Story last updated at 1:26 p.m. Thursday, November 28, 2002

Local author Armstrong continues writing journey
by Jenny Neyman
Morris News Service-Alaska

Writing is like a muscle -- it doesn't strengthen if it isn't exercised regularly. This is the perspective of Michael Armstrong of Homer, and he should know, since he's been flexing his writing muscles for more than 20 years.

Armstrong writes mainly science fiction and fantasy short stories and novels, but overlaps into other genres as well. His most recent work, a mystery short story, can be read in "Mysterious North," an anthology of Alaska mysteries edited by Alaska writer Dana Stabenow that came out in October.

His story is called "A Little Walk Home." It is about a man stranded in the Alaska wilderness north of Fairbanks. The man believes his bush pilot abandoned him, so he decides to take matters into his own hands and walk back to civilization.

Armstrong, 46, has been writing professionally since college, but his desire to be a writer goes back as long as he can remember. He grew up in Tampa, Fla., and was a voracious reader throughout childhood. He said he was one of those kids who always knew what he wanted to do in life -- be a writer.

"It's creative. I like that because I love language and I love words. I'm very much a verbally oriented kind of person. ... I'm drawn to writing as a therapy and as an expression. It's kind of like 'writing is painful, but not writing hurts more.'

"I have to write to get the stuff out that's inside. If I didn't, I'd probably be more of a screwed up person than I am."

Science fiction was the genre that most appealed to him while he was growing up.

"People who read and write (science fiction) -- basically they're geeks and nerds," Armstrong said. "I wasn't really a social outcast, but I always felt kind of misunderstood. ... I often had a feeling of alienation, and that's kind of what science fiction is about, because it's often set in other places.

"I think people write about it because they feel they're not necessarily part of the here and now. They're just normal people, but there's this sense of being separated from your culture and wanting to ponder the larger world."

As an adult, Armstrong still enjoys science fiction, mainly because it examines the future and other worlds.

"I believe there's hope for the future, and science fiction says there will be a future," he said, "No matter how we screw it up here, and how crazy things are, we will get beyond it and there will be another world.

"When you grow up in the '60s and '70s, those were crazy times. Here we are in this world where so many ideas and concepts they dreamed about in past are now a matter of fact. And so many of the problems we feared haven't been solved, but we are working on them. ... We're managing, figuring out how to maintain a halfway decent lifestyle and not destroy the environment. That kind of thinking as tool is useful."

Armstrong attended New College in Sarasota, Fla., and participated in various writing workshops and independent study programs.

After college, Armstrong worked for a while in Sarasota, then moved to Alaska in December 1979 on the recommendation of some friends.

"I figured, 'What the heck. I'll go to Alaska. The worst things that can happen is it's too cold and I can move back,'" Armstrong said.

Even though he moved to Anchorage in the dead of winter, the cold didn't bother him enough to leave. He spent about 15 years in Anchorage, the latter years working as an adjunct English professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

He moved to Homer about eight years ago with his wife, Jenny Stroyeck. He eventually took a full-time job as an editorial assistant at the Homer News.

Currently, Armstrong is working on a novel titled "Truckstop Earth," where a Holden Caufield-type character encounters aliens.

Many of Armstrong's story ideas come from his life in Alaska -- places he's been, people he's met and life stories he's heard.

"I absorb stuff from my culture and my world," he said. "Ideas just come to me. I have no shortage of ideas, what I have a shortage of is time to make books."

When he was teaching, Armstrong would tell his students to make a point of setting aside time to write -- advice he finds difficult to follow in his own life. His job at the Homer News, family and friends, interest in art, involvement at the Pratt Museum and other pursuits make it difficult for him to devote as much time to writing as he once did.

"I used to think writing was the most important thing in my life," he said. "Now it's important, but what's most important is to have a life, to have a family."

It may not be an all-encompassing pursuit in his life, but writing is still a large part of how Armstrong expresses himself.

"People expressing themselves through some sort of creative enterprise is important. So much of what people seek out spiritually is just that," he said. "A person who goes to church and joins a choir is seeking a creative outlet. I think art is important, whether it's music, dance, writing, pottery -- whatever.

"I think that's important for people to do."

Jenny Neyman is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.