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October 13, 2015 | Interview

Interview with Lincoln Michel

Jessica Thompson

Interview with Lincoln Michel photo

I just finished reading Upright Beasts. I adored it. Thank you for writing the stories and putting them together in a collection. First, I'd like to talk about surveillance, a theme that is heavy throughout the story collection. What particular instances of real life surveillance have bothered you? Do you make a conscious decision to write about surveillance, or is it something that just keeps bubbling up?

First off, thanks so much for reading, and for the interesting question! Surveillance was not a conscious theme at all, but if I have accidentally assembled a collection that deals with surveillance then I'm lucky, since surveillance is an ever-present theme of modern life. It is also an issue that is thick with literary possibilities, because it is thick with ambiguity. Modern surveillance is not merely the evil Big Brother state watching the people, but it’s everybody watching everyone. Corporations track our every online movement while we spend our days Google-stalking exes and potential dates. Parents try to monitor their children through social media while governments fly drones overhead. So on spying on so forth.

(I should note that there is one exception to my unconscious surveillance writing: the last story added to the collection, "Our New Neighborhood," was specifically written for an anthology on surveillance fiction called Watchlist that was published by OR Books and is being republished by Catapult soon. But the collection had already been completed at that point, and I added that story in the final editing stages because I was happy with it and thought it fit.)

I'm enough of an anarchist to feel pretty paranoid by the amount of monitoring, but, again, it is such a tangled web of everyone spying on everyone that it is hard to even untangle the ethics of it. Also, so much of it just ends up feeling... absurd. For example, most of the time that corporations generate targeted ads for me they just literally show me the product I bought somewhere else. On the one hand, I'm annoyed that my casual web browsing is being tracked, but on the other hand I'm thinking, thanks, Facebook, but I don't actually need another 10 pairs of the sneakers I just bought.

 

Yes! This is not 1984-style surveillance. We surveil as much as we are surveilled. I really liked the line in "Our New Neighborhood" that goes, "I tell myself it's unhealthy to spend so much time monitoring the lives of others and so little time looking at my own." Ironically, my initial response was to judge the character, like, "Yeah, focus on your own life, hater!" Then a split-second later I realized, "Oh shit, I do that, too."

I like that you don't shy away from putting social media in your stories. Do you ever find yourself feeling addicted (I swear twitter and instagram are the best procrastination tools) and have to set limits on your usage in order to focus on writing?

Using modern technology is something I resisted for a long time in my stories. Perhaps writers always resist including new technology, I don't know, but there is something about modern apps/internet/social media that feels especially tricky. For one thing, it gets outdated almost instantly. Friendster is eclipsed by MySpace, which is eclipsed by Facebook, and so on in a just a few years, so you date stories to extremely specific moments in time by using those names. Imagine reading a short story where the characters are constantly on Ello! And the technology is more intimately tied to corporate language than earlier technology. You can say "she made a phone call while turning on the TV" without naming any products, but you have to say "she uploaded her Instagram photo to Facebook" or else use the even more awkward "she uploaded a photo from her mobile photo-sharing app to an online social network." But all of this stuff greatly affects our life on a daily basis, so it feels like cheating to always leave it out of fiction.

I'm a horrible procrastinator no matter what's around me. I do think that it's healthy to try and get off the internet as much as possible to write. Part of my job as editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com is to run the social media accounts, so coupled with my personal usage I spend way too much time with tweets, feeds, and grams. I need to figure out a way to be on it less.

This isn't a question, per se, but less than twenty-four hours after reading your book I saw a Google Street View car while I was driving and instinctually followed it. Why? I'm not sure, exactly, but I know it was because of your stories. So if you're wondering how your writing has affected people, I counter-surveilled Google because of it.

That's the best response to someone reading a story of mine that I've ever heard.

 

While we're on the whole internet topic--tell me about your decision to avoid using real tech names such as Facebook and Google in your stories. Was this for legal reasons, or to help make the stories more readable for posterity?

I swear I typed out the above answer before I saw this question! So, yeah, my solution to the verbal grossness of using so many corporate names or the verbal awkwardness of "micro-blogging platform" and "mobile photo-sharing app" is to make up my own. I do hope that it gives the stories a bit more breathing room for future readers and won't so specifically pin down a story in time and place. I'm also not really a writer who is interested in recreating reality on the page. I'm interested in art that challenges, distorts, disrupts, or transforms reality. I don't know if I achieve that, but it is the goal. So I typically like to leave out real life markers and product names. I don't think they add much to fiction. 

 

You definitely succeed in distorting and transforming reality. In many of the stories, your characters find themselves in situations that are improbable if not impossible, but their emotions are familiar. That gives even the weirdest stories an "I get it," deja vu-type of feel.

