The Rumpus Interview with Lincoln Michel
Lincoln Michel’s debut collection, Upright Beasts, has been highly anticipated and greatly praised, and for good reason: it’s a dark, dreamy spiral into a world mostly like ours, but a few degrees off, and this distance is more than compelling. I’d read a couple of Lincoln’s stories throughout the year, and was always enchanted by their evocative eeriness and how they were not just haunting but also funny—actual, laugh-out-loud funny, which can be rare in literary fiction.
The stories in Upright Beasts are tinged with enough familiarity to be accessible—we can recognize love, heartbreak, parenthood, even among the corpses on the lawn or the convulsing creatures covered in spikes—but sometimes this familiarity is what’s scariest. It’s a master guide for what our society could turn into if we’re not careful: a government that tries to interest the people in nature by dying the river the color of their social media feeds’ collective emotion; a society where people are so desperate for attention they log their pretend suicide attempts in exchange for someone coming to rescue them; a place where you can pay to receive a clone of yourself but you might not be able to control how he behaves. He also describes worlds we’ll never inhabit but are lovely to step into for a few pages, like the boy who lives out his adolescence in the stomach of a mastiff, or sons that live like Russian nesting dolls in partitions of their fathers’ rooms. I read Upright Beasts with a growing sense of wonder, for the inventiveness, for the humor, for the humanity; there’s no end of excitement and ingenuity in Upright Beasts. I got to talk with Lincoln about monsters, social media, and faux-reality, and it only made me more excited to see what he does next.
The Rumpus: Upright Beasts is your first published book, and yet this collection has exceptional range—it’s rare for a debut collection to be so adeptly varied.
Lincoln Michel: I’m glad you think so! I really wanted a varied collection, although I got a lot of advice along the way to not do that, to instead split these stories into different books (a flash fiction book, a weird/surreal/genre-bendy book, a Southern realist book) or pick one type of story and write a bunch more of those. The advice was probably smart too, as I think it’s harder to market and sell a collection that can’t be summed up in a couple words. Luckily, Coffee House took a chance on this one.
Rumpus: This variety made me wonder about your early, instinctual writing; when you first began writing stories, what were you most drawn to, and how have your tastes evolved over time?
Michel: I’ve always written in a lot of styles and formats, so the variation in the collection is not because my tastes evolved exactly. If I’d only included stories from the past three years, say, or only stories from six to nine years ago, there still would have been a range of work.
My early instinctual writing was toward work that was dark, weird, funny, and short. I really loved Kafka and Calvino when I was in high school—although I didn’t write at all back then. Still, those were the writers I was drawn to initially, and that kind of writing is what I started out doing instinctively. I did for a little while get the idea that to be an Important Literary Writer™ I had to write humorless realist stories about sad men and women drinking too much and having unsatisfying sex. I wrote like that when I was first writing in college. But that didn’t last too long.
I do think in the last few years, I’ve become more interested in overtly embracing and playing around with different genre traditions, especially science fiction and the more dreamy subgenres of fantasy. I always liked unreal fiction, stories that tried to distort and reconfigure our conception of reality, but now I feel a little more free to mix my Kafka and Kobo Abe with Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel Delany.
Rumpus: Is it safe to say you’re interested in monsters? What do you think we as a society are most afraid of, in terms of depiction of evil?
Michel: I do like monsters, I must admit. I was the type who always picked the orcs, dark wizards, and chaos soldiers in video games. On one level, monsters are just way more varied and fun—the “good guy” sides in those aforementioned games were just boring knights and elves that looked like every other set of knights and elves in a hundred other games/films/books. You know, all good characters are alike, all monstrous characters are monstrous in their own way.
I don’t think I’d equate monsters with evil though, certainly not in my interests. Aren’t the most interesting monsters the sad and wrongfully persecuted ones? The Frankenstein’s monsters, or else the monsters inside us—the werewolves we transform into. I think you could probably classify the monsters in Upright Beasts into one of those two categories.
Monsters are a many-faced metaphor. They can represent the other or the self, the unjustly persecuted or the rightfully condemned, strength or weakness. That versatility, and ambiguity, is really powerful in art.
Rumpus: Another theme of the characters that I liked was the misguided intentions behind many of them. I even think the title speaks to that, among other interpretations—Upright Beasts. There’s nothing sadder than someone who wants to get it together but can’t; again with the idea of settling. “Filling Pools” might be the best example of this kind of cheerfully misguided screw-up; what do you think makes these characters likable or interesting?
Michel: That might be the flipside of monsters as sad and unjustly feared; characters who think they are good but who are actually monstrous or at least fucking screw-ups. Again, it’s the kind of character who can be read in different ways, who provokes multiple feelings, and I think that’s always vital in fiction.
