On the Phone with Michael Bible - Believer Magazine

I’m so much more interested in how a story is told than what the story is.”

Three Films Mentioned Below:
Truffle Hunters
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Spaceballs

Michael Bible reminds me of Chevy Chase in Caddy Shack. That laconic, nonplussed way of looking at things. In person, he’s hard to rile up. Cool and kind. He’ll just shrug at you if you say something stupid. All that aside, at thirty-eight, he’s one of his generation’s most interesting prose stylists. You can see what I mean in his short story: “True Like Ice, Like Fire.” His previous novels, Empire of Light and Sophia are written in that same sentence-focused, languid mode, existing half between a dream and where reality meets the road. He’s got a new novel out now called, The Ancient Hours, his best published work to date. Bible is a social person, if you invite him somewhere he shows up, sometimes with his Catahoula leopard dog, Cleo. You can smoke a cigarette with him against some brick wall and he’ll tell  you about the next great book you should read, or movie you should watch. It’s always a good idea to listen. The man has great, weird taste. As long as I’ve known Michael Bible, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look at his cell phone. My guess is he would have been fine just as he is, middle-aged, in 1972, without Google Maps or Twitter, or any of it. Fittingly, for his birthday, his partner, Kelsey, gifted him a landline telephone and gave the number out to some friends. Facing down the east coast winter and knowing he would be sitting in his East Village apartment every evening for the foreseeable future because of coronavirus, Bible decided to shut off his cell phone every night at 8pm and if anybody wants to get in touch they can call him on that private line. Which I did. Over the course of a few late fall late evenings, he paused whatever he was watching on Criterion and we conducted this interview.

—Bud Smith

TUESDAY

THE BELIEVER: Hey man.

MB: Hello?

BLVR: Oh that’s right, I’ve got to say who I am like it’s 1982. Pre-caller ID.

MB: [Laughing] Bud Smith. 

BLVR: Yup. I was thinking today about that anecdote you told me about the IRS scam. 

MB: The what? Oh. Right. Well, that was when the world was semi-normal and I was walking Cleo, listening to podcasts a lot.

BLVR: But that got old. You said you threw your headphones out.

MB: Yeah. I realized I was missing out. I started listening to what people were saying on the sidewalk instead, which is one of the best parts of this city. Felt a symphony returning. And then I began to answer my cell phone no matter who was calling and I’d just talk to them.

BLVR: Yeah, telemarketers and …

MB: Exactly. I’m walking down 12th street and a guy is on the line saying, he’s the IRS and I owe all this money and I’m like, “Perfect, what do I do?” He’s got this thick accent and there’s a baby crying in the background. He tells me I have to go into CVS and buy iTunes gift cards and read him the numbers, so I say, “I’m right by one, I’ll call you back, doing it now.” I hang up and go get lunch and he calls me when I’m in the middle of chewing the sandwich. “You got the numbers, yet?” And I say, “Excuse me? I think you’ve been talking to my elderly father who has dementia and he collapsed in a drugstore.”

BLVR: Fun on the phone.

MB: Right. And he’s all indignant, ‘I know you. I’ve got your address. I’m coming there and gonna fuck you up.’ And his baby is crying in the background. And I’m chewing my sandwich.

BLVR: You’re sitting on your couch right now? I can visualize the room. Pink neon light and those lewd paintings. What were you just doing? Watching a movie?

MB: That’s it. The New York Film Festival had a digital screening of this new documentary called Truffle Hunters. You should check it out. It’s about these old Italian truffle hunters and one guy is especially old and will die soon and these truffle sellers go to see him and ask to be shown the spots where he hunts out his truffles because that spot will be lost after his death. This is big business. High dollar truffles. But the truffle old hunter refuses. And the guy begs at least can we get one of your dogs? He refuses again, then turns to the guy and is like “Would you sell one of your own children?” It’s shot in this wonderful style. Slow cinema almost. But then in the middle of the film the camera gets all bumpy, jostling around, riding shotgun in this old truffle hunter’s truck and it seems like it’s being filmed handheld and the camera pans back and we see all these dogs in the back and the truck stops and the dogs get out and it’s at this point we realize the handheld camera is not somebody filming, but it’s a GoPro attached to a dog. And we follow him through the woods as he finds truffles. It was a revelation. 

BLVR: What do you like about slow cinema?

MB: I guess the same thing that I like about certain types of writing that might be accused of having style. I’m so much more interested in how a story is told than what the story is. Slow cinema isn’t concerned with the audience having fun. It recognizes a deeper joy than that. Art that is concerned with time and our experience of it is more thrilling to me than car chases or shoot outs.