 

 

As a writer, I'm always trying to glean craft techniques from writing I enjoy. While reading your book, I thought that you employed balance like this throughout. In the (arguably) realistic stories, "Little Girls by the Side of the Pool" and "Filling Pools," the darkness of possible child abuse and molestation is hinted at, but not seen or explicitly named. In the monster and zombie stories "Dark Air," and "Getting There Nonetheless" we see actual blood and violence. The hinted at darkness is just as disturbing as the actual violence, I think. Am I onto something? (Feel free to tell me if I'm wrong.)

I wasn't trying to write about child abuse, per se, but I am definitely interested--in a literary sense--in darkness and violence. I'm really drawn to work that employs the unreal and the fantastic, but I really hate the whimsical and the twee. I think the difference is whether a work maintains that darkness and that sense of tears and dirt and blood and the ickiness of life. Otherwise, I think you easily fall into the whimsical world of floating giraffes and rivers of ukuleles, which just, for me at least, putters past with a wink without digging into your subconsciousness. And even in realist stories, the fiction I like tends to have some darker core. Ideally, I'd like my stories to go past the surface level of fun and weird and find their way, at least a little bit, into the more hidden parts of a reader's mind.

 

In that vein, I cannot stop thinking about the line, "How am I supposed to sleep knowing that any second this giant weathervane could snap off completely, fly through my bedroom window, and murder me in my own bed? I pay my taxes like anyone else" (in "What You Need To Know About The Weathervane"). SO FUNNY, but also sad because the character is so obsessive he's not truly living life any more.

Sadness and humor are two other complementary elements that you impeccably balance. While many of the stories had me literally LOLing, I still felt the heaviness of the characters' distress, hopelessness, and disappointment. Most of my favorite TV shows and movies do a similar depressing/funny balancing act, which is why I have to ask, what're your favorite humorous TV shows and movies? Are you into stand-up? And have you watched Bojack Horseman yet? I think it's one of the best dark comedy sitcoms out right now.

I'm glad to hear you think the stories are funny. I'm definitely a fan of humor in fiction, and think that humor is especially important in darker and weirder work. Franz Kafka is frequently hilarious--he famously would laugh out loud while reading his work--as is David Lynch and other creators of that kind of work. I also really admire a lot of straight up humor writers on a sentence level--Jack Handey, Mitch Hedberg, etc.--and think that fiction writers can learn a lot from how comedians construct jokes and how they pace sentences. The literary world tends to look down on humor, and it is much harder to win a literary award for a comedic novel... but that stuff is often far harder to write than the quaintly insightful or the melodramatically tear-jerking works that get so much praise! (This isn't a uniquely literary problem, the same thing occurs in film, TV, etc.)

I actually used to publish a fair number of humor pieces, and have done some humorous comic work, like a collaboration with John Dermot Woods called Animals in Midlife Crises that ran on The Rumpus a couple years ago. I admire those forms a lot. 

I haven't had a chance to get into Bojack Horseman, although I love love love Lisa Hanawalt's art and comics and I know she did the character designs. I'm a huge fan of Mr. Show, Arrested Development, and Kids in the Hall--three shows that do a good job of balancing the depressing with the hilarious.

 

Thanks for sharing the Animals in Midlife Crises comic. I hadn't seen that before. Funny stuff. Did one of you write and one of you draw, or were both parts collaborative?

For those strips, I’d had the idea for a couple years and wrote and scripted the panels, and Woods drew them. We've been collaborating on another larger project too that we hope to finish in the not too distant future. The only thing I've really drawn myself is a series of portraits of authors as monsters (Bone Didion, Roboto Bolano, etc.) I really like comics and think that the indie comic world is a really exciting place right now with a lot of authors making some completely out there work. I'm a big fan of Jesse Moynihan, Lisa Hanawalt, Jesse Jacobs, and Michael DeForge, along with the big names like Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, and the Hernandez brothers.

 

You mentioned that the literary world can tend to look down on humor. I think that's sometimes true of comics as well, and speculative fiction. Clearly that hasn't stopped you from creating what you like, regardless of the label. Have you faced snobbery with some of your projects, or felt pressure (or temptation) to create/not create certain things?

I do think that the mainstream literary world is much less likely to, say, give a major literary prize to a comedic novel than your standard melancholy domestic realism filled with quaint insights into the American middle class. And I think that critics are probably less likely to get behind comedic books in the way they do other books. I think that's true, and you can see it almost every year with what wins the major awards and what books get the major push.

That said, I don't feel like I've faced a lot of snobbery and absolutely do not want to claim any special hardship there. I've been pretty darn lucky. I've been writing these stories in this style for about a decade, but in the last 5 years or so the literary world has opened up a lot more to so-called "genre-bending" work and the likes of George Saunders, Kelly Link, and Karen Russell had made weird fiction that mixes humor, sadness, reality, and the bizarre a more acceptable thing. And also, that kind of pressure is more at the top level. The literary world is very small in some respects, but there is a wide variety of journals and outlets and they all value different things. Hobart has published lots of great funny work, for example. There's an outlet for whatever kind of work you like.

