Mike Kleine’s first book, Mastadon Farm, was published in 2012 and followed two years later by Arafat Mountain. Recently, Kleine took a break from preparing his latest work, Kanley Stubrick, long enough to have a conversation with me. Across two hours, we discussed a wide variety of topics including Bizarro fiction, the influence of Bret Easton Ellis, the second person as a narrative device, why Patricia Highsmith managed to write sequels that weren’t awful, and the eventual fate of writers profiled by the Voice Literary Supplement in the bleak decade of the 1980s.
Jarett: How are you?
Mike: I am doing well, how are you?
J: I’m alright. I’m a little exhausted, but uh…
M: Yeah? Well, you’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I was going to ask you, did you get a chance? Did you go see The Witch?
J: I did! I saw it last night.
M: And do you recommend it?
J: Absolutely. The way that they marketed it is as a horror film, but it’s more like what if all of the stories of 17th century witchcraft in New England were true, how would those then play out?
M: You know what that makes me think of? It’s weird, have you ever watched The Illusionist with Edward Norton?
J: It was so long ago that I cannot remember it.
M: The only reason I bring it up is because you said, you know, had witchcraft been a real thing, this is how they would have envisioned it would have happened. Well, in The Illusionist, basically, the explanation of that, is that everything he [Edward Norton] does, it’s trickery, but, to the people of the time, since visual effects didn’t exist, and they were wowed by pretty much anything, it all looked more amazing than it really was.
J: The other thing about The Witch is that almost all of the dialogue is in fairly accurate 17th century English.
M: Oh really? That’s rare.
J: I like early modern English quite a bit, but I’m suspect that is not true of anyone else who was in that theatre. I wonder if the film’s poor audience reception derives from people literally not understanding what’s happening. It’s practically in another language.
M: Well exactly, and I bet that, um, without subtitles, there’s a lot of stuff that just went over people’s heads, but even if there had been subtitles, they still might have been like, what? Because I’m sure there’s also expressions that you’d have to understand, from that time period.
J: Pretty much, yeah. I guess when it was showing at SXSW and at Sundance, it was rapturously received, but, I don’t know if anyone thought about whether that enthusiasm translated to the audience for horror films.
M: Yeah, they’re totally not going to get that.
J: Part of the reason why the critical reception to that film has been rapturous is that so few original films make it through the pipeline. Especially now. Horror is the last place in mainstream film where you can do something interesting.
M: Hmm, that’s a good point.
J: You know Mike Kitchell, right?
J: Up until the one that came out last year, Kitchell and I saw pretty much every Paranormal Activity, together, in the theatre. We saw the one, and I can’t remember what the name of it is, it was the spinoff–the Latino spinoff.
M: Oh yeah, yeah–The Chosen One, or some shit like that, I know what you’re talking about.
J: It was amazing, watching that, and realizing the expansiveness of horror as a genre. Other than all the weird witchcraft shit, time traveling, and God knows what else, it was a unique experience because where else in modern cinema will you see depictions of a lower middle class Latino family?
M: And this is the depressing part, most people won’t even see it for that.
J: There’s a theory that I’ve been working on, and I promise you, that at the end of this, I will tie this into what we’re supposed to be talking about, which is you as a writer. Anyway, I think that most American culture that’s interesting, the stuff that lasts, tends to be culture oriented towards the working classes. In the moment in which it’s produced, there’s a general disdain for it amongst the middle class and amongst the intelligentsia. What tends to happen, maybe thirty years later, is that a new generation of middle class people find it, rediscover it, and figure out a way to package, represent and talk about it in a way middle class people can understand. The Latino Paranormal Activity is an interesting example. It’s the kind of film that everyone dismisses before it’s even made, and this gives creators a latitude to do what they want. Now, I’m going to make my segue here, and suggest that there is a parallel between writing in the small press and the marginalization endemic to working class cultural products. I’ve read your books and you’re being published in relatively obscure places, right? It seems to me, and this is not an argument about the qualitative merit of the work, that this gives you the ability to do things that you could not do if a lot of people were paying attention. Or if you did do them, it would be really problematic. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that, relating to your own work.
M: You know what? That is a fantastic segue, because I was beginning to wonder how you were going to tie-in the Latino aspect of the Chosen One, I think now is what it was called, and to what I do. That’s a really good point. You had mentioned before, Jarett, in an email, I think you said that the way I write is a bit problematic to you because of my influence, or where you think I get my influence. Going off of that, you’re right. Let’s say I was published by Random House or some big press, McSweeney’s perhaps, and then my work started getting noticed, and I started doing interviews on tv, etc. Yeah, people would generally have problems with the things I am saying and they would probably attack me as the author. This makes me think of Bret Easton Ellis and American Psycho, that’s a text where I feel he basically did whatever he wanted but he also had the platform to get noticed and that’s where you ask, what the author is writing, is it the author or the character or characters within the text? Of course, when you write fiction, it comes from things you have experienced, things that you admire, things you are passionate about, or even not, but, it’s certainly something you’re interested in, and then, it’s like, where is there that separation or distance? But to get back to your question. Atlatl Press, they are based in Ohio, I would say I’ve probably only had 500 people read my books. Not more than that. And those people really enjoy my books. But at the same time, that’s the type of audience that is actively going to seek out books that aren’t being read.
