Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with Michael A. Greco, the author of The Cuckoo Colloquium: Getting Lost to Find Yourself.
FQ: What is it like to travel to other regions of the world? Is it from your travels that your ideas for books come about?
GRECO: I’ve lived in Japan, off and on, for twenty-five years. Because of its location, the country has served as a convenient springboard off into other areas of Asia. The Cuckoo Colloquium comes from several visits to Indonesia and Malaysia.
My third book, Plum Rains on Happy House, is all about the Japan experience—the distinctive culture and the puzzling language (as seen by an adult trying to learn it).
A big part of my fourth book, Project Purple, comes from my experiences living in Russia (then the Soviet Union) as a student in the 80s.
Two other books are uniquely American, where I try to dig into the roots of American culture: Moon Dogg, my second book, is a story about a man’s murder in the Sonora Desert and his subsequent reincarnation, though the spirituality of Moon Dogg comes largely from the legends of the Tohono O’odham Nation who live there.
My latest project, Assunta, (books 5, 6, 7) takes place in south Texas, and is a three-part trilogy about a man who comes to believe in the divine. It’s a physical and spiritual journey from the gates of Hell to the highest portion of Heaven. The story is built on a framework of references to the great poem “The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri. There are three books: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. I’ve just finished Book 3, and will publish them in one-month intervals, starting in early March with the first Book, Assunta: Inferno (though a preliminary copy of Inferno is up now on Amazon)
So, yes, I am influenced by my environment to some degree, but the stories I want to tell about the human condition can take place anywhere. There’s no getting the American-ness out of me.
FQ: On the same note, is there one “most memorable” location that you literally can’t stop thinking about; one that perhaps inspires you each day?
GRECO: Tough question. I know I’m still drawn to the rain forest, and that’s probably the reason why I believe the Cuckoo Colloquium, as a story, still has plenty of gasoline; I will take the characters from books I and 2 back to the rainforest to explore what generates the cuckoo shrike as a force of magic, and how it all began.
I have lasting impressions of a time I spent in Tibet, and I’m hoping to use that as a background for a future story, as well as the rain forest of New Guinea. But I’m just as drawn to the Sonora and to the cultures of Native Americans; I believe they hold as much rich mystery as any place on Earth that I’ve traveled to.
FQ: You have an amazing background, both living in Asia, and teaching writing in a university there. Are your students an inspiration for your characters?
GRECO: I’d have to say that, yes, my students are an influence on how I create characters. Pinky Bell in The Cuckoo Colloquium is, no doubt, some amalgam of the thousands of Japanese students in my classrooms over the many years. The comedy Plum Rains on Happy House, about an American living in a rundown guesthouse who tries to turn the place into an English school, shines an absurdly exaggerated portrait of the teacher-student relationships in Japan.
FQ: Where and how did the The Cuckoo Colloquium come to be?
GRECO: The Cuckoo Colloquium started in 2010 while I was trekking in Sarawak. I have travelled a bit in both Malaysia and Kalimantan and really wanted to write a book on the rain forest. I'm fascinated by the profound depth of the jungle. The first time I camped in Kalimantan was in the early 90’s (before e-mail, before pocket phones.) I’ve hiked and camped in Kalimantan several times since, as well as Sarawak and Sabah. Trekking in Sumatra, Java, and Sulawesi also gave me a good feel for the rain forest.
I’ve been to the orangutan rehabilitation camps on Kalimantan and on Sumatra, as well as tarsius reserves on Sulawesi. In the story, we get close up and personal with the birdlife (the cuckoo shrike, of course) but also pythons, leeches, tarsius, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, sun bears, and a rather unique animal I call the donkel (donkey meets camel). There’s one reference to an orangutan, but he’s just passing by, frightened of the datuk…
The datuk is the element of fantasy I bring to the story—in the form of the cuckoo shrike. The idea of bestowing the cuckoo shrike with magical properties came merely from the name cuckoo shrike. What better creature to create all the mayhem than a cuckoo! Its diminutive plainness was also a charm point—no flashy colors, no striking call, just an ordinary, mild-mannered blue-grey bird.
In the first chapter, Windy, the American teen, comes across an ominous leaflet that says: Cuckoo Camp personal Growthing Adventure to the End. This is apt foreshadowing—the end, as in death.
The forest colloquium hosts six teens who get lost in the rain forest of Sarawak. In order to survive, they need to draw on what the camp refers to as the ‘strategies for survival’: interdependence, unselfishness, fellowship. Or they die.
