From his “earthquake chic” writing space, Michael Libling brings us a story with deeply personal origins—”Robyn in Her Shiny Blue Coffin” [on sale now], his fourth work to hit Asimov’s pages. Below, Michael discusses the decades of attempts that eventually became this story, his overarching history as a writer, and dealing with negative feedback.
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
ML: A vague concept had been circling my psyche since the early ’90s, when the eldest of my three daughters became seriously ill while in her teens. We were in and out of the Montreal Children’s Hospital for three difficult years, the emotional experience somewhere between rollercoaster and demolition derby. Fortunately, my daughter made it through the ordeal, healthy, happy, positive, and resolute. Today, she’s the mother of three with a thriving theatre company. But we also got to know too many kids and parents who weren’t so lucky, and those are memories you never fully shake.
AE: How did this story germinate?
ML: Many of the stories I write are loosely based on events in my own life and “Robyn in Her Shiny Blue Coffin” is no exception. I tried taking a factual approach to my daughter’s story several times over the years, either as a personal essay or as a lengthier non-fiction account, but it was tough to write more than a page or two without the emotions resurfacing. I couldn’t do it. Even after all these years, writing about those hospital days strikes too close to home. It was only after watching an episode of Penn & Teller: Fool Us that a wholly fictional approach struck me as viable. While it’s not my daughter’s story by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, it was inspired by elements from that period: the hospital environment; the sub-culture that flourishes within a children’s ward; and the friends who stuck by my daughter and those that ran the other way.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
ML: While researching an earlier horror story, I came across a website promoting “coffin sales.” Among the items offered were a variety of child-sized coffins, with “colorful and fun” options. The dissonance was jarring. I wanted my title to deliver a similar impact, though, in all honesty, I’m not sure I’ve succeeded to the same extent as that website. On a side note, working titles for what became “Robyn in Her Shiny Blue Coffin” included “How Death Works” and “The Amazing Robyn.”
AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?
ML: This is my fourth appearance. Previous stories were “The Grocer’s Wife (Enhanced Transcription),” “Wretched the Romantic,” and “At the Old Wooden Synagogue on Janower Street.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, every acceptance and appearance in Asimov’s is as exciting as the first. It’s a special kind of thrill to have my stories appear in magazines I grew up reading.
“Here, I thank my older sister, Mara, who taught me a basic lesson—avoid the hackneyed; go against the flow. I’ve taken this to heart, though I have since wondered if this might also be the tactic to avoid if one is seeking broad commercial success.”
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
ML: Lately, with regards to COVID-19, I can’t see how anyone can write fiction set in 2020 without referencing the pandemic in one way or another. I just put the finishing touches on a new novel, which would not have felt real had I not brought the virus into play. Is there anyone whose life hasn’t been touched by it?
AE: How did you break into writing?
ML: Not sure I broke into it. More like I slipped into it.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, thanks to the encouragement of teachers and an older sister who also loved to write. In university, I took every creative writing course available, lucking out with two exceptional “teachers,” Clark Blaise and Mordecai Richler—both well-established on the Canadian literary scene and each open to mainstream and genre fiction. While I tried selling stories in my teens, it was years before my fiction began to be published. (I took pride in my wall of rejections.) Meanwhile, I wrote anything and everything—newspaper and magazine features, term papers for a fee, even edited a stock market magazine with minimal knowledge of the stock market. I eventually ended up in advertising as a copywriter and then creative director. (Ex-Lax. It can make your day overnight! Yup, I wrote that.) Finally, circa 1992, I was signed by an agent (the late Virginia Kidd) and a month later I had my first pro sale for fiction. (You can read more abut this in “Genrealities,” an essay that’s available on my website.)
AE: What inspired you to start writing?
ML: Is a writer “inspired to start writing” or is it more a matter of discovering something he or she enjoys and is, perhaps, not bad at—like dancing or gardening or bowling? While it’s tough to pinpoint a specific moment, I often cite fifth grade, when my teacher, Mrs. Franks, read a story of mine aloud to the class. I loved the feeling and the response from the other kids. I haven’t stopped since. Here, I thank my older sister, Mara, who taught me a basic lesson—avoid the hackneyed; go against the flow. I’ve taken this to heart, though I have since wondered if this might also be the tactic to avoid if one is seeking broad commercial success. Writing about zombies, vampires, demon hunters, or the epic adventures of Glummox of Flugte and his quest for yet another damn ring or sword or muffin top might well be a more rewarding route to follow.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
ML: As mentioned, I’ve recently completed a new novel—a quirky thriller about serial killers, dentists, and ice cream. As with most of my fiction, there’s a strain of dark humor throughout. Meanwhile, I’m circling the first few paragraphs of what will become either a short story or a novel.
AE: How would you describe your writing space?
ML: Modern ransacked. Earthquake chic. A cautionary lesson on the perils of clutter.
AE: Do you ever hear from readers? What do they write to you about?
ML: I hear fairly often from readers, usually through the contact page on my website. To date, the notes have been uniformly positive, usually triggered by a story or interview that resonated. My last story in Asimov’s—“At the Old Wooden Synagogue on Janower Street”—was a good example of this. I received more response to this than any short story previously published.
Since my novel came out last year (and recently relaunched by Open Road Media), the mail has gone up considerably. Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels is set in my old hometown of Trenton, Ontario, and is based on true events. The town has a rather bizarre history. Accordingly, I’ve heard from many who either live or lived in the area, most notably old friends and one-time schoolmates. This has been an unexpected bonus in having the novel out there. There’s a small-town past we share, much of which is touched upon in Hollywood North.
AE: How do you deal with criticism of your writing?
ML: Besides burying my head in my hands and weeping for a few hours?
In the late ’90s, I had a story appear in what was then the print rebirth of Amazing Stories magazine. I went online to see if it had been reviewed. I found two reviews in short order.
The first reviewer was disappointed with the magazine’s comeback issue, feeling nothing was worth reading, EXCEPT for Michael Libling’s “ribald” “Pheromitey Glad.” I was gratified and excited, until a few minutes later when I came across a second review—this one by Dave Truesdale:
“Of the three slightly longer, independent short stories, Michael Libling’s ‘Pheromitey Glad’ I found to be a sophomoric, unfocused and an ambling attempt at arch cuteness, which failed miserably. It just didn’t make any sense on any real level, and was difficult to read with all of the cUTe spellings . . . Sometimes literary experiments work, sometimes they don’t. This one totally failed for me.”
I wanted to crawl under the covers and hide. I realized then, if I was going to believe the good reviews, I had to believe the bad ones, too. Best to avoid them all and carry on. Still, the occasional review will hurt, whether from a pro reviewer or a reader. In this regard, I turn to this paragraph from Brian K. Vaughan’s graphic novel series, The Escapists:
“I know it sounds whiny, but if you’ve never gotten a bad review before, you have no idea what a unique kind of heartbreak it is. And I’m not talking about getting constructive criticism from your seventh-grade English teacher. . . . I’m talking about a complete stranger telling other complete strangers that something you’ve been carrying inside you for months is stillborn.”
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
ML: My website, where I also blog on occasion: http://www.michaellibling.com
As for Facebook, well, just search for me. And feel free to follow or “friend” me. Well, unless you’ve read the above and feel you might be better off maintaining a safe distance.
Open Road Media relaunched Michael Libling’s mystery and fantasy noir novel, Hollywood North, in July, and the author is currently finishing up a new novel. We’re delighted that he took some time in between projects to write this eerie tale about “Robyn in Her Shiny Blue Coffin.”