice. That voice can be a first person voice, “Call me Ishmael.” [Moby Dick (1851), by Herman Melville]. It can be third-person omniscient: God’s voice “It is a truth universally acknowledged….” Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice [1813]. i But you [must] find that voice. And you can search for it a long time.

For example, take the narrator of Time's Witness. I’d written Uncivil Seasons [1983]. I wanted to write a novel set in the South, the subject matter of which I wanted to be race and the death penalty. Who and how shall I tell that story? I started three or four different ways—using different characters, different voices. Finally I said. “Wait a minute. The character I want to use to tell that story is already in Uncivil Seasons. It’s the partner of the narrator of that earlier novel, Cuddy Mangum. I’ve got to let him talk.”

WHC

There’s the voice of the character, but there’s also the voice of the narrator, possibly the author: when you emphasize importance of voice, is there any danger of decreasing the action [objective writing] that develops logical motivation and lessening the impact of the core desire the character is built on. In other words, does focus on the cleverness and uniqueness of the voice detract from the essential driving aspects of character expressed in action, rather than told?

MM

You gain, with first person, immediacy, and intimacy; you lose the large point of view—that the individual character can’t know all things. One way writers get in trouble is by trying to get too much general information into first person voices . . .

WHC

You could call it narrator knowledge, basically.

MM

Yes. It’s awkward. There’s an alternative: Jane Austen uses it in Emma [1815]. It is a limited third person voice; you [as the reader] are constrained by being focused on Emmaii One of the brilliant revelations of that novel is that the reader suddenly realizes they’ve made the same mistake as Emma: “Wait a minute! I’m actually wrong about everything.” That’s wonderful.

Comedy reminds human beings that they are in this together.

WHC

And that is the issue of credibility?

MM

Yes.

WHC

As the author backs off the character from the action in the novel, the reader questions the credibility of the storyteller [and story] in the first person.

MM

As for credibility, First, fact is no excuse for fiction. It doesn’t matter that it didn’t really happen. Kafka tells us somebody woke up and found they were a cockroach. But what does matter is that once you accept that narrator, once you create that fiction world, it has to be credible: it doesn’t have to be factually true, but it has to be real to the reader.

WHC

Or they have to believe it could really have happened even though they know it’s not real.

MM

Yes. That’s willing suspension of disbelief. And anything that violates that [is not successful], which is why in a novel such as Time's Witness, I had lawyers going over the trial scenes for me so there wouldn’t be technical errors in how a trial is conducted. So that that reader [doesn’t go], “Ooohh, that’s not right.” And we’ve all had those experiences as readers [caused by] everything from poor copy editing to simply being inaccurate. My new novel, The Four Corners of the Sky, is about a young woman who is a Navy pilot, so I had to have pilots go over the actual factual details. So the reader wouldn’t say: “No that’s not exactly . . .”

WHC

You don’t dive when you’re about to stall at a hundred feet from the ground sort of thing.

MM

Exactly. One little example was a moment when I had a character holding a helmet by a strap. A pilot I consulted said, “Absolutely not! We don’t have straps anymore. We could have a strap to a headset. But you’re thinking of some old John Wayne movie.”

So those things that pull you out . . .

WHC

Because you’re breaking the fictional plane . . .

MM

. . . and the reader’s belief in the story . . . as you’re saying, the incredible stories are dangerous for that reason. They break our belief. Otherwise you can make up any world at all—a world where everybody is miniscule, or everybody is big.

WHC

When we look at essential need for conflict in prose—you seem to do that so well in your Justin-Cuddy novels, a scene doesn’t go by where conflict isn’t occurring. Conflict that wouldn’t happen in day-to-day life. But you always have some conflict—moral, social conflict, and so forth. Is that something we, as struggling writers, need to look for in revising our scenes? Do we need to have conflict on dialogue level, the moral level, even on the ironic level?

MM

I would say yes. If characters aren’t in conflict . . . and the conflict can be on an internal level .

WHC

Could you give an example?

MM

A character brooding about whether or not to get a divorce. Or whether to quit your job as a corporate banker and go to Tahiti (like Gauguin) [the artist, Paul Gauguin].

WHC

That’s a fundamental environmental structural conflict?

MM

Yes. It doesn’t have to be an adventure in the wilderness . . . It can be whether to have the courage to acquire the things you think you lack. To stand for your conscience. They can be quiet acts, as Thoreau said, quiet acts of desperation [Henry David Thoreau, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation."]; the acts don’t have to be charging armies in War and Peace. But there has to be something that makes us want to keep reading, listening.

I recall once driving across the country with my daughter, who was in her twenties at the time, and I was playing an audio tape [of Tolstoy’s War and Peace] and she said “I don’t want to listen to this, Dad. This is some old nineteenth century thing.” But we listened. There was a disc that ended where Natasha has left the letter saying that she’s going to run off with Boris. Is Pierre going to be able to find the letter and stop it before it goes off to Prince Andre so Natasha’s life won’t be ruined. Can he stop this elopement? And Maggie, my daughter, said, “Where’s the next disc?” And she was on the floor of the car–searching.