K: Can you unpack that, what kind of audience?
M: My first book that came out, Mastodon Farm, I get these emails from people that I never met and probably will never meet, and they tell me they loved my work and go into great detail about how it made them feel. And I actually enjoy this, when someone tells me how they felt after they’ve read my book and what they got out of my work. But here’s the surprising bit, I think to myself, well, this will only be a one-time thing, and then my second book comes out, Arafat Mountain, two years later, I get the same, twenty or thirty people, emailing me at different intervals, saying, hey, I really enjoyed your first book, I’m buying your second book, would it be cool if we talked about it? And I, you can probably imagine, am really receptive to that. So this sort of pattern emerges where, it’s not that I have this really wide readership or anything, and I don’t want to label it as loyal either, but there’s this small group of, I don’t know, maybe fifty or so people, who I know, whether I personally reach out to them or not, somehow they’re either following me on Facebook or they have my books added to their to-read list on Goodreads, but it’s kind of fascinating to me that I am doing these things on my own, from the confines of my own home, and there are these people who are actively following what I do. So in essence, I become this sort of mini-celebrity, all because of the Internet. And like I said before, I will probably never meet any of these people in real life, but because of the Internet, this has now become a thing that is entirely possible. Everything I write has two layers, and I know your work does that too, you have the surface level where, if you want to read the story as it is, take it for face-value, you can do that, absolutely. It may not be interesting, but it works. For example, Mastodon Farm, if you don’t look into it, it’s just a person–an unidentified person who is or is not famous, maybe, hangs out with famous people, and then nothing happens for the rest of the book. That could be the story. But then, if you go a step further, and you unravel this, if you take the time to spend an hour, on just one page, and you Google the stuff that I mention–that I write about, there’s a whole different story being told. I talk to people that are part of my everyday circle, not necessarily people that I seek out on my own, per se, for example, people I work with, but I have shown them my stuff and they just don’t get it. And they always want me to tell them, or rather, explain to them, what I was trying to say with my book. And I’ve had to realize that the way I write, is not with the goal of obtaining some wide readership, absolutely not. Of course, this could change some years from now, but I want to write books–if you’ve read a previous work of mine, and then I had a new book come out, I want you to be able to pick my book out of two other texts if we were to strip the authors’ names. And that’s how I think about it. I always want to do different things. I never want to repeat myself. I want to be able to have it where you can distinguish my work from other people’s work and at the same time, I want to be able to say that I wrote something I myself would have enjoyed to read had I not written it.
J: I don’t have that good of an understanding of where you came from. I know that you’re an HTMLGIANT person, but beyond that I don’t know much. I remember when you and I first emailed, two or three years ago, I was asking Kitchell, who the hell is this guy? And Kitchell would write back, I have no idea, but he’s really interesting, and he’s really weird in a way that’s unusual for HTMLGIANT. Most of my knowledge of you comes from having read your work and knowing that you’re just a really weird dude from HTMLGIANT, so can you talk a little bit more about your background?
M: Please expand on really weird dude, from HTMLGIANT…
J: I don’t want to speak for Kitchell, and I may have paraphrased him, but I would think that when he says someone is weird, he’s suggesting that this is a person of great interest. This is someone with an interesting point of view. And I think there’s the element of mystery there, because he knows everyone from HTMLGIANT, and some of those people, he knows very well. When you know someone well, their weirdness tends to dissipate. So it was more of Kitchell saying, This an interesting writer, he’s very mysterious. I don’t know what the hell is going on with him.
M: Thank you for clarifying all that–explaining everything. That’s actually pretty great, because this is going to reveal a lot to you. The mysteriousness is not done purposefully. There are people who have direct access to this community, and I’m talking about the writing community in something like a big city. My mysteriousness is simply a byproduct of my location. I live in the fucking Midwest. I don’t really have access to the same types of communities, unless you count the Univeristy of Iowa, but that’s a whole other monster–blah blah blah. Where do I come from? I wasn’t a big reader in high school. I always loved English classes and loved the writing but never got into reading because I never really enjoyed the material. I never found something that really interested me. But then in college, my first year, I finally had money to buy books. And this is weird though, because I had student loans but at the same time, I had money for books, because I was working. So about once a week, I would buy books but you might be wondering, what genre did I get into? Are you familiar with Bizarro?
J: I know of it, I have not read much of it.
