Michael Seidlinger is one of the busiest guys in the literary business. He’s the book reviews editor for Electric Literature, the publisher-in-chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, and the author of a number of novels. He’s also known for his wild social media stunts to promote the release of his books—he once spent several days living in an airport terminal, and this year he allowed the internet to dictate his actions for a day. His latest novel, The Strangest, is a contemporary take on Camus’s complex little book, The Stranger. In Seidlinger’s hands, the material is just as nihilist and existential, but his main character (Meurks, he calls himself online) wants to belong, and uses social media as an alternate, perhaps more real identity to counter his mundane existence. Seidlinger and I caught up over email recently to talk about his new book, the looming figure of Camus, and the hard work of pretending to be normal.
The Rumpus: When did you first read Camus’s The Stranger? Did your impression of it change over time, or were you taken with it immediately?
Michael Seidlinger: I first encountered the book like most: in high school as part of some assignment. Actually, I think it was part of my summer reading. Not that I read any of it. Back then I wasn’t at all interested in reading; I’d skim the Cliff’s Notes and wing the test or essay. Fast forward to college and after House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski blew open the doors in terms of my interest in fiction, I was devouring every single transgressive and/or experimental work I could get my hands on. The Stranger was among one of many insane impulse-buy Amazon orders, likely because it was an item under ten bucks and I was all about that free shipping (if you spend $25 or more) deal back then. When I finally got around to cracking open the book, I was taken immediately by the philosophy of absurdism, and more so Meursault and how he was positioned in society. The Stranger continues to be one of the novels that I turn to when I need to be reminded of the possibilities of literature and the power of language. Man, one of my all-time favorites happened to be something I tossed aside because I wasn’t about to be forced to read anything unless I wanted to, much less for class.
Rumpus: What was your approach like when it came to the source? Did you do any kind of research or specific structural planning of your novel, or were you just working off a more general idea of the plot? Can you talk about how that process evolved?
Seidlinger: Oh, there was definitely a lot of research. I’m talking something like a solid three or four months of nervous research, the kind that involves a lot of panic and random gathering of materials. I’d randomly read articles online about absurdism, basically psyching myself out of it, before I took a step back and decided to focus on Camus’s actual bibliography—the Myth of Sisyphus, Exile and the Kingdom, The Rebel, etc. The Stranger was, of course, the primary text, which I systematically read and reread a handful of times, often taking notes on the cadence of a line, the framework of a scene, and more so how Camus expertly embedded philosophical context without so much as bringing the reader out of the novel’s world. By the end of my research I had over seventy pages full of notes, mostly various lists of how the novel’s two Parts balanced such a layered narrative. I was particularly interested (and worried) in the narrative arc—a death, a murder, a trial—and whether or not I could accurately replicate it without it being too derivative for readers. I also worried about how much of the book should remain faithful to the classic and how much should be original. I had a very specific idea of what needed to happen, but I wanted the main character, Zachary, to also breathe, able to exist in a world that just so happens to be indicative of absurdity. There was so much pressure—mostly self-conceived—that I felt the need to gather up so much research I couldn’t fail. As though any amount of research would help prevent me from failing. I still don’t know if the end result is a success or a failure, but the act of research was a long and stressful act of trying to prove to myself that I could do it. Or at least give it a shot. By the time I started writing, I learned to ignore everything but what aided the intended narrative. Looking back it’s kind of amusing to see how much time I spent researching and psyching myself into writing it before I actually, you know, started writing.
Rumpus: Without giving anything away, “Meurks” is a kind of Internet persona of the main character, Zachary Weinham. Why did you take this kind of dual approach to the protagonist of your work?
Seidlinger: It happened organically. I’m not sure when I decided to incorporate actual social media activity within the prose rather than keeping it selective and seldom transcribed but once I did, I knew that Zachary could be best rendered via Meurks, his Internet presence. Meurks functions as a soundboard of sorts for Zachary, one where you see his true feelings, his intended feelings, and more so his desires (or lack thereof). With a character so withdrawn from society, so introverted, I needed another layer of dynamism, even if it meant constructing the Meurks brand so as to reveal what Zachary would keep hidden in meatspace.