WHC

With [a need to solve the mystery in] this “archaic” old novel.

MM

There are many valid reasons to suspend narrative drive. In my novel, Dingley Falls, each section ends with a visit to a a world outside the town, a satiric world about how the government has built a secret base manufacturing anthrax—this was long before it really happened—and these set pieces purposively stopped the movement of the characters in the main plot. In Handling Sin, the novel goes back in time to the hero’s childhood at the end of every section. So it tells you something about the character that you need to know. But it stops the action.

But when you do this, you take a risk. I’ve had editors say, “Can’t we take these things out?” No. Not if they’re crucial. In another novel of mine, Foolscap [1991]–I’m reading it now because I’m going to a reading club at Duke next week (Duke University) and the members want to read Foolscap because it’s about a southern university, not unlike Duke in many ways–and if you don’t read a novel for twenty years, you don’t remember it , even if you wrote it.

WHC

Two weeks sometimes . . .

MM

Yes. I probably remember Huckleberry Finn better than I remember Foolscap. I’m enjoying it. Foolscap has a five-act structure (it’s about plays), and has this university setting. but an intermission New York setting, and then a London theatrical setting, where the story goes as the hero leaves the page for the stage. As a result we meet new characters and bring them into the canvas. I tend to work on a larger canvas than a lot of my contemporaries. I like a large canvas because I’m interested in the communal connection among diverse people, which is why music occurs in my novels, because the collaborative process of performing music is the incarnation of our human impulse to connect. The canvas may be, for some readers, more people than they can care about. But what I’m saying is: care about these people. So that’s my request of the reader.

WHC

I’d like to ask you about character-driven plots, as the essence of literary fiction as it developed through Austen, and Bronte, and others. The modern trend is for more circumstantially driven plots. What is a character-driven plot? What is its value for the modern writer?

MM

I think that you don’t have to give up one to have the other. That may seem obvious, but there is a way that plot and character have split apart in valuing contemporary fiction. And that’s a shame. Because, yes, you should have both . . . Great fiction is driven by great characters, themes, styles. But great fiction tells a story narrative too. And when it’s great, the more you read it, the more you hear and see. Maureen [Michael’s wife] spends her whole life reading the “The Fairie Queene” [1590, by Edmund Spenser], reading over and over and “Paradise Lost” [1667 by John Milton] . . .

WHC

Makes me shiver, actually [from lack of knowing and understanding].

Books go into the world and do work.

MM

But epic poems are stories too. I remember Maureen’s reading aloud to me The Odyssey in the new translation [1961] by Robert Fitzgerald [Robert Stuart Fitzgerald (1910-1986), critic, poet and translator of Greek and Latin classics], and the story was so mesmerizing–and those characters!–that the light had faded in the room . . . and she was still reading. I think you can have a page-turner [with strong characterization]; you just have to turn the pages more slowly.

People don’t buy a CD of music that they like and play it only one time. Why do they think if they buy a good book, [they should read it only] once? There is always more to know, about characters in good novels.

You mentioned Bronte as writing character-driven stories . . . yes! . . . When we think of Wuthering Heights, we feel we know Heathcliff, and we know Cathy. The depth of their characters is at the heart of the book. However! In Wuthering Heights, a great deal of plot happens . . .

WHC

Yes. Even though it may be wandering on the moors . . .

MM

Highly dramatic . . .

WHC

One of my favorite novels . . .

MM

. . . is he going to make it back in time to stop her marriage? What is he going to do when he learns she has married? What’s she going to do when she realizes she’s ruined her life . . .

WHC

But all of those obstacles are character oriented.

MM

God knows, you can’t get more dramatic than his digging up a grave . . .

WHC

And opening the side of the casket . . .

MM

However, if we didn’t care about Heathcliff and Cathy, those actions would not be as meaningful or dramatic. By developing great characters, you develop great drama. Now the stage is different because of actors. One of the first things I learned going into television writing, where you write a play a day—an hour drama a day—that actors made . . . I was writing excessive dialog for them, because they can do so much . . . if you think of great moments in popular films (of course I teach at Duke [University, in North Carolina), it’s called “American Dreams, American Movies”—why does America love the movies it loves and what does it tell you about those movies? So the first thing the kids always say is, “Why don’t you have Citizen Kane [1941 movie directed by Orson Wells]?” I say, “It’s not a movie America loved in the same way it loved Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Singing in the Rain, and so forth. Just thinking of the films that I mentioned, what flashed in mind is the camera coming down Clark Gable’s face—Rhett Butler—as Scarlett O’Hara sees him; in Casablanca when Ingrid Bergman looks at Bogie [Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957)] and is saying goodbye and walks away—those don’t have any dialogue. Notice that I slipped to Bogie and Ingrid Bergman. Those are the names of the actors, not Rick Blaine and Ilsa [characters in Casablanca].

