Down the Rabbit Hole of Experimental Fiction: Michael J. Seidlinger on Becoming a Reader

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Ig Publishing’s “Bookmarked” series invites authors to revisit the books that influenced them. There are no real guidelines except honesty and a willingness to dig deep. The entries straddle borders—they are homages, reflections, personal journeys. The series has already taken on A Separate Peace, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Body, and The Great Gatsby. Upcoming titles include Under the Volcano and The Last Picture Show.

Michael J. Seidlinger is an Asian American author of a number of novels including My Pet Serial Killer and The Strangest. He serves as Director of Publicity at Dzanc Books, Book Reviews Editor at Electric Literature, and Publisher-in-Chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, an indie press specializing in innovative fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he never sleeps and is forever searching for the next best cup of coffee. You can find him online at michaeljseidlinger.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter @mjseidlinger.

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The Rumpus: Congratulations on your Bookmarked entry on House of Leaves. How did you find your way to this project?

Michael J. Seidlinger: It happened in one of the most modern ways possible: Robert Lasner, the publisher of Ig Publishing, messaged me on Facebook one evening and flat-out asked if I’d be interested in contributing to the series. At first I thought he was asking me if I wanted galleys/review copies of the first couple books in the series, which threw Robert off for a second, I remember he was like, “Actually… both” but quickly talked more about the possibility of writing a Bookmarked edition. It was definitely flattering and I’m all about never turning down an opportunity, especially of this sort, the kind of thing that is equal parts exciting and jarring, so of course I said yes. I hadn’t written as much nonfiction when he asked, much less an entire book, but that didn’t stop me from taking on the challenge. I said yes without having any idea how I’d write the thing.

Rumpus: I’m always interested in hearing about the route that leads one between genres. Have you returned to fiction since finishing the book? Did those months of immersion in the nonfiction world alter your fiction-writing lens?

Seidlinger: You know, though I did go back to fiction after writing the Bookmarked title, I’ve returned to nonfiction almost exclusively since the completion of that novel. I can’t talk about that novel in particular, but since then, I’ve been delving deeper and deeper in a topic I almost never think about: my past, myself, identity. I guess I always avoided it, feeling like it would be too indulgent to do so. It took needing to, for various personal issues, to dive back into it and explore. That’s what writing nonfiction does best: It forces you and/or your topic to be the true, central topic.

Rumpus: Full disclosure—I did an earlier book for the series—and while I considered a number of titles, I pretty much knew in the back of my mind what I was going to go with. How did you approach the selection process? What other books did you consider?

Seidlinger: That was the one thing I did know, right from the moment the offer was made. It was never even something worth mulling over. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski got me reading and, more importantly, sent me down that rabbit hole of seeking out/reading experimental fiction. You see, I wasn’t a reader until college. I was that kid in the class that winged every book report, read the CliffsNotes, or watched the film adaptations of novels figuring I’d get enough of what I needed to pass the test, write the report, do the lecture, whatever. I always hated how I was forced to read books—I was always extremely rebellious, pushing back when anything said “you have to”—and so I would find some other means of getting by. Book reports? Summer reading, when I could be skateboarding, jamming in some band, or essentially doing what I considered to be something truly worthwhile, more pleasing and pleasurable than sitting around straining my eyes reading page after page?

It was randomly buying House of Leaves on Amazon to meet the minimum requirements of this feature the site used to have, “Free Super Saver Shipping,” where if you had $25 in your cart you’d get free bare-bones shipping; I think I was buying some DVDs and the book showed up as something frequently bought with the DVD, I want to say it was Memento or a David Lynch film or something—hell, maybe it was The Blair Witch Project. I tossed it into the cart to tip it over to twenty-five dollars and didn’t give the book itself much thought until randomly picking it up from the shelf one evening and once I started reading, I literally couldn’t stop. The whole house that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, as a concept, blew me away.

So yeah, my decision was similar to yours: I knew from the beginning. There weren’t any other titles worth writing about (at least for me). I worried that I might not be the right fit to write the Bookmarked about House of Leaves, but all that stuff is in the final book.

