Andrew Byrds: This book couldn’t have come out at a better time. With a pandemic, an onslaught of political and social fucked-uppedness, and a lingering sense of low self-worth, I reckon most have this extended crisis of what truly matters most, and how much we contribute to humanity. Your novel begins with the narrator walking around the city chewing on all these thoughts and says, “You glimpse beauty at the same exact moment you grasp how everything is broken and it’s okay that it all seems impossible.” So I got a three part question coming your way: How does taking a voyeuristic approach differ from taking an active approach when it comes to experiencing the world, and how does that play into your writing? And what are the pros and cons to both?
Michael J Seidlinger: I feel like, as citizens, we inevitably do a little bit of both. We actively take part in our surroundings whether we realize it or not; however, some people are more inclined to be reserved and hold back, watching everything unfold from afar. I tend to be the latter rather than the former, though in my early to mid-20s, I was highly active, looking to experience and take part in the moment to the absolute fullest. Maybe it was because I did so much in a short period of time, or maybe it’s due to depression and life continuing to amaze me with its leaps and hurdles, but I’ve found myself more in a voyeuristic role, observing, internalizing, and reacting by writing about it on the page. I see writing play out as a means of therapy.
I need to write, or I go mad. I go mad because I have written, because it never seems like enough. It is a vicious cycle and I’m addicted. Most writers are addicted to some aspect of the process. I bet it’s the “having written” feeling; it’s bliss. You feel truly alive. Too bad it only lasts an afternoon, at best. Then you’re back to the same feeling of dread and anxiety.
AB: This addiction to writing has led you to being very prolific. Not only are you prolific, but you’re also casting a wide net when it comes to storytelling. To the road-trip fantasy of MAKEOUT, to the emotionally metaphoric and surreal THE FUN WE’VE HAD. And now, to DREAMS OF BEING. I’m curious, what intrigues you most about writing?: story, characters, ideas?
MJS: I’m addicted, for sure. I feel like shit if I haven’t written in a day or two. Sick to my stomach, moody, and basically a disaster. You’ve read Makeout! That’s amazing. There are only 50 copies of that book in existence. Even I don’t own one. It was always meant to be a little rare chapbook-inspired novella, existing solely for those that dug My Pet Serial Killer. Anyway, I’m most intrigued by the escapism of writing. It’s a perfect melding of challenge and creativity—the forming of the structure of the novel, to its characters, the themes and emotions to be contained by language like a shell. I’ve always been driven creative craft; before writing, I was working in game development and also had my stint as a musician. Writing became the craft that stuck around whereas the others faded into the distance. There’s nothing quite like bonding with your own protagonist, but I’m most intrigued by the malleable nature of structure. Investigating and learning about story structure really opens up all kinds of puzzles and predicaments. I bet that’s what people actually good at math and shit feel and get excited about when they’re trying to solve an equation. I believe it’s because of the aloneness of writing—just you and the page; I like being left alone with the great unknown.
AB: As a writer, I imagine a bulk of inspiration comes from going out into the world and allowing your senses to overload until something just clicks in your head.
MJS: Oh absolutely. You know how tons of creatives say that not being productive is part of being productive? It’s the “wax-philosophical” way of saying inspiration comes at the unlikeliest of times. You’ll be doing laundry or going for a long walk or crying in bed because some memory of an ex or a lost loved one snuck up on you and that’ll spark something that gets the words on the page. We experience via our senses; we log experiences, emotions—the raw material for creativity, using those senses. After our mind processes and effectively digests the raw material, only then does it snap into place. Dreams of Being would not have happened if I a) hadn’t gone on a month-long road trip directed by social media, complete with physical and emotional exhaustion, and b) being stood-up by my agent at the time and effectively watching all the work I had done to anchor the roadtrip as an experiment and material for a book essentially go to waste. It still hasn’t become anything and likely never will. I returned from the trip a wreck and without anything to work on. About a month of processing, I turned my attention to the project that would become Dreams of Being. I was in a horrible place while writing it. You could say much of what was rendered in the unnamed protagonist and his drive for meaning came from my own life, the raw material of the roadtrip becoming a demon in need of exorcising.
AB: What you mentioned about bad memories sneaking up and the dread of writing being wasted got me thinking about the merits of writing, its methods of coping, and how it can ignite you. I’m reading The Magic Mountain right now, there’s this idea overarching the narrative that it’s necessary, it’s important to grow old and to move forward past tragic/traumatic experiences to actually progress into being–dwelling in that “sickness” is like prodding a canker sore where the pain can feel good for a moment, but then it simply becomes pain, and one is growing old in memories as the body wastes. So I guess what I’m asking is, how has the process of writing allowed you do become more into being and moving past the dream?
MJS: That’s a good way of putting it—prodding at a wound. The pain can be pleasing, but after a while, it becomes too much. You grow numb to the intensity. It’s the exact same with writing. At first, beginning a new story, a new book, whatever, you’re hyped about the idea, the still-knew characters, the plotlines and all of its unsolved twists and turns, but as you “prod” it day in and day out, writing and solving all of its various problems and nuances, the act of writing becomes a mirror, your own reflection staring back at you from the process itself. Your biggest weaknesses become visible in your habits, predilections, and general approach to writing. Talking rituals and other stuff. The writing stays with you like a dream and a nightmare, but with time, you’re able to look at it objectively, seeing what it was and what it meant to you. For me, the process over the years has carved away all those wide-eyed hopefuls—a big book deal, a big award, whatever—and narrowed it down to the act itself: I want more challenges. I need new narrative challenges. I want, no, I need to write. If I don’t, I fear I may fade away.
AB: How are you adapting to being creative in an age of quarantine? How do you keep yourself in check when it seems like there isn’t any passion when it comes to writing, especially now?