So the page to the stage, as you asked me—they are very different—the same techniques are employed in both. And one of them, dramatic irony, works just like it works in Oedipus Rex [Sophocles, first performed in 429 BC] where he comes on and we have heard from Tiresias [blind prophet] that this guy has murdered his father and married his mother and then he comes on and goes: “I gotta find out who murdered this guy, and caused all these problems.” And we know who did it [Oedipus himself]. And that works wonderfully for story telling. And [in my] comedy, Handling Sin, for example, Raleigh Hayes thinks he knows everything, and we know that he is wrong [dramatic irony].

WHC

As you bring your talents to TV and film, and you write more and more dialogue, isn’t there the danger–as you begin to depend upon dialogue for the transmission of emotions–of sentimentality?

MM

One of the dangers of dialogue is talking too much. When writers get into trying to convey descriptive—or plot information—through dialogue, it just sounds awful. Another danger is writing dialogue rather than hearing dialogue. When young writers say to me, “I want to write . . . how do I start?] I say, start by writing down what you hear. A lot of people want to be writers but they don’t want to write. You have to write.

And to write, you have to read, that’s what I mean by every novel is riding on the shoulders [of those who have come before]. But fundamentally, to write characters, you have to listen to them. Dialogue is not written, it is heard. Too often writers do dialogue in the formal way they would write a letter. Instead, hear that voice. I have a chapter in Handling Sin, for example, toward the end, which I did—writers sometimes do things for pleasure without knowing if the reader’s going to notice– a chapter in which a lot of people are talking, and the reader is never told by the third person narrator who’s speaking, you’re never given the name, because by then, you’ve been on this 600 page comic journey with these characters and so you know who they are. Because they don’t sound alike. Every one of them speaks differently. Each has a voice.

Back to story:

Whether it’s on a page or a stage, something must happen to the characters. Take for example The Cherry Orchard, where it seems nothing is happening, in fact something is happening. The fact that the family declined to do anything to solve their problem has just destroyed their whole world [a cherry orchard, specifically, that is auctioned because of inaction to pay the mortgage] and that’s what Chekhov meant when he said, if you open your play with a shotgun on a mantelpiece, that has got to be fired before the curtain goes down . . .iii

WHC

I didn’t know Chekhov said that [Chekhov’s Gun].

MM

The Cherry Orchard has a very strong plot. And a comic plot. When you asked about sentiment, Stanislavsky [Constantitn Stanislavsky (1863-1938)] directed The Cherry Orchard, and he [Chekhov] was incensed that Stanislavsky was directing as if [the play] were this sentimental tragedy. Chekhov said: “It’s a comedy.”

People can’t see around the borders of their own lives so they look with a periscope through fiction.

WHC

Wasn’t his wife . . . ? [Olga Knipper]

MM

The actress, yes.

WHC

So that heightened [Chekhov’s] reaction?

MM

Possibly. Yes.

WHC

When you talk about wanting to be a writer, would you agree that what you want to do is create feeling and ideas and thoughts in the reader through action—showing—as opposed to a writer that wants to express their inner feelings and ideas.

MM

As I keep saying . . . I don’t think strong plot and strong characters are necessarily different . . .

WHC

You equate the two?

MM

I think they can be put together.

That faith that both are as possible today as they were a hundred years ago is really at the core of what I’m trying to hold onto as a writer. A work can reach a great variety of readers who read in different ways for different reasons; there doesn’t have to be a choice between a plot and what I used to call the Knopf [publishers] book of white borders and very little but very artful prose. A novel can be as beautiful as a poem in its prose style, nevertheless, have strong characters—and a broad canvas—and be in the world.

I was in school in the sixties. And so that political . . .

WHC

Turmoil.

MM

. . . the public involvement of the period is very much a part of my sense that fiction has a moral duty, has a public duty. When we write, like Whitman [Walt Whitman (1810-1892)], we’re writing for the nation, we are telling what truth we know about the human condition, about political history of the world we live in.

When I say to young writers, “Okay, you’ve got your plot, you’ve got your characters, you’ve got your place (and we haven’t talked much yet about place) . . . Now! What’s your purpose in writing? Is it simply to explore your own psyche? Who’s your reader? Is it to get a girl or boy to fall in love with you?

My first novel was a love poem to Maureen—it was a Valentine, as lyric poetry often is— come . . . be my love.

So what is the purpose of your writing?

WHC

Isn’t the great advantage of writing prose the ability to capture the attention of the reader, if you’re good, and engage the reader so [he or she] becomes emotionally involved in your story, and then they have and memorable, lasting, emotional experience in relationship to characters in ways that no other medium really allows in quite the same way: maybe it’s not the intensity [exactly], it’s not really value, but there is something special about Wuthering Heights, there is something special about Heathcliff [character in Wuthering Heights]—my wife and I still discuss who and what Heathcliff was. And that seems to relate to an attitude about writing that writers don’t pick up, [the idea of special potential of fiction]. We don’t focus on writing to engage the reader, and to change the reader.

MM

. . So ask yourself, why are you writing, for whom are you writing?

