Interview: Michael Clayton on "Dead Roosters" and Tales from the American South
"Plots and genres pulled me in, and I rode them like roller coasters." - M. Clayton
Dead Roosters and Other Stories – recently published by Lavender Ink – is a striking collection of hardscrabble lives and dreams deferred. When I read Michael Clayton's debut collection Larry Brown came to mind. In fact, bestselling author Amanda Boyden (I Got the Dog) compares him to Flannery O'Connor and Breece D'J Pancake.
And one can see why. Brown, O'Connor, and Pancake all concentrate on the desperate and the dangerous and the disappointed. Their short stories possess a jaundiced eye and boundless sympathy for their characters, and they set their stories in the great American south.
Clayton's writing riffs on these similarities, with dialogue, image, action muscular and finely observed. He knows what he's writing about, whether it's the way a cockfight plays out or the ache in the lower back of a woman just trying to make it to the end of an endless day at the local Loewe's distribution center.
Dead Roosters is deeply satisfying literature. So, I was happy for the chance to ask the author about his work, its origins, what's influenced him, the writing life, and life in general in 2020.
You can buy Dead Roosters here.
Trueself: With Dead Roosters, you take the reader on a thrilling ride through Laurel County. Your characters are unforgettable. The dialogue is fresh and lively. Where did you find these people?
Michael Clayton: As so many better writers have already pointed out, the south is a difficult place. It's often beautiful and sweet. It can be ugly and hard, as well.
But the south is my home.
The south and its people have inspired and frustrated me to no end. My characters come from wondering about this place and the people who live here, from trying to work out the relationship between us and our environments, us and our histories.
Perhaps I see someone do something interesting or mundane or comical or infuriating, and I try to imagine why that happens. Or I meet someone amazing or touching or awful, and I wonder about them.
How could this man turn out like he did? How could this girl be anything but what she is? What in the Sam Hill was he thinking when that happened?
It's complete presumption on my part, but it's well-intentioned presumption.
I look and listen; and above all, I try to treat my imaginary folks like real people, whether I like them or not.
When did you know you were a writer?
I'm not sure I ever did know. I still struggle with the idea of calling myself a writer. I'm not sure what's up with that. I wrote a few stories as far back as my teens, but I rarely showed them to anyone. As I hit my twenties, I had a typewriter at a desk in my basement, and I pecked away but still kept it to myself.
I remember reading Rilke's famous letters during that time, and he said something to the effect of If you can live without writing, then you are not a writer. I thought that, in many respects, life was easier without writing, so I must not be a writer. But I kept doing it.
I was in my thirties before I actually felt like a writer. I'd started teaching high school in 1999. One of those first summer vacations, I decided I was going to actually establish a routine and try to live like a writer. I spent the next two months working six days a week, and I finished my first feature-length screenplay - a small-town detective story.
I try to focus on what I know that I can do. I can read, study, and learn, and I'm willing to put in the work. I can live with that.
Author Michael Clayton
What's your quintessential writing routine?
When I write, I talk out loud sometimes. I like to actually say the words and hear the rhythms, especially when it comes to dialogue.
And I'm definitely a morning person when it comes to writing. The largest portion of my fiction work has been done between 3am and 7am. I put on a pot of coffee - I drink a lot of coffee. I'm not particularly finicky, but I do like the stillness of that time of the morning.
What book changed your life?
I've been a reader since a friend gave me The Hobbit in the seventh grade. I read all the time, but it was for enjoyment. Fantasy. Science Fiction. Mysteries. Plots and genres pulled me in, and I rode them like roller coasters.
The Razor's Edge was the first novel to show me that the best stories are about people. I really did go on a spiritual journey with the novel's protagonist, Larry Darrell. Because I felt so similar to Larry, I read it again and again. And with subsequent readings, I fell for the other characters as well, even the ones I didn't like.
After reading that novel, I wanted more. More people. More living. Dying. Feeling. All that.
