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Not Famous Yet

Novelist Michael Loyd Gray keeps a low profile in spite of success

Fiction writer Michael Loyd Gray is fascinated by shades of fame. His latest book, The Canary (Bottom Dog Press, 2013), which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, explores two iconic figures, Amelia Earhart and Ernest Hemingway, in the pre-fame moments of their teenage years. His previous novel Not Famous Anymore (Three Towers Press, 2011) examines the “American dream in reverse” as a famous actor embarks on a journey to leave his fame behind.

“My interest is linked to my own personal perceptions about fame,” Gray said recently in his “office” at the Water Street Coffee Joint on Oakland Drive, where he has worked daily for the past four years churning out four novels.

“Fame is dangerous,” Gray warned. “With fame can come a loss of perspective, or a loss of true identity. Yet fame seems to be what a great many Americans desperately want, which is why so many people willingly make utter fools of themselves on reality-television shows. Of Hemingway and fame, poet Archibald McLeish wrote, ‘And what became of him? Fame became of him. ’”

In Not Famous Anymore, actor Elliot Adrian, a notorious drinker, emerges from rehab with a desire to return to anonymity and his tiny hometown of Argus, Ill. The novel reflects on how fame can be an obstacle to knowing one’s true self.

The Canary, which is garnering strong reviews and also was nominated as a Notable Michigan Book, features Earhart and Hemingway striking up a brief friendship in the environs of Chicago, where they both lived and may well have unknowingly crossed paths.

“I have always been more interested in people before they were famous than who they are after they become famous,” says Gray, who has been intrigued by Earhart for years. “When I saw her mentioned, I’d always kind of linger and wonder who she was and, of course, what happened to her. The great mysteries of the world are always interesting.”

Then Gray learned that a research team had investigated an island where, in 600 feet of water, they discovered an object that was possibly an airplane. “The evidence suggested that not only had somebody inhabited the island, but that it very well might have been her.”

He began fictionalizing an account of Earhart on that island when, in his research, he discovered she had moved to Chicago in 1914 to Hyde Park to finish high school. Just a few miles away in Oak Park, Hemingway, Gray’s own personal muse and a writer with whom he deeply identifies, was in high school. Why not bring them together?

“Here they were at a time when Amelia had no interest in flying. Hemingway, at 15, had an only vague interest in becoming a writer. But they exhibited a lot of charisma and potential. People would have recognized it at the time.”

Historical fiction, particularly when a writer takes great liberties, can be a gold mine for the imagination. “Writing historical fiction means getting the history surrounding your characters right, but it’s also an opportunity to not be shackled by history,” Gray recently wrote in an essay published in Hope Clark’s FundsForWriters newsletter. “Your goal is to tell a great story and not merely to document history.”

Gray was born in Jonesboro, Ark., grew up in Champaign, Ill., and discovered writing at a young age. “As far back as high school, I wasn’t really good at school, but I could always write.” After college, he became a staff writer in Arizona and Illinois for 10 years.

Like Hemingway, Gray began to find the limits of storytelling within reporting “too restrictive and narrow. I found myself putting in color and details that the editors would take out.”

A point came when he wrote a story with a unique angle and narrative that his fellow reporters praised but that his editors wouldn’t run. “I realized that I was capable of steak, and they wanted raw hamburger,” he says. “So I just had to go. And it was probably one of the best decisions I ever made.”

At 40, he took a leap of faith and applied for the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Western Michigan University. He hasn’t looked back.

“It was liberating to go to Western and suddenly be around people who were asking the same questions I was and who wanted to write. It was like going to another planet,” he says. “I realized that no one was particularly going to teach me how to write, but I was in a place where writing and experimenting were so natural I would be a fool not to do it too. I was living in an environment where writing was a prized endeavor.”

Gray says if he could pass on one piece of writing wisdom, it would be, “Don’t quit. Just keep writing, day after day.” This work ethic has served him well.

He was the winner of the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize and the 2005 Writers Place Award for Fiction for his short story “Little Man.” Gray’s novel Well Deserved won the 2008 Sol Books Prose Series Prize, and he was awarded a grant by the Elizabeth George Foundation. His young-adult novel King Biscuit was released in 2012 by Tempest Books. He also has written a sequel to Well Deserved called The Last Stop and another novel called Blue Sparta.

Gray also teaches as a full-time online English faculty member for South University, where he is one of the founding editors of the student literary journal Asynchronous and sponsor of an online readings series featuring fiction and poetry.

He is planning a novel about Elvis in Kalamazoo titled The King of Kalamazoo. Those post-death sightings of the King may have been wishful thinking on the part of a few area diehard fans, but Elvis actually visited Kalamazoo several times during his life because of the Gibson Guitar factory, and the story is loaded with possibilities, Gray says.

Gray also has ambitions to tackle larger subjects, like a Vonnegut-esque farce he is working on called The Manual to Complete Enlightenment.

“I would like to write something bigger, something sprawling, something that seeks to solve the mysteries of life.”

As for Gray’s personal take on fame, he covets his privacy and anonymity.

“If I suddenly became famous, I would like the freedom that the money would bring, but I would really chafe at the rest of it.”

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CHECK OUT:

Books by Michael Loyd Gray
  • The Canary (Bottom Dog Press, 2013)
  • King Biscuit, a young adult novel (Tempest Books, 2012)
  • Not Famous Anymore (Three Towers Press, 2011)
  • Well Deserved (Sol Books Prose, 2008)