Me: What made you pen down The Vanishing Point?
Michael: My original idea was to have a main character who had sort of drifted away from everyone in his life (I’ll say more about this in the “title” question) and was living a flat existence in an East Coast town where he knew almost no one. I wanted to give him an emotionally wrought backstory history rooted in Santa Fe, NM (because my parents retired there and I got to know the town well, though when I began writing this, I was living in NYC). My original idea was he had a wife who disappeared and a daughter who is 10 who he hasn’t seen in 8 years, she lives with his wife’s parents in Santa Fe. Then I needed to get him to Santa Fe, which wasn’t necessarily easy since his time there 8 years before had been so painful emotionally, he never wanted to return. But I came up with an idea (his Midwestern cousin who suffers from chronic illness asks for his help in harvesting a patch of marijuana and in return, the cousin gives him a big chunk of it and the only person in the world Henry knows who might be able to buy it from him lives in Santa Fe).
So once I got him to Santa Fe, I was still enamoured of this idea where Henry considers introducing himself to his daughter but decides it’s in everyone’s best interest not to be in touch with her. Like he makes what he thinks is a moral decision not to intrude on her life and I wanted the book to be on his side in this.
Then I started writing chapters from the daughter Cadence’s POV and that ended up opening up a lot of ideas. For one, once I gave her a personality, it became impossible to consider not getting my two most vivid characters together. So the book became about Henry’s slow and often halting attempts to get to know her. And we get to see what she thinks of him as well. This became the heart of the book.
But it also opened up something else. I had a whole alternating flashback narrative about two twin boys living in the Midwest (the town and the landscape and such is very much like where I grew up in Northern Indiana and part of what I wanted to do was re-create a place that seemed magical to my 10 year old self) and how perplexing they were to their parents. When one of them dies in a tragic accident, the family splinters and Henry, the remaining twin, does everything he can to distance himself from his parents and any memory of his beloved twin brother. But now that I had two similar elements — Cadence the daughter at 10 and Henry losing his brother at the same age — I started working on building meanings between those two things. Henry was forcibly separated from his brother at 10 and here he is coming back into his daughter’s life when she’s the same age. As part of this, I built the idea that Henry as a young boy whose brother was dead became completely immersed in the idea of reincarnation and the only way for him to get through the grief was to imagine his brother being reborn at some point. And while the present day Henry hasn’t thought about reincarnation in two decades or more, hanging around with Cadence, he starts imagining that it’s possible his brother was reborn in her.
As an idea, this is something I wanted to suggest more than dive in to and it does come up late in the book but I never wanted it to be a huge plot point. More like Henry brings it up, Cadence thinks he’s nutty and doesn’t get it because she’s 10 and she’s still getting to know her father, and I leave it there.
And I knew I wanted to end the book with Henry’s mother. She’s a character in all the flashback scenes and has some presence in the present as well, but by the present day, she’s in her 70s, her husband is long dead and they were divorced besides, she likes to drink and smoke and she misses Henry but he’s still bitter about how his parents treated him. So I wanted there to be at least the hint of a reconciliation by the end, just one small step towards a sense that Henry understands how hard it was to be her all these years. And that’s where I end the book.
Me: What made you settle on this title?
Michael: The original thought was that Henry the main character had reached a point in his life where he’s essentially vanished. He’s not homeless, he’s not a drunk or a drug addict, he lives a regular life working and paying bills, but he has no contact with his ex-wife, his mother or his child, and lives in a town in New Hampshire where he knows no one. I really liked the idea of creating a character who actually goes right up to the edge of oblivion before finding a way to pull himself back. And when I say oblivion, I don’t mean in some over-dramatized drug addict/drunk/suicide way, I wanted to explore how easy it is to drift away from all human connection. Thus, The Vanishing Point.
Of course it’s not so easy. For one, there’s the (sort of) famous counterculture movie from 1971, Vanishing Point, which for me made my title a non-starter. So I spent some time on different titles. But my sister’s reaction was, “Don’t be stupid, no one knows about that movie.” My response was everyone knows that movie, I ran with kind of a cinephile crowd then, and there was literally no one in that group who hadn’t heard of that movie. So I did some informal research at the Upper East Side college where I worked, asking people about the movie. Not a single person had ever heard of it. So when Cactus Moon took the book, I settled back on that title.
And I’m mostly happy with the title in terms of theme and such, but in the grand scheme, after I signed the contract with Cactus Moon, I started seeing a lot of other books with more or less the same title and that has occasionally given me pause. But I’m a big fan of the cover art and I think the title looks good in that context. That’s no small thing.
Me: You have been teaching creative writing for a long time. Do you follow the rules of it to a T when writing you are actually writing a novel?
Michael: I tend to now, but I wrote the first draft of this before I’d taught as many fiction writing classes as I have. I was definitely teaching but teaching at my college in NYC (Marymount Manhattan College) and in person for Gotham Writer’s Workshop. It wasn’t until I started teaching online that I really piled up the classes taught (some 150 classes in 18 years). I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t approach (for example) POV in quite the same way today. It’s not that the POV in The Vanishing Point is wrong in any fiction writing convention way, but my approach then was much more instinctual than it would be today.
On the other hand, after Cactus Moon accepted the book, I did a thorough tightening pass where I ended up losing four whole pages just by losing the occasional word or phrase I didn’t need and in that, I really fell back on what I teach in classes, which is essentially a more nuanced version of “tighten, tighten, tighten.” My mantra in revising it the last time was, every single word has to bring something to the party and it if does not, why keep it? And that’s a guiding principle for how I teach fiction writing as well.
Me: What should readers expect from this book?