M: Looking back on it, I don’t read much Bizarro anymore, but at the time, it essentially saved me, or rather, introduced me to this whole other world, because before that point, I had never been fascinated by any other type of literature. The Classics did not interest me, though now I love reading those, but I had to get into something that interested me first. Bizarro’s most famous author is Carlton Mellick, and he wrote The Baby Jesus Butt Plug, which I thought was terrible. I did not like it at all. And not even because of the taboo subject. Just, it was not very interesting to me, but I kept going with it, the Bizarro genre. And there’s such a diverse bunch writing Bizarro: there’s professors, there’s regular people (whatever that means), etc. It all came in different waves. But this is what really started it all. Bizarro writers are extremely approachable. If you send an email to a Bizarro writer, you will receive a response. And I thought, this is interesting. You are actually able to share a correspondence with an author, and it’s not just this faceless person or rather, just the face of a person printed onto the back of a book. I also think that part of it was the fact that they enjoyed that someone was actually taking to the time to not only read their work, but also engage in the subject matter–have a discussion. So I did things like incorporate analyses and critiques of Bizarro literature into my college papers. One of them is even published in one of the Bizarro Magazines. But I would go back and forth with a lot of these authors, and I think some of them got wind of this, so then I would be contacted by other Bizarro authors and I really took to liking this super-open community. Essentially, it got to a point where, if I was not buying Bizarro books, I was getting Bizarro books sent to me for free. And I would write these reviews like a motherfucker, on Amazon, Flavorwire, wherever. And the authors, the presses: they loved it! Not to change the subject, but I also majored in French Literature, which is always interesting to people. Essentially, I know I didn’t want to major in English but at the same time, I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. French is my native tongue. So you put two and two together. I don’t regret it at all, I learned a whole lot. And I feel like what I learned from my French Literature courses, will come back in a rather dramatic manner later on in my life, to my benefit. But I was treating my English classes as extracurriculars, essentially. And it wasn’t until my senior year, when I took Craft of Fiction, that I started to seriously consider writing. I started to write all this weird off-the wall stuff, while everyone else in class was writing this, for the most part, pretty standard stuff. Like what you would expect to find in your typical group of undergrad fiction writers. The professor I had at the time, Jeremy Jackson, he was like, this is some great stuff and every single thing I’d write, he would say, this is impossible to grade, you get a hundred. And I totally thought this was interesting. So he sort of pushed me into what I am doing today and essentially his words were, something to the effect of, you need to keep going with this. And I think the reason this happened, he was essentially so bored with what everyone else was writing and what I was doing, though it didn’t necessarily make 100% sense to him, it was clear that he enjoyed what was happening. I even lent him a copy of Cameron Peirce’s Assgoblins of Auschwitz. Thinking back on that, I don’t even know why I did that, but he pretty much was moot about it all and didn’t really have an opinion about the work. And though I know he personally would never pay money to buy any of my books, he is in the same realm of I get this as I am. In the sense that I do not care whether someone enjoys my work or not. I just want to have that discussion about my literature. And he was able to realize and notice that there was this maybe latent passion inside of me that was finally manifesting itself in his classroom and he felt that he needed to give me that encouragement to pursue that passion. My Craft of Non-Fiction professor, John Domini is not a fan of my writing but same thing, he recognizes, I think, the passion and is ultra-supportive. But HTMLGIANT, how did it happen? Here’s a secret. I have never actually met any person from HTMLGIANT. No one knows who I actually am or how I came to be affiliated with HTMLGIANT. I had always been fascinated by the website but how did I discover it? Blake Butler. Scorch Atlas. I had never heard of him or his book but one of the Bizarro people had posted a link on his Facebook page to the trailer of the book. It’s that trailer where Blake is basically throwing the book around and doing a bunch of really weird things with the book.
J: I’ve seen that. I don’t think it’s online anymore.
M: Really? They took it down?
J: I might have done a bad job but I looked for it a couple of years ago and wasn’t able to find it.
M: Interesting. But you definitely know which trailer I am talking about, right?
J: Oh no, yeah. I’ve seen it.
M: I actually never even read the book, but I thought, this is interesting. I looked into it and discovered HTMLGIANT and thought, what the hell is an HTMLGIANT? So I clicked on it, and this was definitely in the early days of HTMLGIANT too. I loved it so much because it wasn’t this corporate thing, where someone was sitting on a throne, paying the lower people to produce this amazing literature, but it was literally something run by the people and I thought, this is fantastic! So HTMLGIANT became my primary go-to for discovering other books. And this is what took me away from Bizarro. I will have to say though, Atlatl Press, where I published my first two books, it’s run by Andersen Prunty, who actually is a Bizarro writer. But then, he has sort of branched off and created his own imprint. So he is actually responsible for Atlatl Press and Grindhouse Press. Super nice guy. I’ve never met him in real life or even had a conversation with him over the phone, and he made a comment once, that it’s super rare for him to ever release a book without at least talking on the phone with the author or meeting them in person first and that my case was exceptional. I found this to be rather amusing.
J: Having not read any Bizarro fiction, I’m speaking from pure ignorance, but looking at the books that have been published, at their covers, at the way they’re talked about, I can’t imagine how any writer finds the genre sustaining. It feels like it’s maybe one-or-two or even three-note. I don’t know how it keeps going. When I was in high school, I stumbled on the New Wave writers of Science Fiction. That moment is arguably the predecessor to something like Bizarro. It co-existed with the ‘60s, not the actual ‘60s, but the conceptual ‘60s that runs from the British invasion to Watergate. And the books were amazing. A good example is Camp Concentration, by Thomas M. Disch, which is about a Vietnam War-era concentration camp in which people with low IQs are infected with a mutant strain of syphilis that gives them genius IQs. As a goofy teenager, I was so green that I thought this was how everyone wrote. As I expanded into Science Fiction writers not of the New Wave, I thought, Oh my God, this is the worst shit. It’s a reactionary conservative genre. You can reach endpoints as a reader or a writer. I don’t know how you keep going.