Imagine your ideal reader. Coming out of the rhetoric of narrative poetry, early novelists were very aware of addressing an audience –poets are always addressing the muse–and audience became “the reader.” “And so dear reader, I married him.” Jane Eyre[1847, by Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855]. Your [the writer’s] relation to the reader is very, very self-conscious. Mark Twain is extremely aware that Huck Finn is talking to a reader, and that the irony of having that naive narrator is functioning on all sorts of levels with the reader. But what do you as a writer want? Do you want to change how the reader thinks or feels? Do you want to have the reader carry the book into his or her own life? [Long pause.] Yes, you do! Yes, we can!

WHC

I was hoping you weren’t going to say no!

MM

And some would [say no].

I’m always deeply upset when I go into a bookstore and they’ve got the Hillston novels [Time's Witness. Uncivil Seasons, and First Lady] among the mystery books, and they’ve got my other novels in literature—or fiction. No! Intruder in the Dust [1948, by William Faulkner] is a mystery novel. Crime and Punishment is a mystery novel. There are good mystery novels—and there are not so good mystery novels. In the same way, comedy is traditionally considered lower than tragedy. No. Comedy is doing—very specifically—the work of reminding human beings when it is right to say yes, to connect, just as tragedy tells them when to say no, to separate.

I have been deeply touched that readers say when they finish Handling Sin[comedic novel], “Oh, I gave this book to my sister. I hadn’t spoken to her in ten years. I gave her Handling Sin, and she calls me up laughing, and now we’re back together.” Or “my friend was dying and I brought the novel to him in the hospital. It brought him comfort.” I believe that books go into the world and do work!

WHC

And that’s the value of writing.

MM

One value. Let me go back to Wuthering Heights. There are some books we come upon young in our lives that help us (for good or ill) with the ways which we fall in and out of love . . .

. . . At that young age, I used to listen to Mahler and Rachmaninoff. I couldn’t bear the intensity of it anymore. But when you’re first encountering romantic music and novels, you are alive with a responsiveness that a part of youth. I remember a friend in graduate school who was sobbing one day because she had just finished Anna Karenina. She said, “My own life is so pale and grey in relationship to the vividness of the fictional world.”

WHC

What a guy, Tolstoy.

MM

I agree with your point that fiction (extended prose narrative) can do something that lyric poetry doesn’t do, that nonfiction, no matter how wonderful it is, doesn’t do . . .

WHC

I would even include creative nonfiction.

MM

Yes. There is some way that the magic fall into fiction—and I think of it as a fall [as if] into a lake, and swimming under water . . .

WHC

It’s thicker than water, it can hold you more . . .

MM

That’s one reason I’m very concerned about Kindle. It’s physically different from the feel of a book. But I know people who have Kindles who say, “Don’t worry, it is like a book.” According to them, Kindle is working for people who love books because they don’t have to lug fifteen heavy objects off on vacation. They say, “I’m still reading the fifteen books!”

I don’t know. I think there was something perfect in the construction of a book.

WHC

I agree.

MM

Turning those pages is just magic.

WHC

I did a little survey at the AWP about a Kindle. A lot of people didn’t know what it was. Most people had never used one. Some people remember after prompting they’d heard about it. But I wasn’t impressed Kindle was that successful, overall.

MM

I remember I resisted the computer. I wrote by hand. All the way through the first six or seven novels. I wrote by pencil. Because I’m listening to the voices of the characters, I don’t want any noise when I’m listening. When the laptop came in, and it was completely silent, and you could move your hands over the keys just like a pencil, and hold it on your lap just like a note pad–I shifted to the laptop.

WHC

And you were happy?

MM

It’s very hard to go back once you’ve done that. But sometimes I say, “Why not? You’ve got an eraser on a pencil. You can write and you can delete.“ I do worry that there is a kind of gratuitous revision produced by the ease of the computer.

WHC

Cut and paste.

MM

But I’m not sure, I worry. I’m also frustrated that I can’t see out to the edges. In a way seeing around the edges is a sort of a metaphor for what I want for my fiction. In Dingley Falls, there’s an optical instruments factory in the town, and the narrator says that fiction makes periscopes like that factory. People can’t see around the borders of their own lives so they look with a periscope of fiction.”

The end is going to be in the beginning.

WHC

Interesting thought.

MM

Through fiction, they are testing their hearts. For instance, perhaps the reader never liked the kind of person who’s a neighbor who borrows things and breaks them but once he or she meets this kind of person in Handling Sin, Mingo Sheffield, they’re asked to see his gifts.

But the laptop won’t let you see the edges . . . and that bothers me. On the other hand, it’s like reading old Egyptian scrolls.

WHC

Do you think the future of the story is in the written word, really? An editor [Michael Ray] recently pointed out the importance of the novel to story in the nineteenth century, and the importance of film in twentieth century. He wondered if, in the next century, interactive story telling–as in contemporary computer video games—would be the next venue. Could that be the preferred conveyance story telling of the future?

MM

I don’t know. I know they tried that, where you could chose your plot—for children. I don’t know how it went.

But look at the success of graphic novels. I know that newer generations are more visually attuned than mine. I know that colleagues who teach their Victorian novels have had to change their courses, because some of these younger readers can’t process huge, fat, triple-decker novels. So instead of teaching Our Mutual Friend [1864-65, Charles Dickens’s last novel], they’re teaching the shorter Great Expectations [Charles Dickens also], and so forth. Does that mean that younger readers are not narratively just as sensitive and sophisticated? No, it doesn’t.

