Review of Scenic Utah by Mike Bahl
with author interview
by Valerie Valentine
I’ve never met Mike Bahl. We became friends when I published Acid Trip and Carbohydrate Coma, two of his stories, in a chapbook collaboration with his friend Wes Tank for a publishing festival in Milwaukee. I expressed admiration for Mike’s writing and offered to be his early reader and editor. He’s become one of my favorite contemporary writers and has reinforced the idea in my mind that some of the best writers today are not being published traditionally.
When I read Mike’s work (these stories and three-plus as yet unpublished novels), I always find it resonant in an honest, candid, uncensored way. I like his treatment of setting and think it’s central to his style. In particular, his Milwaukee stories are vibrant to me in that I lived there, too. Several locations across the U.S. are featured in Scenic Utah, which makes it a kind of travelogue: Riverwest, Oakland, Graeagle, and the title state.
Along with Wes, I wanted to show other people how cool these stories are, and thus, Scenic Utah was collected from various places (remember MySpace?) and put together to be released under the collective self-publishing moniker of Remedy Ink, which consists at this point of work by myself, Mike, Wes and our amigos.
Our process was this: I read his work, offered copyedits and comments, and Mike worked hard to revise the crap outta them. Several iterations of a couple stories came down the line. A few that were rewritten became a different experience each time. I admired the way Mike was able to kill his darlings in many cases and trim stories without regrets in a ruthless way, that myself as a ‘precious’ poet could never do (though as an editor, I like to think that I can comment objectively on others’ work).
We spent time considering the order of the stories. I am not sure how many rounds we went with the collection. It came to our attention that we had to build the tension with each story up to a plateau; it felt like it was the natural order of things.
My favorite story changed from each reading. Today I fixate on the dying dog story, the anger inside it, because that is how I feel since my canine companion has died. The Microwave Burrito Incident is, to me, forever great because of how he wrote the girl’s point of view: it’s so much wacky assumption of what a girl thinks, but awkwardly accurate I feel. I got into the Riverwest story, which like many stories, includes plenty of fact as well as fiction.
The editing process for me was a slow simmer. It took a long time. I felt completely overwhelmed by the design, and so handed it over to Mike to finish it, which he did with painstaking patience, helpful when I was pulling my hair out over margins and bad breaks. I love to focus on content though appreciate good design. He mentioned the hard copy looks “cared for” and I agree.
The irony I sensed on the first read snuck into the psyche, and became so absorbed by me that now the book is a wholly different experience, but one I could still read again and again. Which to me is a sure sign that I did well to follow my instincts with helping Mike get this out there.
Mike kindly agreed to answer a few questions about himself and the book for me and for you.
What is your writing bio?
The first thing I ever wrote was for a mystery contest in fourth or fifth grade. I don’t remember what the story was, but I remember my heartbreak surrounding the story. There was something like a 500 word limit on the story, which is incredibly short in actuality, but the number 500 seems very large to a young person. My first draft was probably around triple the allowed word count. After a full night of editing, I managed to winnow it down. My dad typed it on our typewriter and we sent it in, even though I knew such a shortened version of my genius would never win the contest. It did not. I was crestfallen. I was ripped off, an unrecognized genius of my time.
After this, I literally wrote small stories and kept them beneath my underwear in a drawer. I also do not remember any of these. I’m sure I had documentation of all this at some point and made a conscious decision to throw it all away, but I’d still like to see some of these.
Then came everyone’s bad high school poetry. These were too literal and wordy to really be called poetry. And yeah, someone like Bukowski is generally pretty literal, but concise, which I certainly was not.
Enough with this bullshit. I’d say I truly started writing during my sophomore year of college. I was still in the tail end of my poetry period and I took a creative writing course to go nurture this passion (ugh). This is where the initial draft of “The Microwave Burrito Incident” was written, inside the confines of this class. The professor really enjoyed my work. He said I should continue to write, could make something of myself in this particular field, but would have to have another job as well, as no one makes good money as a writer. This was pretty much when I decided to drop out of college to write. I figured if I would have to have a second job, I may as well be a janitor and not go into massive financial ruin in order to follow my passion. That didn’t work out so well for around ten years, but I’m mostly stable now. This isn’t about me though, it’s about writing.
So I did. I dropped out of college and wrote whenever the feeling struck me. I had no real regimen, no real plan, but dammit, I was a writer. At least I called myself one. Not much actual work came out of this period. But I did cultivate a great writerly image. This means I was a drunk.
Which pretty much brings us up to now, where I am an actual writer and work every day and produce some terrible content and some not so terrible content.
The answer to this question is already entirely too long and I haven’t even answered the second part yet.