M: You have a few Bizarro authors who are no longer writing Bizarro. Someone like Cameron Pierce, who runs Lazy Fascist, an off-shoot of Eraserhead Press only writes about fish, or fishing now. But these are not instructional books on fishing, more like, fishing in the sense that these are horror stories or thrillers, what-have-you, with fishing elements thrown in. The official Bizarro definition, I think, and I am just going off of memory here, it’s something to do with walking into the back of the video store where you ask for the cult section and then the thirty or forty movies in the cult section, you purposefully ask for those so you can watch them. So going back to what I said originally, this is a little weird because it sounds just like my mentality about a writing audience, when I said I would rather have fifty people that read my stuff than 1,000 that just don’t get it. But I don’t want to totally limit myself in that sense because I have had people label Mastodon Farm a Bizarro book and I tell them, “No, it’s not.” And then I have people tell me Arafat Mountain is deviating from Bizarro and I tell them that it’s not deviating, it never was Bizarro. With Kanley Stubrick, I honestly do not know what people are going to say or think. And whether you like my work or not, at the end of the day, all I can ask, is I want for you to have an experience. And I want to experience your reaction to the work. I want to know what you got out of what I had to give. If you write something that is deplorable, something that no one is going to like, you still want the reaction, that’s why you did that, I think, and it was interesting when you told me you didn’t enjoy Arafat Mountain as much as Mastodon Farm or Kanley Stubrick. No one is ever going to offend me if they tell me they do not like something I’ve worked on. The fact that you took the time to actually experience the work is already more than I can ask of you. There is no way that I can learn and get better at what I am doing without hearing from you, the audience. And also, I just really enjoy having a conversation, and talking about my work with another person usually ends up being a pretty good time, I feel.
J: It’s interesting that you majored in French Literature, because that’s what Arafat Mountain felt like to me, like a certain kind of airless French literature that I have a hard time with.
J: So you mentioned Bret Easton Ellis, right?
J: When HTMLGIANT was at its peak, it often felt like everyone talked about DFW as the anointed one. They still do, but he’s not a writer whose influence that I see in anyone except a certain kind of bro writer who never ends up writing. But for a lot of the HTMLGIANT set, Ellis was the obvious influence. And not even the books that people agree are “good.” Not Less Than Zero or Rules of Attraction.
J: Well, Glamorama was the book I was thinking about.
M: That’s what I was about to say. It was good.
J: Many people writing five years had books that felt like Glamorama. And Mastodon Farm is like that too, but you take it so much further, and you take it to a place where it becomes a reflective criticism of itself. I don’t know if I have a question in here. Is there something you can respond to in that?
M: Well, Mastodon Farm was written while I was living in the south of France. I was teaching for a year and I’m the kind of person where I prepare things well in advance of their due date. So my lesson plans were always prepared weeks in advance, so I had most nights free to do as I pleased. And what I discovered, very quickly, is I no longer enjoyed watching tv. Not that I ever did enjoy it, but now, I was actively becoming aware of this activity I no longer felt was necessary to my life. What ended up happening is, I started to buy books off Amazon.fr. Like 1 or 2 books a week. I would order a new book while I was in the middle of reading another book because I knew I would be done with that book by the time the next one arrived. Every week, I’d buy one book and I’d read it. I didn’t really read a lot in high school and didn’t read what I wanted to read in college so now, this was my chance, with all the free time I had. Life just sort of has a way of slowing down in the south of France, or maybe this is just how I felt–romanticizing it a bit. This was my year to catch up on everything. So from 7 PM, to about 2 AM, I would just sit there and read. Notes, I would take notes of course, on scraps of paper, never in a notebook so it could all be organized, no, scraps of paper. My first book that I read, which I had brought with me from America/the United States, was Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, which was actually gifted to me by a friend, who said he had taken it with him on his trip to India and it had changed his life. I don’t normally follow through with requests like these, you know, read this book when you next leave the country because it will change your life. Now, while I won’t say this book necessarily changed my life, it definitely had an impact on me. I felt like I had been missing out on all this fantastic reading all these years that I desperately needed to discover, and for a little while, I became afraid of dying before I could read everything that had ever been recommended to me. Yes, I truly did have a fear of death, for this reason, a reason perhaps, that some would or could classify as trivial. In any case, I read Kafka on the Shore next, took me like three days, thought, this is awesome. Bought Hardboiled Wonderland, same thing, thought it was fantastic. So I just kept on reading and reading and then when I got to Wild Sheep Chase or rather, Dance Dance Dance I think it’s called, I didn’t like that one so much. So I stopped reading Murakami for a little bit and somehow, I don’t remember what led up to this, but I looked up Bret Eason Ellis, and keep in mind, I had no idea what to expect up to this point because I had never read any Bret Easton Ellis, so I looked him up and bought a used copy of Less Than Zero and read that in like a day and I was like whooooaaaaaaah. And I began to understand, yet again, this whole idea of literature being capable of changing your life or the world or whatever. But I was just really enjoying all of this. These were like really good films that lasted a little bit longer than 90 minutes! Rules of Attraction, for some reason, I could not get past the first 20 pages so I went to another work of his, and that’s when I got to Glamorama. It’s like 1,000–no wait, rather, 540 pages long and I kept telling myself, I can’t read this, but for whatever reason, I did. And I just could not stop. I kept wondering, what is going on here. Less Than Zero is minimal, he writes in a certain way where it’s like, the vapidness of being rich, the emptiness of everything and being bored all the time blah blah blah–the prose reflects this. And then Rules of Attraction, which I can’t really talk about too much because I have not actually read it, I haven’t finished that, but from what I’ve gathered, it’s sort of a continuation of Less Than Zero, with a few of the characters amongst many more, where all of it, the everything just sort of becomes amplified. And then Glamorama basically, is like name-drop central. Chuck Palahniuk tried to do this with Tell All but that’s a terrible book. I could not finish it, and I even suffered through Pygmy when it first came out. While I was reading Glamorama, after the first 50 pages, I thought, wow, this seriously reads like a YA novel but for like, adults. The style is really simple. There are essays on the internet, I don’t know if you know this, but there are essays about how Zoolander is basically a ripoff of Glamorama, have you heard about this?
