Shortly after NecronomiCon 2013, Founding Editor Sean Moreland chatted at length with author and professor Michael Cisco about Kafka, Tolkien, Poe, Lovecraft and Deleuze, among other things. Strap yourselves in.
Michael Cisco is one of the most innovative and influential creators of dark fantastic fiction writing today. His novel The Divinity Student (1999) won the International Horror Guild Award for best first novel, and his novel The Great Lover (2011) was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award, and was named Best Weird Novel of 2011 by the Weird Fiction Review. His short fiction has appeared in collections including The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, Leviathan III and IV, and Album Zutique, while a selection from his novella The Genius of Assassins was included in the compendium The Weird. Cisco is also a professor of English literature and a translator. He lives in New York City.
In her introduction to his first novel, The Divinity Student, Ann VanderMeer likened reading Cisco’s work to “being under the influence of some mind-blowing drug.” It is an oft-used analogy for certain kinds of fiction (reading Dick is like experiencing amphetamine psychosis, reading Burroughs is like experiencing the cycle of opiate high and withdrawal, etc.) but one that is apt where Cisco is concerned, as many of his readers can testify.
A decidedly dissociative effect overcomes me after I’ve spent time engulfed in Cisco’s vivid fictional worlds, a sense of having an utterly real, but also powerfully impersonal, perspective on a world and life very different from our own. Long after I have put the book down and walked away, I experience a lasting sense of infectious irreality that alters my experience of this world, much like that which lingers after a Lynch film or Ligotti story. Reassuring me that this is not merely the product of some individual pathology on my part, Cisco affirms that many of his readers have reported similar experiences, and that these are a large part of the intended effect of his atmospheric fictions.
SM: Is atmosphere a major desideratum of your fiction? Are there any authors whose work you feel is particularly successful in terms of the creation, and maintenance, of atmosphere?
MC: I write entirely from the vantage point of atmosphere. My plots are all atmospheric plots, my characters are atmosphere characters, and the style has its atmosphere. Atmosphere is a tool, and an aim. Any writer whose work has a particular feel that is not attributable to anything particularly locale will have atmosphere.
SM: Given the dissociative effect your fictions have on many readers, have you ever experienced the act of writing as some kind of altered state or as a dissociative experience? Or as (at the risk of troping Romantic) a kind of possession?
MC: Getting ideas is like that, and I try to write as a kind of performance, onstage writing. I try to get as emotional and worked up as possible drawing only on imaginary scenarios. I “get there” and then I go through an actual experience, which then gives me something to write about, body feelings to describe, etc. It’s very important that the emotions not belong to me or to anyone, but that they take shape in the wrong place. It’s sort of like synesthesia, but instead of displacing sensations, I get emotions to express themselves in images I can transcribe. I don’t think of this as possession, it’s more like using different parts of myself to write. To write from the point of view of this or that character, I have to use the part of me that is that character, if I have one.
SM: To continue tapping the vein of writing and narcotically altered states, you’ve listed William S. Burroughs as a favourite writer. Can you tell me more about the importance Burroughs’ work has had for you, or the ways in which it has shaped your own literary vision?
MC: Burroughs’ fantasy doesn’t feel like any other kind, in part because it sits next to real but outré events and in part because it isn’t fashioned for the same reasons. His fantasies are more poetic than narrative. They have an immediate vividness and parity with real events, they don’t seem contrived and they aren’t edited or touched up either. I go back to Burroughs to experience the bracing shift to that really intense, shocking fantasticness, because it always reminds me that I’m thinking too small, that my stories are too linear, that everything I do is too heavy.
SM: The aleatory played a major role in much of Burroughs’ writing, especially from Naked Lunch onward, as he began to experiment with a variety of procedures for randomizing his texts, most famously the “cut-ups” he derived from Brion Gysin. Do you deliberately introduce aleatory elements in your fiction? Do you use, or have you used, any particular randomizing procedures when writing?