MJS: So there’s this concept at the core of Jiro: Dreams of Sushi, and an essential component to Jiro Ono’s striking work ethic. It’s the role of the shokunin, a craftsperson that dedicates themselves to their craft, sacrificing pretty much anything if it means continuing to work and practice. I keep myself in check by keeping a rigid routine. I realized that the page doesn’t need to be a nightmare or disaster. It doesn’t have to be a scary place. Really, it’s the one thing I can control. I can put whatever words I want into sentences, and I can escape into a scene that is mine to develop. It’s most definitely selfish but it’s what has kept me in check. I treat the page and the act of writing as the one thing I can control in this life.
Everything else is an unknown. Everything else has the potential to break my heart.
AB: The phrase, “The day abandons you, the night consumes you” is a leitmotif throughout Dreams of Being. I’m curious what this phrase means to you, and how you interpret it now vs. when you first began working on your book?
MJS: The line refers to the elasticity of time. Know how it always feels like the day is over before it began, yet when nightfall hits, it takes on a different weight, airy and open, yet at the same time, the perfect period for your biggest worries and traumas are most likely to flank you, catching you off guard? Well, that’s just it: Time is never on our side. We work and we live and we try to make sense of all this productivity and action, but time bends and buckles and doesn’t care if you don’t get that task done by 5PM or if you are able to sleep at night. When I wrote Dreams of Being, time had the illusion of being more rigid—there was the commute to work and the whole idea of social life, going out and what-not. Now, everything is localized to the home. If there is any sanctuary left, it better be your home. Time doesn’t like that we’ve all been quarantined. It’s why we are all consistently shocked to see that the day has elapsed before we’ve even bothered to get much done, and that we often forget what day it is.
AB: Memory plays a significant role in Dreams of Being. The narrator laments his own past, to the point of obsession, and it often impedes his urgency in the present until he first meets Jiro. Do you think art is more about recapturing our pasts, or retelling them? Or do you find more freedom separating experience from artistic creation?
MJS: The fact that the narrator is constantly looking and obsessing about his past is because he had nothing in the present and future to look forward to. When we’re in such a state, without reasons to live or things to strive for, you end up looking more to the past. It’s why some people never get over some significant life event—maybe being in a band that got some attention, winning an award, or even college. They wouldn’t always be looking back if they had something ahead to attain. Emotionally, we’re at a constant battle with ourselves. It doesn’t get easier, either.
Art is about making sense of our emotions. Even in fiction, we create characters, settings, narratives, and whole aesthetics to be shells for what we’re feeling. It’s why when the writing is going well and you hit a groove, time slips away and one almost immediately feels connected to what’s happening on the page; like you’re living it. Though “the artist” might be completely separate from “the art,” the act of creating the art involved taking the aforementioned raw material and using it as material for rendering something from scratch.
AB: Speaking of Jiro, what inspired this take on him? At this point, thanks to pop culture, for several years there has been one documented take on him thanks to Jiro Dreams of Sushi. So, why Jiro? And why fictionalize him?
MJS: I became obsessed with the documentary. Jiro was so unabashed and obsessed with his culinary art, it was exactly the kind of thing I needed to watch back in 2011. I was failing at writing and felt almost entirely useless. My ambition was there, but I couldn’t get my footing. The documentary left a mark—this idea of devoting oneself to a craft, no matter how brutal it may be, was unlike anything I had known about. I returned to the documentary frequently, but the real reason why I decided to fictionalize him was due to a 2017 Facebook post by editor and author Cameron Pierce. It was like a dozen joke prompts and one of them was:
“It’s Jiro: Dreams of Sushi, where Jiro does nothing but dream of sushi, having failed to become a sushi chef.”
The prompt, which was mostly a joke, got me thinking. What if? Someone so successful and adamant about his craft… what if things happened differently? I told Cameron I was going to write the book. Guess after the roadtrip, I needed my own “what if” quandary. Looking at my list of project ideas, Dreams of Being was the only thing I could write at the time.
AB: I love this idea you present in Dreams of Being: plagiarized dreams. In writing, I think it’s safe to say we take the successes of our friends/family, even celebrities, into what we do and kinda write ourselves towards those dreams when it seems especially difficult to achieve our own dreams through art. People always wanna talk about their successes, but rarely is it about failure. How important is it to hone failure, do our failures make us more unique than our successes?
MJS: Failure is more important than success. It shapes us. Failure is the universe testing our resolve. It’s the reason why there’s this undeniable ebb and flow to life—you’ll go through a sequence of success/positivity only to effectively “pay for it” with a duration of failure. Failure produces this insane, humbling reaction that should, ideally, inspire you to try harder, work and write harder.
It was only recently, literally late 2019/early 2020 when I finally made peace with looking at everyone else and seeing them getting major book deals and seemingly winning at publishing and life and realized, well, that is their path, not mine. No two paths are the same. Maybe I’m facing failure right now but eventually, if I keep working on what matters—the writing and the inspiration and the craft—I’ll maybe hit another success. That’s all that matters: You and your relationship with what gives meaning to your days. For me, that’s writing. Not publishing or social media or any of the other cogs in the publishing machine. The writing keeps me alive.
MICHAEL J SEIDLINGER is a Filipino American author of Dreams of Being, My Pet Serial Killer, ten other books. He has written for, among others, Buzzfeed, Thrillist, and Publishers Weekly, and has led workshops at Catapult, Kettle Pond Writer’s Conference, and Sarah Lawrence. He is a social media coordinator for The Authors Guild, co-founder and member of the arts collective, The Accomplices, and founder of the indie press, Civil Coping Mechanisms (CCM). You can find him online on Facebook, Twitter (@mjseidlinger), and Instagram (@michaelseidlinger).