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Author Interview: Michael Bettendorf

Michael Bettendorf is an author who has been published three times in The Mark Literary Review. You can find "Caffeine Dreams" here, "Tos May Apply" here, and "Small Town Strange" here.

Q. You've had short stories published in The Mark and other literary magazines, and now you're working on a novel. Is there anything you can tell us about that? You've written "Caffeine Dreams," "Tos May Apply," and "Small Town Strange" for The Mark. Is the novel similar or different to those stories? A. Sure thing! So, the novel I'm working on falls under the fantasy umbrella. I've never written fantasy before, at least not since I was younger, and it's been an interesting ride. I grew up on Redwall and other fantasy novels, have shoved hundreds upon hundreds of hours into both videogame and tabletop RPGs; writing fantasy was never something I thought I'd find myself doing, but the right story and character came along. So, here I am. I would say that the novel is dissimilar in terms of setting and plot to my short stories, however, I'm writing it in the first person, which is allowing me to really dig into the protagonist's flaws, insecurities, and existential woes as he sorts out the situation(s) he's in. So in that regard, it is a bit similar to those stories, "ToS May Apply" and "Small Town Strange" specifically.

Q. How did your stories published in The Mark come to be? Did they start with an image, concept, problem, character, etc?

A. Ha, well shoot...let's see here. "Small Town Strange" and "Caffeine Dreams" are semi-autobiographical. I was thinking a lot about setting when writing "Small Town Strange," specifically how a setting/place affects the people who inhabit the place both immediately and over time. I'm from the Midwest and we often get overlooked. Flyover states, right? But where I’m from, we’ve had a lot of dark shit happen. Murders, disappearances, meth was a huge issue in the early 2000s, and so on. I had a great childhood and growing up, I wasn’t directly affected by most of this stuff, but I’ve taken a lot of time to think about it over the years and process how it affected me, my hometown/community, my friendships, etc. The bank shooting from "Small Town Strange" was a real event. It was completely fucked. The girl in the story? That happened to a classmate. I haven’t seen her since and it’s devastating. My dad is a retired paramedic/fire captain and he was the first person to enter the building after it happened. I think about that a lot. The hypotheticals, let alone the carnage he’s seen. In retrospect, it explains a lot. I think about how it could have just as easily been me and my siblings getting pulled from class.

Not to completely sink the mood, but "Caffeine Dreams" comes from a similar place of loss. It’s less semi-autobiographical and just autobiographical. I lost one of my best friends in college and I suppose that story was just part of my continual processing of it. At the time of publication, it’d been six or seven years, but I’d recently had a conversation with him in a dream and decided to write about it.

"ToS May Apply" came out of some Black Mirror/Phillip K. Dick inspired cynicism I was feeling at the time. Digital rights. Privacy. The never-ending stream of advertisements, tailor made for us from algorithms. Us being stripped down to data to be sold. All that sorta stuff. I wanted to experiment with some formatting too and that’s about that ha. I promise I’m not that much of a buzzkill.

Q. As writers we often deal with a lot of rejection. When one of your stories gets rejected, what is your editing process like before you resubmit it?

A. It’s funny you mention this because I just got a rejection a few minutes ago for a story I’ve had rejected many times already. Whenever that happens, I always consider: was it the wrong place, the wrong time, both? Was it the right place, wrong time or any of those combinations, because I know that’s often the case. Lastly, I consider if the story just wasn’t up to snuff. I know it’s a trope for writers to be self-deprecating, but that isn’t helpful. I have enough confidence in my abilities not to dwell on that, but sometimes it’s true and our stories fall flat. So, all that said. I usually read through the story to see if there’s anything obviously wrong with it, touch up lines here or there, and whatnot. I have a few friends and writer buddies I’ll send things to for their thoughts and feedback as well. I wish I had a better answer ha. I just try to make them the best stories they can be and try again with a different journal/magazine. Worst case I’m told no and I write something else.

Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements in a story?

A. Goodness…um. That’s a tough one because all of the elements are important in their own way. It’s all about how the writer synthesizes them. I just finished Noir by Christopher Moore and the strengths of that novel are drastically different from the strengths of Dune, which I just started to reread. Moore’s dialogue and wit are integral in Noir when put into context of the setting (1940s San Francisco) and while it may not be rife with philosophy, it was a great story with memorable characters and an engaging plot. Dune, on the other hand has all sorts of wild conflict, subterfuge, indigenous peoples, politics, environmental things, etc. going on thematically, even if the dialogue is a bit dry. Still, the characters are interesting and the plot is engaging, especially placed into the context of Arrakis. In short, character and motivation within the context of setting.

Q. Where was your first publication? What was the story about?

A. I had my first story published by in The Weird Reader Vol. 3 (October 2018). It is a flash fiction piece titled Private Picasso and explores mental illness.

Q. You've mentioned that you listen to music as you write. Do you use certain music for certain scenes? How do you pick the music?

A. There are a lot of variables that come into play here, so I apologize for a muddied answer. It’s completely dependent on mood. My musical tastes are all over the place and I’m easily distracted, so 99% of the time if I’m going to listen to music while writing, it will be instrumental, otherwise I cannot focus. The problem is, I’m also a drummer and tend to get lost in instrumental music just as easily. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot unfamiliar ambient music that doesn’t have drums. Sometimes I’ll write silently, and other times, on the rarest occasions, I’ll throw on something I’m familiar with. Specifically, for my current novel, if I want anything more upbeat or general mood, I’ll find D&D mixes on YouTube. There’re tons of them out there. Forest vibes, town vibes, tavern vibes, etc. or I’ll toss on some video game soundtracks. When I write crime stories, I’ll sometimes toss on noir/jazz mixes. General ideas that fit in with the vibe I’m looking to capture. Music is one of those subjects I could blab on forever about, so.

Q. You've also mentioned that you have writer's block at times. How do you overcome that?

A. I usually like to start with a good ol’ self-interrogation or pep talk ha. The thing is, writer’s block is different for everyone and I think it’s important to know your own brand of it. For me, I have to ask myself if I’m being lazy or if I’m actually stuck. Sometimes I’m just being lazy and I have to get over it. Sit down. Turn off the music. Leave my phone somewhere else. If I have any tabs open, it better be for the thesaurus/dictionary or for research purposes. That’s it.

Other times, it’s more difficult than that. We’re all human, right? So, if I’m anxious or tired or have eye-strain or whatever, I just have to be realistic with my expectations and be kind to myself. I’ve beat myself up far too many times over productivity in the past to deal with that nonsense anymore because at the end of the day it only leaves me feeling like shit, which helps nobody.

If I’m actually stuck, I’ll read through my notes or outline and see if I can figure out what’s tripping me up. Talking through scenes is helpful too. All writers need someone they can bounce things back and forth with. Right now, I’m having a bear of a time with my current WIP. I know where it’s going, but getting it there is the issue. I’m (mostly) following my outline (which isn’t super detailed the way it is) but I reached a place organically that still fits into the story…I just wasn’t expecting it. So now I have to navigate my way through it in a way that ties the threads together. I went from hitting 500-1000 words a day to maybe 200-300 the past two or three days. It happens and it’s okay.

The simplest solution for me is to keep a routine. I’m thankful I’m in a place where I can do that right now. It ebbs and flows, but for the most part I’ve been able to keep a routine. I’m far more likely to be productive if I keep a regular routine—that includes time off. Setting realistic goals is integral, whether it’s word count or time or a milestone in the novel. Anywho, that’s about it. Thank you for speaking with me.

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