MC: I’ve used cut-ups on occasion, mainly for creating dream impressions. I don’t use them very much. The ideas are already aleatory. I do look at the various events that have happened in a story and ask myself, given these events, what will happen, but because I want the story to live, I prefer to have the next events simply occurring without my intentions, one way or another, interfering. It may work out the way I expected, but not because it had to or because I forced it to. All I need to know is where a book is going, and then anything can happen as long as we keep going that way.
SM: Can you tell me a little more about your approach to the work of writing? For example, do you follow Flaubert’s dictum to be “steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work?” Do you keep a regular writing schedule, work at pre-ordained times, or do you write only when some compulsive inspiration strikes, or, say, during certain lunar phases, or solely during the crepuscule, or under the influence of certain insalubrious substances, or following certain unhallowed rituals?
MC: I write on days when I don’t have to go to work. On those days I get up, eat, and then write for as long as I can keep out of the hands of my superstitions. I get most of my ideas listening to music and jotting down notes. I pick an episode I want to do today and then listen for the better part of me to tell me what I should do.
SM: Your short story collection Secret Hours includes a number of fictions that use literary pastiche as a starting point (including “The Death of Edgar Allan Poe,” as well as “Herbert West: Reincarnated,” which nominally reprises one of Lovecraft’s characters). Why did you decide to pay homage to these writers in particular?
MC: I love them both. I was asked to participate in the Lovecraft pastiche, also. The Poe story was a dream.
SM: Pastiche seems to me much less prominent in your longer, later fictions. Do you think this is a fair assessment? Was there a particular point when you were conscious of having attained a different relation with various literary precursors?
MC: Nearly everything I do is pastiche. There are very few passages in my work that seem at all new to me.
SM: Some of your work has a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour, and yet (aside from a handful of the stories in Secret Hours which make overt, but ingeniously subversive, use of names and figures from Lovecraft’s stories) I wouldn’t be tempted to describe any of your fiction as “Mythos.” Can you tell me a little about why Lovecraft has been important for you?
MC: Lovecraft introduced me to literary society, the sort of thing that was once much more common everywhere and I think endures more in other countries than in the U.S., where people form a nucleus around a writer they like, etc. Lovecraft appealed to me because he lived in his own head and disdained middle-class banality while sticking up for a kind of art that was hopelessly ineligible at the time for inclusion in any self-important avant-garde literary schools. I was always drawn to the ones who go off on their own and make their own art or think by themselves. I liked the emphasis on bookishness. I’d been hunting myself for some kind of magical books all my life. I enjoyed his special relationship to language, the shameless chewiness of his sentences, his abstraction and lack of sentimentality. His stories had a clinical hardness and sincerity that hack horror fiction can’t have. Lovecraft has intellectual integrity; he wants to know the truth, no matter how painful it might be. He may make the not-uncommon mistake of treating the degree to which an idea is depressing into an index of its truth, but he seems for the most part to be honest about himself in a difficult way.
SM: Some of your critical and scholarly work has focused on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, who notably refers to both Lovecraft and Burroughs in a number of his works. What do you make of Deleuze’s appropriation (or embrace) of these writers?
MC: Deleuze doesn’t mention either of them all that much. Burroughs comes up a few times, with some reference to drugs or to the cut-ups, and most often in connection with the idea of control societies. I suspect Deleuze read only Naked Lunch. Burroughs almost certainly did not read Deleuze. They nevertheless share common orientation toward the radically new, they both believed that static identities were impossible, and there are a great many implications that can be drawn out from these similarities. Deleuze mentions Lovecraft even less often and there mainly when discussing Lovecraft’s unnamable things, entities without categories. All that said, since neither Burroughs nor Lovecraft seems to exist at all for a great many modern thinkers, and since so many French thinkers and fellow travellers, while they claim to study literature pure and simple, nevertheless remain parochially within the circle of French literature (and canonical French literature at that), the fact that Deleuze mentions Burroughs and Lovecraft at all is still significant.