I remember making a prediction long ago that the short story was going to make a comeback. Children’s shows like Sesame Street accustomed children to fast—shorter narratives. Another thing I’ve noticed happening is a preference for a protected distance from narrative, a play with meta-narrative. The author is very consciously showing us narrative as narrative, playing with sequence, with allusion, with parody, satire, mixing film with written texts. Much of the narrative heritage of these younger artists comes from film and television. 75 years ago, film was grabbing up everything and using everything it could find from the stage and the novel; now the stage and the novel are grabbing story and style up from film.

From a larger perspective, and at the core of your question about the written word—for a long, long time people got their story orally, not from press. A pretty brief phenomenon, and a pretty bourgeois phenomenon. Not everybody could read. Will we go back to oral story telling?

WHC

Both oral story telling and prose seem related. Both use the mechanism of using the receiver’s creativity. Something is suggested [orally or in prose] and the reader’s mind creates its special interpretation, but in film you’re throwing everything at them and telling them to accept and remember it because it’s important to understanding the story [without the receiver creative element]. If you go back to oral story, it may take away the word, but it still requires imaginative input from the listener [like reading] in contrast to simply ingesting film.

MM

You can hear it. The Odyssey. You weren’t supposed to read it. You were supposed to hear it. I find it fascinating the interest in hearing public readings by writer. People will go to them, will listen to an audiocassette . . . I don’t think it is a cassette anymore—a CD . . . even of a novel they’ve read, or they’ll listen to a novel they wouldn’t read. Maybe its true young people actually go to Barnes and Noble to pick up other people, but [at least] they’re there. There are books all around them, and maybe they’re going to take one down that they like. The Harry Potter phenomenon taught us, if nothing else, that people who haven’t read, will read if you give them a good story, and compelling relatable characters . . . Now, what is Harry Potter? It is good old Dickens. Adding the CS Lewis [1898-1963, author] kind of magic. It is something all children feel—being an outsider and special at the same time: the little orphan who has great gifts but needs to connect to other people who see them . . .

WHC

Potter, for me, seems pretty sloppy story writing. I think there are better, more meaningful ways to resolve conflict than have an owl fly in with a message-resolution.

MM

But readers love it. I asked a librarian last night, did young people’s reading Harry Potter lead to other books being read? Yes, it did. They said, you don’t have any more Harry Potter? What else have you got?

WHC

I admire your teaching film in academics. If you love story, the history of how film developed in telling stories is really fascinating. So I have four films I want to talk to you about. Frankly, I don’t understand why these film stories—they’re disparate in many ways—why these stories held on. Is it the novel it is related to? Is it the story itself? Is it the presentation? Is it Vivien Leigh [actress (two academy awards), married to Laurence Olivia. 1913-1967]?

MM

Gone with the Wind?

WHC

Yes. The four films are. Gone with the Wind, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Great Gatsby, which I’ve heard you mention you did not like the POV choices in the film, and Wall-E, and the reason I bring that [the animated film, Wall-E] up is I still have an emotion reaction to the romance. How can that be possible in an animated story? What makes these films successful?

MM

Let’s take Gone with the Wind first. It is in some ways very different from the novel on which it’s based. People are far more likely to know the film than they are to know the novel. The film clarified and simplified the narrative: for example, in the book she has a number of children, in the film she only has Bonnie.

Gone with the Wind, if you go with the box office figures, is still the top grossing film of all time. So, why? Why a classic, in the same way Jane Austen is the hottest screen property there is? Both Scarlett’s story and Elizabeth Bennett’s story, are Cinderella stories. That’s the classic core.

WHC

You mean Pride and Prejudice?

MM

All Austen: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion—they’re all on TV, made into movies; her narratives tell a core story about female desire, and desire fulfilled.

WHC

And almost impossible.

MM

In every one of Jane Austen’s novels—they all tell the same story—she [the heroine]—ends up with a house, a big nice house. And that move of the narrative is toward that home—“When did you know you loved me,” Darcy asks, “I think it was the first moment I saw your house. ” Daisy, “Oh, my God, what a beautiful house.” Gatsby says, “I built this house for you.” Scarlet. Tara, Tara, Tara. Rhett tells her, “I’m going to give you back, Tara.”

So it’s about female desire that is rooted in . . .

WHC

A fundamental desire.

MM

GWTW also speaks to the nation, as all classic films do. . . our heritage. This movie comes out in the 1930’s, in the depression, people are starving, they want a heroine who is saying we can pull it together and I’m not going to starve! Neither is any of my kin.

WHC

And pull down those drapes. I’m going to have a dress!

MM

She’s saying, I can make this work. I will build this house. I will get all the food. I will get out of these hard times. This is a war epic without any battle. All we see of soldiers is retreats. The only person who shoots a Yankee in the movie is Scarlet. She’s the warrior, the epic hero.

WHC

Oh. [When she loots his pockets and buries him?]

