UNCG professor and author publishes a fifth book

by Lauren Cartwright

Sitting in a cinderblock room with 20 college students fresh from the outdoors and wearing the lingering scent of perspiration, I close my eyes letting the faint aroma of chalk dust invade my nostrils. I make believe I’m back in school and I’ve forgotten to read the day’s assignment.

In author/ professor Michael Parker’s introductory creative writing class at UNCG, the students around me are learning the basics of good storytelling. The students are in a square with everyone’s chair facing inward. Their textbooks are in front of them. Some take notes during the lecture while others stare at their books as if asking a’ higher being for divine intervention to dismiss class for the afternoon ‘— maybe they were the ones that didn’t do the assignment.

I’m taking notes and learning some things about writing. A couple of times I almost forget my anonymity in the corner and start to raise my hand to answer a question.

Michael leads two lives. One that pays the bills, as a teacher of writing and English at UNCG. And the other as a novelist, the career he’d always dreamed of.

Michael ‘— the professor’— is teaching the class to be realistic in dialogue and with description of characters. He says to write like people talk, and to use contractions.

‘“You want the reader to be seduced by the dream. You want them to inhabit the world you’ve created,’” Michael says.

Michael ‘— the author ‘— just released his fifth novel, If You Want Me To Stay. The book is ironically about leaving, but also carries the themes of love, family and music.

The book’s narrator, Joel Dunn Jr., and his little brother Tank take off in search of their mother who has run off physically after their father runs off mentally.

Sounds sad, right? Well it is. But I liked the story because as we all know, life isn’t always fun. After finishing the book, I was haunted ‘— an effect Parker says he also felt.

‘“People talk about how dark it is’… my sense [of it] is about survival,’” Michael says.

Set in fictitious Trent, NC, to a soundtrack of soul tunes, Michael illustrates characters who take compassion on the two wayward brothers. Each character is complex ‘— when you think one of them is wholly good or bad, their image changes.

The children use the music their father taught them to love as a survival mechanism. Joel Jr. often sings to his little brother to keep his mind off of reality. The music throughout the book is a resounding theme to the moods and attitudes of the characters. ‘“Music provides solace’… getting through the tough times,’” Michael says.

The newest novel was available in stores on Sept. 10, so reviews weren’t widely available at press time ‘— People Magazine is scheduled to do a review on the book for their ‘“Picks&Pans’” section. This is Michael’s first mainstream media exposure where he’ll be reviewed by fellow author Francine Prose.

The book has been named to the Bookslut’s ( list of ‘“The Best Rock Novels.’” Michael Schaub of Bookslut writes that the book is ‘“funny at times and wrenchingly sad at others, this is one of the most perfectly realized novels I’ve read in recent years. Very highly recommended.’”

I asked Michael if he reads what the critics write. He said he does, but tries not to dwell on their words.

‘“Bad ones hurt for about 15 minutes,’” he says. But he admits the good reviews aren’t great if it doesn’t really say anything.

And the ameatuer critics seem to be in agreement too.UNCG graduate students Beth Lassiter and Rachael Mann are sitting in a cramped room with cubicles made out of bookcases and other forgotten classroom furniture. The two huddle at Beth’s desk at a lucky spot by a bank of windows. Both grad students are governed by Michael on a thesis committee and they loyally sing his praises. Mann, who has read the entire book says, ‘“His use of language is beautiful.’”

Lassiter, who is partially through it, says that he captures the coastal sandhill’s dialect without being derogatory, in a ‘“capable voice’… a respectful sort of way.’”

The North Carolina coast is a place Michael knows well. Every few sentences his coastal dialect slips into the conversation. I hear it especially in those words with a long ‘o,’ making ‘on’ sound like ‘own.’

He has used his town of Trent as a setting in other books, a move that Michael chalks up to ‘“getting lazy.’” It doesn’t literally represent a specific town in North Carolina, but pieces of the places he’s lived he says. He was born in Siler City and moved to Clinton as a young child where his father owned a newspaper. He later graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and went on to get a masters of fine arts from the University of Virginia.

If You Want Me to Stay is a book of firsts for Michael. He has never written a novel in the first person. ‘“I tried [before] and got sick of the character,’” he says. Joel Jr. is his closest character to himself, he says, because they share a love of music.

Michael says that his love for soul music was a side affair that he never really talked about growing up. He wanted to write the book in the same fashion of the Otis Redding song ‘“I’ve Been Lovin’ You Too Long,’” with a slow, sad progression into a ‘“terrifying crescendo.’”

