Author's ideas come from people, life around him

Posted: Thursday, November 28, 2002

Writing is like a muscle; it doesn't strengthen if it isn't exercised regularly. This is the perspective of Michael Armstrong of Homer, and he should know -- he's been flexing his writing muscles for over 20 years.

Armstrong writes mainly science fiction and fantasy short stories and novels, but overlaps into other genres as well. His most recent work, a mystery short story, can be read in "The Mysterious North" anthology, edited by Dana Stabenow, that came out in October. His story is called "A Little Walk Home," and is about a man stranded in the Alaska wilderness north of Fairbanks. The man believes his bush pilot abandoned him, so he decides to take matters into his own hands and walk back to civilization.

Armstrong, 46, has been writing professionally since college, but his desire to be a writer goes back as long as he can remember. He grew up in Tampa, Fla., and was a voracious reader throughout childhood. He said he was one of those kids who always knew what he wanted to do in life -- be a writer.

"It's creative. I like that because I love language and I love words. I'm very much a verbally-oriented kind of person. ... I'm drawn to writing as a therapy and as an expression. It's kind of like writing is painful, but not writing hurts more. I have to write to get the stuff out that's inside. If I didn't, I'd probably be more of a screwed up person than I am."

Science fiction was the genera that most appealed to him while he was growing up.

"People read and write (science fiction) basically because they're geeks and nerds," Armstrong said. "I wasn't really a social outcast, but I always felt kind of misunderstood. ... I often had a feeling of alienation, and that's kind of what science fiction is about because it's often set in other places. I think people write about it because they feel they're not necessarily part of the here and now. They're just normal people but there's this sense of being separated from your culture and wanting to ponder the larger world."

As an adult, Armstrong still enjoys science fiction, mainly because it examines the future and other worlds.

"I believe there's hope for the future and science fiction says there will be a future," he said. "No matter how we screw it up here and how crazy things are, we will get beyond it and there will be another world. When you grow up in the '60s and '70s, those were crazy times. Here we are in this world where so many ideas and concepts they dreamed about in the past are now a matter of fact. And so many of the problems we feared haven't been solved, but we are working on them. ... We're managing, figuring out how to maintain a halfway decent lifestyle and not destroy the environment. That kind of thinking as a tool is useful."

Armstrong attended New College in Sarasota, Fla., and participated in various writing workshops and independent study programs. He attended one in Michigan, the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers workshop, that was particularly helpful. The program was a six-week residential writing workshop where participants worked with professional writers and editors.

"That was definitely a life-changing event," Armstrong said. "It had been something I wanted to do. It was the first time that anyone challenged me to actually write.

"Boot camp for writers, it's often called. The first week we worked with a writer who said 'you're all great writers back home, that's a given. But that doesn't mean anything. Now you're going to figure out what it means to be a writer, to write fiction seriously.'"

Throughout the workshop, participants went through a writing process to end up with one finished story. They would write a draft, have it critiqued and rewrite it until it made the grade.

"They would say 'this is absolute crap, this is absolutely crummy,'" Armstrong said. "... But when you got it, you knew that you had done it right. By giving no-holds-barred criticism, when you got praise, you knew it was honest praise."

After college, Armstrong worked for a while in Sarasota, then moved to Alaska in December 1979 on the recommendation of some friends.

"I figured, 'what the heck. I'll go to Alaska. The worst thing that can happen is it's too cold and I can move back,'" Armstrong said.

Even though he moved to Anchorage in the dead of winter, the cold didn't bother him enough to leave. He spent about 15 years in Anchorage, the latter years working as an adjunct English professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He moved to Homer about eight years ago with his wife, Jenny Stroyeck, who is one of the partners at the Homer Bookstore. He continued teaching at the Kachemak UAA campus and through distance delivery courses for a while, but eventually took a full-time job as an editorial assistant at the Homer News.

Many of Armstrong's story ideas come from his life in Alaska -- places he's been, people he's met and life stories he's heard about.

"I absorb stuff from my culture and my world," he said. "I also think that, in Alaska, it's important to be in the environment so I get out and ski and walk. I walk the beach a lot, and a lot of my ideas come from just kind of thinking. Some of it's taken from real-life stories. ... Ideas just come to me. I have no shortage of ideas, what I have a shortage of is time to make books."

The second short story Armstrong had published was one inspired by time he spent in Barrow. When he first moved to Anchorage, Armstrong got a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Youth Conservation Corps program working in an archeological lab in Anchorage and spending seven weeks in the arctic refuge in the summer working at an archeological site.

"It was just an amazing experience," he said. "It was the first time I'd been away from the rest of the world for an extended period of time. The thought occurred to me, 'what if there was a nuclear war, what would I do?' You become an Eskimo, essentially. That was 1980 ... where nuclear war was not an impossibility."

From this line of thinking, Armstrong wrote the short story "Going After Arviq," set in Barrow after a nuclear war. "Arviq" means "whale" in Inupiak, Armstrong said, so the title essentially means "going after the whale." Before the war, the traditional culture was falling apart due to modernization. Then the war comes and the traditional village is cut off from the rest of the world, forcing the Natives to try to relearn their traditional culture and ways of survival. The story was published in 1985 in an anthology of post-nuclear holocaust stories called "Afterwar."

Several other short stories Armstrong has written have developed from regional Alaska themes. One is a fantasy mystery story, bordering on a horror story, called "The Kikiktuk," which is a shamanistic device in the Inupiak culture, Armstrong said. The story is about a kid with fetal alcohol syndrome who gets hold of a Kikiktuk and his aunt and a teen-ager who try to find him. It was published in "Cold Shocks," an anthology of mystery stories, in 1991.

"Old One-Antler," published in Peter S. Beagle's Immortal Unicorn anthology in 1995, is about a father and son who encounter a single-antlered caribou while hunting.

"That was kind of a father-son story," Armstrong said. "The father had limited custody of his child and the father is trying to reaffirm his connection to his son. It's a guy story."

A more recent anthology Armstrong has appeared in is Not of Woman Born, in 1999, which is a collection of stories about reproductive future, like cloning and genetic engineering. Armstrong's story, "Of Bitches Born," was about a dog musher running sled dogs the traditional way, competing against mushers running genetically-engineered dogs.

Armstrong has published three novels as well. The first was "After the Zap," a post- nuclear war story that came out in June 1987. Armstrong wrote it as his thesis while enrolled in the master of fine arts creative writing program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The second is "Agviq," an expansion of his short story "Going after Arviq," which came out in July 1990. The third is "The Hidden War," which Armstrong calls his "spaceship novel -- the book I wanted to write when I was 16." It was published in November 1994.

Currently, Armstrong has several writing projects he's pursuing, including a novel titled "Truckstop Earth," where a Holden Caufield-type character encounters aliens.

When he was teaching, Armstrong would tell his students to make a point of setting aside time to write -- advice he finds difficult to follow in his own life. His job at the Homer News, family and friends, interest in art, involvement at the Pratt Museum and other pursuits make it difficult for him to devote as much time to writing as he once did.

"I used to think writing was the most important thing in my life," he said. "Now it's important, but what's most important is to have a life, to have a family."

It may not be an all-encompassing pursuit in his life, but writing is still a large part of how Armstrong expresses himself.

"People expressing themselves through some sort of creative enterprise is important. So much of what people seek out spiritually is just that. A person who goes to church and joins a choir is seeking a creative outlet. I think art is important, whether it's music dance, writing, pottery --whatever. I think that's important for people to do."

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