Michael: I remember the first time as an adult I really got choked up over a piece of writing (now to be clear, I have no doubt that my teenaged self got a little weepy when reading The Lord of the Rings over and over or Call of the Wild, but as an adult, this is what I remember). It was the title story of Joy Williams’ collection “Taking Care,” the last story in the book. It’s a moment where the narrator Jones the preacher walks with his beloved, ailing wife (who has been hospitalized for the entire story) into their house together. It’s hard to explain how moving it is, but I wanted moments like that in my book where through language and description, I’m able to tap into that kind of emotion without ever being melodramatic.
But I also think there’s a lot of humor in the book, Henry is an articulate, verbal narrator and Cadence his daughter is funny and sweet-spirited. And the whole flashback scene to Henry and his brother growing up in an almost mythic Midwest is vivid and lively. I tried to keep the style conversational so it’s a pleasing read with moments of lyricism.
And finally I think there’s something universal in Henry. I’ve known a lot of people like him, really bright, articulate people who have lost some sense of self, who have lost their way. For Henry, that loss is deeply tied into his childhood, and his journey is in a lot of ways a search for an identity he can live with, but it’s deeply tied into who he was, what he’s done, and who he would like to be. And that seems a universal feeling, that desire to understand oneself.
Me: Would you consider yourself as memory hoarder?
Michael: Not in any OCD kind of way really, but my computer is full of MS Word docs that if you open them are essentially the description of a single image I remember or something that happened to me that I’ve forgotten and want to write about some time. But I haven’t found any systematic way to organize all these. I have a folder on my computer called “Individual Indiana tales” and they’re simply a collection of half started stories and ideas. I’ll give you an example. When I was a teenager (maybe 16), a group of friends and I drove to the middle of the state where someone’s grandmother lived. She had a small house on her property she wanted to tear down. We were like two girls, three boys and she gave us one pair of gloves and five hammers. That was what we tore the house down with, one board at a time. And we had to switch the one pair of gloves when it came time to drag the splintery wood to the dumpster. Of course being teenagers, we got stoned and drunk on site and spent a lot of time dancing around to Led Zeppelin. I’ve always thought there’s a great story in there, but I’ve never really found it. That said, there’s something pleasing to me about this story idea, the low-tech nature of tearing down an entire house with just a hammer. The writer in me sees an analogy to writing. There’s something pleasingly low-tech about writing, you really only need a pen and a pad of paper to write.
And it is a memory I’m hoarding. I have a lot of these kinds of memories and for a long time, was certain I’d get around to them. Now I’m less certain.
Me: Do you have a writing schedule?
Michael: Short answer no, long answer…uh…no. I used to. Not a schedule so much but for close to 20 years, I sat down every night no matter what and wrote. I could only really write late night, often starting after 10 pm and going to bed by 1 or 2 am. But teaching online means you are essentially able to work all the time (there’s always another exercise or story to comment on) and it’s sapped a lot of the energy that used to go into my writing. I’m a big fan of schedules and in a perfect world where I didn’t have to work full time AND teach online to survive, I can easily imagine setting specific times every day and sitting down to it.
Me: What do you like to do in your free time?
Michael: Being from Indiana, I’ve been playing pickup basketball since I was five years old and up to Covid, was still playing. I had a regular noon-time game at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan for 16 years. My dad only stopped playing in his mid 70s after violently breaking his nose during a game. We have a photo of my grandmother in 1913 with her basketball team only 18 years after the game was invented so I guess the game is deeply embedded in my family.
And I have a fat tire bike and try to ride the dirt trails in the bosque on either side of the Rio Grande River as much as I can.
And like a lot of people, when working from home because of Covid, I planted a lot of stuff in my yard (trees and shrubs) and did a bunch of landscaping, though for whatever reason, I still can’t keep the weeds under control.
Me: Are there any new projects underway?
Michael: I wrote a book-length memoir about New York City in the early 80s in general and the Gansevoort Meatpacking district specifically. New York in the early 80s was a very different place (dirtier, scarier, more dangerous and more exciting) and the meatpacking district (today a place of high end restaurants and the amazing new Whitney museum, along with the High Line park) was like the wild west, with drunks, drug addicts, Jersey mobsters, violence prone tweekers in a part of town known for the heavy leather S&M gay bars (club goers would often be coming out at 4 am when our day was just starting, it was a fascinating clash of two all-male worlds). It was lively in every way possible and I tried to recreate a very specific time in a very specific place in one of the world’s great cities, a time and place so long gone, you can’t really imagine it today. This book has been done for some time and the publishing world has stubbornly resisted it so far.
I’ve started a new novel that will have dystopic elements (the country has split into two countries based on politics, the small Midwestern college town where the story is set is trapped in the new “red state” country) and my main character is a woman with a shady past who becomes the defacto police chief after all the actual cops flee the town because of its “blue state” leanings. It’s still in an early phase, but I wanted something where I could write action, create mysteries to be solved, etc.
Michael Backus’ writing, fiction and non-fiction, has appeared in One Story, Exquisite Corpse, Channel magazine, Digging Through the Fat, Okey Panky, Redbird chapbooks, Cleaver, Oyster River Pages, Prime Number magazine, Hanging Loose, and The Sycamore Review, among others. His novel The Vanishing Point was published in October, 2021 by Cactus Moon publications. He teaches creative writing for Gotham Writer’s Workshop and Zoetrope Magazine and lives in Albuquerque, NM.
Check out more of Michael’s work
Coney on the Moon, a stand alone chapbook short story: https://michaeljbackus.com/coney-on-the-moon/
Distant Smoke, a memoir piece published in Channel Magazine out of Ireland. Channel is print-only, but here’s a link to the YouTube launch, if you scroll to the 41 minute, 30 second mark, you can see me reading three minutes of the piece. https://youtu.be/vFTAEkNkn8o
Various links to published stories: https://michaeljbackus.com/stories-and-articles/
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