SM: Was this part of what attracted you to Deleuze (or conversely, did Deleuze draw your attention to Lovecraft/Burroughs?
MC: I’d read Burroughs and Lovecraft first. I was drawn to Deleuze only after reading his Nietzsche book. I had read some of his other work before and found it curious but not all that important; the Nietzsche book changed all that. I was drawn to Deleuze in part because, in addition to being a highly literary philosopher (which matters to me because I have a monotonously literary way of experiencing everything), he likes all the same writers I do: Kafka, Proust, Artaud, Beckett, with frequent reference to Henry Miller and some serious thought about Herman Melville. I was drawn to Deleuze as a countercultural, mad scientist type, although Guattari is closer to that model. After I began reading him seriously, I realized how much deeper my interest in his work was.
SM: Can you tell us a little about how Deleuze’s thought has affected your fictional and critical practice?
MC: I write fiction more or less as I always did: my method loses shape over time, and I include any philosophical ideas that are meaningful to me in the work. My aim has always been the same though. In my critical work I certainly follow Deleuze too much.
SM: Deleuze was much enthralled with writers who turned their mother tongue (or, at least, the language in which they wrote) into an altogether different, foreign language. Does this concept resonate with you? Do you ever experience “your own” writing as an act of translation from a language you know, into one that is foreign?
MC: I wrote a whole novel about that, called UNLANGUAGE. [Editor’s note: a previously unpublished section from UNLANGUAGE will appear in Postscripts to Darkness Volume 5, accompanied by excerpts from this interview.]
SM: I am struck by the difference between your approach to the writing of fantasy and the kind of “high fantasy” adventure epic popularized by Tolkien and his innumerable imitators. What are your thoughts on Tolkien, and on the influence his work has had on fantasy in literature?
MC: Tolkien was a structuralist. He gave fantasy worlds structure, where before they were as nebulous as fantasies. Role-playing games are already prefigured in Tolkien because the structures are already there, which is why his work, as opposed to David Lindsay’s or Eddison’s or MacDonald’s, was the first to be adapted. I can’t think of anyone offhand who writes fantasy any other way, unless you look to writers like Tutuola, who are outside the flow of the Tolkien stream. The Hobbit was holy writ to me as a boy and I still like it better than anything else he wrote, in part because it wasn’t burdened with accounting for the entire history of its world. I responded intensely to the fact that the death of the dragon was not the end of the story or of the conflict, and that the stupidity of war was at least intimated, inconsistently, in the ending.
SM: Despite intimations of the stupidity of war, the moral ontology of Tolkien’s fiction (good and evil being natural laws, much like physics or chemistry) ultimately justifies the necessity of war, of violent confrontation. In other words, Tolkien’s fictions make meaning, and a necessity, of war. Your novel The Narrator (2010) strikes me as a direct counterpoint to this. One commentator describes it as “an extended treatise on the negation of meaning that is war,” which seems apt. What do you think of this characterization of the novel?
MC: That was the idea. For Tolkien, the moral question is entirely confined to his main characters; everyone else is locked into place. The orcs and so on are damned; they have no moral agency. I wouldn’t count Tolkien as a warmonger, because there is, for example, Bilbo’s horrified reaction to the battle over the loot at the end of The Hobbit. Warfare is not glorified in the books as it is in the films, and it is never a matter of military victory. I was more struck by the tendency of so much of fantasy fiction to turn into morally unambiguous wars — an oxymoron. I wanted to write a fantasy novel about war as I saw it.
SM: That writers of fiction are imbricated in the ideologies that sustain war seems suggested by the novel. For example, the College of Narrators at which the story’s narrator, Low, is a student, is a hierarchical, even authoritarian (or author/itarian) organization implicated in the novel’s war-horrors. Due to analogies like this, the novel seems to come close to, without ever fully becoming, a kind of satirical critique. Do you see your work as motivated by satire? Do you think satire as a literary mode is compatible with the devotion to atmosphere which you described as the primary “tool and aim” of your fiction?
