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The World According to Michael Coorlim
Episode 512th March 2021 • The World According To • Michael Carychao
00:00:00 01:33:06

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Michael Carychao: Welcome, Michael Coorlim. Can you tell us about your name?

Michael Coorlim: Okay. Michael may be a name that you are familiar with: "Who is God?"  Coorlim is from my grandfather, from the Greek, columbinus. When his family came over they shortened it to Coorlim.  

What are you drinking, by the way?

Michael Carychao: Egyptian Licorice Mint Tea, which is soothing for my throat.  

When you describe yourself on your website, you describe yourself as, "an author who makes games aspiring to be a game developer who writes books."  

Michael Coorlim: Basically I've been doing both things for most of my life. Earlier with the writing, but since I was 12, I've also been making games. When I was young, I would pick up microcomputers at garage sales. I think my first was either a TSR- 80 or an Atari 400, I'm not sure which, but it came with BASIC. I would get those books from the library, you know, 101 Basic Programs.

Michael Carychao: I had that same book.

Michael Coorlim: For the listeners who may not be aware, they're basically line after line of code that you would type in. You'd come up with little games. I would challenge myself by seeing what kind of modifications I could make, what twists I could do to try to customize them a little bit, because I loved games. I had my first hand-me-down Atari 2600 from my uncle when I was a really young kid. Video games were always fascinating to me.

It was much the same with writing. When I was real young, I would make stick man comics in notebooks, and then give them to my family members as gifts.

But really when it comes down to it, I see myself as a storyteller and both books and games are just different formats through which story can be told—in a very different format, but it's all storytelling when you come down to it.

Michael Carychao: So when you got that first Atari do you remember the cartridges that came with it? What did you get? What games were you playing?

Michael Coorlim: One of my favorites was Combat, a simple two player tank game.

Michael Carychao: Yeah, with all the different variations.

Michael Coorlim: All the different variations. That was one of the interesting things about the 2600 was that the cartridges would often have multiple modes of the same game. There were switches on the console that you could use to switch between them.

I was a big fan of Berserk.

Michael Carychao: What was its tagline? There was something they kept on saying like, "intruder alert?"

Michael Coorlim: "Intruder alert, intruder alert." Well, that was more the arcade.

Michael Carychao: The stand-up arcade game.

Michael Coorlim: The Atari version didn't have the innards to make a noise. But yeah, "The intruder has escaped. The human has escaped." And if you ran away without killing them, they would start calling you a chicken instead. So they would say, "The chicken has escaped." It was one of the first games with a digitized voice chip.

I was also a big fan of Pitfall. Very, very good Activision game from David Crane.

Michael Carychao: Which way would you go, right or left?

Michael Coorlim: You're kind of supposed to go right, but I would go left.  It was very interesting to me because you could go  either way. That was very interesting to me as a kid. There's the lower levels with—

Michael Carychao: With the scorpion.

Michael Coorlim: With the scorpions and everything.

Michael Carychao: Scary.

Michael Coorlim: There were brick walls and I figured out a way where I could glitch through the brick wall and keep running.

Michael Carychao: No way. How did you do  that?

Michael Coorlim: You just keep bumping into it and jumping into it a whole bunch. Eventually you'd go through the other side. Adventure was a lot of fun. That was the one where you're a little square cube running around and trying to avoid dragons that looked suspiciously like ducks.

Michael Carychao: But that's all you'd need in those days, right?

Michael Coorlim: Well it was.

Michael Carychao: We didn't know it was going to come to this massive 3D landscape.

Michael Coorlim: The graphics were so simple—even compared to the arcade games of the time—but if you look at the cartridges, they would have this fantastic artwork. You couldn't rely on the graphics to spark the imagination. But it was a very interesting time, the 80s, for console games, arcade games, computer games. That's what I grew up in and around. My mom would take me to arcades and she'd sit me in front of the machine. And I'd play the demo mode. I didn't know that I wasn't playing because I'm a little kid. There are lights and there are sounds and the characters are moving around and I figure, I gotta be doing it.

Michael Carychao: I miss arcades. Those were wonderlands.

Michael Coorlim: Yeah. There are some barcades around still...

Michael Carychao: Nah. They're just like this onslaught of sound and lights. They just want your quick quarters—or your card. They don't seem to want to take you on that... adventure.

Michael Coorlim: In Chicago, in the Bolingbrook, there is the Galloping Ghost one of the largest arcades in the world. And they have so many games going all the way back to Pong up to the modern games that have just been released. It's like this out-of-time kind of place.

Michael Carychao: Man, that sounds awesome.

Michael Coorlim: You go there, you give them $20. You can play as many games as you want for as long as you want. 

Michael Carychao: No Way.

Michael Coorlim: Yeah. That's it. Can't go because of current conditions—

Michael Carychao: Alas.

