EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Michael Marano on “Stories From the Plague Years”

Michael Marano is a former punk rock DJ, bouncer, and the author of the modern dark fantasy classic Dawn Song, which won both the International Horror Guild and Bram Stoker Awards. For almost 20 years, his film reviews and pop culture commentary have been a highlight of the nationally syndicated Public Radio Satellite System show Movie Magazine International. His non-fiction has appeared in alternative newspapers such as The Independent Weekly, The Boston Phoenix and The Weekly Dig, as well as in magazines such as Paste and Fantastique. His column “MediaDrome” has been a wildly popular feature in Cemetery Dance since 2001. He currently divides his time between a neighborhood in Boston that had been the site of a gang war that was the partial basis of The Departed and a sub-division in Charleston, SC a few steps away from a former Confederate Army encampment.

The first printing of Michael’s collection, Stories From the Plague Years sold out very quickly. He sat down with SF Signal to talk about the reprinting, and some of his inspirations.


Jaym Gates: What inspired the choice of stories in Stories From the Plague Years? What themes tie them together?

Michael Marano: Well, truth to tell, there wasn’t much “choice” to the selection of the stories. The stories are all my non-novel-length works that I’d written up to the point that Stories from the Plague Years had been published. I write slowly, so I’m not that prolific. The “Plague Years” refers to the really awful days of the 1980s and early 1990s. There was a particular kind of despair that killed and maimed a lot of friends of mine, and it nearly killed me. I’m talking about despair that manifested itself through drugs, AIDS, suicide, urban violence, lack of medical care. A lot of that maiming wasn’t physical. A lot of it was mental. I think that despair was rooted in the anxiety and hopelessness caused by the Cold War climax that took place in the 1980s. When Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberg was telling Harvard students with a straight face that the A-Bomb might bring back Jesus, and the nuclear war policy shifted from preventing nuclear war to winning nuclear war. I mean, why not shoot up, give up, have unprotected sex if the guy with his finger on the button is joking about bombing Russia in five minutes? What I do with the stories is kind of treat in horror and dark fantasy terms this very dystopian inner reality that existed back then. The stories are arranged in such a way that you can see an overall thematic arc if you squint right, from inward-focused, destructive rage to fighting to live for the sake of others you love.

JM: Is there a particular story that took you places you didn’t intend to go, that drained or enlightened you in unexpected ways?

MM: I think one of the things that kicked me in the eyeball was the realization, once I put all these stories in a pile, that all these works are about mourning. I had very consciously written the story Burden as an act of mourning for my best friend Lee Marshall, who died of AIDS. And I had written two stories, …And the Damage Done and Exit Wound for my friend Marian Anderson, who was in the band The Insaints and whom I loved very much. The stories that I consciously wrote out of grief and loss hit me in different ways. Writing Burden was cathartic. I could let go of some grief for Lee, who was infected by a lover who lied about being HIV negative. But the stories I wrote for Marian gave me no catharsis. What gave me catharsis for Marian’s death was talking to the filmmaker Lilly Scourtis Ayers, when she interviewed me as background research for the documentary she made about Marian, Last Fast Ride: The Life, Love and Death of a Punk Goddess. So, Lilly, as a filmmaker, gave me some release that I couldn’t give myself, through my own work.

JM: So your original edition sold out very quickly, getting nominated for a few awards along the way. How did that feel?

MM: I was bewildered by the hardcover edition selling out so fast! I hadn’t published a book-length work since 1998. It’s not like I’m George R.R. Martin, with fans clamoring for my next work. I really thought people were pulling my leg. Y’know, Ashton Kutcher was gonna step from behind a curtain, or something. It didn’t make any sense to me. Stories from the Plague Years only had one nomination: the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novella for Displacement. That also shocked me, as Displacement was the very first work of fiction that I’d ever finished writing. I wrote it in 1992. I dusted it off and tweaked it a little for “modern” sensibilities. But, yeah… a work that is twenty years old getting an accolade like that? That also doesn’t make sense. I’m cool with it, though! Booklist listed Stories from the Plague Years as one of the Top Ten Horror publication of 2011. To have your work spoken of in the same breath as Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars is kinda humbling.

JM: You recently started trapeze work, and have written a great deal about what that is doing for your fitness, but have you found it impacting your writing life, too?

MM: Well, it’s had a huge impact on my writing! And that’s one of the reasons I started going to circus school specifically to learn trapeze and lyra (the big metal hoop suspended off the ground they use a lot in Cirque du Soleil). I’ve always been a jock, and as I was getting older, a bunch of sports injuries I have just weren’t healing. I also wanted to find new ways to tell stories physically through performance, because I’ve been alone hunching over a keyboard telling stories for so long. So I was looking for new ways to strengthen my smashed joints and perform narratives. I was looking at things like Roller Derby, but caught a show put on by the Boston Circus Guild and I said, “Yes! That’s it!” So, I’m almost getting to the point where I can start choreographing science fiction and horror narratives that I can create not with words, but movement. It’s all organic and tied up with the writing.

JM: It looks like you have another novel in the works, a sequel to Dawn Song? Anything you can tell us about that?

MM: Well, the work is entitled The Diaspora, and it is a sequel in that it is about the aftermath of the “War in Hell” that is the backbone of Dawn Song. But I’m writing it so that it’s a stand-alone novel. It will be followed by another book, a novel-length expansion of the novelette Winter Requiem that is in Stories from the Plague Years that will also be a stand-alone novel. The main theme of The Diaspora is Exile. I was just thinking, if I am treating of a “War in Hell,” what does war produce? It produces refugees. And it produces scavengers. Brett and Sandra from ChiZine Pubs will be reprinting Dawn Song soon, followed by The Diaspora and Winter Requiem. I’d kinda like to see a boxed set. Like the Lord of the Rings set I had as a kid.

JM: How can people get a copy of Stories From the Plague Years?

MM: For a limited time, only up to November 1st, folks can pre-order the book as a signed, limited edition TPB from ChiZine. It will feature John Shirley’s introduction and the utterly gorgeous interior illustrations by Gabrielle Faust. Then the book will ship on December 15. After November 1st, the book will be available for pre-order as a ChiZine ebook edition. So, if you’re interested, please hurry!

JM: Brett Savory, ChiZine’s editor, weighed in on the reprint as well.

MM: Basically, we’ve always done limited edition pre-orders, ever since our first book in 2008, Filaria by Brent Hayward. We’ve done a hardcover signed limited for every book since. But for Mike’s, since Plague Years was already released as a limited hardcover by Cemetery Dance, we decided to release it only as a signed limited edition trade paperback. So it’ll be the same as our regular in-store trades, except that it’ll have a signature sheet tipped into it.

We’re also releasing it as an eBook (which we’ve done with all our other books, too).

Another thing that’s different from our other signed limiteds is that this will be our last one. After Mike’s book, that’s it for limited editions for us. We might start them up again in the future sometime, but they’re just too much extra work for little or no monetary gain, and we need to put our energies into stuff that’ll actually make us more dough—as beautiful as the limiteds are (and they are!).