The teenagers are either selfish or spoiled, or both. I love them; they are rich with possibilities. It’s a tough love colloquium—they are abused, to some extent. But they learn something. They come away from the experience better people.
Each chapter is written from the perspective of one of the six teens, or from their elderly chaperone, Pete. The theme is about being lost—and being lost physically would have its metaphorical counterpart, that of being lost on the inside. In order for the lost group to find themselves physically, they have to first find themselves in a metaphorical sense.
Is it a story for young adults? Well, with the exception of old Pete, it’s certainly about young adults. Is if for them? I’ll have to let readers decide.
The story has got a whole lot of jungle. From the first to last page—jungle. What is it about a jungle? — The danger, lots of it; the primordial mystery of the dark unknowing, the pressing in; it impairs our vision, which is a huge part of our ability to understand our surroundings. It leaves us vulnerable.
So many ways to never be seen again.
It’s also itchy, mucky, steamy, and as the old Tarzan movies showed us, there’s a good deal of quicksand, just waiting to suck us all down into the center of the earth. Most of us have some kind of fascination with the jungle. With the tunnel of foliage, with the impossible labyrinth that it is.
Did I succeed in capturing the essence, the life force of the rain forest? Not sure. A constant nag goes as follows: Damned, I need one more trek to get that last feel, the finishing touches! But then I realize I’ve just finished a novel about a supposed forest in Africa, and the writer never once described that forest. In Brian Katling’s The Vorrh, he never once described the flora of the mystical place (I think there was perhaps one mention of the word oak). So the whole forest was more metaphorical than real.
If I was writing a story about a jungle, but with no reference to the actual plant or animal life in that jungle, I would have a very bad story. A cardboard-nothing story. The jungle is a character. It is the antagonist in the story. Of course, Mr. Katling omitted direct references to the forest intentionally because he was after something else entirely. But I can’t get away with that.
But just as quickly, a contradictory thought: Oh, my God, have I put in too much? Have I gone jungle mad? Is it malaria of the keyboard? Who's going to want to read 40 chapters of jungle? Readers will look away from the book and see green walls! I then began structuring bookends: to place the first act in the city, than move to the rain forest in a long second act, and then go back to the city for the conclusion. Yeah, that would be smart…
PHHHHT! I went all-jungle. 100% unadulterated rain forest. I want readers to itch, to feel the muck in their shoes, to sweat along with the clammy humidity, to sense the snake slithering under the bed.
FQ: Readers love to know what a writer’s day is all about. When you sit down to put your words on paper, what is your “Writing Day” like? Do you create in a specific place? Do you plan everything ahead of time, or do you fly by the seat of your pants, so to speak? Is music in the background, or perhaps your cat is sitting beside you? Give us a peek inside a Michael A. Greco writing day.
GRECO: I started writing late in life, in my fifties. I wasn’t ready when younger, wandering half-baked for the longest time, unable to express myself through prose in any real way. I write now because I can’t not write. Just ask my family: If I’m not plugging away at something I’m not much fun to be around. When not teaching, I give myself the time to write, usually in the morning.
I write for myself, not for the market. I have no idea what will sell, but as long as I’m happy with a story, I will show it. I don’t know if I’m going to make any money doing this, but I don’t write to get rich. I do it for another, deeper satisfaction. I also write for the person I know best: myself.
I write alone, upstairs, with Internet jazz radio for company. The family cat, Howard, bounds in and out. I’ve never taken a writing class. I wouldn’t know a support group from an A.A. meeting. I don’t know what a writing retreat is (though it sounds restful).
I have friends who will read stuff for me (I often repay with tacos, or mezcal, or something similar). I have an editor who lends me his professional eyes when he can. I Fiverr for book covers and for formatting. No self-publishing workshops for me (even though the half-day sessions are only 79$—and what a great way to get yourself out there. What’s wrong with me?)
I just work alone because I like it, and I do what Gene Fowler once said: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit staring at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
As for the writing, well, my stories start out as ordinary beans (I like to think of them as such). I don’t know what I have, but I’m compelled to water these beans. Shoots then grow into stems and my beanstalk matures. Sometimes the stems die; the story loses life. Then I travel along my beanstalk and find new stems to explore. Eventually leaves grow and there is a flowering, as the organism that is my story comes to life, and the characters take shape, and I can see them and hear their voices. Then they grow up and go off and do things I haven’t planned.
That’s how I know I’m getting somewhere.
If I think I’ve got something special, I revise. Then I revise more. Then I revise even more. In my experience, the story always gets tighter. It always gets better. My professor at UC Irvine once told me that, in order for someone to be considered knowledgeable about any given subject, they need to have read at least fifteen books on that subject. He actually gave a number: fifteen.
