Laurance Friend: Did you have to choose between coffee and suicide this morning? Are you really alive?
Michael J. Seidlinger: Truth is I’m already dead and the only thing keeping my body from rotting away is coffee, lots and lots of coffee. Dead is better because you don’t have to give a shit about anything but what keeps you hungry and interested. Meaning books.
LF: Your latest book is The Strangest, a modern take on Albert Camus’s, The Stranger. In what ways does the modern way of life have an impact in your version?
MJS: The most immediate difference is the use of social media. It’s an integral part of Zachary, the main character’s, life. You could say he lives online, and the life led offline is pathetic, even miserable, if viewed and judged by others. The “strangeness” of his life is how he chooses to (dis)engage with it, compartmentalizing every emotion and whim. The book takes place in the modern day, assumed to be in the US, so there are also lots of stores, American football, and numerous drunken parties. I think it was in the Kirkus review, where I heard it being compared to Fight Club in terms of its setting, the locales Zachary navigates… and yeah, my explanation of Zachary’s external world wouldn’t be far off.
LF: You recently did a social experiment based on the book, letting social media dictate your actions, what kind of crazy stuff went down and did you learn anything?
MJS: No, and that’s what might be the most insane part about it. It was all very stressful, essentially having to color my hair blonde, have to do some ballet moves, etc, but the entire experiment was actually quite… complacent. I was surprised by the response; I was worried that it wouldn’t take hold. Mainly due to the fact that social media is crowded these days and more so on Facebook than Twitter, underlying algorithms dictate a post’s visibility. It’s not just who’s online at the time of posting anymore. It’s not just about how many friends you have. It’s about how your post is processed by the platform’s structure. I worried that my posts would fly under the radar. Somehow they didn’t, so okay, maybe I did learn something from the experiment: I’m still capable of being surprised and there’s always more to learn about social media. Oh, people told me I looked good with blonde hair but—fuck that—I’m not going back. Accept me for who I am, not my hair color.
LF: I haven’t gotten to read all of your books, but know your catalog is quite varied. What areas have you explored and which was the toughest to write?
MJS: I’ve explored the transgressive, the surreal, and lately, the YA/New Adult world. I’ve just finished a screenplay and before that, a memoir. I’d say of the work that’s been published (or at least sold/to-be-published), the YA one, “Falter Kingdom,” was the toughest due to the necessity to write for a specific audience. Normally, I follow what I feel the book should be, rarely paying attention to things like demographics. It was different with the YA and posed a unique challenge. Of the work that’s not yet published, hasn’t been sold, or in the case of the memoir, I haven’t even started shopping it around yet, the most difficult was the screenplay. It’s quite difficult writing not from inside a character’s world or mind; when you’re writing what is essentially what the camera sees, things get very objective and very difficult, streamlined, really quickly. When you grow used to writing from within the mind of a character, stepping outside of it poses a unique, and exceedingly difficult, challenge. Man, writing that screenplay sent me into a real and present depression. Doubting myself as a writer, all of that stuff. Real bad. But then again, we all fall into those at times.
LF: I thought The Fun We’ve Had was a deeply surreal and symbolic book. It seems to speak from somewhere in us all, something on the edge of every thought. What was your inspiration for the book? Did you have to become a monk to voice such a void?
MJS: So The Fun We’ve Had happened differently from how I usually begin a novel. Cameron Pierce, editor of Lazy Fascist Press, emailed me the cover of the book as you see it today, no adjustments—the coffin, the young girl and the old man, the greenish sea, everything—with the prompt to write a novel about what this might be. He didn’t give me any details other than the cover and a loose deadline. It’s the first, and really the only, time I’ve ever written something via a prompt. Typically I have the idea and the general outline of something and it’s all very planned, from structure to narrative arc, but with The Fun We’ve Had, I had the cover and the title. I had to figure out what it could be. The end result, yeah, neither Cameron nor I expected it to become a surrealistic tale about dead lovers floating in a coffin on a purgatorial sea. I went in blind, but was I a monk? No. A blind monk? Maybe. What matters is that it’s done and the process was truly fun, and very different.
LF: What would you consider the highlights of your life as a writer? What keeps you writing?
MJS: The elusiveness of a good idea. I’m always brainstorming, looking for possibilities. Inspiration keeps me writing. A great idea decides the way. As a writer, I need to feel every word or else, there’s no point. If it doesn’t feel right, or feel like anything, it shouldn’t exist. Never waste a word.
LF: Who are your literary heroes and what peers do you recommend for others to read?
MJS: Oh man..there are so many literary heroes out there. I’ll just name the first three that pop up in my head: Isaac Fitzgerald of Buzzfeed Books, Lidia Yuknavich, author of The Small Backs of Children, and Dennis Cooper, author of Zac’s Control Panel. So many good people out there… I could go on a namedrop spree. But I won’t. They are the type of lit citizens that go above and beyond the call of duty (don’t you dare think of the videogame), promoting the work of others and essentially keeping community morale high.
