By Ross Nervig
Of the opponents pitted against one another in Michael Garriga’s The Book of Duels, Robert Olen Butler writes: “His characters sing the yearning of their very souls.” Inhabiting the adversaries in ninety-nine duels recorded throughout human history, Garriga crafts a study of honor, vengeance, and struggle in prose that grabs the reader. In the pages of what one could call combative flash fiction, Cain meets Abel, George meets the Dragon, Robert Johnson meets Charlie Trussle. Life and death hang in the balance of the voices Garriga has wrestled out of history, myth, and literature into a roar and yawp of fighting words. A native of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Michael Garriga’s work has appeared in The Southern Review, New Letters, Oxford American, and various other journals. He is the co-editor of the literary journal, FictionSoutheast.com, and teaches creative writing at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, OH, where he lives with his wife and two sons.
He took some time recently to answer a few questions for Bayou Magazine.
First, how on earth did you come up with the premise for this book?
I came across a footnote in a book that read, “In the last legal duel fought in MS, Philip Lacroix killed Etienne Thigpen over the rightful ownership of a cow.” My first thought was, There used to be legal duels in Mississippi? Then, There’s no way they fought about a cow. There’s gotta be more to the story. I couldn’t find anything further on these two men, so to satisfy my own self, I invented the events that led them to the dueling ground. I wrote them as sonnets—the poetic turn mirroring the combatants’ physical turn, when they aimed and fired their pistols. Initially, I had the poems true-margined to stand back-to-back on the same page. They were diptychs. I wrote four duels before I realized that the strict form was inhibiting them, so I began to render them in prose on separate pages, loosening the line length and structure, giving them room to breathe, which allowed for more organic monologues. But they were still diptychs, and I did keep the turn.
Each new story proposed a unique, if similar, problem: The surface offense that led to the duel’s challenge (the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back) rarely warranted such a potentially violent response. Hamilton had called Burr “despicable,” for instance. Another was fought over who knew more Latin, and yet another over who had more game birds on his estate. These are hardly offenses worthy of taking another man’s life. But once I scratched that tender surface, I’d inevitably discover a whole rotten carcass of fragile egos, political intrigues, infidelities, abandonments, back stabbings, and so on. Solving these problems, exploring these motivations, recovering what’s been hidden is deeply satisfying work.
Plus, the idea of a duel is ready made for my type of flash fiction. The pressure of death/killing creates the high stakes I need for these characters to experience their lives flashing before their eyes to reveal some gravely important epiphany. Later duels did not require this violence; they include chess matches, dueling banjoes, child birth…acts of creation. Still, the ephemeral structure of a duel forces me to compress language and affords me the intensity needed to make duende leaps. The setting is built perforce into each duel, and I liked the idea that in these scenarios both combatants could feel 100% justified in their actions.
How did you set aside your own opinions to breathe humanity into people we might consider villains these days?
To move beyond labels and first impulses can be frightening. Recognition in a human we find repugnant is deeply challenging. It’s the artist’s job, however, to dive into these dark emotional waters, to swim in the unrecognizable depths, to go down and stir up the silt lying dormant on the pond’s floor (where all the good, repressed stuff of fiction resides), and to bring those images back to the surface.
Take Lt. Col. Custer’s piece. It’s one of my favorites, but I had a hard time getting past my loathsome disregard for him and his war crimes, ego mania, racism, etc. When I tried to inhabit his being, to render his character from the inside out, which I attempted to do in each of these interior monologues, I kept asking, “Why all this dastardly behavior?” He wanted to be the U.S. president, surely, and I assumed he rationalized, “I’ll do my good works once I achieve that goal.” So, almost every word in his story is charged with this balance of ambition and rationalization. And love. He loved his wife and she him. My research bore that out completely. So here he is in the middle of a violent battle, despising the president who’s sent him on this mission while simultaneously wishing to help further American progress, and all the while he’s meditating on the smallest details of his wife, glorifying her. If I do my job right and strip away the simple window-dressing of a character, the reader experiences a fully realized, complex human who displays an array of contradictions, and who, in many ways, mirrors ourselves. A lot of these characters, like most of us, are torn between what we actually do and what we want to do and what we think we’re supposed to do. Exploration of that tension often leads to the most interesting fiction.
There’s obviously a lot of historical research involved in the book. Can you describe your research process?
It was an amorphous process. When I’d come across a duel I wanted to work on, I’d graze for weeks in that particular period. I’d read pieces written about that era, gleaning insights about its attitudes, happenings, and zeitgeist. I’d also read pieces written in that period, trying to steal phrases, images, rhythms, and words.
It was blissful work, like being a history major with no pop tests or final exams. I’d read about costuming or art or meals or farming techniques. You never know what tidbit will worm its way into your work and help bring a story to life. It was a red-letter day, for instance, when I’d learn some specific detail like the perfume used to scent the mane of King Henry’s horse was made of Ambergris, a concretion derived from sperm whale intestines.
The most important part of the research, however, was when I learned about Code Duellos, the codified set of rules for fighting duels. They are nearly universal, and though they’re nuanced and differ from culture to culture, they’re all consistent in that they mandate the need of a witness. Without one, a duel is simply murder. This witness, then, provided me the third speaker for each duel.
That is, the witness made each story a triptych, which I really liked. And needed. It gave each story balance, a third POV to describe what physically happens between the combatants (in something approaching “objectivity”), and the chance to create yet another character with her own story—her unique issues and concerns, fears and desires.
Beyond “the duel” itself, what other themes unite these pieces?
One reviewer wrote, dismissively, that “The Book of Duels is solely focused on sex, violence, food, and religion.” And I thought, in a dismissive response, Yeah, you got it, man. I would, however, like to think there’s a lot of love in these pages, too. Or at the very least, the dogged pursuit of it and the yearning to regain its absence.
When I began arranging the order of the book, religion became a bigger theme. You can follow its thread throughout the works. I wanted God and Satan to be the bookend witnesses. God’s page remains blank, a silent, prolonged sigh in response to our puny follies, and Satan’s “Ars Poetica” more than doubles the length of any other speaker. He never stops talking, cajoling, lying, bragging, explaining, seducing. He claims personal involvement in the 32 preceding duels. And he always gets the last word.