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Writing In The Bellies Of Beasts: An Interview with Lincoln Michel

The writer and editor speaks about beastliness in fiction, founding a literary journal, and avoiding the lure of “faux-weirdness” in his work.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/lincoln.jpg
Photo of Michel taken by Andrew Owen.

By Jonathan Lee

The narrator of the first story in Upright Beasts, Lincoln Michel’s debut collection of short fiction, is a kid much concerned with context. It bothers him that time passes “inexactly” at his school. He finds it hard to remember what semester he’s in. “Several of the clocks still operate, but none of them agree on the time,” and paper murals pasted over classroom windows leave students ignorant of the shape of the day. The twenty-five stories in this vibrant, bold and often funny book are full of such confusions of time and place. Characters stumble around in the dark, seeking a sense of community, deciding to wrestle with or else secretly indulge their own most beastly instincts. There are stories within stories within stories, and grizzly bears swallowed by sharks that are then swallowed by sperm whales. Upright beasts don’t stay upright for long.

This is Michel’s first book, but he’s been publishing short fiction for several years in magazines such as Tin House, NOON, The Believer, and American Short Fiction. He’s also an enthusiastic champion of other authors’ work—the phrase “good literary citizen” comes to mind—and in 2008 he founded Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art, with James Yeh, Ann DeWitt, and Rozalia Jovanovic. When he’s not busy with all that, you can usually find him editing the online content at Electric Literature, or co-editing the sci-fi anthology Gigantic Worlds.

With Upright Beasts due to be released by Coffee House Press on October 13, I asked Michel about genre labels, his struggle to find the right structure for the book, and the “Kluuuuuuurggs” and “Traggeees” and “Gwahs” of his sometimes non-sensical speech.

–Jonathan Lee for Guernica

Guernica: What is it that made “Upright Beasts” feel like the right title for this collection?

Lincoln Michel: I tend to be really happy with my titles, but I took a long time to come up with this one. I didn’t want to use a short story title, a practice that tends to center that particular story for the reader. The stories I’d want to have that weight didn’t have titles that would work. I wanted a title that was evocative, but could contain multiple meanings. The book is definitely concerned with animals, but also the beastly side of human nature, and the existentially absurd nature of life. The phrase “Upright Beasts” is a kind of sad and confused one to me, and confusion and sadness permeate the stories. People have said it is a kind of aggressive title, which I think is good too. Literature could use a bit more of the in-your-face attitude of hip-hop and punk rock as far as I’m concerned.

There needs to be a sadness, a bloodiness, and a dirtiness. If you don’t have that, you float away on a cloud of flying mandolins and singing giraffes into the whimsical or the twee, which I despise.

Guernica: The funny with the sad, and everyday beastliness with what you call the “existentially absurd” —was it important to you that these things should play off each other in each of these stories, as they do in much of the work of Kelly Link or Donald Barthelme?

Lincoln Michel: I’m very interested in the surreal, the unreal, the bizarre, and the uncanny, but I definitely believe those elements need to be weighed down by a certain darkness to work. There needs to be a sadness, a bloodiness, and a dirtiness. If you don’t have that, you float away on a cloud of flying mandolins and singing giraffes into the whimsical or the twee, which I despise. I think that great art should disturb one’s sense of reality, but too often I think writers just sprinkle some faux-weirdness into their work in a way that doesn’t amount to anything, certainly not a challenge to the reader.

Another way to put it, and at the risk of sounding pretentious, is that my favorite art combines the Dionysian with the Apollonian, the chaotic and the orderly, the emotional and the intellectual. I think that art is at its most powerful when it digs its claws into both those realms, then pulls.

Guernica: One of the reasons I was grabbed by the first page of the collection was the sense in which it could be read as a statement of intent about your art and the difficulty of getting it out there: the school student hoping that the essay he’s writing is the “key to [his] escape,” but his classmates squashing his dreams by telling him “You’ll never turn this in … There will never be anyone to accept it!” The title of the last story in the collection seemed to round this idea out nicely, given it’s called “Getting There Nonetheless.” And midway through the book, in “Colony,” you have your narrator talking about the fact that she has been working on a project for so long that “the beginning [is] as hard to make out as the end.” Were there moments when you felt this book would never come together, or see the light of day? Did you find those thoughts feeding into the book and what the book came to be about?