Rumpus: That’s almost a born-again-like conversion. How much of that was the book and how much was you being in the right spot in your life?

Seidlinger: It was the book. No doubt about it. I could have easily gone on without reading books for any other means than to procure information. It would have been effortless for my younger self to continue seeking storytelling elsewhere, without ever feeling any FOMO. So yeah, it was House of Leaves that brought me in and kept me here.

Rumpus: What specifically called you about the book? Returning to a favorite story can be tricky—we change—our outlooks, our tastes. How did it hold up for you? What new sensibilities did you bring to it?

Seidlinger: It was as much the structure and formal innovation Danielewski did with the multiple narratives, the footnotes, the crossed-out sections, the use of a mirror at one point to read inverted text—all of that experimentation called to me. It showed me there was still a lot that could be done with books. I had always sort of believed that novels and other books were, as a medium, one of the older and more stale means of telling a story. We had such vast and vigilant breakthroughs in film and even storytelling in video games: why would I waste my time with another fucking chapter full of “he said this” and “they did that?”

The premise of House of Leaves also caught me by surprise. I remember loving the idea of the Johnny Truant character more than the actual execution, believing the Navidson Record to be the most interesting part of the narrative.

For me at least, returning to House of Leaves wasn’t so difficult. I had read the thing at least three times before Robert challenged me to write about it for Bookmarked. It held up well. Actually, I think I matured quite a bit as both a reader and critical thinker because when returning this most recent time, I picked up on storytelling paradigms and character motivations that went unnoticed in previous readings. It could be that I had a better understanding of what it takes to deliver a story and command the page, the way prose carries its own rhythms and momentums; it could be that I care more about the narrative thrust of a book rather than formal experimentation; honestly, it could really be my continuous enjoyment for narrative structure, which House of Leaves does so goddamn well. Yeah, I think it’s more the last part that made the latest read-through so much better. I also drank a lot of beer and wine while reading so maybe I was just drunk for a lot of the more intense parts? Who knows. I wrote my Bookmarked title during one of the darker times of my life, that’s for sure.

Rumpus: It’s funny you would say that. After I was done with my take on Slaughterhouse-Five, I wondered how differently my approach would have been ten years earlier or later. I think the lens of the current no doubt shades the way we look at a favorite book.

Seidlinger: Oh there’s no doubt—I’d like to think that time matures my ability to make sense of something, so by default, I go back to a text with not only what I “remembered” of it, which most likely was skewed dramatically by time and my own unreliable memory, but also with every bit of what wowed me and inspired me in the first place. That’s often a lot—a very particular intensity that a lot of books cannot reproduce the second time. It’s why so many books fail to hold up the second or third read through. Luckily, our source texts didn’t turn out as such.

Rumpus: And that lens can turn the other way—a few years ago I revisited Malamud’s The Fixer. The nineteen-year-old me couldn’t appreciate it, but it moved the fifty-year-old me to tears.

Seidlinger: You know, I still haven’t read that one but I hear you, and it’s so damn true. I wonder about the books I tossed aside for reasons fickle or simply because they went over my head. Then again, I also wonder when I’d have time to go back, given just how many books are continuously added to my to-read pile.

Rumpus: House of Leaves is so unique—its layout, its competing and sometimes conflicting narratives—it’s the kind of book that triggers different responses in its readers. Some consider it a horror story, while others see it as satire. Danielewski has said it’s a love story. What’s your take?

Seidlinger: It’s a love story. There’s no doubt about it: be it the actual love exhibited between Navidson and Karen throughout the Navidson Record, complete with their near divorce, struggle, and subsequent final act whose climactic scene leaves an image in my mind that still resonates so damn well; or perhaps Johnny Truant’s depression and loneliness due to being so adamant about connecting with someone, seeking love in all the wrong places, he prefers to dive into the deep end of obsession, reading and comprising what is essentially the narrative within the narrative, the Navidson Record, as written by Zampano, an equally lonely character; or the love that the reader exhibits in the playfulness of the book’s structure, the forceful nature with which you, as reader, are forced to interact with the book, so much that it becomes a labor of love, an exhilarating experience. Yeah, it’s a love story.