MM

Also, GWTW has a classic romance plot: Two very different men are in love with her. Elegant, poetic Ashley. And the dashing and successful one who honestly sees her for what she is—Rhett. Heathcliff. Edgar Linton. [Referring to love triangle with Catherine in Wuthering Heights.]

Movies like Gone with the Wind, succeed because they have a classic narrative structure, that is embodied by stars with chemistry. If you don’t have either the structure or the stars, you don’t have one of these classic movies. You can have one and not the other—story but not chemistry or chemistry not not story–but it takes both to create a Gone with the Wind. Or a Casablanca. Usually a romance story. Titanic. Same story as Shakespeare in Love.

It’s interesting to me that all the film adaptations of possibly the most perfect American novel—The Great Gatsby—have failed. There is a way in which, try as you might, the embodiment of the dream that needs to stay far off, dreamed, that green light. Movies let us down. That’s not Daisy, that’s not Gatsby. But how do you . . .

WHC

But it’s Nick’s story.

MM

[Nodding] . . . but how do you deal with the narrative whole? Yes, Nick tells the story and the hero dies. Unlike Sunset Boulevard for instance where the hero tells the story after he dies. That movie opens with the narrator lying dead in the pool, saying, “You may wonder how I got this way, but let me tell you.}

The Great Gatsby stepped away from the narrative and that’s one reason why it is a deeply flawed film. Often the best films aren’t the best novels. The movie Gone with the Wind is better than its source.

WHC

Did you like Wall-E?

MM

I loved it. Again, it is a fundamentally love story, although it is a story about our human community in relation to the whole world and what we’ve done to destroy it. It’s a remarkable film, holding through over an opening half an hour or more without dialogue. But why you cry in Wall-E? Because of the heroic romantic hero. Wall-E grabs hold of that rocket ship and he goes up in space because of E-va.

Sometimes the things you don’t want to let go of, are the things you should let go of.

WHC

Like Heathcliff, except he’s successful.

MM

.Wall-E is a profoundly socially responsible story about our shared human condition. I think it’s a brilliant movie. He [Wall-E] ends up saving the world. Actually, E-va’s rather like Scarlet.

A Tree Grow in Brooklyn. I don’t remember the film as well, although I remember loving it, in the way I loved Meet Me in St. Louis, another nostalgic film capturing a family.

WHC

The reason I brought it up is sentimentality. It’s very sentimental when viewed from today’s perspective.

MM

Sentimental has been the word we’ve been dancing around through this whole time, and I find myself in a position, in regards to my own work, of defending myself. I say “What does this mean?” Sentiment means to think, to be, to feel.

WHC

To emote.

MM

And now the word, “sentimentality,” is synonymous with maudlin. For an 18th or 19th century writer, saying something was sentimental, or a man had sentiment, would not be . . .

WHC

. . . offensive . . .

MM

. . . not be a negative. It would be descriptive. How did this happen? It happened because increasingly we value detachment from feeling and therefore we love art that maintains distance for us: parodies, satire, alienation from story. Anything that stops that alienation makes you “sentimental.” In fact, what “sentiment” does is create, intensify empathy.

WHC

Isn’t that an interesting[observation]!

MM

We step back from anything that makes you cry as opposed to . . . we respond to our news now, which should make us cry . . . with laughing. Jon Stewart—that’s a news show presented as a comedy [The Daily Show]. Tina Fey brilliant steps forward and shows us Sarah Palin in a way people could laugh—and recognize her as a figure of comedy: “Oh!” It is what Swift brilliantly did—make the reader see the absurdity [Jonathan Swift (1667-1745, satirist, essayist]. It is a marvelous gift.

But the human heart will never stop feeling. The more they feel for others, for the other, the more “sympathy,” the more tolerance.

This movie, “Slumdog Millionaire” for example. It doesn’t seem to start like a romantic comedy; starts with a torture scene. But it is in fact a classic romantic comedy. Its plot is like Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush [1925/1942]. It could be It Happened one night, a Frank Capra movie [1934 comedy]. The boy gets the girl, and the money because he doesn’t care about the money, only the girl.

I’ve given you two examples—sentimental. Chaplin’s films? He wants to make you cry while you’re laughing. A Frank Capra film is almost a synonym for cinematic sentimentality. I think that’s ridiculous. All Capra’s movies bring you to the edge of darkness and then they pull you back, reclaim you. His heroes says, “I’m going to jump off this building, I’m going to jump off this bridge. I can’t stand my life.” Then they learn theirs is a wonderful life. It’s life.

WHC

Would you recommend “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town?”

MM

I love Capra. You know who hated “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”? The U.S. Congress. The US congress was outraged by it because they rightly saw it was really a scathing attack on their good old boy corruption. It was also a movie that was played over and over in Paris during the occupation because of Mr. Smith’s refusal to be defeated by powerful dark forces. He filibustered for something that might [today] be thought sentimental. That in a democracy the government belongs to the people. “I’m going to keep fighting for this lost cause.”

So when I’m told that a novel of mine is sentimental, and I have heard it that often, I say, fine: Sentimental is not a dirty word. Easy sentiment, or hypocritical sentiment, yes, they’re cheap. But we’ve thrown human emotion out with Victorian tears.