I like to pretend I don’t have influences, but of course I do. Everyone does. It’s hard for me to pinpoint them for the most part, but I think there’s probably a comp in Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis for these particular stories. I was reading a fair amount of their work in my early twenties and there’s a certain nihilistic male violence/anger that rolls through the stories of Scenic Utah. But, for the most part, the biggest influences on these stories were cheap beer and poor life decisions.
Is this your first book project? How did the book idea come about?
This is the first thing I’ve done that could rightly be called a book. I’ve done a few things that are closer to zines, though zines are usually more personal, less fictional, so I don’t exactly fit in there either.
It wasn’t my idea to do this collection. I had all these stories stored in a file on my flash drive (not even on my hard drive) in a folder titled “Probably Suck.” They do not suck, but they did need some tweaking and I’m a self-loathing person by nature, so their lack of perfection meant they were terrible and by extension, I was terrible as well. I was approached by Remedy Ink (which, full disclosure, is you and my friend WC Tank) with the idea, already titled and everything. It took a little persuading and a lot of editing, but I agreed. That was five years ago. Writing is a sort of solitary pursuit that couldn’t possibly be done without other people. Like masturbation (it’s not like you’re sitting there thinking of/watching yourself, right?).
Why are you self-publishing?
Because publishing companies are scary. Because there are a million guidebooks to submitting stories to journals and publishing companies, but there’s no real guidebook. It isn’t like assembling a shelf. It’s a crapshoot. Because I don’t understand how the publishing industry works. Because I grew up punk rock and DIY til I die. [Mike discusses this issue in depth here.]
What is your writing process like?
For these stories? Have something shitty happen to me (or get drunk and cause something shitty to happen to myself) and then deal with it through writing. These stories came in spurts. There was no wake up every morning and write for two hours then go back and edit for one hour, no matter what. There was no process, only raw emotion funneled through ink. After the first drafts, that’s where process came in. Where I would edit until I couldn’t look at the screen any longer every morning.
Now? Generally speaking, I’m a morning writer. There’s a sweet spot where I’ve had a cup of coffee and just begun on my second. I’m awake, but not overly clouded with thoughts. That’s where the best work gets done. But I’ll write whenever I can. I’m mostly disciplined and do something, whether it’s write or edit, most every day. I was more disciplined not too long ago and would punish myself for missing a day, but now I afford myself weekends and time off and try to enjoy this thing that I’m supposed to be doing because I’m passionate about it.
I don’t outline projects, but do have something of a thought cloud in my head before I begin. I ruminate on a project for a while before I start. I write down lines that could work within the confines of the project. Events that these characters may participate in. Character traits. It’s a sloppy mess that I then pick from over the course of writing the piece. I see where the characters take me and try my best to capture what they do.
What characterizes your style?
Is fuck you a style? Is anger and inadequacy a style? I feel wholly unequipped to answer this question. Not just about myself, but in general. It’d be difficult for me to answer this about Raymond Carver, who certainly has a distinct style. There’s nothing overly complex about the way I write. But it’s not Amy Hempel stripped down either. Fairly direct, but I can get a little gushy with some of of metaphors and similes as well. How about this? I try to be up front with the reader about what is going on. I try to be as honest as I possibly can. I try to cut right to the inner truth of every word.
How do you feel about sharing your stories for the first time?
Scared shitless. I’ve put a lot of time and a lot of myself into these stories. I know some people will not love my stories, but I don’t know how that will make me feel. I can’t think of anything to truly comparable to this feeling. The closest I have is this: If you thought a woman was attractive and honestly in your heart thought the best way to express this and see if she was interested in you was to walk up to her and pull your dick out (push out the humorous feeling you’re getting right now because there’s no humor in this comparison), that’s what this feels like. Revealing something completely hidden and private and praying that you’ll love me for it even though I know it’s inadequate and isn’t enough for you.
Any hints about future projects?
I always have about six projects in mind at once, but only one that I’m actively engaged with. Since Scenic Utah is wrapped up, I’m either writing a three-part novel or one epic novel. I’m not sure yet. I’m somewhere around two-thirds of the way through what we’ll call a first draft. It may turn out that only one of these parts is worth anything in the long run. Who knows? I have something like an outline in my head, but I’m not through and it may take a very abrupt turn on me, so I hesitate to give any sort of plot summary here. It’s centered around the vibrancy of youth. On the knowledge that you are young and nothing bad can truly happen to you because you are invincible and have never seen anyone die, have not felt death creep through your knees when you try to stand up. On being quite certain that every breath you take is changing the world. On harnessing all that to create a perfect world.