Same goes with who I’d recommend. There’s so much out there. So many amazing, unique voices that I feel it would be debilitating to start up a list. So same rule of three: Joshua Jennifer Espinosa, Matthew Bookin, and Elle Nash. Three that come immediately to mind. But yeah, could go on a namedrop spree. Won’t, but seriously could.
LF: What’s a typical day in the life of Mr. Seidlinger?
MJS: Wake up at 5:55AM, go to the day gig. Leave at 3:30-4pm, fit in a workout before sitting down at the computer and going through correspondence, then any/all editing needed for CCM and Electric Lit; afterwards, I spend an hr or two on my own writing, then correspondence again. Some “free time” to read or watch something. Then correspondence. I think I sleep at some point, then correspondence. Correspondence = the emails, they never end.
LF: You wake up a cockroach one day, what is it you do?
MJS: I take a selfie and post it on social media.
LF: You run a publishing press known as Civil Coping Mechanisms and have helped bring a great deal of work into the world. What’s the origin story? Have any favorite titles?
MJS: The press started as an intended art collective—think a press, record label, and more all rolled into one—by a guy, and friend, named Gabe Cardona, but things never picked up on any other front except the publishing part so it sort of organically became a small press. He backed away towards the end of 2013, beginning of 2014, and CCM was set to shutter but since I had already been helping out with operations, I stepped in to save it. At the beginning of 2015, CCM merged with Entropy and we haven’t looked back since—things have remained active and the community surrounding the press and magazine has a lot of amicable energy, the sort that inspires as much as it motivates; so yeah, perhaps the “art collective” part never disappeared; it simply manifested in a different way. Nope, as publisher I’m the “parent” or “papa” of all the books published. I favor them all equally; each book is so different, much like its author’s voice, so there’s a lot to love about any CCM title you might pick up. I’d like to think that I’m a good “parent,” or at least trying my best at being a “good parent.”
LF: What is the super power you most desire?
MJS: Mind control, but I wouldn’t be like Kilgrave from Marvel’s Jessica Jones; I’d use the power to control MY MIND. It gets exhausting having all these scattered thoughts and doubts and so forth. Being able to control every damn thought would be amazing.
LF: Do you still feel alive?
MJS: Nope. Dead, remember? RIP. Every day is the same.
About the interviewer:
Laurance Friend is a freelance travel journalist, digital vagabond, truth-seeker, and poet under the moniker of NOBODY IMPORTANT. His first collection, SELF-LOATHING & OTHER FORMS OF CYNICISM is available to purchase around the globe in digital format. You can better follow his adventures on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Richard Thomas is a brilliant author, and he’s Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. Richard has taken time out of his busy schedule to chat with me about Smurfs, Gamut Magazine, and other topics.
Jeremy C. Shipp: Hi, Richard. Welcome to my little chthonic cave. I hope you didn’t have any problems finding your way here.
Richard Thomas: Hey, Jeremy. Thanks. Just followed the trail of bones, and the colony of bats that came streaming out of the opening. No worries.
JCS: First of all, I should ask the question that’s on everyone’s mind. Do you believe that eating live Smurfs is morally wrong?
RT: I’d have to say yes—no matter how juicy or delicious they might be. Eating anything that’s still alive is pretty cruel. Smurf is a little gamey for my taste, anyway.
JCS: We’ll have to agree to disagree. Anyway, if you were a supervillain, what creatures would you want as your trusty minions?
RT: Huh. Minions—something prehistoric, maybe? Pterodactyl? I wrote a flash fiction piece about a Gandaberunda, a two-headed mythological bird. Those would be cool. Although I do have a slight fear of flying monkeys from my childhood Wizard of Oz days—so maybe that’s too close. As a kid, when asked what animal I wanted to be, it was always a cheetah.
JCS: Which multiverse hypothesis do you find most compelling?
RT: I have a lot of beliefs—some which may contradict each other. I believe in reincarnation, but I want to believe there is some kind of heaven. I believe in ghosts, that there are aliens out there, life on other planets. I’d like to believe in parallel dimensions. I’ve seen some wild things in my life, time rewinding, and playing back, which makes me think what we believe to be true is probably not very accurate. I also love The Matrix. There’s the end of Interstellar to consider, too. Whether you want to apply Occam’s Razor, or believe in quilted, brane, cyclic, or inflationary multiverses, I think we probably know only a fraction of what’s really going on.
JCS: What would you do if you met your doppelganger?
RT: I think there would probably be a handful of gut responses—kill it, have a conversation, or pretend you didn’t see it. I’d probably want to sit down and talk, try to understand what was going on, because it would certainly shake my reality. Saw a movie recently, Enemy, with Jake Gyllenhaal that was really interesting, about a doppelganger. There are days I feel that this is all a dream, and there are days where I feel that I’ve lived this life before. Who knows?
JCS: What question would you least like me to ask? And can you answer that question?
RT: I’m sure I’ve got some skeletons in my closets I’d prefer to leave there. And no, I’d prefer not to get into that.
JCS: How do you deal with withered hands growing out of your walls?