MC: The idea was, in part, to write a fantasy Catch-22. The question of compatibility is worked out in terms of not trivializing, not using fantasy to gloss over anything, but to capture something real and hard to see — the miasma of fatal absurdity that really does seem to cling to war. It’s that atmosphere of heedlessness that you have to capture: nobody knows why they’re there, or what they’re doing, or what it’s all about, or what’s good about it; it’s the atmosphere that keeps them in line, it’s the atmosphere they are going along with. A nonconformist has to buck the atmosphere, and have one of her own already that isn’t mixing with the prevailing one. That’s what allows him that all- important extra second of hesitation in which to wonder why.
SM: Do you see this novel as a response to the current political climate in the U.S., or internationally? Are there any particular events that contributed to your affective state while writing the book or that crept into the creation of its characters?
MC: Sure, it was written in part because of the second Iraq war, but we’ve been at war nearly all my life, and then there’s the war on drugs or on terror, more pretexts for U.S. aggression and anti-democracy. The Jackson [Lord of the Rings] adaptations were hitting the theatres around the time that war began. Part of my reason for avoiding those films was the impression that the audience was being tacitly invited to make an all-too-obvious, and deeply foolish, transposition from film to history.
SM: I’m struck by the way in which the formal elements of language itself become threats, embodiments of violence, throughout The Narrator. The Predicanten, for example, terrifying protean monsters, are cognates with (at least in traditional grammar) those elements of the sentence that are opposed to the subject. Aside from being one of the spices with which you cook your fiction, are these metalinguistic touches rooted in a larger critique of the matrix of power relations in which language is implicated?
MC: History is written by the winners, everyone expects to win so the propaganda of today is a projected future history — what they will say about us one day. The will to fight is drummed up by dehumanizing the enemy, telling false stories about them, exiling them from history. The official narratives use resourcefully developed marketing techniques and euphemisms to create a colossal lie. The one thing you must never see is that war is now entirely a matter of ruthlessly murdering bystanders.
SM: Since Tolkien has brought us circuitously to the subject of cinema, I’m curious about the influence of cinema on your thought and writing. Do you watch a lot of films? Are there any directors whose work is particularly important to you?
MC: Jodorowsky was an early inspiration for me. I’m a basically stupid man, and I need others to hit me over the head with things before I will notice them. Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre helped me to understand again that Los Angeles is a Mexican city, and that the Latin flavour was something I would need in order to make a city feel real. Otherwise I like Hitchcock, particularly Psycho; Tarkovsky, particularly Stalker and The Mirror, which were both made as if Hollywood never existed. I like Kurosawa, especially Ran; Polanski, especially The Tenant; Herzog, especially The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser; David Lynch mainly for Eraserhead; Jan Švankmajer mainly for his Faust; Paul Morrissey mainly for Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula; Carl Dreyer; Marco Bellocchio’s movie Fists in the Pocket; The Long Goodbye; Catch-22, and so on.
SM: “Los Angeles is a Mexican city” — a fascinating observation. I’ve often been struck by the way Mexico becomes a kind of geographical Other, largely divorced from its own social reality, in many American films and fictions. It often serves as a kind of fantastic embodiment of American anxiety and desire. One example that springs to mind is the Mexico of McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. There seem to be clear parallels between this imaginary space and the L.A. of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, or Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (Lynch sometimes does something similar with Canada, in Twin Peaks, for example.) Is this something you’ve noticed in the works of other writers and filmmakers, and how directly has this cultural imagining of Mexico, or of L.A., informed your creation of San Veneficio?
