“I sipped my ice water like a martyr. The ballast to all of it, of course—the thing that kept me from contentment—was envy. I was jealous of everybody, for everything. I was jealous of the couple for their house, their jobs, their drinks, each other. I was jealous of Bors for his skills, his apartment, his confidence to get controversial tattoos and play controversial songs. I was jealous of Lilah for her tired, lived-in life, which at least suggested a sort of thick-skinned competence.”
—from “Pat’s, Geno’s”, Fall 2017 (Volume 58, Issue 3)
What other professions have you worked in?
I was a dishwasher for a catering company for a couple years, which is something I share with the protagonist of “Pat’s, Geno’s.” Then, I was in charge of documenting incidents of vandalism for a property management company for a little while. That was the basis for another story I wrote. I write book reviews now, and promotional blogs, and standardized test questions. Having a lot of little random jobs used to make you interesting, I think, but now it's true of pretty much everyone I know.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I always wanted to be a writer. But in my fantasy of it, it was more substantive. I thought that I would have an office. And more of an income.
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first short stories I wrote were just vignettes. I had written poetry before that, so I knew how to assemble a setting and a concept and a motif in a slightly interesting way, but I had no idea how to handle plot. I thought plot and character dynamism were just there to entertain readers who got bored easily, and that serious readers didn’t need them. Which is silly. Those things are difficult because they’re so essential to fiction. But it’s easy, in the beginning, to come up with reasons why your work doesn’t need those difficult things.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I have some friends who I sometimes send work to. But I put a lot of stock in the idea that a writer needs to be his own editor, though, and that he should develop the confidence in himself to get his work to a professional state on his own. The first person to read “Pat’s, Geno’s” is the staffer who took it out of the MR slush pile.
What inspired you to write this piece?
When you’re trying to make a lot of art about Philadelphia, you eventually have to figure out how to contend with the cheesesteak, which is Philadelphia’s greatest cultural export but also a pretty inglorious fast food item. So this story is my attempt to come at the cheesesteak head-on and try to find some profundity in it. It was kind of a personal challenge: to write a story that ends with the protagonist hurling a half-eaten cheesesteak through his ex-girlfriend’s bedroom window, and to have that moment feel poignant and emotionally significant.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Almost all of my work is set in Philadelphia. Most of it deals with the specific culture and landscape of Philadelphia, which is a very large, very old city, but for various reasons it doesn’t have a sizable footprint in American culture. And while Philadelphians love their city as much as New Yorkers or Chicagoans or Bostonians do, most Philadelphians also kind of hate it at the same time, which makes for an interesting civic dynamic. There’s a rich history of acrimony here, which should theoretically inspire good fiction.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I don’t listen to music when I write. The only music I could ever listen to was the self-titled American Football album from 1999. I have a friend for whom this is also true. I’m not sure what it is about that album, but it’s conducive to writing in a way that others are not.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I’ve started changing the font and alignment of my stories for the editing process. I write in Times New Roman, left aligned, like you’re supposed to, but when it comes time to edit I change the font to Libre Baskerville and switch to justified alignment. It alters the look of the document just enough to create some distance between me and the work. That sounds boring, but I get pretty excited about it.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on a linked story collection, of which “Pat’s, Geno’s” is a part. The stories are all narrated by the same character, Denis Monk, and they all take place in South Philadelphia during the summer and fall of 2015.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I think printmaking, maybe? Linocuts and woodcuts. I’ve tried it, though, and it’s very difficult. But it seems like something that could be sort of calming, once you get good at it. I like the idea that I could listen to podcasts and music while I worked on prints. I can’t do that while writing.
MICHAEL DEAGLER'S fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review Online, New England Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and elsewhere. He is a 2016–2017 fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA.