We are pleased to welcome Michael J. Seidlinger to this month’s installment of Writers on Craft. MICHAEL J SEIDLINGER is the author of a number of novels including The Strangest, The Fun We’ve Had, The Face of Any Other, and The Laughter of Strangers. He serves as Electric Literature‘s Book Reviews Editor as well as Publisher-in-Chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, an indie press specializing in unclassifiable/innovative fiction and poetry. He says he has been a lot of things but nowhere near as much as what he hasn’t managed to become. He’s been a painter, sculptor, vocalist, bassist, DJ, professional boxer, game designer, car washer/detailer, short-lived drifter, and mover/construction slave. He enjoys good company, good conversation, good food, good drink, good wisdom, good books, good films, good fights, good videogames, and plenty of really bad, bad decisions. Looking for a good time? Contact him at your earliest convenience. Disclaimer: Michael J Seidlinger cannot guarantee that you’ll have a “good time.”
What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work in general or a particularly difficult manuscript in progress—any “go to” texts?
The inevitable despair, be it due to a sudden bout of uncertainty, a particularly bad stretch of time where life derails and that feeling of being in quicksand sets in and I just don’t know if I’ll ever be able to breathe again, I tend to lean towards a few books—The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, Life After God by Douglas Coupland, The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel, and/or a failed novel of mine, doesn’t matter which one as long as it’s one that I fucked up and couldn’t ever finish.
Oddly, I find solace in the grim details of a text, the ones that bare all and show the reader that there are no clean breaks, no certainties without dealing with the issue head-on. It’s when I see that what I am feeling isn’t any different than what so many others have felt that I begin to breathe normally again, perhaps even long enough to step outside and remember what it feels like to take a long walk with no clear destination in mind.
If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors about editing or even hanging in there while you edit that has served you well, what would it be?
Disassociate as much from your work as possible. Once it’s complete, in a form you find fitting, it’s important to step aside, let it settle in; leave it behind for a day, week, month, year. Let it become something you can view objectively. Only then will it reveal its true nature to you, to the point where you can look at it line-by-line and see where its faults are; this is especially important when others read and begin to provide feedback/edits.
Now that’s probably advice that’s less useful if the piece is already in the hands of an editor, or perhaps stuck in the perpetual doom of unsolicited submissions; but I still think that it’s valuable to be able to step away from your work and view it for what it is rather than something that was, at one point in time, the first and foremost item on your mind.
How has your perception of what you “do” with your work changed as you have continued to write?
I’ve become more ruthless over time. I wouldn’t have been able to kill off an entire project without a thought years ago but now… I often wonder if I murder more than I create. There’s a graveyard of horrible writing that I hide from everyone, a graveyard I never want to visit.
What do you feel is the purpose of literature?
It helps to be reminded that we aren’t alone in our thoughts, our work, our obsessions, our pain. Literature is as much an aid as it is a means of reaching out to those that are feeling, and being fueled, by the same.
As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?
Don’t ever give up. Seriously. I wanted to give up at least once during the completion of this interview. But I didn’t. I haven’t yet. I won’t. You shouldn’t either. Don’t give up.
I’ve been reading your book The Face of Any Other lately and I love how it really acts as a psychological novel that explores the idea of significance and insignificance. The sentences accumulate with force.
I think the book is largely about identity perception and particularly the construct that people-pleasing nulls authentic self. How did the writing of this one start? The concept of alternating voices? I like how there are multiple narration styles. I almost get a Kundera vibe. Are you a fan of his work? Were there other obvious influences from either lit or elsewhere?
The Face of Any Other started a bit differently. Usually, when tackling a project, I know exactly what I’m trying to do–a direct premise, general outline, the structure of the novel in malleable enough broadstrokes–to the extent of it being my roadmap. With this one, I had the cover image and no novel. Friend and mastermind Matthew Revert had created it on a whim during one of our chats, the cover having been originally for an entirely different book that I killed off upon going through it after leaving it on its own for a few years. I loathed what the original novel had become so, now, I had this deadline for a book, a cover, and no book. So I looked at the cover image, the cracked face, and took about 48 hours to dig through my notes—various thoughts and half thoughts—seeking some sort of direction for the project. Inevitably it became the lack of a main character, or rather, the facelessness of a main character that rose to the top. I quickly found myself creating rules to keep the main character from having an identity, and in doing so, I had a logical need to accentuate other characters. Their voices soon became far more resonant and by the time I had a dozen pages or so, Patricia Pond, Richard Tell, and others were already taking over valuable narrative real estate. Because there were so many voices to choose from, I knew that I had to approach the material in such a way that all would be included. The best means of doing so is to cast their characteristics onto the blank slate main character. In that way, the narrative became just that: a revelatory one, wherein so many are made visible in the presence of an unknown/impossible entity. It’s what not even you, the one being viewed, sees in yourself, that’s what the unnamed main character of the novel reveals. He reveals the truths we keep hidden from ourselves.
I actually own a few books by Kundera but have yet to read them. This is where I’d say that I really should but I just know that I won’t, at least not anytime soon (just looked at my to-read pile and it’s toppling and I’m kind of afraid).
I love the passage in that book that states, “I’m here because this act gives me purpose. Here for no other reason to deliver subliminal messages to a person in need. It helps me feel real.” Feeling real is at a premium these days for so many. Maybe this is because there are so many “here”s where we must appear. How do you juggle the supreme amounts of service to the literary community you do, your press CCM, and your creative output? You do these things so well–like you are “here” while “here” but also “here” –and I wonder sometimes how you juggle all of those efforts. It’s inspiring.
I usually joke around about never sleeping. It’s only half true. I tend to suffer from insomnia so I really do have all that time at night to work my various duties. However, taking on the duties has involved a conscious choice to spend quite a bit of my free time working/managing these various duties. Depending on the time of year, I might not have any time to do anything else. Hmm… If I didn’t fully enjoy it, I’d be quite the miserable person. Luckily, it seems like I dig it and, yeah, it’s been a constant enthusiastic hustle more so than anything else.
Also – I should probably get more sleep. But yeah, one step at a time.
Do you still carry a “tattered notepad full of various thoughts and ideas” as you mentioned you had in a 2012 interview? What’s your relationship to the old ways—by that I mean communion with an actual pen and paper?
Yeah, I always carry around a notepad and pen for whenever an idea, a line, or whatever comes to mind. Other than that, I almost never write longhand. In fact, the notepads all get cut up, burned, etc. once I’m done transcribing the content that turned out to be something I could use. The notepad is merely a tool, a means of getting something down immediately. They cease to exist for any other purpose than as a temporary log.
What’s in the pipeline for your readers next? And what are you working on now? Give us a sneak peek.
On October 15th 2015, I have a novel, The Strangest, coming out via the NYC based publishing house, OR Books. It is a modern day retelling of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Other than that, I’m currently finishing up a project that may or may not ever see the light of day. Never know which projects will find a home with a publisher and which ones will end up in in the cloud, archived and likely forgotten. I have two other projects that I’m preparing to write, but again, same deal: they could end up stillborn, unpublishable, killed off, etc. For those reasons, I really can’t say anything else about them. Wish I could but doing so would only get my hopes up and sometimes that’s just not realistic. Being a realist must be exhausting.