Every love story contains a horror deep within, and House of Leaves is no different. The horror here is in the book’s command over the reader, the house’s command over Navidson, Karen, and his family, and the decimating command the Navidson Record had on Zampano and Johnny Truant. To love something is to give into it fully, and in reading House of Leaves, to truly understand and enjoy it, like all great books, it requires more than a cursory, fleeting commitment.

Rumpus: House of Leaves is similar to Slaughterhouse in that it sports an unconventional structure. At first, I found this kind of daunting—but then I decided to echo the structure in my book—and with it, came a kind of liberation, and I found myself getting happily lost within the book’s layers. What approach did you take? What were its challenges and rewards?

Seidlinger: That’s so awesome because I did the exact same thing with mine. I incorporated copious amounts of footnotes, played with the fourth wall as much as possible, added in a few Appendices at the end, just like the source book, and even added a new preface: Where Danielewski dedicated the book as a warning, “This is not for you.” I dedicated it to the proverbial reader and more so in hopes that one of those readers will be Danielewski himself, and therefore my preface became, “This could only be for you.”

It was a blast trying to mimic House of Leaves’s insane and intense structure. Like I said earlier, I fucking love structure and it continues to be the narrative spine of most books I write. I always explore the actuality of how each piece connects together and that usually means figuring out how a book will look in terms of its would-be limbs, the extent of how it flows onto the page. Damn—its pretty obvious just how much the book affected me and how it must have been at the best possible moment, huh?

I both wish I were still digging into those layers, the mimicry, as much as I am so damn happy to be done writing about the book. It took its mental toll, for sure.

Rumpus: It’s an interesting journey, living so closely with a book for a year. What was that like? Did you keep a steady pace throughout—or did you wrestle with it in fits and spurts? How did your view of the book change from the project’s start to its completion?

Seidlinger: I wrote it in a burst; at the time, I was living in Baltimore and was quite depressed. I drank a lot then, a whole lot—so much that it became a problem. Much of my experience writing and researching the book became a lot like how Johnny Truant explored Zampano’s writings, the entirety of the Navidson Record being reconstructed from the mad ramblings of a writer that never cared much about the means of recording but rather the sheer need of recording something at all bled into passages on notecards, napkins, etcetera. I wrote a lot of my Bookmarked title in a state of faux writer’s block. Not a whole lot was going for me in the way of a new novel. Robert’s offer was a breath of fresh air, one that turned into its own horror as I drank and passed out mid-reading House of Leaves as much as I would write out whole ten-page bursts of the book. It was a battle, a horror, and inevitably it helped me through a dark point in my life and got me, after I finished writing it, moving on to the writing of a new novel. If anything, writing about House of Leaves has allowed me to internalize the book so much that I don’t have any desire to return to its pages. The pages are now within me. I can call upon so much of it from memory, there’s no need to pull out the hardcover again. The same could be said for a lot of my favorite books, where my remembrance for them, their narratives, the voice of the character(s), becomes an essential part of why I continue to be inspired by them.

My time with House of Leaves, the book, has surely reached its conclusion, but that doesn’t mean I don’t carry the book along with me, in mind and mantra, inspiration and adoration for choosing to write (and continue writing).

Rumpus: Have you ever met Danielewski? Are you going to send him a copy? I’ve fantasized about Vonnegut reading my book.

Seidlinger: Never have, and I totally would if I knew how. Danielewski exists in that upper crust where you have to go through an agent and a publicist and maybe someone else before you can get to the actual author. I fantasize just as much as you do; I guess all my time in publishing has given me the general prevailing sense of numbness that basically defaults to—“Sure, try—but forget that you did the moment you hit send on that email.” If I ever did meet Danielewski, I’m sure I’d forget all about the book and just talk to him, enjoy the conversation, and leave knowing I spent a moment with the author that inspired me to “give a shit” about, well, everything.


Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His latest books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53), Communion (essays, Dock Street Press), and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five Bookmarked (Ig Publishing). In 2018, Braddock Avenue Books will release his next novel, Lovepain. More from this author →