by Mike Backus
Issue #5 • June 24, 2002•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
Isn’t this weird, she says, my wife says. Isn’t this strange, bizarre, unsettling being back here after all these years, and I say, no, this is your high school. Mine was nothing like this small-town split-level thing of bricks and no windows, nothing at all, but she says, no, no, the experience. I’m talking about the experience; sitting out here smoking a joint in the parking lot, you with a big hard-on, and I say, well, I wouldn’t call it big exactly.
Michael Backus has previously had stories published in The Sycamore Review, The Portland Review, and Storyhead magazine. He currently has a story in the online magazine Exquisite Corpse. He’s recently completed a first novel and has started a second. He lives and writes in New York City.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
MB: This was originally part of a much longer, three-piece short story, all three sections dealing in some way with basketball (though of course, ultimately, basketball is just the backdrop) and the same male character at way with basketball (though of course, ultimately, basketball is just the backdrop) and the same male character at different ages; “My Bad” was the third of the three. The problem was the damned thing was 55 pages long (I frequently have length-issues with short stories) and I knew no one was going to publish a story that long. I’d written “My Bad” last and it was the strongest section; I had no problem separating it out and making it stand alone, though I’ll admit to a hope that if I ever publish a collection of stories, I can include all three parts.
As for the source of the idea, I did once attend a girl’s high school basketball game out of the city with a girlfriend, and there is a single piece of dialogue in the story that was said nearly verbatim by the woman I was with and when it came time to write this, a lot of what happens in the story flowed out of that single line.
About the title: I was playing pickup games two or three times a week at a Y in Chicago in the early 90s when I started hearing guys saying “my bad” to each other when one of them screwed up. I couldn’t believe my ears. My bad? My bad? It sounded ludicrous and I was completely against it, going so far as to openly mock the other guys when they’d say it. They in turn pretty much treated me like I was raving (which I suppose I was) and not worth responding to, I might as well have been complaining that the sun had come up that morning. I’d also go on and on about it in the company of my non-basketball playing friends, who all agreed (a little too) quickly that it was indeed a complete horror show and yet another example of the triumph of infantilism in our culture, then would change the subject as quickly as they dared.
But when it came time to title the story, it seemed an obvious choice and I went through very little second-guessing (which is not typical, I often find titling a story a torturous process). I still hear guys say it—“my bad”—but it no longer pushes my buttons in the same way. I even see a kind of perverse and simple brilliance to it, though I draw the line at actually saying it myself.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
MB: The ending by far. I wrote the bulk of this at a writing colony a few years ago and the first three fourths of the story hasn’t changed other than the normal ways (tightening, deepening, etc.), but I couldn’t get the ending right. The most frustrating thing of all was I was sure I had all the elements there, but I couldn’t get them to mesh into something both cohesive and emotionally meaningful. I’d put it away for a month or so, pick at it when I didn’t have anything else going on writing-wise, then put it away again. This is sometimes a valuable way to work, but just as often (for me), it leads to a lot of trouble, particularly in terms of second-guessing what I’ve already written. I’d go through stages where I was sure I’d never get the ending right and other times, I’d begin to doubt the entire story. In the end, desperation pushed me to look outside of the box I’d written myself in to, and I was able to get it to work. The final piece was when I came up with the idea that the main character decides that he indeed loves his wife because of a memory he has of her, then later he realizes that the memory didn’t involve her at all, but a completely different woman. This approach forced me to jettison some stuff I really liked, but it was all for the best. Sometimes when I’ve gone over a story many times, I get it in my head that what I have on the page has stood the test of time simply because, well, I’ve gone over it so many times and not changed it, I guess. Over the years, I’ve gotten better about realizing that no bit of writing is sacred and that I have to be ruthless about doing what’s best for the story, even if it means cutting a line or a passage that I like.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
MB: I considered myself a fiction writer for years and years before I produced anything that I’d say I was proud of. Eventually, I went to film school and later taught film production and the most valuable lesson I learned there was that the only way to learn to make a film is to make a film. As I got more serious about my fiction writing while in film school (certainly at least partly attributable to the frustrations inherent in the collaborative nature of making a film—I could never get it to look on the screen like it did in my head), I came to understand that this concept translated to fiction writing as well. You learn to write by writing, there’s no other way. The most curious thing is IÕve come to realize what an incredible leap of faith it was to even decide to write fiction. To spend the amount of time it takes to write anything of value without knowing if anyone will ever read it is just a crazy thing to do. Completely delusional. I made that choice at a time in my life when I had no idea of what the consequences would be (hours, days, weeks, years spent alone rummaging around in my own head). But what’s the choice? Not writing? That’s no choice.
HT: What’s the best bit of advice about basketball youve ever received?
MB: I’ve played playground basketball my entire life and about the only advice I can remember getting from the other players (repeatedly) is to “give me the damn ball.” I wish someone had told me to play less on concrete courts, then maybe my knees and everything else wouldn’t ache all the time. I lived in New Mexico for a couple of years and hooked up with a game of men (more or less) my age (frequently in Chicago and New York, I play with guys much younger). It was actually pretty hilarious, watching all the little pre-game rituals we went through to get ready to play. Guys swallowed ibuprofen by the handfuls, Ben Gay was being slathered on like we all had stock in the company, the gym stank of it. Half of us had to get on our knees and do 10 minutes of yoga stretches just to be able to play (eliciting the inevitable “praying to Mecca” jokes—i.e., “Even Allah couldn’t help your jump shot, son.”), one guy had a Velcro knee brace so complicated looking, its installation would challenge a NASA engineer (the man was forever stopping play and readjusting the damn thing). And that’s not mentioning the taped fingers, lace-up ankle braces, jumper’s knee bands, elbow supports, mouth guards, knee pads, and Road Warrior goggles. It was all like some terrible parody of old men playing ball and the oldest of us wasn’t even 40 yet. So I guess the advice I wished someone had given me was to play only on wood (softer and easier on everything), though again I’m not sure of the point. It’s not like my younger self would’ve ever listened.
HT: What are you working on now?
MB: I finished my first novel and wrote about 150 pages of a second before deciding I needed to make one more light pass through the first book. I’m essentially done with that pass and while I still have plans to go back to those 150 pages, I’m going to have to take some time away from fiction so I can get the first book’s voice out of my head. Fortunately, the second book already has a voice so I may not need a lot of in-between time, but I still will probably try and write a screenplay, film writing being a fine antidote to fiction writing (it’s a looser kind of writing, lots of dialogue and a lot less stress over every single word).