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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories Interviews

Mike Florian

What is your occupation? What do you do in real life?

I am the founder and subsequent president of a company that manufactures animal feeds and Firstmate pet foods. We have been doing so for over 20 years. We sell our products across Canada, the western USA, and into many countries throughout the world. I very much enjoy what I do and I can’t wait to get up in the morning and greet the day.

Our head office is located in an ideal part of Vancouver and when it doesn’t rain it’s a joy to walk to work. Our manufacturing facility is located about 100 kilometers from our head office and I visit the operation quite often during the course of a month. Otherwise it’s the day to day stuff of running a business that supports over 30 families, including my own.

What advice would you give to a young person going into your line of work?

The animal feed business is a mature industry. It’s very interesting but very competitive Anybody who gets into this must be tenacious. My advice would be to find a successful company and like everything else in business, start at the bottom and learn the ropes. If you do well, the money comes. If you look for money first, sometimes it doesn’t work out.

How has your occupation influenced your writing?

Of course what I do now influences me in how I act and think. However, it’s what I did over the course of decades that really influenced my subject matter and how I approach it. My working life has not really been very linear.

Like many people, I started to work at a young age of about 15 or 16. It wasn’t like I had to go and work in the coal mines. My family was very middle class, well to do as a matter of fact, but I chose to work during the summer.

From the time of high school through to the end of college I did all kinds of stuff, mostly manual. It was there that I met the working people in some of my stories. I was a fishing guide in northern Quebec, a tobacco picker, a labourer on some of the Montreal skyscrapers, a waiter on the CPR trains, a rock driller, etc.

It was when I left Montreal and went west that I started summers of halibut fishing. I fell in love with that and I became a commercial fisherman, far from the maddening crowd of downtown Montreal. I did that for about 15 years and it had a big influence on me. Not because of the fishing so much, but because I rubbed shoulders with great people that became very strong mentors. From my perspective they taught me right from wrong, how to work hard, how to work with many other men at close quarters, tolerance, all that stuff.

At night, at anchor I listened to all kinds of stories and by the end of that phase of my life I had plenty of stories of my own. For whatever reason and however I got there, as I aged and became familiar with the fishing industry, I became the Chairman and eventually the CEO of a large fishing enterprise. We had about 1,000 employees and about 500 boats and large processing facilities. That phase of my life lasted about ten years and then I started my own company. All of these things influenced me greatly and as I said, it was the mentors along the way that crystallized many of my own values.

Editor’s note: images of two of Mr. Florian’s paintings are available here:

The Soaker

Checker Man

What would you like readers to learn or gain from what you write?

I did, and occasionally still do, some painting. As a young man I painted with oils and sold them in the town of Prince Rupert where I settled for many years. I sold the paintings and even had a one-man show in the local museum. The point of this is that my paintings were portraits of men working, or fishing on the high seas, of rowing ashore with ropes to tie a seine net end to a tree on the beach, of men repairing nets and of the things I did myself and with which I was very familiar. The style was more realism than impressionism. Those paintings are gone now (sold) as is the way of life they portrayed.

Perhaps now I write stories that also tie in some of these lifestyles. They’re kind of old-fashioned, everyman type of subjects. I don’t do it consciously but some of the stories do reflect a bygone era.

When was the last time anyone saw tobacco pickers hunched over in a field in southern Ontario, or a halibut fisherman out at sea for 25 days at a time? It’s not nostalgia, but maybe the reader can visualize a different way of life, if only for 20 minutes or so while reading some of these stories.

How long have you been writing?

Not that long consistently. In the 60’s I had an article published in a Canadian magazine called Campus. The subject was ‘How to find a summer job’. Pretty exciting stuff. I was on my way. But then reality did set in and things changed.

But between you and me, growing up in Montreal and attending a well-known Montreal university, I wrote term papers for other people. I was studying biology but I liked to read literature and I took an Evelyn Wood speed reading course which I kept up. The word got around that as a hobby I wrote term papers. Most of the papers received a passing grade, some did well.

In business I did a lot of writing; memos, policy papers, my speeches for the Rotary and annual meetings, case studies, all kinds of things. It was only the last few years that I started to write my fiction stories.

What made you want to start writing?

All of a sudden I had lots to say about a lot of stuff. As a young man I had a bad stutter. I guess it’s been really pent up.

Do you have a favourite among your works?