I like it. I have been revising fifteen times, in his honor. In order to show a glimmer of knowledge on a subject, I aim to read at lest fifteen different sources on it. That’s what it takes—fifteen. Because he said so.
If someone tells me they've finished their novel, I want to ask "How many drafts?" If you haven't rewritten the story at least half of my accustomed FIFTEEN, then, sorry, you're stuck with unripe beans.
As a draft develops, I steer clear of predictability. My stories have frayed edges. It’s like a tale you tell in the kitchen, one with slipups and repetition. It’s genuine. A story should feel like an off-the-cuff conversation with loved ones. Endings can be ambiguous, sometimes unsatisfying. Just like real life. Just like people. There is no black and white. We are both good and bad.
I often don't know what my theme is until after several drafts of the story. Then it emerges as if stepping out from its hiding place in the woods, and I think, "Oh, I've indeed written about that!"
I like to write horror, but I’m not a horror writer. Steven King said, “The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.” I am fascinated by this kind of inner beast that resides within so many of my favorite writers. Whatever resides within me is nothing more than a surly Chihuahua.
Comic fantasy is more my game, and if I’ve watered my beans in the right way, then maybe I’m able to spark some kind of emotional connection with readers.
Way to go, you gorgeously crazed beanstalk!
FQ: If there is one author you could sit down with (alive or dead, but they would be alive at the sit down) who you would love to talk to about their books, who would it be and what would you most want to know?
GRECO: I’d like to have breakfast with Mark Twain. But I might have more in common with Kurt Vonnegut, who I see as a postmodern Mark Twain. So, I think. Lunch with Vonnegut. His work has been labeled black humor, satire or science fiction. He exaggerates all the absurdities of our own world. He makes sense through humor.
I believe that memorable characters make memorable tales. So, for dinner, I’ll take Samuel Becket, who shows us lunatics in trashcans, or characters who set themselves on fire. He had great insights into what is true, and he makes it funny.
I think that’s my job, my goal—to write characters and stories that are absurd, violent, childish, but that resonate with truth.
FQ: What do you feel about the YA industry today? Do you believe it is rising in popularity, falling, or staying the course when it comes to new releases?
GRECO: This is a difficult question for me, as I’m not entirely sure The Cuckoo Colloquium meets satisfactory YA criteria. I actually had adults in mind, but as the story developed, I realized that teenagers would really bring out the absurdity of their horrific situation. So, I guess, I’m hoping your readers can tell me? Is this a book for teenagers, or is it merely a book about them?
I really don’t know the answer.
FQ: Is social media harming or helping the author nowadays? If there was one piece of advice that you could give an up-and-comer about what NOT to do to become an author, what would that be?
GRECO: As a Boomer, I’m not all that adept at social media. I do use Facebook and Twitter, but this is a learning process for me. Technology trips me up and I can spend a whole evening fumbling about, trying to link something to something else. I’m waiting on my ten year old to get a little older and savvier with the workings of the Macintosh.
If I had to impart advice to someone starting out, I would probably tell them not to do what I do. Don’t stay home—get out, get your face out there. Get on all the social media; don't be paranoid about people trying to rip off your material; they won't (no thieves are that interested—in my experiences). Get on Tablo or Wattpad, and meet people, read their stuff, give genuine feedback to them. That's how you get a following, and many of these people will follow you over to your website when you start that up. But you have to keep doing that, keep reading the works of others, giving constructive feedback, of course.
FQ: Lastly: Why comic fantasy? And…is there one genre that you have not dove into as of yet that you would like to try one day?
GRECO: The project I’m on now, book 3 of the Assunta trilogy, will go to editing soon. It wanders a bit from the genre of comic fantasy—its a lot more horror than comedy, but I feel it was important to get these dark streaks out of my system. I will publish Assunta in one-month intervals, starting in early March with the first Book, Assunta: Inferno.
After the trilogy, I’m returning to sequels of The Cuckoo Colloquium —about the six teens lost in the rain forest of Borneo—because the characters have so much depth and the story so much fuel remaining. I hope to have book #2 of what I’m calling the Cuckoo series out by autumn, 2019. I look forward to tearing back into comic fantasy. Humor with thoughtful undertones. Visionary. Metaphysical. Childish. But I’m not for children.
My sub-genre might be: weird fiction. But Amazon has yet to make a category for that. In my writing, the characters take a beating; they earn their end goals. Comic fantasy—weird fiction. I think I’ve found my mission.
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