Rumpus: One of the themes resonating strongly through the collection was the idea of settling, with characters growing comfortable in situations that they should instead be running from, whether it’s a decaying marriage or living in the stomach of an animal.
Michel: I think that people just accepting a life they don’t like—whether through laziness, fear, or societal pressure—is extremely tragic. It’s also something I fear—lazily wasting my life instead of getting the work done I want to get done or accomplishing what I want to accomplish. Isn’t that the way most people’s lives really end, not with a bang but with a shrug?
Rumpus: The idea of the truth is knocked around quite a bit in these stories, but what struck me the most was when everyone seemed to know the truth, but they were pretending not to—participating in this kind of mass delusion. I’m thinking of the students in “Our Education” who don’t want to believe the teachers ever existed—because then they’d have to think about why they were abandoned, and about the tenants in “The River Trick” who pretend to be attempting suicide and the narrator who pretends to find them—because even if it’s pretend, at least they get some sort of human interaction out of it. What do you think of this idea of our everyday pretend—is it a survival tactic, is it desperate, is it necessary?
Michel: I don’t think I was planning anything like this, but if that theme runs through the book then I kind of want to pat myself on the back because what theme is more prevalent in the age of Donald Trump, social media self-branding, and faux-reality TV? I do think we live in a really bizarre age where information is more accessible than ever before, but so is the ability to ignore it and to find your own little echo chamber to scream in. It is utterly absurd that questions of basic science or medicine are up for debate among elected officials and prominent cultural voices, but so it goes. And certainly we also live in an age where every one of us is ever more conscious of ourselves as manufactured personas that we have to maintain online or in public, even if that’s just at the level of hiding a lot of our emotions and sides of ourselves that we fear people won’t like—Facebook button or otherwise—if we share.
Rumpus: I loved “The River Trick,” which was simultaneously hilarious and disturbing; in it, the mayor comes up with a series of ruses to try to get people to connect with each other. One week they project images of passersby onto nearby buildings so people have to look at each other; another week, they squirt chemicals into the river based on the citizens’ social media feeds to create “a mood ring flowing all around us.”
Michel: Very glad you like that one; it is actually the oldest story in the book, or rather the story with the oldest early draft. I submitted that to an undergrad creative writing class in 2004 or 2005. It has obviously been edited and revised many times since then.
Rumpus: That’s pretty prescient for a story set in 2004 or 2005! Social media hadn’t even exploded yet.
Michel: Ha, well, I wish I could take credit but as I said the story had been revised and edited. In the initial draft, it is still a bunch of chemicals creating a mood ring around the city, but it didn’t operate based on social media feeds. It was just chemicals in water.
Rumpus: Actually, I’d like to ask you about your relationship to social media/the Internet. Of course there does seem to be a critical take in these stories of our technology-addled culture, but you also have one of the most prolific (and funniest) Twitter accounts, and in your acknowledgements you even mention your ‘Internet literary friends.’
Michel: Well, I wouldn’t be the first person to say that the Internet is simultaneously horrible and great. It’s provided a lot of outlets for marginalized voices and helped hold certain people responsible for their actions. On the other hand, we’ve increasingly gone away from “information superhighway” to controlled corporate environment maximized to monitor you, collect data, and sell you products. We’re headed even more that way it seems as we fall into the Apple model of corporate ecosystem and as we move from web to apps. On an artistic level, it’s again a mixed bag of making it easier to get your voice heard but much harder to get anyone to value your voice with actual money. Everyone expects you to work for exposure—especially massive corporations—and consumers feel entitled to cheap or free art and entertainment.
As for my own use—follow me on Twitter and my new Tumblr!—the format is something that comes naturally to me. I like curating things, like weird artwork and smart quotes on Tumblr, and I like joking about and commenting on things going on in the world, so I fit in well on Twitter. I do entirely understand why so many authors hate the pressure to be on social media, but for me, I’d probably be making the same jokes and comments in private and it is easy enough to put them online. (At the same time, I share very little of my actual personal and emotional life and am constantly surprised by how much people enjoy Instagramming every snack wrapper they throw away and tweeting every blink—but to each their own.)
Rumpus: “The River Trick” felt reminiscent to me of George Saunders, who I love. But I felt a lot of different influences throughout the collection—who are some writers that had the greatest impact on you?
Michel: I love Saunders too, although I hadn’t read him at the time I wrote that story, so similarities are coincidental. I mentioned some names earlier: Kafka and Calvino were two of the earliest and biggest for me. Borges was definitely a big influence. Flannery O’Connor, Kobo Abe, Angela Carter, Barry Hannah (who I also came to a little late).