BLVR: What are some of your favorite filmmakers in that vein?

MB: Ozu. Bresson. Tarkovsky. Chantel Akerman. Eric Rohmer. But lately I’ve been obsessed with Joanna Hogg and Hong Sangsoo.

BLVR: I’m working at that gasoline plant still. As you know. We’ve got this thing at my job, where something exciting will happen (something could blow up or collapse) and a new guy comes to the crew and somebody starts telling the new guy this amazing story but we have to stop them because they’ll ruin it. So then this guy, Todd, who can tell the story better, he steps in, you know. He can tell the story better than Dan or whatever. Todd has the style down. It’s like how The Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis, has no style when Moses says it so we have to tap Milton on the shoulder and say, hey, you say the fairytale, please.

MB: Yes. Exactly. Everything is style. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Style is substance. I mean, you could tell me the story of the Napoleonic Wars and make it terrible or you could tell me the story of how your shoe came untied and it might be a great epic tale. Timing and rhythm are the most important elements. All good art shares this. As I’m saying this I’m also thinking this is good life advice as well. Know when to hold’em, when to fold’em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.

BLVR: Do you see yourself as a stylist? Or—no, you said “everything is style.”

MB: I used to feel like that was a backhanded compliment or something, like oh you write pretty sentences but you can’t write a story but then I started to identify with that idea. What people commonly think of as “plot” is really a set of conventions. Of expectations. The gun will go off by the third act, that kind of thing. And our brains are focused on the satisfaction of these expectations being fulfilled or pleasantly subverted. I suspect this is because of commercial concerns. But I despise those kinds of narrative games. Plots have always bothered me and never made much sense. Like when I was a kid and every TV show had a zany mix up. I hated that. I believe instead that narrative is simply the unfolding of time. Story is how the artist decides to reveal information. By anchoring writing towards the sentence instead of the “plot” it liberates the reader’s relationship with time. Much like music acts as a kind of pulsing heartbeat that helps us forget about life passing away.

BLVR: How to transcend time, how to transcend one’s life, how to have an experience with art. You recently lent me a copy of Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film. What was your takeaway from that book?

MB: It’s become a wonderful guidebook for my writing and understanding of art. He speaks of art that can engage you spiritually. That’s done by holding back elements that most people are looking for and then satisfying that patience in a new way in order to focus the audiences (or readers) attention towards a more honest depiction of how life is actually deeply strange.

BLVR: Paul Schrader, of course, also wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ, First Reformed. Those do feel like overwhelmingly spiritual films. I don’t believe in God but I think I’m looking for God in all the things I write and in all the things I read, view, etc. Do you have faith in God?

MB: I mean, that’s a really crazy question [laughing] I’m interested in people not gods. Humanity lives in a complex web of existence, of what the hell matters and what doesn’t. People always say things like “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual”—the opposite was always true for me. 

I’d like to see religion without spirituality. Religions are great at bringing people together and helping them. The problem comes when people are like “I think God rides a pink horse,” and somebody else says, “No, God rides a purple horse,” and then they kill each other. Maybe everyone rides whatever damn horse they feel like. 

That’s a roundabout way of saying I’m agnostic.

BLVR: Like you said earlier, because of commercial concerns, none of that is investigated in a John Grisham novel.

MB: I love John Grisham. I think those writers have their place. I’ve seen Grisham a few times working at Square Books in Mississippi. Seems like a nice dude. I suspect Grisham wouldn’t say his work is literature. It’s popular fiction and I respect that. People love it. It’s just not what I’d want to read or aspire to write. It does nothing for me.

BLVR: Popular fiction has changed. People haven’t changed, society has changed around them. Tolstoy seemed like he was only concerned with giant things (for better or worse). Anna Karenina is very plot driven, while also being character driven, but also spiritually driven. The novel famously ends with one of the main characters investigating and then solving the meaning of life. Is anybody foolhardy enough to explicitly try and solve the meaning of life anymore in fiction?

MB: Meaning is overrated, I think. Life is impermanent and what we do in life has no purpose. We are cosmically unimportant. Even the seemingly most important people aren’t important at all. We should be reminded of this daily. While that seems depressing, it’s actually liberating. Each of us is free to choose what we do with our time. That’s not exactly meaningful. But it’s something. I don’t know. Maybe also help your neighbor if you can.

BLVR: And when we die, we just die, and it’s not a big deal, there’s nothing after?

MB: People spend too much time worrying about what will happen after death. Who cares? Death is completely banal to me. Not murder or killing or disease. Those are terrible. I mean the act itself. Death is as natural as sleeping or breathing or laughing.

BLVR: Maybe a well told story is most useful because it distracts the listener from death.