The Last Noel ends with the death of the heroine Some readers said, “How can you do that? You made me cry.” And I say “Good. You should also have known from page one that she was going to die. Just like Cathy in Wuthering Heights, she is going to die.”

But somehow we can’t let ourselves feel.

As I said, Slumdog Millionaire, which did just win best picture (Academy Awards, 2009), is very “sentimental.” “He gets the girl because he’s only on the quiz show to find her.”

WHC

She sees him on the TV.

MM

And he gets the money too. Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush.

WHC

And it’s a comedy because it comes out so well. The end scene –all the dancing– is wonderful . . . between the trains.

MM

It is wonderful. And just like in Cinderella on Pride and Prejudice, the girl finds true love. AND he’s a prince. The triumph of comedy.

WHC

I think, over the past hour, we’ve captured your sense of humor, which is one of the reasons I was eager to interview you.

MM

I want to make the reader laugh out loud. And I love it when a reader says he or she was told, “Get out of the bedroom,” by a spouse because he or she was laughing so loudly. But I also want the reader to feel our shared human sorrow and to think our shared human cruelties and injustices.:

To think, while reading Time's Witness, “Maybe it is unfair that African Americans are disproportionately executed in this country. I should think more about that.” I would love it if a reader said, “I’ve changed my mind about the death penalty because I read about it.”

WHC

That’s the enlightenment that prose can deliver.

MM

That’s the epiphany that narrative can give you. Now a poem can give it to you as well. And you asked me in your letter about memoir. A memoir can certainly give it to you.

I do think you’re quite right that there is a way in which memoir is replacing fiction. Memoirs are being written today that would have been constructed as fiction at some point . . . Thomas Wolfe, for example, if were writing today, might have chosen to write “Look Homeward, Angel” as a memoir. Certainly in the novel he didn’t even change some of the real names. And you know those things “really” happened in that dining hall, in that house, just the way he described them.

I think something is lost by writing memoir instead of fiction. There is a way in which readers want [the story] to be true, to have had it happen. And that is used as a selling point.

Comedy is the art of who we are, who we want to be.

WHC

“Taken from a true story!”

MM

“Based on . . .”

WHC

“. . . a real happening.”

MM

Yes.

WHC

That’s an interesting idea. It seems when you’re writing from experience you’re not making a lot of creative choices, and that begins to blunt the dramatic possibilities, it begins to blunt the characterization enhancement—or, I don‘t know, augmentation—but most of all it begins to blunt the meaning, because the meaning is already set. The set enlightenment lacks the advantage of creative choices that intensify meaning.

MM

I use to teach a fiction course at Yale with someone teaching a simultaneous nonfiction course, and we had public readings at term’s end, and we said to the students, don’t say if what you’re reading is fiction or nonfiction. No one could tell: There is always a slide between the two, life and art. The fiction writers will say it really was a true story, and the nonfiction people will say, well, the true story was boring, so I changed it.

WHC

I see. We created a little bit [say the nonfiction people].

MM

We certainly have seen instances where people admitted they have made up their memoirs, or conversely have admitted their fictions were true.

WHC

The key is being effective for the reader.

MM

I think . . . here’s my memoir at age twenty-two, then here’s my memoir at age thirty-two. . .well.

You know, in his twenties Wordsworth wrote an early memoir in “The Prelude” [The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth with a Memoir (1878)]. But he did it in iambic pentameter. And he kept working on it till he died 45 years later.

WHC

Also he had an interesting intellect. But there are too many memoirs today.

MM

There are too many. If you had something sad happen to you in your life, you want to write a memoir about it. You can’t see it yourself unless [you do].

I remember seeing a group of people at the edge of the Grand Canyon; they had taken a Polaroid picture of a little map marker of the Grand Canyon, and they were looking at the Polaroid pictures. So they were three [times] removed from the Grand Canyon; it was as if they couldn’t see the canyon unless they could reduce it to the [pictures of] diagrams.

WHC

It’s such a pleasure to be talking with you about fiction and prose. (NOT SURE WHAT YOU MEAN HERE—THE NOVEL?) It’s such a special [storytelling] medium to be working in. It’s got so much potential.

MM

I do think what you said about limits (endings in narrative art) is crucial, a point I’ll end with: if you follow the characters where they want to go, and if you listen to them, they will take you places you don’t expect. You have to trust in that process. If you try to control it from the outside and put shackles on it, preconditions, or you say, “I have to have X happen by page ten,” or “I have to have the book end by [a certain] page count, “ you will miss hearing things and seeing things. And that’s magic, the absolute trust in the imagination . . . when you’re writing in that way . . . I went back and looked at some of my notebooks and found that always there might be six different adjectives for a dreary day, [but] there would be no changes in the dialogue because I’m hearing the characters speak. I let go of thought. I suspect a sports analogy would be that it’s like a pole vault, and while your vaulting you’re not thinking it’s too fast or too slow, although you are adjusting to those possibilities . .