In a more general sense, my goal—to the degree I have any active fiction project—has been to fuse two different influences. The first are these writers who inject a lot of play, humor, and formal experimentation into their work (Calvino, Borges, and Barthelme, for example). Those writers have always delighted me on a “heady” level. The second are semi-realist writers who use minimalist yet poetic sentences to make work that that really gets its claws into my gut. I’m thinking Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, maybe even Lish-edited Carver. Hopefully, the fusing of those two influences makes my writing feel a part of these various literary conversations and traditions, while also feeling unique. (There’s probably a third sphere of Southern gothic and darkly dreamy prose that I try to work in too.)
At the same time, I really just write what comes to me and those influences work themselves in naturally.
Rumpus: “What We Have Surmised About the John Adams Incarnation” is a short piece that reads like an entry in a history textbook from the distant future, with the narrator hypothesizing about ‘ancient United Statsian’ history. Reading a lot of your stories evokes mythology of some sort, so I thought it was fitting and very clever to turn it around and mythologize the reader, essentially.
Michel: I’m really interested in how much we mythologize ourselves, our history, and human history especially when under the guise of something else—ideology, politics, science, self-care, entertainment. That story was actually part of a collection of flash fiction stories on US presidents that came out before the 2012 election on Melville House’s website (the press that was going to publish it as a book sadly folded that year). Whenever I watch “historical” movies, it’s so clear how little we are interested in how people in different times actually lived or what they actually believed, but instead we just want to see some kind of reflection of our contemporary beliefs—often in the form of a simplistic mocking of another time—or else in “escaping” into a mythologized version of another time period. It’s like how we imagine the Greeks all stood around philosophizing between ruins and unpainted statues. The piece was, in part, imagining what fake version of America some future society might invent in their textbooks and art.
Rumpus: You grew up in Virginia, where many of these stories are set. How did your hometown influence your writing?
Michel: I don’t think my hometown influenced me, per se, but I do think my fiction is influenced by the fact that I grew up somewhat isolated and surrounded by forest. Our house was maybe a twenty-minute drive from town, but we had acres of forest around us when I was young and I spent a lot of my time in the woods around bugs and birds and tadpoles. I think a lot of that imagery and feeling makes it into the stories.
Rumpus: It’s a big change from New York, where you went to Columbia for your MFA. How was your experience there?
Michel: I really enjoyed my MFA experience. The stereotype of a bunch of sniping students who gleefully tear each other down as their professors smash each one into a cookie-cutter clone of Raymond Carver was not my experience at all. My teachers—which included Sam Lipstye, Ben Marcus, and Rebecca Curtis—created an open atmosphere where people were encouraged to write whatever they wanted, whether genre fiction, experimental fiction, flash fiction, etc. Columbia was a huge program though—apparently somehow even bigger today—and others might have had very different experiences. I think I was very lucky in my peer group though, and there were a ton of writers in my year (or one year above or below) who I’m still friends with and who publish well or else work at fantastic magazines. NYC, for me, was a really stimulating place to get an MFA, because the whole publishing world was there if you went off campus. I know some people feel it is too competitive or frantic, but I find it inspiring to be around so many people who truly care about literature and publishing and who are actively producing fantastic work. That may sound corny, but it’s true.
I will also say that I think most of the criticism of MFAs is bunk. They aren’t for everybody, and they definitely aren’t necessary to be a writer by any means. But the two major criticisms—1) they are pointless and teach you nothing and writing can’t be taught anyway, and 2) they turn every student into identical MFA clone writers for life!—are obviously contradictory. MFAs can’t both impart nothing and dramatically change every writer’s style and voice for the rest of their career. An MFA only lasts for 2-3 years and a handful of workshops. It isn’t going to radically change your writing against your will, nor determine the course of a writing career that hopefully spans decades. Mostly, MFAs are just the time and space to be serious about writing with a group of like-minded peers. Which can be great for a lot of people, especially if funded.
Rumpus: Twenty of these twenty-five stories have been previously published in some very prestigious journals, such as NOON, Story, PANK, and BOMB. How long have you been writing and publishing for? Have you always been working toward a collection?
Michel: I think my first non-student publications were in 2004, so eleven years at this point. Which feels absurdly long to me and reminds me that my knees ache, my hip is going, and all the damn whippersnappers are ruining all the plants on my lawn.
The twenty-five stories in the collection span the last ten years or so, but they are not the total of my fiction writing. I wrote at least another few dozen pieces, many of which were published, that I didn’t include here for various reasons (and of course untold abandoned stories and novel starts). I certainly always planned to publish a collection—and hopefully many more!—but mostly I just wrote what I wanted and what interested me, and trusted I could make it a collection out it later.
Rumpus: Do you have a novel in the works?