Lincoln Michel: That’s an interesting question. I think that I ultimately see the world as a pretty absurd and confused place, and what’s more filled with confusion and absurdity than trying to be an artist? To me, those stories—especially “Colony”—are more focused on the existential questions of how one figures out how to live life, and how one knows if one is achieving anything or amounting to anything. They’re more about that than about art per se.

Like any writer, I had plenty of anxiety about whether this book would ever be published. We all know that writing is an endless parade of rejections, dismissals, and silences. But I think in a story like “Colony,” I was channeling more the anxiety and dread about not completing things, about not finishing work or spending all my time procrastinating and dawdling or else going in the wrong direction—more about that than about the struggles of getting a completed work published … I’m a horrible procrastinator.

Guernica: Within Upright Beasts you’ve divided the stories into these sections that to me feel like they operate as tongue-in-cheek taxonomic ranks: “Upright Beasts”; “North American Mammals”; “Familiar Creatures” (which includes a story entitled “Lawn Dad”…); and “Megafauna”. How much work went into finding the right structure for the book, and the right ordering of stories within that structure?

Lincoln Michel: I really wanted a collection that combined a lot of different styles, voices, and genres, while still feeling coherent and unified. I ended up going with the four mini-books you cite, each of which still has a range of stories—flash fiction to long stories, different levels of realism—while still being distinct from the other sections.

It was a long process to get there. There are about twenty-five stories in the collection, but at least another twenty-five stories were removed at one point or another. This collection has existed in one form or another since 2009, before I ever had an agent much less a publishing contract, and order was something I played around with many times through the years as I wrote new stories and removed old ones. And I had a really hard time finding models of collections that combined a variety of structures, genres, and levels of realism. I think a lot of editors—and definitely a lot of critics, since it is so easy to dismiss stories that don’t suit your personal taste—push writers to have collections filled with very similar stories. It’s easier to sell and talk about, I guess.

Guernica: Can you talk a little about some of the books, stories and writers that influenced Upright Beasts?

Lincoln Michel: I think that writers can influence you in really subtle ways that outside readers might not notice. I doubt anyone would read Upright Beasts and be reminded of Blood Meridian or Housekeeping, but those were books I love and I’m sure some aspects of them trickled into my work.

A couple of years ago I interviewed Sam Lipsyte and when we were talking about influence he said: “What I have found is that there are some writers that will always matter to one and if you persist, you notice little openings between them because they don’t all fit together perfectly. There are spaces to shoot through and find your own place.” I like that a lot. I think that in a general sense, when I started writing I was influenced by a lot of surreal or “postmodern” writers that are really playful and experimental like Barthelme and Calvino, writers who satisfy the more Apollonian side of me. But then I was also drawn to some more “realist” writers, often whose sentences have a kind of dreamy and poetic minimalism, who really burrowed into my Dionysian side. I’m thinking like Denis Johnson or Joy Williams. When I write, I’m often looking at the gap between those two general spheres of influence.

Guernica: Talk to me about your interest in writing about—don’t laugh, I’m going to give it a capital “T”—Time. It’s there in the very first line of the collection: “Time passes unexpectedly or, perhaps, inexactly at the school.” And it’s there 123 pages later in “My Life In The Bellies Of Beasts”, this sense of time being un-trackable, dreamlike, and yet the only progressive means of people “grow[ing] accustomed to anything.”

Lincoln Michel: I do think the stories are often concerned with time, especially time passing and how easily we let time slip by or get used to almost anything if we wait long enough. Maybe a lot of that stems from my own existential anxieties about wasting time—which of course I constantly do—and with the kind of incredible pressure we all have to figure out whatever we can about life—how to love, how to create, how to be—in a fairly short, and ever shortening, span of time.

Lovers with cancer weeping in the rain outside of a court house where an important historical decision is about to be handed down set to an epic orchestral arrangement—that doesn’t necessarily take more skill to write or act than a scene of comedic farce.