MB: But it’s not distracting you from death, it’s reminding you of it so you don’t waste all your time thinking about it.

BLVR: Storytellers are always the best clowns in my mind. Juggling skulls in front of the fire on the edge of darkness and then you blink and realize, even as a child: oh, one of those skulls will be mine.

MB: Exactly.

WEDNESDAY

BLVR: How you doing?

MB: Hey dawg, I can’t really talk.

BLVR: All right. Later.

MB: Later.

THURSDAY

MB: I think most writers (and people for that matter) take themselves way too fucking seriously. Where I grew up, and I suspect it was similar for you, I was always sitting around telling funny stories with my friends and family. All the best stories are some version of “You’re never going to believe this.”

BLVR: Where you from?

MB: Statesville, North Carolina. Small town on the way to somewhere better.

BLVR: What was it like growing up there?

MB: I can think of two things off the top of my head. My older brother and I were in high school at the same time. He was a senior and I was a freshman. There were always people fighting at my school. It was like the closest thing we had to real entertainment. Somebody would want to fight someone else and then word would spread and everyone would drive to some park or cul-de-sac and we’d watch people fight. 

The administration of the school was out of their minds saying anyone who fought would get arrested, but they were always a step behind the kids. This was before social media. Before cell phones. Anyway. My brother and his best friend started a rumor that they were going to fight each other. Concocted this whole story about a stolen slice of pizza. They set a time and a location near my brother’s best friend’s house. Word spread fast.  We went after school to the street in front of my brother’s friend’s house. Pretty much the whole town was there. Teachers, students, administration. But also kids from other schools. Parents. Unified spectators. Hell, the mayor might’ve been there. The school student newspaper reporters and the yearbook photographer. And we all waited for like an hour. Then my brother and his friend came out of the house. They ran towards each other but stopped short and hugged. 

They sat down on the curb and brought out a pizza. Then went back inside. It made the newspaper the next morning.

BLVR: I hear your dog barking, man.

MB: Hey, I gotta go walk Cleo real fast, can you give me like twenty mins?

FRIDAY

BLVR: Hey, just calling because I’m looking for a good movie to watch and you’re the man to ask.

MB: You should watch Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. It’s about the last night of this dive bar in Las Vegas. It’s a documentary but it’s been set up on a soundstage created to look like the bar. Real barflies flown in for the film but it’s all artificial. Meta. Janky. That great fine line between real and dreamed up.

BLVR: Okay, I’ll watch that. I’ve been trying to watch good stuff while I exercise, instead of YouTube or whatever.

MB: That stuff is like junk food. So comforting. Can’t stop eating it. I know I get hooked.

BLVR: I’m trying to watch better stuff. I just watched that doc about R. Crumb. You’ve seen that right?

MB: Years ago. Amazing.

BLVR: There’s a part where his critics are talking about how his art goes too far and it’s too misanthropic and it’s too dark and unkind. Critic to critic saying this stuff. And they’ve got a good point they’re raising. But then it cuts to an ex-girlfriend, Dian Hanson, and I’m expecting to hear something really harsh from her.

MB: Isn’t there the one critic who says something about how Celine was still a great writer though he was a Nazi sympathizer. That whole thing?

BLVR: Yup. But I like what Dian Hanson says, “Robert doesn’t exaggerate anything in his comics… and he really accurately portrays himself as the skinny, bad posture, myopic man he is. Some people wonder if he doesn’t exaggerate the size of his penis, which always appears awfully big in the comics. Robert does not exaggerate anything. He is endowed with one of the biggest penises in the world.”

MB: There you have it.

BLVR: Once I read a really great book, I’m hooked on really great books again and I can’t read anything that’s not at least trying to be great (whatever that means). When I see a great film, I’ve got to try and keep seeing great films. Lately I’ve been double dipping, trying to combine great films with weight lifting, because whenever else do I have the time to sit down and watch a movie? Of course, it usually leads to disaster. I ever tell you about when I threw my back out while doing squats, I was watching My Dinner with Andre. I couldn’t walk for like three days. Then I finally went to work because they were going to fire me but all I could do was sit there, not helping, I was hurt so bad.

MB: [Laughing] Jesus. Have you ever written this down?

BLVR: Nah, I will somewhere.

SUNDAY

MB: Went to vote (in the presidential election) and the poll worker woman was telling everyone in line instructions. She asked the guy behind me what was written on his mask. She couldn’t read from where she was standing. I guess you’re not supposed to have anything that says the candidates’ names but the guy had a Spaceballs mask (Mel Brooks movie) on. And the guy said “Spaceballs” and the woman replied, “What? Space what?” And the guys said “Balls. Spaceballs” but she says, “Space what?” again. Then me and the guy both yelled “Balls!” Really loud and everyone looked at us. And the woman goes “Oh that’s okay.” Then I voted.

