Upright Beasts, the debut collection from Lincoln Michel, offers numerous windows into the surreal and menacing. A man is swallowed by a series of perpetually larger animals; the students at a school find themselves abandoned in an increasingly bizarre environment; and Presidential history is refracted through an unsettling lens. It’s impressive, hypnotic work. Over the course of several weeks, I talked with Michel about the process of writing and organizing this book, his work as editor of Gigantic, and the newly-released anthology Gigantic Worlds.
How did you arrive on the structure of the collection–both the arrangement of the stories into three parts and the names for each of those three parts?
Figuring out the structure was one of the most difficult things for me. The book went through a bunch of different arrangements, and there were many cuts and additions. I probably had about 50 stories that appeared in one version or another. I really wanted my collection to show a range of styles, forms, and genres–partly because I’ve always admired authors who move between different styles and forms (Calvino, Nabokov, etc.) and partly because that’s simply how I write. I probably could have written another 50 stories and ended up with one minimalist flash fiction collection, one Southern semi-realist collection, and one speculative fiction collection… but it seemed more interesting to throw them all together.
Initially, I tried to order the collection something like a mixtape, jumbling up the short/long and unreal/real pieces with thematic links leading from one story to another. But ultimately I decided that certain kind of stories–especially the shorter ones and the realist ones–were getting lost that way. Eventually I decided to group the stories into four mini-books, each with hopefully their own feel and cohesion.
How did you arrive on the minibooks, both thematically and in terms of their very evocative titles?
As I said above, I went through a lot of versions of the collection, including several minibook groupings. I wanted the sections to feel coherent but not over-determined, so hopefully they still have enough variation that you could read one and find it a satisfying read. But roughly, section I (Upright Beasts) collects my reality-bending pieces, the ones that are not genre pieces or domestic realism, but existing somewhere on the line of the surreal and real, the uncanny and the familiar, the mysterious and the bizarre. Section II (North American Mammals) is comprised of my more realist Southern stories. I’m from Virginia, and Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and Barry Hannah have been one big tributary of influence for me. Section III (Familiar Creatures) is roughly my “fairy tale”/”folk tale” section. And the last section, Megafauna, is comprised of two very long short stories, and one flash piece, about monstrous beings of one kind or another. But as I said, I didn’t make these divisions strict, and some stories could easily be moved from one section to another.
A couple of the stories in Upright Beasts are set in Virginia. To what extent are you inspired by specific locations when you sit down to write?
I grew up in central Virginia surrounded by trees, and I’m sure the landscape shaped my mind in many ways. I don’t know if I’d say that I was inspired by specific locations per se, but I do greatly admire the tradition of Southern literature from Faulkner and O’Connor to Edward P. Jones and Barry Hannah. I aspire to work in that tradition, at least some of the time. I know that sometimes the literary and MFA worlds look down on this, act like the goal is to find your unique voice and avoid all influences. I don’t feel that way at all. I think literary traditions and genres–which are, at their core, conversations between a group of artists–can be vital for writers, or at least for me.
Sorry for straying from your question. Virginia, the blue mountains, the deer, the newts, the kudzu creeping down the hillside… if I’m writing about nature, I’m probably thinking of and default to Virginia.
In one of your stories, a man lives his whole life in the stomachs of other animals; in another, contact with aliens causes people to sprout extra eyes; in another, there are zombies. How do you go about setting the ground rules for the universes in which each of these are set?
World-building and the rules of non-realist fiction are topics that people seem endlessly fascinated with. I’m not sure that it is something I truly think about that much. In general, I’m more influenced by the internal logic of the story, what’s the page and the dream-leaps I can make while writing. For me, the “ground rules” are often after the fact, something that comes from the revision process to make sure that the piece follows it’s own logic clearly. (Of course, I’m also writing stories here. The need for more underlying world building is quite different in, say, a 7 volume epic fantasy series than a four-page fable.)
In terms of “dream-leaps,” do you have a general rule of thumb for what works and what doesn’t?
Hmm, I’m not sure I have any rule of thumb. I really just rely on my instincts and artistic sense (along with a few trusted readers.) That said, in general my favorite type of fiction is the type that makes reality seem more unreal. I want art to crumble my sense of the real and rebuilt it in a new way. As such, I tend to favor narratives where the reality is twisted, but not broken. Neither straight realism, pure surrealism (or for that matter pure coherent fantasy worlds) are as effective at creating the effects I’m trying to create in most (though not all) of my stories. So “dream-leaps” was probably an inaccurate term on my part. I typically want the narrative to be more logical than dreams–where your steak dinner might turn into a pirate ship in the blink of an eye–but less rational than “realism,” aka the narrow of reconstructing reality that we privilege with that term. But as I said above, I do think stories, when they are working, develop an internal logic that I try to follow on its weird and winding path.