MC: I was thinking more about Mexican Los Angeles rather than Mexico itself, which I do not really know. I think you’re right; Mexico is often represented that way, but, to me, Latin America generally and Mexico in particular are only foreign without being in any way really exaggeratedly foreign, to the extent of becoming Other. My latest novel is set in an imaginary Latin American country, but that’s principally because a) I think that, notwithstanding the many terrible problems that continue to exist, Latin America has, in this period of reduced U.S. interference, pioneered new approaches to democracy, and b) I don’t know Latin America except through its literature, so I didn’t want to foist a horribly naive rendering on any actual country.
SM: Asked by Jeff VanderMeer to provide a definition of “the weird” as it applies to your work, you wrote: “In rhetoric, ‘redundancy’ refers to the way repetition is used to improve intelligibility. Everything from outright repetition to regular sentence structure counts as redundancy. To me, the weird is an attempt to depart dramatically from redundancy at the level of plot, character, setting, style, etc.” This formulation hints at one of the ways in which your approach to fantasy differs from that of most “world-building” writers of speculative fiction. Most epic fantasy gradually constructs a world of discernible laws, in which particular causes, however “magical” or “fantastic,” lead to effects which become increasingly intelligible to readers as they accumulate knowledge about the world by continued reading (such fiction is thus, arguably, about domesticating the fantastic…an approach that conveniently also lends itself well to serialization!) Your San Veneficio books dispensed with this vertical thrust (i.e., driving the reader deeper and deeper into the strata of laws that govern the fictional world). Instead, your fictions draw readers along a line of flight which, as they continue reading, carries them ever-further from any recognizable system of laws, rules, equivalences, and so on. Does this sound plausible to you?
MC: Sure. We don’t get to see the plans of our world, which actually has no plan anyway. So making a plausible world means actually not planning it or planning in such a way that there are many plans, many ideas of the world, just as it is on Earth. That’s the kind of thing that sounds plausible, but making it work can be hit and miss, and there are still plenty of effective fantasies that are basically planned. It depends on what you’re trying to do. You need the segmented line, the orderly scheme or plan, as well as the fracture line that breaks away, and what you write is the negotiation between the break and the plan.
SM: It also strikes me that this is a somewhat Deleuzian cartography, in which traditional epic fantasy is more aligned with what Deleuze terms generality, and your work (which you’ve described as “literarily sophisticated fantasy”) with what he terms repetition… a meaning of the word seemingly very different from the one your formulation implies. Did Deleuze inform your understanding of “weird” in some way?
MC: That was already formed by the time I discovered Deleuze. The sensibility was there, and I had to look at it from a point of view informed by all my philosophical reading.
SM: Many of your fictions foreground the act of translation from another language as a plot device, and you are yourself a noted translator. How did you first become involved with literary translation?
MC: I started translating because so much of what I want to read isn’t available in English. My Spanish is next to nothing, so I have to write out a full translation myself if I want to read Alfonso Reyes, for example.
SM: Can you tell us something of how your translation work feeds back into your own writing?
MC: I’ve always liked the subtly wrong feeling that translated work has, and wondered about how to do that deliberately, but my rootedness in English is strong and hard to overcome. Both Tolkien and Lovecraft invoke magic by inventing inhuman languages, which is something else I respond to in their work. A translator has to pivot over the seam between two ways of meaning, so you have to be able to get the atmospheric sense right by using language pointillistically and hoping the aggregate doesn’t feel too artificial.
SM: I was fortunate enough to witness your recent reading alongside Laird Barron at NecronomiCon in Providence, RI. Getting to hear you read was a pleasant surprise for me. Well, pleasant isn’t the right word, here — it was rather a memorably unnerving experience. You read The Genius of Assassins, which, incidentally, was the first of your fictions I’d encountered (as reprinted in The Weird.) I found myself thinking about your performance of the story obsessively on the long drive back to Ottawa, which sparked a few questions. First, can you tell us a little about the writing of that story, your psychological connection with its narrator, and its effect on you personally?