I guess when I was in undergrad, I felt some pressure to write more classic domestic realism with a page two flash back and a final epiphany followed by a pretty image or metaphor. I got some side eyes from some students and teachers for trying something else. But it was pretty minor, and I certainly did not feel that in graduate school where my program had Sam Lipstye, Kelly Link, Ben Marcus, and many other funny, weird, or experimental writers on staff.

The pressure to create the kind of book that will win a major award isn't one I've felt as someone just publishing their first story collection. I'm attempting to carve out my own tiny cave on the rock face, create my own little home, and haven’t gotten around to hurling rocks and gnawed-on deer femurs at the people who pass by yet. Maybe, if I'm extremely lucky, in ten years and six books in I can whine about how my work isn't winning the Pulitzer or something. But not now.

 

 

I want to hear about your grad school experience. It sounds amazing! Would you mind telling me a little bit about how you changed as a writer from being in the program? Was there a distinct before and after?

I went to Columbia's MFA program starting in 2006, and I had a very good experience there. I know there's a cliche of MFA programs are factories to crush every writer and spit them out in a Raymond Carver cube, but most of those cliches come from people who never actually went to a program. In any event, my MFA--which was headed by Ben Marcus at the time--was very encouraging and supportive of writers trying to do different things like write in genre or write experimental work. I was also really lucky to have a great group of peers. A lot of my friends are either widely published now or else, if not yet published, then editors at great magazines, papers, or websites. (Living in NYC is huge for the latter.)

I don't think I'd say that there was a distinct before and after. My work has, I hope, grown and evolved a lot, but the "genes" of what I wrote in grad school were all there in what I wrote before the MFA.

I heard George Saunders once give a metaphor about MFAs that was something like how being a young writer is like running through a forest with ice skates on your feet. You kind of know the direction you need to go, but it's awkward and you stumble all the time. An MFA program--a good one, or one that you mesh well with at least--is like a giant frozen pond appearing in the forest. Suddenly you get the time and space to just coast a bit. But all it does is speed up your journey, get you to the place you want to go quicker. You'd get to that destination if you kept walking without the pond, it might just take a little longer. That seems right to me, or at least my experience.

 

That reminds me of the whole MFA vs. NYC debate, which I won't ask you about, but which reminds me that you live in NYC and that I have one (final, I swear) question related to that. While reading Upright Beasts, I felt like there was a subtle rural vs. urban debate going on across the stories, with the verdict being that they're both weird in different ways. I read in one of your past bios that you grew up in Virginia. Was that rural Virginia? Do you think you'll stay in a city forever, or do you sometimes feel called to the country?

I actually reread Chad Harbach's original MFA vs. NYC essay, and I think it still is a very smart and mostly accurate summary of the two different--yet overlapping--literary cultures that have developed in the US. So much of the anger about that essay seems to just be about the title, and there's a whole lot of "I don't have an MFA and I live in LA and I still exist!" rebuttals. But Harbach's point is that there are two general spheres of literary culture and means of making a living as a writer. There are writers who try to make their living off of writing, which means dealing with agents and publishing houses who are overwhelmingly based in NYC, as well as major (i.e., actually paying) magazines you can eke some freelance earnings from which are largely based in NYC. Then there is the MFA world of creative writing professorships, which are scattered all over the country yet connected in many ways. For that sphere, the markers of success are very different and there is more pressure to simply get published and have books under your name (in order to apply for jobs and get tenure) and maybe get fellowships rather than get a big advance or sell a lot of copies.

Living in NYC and having gone through an MFA--and also publishing a literary magazine that takes me to AWP and has made me familiar with many writers going the MFA teaching route--I do think those two career paths are very different, and they do develop their own cultures. There are writers who are quasi rock stars among creative writing programs who no one talks about in NYC publishing, and vice versa. None of this is to say that one or the other is "better" or anything. And of course, not every single writer fits into that dichotomy, but it's pretty hard to make a living as a literary writer outside of either the NYC publishing world or the MFA circuit. Possible, but very hard. (I mean, it is extremely hard to make a living in NYC publishing or academia in the age of adjuncting too…)

So... there's a long answer to something you specifically said wasn't a question. Sorry!

To answer your actual question, I grew up outside of Charlottesville, living initially pretty much in the woods. We were maybe a twenty minute drive from town, so hardly isolated, but our house was surrounded by forest and our only immediate neighbor was a cow pasture. A lot of my childhood was spent in the woods. Then my family moved a little closer to town, to a neighborhood that also had a fair amount of nature around it. Then I went to DC for college and NYC for graduate school. So, I definitely have both the big city and the forest as settings that mean a lot to me and that work into my writing. I'm a pretty social person and I like NYC a lot but, like everyone says, housing is unaffordable and gets more unaffordable each year. So it will probably depend on if I can make the NYC or MFA living work. You can also totally delete this answer if it is boring.

No, it’s fantastic! Thank you again, so much. This has been wonderful. And to everyone reading: go buy Upright Beasts!

 

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