It’s funny, for me once I finish a story I always think I could do better. However, I do like “Storm Variations” and “The Way of the World.”

“Storm Variations” was very interesting to write and a challenge. The latter flowed easily because I put myself in the scene like a movie.

Do you have a favourite character in your own stories? In some other writer’s? Almost every writer is inspired by someone or something else. What inspirations have you found?

Lots of inspirations. Nature is a great inspiration. I like reading history. There are many characters that inspire. Years ago I was reading Crime and Punishment. It was a rainy day in Montreal. I was living in a one room place near St. Lawrence Street, at the time. I felt very sorry for myself and reading Dostoyevsky did not help. I still refer to the passage of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov when we discuss religion and politics at the dinner table.

I loved going to Ben’s Delicatessen in Montreal and seeing Leonard Cohen working away at 3 a.m. I get inspired by success stories. By people who build things, create wealth. I don’t mean making money, not at all. I mean creating something that lasts, that allows people to work and buy homes and raise families. When I see that or read about it I just get inspired and excited.

What’s your favourite book?

That’s a tough one. There are many, but I do sit and read Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes. Off and on I read passages in the book and I like the way he thought, the flow of words. The passages are very lasting. Ray Bradbury is a favourite author and Something Wicked This Way Comes scared me when I read it. More contemporarily, I was impressed with Michael Moorcock.

Who are your favourite authors, and what about their works appeals to you most?

I actually wrote an essay for the National Post a couple of years ago. One of the columnists, Marnie Soupcoff asked readers to write about their favourite books when they were fourteen years old, when they were in their 20’s, their middle age, and their, ahem, advanced years. I sat down in the middle of the night and wrote something. She answered within minutes and asked if she could publish it the next day.

I wrote about Tarzan and Edgar Rice Borroughs, and the Russian writers and Ray Bradbury and the philosophers like Bennet and Ouspensky and great writers like Hemingway and Steinbeck. I don’t have one favourite but I wouldn’t mind having lunch with Hemingway.

Do you have any favourite authors at Bewildering Stories? Have you found there any works you’d recommend to a friend?

Yes, I like Ron van Sweringen. One of his stories that came out last year was about a thought in a brain that ended as a stroke. It was such a horror story that I had to stop and collect my thoughts after reading it. We went through something like that with a close family member and it shook me up. He’s a wonderful writer and I like reading his stories.

What’s the last book that you read and really enjoyed?

I enjoy reading history as previously mentioned. I read The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, by Piers Brendon. To read how the British Empire self-destructed is a great lesson in history. The author’s description of the how the greatness of that empire slowly deflated through the behaviour of the sum of its parts compares to a possible decline of any individual. I guess a tree rises only so high and then it stops.

In composing a story, which do you think of first: the plot or the characters?

So far in my writing I think of a plot first and let the characters develop around that skeleton. For me I pick a setting, a storyline and introduce the characters. I let them develop the story. Almost as an observer listening to them speak and watching their actions. I’ve been working on a longer story these last few months and it’s fun. I don’t have a whiteboard outlining a plot and character development. I just seem to write around a basic good story and flesh it out.

Where do you get your ideas?

The ideas come out of the blue. Something small pops into my head, something innocuous, and I jot it down. Maybe it turns into a story, maybe not. For example I am currently writing a story about an unknown but historical character. That came from seeing an artifact in a museum. What happened to it, how did it get there, who was using it such a long, long time ago.

Where do you write?

Mostly at home on a laptop. I tried writing in some comfortable places like on a beach or in a winter chalet but it doesn’t work. It lasts less than a minute. I’m lucky enough in life to be comfortable so I write where I’m at peace and around familiar surroundings. It gives me a chance to escape in my head.

When do you write: at set times or as the mood moves you?

I find I write best when sitting alone in the dark and in the middle of the night. I sneak downstairs, tiptoe past the dog so he doesn’t bark and wake up the house, turn a dim light on, prepare a cup of tea that I don’t drink, and get lost in the story. I then sleep in and miss the first few hours of work.

Do you ever have a problem with writer’s block?

No. I am lucky because I don’t have to write for a living. I don’t have to slog it out day after day. I am privileged that I can write when the mood does hit me so it’s not a fair comparison to a real writer who makes a living working at his or her craft.

Some writers say that they have to write a certain amount every day. Do you do set a quota?

I write until I get tired and then I go over what I wrote a number of times. That comes later.

Does anyone else proofread or critique your work?