J: No, I haven’t.
M: Glamorama, what was interesting for me, was the shift, the tonal shift. And I actually read Glamorama after Mastodon Farm was already finished.
M: Yeah, I read Less Than Zero before, or as I was writing Mastodon Farm, so that definitely, of course, there is some subconscious influence, like absolutely. When I am reading a book, I tend to really get into the mood of the book. If it’s like a really long book and it gets dark and it gets depressing, I get depressed and then I can’t stop thinking about the book. And I have to psyche myself up for these types of things, I can’t just half-ass them. It’s like an experience for me that absolutely permanently affects me. In Glamorama, off the top of my head, what I am recalling right now, is the plane crash, the immense detail of that. And then the sex scene, just, basically, this entire chapter of nothing but sex. And then there’s the stuff with anuses and purple foam–I had never read anything like that and I thought, can this be the same guy who wrote Less Than Zero. Like, I get Bret Easton Ellis and violence is like a thing, but out of everything Bret Easton Ellis has written, that I have read, Glamorama is my favorite book. And it’s interesting seeing him now, since he’s shifted more toward screenwriting, I don’t know if he will ever release another book. He did The Canyons, which many consider a failure. But to get to a point, the writing in Mastodon Farm, why is it the way that it is? This was done purposefully because what I was trying to achieve was something to the effect that, when I describe the book to someone who has not read the book, usually someone who is your typical non-reader, I’ll market it to them as, this is a book for people who don’t like to read. And I think I can totally stand behind that, considering that you could absolutely read Mastodon Farm in one afternoon. And then the prose itself is not at all that hard to get. There are no big words that I use, I don’t think. There is certainly some complex stuff going on, but it’s very approachable, in the sense that most people can at least get a feel for what I am literally saying–the words on the page.
J: Not to jump to my own work, but there was a very conscious decision with I Hate the Internet to strip the language down as much as I could. Discussions of really complex social issues, including technological ones, are typically in a language that 99.9% of people cannot understand. What this kind of language does is keep people who really need this stuff from engaging with it. How old are you?
M: I’m 27.
J: Lately, I’ve had to think a lot about Bret Easton Ellis. He was photographed reading my book, so it’s led to many conversations about the man. I received an email from a very good friend, which was true to the friendship as this friend and I agree on nothing. So he sent me an email about the picture, and keep in mind, this friend is about fifty, and in that email he recounted the standard narrative about Bret Easton Ellis carried by people who were actual contemporaries of Ellis. And it’s a different viewpoint from what I have on Ellis, and I suspect that those two viewpoints are radically different than your viewpoint. Because Ellis has been so prominent, whenever he releases a book, the contemporary narratives in the press tend to stick in people’s minds. A couple of years ago, I read eleven years’ worth The Village Voice, from ‘86 to ‘96. The Voice used to do a quarterly insert called The Voice Literary Supplement. I can’t imagine they still do it. It’s disturbing to read decades later because 98% of the writers featured in the VLS are people who’ve disappeared. People treated like the Second Coming of literature who never wrote another book, or wrote a second book that no one liked and then stopped. The review of Rules of Attraction is astonishing in how dismissive it is. And then if you read the stuff around American Psycho, and that’s just batshit. What I’m getting to, in a roundabout way, is that when Glamorama came out, it was his first novel to be published while I was actually literate. I was aware of literary culture and reading reviews, and I remember the narrative around that book, which I don’t think it’s ever recovered in the minds of the people who were paying attention in that moment. In the press, people were asking, essentially, what is this shit? People unable to comprehend the function the name-dropping, the juxtapositions between, oh yeah, we’re at a party doing coke with Alicia Silverstone and incredible violence. You don’t have any of that baggage. Ellis creates more baggage than anyone else in American letterers.