MC: That was actually only one of three linked stories in Genius. They were all bound together by my desire to write something about violence, because I thought most of the writing and film I’d encountered on the subject explained it too much. The murderer’s horrible family history and so on. As if that explains what the killer goes on to do, notwithstanding that most people with horrible family histories don’t murder people, and there are plenty of murderers on record who have been through no special suffering. You don’t understand violence, you experience it. There’s at once too little and too much for the understanding to work with. The idea that violence can be explained and understood is either a consoling fiction or a sinister technocratic kind of goal masquerading as an observation. Once I’d written the story, I reread it and felt terrible, which made me feel good, because I wanted to write a story that would induce that terrible feeling.
SM: Do you still experience any kind of emotional reaction to the story when you read it? Do you find yourself channelling the narrator?
MC: I’m always me. The narrator doesn’t write the story, he lives it, and I do the reverse. Actually I think I feel more what I want the audience to feel than what the narrator feels, or I experience both. That may be it — feeling the disjunction between the two.
SM: Your reading style is powerful, theatrical, but also spare, restrained somehow. Is this something you’ve deliberately cultivated over the years? Do you find that the voices which “speak” your fictions move you to read/perform them in particular ways?
MC: I do practice reading, I always think about how my writing sounds, the affect, the tone. I listen to as much literature as I read, and I have my various hero readers like Burroughs and Joe Frank. All the characters have to present themselves to me and speak for themselves. Nabokov somewhere referred to his characters as galley slaves, meaning he laboured under the delusion that they were simply detached puppets. Perhaps the realization that he was their puppet was too embarrassing to mention.
SM: Speaking of puppets, you’ve recently had a story included in Joe Pulver’s collection of Ligotti-inspired fiction The Grimscribe’s Puppets. Your contribution, “The Secrets of the Universe,” reminded me of one of Poe’s celestial dialogues (perhaps “The Colloquy of Monos and Una”) re-imagined by Beckett. Stylistically, it is very different from much of Ligotti’s work, but tonally and thematically, it seems an extension of his vision. Can you tell us something about the writing of the story, and how Ligotti’s shadow falls over it?
MC: I used to talk with him on the phone from time to time, and we had some very long conversations, so I guess I began writing the story from somewhere in the vicinity of my recollected conversations with him. Ligotti’s work has to do with the nullification of existence, so I just did that too.
SM: How did you first discover Ligotti’s work?
MC: In Crypt of Cthulhu magazine.
SM: Ligotti seems to have been one of the earliest champions of your own work. In her introduction to The Divinity Student, Ann VanderMeer mentions that you sent the manuscript for that book to her with a letter saying that he had recommended her to you. Can you give us any more details on that exchange?
MC: I’d been subscribing to Crypt for a while, had written to Bob Price a few times, and then it so happened he moved to New Jersey while I was living in New York. He invited me out to his place regularly to meet with his own Kalem circle, which included Joe Pulver and Chris Henderson. Stephen Aletti came a few times, others I’m too old and stupid to remember. We would read to each other and talk mythos. When I mentioned my unpublished first novel to Bob, he suggested I send it to Ligotti, on the grounds that he knew a lot of small press publishers. I was in abject awe of Ligotti and the thought of approaching him frightened me, but he was very generous and we ended up talking on the phone and so on. I have never met him in person. He’d recently received a copy of VanderMeer’s Dradin, in Love, and he noted the more or less exact complementarity of that novel with the DS, so he suggested I approach the publisher, and so on from there. I owe my start all to Bob and Tom, Jeff and Ann.
SM: How important has Ligotti’s pessimistic Weltanschauung been to you? Is it a perspective with which you strongly identity? Is it one you see as linked to the perspective of earlier literary skeptics such as Melville or Poe?