Michael Coorlim: —but I went there for my friend's birthday last year and it was just amazing. It brought me back to being a kid again.

Michael Carychao: Yeah. And that's what games do, is they bring us back to a simpler time through their rules of simplification and suddenly we can be kids again.

Michael Coorlim: Right. When it comes to making games or writing books, even, that's what I try to do. I try to convey that sense of awe and wonder—whatever kind of emotional journey you're, trying to send people on. It's not always awe and wonder: it can be darker things, it can be lighter things. It can be more trivial, but just the idea of being able to take a stranger that you will never meet on some kind of emotional journey, or become a catalyst for them to have a journey of your own, it may be more appropriate to say—but that to me is a form of magic.

There was something I read in Stephen King's book On Writing, where he compared it to telepathy. You're leaving a telepathic imprint in a physical medium that someone would come up later and pick up and would receive that message. So it is ultimately a form of communication and like all forms of communication it doesn't necessarily go the way you want it to go.

Michael Carychao: True.

Michael Coorlim: The story itself—the virtual, whatever you are creating—exists in the mind of the audience and at best—and I used this word before and I'll use it again—the writer or the artist, or whoever, can act as a catalyst to spark this, to allow the reader or player or viewer to go on this journey. I view it almost as a holy thing. Maybe It's the closest to divinity we can get. Maybe it's the closest kind of connection we can get.

Michael Carychao: So, you've got this living room rug that's just full of Atari cartridges. What’s on your bookshelf?

Michael Coorlim: I would take books from the classroom library cart. I would bring them home with me to read, because I was always reading. I was reading in classes where I perhaps shouldn't have been reading and perhaps should have been paying attention to other things, but I would be there, with a book hidden under my desk, ignoring what what was going on in the classroom, because, I was— to my detriment—I was bright enough to keep up with what was going without paying attention.

So I never really developed good study habits as a kid. It gave me the time to become very, very well-read and I would read whatever was available to me. The classics, Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island. I would read Alfred Hitchcock mystery collections, Sherlock Holmes. My grandparents had a big, huge trunk filled with Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. The old hardcover ones that don't really have picture covers just very, very plain brown books with embossed titles. I would just tear through those. I would go to the library almost every day after school and just work my way through the science fiction and fantasy shelves. Ray Bradbury was one of  my favorite authors growing up. The way he wrote that collection he wrote about Mars.

Michael Carychao: The Martian Chronicles.

Michael Coorlim: The Martian Chronicles. I wanted to say Martian Dreams, but that was something completely different: one of the Ultima spin-off games.

Michael Carychao: Ultima. Ultima IV.

Michael Coorlim: Oh, Ultima IV, that was—

Michael Carychao: Turning point.

Michael Coorlim: I was a big fan of those, too. The Martian Chronicles was huge for me. How evocative he managed to be. Something Wicked This Way Comes out of The Illustrated Man. His short stories really are one of the things that convinced me that, "Hey, maybe I could be a writer myself." They were great, but they were also accessible. You know, I started writing short stories. When I was older, when I had progressed beyond drawing stickman comics for my family members, I would be writing as much as I was reading, because I wanted—I had been brought so much pleasure, so much emotional journey through this books that I wanted to be able to do that for other people, too.

I always intended, throughout high school even, to submit stories for publication, but I never went and did it. I would go so far as to write away for the writing guidelines from different markets. I would read the Writer's Digest and say, "Okay, this is what you do, this is how you become a writer. Okay. Well, let me do this." And I would get to the point of writing away for those documents, and then I'd never take the next step.

Michael Carychao: What happened there? Why do you think you didn't put the letter in the mail?  

Michael Coorlim: I think part of it was the fear of rejection. Everyone has always told me that I'm this great writer: my parents, my teachers, other kids, but if I sent something away and it was rejected, then that would be proof that I wasn't. I didn't want that dream to die.

I think that held me back a little bit. And part of it was that I was much more interested in writing news stories than I was in revising my old stories. I knew if I was going to go through the effort of sending them away, it had to be putting my best self forward.

It took me a long time to get to the point that I understood the role of revision when it comes to writing. And that revision is writing.

Michael Carychao: What did it take to be able to turn your attention back on a story and give it that revision?

Michael Coorlim: This is a bit of a longer story. I spent most of my twenties living out of a suitcase. Just traveling around the country, kind of aimless, not really sure of what I wanted to do in life. 

There's a way that, when you're living so close to the bone, it kind of grinds you down. It wears away all of your most interesting features. So I didn't have the energy to write anymore. I basically went a whole decade with barely any kind of creative output whatsoever. It's not that nothing happened to me. I don't consider it to be a lost decade because I had a lot of life experiences that gave me the ability to draw from, for my work, a lot of emotional experiences. There's the writing chestnut, "Write what you know." I consider that to be about emotional understanding.  

