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Michael Parker: Writing That Really Sings


Writer Michael Parker is a North Carolinian by birth and by choice. His novels and short stories all reflect the places, textures and language of the state. In his most recent book of stories, "Don't Make Me Stop Now," Michael Parker examines love, loss and bad choices.

Reporter Karen Michel has this profile.

KAREN MICHEL: Michael Parker's characters drive to music, make love to music, write about music, pretty much inhabit the music that Parker hears while writing their lives. Otis Redding is his muse.

(Soundbite of song, "I've Been Loving You Too Long")

Mr. OTIS REDDING (Singer): (Singing) I've been loving you.

Mr. MICHAEL PARKER (Author, "Don't Make Me Stop Now"): Our job as writers is to take something that's inherently messy. And try to dice some, sort of, formal order out of it and he did that so well. So he's my hero.

(Soundbite of song, "I've Been Loving You Too Long")

Mr. REDDING: (Singing) You are tired and you want to be free.

Mr. PARKER: I'm fond of "I've Been Loving You Too Long" to stop now, which is where the title of "Don't Make Me Stop Now" comes from and it means that just seems a perfect song to me. Just the way it builds, the way the horns come in, just how incredibly passionate it is. And also how he, sort of, formally, orderly it is, you know, and it then it gets messy, which all love songs have to get and all love stories have to get.

MICHEL: Parker's lovers' relationships are very messy. One woman kills her lover with morphine. For Parker's people, breaking up is indeed very hard to do. In the story "The Golden Era of Heartbreak," Parker writes, people have no sympathy for the brokenhearted because it's what they fear the most. He says that's the line that summarizes his entire latest book of short stories, "Don't Make Me Stop Now."

Mr. PARKER: The people are always saying, well, you just get over it. My God, so she left, so he left. Big deal. Just pick it up and go on and, you know, I mean, there a lot of people in this world who think you can just, train yourself to feel one thing or the other. You don't have to wallow and some of these people do, and I think they come to bad ends. But on the other hand, you know, I mean, people are scared of it. I mean people judge it because, I think, they're really terrified of that. They're terrified of having to go there emotionally.

MICHEL: That's true of just about everyone Parker writes about. Take the people in "Couple Strike It Rich on Second Honeymoon."

Mr. PARKER: A couple, wretched in love, in a car on an interstate. On a muggy Saturday morning in October, they left behind the city where they lived and headed west. Their history was more ragged than most. They'd been together for two manic years, bruised themselves silly during an endless third, were apart for a year. And finally, because they could not let go of each other, were together again in a car on an interstate headed toward a loosely planned weekend of reconciliation.

MICHEL: A review of the short story collection in The New York Times' book review begins: Michael Parker's shiftless characters aren't the type you'd introduce to your sister, not if you like her.

Mr. PARKER: In fiction, only trouble is interesting, I'm afraid. I don't know if I want to write a book about the type of people that I would introduce to my sister.

MICHEL: Do you have a sister?

Mr. PARKER: I have two sisters.

MICHEL: Allan Gurganus, author of "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" is among the most prominent of contemporary Southern writers. Gurganus refers to Parker's writing as about grownups for grownups.

Mr. ALLAN GURGANUS (Author, "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All"): I think he's got a wonderful combination of a, kind of, brown-eyed melancholy with a cynical, hilarious sense of humor and I think whenever something very funny meets something very sad, the results can be very true to my vision of the world.

MICHEL: That's a vision, a world, a language that is distinctly of the South.

Mr. GURGANUS: So I think he's really about what we call the Lord's work in the South. He's building something that's lasting and lyrical and true.

MICHEL: And writer Parker isn't afraid to make fun of professor Parker, who teaches in the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. In the authorial ventriloquism, Parker uses to take on the very voices of his characters, including a student who's written a term paper with the unwieldy title "Hidden Meanings: Treatment of Time, Supreme Irony and Life Experiences in the Song, Ain't Gonna Bump No More No Big Fat Woman."

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't Gonna Bump No More No Big Fat Woman")

Mr. JOE TEX (Singer): (Singing) Three nights ago I was at a disco. Man, I wanted to bump, I was rarin to go. And this big fat woman…

Mr. PARKER: In the song "Ain't Gonna Bump No More No Big Fat Woman" by Joe Tex, the speaker or the narrator of the song, a man previously injured before the song's opening chords by a large, aggressive-type woman in a disco-type bar, refuses to bump with the big fat woman of the title. In doing so, he's merely exercising his right to an injury-free existence, thus ensuring him the ability to work and provide for him and his family if he has one - I don't know, it doesn't ever say. In this paper, I will prove there's a hidden meaning that everybody doesn't get in this popular song, saying, or incident from public life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: I did have fun with it. I mean, I confess that I had some fun with it.

MICHEL: I swear to you, in teaching, I've read writing like this.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah. I mean, that's the - the thing about it is people are always - when they read that story - the first thing they say to me is what grade would you give that paper? And I always say, and I mean it, I would give that girl an A because, you know, for all her solecisms and grammatical gaffes and hideous spelling, she has an incredible amount of passion and honesty and truth, especially when she begins to talk about her own life, which is wildly off the subject but, so what? I mean, if she's talking about literature and literature is about passion, and the life lived and desire.

MICHEL: Desire, the real protagonist in Michael Parker's short stories and his novels. His most recent novel was titled "If You Want Me to Stay." You could say that the short stories in his latest collection, "Don't Make Me Stop Now" provide the means to stay or stray depending on one's desire and willingness to part with pieces of the heart.

(Soundbite of song "Piece of My Heart")

Ms. JANIS JOPLIN (Singer): (Singing) Take another little piece of my heart now baby. Break it, break it, break it, yeah. Have another little piece of my heart now, baby. You know you got it, child, if it makes you feel good.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Karen Michel