Rumpus: In what ways was the contemporary Internet world similar to the world of Meursault in the original? Did it present any specific challenges to set the work in our digital age? Any particular benefits?
Seidlinger: Well, there’s the fact that society is still society, no matter which decade we’re living in, and therefore you can expect some sense of judgment, privilege, poverty, social anomie, etc. Zachary, like Meursault, acts as an outlier to the actualization of his modern day individual. Neither could ever be considered optimal. There is something deeply different in both and they essentially embrace their “differentness” whether they realize it or not. Where others seemingly fit, Zachary (and Meursault) does not. Both characters are functional, but perhaps only enough to remain out of view of others, the majority. With contemporary Internet a factor, society is split open, its various intricacies and subtleties exposed. This means it’s easy to pretend to be someone else (an Internet persona) while still essentially being yourself (Meurks). It’s obvious that Zachary is funneling his emotions and desires through Meurks and online, many of us are essentially doing the same thing.
We funnel actualities into smart packaging. We conjure up personas that’ll be worth the buzz, or at the very least something that’ll get a reaction. We have done the same when we were in grade school, pretending (or maybe forcing ourselves) to like something and get into some trend—I remember when I really tried to get into Pogs because everyone at school was into it—and it’s not that much different online. The added benefit is that we never have to be our actual selves. We never have to say anything if we don’t want to; in Meursault’s world, everything is “actor” and “the stage”—you are performing in society at all times. In Zachary’s world, the one that is our own, “the stage” has an area off to the side where we can adopt roles that haven’t quite yet been defined. It’s both liberating and frightening because sometimes, those defined roles take control.
Rumpus: In Camus’s book, Meursault’s girlfriend, Marie, functions as a stand-in for (shall we say?) more mainstream views on relationships, human connections, and love. In The Strangest, did you have something similar in mind for Veronica—is she a stand-in for readers, a way to help us understand Zachary’s persona through opposition?
Seidlinger: Zachary’s relationship with Veronica is fraught with ambiguity right from the beginning. I mean, he doesn’t even remember his own birthday, much less hers. Though there are flickers of passion, evidence of a real bond between both characters, Zachary remains somewhat distant, irremediable, from Veronica. She exists mainly as a love interest partially “blurred” or rather, a love interest that has long since become nested, a stale bond. There’s notice of there being a history between the couple, as though they are already well into their relationship, perhaps at that pivot point where things are remedied or become deeper-rooted issues, potentially enough to sour the entire relationship. Veronica is an anchor for Zachary, one that keeps him weighed down, human, real, if only for a flicker of a moment, when later, Zachary essentially floats to the top, to be viewed and judged by society as a whole.
Rumpus: Camus said “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” How did this idea affect your book, particularly because so much of what Zachary craves is online interaction (even to the point of rejecting human interaction when it’s in person)?
Seidlinger: It exists in every single line. Though there’s a sense of apathy, or at least restraint, in Zachary’s voice, his is a role that is fraught with trying to upend his own feelings in order to never be frightened, to never be felt in whole. He steels himself so much that he no longer has the ability to express himself to those around him. Online, he is able to, albeit through the extremely exhausting act of maintaining a social media presence. He is arduous about every single tweet, measuring every post and picture for its visibility. Zachary, in person, has become so distant from his surroundings that he can be as comfortable as he’ll ever be able to be; online, he is ranting about the latest story, as outraged as anyone else. I wouldn’t say Zachary would reject human interaction on a face-to-face level; rather, he uses the Internet and more so his surroundings as a sort of balancing act. He hides from anything and everything that might burden and seeks whatever he could be missing out on via social media and the world as viewed online.
Rumpus: I think the Internet is the greatest argument for absurdism, ever. We’re all starring in our own version of Waiting for Godot, essentially. Keeping busy with the inane. How did you approach the idea of online vs in-person emotional need for Zachary? Is there a difference?