MC: I don’t share it. I wouldn’t call Ligotti a skeptic; he seems rationally convinced. Melville was, I think, always an agnostic, and his pessimism was much more an affect, a result of personal disappointment. He had, however, glimpsed the heights, and knew they were there. He just wasn’t able to keep them. Poe struggled with pessimism.
SM: You’re finishing up your first book of critical non-fiction, Supernatural Embarrassment: The Polemic Between Science and the Supernatural in the Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville. Can you tell us something about it, or about how the work of this trinity of “naysayers” has informed your own?
MC: It’s my attempt to situate these three thinkers in the broad spectrum of American thought about the supernatural. For Hawthorne, the supernatural and the psychological keep turning into each other, because it’s so difficult to know where the boundaries of a person are. And he had an overriding ethical phobia of trespassing on other people. For Poe, the supernatural is reason’s shadow or the return of reason after an unaccountable lapse, unrecognizably transformed. It’s also a bewitching semblance of intelligibility that never fully materializes. He would use the supernatural to debunk the claims of empirical reason, instead of the other way around. This is why his supernatural is so unlike folklore; he didn’t use known tropes, like werewolves and so on. Instead he was a great innovator of the structuralism of the supernatural, using its forms without much of its familiar content, and treating it primarily as a form. For Melville, the supernatural is the thrilling possibility that the game of faith and doubt can escalate forever, growing eternally bigger. It’s in Melville where you encounter the idea of the supernatural as a true beyond, potentially alien, as something existential and more than another term in a polemic. Melville takes the frontier and makes an idea out of it, a pure frontier, then gives that idea a Platonic independence to reintroduce itself into reality not as this or that frontier but as a distilled Essence of Frontier that infuses moments of profoundest contemplation. Melville also politicizes the question a great deal more; his books are full of everyday philosophers. As for what they mean to me; I’m drawn to Hawthorne because I sympathize with his discomfort about trespassing on other people by, for example, turning them into characters, speaking for them, thinking for them. I’m drawn to Poe for his mordant humour and exuberant morbidity, his zest for extremes, the way he turns reasoning into a performance, with all that entails. Melville attracts me because he is so firmly rooted in uncertainty, and because he expects everything from literature, altruistically. Even his most painfully constructed or tragic works are written with joy, although it may be a baffled or thwarted joy.
SM: As someone who teaches literature, often in terms of intellectual history and cultural movements, I’m very interested in the relationships writers have with the reception of their fiction, which necessarily seems to involve the (mis)use of descriptive labels and categorical terms. As you have noted, “Literary history is heavily invested in scenes and schools, portable assemblies (Surrealists, Romantics, Beats) put together by critics.” If you had the power (and the inclination) to write yourself into a 22nd century encyclopedia of 21st century literary history, what would you say about yourself and your work?
MC: I have no idea. I have no idea that there will be any literary history in the future. Perhaps there won’t be, and writers will be remembered here and there as part of a general appraisal of the time, or as hobbyists. All I can think of by way of my literary historical obituary would be something like: “There were still some people writing novel-things at that time.”
SM: I know Laird Barron, for one, resists the term “The New Weird,” arguing that all good weird fiction is always by its very nature “new,” and that the attempt to conceptually differentiate “The New Weird” from its forebears is futile. Is this a viewpoint you share?
MC: For me, the newness doesn’t come in with the fiction itself, Laird’s right, but there is a newness to the attention that weird fiction is getting in some quarters, in that there is a slightly greater openness to it in respectable literary circles, in part because it’s such an active and prolific scene, and in part because the Official Writer, who fills the shoes of bygone writers like Norman Mailer, has vanished, and doesn’t seem to be possible anymore.
SM: I’ve also heard you referred to as a “horror” writer. This is a term many writers, for a variety of reasons, resist (I’m thinking of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s rejection of the label.) Is this a term you identify with? Are there writers whom you do associate with the term, and how would you characterize the relationship between your work and theirs?
