Interview With The Author: Michael Kardos
by John Dwaine McKenna
With many thanks, our interview this week is with Michael Kardos, the Pushcart Prize- winning author of Bluff, who holds degrees from Princeton, Ohio State, and the University of Missouri. He lives in Mississippi, where he teaches creative writing at Mississippi State. Somehow, he’s also found the time to write three other novels, a story collection and a text book. A world-class achiever if the MBR has ever seen one! Let’s get right to it.
What makes a character compelling?
Often, it isn’t that a character is innately compelling. Rather, the story takes place on the day that happens to be the most important—and stressful—of a character’s life: the day the character has to make decisions that can never be unmade and do things he or she never thought possible. Another way of say this is that compelling characters aren’t passive observers. They act! They make a scene, both figuratively and literally.
Agreed . . . but it brings to mind another question:
Do you use humor in your work?
Yes, finally, after three novels! I had been shy about using humor because, after all, I’m writing about serious crimes, and the last thing I want is for the humor to minimize the gravity of what I’m writing about. Yet the subject matter of Bluff—professional magic and high-stakes poker—allowed me to introduce characters who have a darkly comic edge. So the humor felt organic to the material.
Does your style make use of adjectives and adverbs?
Common writing advice is to edit out adjectives and adverbs to make room for better nouns and verbs. Leaner and meaner and all that. For the most part, I buy it. On the other hand, Denis Johnson wrote this sentence about a man dying at a car wreck: “He was still alive, still dreaming obscenely.” That’s from his story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”—just seven words, and three are adverbs! So really it’s a matter of knowing your tools and being able to use them.
A subject we could talk about for a long time, because it’s complicated, as your example from Denis Johnson points out, the word “still” is also a noun, a verb, and an adjective, so let’s go on to the next question:
Where do you get most, some, or any your story ideas from?
My fiction often draws on bits of experience—music with my first novel, magic with this latest one—but the material marinates a long, long time, usually a decade or more, before I can figure out how write about it.
Do you plot-outline or wing it?
With short stories, I often wing it. For a novel, which can take years, I want to be more confident I’m on firm footing. For me, that means trying to give the book a solid foundation: a beginning, middle, and end, plus a few moments along the way that spin the story in a new and unexpected direction. Still, I try not to outline too much, because I want to leave plenty of room for discovery.
Others we’ve interviewed choose to wing it because they never know where the story will end up. It’s why we ask the question, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.
What type of scene is most difficult for you to write?
Crowd scenes. As it happens, they’re the most difficult for me to live, too. Still, sometimes we just have to throw ourselves into large groups. I do my best.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
Re-read some of your favorite stories and novels with obsessive attention to how they are made at every level: the sentence, the scene, the broader structure.
Thanks again for your time today and please keep us informed of your next project.
Hopefully in less than ten years! Just kidding. Last question:
Where could you be reached on the World Wide Web?
Michael Kardos is the author of the novels Bluff, Before He Finds Her, and The Three-Day Affair, an Esquire best book of 2012, as well as the story collection One Last Good Time, which won the Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters Award for fiction, and the textbook The Art and Craft of Fiction: A Writer’s Guide. His short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Harvard Review, and many other magazines and anthologies, and have won a Pushcart Prize. Michael grew up on the Jersey Shore, received a degree in music from Princeton University, and played the drums professionally for a number of years. He has an M.F.A. in fiction from The Ohio State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. He lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where he is an associate professor of English and co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.