M: That’s a great point. After I read Less Than Zero, I had no idea what to expect. I reviewed his release timeline and I think he took 10 or 12 years to write Glamorama and yeah, people didn’t know how to react to it, for two reasons. I wasn’t aware of any of what the book went through at the time. Basically, what you had said about the Paranormal Activity series, I am able to go back into the archives of a work like this and sort of unspool this deep and rich history, trying to imagine people’s reactions to something like Glamorama, at the time. The thing with Glamorama though–Bret Easton Ellis is super polarizing, especially his Twitter account. If you haven’t had a chance to look at that yet, Bret Easton Ellis and Kanye West both, awesome entertainment. Bret Easton Ellis once mentioned that Glamorama is his masterpiece, like, he really truly thinks that, and thinking about his other stuff, have you read Imperial Bedrooms?
J: No, I haven’t. I avoid sequels that take a long time to gestate.
M: That’s a really specific thing to not want to read.
J: It’s funny, I just did an event at Skylight Books in LA…
M: White people were mad at you.
J: Anytime I do an event, there’s an angry white guy. It never ends. But generally when people take time off between books in series, the follow-ups are not that good. But there are exceptions. I recently reread all of five of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books. With the exception of the third book, which is horrible, the other three sequels are excellent. She does something vital, which is that she makes no attempts at having a coherent chronological narrative between the books. The Talented Mr. Ripley was published in 1955, Ripley Under Ground was published in 1970. Between the two books, Tom Ripley has maybe only aged 2 or 3 years. And while The Talented is definitively happening around 1955, its sequel is very definitively happening around 1970. She makes no attempts whatsoever to reconcile this disconnect. The last book came out in 1991. In the narrative continuity, it’s been maybe 6 or 7 years from the first book, but Tom Ripley is clearly in 1990. That’s what saves it. I was really interested in your use of the second person in Mastodon Farm. I like the second person and always wish I could write in it, but never get around to it. There’s two major ways it can be done. You can write in an expansive second person, where the you is the you of the choose-your-own-adventure books, where the experience is supposed to be happening to the reader, more or less, or there’s a limited second person, where the you is one character or a narrator addressing another character in the book. The writing is something being heard or read by a definitive character. With Mastodon Farm, you managed both simultaneously. I‘m curious how you got to that.
M: I remember how it happened, and this is something that no one knows. The first draft of Mastodon Farm was actually written entirely in the third person. I wrote it this way and let it sit for about as month and then came back to it. I read it again and I thought, this is shit, I hate this. I read the entire book out loud to myself and just did not enjoy how it sounded, like at all. I didn’t want to ever read this book to anyone. I didn’t want anyone to ever read Mastodon Farm. So then, I completely rewrote the entire thing in the first-person. And this is not that I simply hit ctrl + f and replaced he or she with I. No, I went crazy for a brief moment, and just went line by line, making sure it was perfectly done in the first person. This is probably not healthy, but it generally takes me maybe something like a month or two to write a book completely, and then an entire year, or more, to edit. I just sit there and read and re-read forever. If you don’t stop me, I will sit there and just read the piece forever. There’s always something wrong with it. I changed everything and let it sit this time for maybe a day or two, went back to it and still hated it, and this is after the book had already been accepted by Atlatl Press, so as you can imagine, all of these sudden and last-minute changes. I was a headache to work with, I’m sure. But this was my first book and in my mind, it had to be perfect. It was do or die. And the James Franco stuff in the book, this is something I sort of want to touch upon. James Franco, if you look at the timeline of all the crazy James Franco stuff, James Franco himself, I actually included him in the book before any of this stuff even started to happen. So people have asked me about this and I don’t think it hurts the work in anyway, especially, given the fact that all of this occurred before James Franco started doing well, what James Franco is known to do these days. The second person though, it came about from a personal thing I was doing. You can look at the second person in either this diegetic or nondiegetic way, and I’ll be honest with you, I have never read a book in the 2nd person before, like that keeps it 2nd person all the way thru. I even contemplated, for about a week, making the book into a sort of choose-your-own-adventure type story, but then thought that would be severely limiting in terms of what I was trying to achieve with the work. Writing in the second person, it’s weird. It actually changed a lot in way of what was actually going on in the book. You get to a certain point where you realize, alright, no one is going to read 320 pages if it’s written in the fucking second person. So I had to severely trim the book, and this is something I learned from Ken Sparling, who has become this sort of unofficial mentor to me. We’ve never spoken on the phone or even met in person, but from Mastodon Farm and Arafat Mountain to Kanley Stubrick even, Ken has always been an integral part of the editing process.
J: You know what you should read?
M: I know what you’re going to say, I know what you’re going to say.
M: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInery?
J: No, oh, God, no. Come on. No, you should read Lancelot by Walker Percy.
M: Really? That’s in the 2nd person?
J: That’s in the 2nd person. It is by far his best book and also the book that everyone, including Percy himself, was uncomfortable with, because it’s his most extreme book. It’s my favorite book of the American mid-century. No one wants to talk about it. Walker Percy had a strange thing happen to him in death. He’s arguably the only well-known American intellectual in the latter half of the 20th Century who was also a Catholic. So his posthumous audience seems comprised of Catholics looking for validation. It’s made him persona non grata amongst a lot of people.
M: I’m going to add this to my Goodreads list.
J: Lancelot is a book that I try to make everyone read.
M: Are you familiar with Edouard Levé?
M: The book I am thinking of right now, Suicide, it’s not written in the second person all the way through, but you’ve read it, right?
J: I have it, but I haven’t read it.