RT: You know, a hand, by it’s definition and nature, just wants to touch—it wants to hold, stroke, caress—just wants to be loved, like the rest of us. They want to feel valued, and special, a part of something. And withered, I imagine there would already be some self-conscious doubt, not the hands they used to be, all of the young, soft hands getting the attention. So, the way I deal with MY withered hands growing out of MY walls is to embrace them—I let them get to work, in a number of ways. Very exciting. The future of publishing, I think.
JCS: By George, I think you’re right. If Earth were an egg, what do you believe would hatch from it?
RT: LOL. Good question. I think it could go one of two ways—all of the love, and peace, and kindness could give birth to some kind of beautiful, angelic creature (why am I thinking about the baby at the end of 2001?) or it could be the opposite—all of our hatred, fear and violence born in some demonic, mythic, destructive beast. Depends on if you’re a half-full or half-empty kind of guy, I think.
JCS: Do you have a favorite Bizarro author/filmmaker/artist?
RT: Oh, man, that’s tricky. I was just thinking about this the other day. The first story I ever published was a bit of bizarro at Opium Magazine, entitled “Animal Magnetism” about a couple that gets a series of animal parts attached, in order to make their sex life better. I think the opening line was something like, “It started out with the elephant penis and went downhill from there.” Bradley Sands passed on it for Beat Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens, but suggested Opium. Which brings me to a reading Bradley did at an AWP event, maybe in Denver, where he read a story about soccer moms that just had the room in stitches, so funny. I laughed so much. So, I think I’ll always have a soft spot for Bradley.
JCS: What is the origin story of your interest in neo-noir and transgressive fiction?
RT: I think it all starts with Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. I saw the movie, and it woke me up. I found his books, and read everything he had out, starting with Choke, Survivor, Diary, Lullaby, etc. That got me to The Velvet, a website for Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger and Stephen Graham Jones. Those guys really spoke to me, the way they bent genres to create dark, lyrical stories that were both exciting and literary, ticking off all of the flavors—salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. I didn’t know you could write like that. I read some wild authors in college, William Burroughs, for example, but I grew up reading Stephen King and John Grisham, popular writers, mostly. Later, when I got my MFA, I’d study the dark sheep of the literary world—Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, etc. So, for me, the ideal story, or novel finds the sweet spot between genre and lit, between visceral and introspective, between tension and lyricism. That’s what I try to write, and that’s what I like to edit and publish.
JCS: Can you tell us a bit about Gamut magazine?
RT: Sure. It’s an online magazine I’m Kickstarting on 2/1/16. It will focus on fiction, with new stories out every Monday, reprints every Thursday, with columns sprinkled in, and poetry, as well. If we can hit a few stretch goals, we’ll expand to more non-fiction, a Flash Fiction Friday, and a Saturday Night Special (which would be a serialization of Stripped: A Memoir, to start). We’ll focus on the kind of genres we’ve been talking about here—fantasy, science fiction, horror, transgressive, magical realism, neo-noir, Southern gothic, bizarro, and new weird—all with a literary bent. It won’t be “classic” in any sense of the word, but contemporary dark fiction. If Gamut were a film it would be directed by David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, or David Lynch. We need to raise $52,000, and the bulk of that will come from an annual subscription of $30, for over 400,000 words of fiction, new art every week, and much more. After the Kickstarter, the regular rate will be $60/year, or $5/ month. We will NEVER offer the $30/year rate again. AND, as long as you keep renewing, you can keep that rate indefinitely. If you’ve read any of my writing, the books I’ve published at Dark House Press, and/or the four anthologies I’ve edited—The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), Burnt Tongues, with Chuck Palahniuk and Dennis Widmyer (Medallion), or The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press)—then you’re probably familiar with my aesthetic.
JCS: Where do you see Gamut in 10 years? And where do you see it after the Singularity?
RT: I’d like us to be an important part of the landscape—alongside publications like Tor, Nightmare, Apex, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Black Static, Shock Totem, etc. I’d like to see us continue to grow, to gain the kind of following that Tin House and A24 Films have—passionate fans that are invested in what we do. This is all in progress—people can make suggestions, help us to shape and form Gamut, into something special. Hopefully. As for after the Singularity, hopefully Gamut will just start running itself and I can chill out on a beach in Hawaii and sip on Piña Coladas for the rest of my life.
JCS: Perhaps a pterodactyl butler could serve you the drinks? Thank you kindly for taking the time to answer my questions. Here’s a complementary bag of fresh ectoplasm.
RT: My pleasure. Great questions, Jeremy. Oh, and thanks, I just ran out, this saves me a trip to the store.
JCS: *backs away and fades into the shadows*
If you feel so inclined, check out Gamut Magazine’s kickstarter campaign right here.
Richard Thomas is the author of seven books: Three novels, Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections, Tribulations (Crystal Lake), Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), and Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press); as well as one novella of The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, Gutted, and Shivers 6. He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: Exigencies and The New Black (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk (finalist for the Bram Stoker Award). In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. He has taught at LitReactor, the University of Iowa, StoryStudio Chicago, and in Transylvania. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.