Michel: I do have a weird novel almost finished about supervillains called DOOM MOOD—you can read an excerpt at American Short Fiction—and a couple more percolating that I’m excited about.
Rumpus: There’s quite a few very short stories in this collection, and I came away feeling like the shortest ones were often the most heartbreaking (“Soldier,” “Almost Recess,” even “What You Need to Know About the Weathervane”). What do you think makes an extremely short length like this work? It’s not easy to do.
Michel: I was drawn to really short work early on, and in grad school I co-founded Gigantic, a literary magazine devoted to short prose. In college and grad school, I studied and read tons of short prose writers—Charles Simic, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, etc.—and obviously edited a ton of that work at Gigantic. I think it is certainly a tricky form to do well, but for whatever reason it was the first form that I was really good at. The majority of my early publications were flash fiction.
In fact, when you asked me how my writing has evolved, I probably should have said how I used to write primarily short work—500 to 1,500 words—but over time my stories have gotten longer and longer, and now I’m increasingly drawn toward novel writing. I don’t know why that is exactly, although I do think you can still see the influence of short prose in my longer writing (especially in the way the stories are structured).
Rumpus: Speaking of Gigantic: you’ve recently put out a science fiction anthology for them. The list of contributors is long (fifty-one authors!) and though of course there’s J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick, there are so many authors who readers normally wouldn’t associate with sci-fi: Catherine Lacey, Kyle Minor, Alissa Nutting, to name just a few. What was it like assembling these many stories? And why science fiction?
Michel: While we had some production delays—in part because we wanted to make a really swanky book that has foil stamping, different two-color printing throughout, etc.—I’m very proud of how the anthology came out. The anthology was co-edited with Nadxieli Nieto, and Michael Barron was the contributing editor. All three of us are fans of science fiction, and also fans of helping to crumble the divide between so-called “literary” fiction and so-called “genre” fiction. So we wanted to get a mix of authors who were traditionally thought of as SF and those traditionally thought of as “literary,” as well as a mix of established and up-and-coming. “The Ballard,” “The Dick,” and two or three others are stories that were published but never collected in book form. The other forty-plus stories are all brand new. We took a fair number of those from the slush, but the rest were solicited… and it was a great experience. Basically everyone we asked was really excited about the project, which is probably good evidence that those genre boundaries are on their way to being obsolete.
Rumpus: What other sources of culture inspire you—any television shows, directors, artists that you particularly like? (I admit I want to ask you about Hannibal, which we both like.) Some of these stories are very cinematic; you’re great at describing visuals that are actually a bit complex, such as the creature in Dark Air, or the teachers’ lounge in Our Education.
Michel: I really like that question, as I think we sometimes pretend that writers are only in conversation with other writers instead of with many artists in many fields. I was very interested in Dada and Surrealist art when I was younger—Max Ernst and Rene Magritte being my favorites, at least back then. I do love a lot of the current crop of “prestige TV,” including Hannibal. My list of favorites is pretty typical though: Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, etc. (Despite those shows being great, you actually run out of truly great TV shows pretty quickly.) I’ve probably been influenced by David Lynch, Kurosawa, and the Coen brothers, and I love Malick and Fellini. David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror. Also German Expressionist-inspired films like Rumble Fish and The Night of the Hunter.
I wouldn’t say that my influence there is visual or cinematic at all—although I’m very, very glad you think those complex visuals work—but rather tonal and atmospheric. Cinema is a totally different form, and I don’t think you can recreate it on the page at all (nor can film recreate prose). But I think the sensibilities of those directors has influenced the kind of tone and atmosphere of my work.
I also kind of grew up in the underground punk scene, and I think the energy and ethos of that world—and maybe even a bit of hip-hop—probably runs through my writing.
Rumpus: You wear a lot of literary hats as the online editor of Electric Literature, the coeditor of Gigantic, and a frequent contributor to other publications. How have these jobs affected your writing, and vice versa (besides not having unlimited time)?
Michel: I really do think that editing a magazine, or even just working as a reader, is a great experience for any young writer. Learning how to edit other people’s work forces you to clarify and articulate what you care about in writing, which then makes it far easier to edit your own work. I think I’m a more careful writer, and much better about finishing work before sending it out, because of editing.
That said, time is pretty much the most precious thing for any writer, and working on so many other projects that don’t pay—Gigantic is a passion project that we basically lose money on—has certainly cost me a lot of writing time. In fact, when we founded Gigantic, another NY lit mag editor pulled us aside and said, “You know this will cost you a book, right?” But I really love making things, and if I’m lucky enough to have a long literary career, I’m positive I’ll continue editing, creating magazines or anthologies, and promoting writing and art that I think is important and vital.