M: I have not read it yet either, I bought it like four years ago because it was recommended on HTMLGIANT, and it was either Mike Kitchell or Brooks Sterritt who recommended it, I cannot remember which. And I am looking at it right now, there’s actually quite a bit of second person in it! I actually have all of his English-translated books. And after he killed himself, obviously, he became more famous, rose to prominence, so Newspaper and Works are his two latest works I have acquired. Really looking forward to finishing those two. I started them a little bit ago. I am definitely going to read Lancelot.
J: When you were talking about being on student loans at the beginning of this conversation, I was surprised. You manage to do jet-setting really well in your work. I would have assumed that you were writing from experience.
M: There’s a little bit of actual experience in all that, yeah. But let me tell you the reason I was on student loans. My parents would have been able to pay for my schooling, they could afford it, but they said, my father more specifically, he said, “I had to go through school all on my own without any help from anyone,” and he was speaking strictly about money here, so, “you’re going to do work-study and that’s how you are going to help pay for college.” That was pretty much it. I did that for a semester and did not enjoy it at all. I worked at the dining hall, at night. I would clean the floors and tables. It’s funny because when I start something, it’s very unlikely that I will quit unless there is a super-good reason to do that, quit. So I worked this job I didn’t like for an entire semester, and let me tell you, the turnaround was amazing. I got to meet so many different students from different parts of campus; so that was rewarding. But as soon as semester 1 was done, I was out. I ended up working for the school newspaper for 3 years. First as a writer and then graphics editor and then eventually, my senior year, was editor in chief of the Grinnell Review. And my parents were cool with all this. And to be honest, I didn’t consider any of this other stuff, newspaper and the Review, a job. It was just a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it. So student loans, for me, equaled, life experience-stuff. I am not rich though. And people who know me, like who interact with me directly every single day, every now and then, at differing intervals, I’ll get someone who will ask me, like discreetly, “Are you rich?” And I always laugh and ask them why they think that, because to be honest, I find this to be severely amusing, flattering too, I guess, in a weird sort of way. But mostly, it has to do with the fact that I never talk about money. I never talk about money in a limiting sense. I always seem to be able to afford whatever I want, whenever I want. And I guess this is true, to some extent. But it’s really only because I’ve figured out how to manage my money in a way where I guess I could give off the impression of appearing to be, or seem wealthy. From my personal experience, the wealthiest people tend to spend the least amount, generally. They’re also in debt, most of the time, and yes, they’ll buy expensive things, but also, they are not flaunting these things. And the debt always gets paid off. I think that’s the big difference. They’re not spending their money frivolously. It’s kind of hard to explain. It’s a certain way–how you carry yourself. The mentality that comes with having money, as opposed to not having money. I’m middle of the middle, is how I would describe myself. Or rather, I come from middle of the middle class. None of that upper middle-class bullshit.
J: That’s my origin as well. Truly middle-class. Not upper, not lower.
M: Like, I’ve never been in a situation where the light bill wasn’t paid and the power was cut. Never had that happen. So I am fortunate also, in that sense. But at the same time, I’ve never been in a situation where I said, “I want a Ferrari dad.” I think realizing I needed to set realistic expectations for myself very early on in life basically saved me, as in, I guess, it has helped shape me into who I am, or who I am becoming or turning into everyday. It’s comfortable, to a point, but it’s really about being realistic. Live within your means.
J: Let me get back to the original point. You write jet-setting really well, and the reason why is because you’ve mastered the trickiest part. Which is that it’s not so much the details you put in your work as the details you keep out.
M: It’s the assumed stuff that really makes it work. Yeah, that’s great that you bring that up. Like I said, Mastodon Farm was originally three times the length, so then I cut it down. Honestly, Ken Sparling, he was the biggest reason for all of this editing, and he still is my greatest support to this day, for every new release. He’s actually been featured, or rather, talked about, on HTMLGIANT a few times, so I think people know who he is, or at least, might have an idea. I guess he’s my, like, literary mentor. I still haven’t read his, what some consider to be his greatest work, Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, I haven’t read it yet. But what I generally do, nowadays, is just write write write write write. And then, after I am done, I walk away from the work for a bit, come back to it, cut maybe 90%–well, not that much, maybe 66% of what I wrote and only keep the really good parts and then expand on those sections, or moments. I cut out a lot of the unnecessary stuff, which there is a lot of. And when you say the jet-setting stuff is on point, I think it’s really like taking a really good picture. It’s the framing and the composition, but really truly about the framing. You can take a picture of four people, but then, if you remove three of those people and isolate the remaining subject, and you expand on the background, it looks as if that person is by themself. And that’s really how I look at it. Just take a lot of shitty pictures, and then, when you decide, how can I make this truly interesting? That’s where the editing comes in. You open Photoshop, or Lightroom, whatever you use, edit the shit out of the picture until it gets to the point where you can look at it without feeling like you want to die, and say, “Yes.”
