A Kind of Weird Beauty: Michael Bible’s Simple Machines
Michael Bible is the author of Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City, as well as the chapbooks Gorilla Math and My Second Best Bear Rug. He was winner of the ESPN: the Magazine/Stymie fiction prize. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi where he edits Kitty Snacks.
Michael Kimball: I’m curious: How did you get the title? That feels like it must have been a key to writing the piece.
Michael Bible: As far as Simple Machines goes, the title actually came to me after I wrote it, but you’re right, it sort of crystallized it for me. I started the manuscript after I read The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed and I was playing around with random sentence generators and ESL textbooks. I love sentences that are used as examples for school. (Has someone written a book of word problems? Also, that would be a good title. Probably somebody’s written it.) There is an oddness to those example sentences that I love, “bad” writing as “good” writing. They have a kind of weird beauty and they seemly have no context but somehow make stories anyway. Simple Machines is also something I learned about in school so it made sense that that would be a good title.
Michael Kimball: I’m thinking that Word Problems should maybe be the next Awesome Machine title? I can already see the weird beauty in that too. But what I’m wondering is how you found the weird beauty in the sentences of Simple Machines. Did you just recognize it in the material random sentence generators and ESL textbooks or did it come from working with material or a combination or maybe something else?
Michael Bible: So much of school was about finding good writing. Or finding out why good writing is good writing. Learning correct grammar, clean syntax etc. This is a great short story because of xyz or this is a beautiful sentence because of xyz. I just didn’t buy it. So I sought out the “worst” writing I could find. I love accidents, malapropisms and slang. And technical writing, random sentence generators, ESL texts, etc. Things that are not trying to be beautiful. My teachers told me not to use thesauruses so I started to collect thesauruses. I like the ones from the early 20th century best. They’re not like thesauruses we have now. They were organized by theme and then under the themes the words were more associative. So it would start with something like “light” then there would be long (sometimes many pages long) entries below made up of words associated with light, not just synonyms. And the words would move with a loose logic. Like the author was riffing off the idea of light but it was supposed to be a technical book. The entries have a beautiful, almost poem-like way about them. The themes were big things like darkness, hate, money, love, death. I found all these things that were supposed to be bad writing strange and wonderful.
Michael Kimball: That movement you describe in those early thesauruses, it feels like the same kind of movement that happens in Simple Machines, though it’s on the level of the sentence rather than the word. That is, I’m wondering how you thought about getting from sentence to sentence.
Michael Bible: When you remove context, the mind tends to fill in the gaps. The thesauruses move thematically and I see Simple Machines as moving formally. Instead of the sentences collectively striving for a story or meaning, I’m trying to create an atmosphere. I’m interested in doing what minimalist music and sculpture does. Stripping things down to simple chunks and putting them together serially. Then the reader can walk into the book like someone walks into a room filled with small simple objects or like someone listens to a repetitious song. I want to let the reader have his own emotional response. I want to show the bricks of a house but not the house. The reader builds his own house in his mind. I’m just giving him the bricks.
Michael Kimball: So how did you know that you had made enough bricks for somebody else to build a house – or, how did you know that you had reached the end of Simple Machines?
Michael Bible: I wrote a lot of the sentences and cut the manuscript major. Then Ian and I cut them down even more. I think it was just a gut thing. I just thought, These are the best ones. This is where it should end.
Michael Kimball: Who’s Ian?