From that point on, reading wasn't only about entertainment.
Who are three writers who've influenced your work?
Ernest Hemingway: Eventually, I became a fanboy when it comes Hemingway's short stories. But - being completely honest - the most important thing that Hemingway did for me as a writer was his most obvious and possibly least relevant quality: his writing vocabulary.
While Faulkner famously insulted this aspect of Hemingway's writing, the simplicity of his language let me try to be a writer. I'm a bit self-conscious about my own working vocabulary, but seeing what Hemingway accomplished with basic tools was an inspiration.
Flannery O'Connor: 'Nuff said?
Harper Lee: I've been reading To Kill a Mockingbird to/with high school students for 20 years now. Her language. Her rhythm. I can't write it, but I hear that rhythm in my head so often that I'm sure its gravity affects most of what I do put into words.
And I know my stories are, in many ways, attempts to follow Atticus Finch's most important piece of advice: "You never really know someone until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
What's in your bookbag?
With my classes at school, I'm re-reading The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. I've no idea how many times I've read those over the years, but I do read them along with the kids, and I still enjoy them. Every time.
At home, I'm bouncing between News of the World by Paulette Jiles and Ernest Cline's Ready Player Two.
In your bio, you mention that you were "born in Carrollton, GA on the last day of the 60s." Has that decade influenced your work in any way?
The films of the 1960s have had a great impact on me. Not at the time, of course. But later, when I started watching and studying film as an undergrad. Thematically and stylistically, I'm drawn to the Hollywood Renaissance.
Without question, I've been influenced by Kubrick and Altman and Nichols and Penn and many others of that generation.
It's raw and rough at times, but highly artistic. For a brief period, some of the greatest filmmakers were given liberty to do what they wanted.
They used their films to challenge and to accuse, and they rarely granted us happy endings. The world as it was represented in many of those films seemed True to me. Seems, I should say.
You wrote the screenplay for The Dunning Man, based on a short story by Kevin Fortuna. How was it adapting someone else's work? And you directed it!?! Any war stories?
The Dunning Man story was someone else's darling. At the beginning of the process, I didn't have the emotional attachments that I would've had with one of my stories where I'm hesitant to make major changes for fear of breaking something.
With Dunning, I could dispassionately study the story and the characters and move pieces or see opportunities that I might have missed had the story been in my mind the whole time.
Couple that with the fact that Kevin gave me a great deal of freedom to develop as a screenplay. He didn't demand complete allegiance. He let me work, and then we discussed. Luckily, we jived at almost every turn.
Directing The Dunning Man film was a, no sh*t, Dream Come True. I hate to utter such a cliché, but I wanted to make movies when I was seven-years-old.
But by the time Dunning came along. It was by far the most difficult thing I've ever done, but I loved it. And I am so very proud of the film we managed to make.
Regarding war stories . . . we filmed in New Orleans and Atlantic City, so yes. There are war stories. We'll leave it at that.
The Dunning Man - Official US Trailer www.youtube.com
Now that Dead Roosters has been published, what's cooking in your literary kitchen?
As a high school teacher, school was out due to the COVID pandemic. So, I finished a draft of a novel. It's an outlandish genre mash-up, completely different from the stories in this collection. But it was a fun distraction to have during these bizarre, often frightening times.
I've had a few ideas percolating over the last couple of months, but one is now catching my interest over the others. It's about a southern family with issues. Big surprise, right? I plan to start work on it early next year. We'll see how it goes.
Michael Clayton was born in Carrollton, Georgia. While earning his BA in literature and film at Georgia State University, he worked as a deputy sheriff at the local county jail. An acclaimed screenwriter, he directed and wrote the screenplay adaptation for The Dunning Man (2018). Clayton has lived in Alabama and Texas but now calls Tallapoosa, Georgia home.
Honor Molloy is the author of Smarty Girl - Dublin Savage and the award-winning plays Crackskull Row and Round Room.