Interview with John Michael Curlovich
John Michael Curlovich is a writer and curmudgeon based in Pittsburgh. He has had more than 20 novels published, as well as numerous short stories. For 10 years he served as Arts & Entertainment Editor for the award-winning regional monthly Planet Q. He shares his home with two deaf cats, Mandy and Melanie, who he loves to be dominated by.
As The world re-acquaints itself with Anne Rice’s gay vampire couple Lestat and Louis in the Interview with a Vampire TV series, we thought you might like to meet Curlovich’s Egyptian vampires.
When did you first start writing?
Early in high school. I started keeping a journal my freshman year. I used it to record my daily life and experiences, of course, but I quickly realized that expressing myself in written words was enormously satisfying to me. I quickly started using my journal as a kind of language laboratory, finding new and better ways to express myself in writing.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
I have to say that finding new ways to express myself—more clearly, more fully, more precisely—gives me great satisfaction. When I’ve finished a story, when I’ve made it express exactly what I intended when I began, gives me a great measure of comfort. And finishing a novel, completing such an enormous undertaking to my complete satisfaction, gives me a high like I’ve never gotten from any drug.
What are your five favorite novels, and why?
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Mad, anarchic, cynical, witty and wildly funny, it’s the best account of war and the military/bureaucratic mind ever written.
Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. The early Roman Empire, brought to life with stunning fullness and detail. Beautifully written, in a plain, straightforward style that captures perfectly everything from religious belief to love to madness and depravity.
The Collected Stories of Paul Bowles. Strange and utterly compelling. Bowles dedicated his first collection of stories to his mother, who introduced him to the writing of Edgar Allan Poe. And Bowles’ stories, more than any I know of, capture Poe’s sense of the weird, the beautiful and the psychologically disturbing through a distinctly modern eye. Perfectly brilliant.
1876 by Gore Vidal, tied with his masterwork Julian. Vidal is among my all-time favorite writers. 1876 isn’t usually ranked among his best work, but his urbane, witty view of American history is irresistible to me. Julian does much the same thing for Christian Rome of the fourth century, with its tale of the “apostate” emperor who tried to suppress Christianity and restore reverence for the ancient gods.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. One of the great science fiction novels, an engrossing, entertaining story with genuinely epic sweep.
Which other authors have most influenced or inspired your writing?
The great, unsung science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith. Along with Heller and Bowles, Smith expanded my ideas about just how much fiction can accomplish. And Gore Vidal, more than anyone else, taught me how to write dialog and incorporate it into a fictional story. Dialog is not just people talking; properly used, it serves a lot of other functions in a story.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky.
What is the first book that made you cry?
It was the huge dictionary Sister Felicita, my fourth grade nun, hit me with.
Seriously, though, it was Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, which I found a copy of and read surreptitiously when I was 15. I don’t remember how I heard about it, but it was the first book I ever came across that treated gay people like me as perfectly natural, not as freaks or psychos. In the conservative Catholic world where I grew up, such a thing was never even hinted at—and in fact was deeply subversive. It’s not what I’d call a great book, far from Vidal’s best, but it opened up a whole new horizon for me. For the first time, the sun came out for this gay kid, and the book moved me when few others ever have.
What do you read for pleasure?
Mostly nonfiction. History and biography, more than anything else. Occasional books on science, primarily the history of science, and the arts. I’ve always been a compulsive learner of new things, and reading is the best way to do that.
What’s your vision for the future of publishing?
I’m no better at predictions than anyone else. Remember Pat Robertson’s assurance that the entire population of China would convert to Christianity by the year 2000? Or all the confident forecasts that Donald Trump could never be elected president? The world and its people are changing so fast I don’t see how anyone can be so sure of what’s coming as to make pronouncements about it. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, the future will not only be stranger than we know, it will be stranger than we can know.
Having said that, and at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I can’t say I feel very optimistic about any aspect of “the information society.” More and more people seem to mistake having a great deal of information for having a great deal of knowledge (or even wisdom). Though they’re clearly related, they’re not at all the same thing.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when “public intellectuals” were a valued, respected part of society. Writers, philosophers and all kinds of other thinkers used to do radio/TV/newspaper commentaries on all sorts of important issues. And even though no one regarded their opinions as absolute or definitive, they were thoughtful, and people paid attention. Where is that today?
I don’t particularly think of myself as an intellectual, and I think of myself as an entertainer, not a “literary figure,” but my books do have a little something to say. At least I hope so. But I’ve been joking for years that becoming a novelist in the Age of YouTube is a bit like opting for a career as a stegosaurus. This is not to say society and culture won’t persist in some form, but it won’t be the society I’ve known and loved, and I doubt if it will be one where books matter much.
What drives you to keep on writing?
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Read, read, read. Read everything you can. The more you know, the more interesting your writing will be.