Yes, my wife, an English major, reads my stories. She doesn’t critique my work that much anymore because I don’t like to hear the truth. I walk away when she makes suggestions, but truth be told, I listen intently and take in her observations. It is an interesting dynamic.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

In my younger days I used to be an athlete. I was a member of Canada’s national water polo team in the late 60’s and competed in the Pan-American Games at the time. I still do athletic, manly things like race kayaks and try to compete with my past, but more and more, I enjoy sculling on the water, hiking the mountains in B.C. and down in the California desert.

These days, in the early days of October we go out and hunt down the elusive, culinary mushrooms. Earlier I mentioned the influence of people and mentors on my life and my writing. Sport has also been a great influence. Coaches have been great inspirations to me that are lasting a lifetime.

If you could invite any other writer to dinner who would ask?

I very much enjoyed Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. What a hoot. I don’t think I would go as far back as the Golden Age but I would love to sit down with some of the writers like Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Morley Callaghan. I would definitely buy their dinner and make sure it lasted a long time.

Some authors have said that their parents were supportive of their efforts when young, and some have said they had to sneak around and hide. What was the case with you?

For whatever reason my family was very interesting. We immigrated from eastern Europe. My stepfather was well educated with a Master’s in Engineering but started off literally digging ditches. My mother also worked. My grandmother came over a few years later and ran the household. I don’t think anybody had any time for the kids.

Once school finished, my brother and I were sent off to camp in the Laurentians for the entire summer months. We came back a couple of days before school started. My parents had their own life to live and on hindsight it made the boys quite independent.

In high school after swim practice I went straight to the library and read whatever I could. There were no questions asked when I got home at 9 pm. I left home when I was 18 or so, and made my way. No regrets, it was the way it was.

Where do you live, if you don’t mind saying? Is there any place else you’d like to live, either in reality or in your imagination?

I am one of the luckiest people in the world. I live in a house on the ocean with a dock and a boat. I get up in the morning and the scene is different every day. We see seals playing in front, birds of all kinds, glassy seas or big winter waves. We’ve been in this house for over 25 years.

When I travel and see things I miss this piece of the world. I don’t want to live anywhere else. When other people go for a run or a bike ride I launch my scull and row to the left or right depending on the tide, and I come back with it.

In the summer, early in the morning around 4 or 5 a.m., the water is flat and the air is warm. Occasionally a seal follows me when I row. Once I hit a seal and we both jumped and I almost tipped the boat. What a life. Just so lucky.

How did you come in contact with Bewildering Stories? Is there anything we do particularly well? Of course there’s always room for improvement: is there anything in particular you’d like to see added or changed?

Bewildering Stories is a great magazine. The editors are so helpful and supportive of writers. I enjoy the NASA pictures, the various departments and reading other people’s poetry and stories. I can’t imagine how much work it takes to publish an edition on a weekly basis.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes. I answered the above questions truthfully. At my age of 67, I am indeed lucky. But as you can imagine life was not always a piece of cake. Having left home at 18 and trying to survive in Montreal wasn’t easy. It was cold and miserable and I was as poor as a church mouse. Going through school I would work one year and go to school the following one. Or, I would have to work a couple of years and finish my education whenever I could.

Fishing brought me a purpose. But I borrowed money for my first boat and I couldn’t catch a fish for the first few years and couldn’t make payments. Eventually I did well and bought bigger boats and hired crew. The difference then was that I had to go out and fish when it blew a hundred or when the sea was as flat as piss on a plate. There was no choice.

When I ran the fishing company I took over when it was tens of millions of dollars in debt and I had to let 25% of the work force go. I had to tell people aged 55 or 60 we didn’t need them anymore. Sorry. We had to cut to save the company and make it grow. In a small town it wasn’t easy.

I started the feed business years later and for years couldn’t make a profit. Many nights were spent crying and wondering what the hell I was doing. It was difficult to make the payroll and calls from the bankers would bring cold sweat rolling down my back. Our house was our collateral.

So now I write stories. Don, you asked how a CEO businessman could write stories about working people and make it seem so authentic. I guess the suffering and the scary part of life brings out an emotion that one never forgets. I’m answering these questions and as I do they bring back memories that I try to suppress because life wasn’t that great during the formative years of growing up or creating a business. Now I sit back and say I’m lucky; and it’s true, but it wasn’t easy. I think that’s where the stories come from.

Copyright © 2012 by Mike Florian

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