Michael Gray and I were out of place together as middle-aged enrollees in the MFA Fiction program at Western Michigan University in 1994. We were both writing short stories and drawing about $7000 per year from our teaching assistantships. And trading on ten years as a newspaper reporter, Michael was already drawing praise for his fiction. Upon graduation a few years later, I moved up the highway to Grand Rapids, while Michael moved around, teaching in upstate New York, Wisconsin, Texas, and Champaign, Illinois, the town where he was raised, before settling in Kalamazoo last year.
We’ve kept in touch via email and an occasional phone call or visit. Over the years Michael has sent me dozens of stories and many chapters, sometimes rough, sometimes polished. Darren DeFrain (The Salt Palace and Inside and Out: Stories) has called Michael’s descriptions “vivid, cinematic and spare.” His work often involves characters who are at pivotal moments in their lives–taking advantage of second chances and making significant choices. Michael’s short fiction has appeared in Arkansas Review, Flashpoint! (he took second prize in their 2001 story contest), Black River Syllabary, and Potomac Review. His story Little Man won the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize the 2005 The Writers Place Award for Fiction. In recent years, Michael has produced three novels that deserve notice.
Supported in part by a grant from mystery writer Elizabeth George, but by no means a mystery, Not Famous Anymore is a contemporary story narrated by an impulsive, irascible top-tier Hollywood actor who begins to question the benefits of stardom. After drying out in a famous rehab clinic, Elliott Adrian decides that he wants out of the excesses and skewed values of “Hollyweird.” Incognito, he hangs out and considers his options with friends in Mexico and later Arizona. Then he drives east to spend a few days at the river in Arkansas where he fished for trout as a boy. Finally he returns to the small Sangamon River valley town of Argus, Illinois, where he grew up. Elliott finds there that he must make peace with his star profile and the media attention it generates (notably from Bill O’Reilly and Fox Fair and Balanced). He must also face once again the people and situations in Argus that he thought he had left behind. A publisher in Atlanta has asked to see the novel. Michael also has written a screenplay based on the story.
Michael’s next novel, Well Deserved, takes place in Argus in 1970 and is narrated alternately from the perspective of each of its four main characters. Jesse is a would-be college student who sells pot from his trailer a few miles from town. Dominic, who has recast himself as Raul, has recently returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam. Nicole is a cashier at the grocery store in town who begins to date Jesse, but doesn’t consider a barbeque at Jesse’s trailer a proper date. And Art is an ex-Chicago cop who is now Chief of Police for the city of Argus. In a narrative that takes place over a few days, these four become acquainted as they cross paths, each entangled in the fates of the others. To be published in January of 2009, Well Deserved was awarded the 2008 Sol Books Prose Series Prize.
Blue Sparta is the story of Evan Archer, a transplanted Michigander living on the Gulf Coast of Florida as a newspaper reporter—until he gets fired over an affair with his editor’s wife. Evan begins to bottom out; he gets involved with a hooker and her dangerous ex-husband/pimp until he hooks on as a deckhand on a small charter fishing boat. Evan proves himself at sea, and he is beginning to consider a life after journalism when he discovers he has been named in the will of a wealthy man, but must return to his boyhood home, a small town on the Lake Michigan coast, to work out the strange details of his inheritance. Evan’s journey, like Elliot’s, entails redemption and value – the value of people, money, arrogance, and hard work. A publisher in New York City is interested in Blue Sparta.
Will his work ever be commonly seen in bookstores or libraries? Michael Gray isn’t sitting around and waiting to find out. Accustomed to seeing film direction and the writing of fiction as oddly analogous, he has considered writing a screenplay based on Well Deserved. But for now he has begun another novel. In a return to little Argus, Illinois, it features Art Millage, the wry and kindly police chief of Well Deserved, who is now ten years closer to retirement. But will it sell? As Michael says, you never know about these things.
—Joe Taylor (Forward Magazine)