BLVR: Everything is a seething mistake.

MB: Tell me about it. I’m out of work, as you know. Just like everybody. We’re all suffering this big Kafkaesque mistake.

BLVR: I was unemployed for six months. Thank God for the unemployment checks.

MB: For months I was unable to get unemployment money even though the website was saying I was approved. I called every day and each time the operator told me it was a different problem and that they’d solved it. They never did fix it and the next day was always a new operator, a new problem and a new solution that didn’t work. Then finally, after a marathon of eight hours on hold one day, I got to the final boss. The person who could release my money.

BLVR: The final boss [Laughing]. You had King Koopa on the line.

MB: He was very calm. He said there was nothing he could do and he had to talk to his supervisor. “I thought you were the final boss,” I said. He laughed. “There is no final boss,” he said. He emailed someone and maybe they would get back to him tomorrow. I begged. Told him I’d been on hold hours. Told him I’d waited months. He put me on hold then came back like a minute later. “OK,” he said. “Everything’s done. The money should be in your account tomorrow.” “What was the hold up?” I asked. “There wasn’t a problem,” he said. “Then why wasn’t my money in the account,” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “No mistakes made.” The money came the next day.

BLVR: I watched Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets late last night … and uh, finished it this morning.

MB: What’d you think?

BLVR: I thought it was really something special. I liked how in the film, the bar is closing it’s the last night at this bar. The clock is ticking down to when all the barflies are going to have to do something different with their lives. It reminded me a lot of what America feels like in general right now. You know?

MB: Yeah, trapped in this moment in time, like flies in amber or whatever, but then one day the amber just disappears and the flies are free.

BLVR: We’re the flies, exactly. Bumbling around through the air, looking for the next pile of shit to latch onto. There’s this part at the end of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the sun coming up and the drunks stumbling out into the real world again, having to greet reality and decide what their next adopted reality will be. It reminded me of all the best prison break stories. That hopeful feeling, but also that feeling like, “Can I make it on the outside?”

MB: The perfect movie to sum up how 2020 felt.

BLVR: I have a funny thing to tell you about watching it.  You got a minute?

MB: Shoot.

BLVR: I clicked on the virtual cinema link you sent. The streaming file was like two hours and forty five minutes and it opens up with a little thing from the Ross brothers (directors) saying to hang on after the movie for a party with the cast and crew and to catch up with some of the barflies from the film. Okay. So I’m sitting in the living room with Rae and we’re watching it. Drinking beer. But she’s not feeling very well about halfway through and is getting a cough. I ask if she wants to stop the movie and she says no she’s enjoying it and so we keep watching. But then at the two hour mark, suddenly she just can’t do it anymore and says, “I’ve got to go to bed.” She gets up from the chair and walks into the bedroom. I’m kinda annoyed because there’s forty five minutes left and I’m really invested in what is going to happen to the people in the movie. The bar is just about to shut down for good and I think something incredible is about to happen. Something truly transcendent. There’s forty five minutes of the movie left after all… where can it go? I’ve just got this delirious hope for their futures and I think we’re gonna see that hope unfold, or collapse, or something. But I don’t want to watch the rest without Rae. So I go around the house and turn all the lights off and put on the chain and turn the deadbolt and I go into the bedroom and she’s flipping around Roku and she says, “Do you want to watch (that prestige TV drama) Catherine the Great?” I’m not proud of it, but I lost my mind. We got into a big fight because she couldn’t sit through this one movie and here I was gonna get sucked into watching eight season, eighty-plus eventual hours or so of Catherine the Great, which who knows, maybe it’d be wonderful. But I got in the bed and pulled the covers over my head and she shut the TV off and we lay in the dark, pissed off and the city was loud outside the window—it was like something out of Richard Yates, middle aged couples just miserable in the dark. The next morning I woke up before Rae and went out into the living room and figured I might as well watch the last forty five minutes of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. I clicked on the streaming link and the film picked up right where we’d left off. It played for thirty seconds and then the credits roll.

MB: [Laughing]

BLVR: Yeah, the rest of it was that cast party or whatever. The directors goofing around in their basement.

MB: [Laughing]. Did you apologize?

BLVR: That’s all I do. I start every sentence with, hey I’m sorry. By the way, I’m sorry I should have asked you this earlier, Bible. What’s your new novel about?

 MB: It’s about a small town American massacre.

BLVR: Anything else?

MB: Nah, that’s all.

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