Interview with Michael Dahlie, 2009 PEN/Hemingway Award Winner

Q: Tell us about your debut novel A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living.  Is Arthur modeled after one of your friends?   

A: Arthur is in his late 50s but, honestly, he's kind of modeled after me when I was 12.  Totally lonely and with just a few ambitions: not to break anything, to avoid getting beaten up, and (maybe) to find a few friends who might want to eat lunch with him.

 

Q:  You went to Colorado College, and then you secured an MA in European History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Were you on track to secure a PhD in European History? Why did you switch gears and earn an MFA in creative writing from Washington University in St. Louis?   

A: I was close to finishing my coursework for the PhD when I left to get my MFA. I loved the work I did in my history program, but saying something about the world as a scholar is not the same saying something about the world as an artist.  I finally decided I'd probably be happier taking the artist's route.

 

Q. You said you are in France at this time. Please explain your role there. Tell us the name and size of the program. And, where is the program based?

A: I'm in Paris and on sabbatical while I finish up a book.  But I run a writing program in Chamonix France, in the Alps.  I got to know the area in the 90s when I worked at an Environmental NGO in Geneva.  I’d always wanted to find a way to spend time in the region again.  Starting up a summer writing program seemed like a good idea. We run for most of June every year and have had great people - Cheryl Strayed, Alex Chee, Pam Houston, and so on.  If people want to know what we're up to, the best thing to do is to check out the website -  montblancworkshops.com.  I guess that's kind of a plug but I can talk about this for hours so the website might save everyone some time.

 

Q. Do you still hold a post at Butler University? If so, tell us about it.

A: Yes.  I teach in the English department and the MFA program at Butler.  Our program is young but it has a lot going for it, including a great big house on campus that used to belong to Butler's president but is now ours.  Also, we've got a pretty high-end faculty.  They started the MFA program just before I was hired and they did it because they happened to have some unusually accomplished writers in the department.  It was great to be invited in.

 

Q. Is your family with you in France?  (Dahlie is married to author Allison Lynn).

A: Yes.  My son is 8 and goes to school here and now corrects my French - or complains about my American accent, at least.  Allison is here too.

 

Q. What is it like being married to another novelist?  Do you discuss your work at home?

A: It's a nightmare and, yes, discussions ad nauseam.

 

Q. Have you read a lot of Ernest Hemingway’s work?  Which is your favorite book (short story, novel, or nonfiction title)?

A: Well, I've been thinking about Death in the Afternoon a lot recently.  Hemingway's descriptions of gleeful mobs taking pleasure in watching animals suffer somehow resonates with something going on these days.  It's hard to articulate, though, especially since I think that what I took away from that book isn't really what Hemingway wanted me to take away.

 

Q. Do you remember where you were (and who you were with) when you were notified about winning the PEN/Hemingway Award?

A: I used to rent a tiny office on 28th Street, between Broadway and 5th Ave.  Coincidentally, it's the old Tin Pan Alley, which was nice since I made a living doing bottom level grub-street work.  It was an unusual street since it seemed to be the last place in Manhattan in 2009 that was actually in decline.  The upside of that was that rents were cheap and the other people in the building were all running failing and fly-by-night businesses.  Like me?  I didn't have internet, which was why I got so much writing done, but I could get email on my telephone, and that's how the news came through.  A couple of hours later I met my wife at the Spotted Pig for a gigantic, boozy lunch.  Getting that email and then going to meet my wife that day is one of the best memories I have.

 

Q.  Are you working on any new projects at this time?  Please explain, if you are.

A: I'm finishing up a novel.  It's going pretty well but I'm not sure I can say anything very meaningful about it right now.  It's not set in Paris, but I have to say that Paris is a great place to write because of all the obscure and independent libraries that are open to people with writing projects.  I work in a little archive that has nothing to do with my book but they let me sit here every day and there's a good coffee machine and it's totally quiet.  The sort of spot you dream of.

Wayne Catan, January 26, 2017