J: Let’s talk about Kanley Stubrick. Obviously, this book has a relationship with the two previous books. All three comprise a sort of unofficial trilogy. This sounds really banal, but Kanley Stubrick seems more personal. Not in that it’s necessarily coming from you but in the most basic sense of the word, in that it’s about people. It’s about a guy who goes looking for his lost girlfriend. Whereas in Mastodon Farm and Arafat Mountain people are jetsetting but it’s unclear if there’s any reason why. They jet-set because they’re jet-setters. So Kanley Stubrick is different. This is a character trying to find something, and not just something, but a someone. And the book is bracketed with the sense that finding someone may not be that great of an outcome. But it’s still there. I thought that was an interesting progression from the first two books.
M: What a great point to highlight. The reason I wrote this book, someone once asked me, “Why can’t you be like Nicholas Sparks,” right? Like, “Why can’t you just write love stories that transcend time and that sell?” And I really really thought about this. At first, I thought, well fuck that person, but then I really really dissected the true meaning behind that statement, or I guess, what I ended up getting out of it, and it’s: the books I have written up until this point, so Kanley Stubrick, have been severely alienating, like almost in an aggressive way. Like you said, Mastodon Farm is about jet setting and Arafat Mountain mimics the philosophical airlessness of French literature. And this is all accurate by the way, very much so. And I guess, going back to the Nicholas Sparks thing, I needed to write something that was more relatable. So, why not write about the most written-about thing? Love. But then of course, still, write it in my style. So there’s still plenty of fucked up-ness happening, all with reason, I promise, but like you said, this story actually has a direction. Not that my two previous works are aimless just to be aimless, you really understood what I was trying to achieve with each piece, and now, this is a sort of climbing-down-from-my-ivory-tower type deal where at the same time, I am also challenging myself to not just write about subjects or topics that solely interest me. So Kanley Stubrick is going to be a difficult text to unpack, I’ll be honest, especially if you are trying to get at the full message I throw in there, but at the same time, much like my two previous works, there’s a surface story that you can get, or enjoy if that’s all you want to do, or if you are willing to put in the legwork and look into things a bit more, there’s a super deep-level second story I am also telling within the text. Like, legit, that statement, read between the lines, it’s basically the raison d’être for Kanley Stubrick. Or another worthy motto: do not be oblivious. Kanley Strubrick is a book about my response to a very specific set of expectations. In reading the book, it appears as if I am meeting the criteria for what a lot of people look for when they generally read a book of fiction, which, to some extent, I am doing, because you sort of have to, but then there’s a few other things I do, that I don’t think anyone else has ever done before, or at least, I have not heard of or seen done in any other book yet, that sort of fucks with these same expectations, but in a very not-obvious sort of way. I don’t want to upset you so easily that you see it right away. But also, what you may see as upsetting, really is not at all that upsetting, truthfully. It’s just about perception, again, people’s expectations, and what is considered to be acceptable nowadays. All of that, I tackle in Kanley Stubrick. Kanley Stubrick is the most marketable book I have written. You can pitch it in just a few words, something I really cannot say about Mastodon Farm or Arafat Mountain. Even the play I wrote that’s coming out through Plays Inverse this summer: The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish, totally could not pitch it to you in just a few words or even a sentence. There’s too much going on to do that. And I am discovering, more and more, that really, as a people, we are still sort of barbaric; as barbaric as we ever were. Not too much has drastically changed in the last couple hundred or even thousand years. We’ve still got a long way to go!
J: It’s interesting to hear you mention Nicholas Sparks. As much as you’re subverting that type of writing, Kanley Stubrick is also the saddest thing you’ve written, in a legit Nicholas Sparks way. It’s emotionally affecting in the manner in which he traffics. I wouldn’t have ever made that comparison, but I can see it now.
M: Yeah, I really truly wanted to challenge myself, this time around, with Kanley Stubrick. I don’t need to always keep writing the same stuff. You know, with Mastodon Farm, it’s about a very specific thing. Famous people and jet setting, pretty much, to sum it up. For my second book, I wanted to go beyond that. So I discovered Tumblr and sort of would just sift through random images for a few minutes every single day for almost a year straight. And these images would stir up imagery inside my head, which would then translate to what eventually became Arafat Mountain. I really enjoyed this exercise too, of just subscribing to like 20 really cool Tumblr accounts and seeing what images they uploaded or linked every single day. I didn’t do that so much with Kanley Stubrick. I went for a long while without internet and that’s mostly when I wrote Kanely Stubrick. Like, imagine, if you will, just a desk against the wall and nothing else. That’s what I did, how I wrote Kanley Stubrick, for the most part. Like 85%. Fundamentally, I’ll tell you this, Arafat Mountain is a book that is about religion. The ridiculousness of religion. I never specifically mention a single religion in Arafat Mountain but I touch on pretty much all the major aspects of the most popular religions of the world. I mess with the idea of having thousands of gods for everything in life, so think the Egyptian gods, and then there’s several elements about prayer, eventually, trying to attain something that is impossible, etc etc–the list goes on forever. Arafat Mountain is the least structured book of my three because it sort of just jump cuts from person to situation to locale, because it is all-encompassing. It’s these snapshots of moments in time. I try and touch on so many things in <200 pages and I think it works. With Kanley Strubrick, it’s relatable in the sense that everyone has or will go through what the main character goes through. Even if you lost a pet, your dog or cat, loss is loss. Human emotion is human emotion. There’s really no way to get around it.