In an essay Michael read at the Booksmarks Book Festival in Winston-Salem last Saturday (Sept. 10), he writes that he remembers the first record he bought was Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘“Proud Mary.’” As a side note, the flip side of the album was ‘“Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter,’” which really has nothing to do with anything, but that’s one of funniest images I’ve ever had.

The rough draft was written in six weeks, another first for Michael, during a sabbatical as a visiting professor at Old Dominion University. Six weeks is unimaginable for a first draft ‘– most authors would scoff at the thought. But Michael’s also been at the other extreme. His first novel, Hello Down There, took him five years to write.

While at Old Dominion he lived in a cabin at a swampy state park with no TV or phone. These desperate living conditions shine through in the fictional Dunn home. Parker says the novel was ‘“written in manic thrusts.’”

I found the writing style hard to follow at first, but soon learned to just read it instead of trying to figure it out. Trying to console his little brother and take care of himself, Joel Jr. often slips into a fantasy world where his mother still loves him, with a background of soulful harmonies. The crazy, fragmented tone is conveyed through Joel Jr.’s confused ramblings inside his head and outside to the people he meets.

In Tuesday’s writing class Michael answers a student’s question about story length. ‘“I’m not prescriptive about art. That would be a dictatorship, right?’”

Michael says that in the school systems today there is not enough creativity in the writing. Everything is geared toward test scores, which can’t measure someone’s creativeness.

For part of the interview, we’re sitting in his 6- by 12- foot office that we’ve deduced was once an unfortunate soul’s dorm room. When I knock on the door he invites me in, apologizing that he’s actually forgotten that I was coming by that day. Like other professors’ offices I’ve visited, there are organized piles of disorder scattered around the tile floor. His aqua Apple is playing a tune by Sufjan Stevens ‘— an artist who has set out to make a CD of songs for each state, so far the guy has made it through two states.

Spines with titles stare down at me from the shelves on the wall. I suppress the urge to ask him if he’s read all those books. He’s an English professor ‘– of course he has. He tells me that the most important thing he tries to get across to his students: ‘“To write, one needs to read.’”

He cautions his students when reading someone’s piece not to dismiss it if they don’t like it, but to question the reasons it doesn’t work ‘— that will make their own writing better. ‘“Teaching novels keeps me on my toes,’” he said.

His office has a lone window that looks out on the courtyard’ of the McIver Building. On the sill sits an aerial view’ of Wrightsville’s beach. Michael tells me he likes the ocean ‘— a subject he often incorporates into his books. Beside the picture rests a large scale replica of the cover of If You Want Me’ To Stay.

He’s not writing books that are guaranteed bestsellers, but that doesn’t seem to fit his style either. ‘“I think there’s two kinds of literature: good and bad,’” he says. His theory is that a good book both entertains and educates.

He pauses quietly after each question as if he’s gathering the vocabulary just right to convey his message. Relaxing in his chair his hand rests on his chin or sometimes waves in the space around him to express a point. He’s dressed casually in jeans and an Oxford button-up shirt with a green paisley design that gets a compliment from a co-worker as we walk down the hall.

He has a lean runner’s body. A few years ago, Michael participated in an Iron Man competition, something he says people would be surprised to know about him.

He told me that in his 15 years as a professor at UNCG he hasn’t required his students read his books. That would be selfish, he says, because there are too many good writers out there to read.

Michael knew he wanted to write from the time he was in the second or third grade. At that age, I was still holding on to my ballerina dreams. He said ‘“I am very lucky’… many people don’t know what they want to do.’”

He is described as a ‘Southern writer’ a term that he both embraces and eschews. ‘“I would like my work to transcend regionalism’… [and] to be considered an American writer,’” he says. But he admits he’s in good company with other Southern writers such as William Faulkner.

On his book tours he often travels to other regions of the country. I asked him how outsiders react to his picture of the South. He said people often have this impression that the South is some exotic, far out place, and the people are all drunk and crazy. Those notions really aren’t denied in his book, but he does highlight other traits like Southern hospitality. He said people on tour stops sometimes ‘“treat you like a hick.’”

He said Southerners aren’t always happy with his portrayal of them. He says he writes the truth, and he’s encountered that disapproval on other fronts. ‘“I have written honestly about segregation’…. People would rather not go back and talk honestly about things,’” he said.

The students in the class look apprehensive about their first major writing assignment for the semester. ‘“Would you like them to be stapled?’” one asks. Michael fields their questions like an actor at a press conference. No one has a stupid question.

‘“What about profanity?’” one asks to a chorus of chuckles from fellow students.

‘“I’m not a prude, if you haven’t figured it out.’” Michael says.

No, he’s not. He’s not the stereotypical Shakespeare-spouting English professor either ‘– he even used the word ‘ain’t.’ I hope that doesn’t get him kicked out of the English department.

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