I had to fill my emotional bank with experiences that I could later write about. So I go through this decade of not writing, of just living; inhaling so I could exhale later. It wasn't a great time in my life. I’ll fully admit that. I think it was necessary. I think it was valuable. But I wasn’t having the time of my life.

Michael Carychao: Can you give us a string of city names, something to ground us here on this journey of your twenties?

Michael Coorlim: When I moved out of my parents' home—and we'd been living in a suburb of Chicago, we were up in Gurney, nobody knows where that is, up North, near the Wisconsin border—I moved to Pueblo, Colorado with some friends who were moving out there. I wasn't getting along with my stepfather and they were moving and they said, "Hey, why don't we move out together?"

And I'm like, "Okay, let's do it." 

I move out there. I move out with my girlfriend and these friends of ours who we're a couple and we move out to Pueblo. All of us, this is our first time living on our own. So it doesn't go very well. You know, there are a lot of mistakes that you make along the way to becoming an adult. And we made them. It doesn’t go very well, but we stayed there for a while. 

I can date this fairly accurately.I was working third shift in a call center. And I remember being woken up one morning—on my day off—and being told, "We can't deliver your new mattress because of that thing that happened in New York."

"What thing that happened in New York?"

"Oh, you didn't know?" 

And this was 9/11.That moment I can date perfectly. Everyone knows where they were when this happened. I found out a couple hours later because the mattress guy woke me up to tell me what was happening.

From there, I moved back to Illinois for a little bit, and then I move out again. And then I move out to Southern California. I was living in Anaheim for a while, working in a warehouse, for a company that sold merchandise for bands that didn't want to bother with having to sell their own merchandise. I don't think it exists anymore, but it was I was brought on to do customer support email stuff, but mostly I ended up folding t-shirts in a warehouse because there wasn't a lot of email to deal with. After that I lived in Florida for a couple of years, moved to Seminole, Florida, which is on the coast, right near Clearwater and St. Petersburg. I didn't really enjoy Florida very much. It's not a great state.  And I spent most of it indoors because I don't deal with heat very well; so here I am in Florida! I think I went to the beach twice the whole time I lived there.

And then I lived in Oregon, up in Eugene, Oregon. They made fun of me for the way I said "Ore-gone," when I moved there—which was great. I did love it though. It was very nice, very green, very emerald. Rained all the time.

At one point I was in St. Louis. But eventually, I moved back to the Chicago Area.

Michael Carychao: So, what keeps you moving back to Chicago? Is it Gino's Pizza? What is it?

Michael Coorlim: It's just this homing instinct I have. I've always loved the city. When I was a teenager, I loved coming into the city on weekends to see shows at The Metro or The Vic or wherever. It always just seemed to be this magical place: the Big City.

There’s a certain sort of living, especially in the Midwest where there’s where you live and then there’s The Big City. I think a lot of people grow up that way where there's The Big City nearby. And for me that was Chicago. 

So I'm couch surfing while looking for work, looking for a place to live, staying in my friend's couches, basically I'm homeless at this point. Still living out of a suitcase, but this time the suitcase isn't someplace that I'm renting. It's just whoever's good will I'm burning through that week, you know? I'm not a bad guest, but you don't want to be a guest for too long.  

One day, rather than send out another fleet of job applications that will disappear into the void, why don't I start writing again? I've heard recently about  the rise of self-publishing about Amazon KDP. You can write through Barnes and Noble, Smashwords. All of these things that had kind of flitted past my consciousness. And I haven't written in a while, but I decide it's not any worse a use of my time.

So, I decide to start writing and I write a short story. The first thing I do with the story, this is a story about the end of the world—a party at the end of the world, in fact. Before I decided to take the self publishing route, I sent it off to Lightspeed Magazine.

The first story I've ever submitted and I get a personalized rejection note. And that's big to me because I've studied enough of this to know that when they stop sending you form rejections, you're almost there.

And this is my first submission.

Michael Carychao: So, what did the editor say?

Michael Coorlim: He said it was, "Brutal in a Lord of the Flies kind of way. An almost."

Michael Carychao: “Sharpen a stick at both ends.”

Michael Coorlim: Yeah, it was... I was pleased. I had a big spreadsheet full of the markets I wanted to send stories to. I'm deciding to go to the next one when I remember about that whole self-publishing thing. And I'm like, "Well, why don't I try that instead?" 

And so I do. I put it up on Amazon. I think it makes $10 by the end of the month. This little short story I'd written—but this is real money. I begin to see the possibilities here.

I start writing more. I don't know exactly what I'm doing here. I decide to just start creating a number of different pen names to create stories in a number of different genres. To throw it all against the wall and see what...