WHC

I would submit , though, that your story is already created inside you, and you do have direction, and what you are discovering is what you think is the right direction of the story. Because, it does seen, that a writer can create an effective scene if they don’t know what is going to happen at the end of their story. It is so easy to create in [an unstructured] scene events that go against the character and the plot that is so necessary.

MM

Then you go back. And revise. And revise. Over and over, like you pole vault over and over. That’s what I mean. There are hundreds of full from page one on revisions of my books. Everyday you go back and redo what you did before because everyday you know the story better, you know the characters better. So you go “Wait a minute” And revise.

In this novel Uncivil Seasons, this wonderfully outrageous character, Briggs Cadmean, said [to me] about two-thirds through the novel, “How dare you think that I murdered a woman. I would never do that.” Well, I was wrong. I thought he was the murderer. IBut if you just listen, everything’s going to be there in the text, from the opening page on. The end is going to be in the beginning.

What you set up in that first moment, you know that Nick Carraway [in The Great Gatsby]is going to make a moral decision about people we’re going to meet, a decision that is based in his character. It is going to cause him to take an action in the end, and that action is going to be to stand with Gatbsy. to say “You’re worth the whole rotten bunch,” to Gatsby. And then to leave the East because he didn’t want any part of those rich careless people who caused Gatsby’s death. So that first moment when Nick talks to us, what you see in that moment what you will see in the rest of the novel.

WHC

I hear you. Yet in flipping the flapjack, there are many people who let themselves wander though the story because don’t have the inner concrete feeling about the story in general.

MM

Yes.

WHC

I mean, you know the story is there.

MM

And one has a gift for story-telling or one does not. There’s a curious difference between people’s assumptions about the art of writing and others arts. Everyone can talk, everyone who is literate can write; we all do tell stories. And therefore there’s a way in which everyone assumes : I can write. I want to write, so I can write. Because in a sense they can. But everyone does not have the gift.

No one would say, I think I’ll be a great ballet dancer. I’ll be Baryshnikov [Mikhail Baryshnikov, b. 1948, ballet dancer], or I’ll be Pavarotti [Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) operatic tenor], or I’ll be Babe Ruth. I mean, if I try to sound like Pavarotti, you’d run out of this room. So there are gifts . . . writing fiction is both a gift and a craft. That’s what I mean by: you can’t teach it but you can learn it; if you have a gift you can learn how to hone that craft so that you don’t make mistakes that you might otherwise make.

WHC

This brings us to our last question . . . and it’s a tough one. I found as a writer, not just craft, but story too, [that is,] how to affect the reader, that there are very few learning resources. Workshops tend to be ineffective. Academics are not teaching fiction well, especially the intricacies of fiction as we been talking about today. There are very few how to books written that elucidate issues such as the credibility problems in the 1st person, for example. Where can I go? Where would you suggest, as a person with limited time in this world, to go for learning?

MM

You’ve got to read. But not a manual. Then write about characters you love. What are they doing?

Get yourself into a writing group because you have got be heard. You have to have someone who is listening, saying “I don’t know what you meant by that.” or “I got to tell you, I love you, but I got bored [reading that manuscript].” You need a group.

Writing groups—most I’ve heard of are primarily women . . . go off together and they’ll have a wonderful week, and they’ll work in the morning and they’ll read each other’s work. One of the real purposes in going into a writer’s workshop, like Iowa, is that you do get that audience, and you get that moment of sharing material, because it [writing] is a very lonely, isolated life. It’s sort of like kindergarten, you’re left alone when everyone else goes off to school and you’re left alone writing. Also, these groups provide contacts. And there is no use in pretending that writing well is the same as finding agents and publishers. [Authors need contacts] in a world where publishing resources are shrinking; we all need all the help we can get.

WHC

The thrust is, then, to get in groups with people you can trust, and with people you can get to know and who can give you feedback.

MM

And best of all is being around the writers who are doing what you are doing. And being around great readers. I have been quite fortunate in my life to have been married to a literary critic by profession; that’s what she does; she’s very good at it. I used to argue with her but now if she just says “uh ohhh,” I take a deep breath and go back and change it. Sometimes the things you don’t want to let go of are the things you should.

WHC

This has been such a great pleasure.

MM

Wonderful. I’ve enjoyed it.

WHC

I’d like to come back every day!

MM

Neither of us would get any writing done.

WHC

Thank you again.

 


i [Full text of the quote is: “IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”]

ii A sample from Emma, Chapter One:“Sorrow came — a gentle sorrow — but not at all in the shape of any disagreeable consciousness. Miss Taylor married. It was Miss Taylor's loss which first brought grief. It was on the wedding-day of this beloved friend that Emma first sat in mournful thought of any continuance. The wedding over and the bride-people gone, her father and herself were left to dine together, with no prospect of a third to cheer a long evening. Her father composed himself to sleep after dinner, as usual, and she had then only to sit and think of what she had lost.”

iii "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." Chekhov, in a letter November, 1889. The concept of Chekhov's gun comes from Anton Chekhov who said any object introduced in a story must be used later on, or else it should not be introduced in the first place.


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One Response to “Interview – Michael Malone”

  1. coffee bags Says:

    helpful post.

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