MC: I would call a writer whatever they call themselves. Horror is primarily a bookstore classification. I don’t think about these terms at all when I write, I just write. I write about my life, and they call it horror. Ha ha. Press me, and I’ll call my work de-genred, which means there are genre elements but not genre intentions, that I don’t negate or deny genres but to me they’re like a spice rack, to be thrown together entirely along the lines of taste. I don’t know “horror writers,” I just know writers who write what they write and we read each other and respect each other as writers, ‘nuff said. The genre aspects are not that determinative at all.
SM: I gather that you recently channelled the spirit of Kafka so that Jeff VanderMeer might interrogate him. What can you tell me about this experience, as well as about your collection of Kafka-related artifacts?
MC: I have no such collection. That’s pure VanderMeer. I did not receive him wearing a poncho. I don’t have a wonderful basement apartment full of magical things. I’m an English teacher in the United States. As for channelling Kafka — this is impossible. I just thought about the questions and jumped.
SM: What is it about Kafka’s work that most interests you?
MC: Literally everything. As if it were of extraterrestrial origin.
SM: Asked by VanderMeer about his response to the manifold interpretations that have been crafted in response to The Metamorphosis over the years, Kafka replies, in your translation, “Interpreting the story is already a mistake.” Is interpreting Kafka a mistake you’ve made? If so, is it something for which he can forgive you?
MC: Kafka’s dead, he doesn’t care. I can’t interpret Kafka, that’s why I admire him so much.
SM: What do you think of Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature?
MC: I think it’s pretty much the unique intelligent book about Kafka.
SM: In one of his lectures on The Metamorphosis, Nabokov characterizes the story by claiming that “the absurd central character belongs to the absurd world around him but, pathetically and tragically, attempts to struggle out of it into the world of humans — and dies in despair.” Is this a reading (I hesitate to say interpretation) of Kafka that you share? Do you think it could be applied to some of your fictions?
MC: Nabokov is wrong. First of all, it isn’t a story about a man becoming an insect; he already is an insect as the story begins, and he never confronts this change. The most striking thing about this metamorphosis is how little actually changes — that, having become the world’s only giant insect, Gregor Samsa finds the experience if not quite the circumstances of life largely unchanged. And what is the world of humans, anyway? How much did he belong to it before? He does not seem to have found the loss of his humanity any great loss, and in fact you could argue that he seems more human for having changed. How human are his family? And where is this struggle? Does insect Gregor ever try to cure himself? I don’t see any struggle at all, in fact; Gregor is either in perfect denial or he has entirely accepted the change, or perhaps there’s no difference. For that matter, his family also all changes, his parents rejuvenated, his sister adolescing. The absurdity that Nabokov talks about is not present to the characters at all; it is entirely in the contemplation of the story from the reader’s point of view. The story is not about two worlds, only one world, which is also the reader’s world. The whole point, actually, is that it really isn’t absurd at all. What is the tragedy? What of value is lost? Gregor’s life? No, that wasn’t worth much. He had wistful, nebulous dreams, and there is a tragedy there, but then the tragedy would be that these dreams can never become even concrete as ambitions, let alone experiences, and meanwhile, when something really extraordinary happens to him, Gregor doesn’t receive it as being anything much more than an embarrassing inconvenience. As for me, I don’t care about despair, there’s nothing particularly deep about it and there is often something lazy and self-indulgent about it. I care about problems. Talking about a baffling or insolvable problem is different than throwing up your hands and lamenting your cosmic powerlessness as a human being. That’s not what I see in Kafka — otherwise, why write about it? Absurdity is part of any intelligent person’s perspective on the world, and is nothing more than the obvious discovery that important things don’t make sense. Absurdity is important chiefly in deflating official stories that impose bullshit sense on basically nonsensical situations. It’s watching ourselves robotically following a logical line simply because it is logical, and convenient, and we aren’t really thinking.
Sean Moreland is founder and fiction editor at Postscripts to Darkness, and a part-time English professor at the University of Ottawa.