Seidlinger: Everything functions as one big grandiose play, and society as a whole is our stage. We are all acting to the best of our abilities so that we may remain unscathed and more importantly—ahead of the curve. There isn’t a difference, at least in Zachary’s case. He views interaction as the act of presenting himself to another, which can (depending on the situation) be frightening. His emotions are precious (I think we all feel the same way, right?) and he feels vulnerable in nearly every situation, be it a tweet or standing in front of a group of people: he finds society in general absurd. Society is absurd, with its demands, its social classes, its structures preventing (while at the same time allowing) people to move in a certain way. We look for opportunities to be better, to be more visible and relevant. The Internet merely accentuates what is already all around us; you could say it really has become our own modern Waiting for Godot. We scroll through our newsfeeds, waiting hungrily for the next trending topic. We post, comment, tweet, favorite, and retweet in hopes of there being something that happens. Our “Godot” in essence is the act of being relevant, of having something take hold. We are emotionally charged only when something happens. If nothing happens, which happens to be most of the time, we continue scrolling, hitting refresh. Staring at screens. Zachary is merely one of us, an example. We aren’t like him but, at the same time, we are.
Rumpus: Both Meursault (in Camus) and Zachary in The Strangest are driven by impulse, yet they’re very different. Zachary craves something from other people, where Meursault rejects interaction. Yet both characters act on impulse and their actions are unplanned. What, specifically did you want to accomplish in the infamous murder scene? It’s quite different from Camus’s, so I don’t think we’re giving anything away here by mentioning that there is a murder.
Seidlinger: In a number of instances, I deviate from the source material. As you said, the murder in both books is vastly different. In The Strangest, Zachary essentially becomes part of his own trending video; he becomes suspect and celebrity all at once. I won’t be specific, if only to avoid spoilers, but Zachary goes along because he secretly desires approval from others. Though he may fit into the idea of being similar to Meursault, he exhibits his own needs, wants, and traits. He is his own character, and one of the biggest differences in his understanding of where people fit in… or don’t. He is aware of popularity, and more so of how people rank across any number of social spaces. During the murder scene, I wanted the reader, and really everyone watching Zachary as he pulled the trigger, to understand that he is just like all of them—he wants to be accepted. The difference? They don’t realize that they are all operating, to some extent, under the need for acceptance (and all many layers of conformity). Zachary, at this particular moment, becomes an example, the example that carries him through to the end of the book.
Rumpus: What are you reading, currently? Was there anything that you read while you worked on the book that inspired it?
Seidlinger: I’m currently reading Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen, Hurt People by Cote Smith, Zero Saints by Gabino Iglesias, and Year of the Goose by Carly J. Hallman. Seems like a lot but the reason why I have four books queued is because I haven’t been able to really read as much as I’d like, starting a book more often than finishing one. It’s kind of bad and I feel guilty about it.
As for what I was reading while writing The Strangest, I detached myself from any and all literature except for Camus’s work. I’m not sure I have any other outright influences but I can say that at a subconscious level books like Jesus’ Son, Almost Transparent Blue, and Crapalachia influenced me in that they all contained this sort of fervent raw honesty that I wanted to somehow imbed in The Strangest. Not sure I did, but I certainly gave it a shot. But then again, we’re constantly being influenced by what we are reading, watching, listening to, etc. right? So then I the best answer here would be: a crap ton of Camus and a lot of In Flames, post-rock, and the same damn movie I watched on repeat… don’t judge me (yeah, whatever I know you already have)—Upstream Color.
Rumpus: What’s next for Michael Seidlinger, the man who has his finger in every literary pie?
Seidlinger: Well, I can’t really say anything specific but CCM (Civil Coping Mechanisms), the indie press I operate, will have a few new developments in the new year. In fall 2016, I’ve got a new book, Falter Kingdom, which just so happens to be a Young Adult/New Adult title, forthcoming with Unnamed Press, an exciting new powerhouse publishing house out of Los Angeles. I’m currently writing a memoir and just completed a novel influenced by my battles with alcoholism and depression. When I’m not doing all that, I’m dreaming of sleeping in and waking up whenever I feel like it. That hasn’t happened yet but, maybe, just maybe, it will. Someday…