Guernica: You’ve said before that “‘Fun’ and ‘funny’ are things the MFA lit world seems to fear sometimes.” Why do you think that is, and does that fear extend at all to the kind of work New York publishers are willing to put out, and that reviewers are willing to pick up and get behind?

Lincoln Michel: I do think that the literary world, like most artistic worlds, is hesitant to get behind work that is really fun and/or funny, unless there is some simple way it can be validated –for example, resonant political satire—or some pre-defined slot to stuff it in, like postmodernism. It isn’t true of all New York publishing, obviously—plenty of books that are just fun get published, but they tend to be called “genre.”

It’s kind of like how people always joke that if you want to win Best Director you need to make a film about the Holocaust and if you want to win Best Actor you need to play someone with a mental disability or debilitating disease. And those jokes aren’t far from the truth. How often does a comedic actor win an Oscar?

I think often critics think they are championing the subtle and nuanced when they are actually championing the loud and simplistic. Lovers with cancer weeping in the rain outside of a court house where an important historical decision is about to be handed down set to an epic orchestral arrangement—that doesn’t necessarily take more skill to write or act than a scene of comedic farce, but the meaning is all there on the surface and you can feel safe saying it is important. So something similar happens in the literary world, I think.

If you want your magazine to stand out, you need to offer something a little more specific than just ‘a couple stories, a few poems, and two personal essays that we kinda of liked from the Submittable queue.’

Guernica: Do MFA programs play a role in that?

Lincoln Michel: Part of it is how literature is taught. It’s so much easier to teach “theme” and message to students, and to have them write about that, than it is to talk about aesthetics or literary effects or anything like that. It is easier to grade, easier to evaluate. I think too often students, and students who grow up to be writers or editors or critics, get the sense that “literary” means a story has a simple yet meaningful message. I remember a couple years ago I was teaching freshmen a both fun and funny story by Robert Olen Butler called “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot.” There were two students, one holding an iPhone with an Adventure Time case and another who had a copy of A Game of Thrones on his desk, who kept pressing me about what the exact message was and what the story “meant,” in some singular sense. I don’t think that while watching Adventure Time or reading A Game of Thrones they were constantly thinking, “But what does this magic stretching cartoon dog represent?” or “What do the ice zombies mean?” Yet, since the Butler story had the phrase “literary” attached, and it was being taught in school, they’d been trained to think about it in that way.

Guernica: In an interview you did with Alan Ziegler for The Believer a while ago, you asked him this: “Do people accept prose poems and flash fiction as integral parts of modern poetry and fiction now?” Let me ask you the same question—are these forms accepted now? How does Gigantic fit into that?

Lincoln Michel: When I co-founded Gigantic with James Yeh, Ann DeWitt and Rozalia Jovanovic in 2008—a literary magazine and publisher devoted to flash fiction and art—I definitely felt like short prose was overlooked in the more mainstream literary world. I’m not claiming any credit in changing this, but seven years later I do think those forms are accepted. It feels like basically every literary magazine out there now publishes some short prose, which wasn’t really the case ten years ago. When Lydia Davis is being raved about in the New Yorker, I think the form is part of the literary mainstream.

The four of us [who founded Gigantic] were in grad school at Columbia, and we all had an interest in short prose as a form. Even more than just flash fiction, we absolutely did want to give a space for an aesthetic—one focusing more on the mysterious, the elliptical, and the surprising—that inspired us. If you want your magazine to stand out, you need to offer something a little more specific than just “a couple stories, a few poems, and two personal essays that we kind of liked from the Submittable queue.” Most of the magazines I love have some kind of focus, whether aesthetically (for example, NOON), conceptually (for example, One Story), or in some other capacity. Our idea was to stand out by focusing on flash fiction, pushing an aesthetic, and creating a really beautiful yet affordable physical object.

Guernica: Does your work as an editor at Gigantic, and now also at Electric Literature, feed into your writing in useful ways?

Lincoln Michel: Yes and no. Yes, because editing other people’s work has made me a much stricter and better editor of my own work. No, because spending my free time—Electric Literature is my full-time job, but Gigantic is a passion project we lose money on—surely takes away from my writing time. And that’s a painful thing. I was reading a great essay by the great writer Alexander Chee yesterday where he said writers will do almost anything in order to have more time: “Time is our mink, our Lexus, our mansion. In a room full of writers of various kinds, time is probably the only thing that can provoke widespread envy more than acclaim. Acclaim which of course means access to money, which then becomes time.”

On the one hand, I do regret all the lost time writing, but I do also really love making objects and promoting work that I love, so I’d probably still edit and publish magazines if I had to start all over again.

Guernica: Let’s talk about how a particular story came together—what you hoped for, what frustrations you encountered, what the prevailing influences and ideas were. One of the stories that intrigued me most was just three pages long: “What We Have Surmised About the John Adams Incarnation.”

Lincoln Michel: That’s an interesting one to pick, because it’s the one story in the book that was essentially an assignment. Amber Sparks contacted me in late 2011 or early 2012 about an anthology of presidential themed flash fiction stories that was going to be published in time for the 2012 election, and I was assigned John Adams. Sadly, the press that was going to publish the book folded, although Melville House stepped up to publish the entire thing online before the election. It featured many people who now, three years later, are pretty well known names: Roxane Gay, Matt Bell, Amelia Gray.

I can’t remember why I was assigned John Adams, but I think he was the only one left. I remember thinking, I don’t know anything about this dude! They teach you everything about Washington and Jefferson, but Adams is just a stop-gap president between the famous ones. So I decided to make that work in my favor, by using the story to interrogate the way history is constantly rewritten, and the way that we so confidently talk about historical periods and eras that we really don’t know much about. I’m always interested in the way we develop these historical myths about different times, and the way we push our own contemporary ideas on historical figures. Film and TV especially have this absurd need to make all people from all places and time basically just have the same feelings and conceptions of the world as modern Americans. Humanity’s consistent confusion about itself is endlessly fascinating to me.

On a whole other level, I thought it would be fun to write a kind of Borges-meets-Lovecraft science fiction story, and those two impulses came together in this futuristic encyclopedia entry on the probably-mythical-but-perhaps-historical John Adams in which the future historians are getting everything wrong yet are still confident in their scholarship. And I hoped too that in the context of the anthology, and of the election-atmosphere, that it would comment somewhat on America and our foibles and follies.

Guernica: The book seems to me to be suffused with colonies, communities, utopias, and ideas about what individuals sacrifice in trying to fulfill their need to feel part of some wider entity or grouping. And I got the feeling that there were thoughts on language itself connected to this in the book—speech being something that is supposed to draw people together, but which can deteriorate into the “Kluuuuuuurggs” and “Traggeees” and “Gwahs” of non-sensical speech.

Lincoln Michel: The duties of a community to its individuals, and the duty of individuals to their communities, are some of the classic tensions of civilization. How does language fit into that? I wish I had something smart to say here—like how the duty of the artist is to push their personal language, their unique voice, into the dull repetitive white noise of the community or something—but I’m not sure I was thinking about anything like that while writing. I do think the always-changing interplay between the communal language and the personal and interpersonal language is really interesting. And I’m really really glad that you quoted my “Gwah”ing.

Guernica: What’s next? Am I allowed to mention the word “novel”?

Lincoln Michel: I do have an—I think!—almost done novel about existential depression and super-villains called DOOM MOOD. One chapter from it was published in American Short Fiction. It’s a weird, but I think a pretty fun, funny, and interesting novel. At least I hope. I also have a graphic novel I’ve been working on with the writer and artist John Dermot Woods, as well as two other novel ideas that I’m really excited about. One is about girls living in a haunted neighborhood filled with rat kings and kudzu boys, and the other a science fiction novel about baseball and murder. I’ll be able to actually finish one of them.

Lincoln Michel is the online editor of Electric Literature and the coeditor of Gigantic. His work has appeared in Tin House, NOON, the Believer, American Short Fiction, Pushcart Prize XXXIX, and elsewhere. He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn, NY. His new book of short stories, Upright Beasts, will be out on October 13, 2015 from Coffee House Press.

Jonathan Lee’s new novel, High Dive, will be published by Knopf in March. He works at A Public Space.

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