Have you always written in a more surrealistic or fantastical vein, or was there a moment for you that was decisive as far as venturing outside of the boundaries of realism?
I’ve always written in that vein, although I don’t only write in it. I did not start writing in any kind of serious way until college, and by then I’d already absorbed enough Kafka and Calvino (to name two of my most formative early authors). Maybe that’s wrong actually, as I remember my first couple finished stories being a bit more straight forward. But I definitely tried different styles and structures very early on, and I definitely never had the idea–that’s so bizarrely common even today–that “literary fiction” = humorless domestic realism and anything else is genre of some sort or another and not worthy of deep appreciation. So many critics on both supposed “sides” of the genre/literary war argue that, but it doesn’t have the slightest truth to actual literary history. And for me, my concept of “literary fiction” was formed just as much by Kafka, Calvino, O’Connor, Pynchon, and Marquez as it was by Carver, Chekov, Tolstoy, and Austen. More so, really. So I’d always understood the surreal, the fantastic, the uncanny, the experimental, and the weird to occupy plenty of houses in the city of “literary fiction.” I also read Vonnegut, Le Guin, and Chandler alongside all the above when I was young, so never felt like the was any true qualitative difference between genre fiction and literary fiction.
Have you noticed that your editorial work with Gigantic and Electric Literature has had any effect on your own writing?
When my co-editors and I decided to start Gigantic, an editor of an established journal told me, “The magazine will cost you a book.” And he might have been conservative there. Working on a journal takes time and writing takes time, so editing has probably negatively affected the quantity of my work That said, I think editing is a really fantastic educational experience for writers. I’m much better—at least I think–about line-editing myself and about holding my own work to a high standard having spent so many years reading through slush and shaping pieces for publication. Editing forces you to decide what it is you care about in literature, and think about how you can tease that out in a piece. In that way, it is kind of like going through an MFA. I think writers who haven’t been through workshops think the main advantage is having other people edit your work, but I think you actually learn far more from editing your peer’s work. From having to study a work and think about what could be changed and why you would change it.
Over how long of a period of time were these stories written?
About a decade, which feels like an impossibly long time when I actually type it. At least one story was first written when I was in college in 2004 or 2005 (although it has been significantly updated since). As I said earlier, some versions of this collection had up to 40 stories, and there were many more stories I’ve finished and even published that never even made that cut. I’ve also, like so many writers, started and stopped a half-dozen novels in that span. The majority of the stories here were written between 2009 and 2013 though.
What would you say that you’ve learned from these stories that’s you’ve been able to apply to your subsequent writing?
Well, since these stories span a decade, which is about as long as I’ve been writing seriously, I guess they taught me everything that I’ve learned from writing. I’m a big admirer of writers who experiment a lot with form, genre, structure, and voice. I’m thinking writers like Calvino and Nabokov. A lot of these stories were partially experiments for myself, attempts to try focusing one certain techniques or creating certain effects in the reader. My hope is that I can combine those techniques into an effective longer narrative, and also that I can continue trying new things and pushing in new directions.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got a novel titled DOOM MOOD almost completed. It is about existential dread and supervillains, and you can read an excerpt in American Short Fiction. I’ve been working on a graphic novel about Werner Herzog with the writer and artist John Dermot Woods that I’m really happy with so far. I’ve got two other novel I’ve started on, one a science fiction/horror novel about robots and baseball, and another about teenage girls living in a neighborhood filled with pond gods, rat kings, and bestial boy bands. Hopefully I can finish those up and get some more stories written in between.
Is there anything from the process of working on Gigantic Worlds that’s changed the way that you write?
That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s probably likely that working on a science fiction anthology got me thinking more about science fiction and genre and some of that surely bled into my work. The long alien story, “Dark Air,” was written while I edited Worlds, but the vast majority of Upright Beasts were finished before we started editing. I’ve always read genre fiction–I’m using these terms for ease, since we could have a 50 page conversation on the problems and definitions of “genre” and “literary”–alongside so-called “literary” fiction, but I do think that working on a science fiction anthology has made me think a lot harder and deeper about what genre means, what the use of different literary conversations are, and what ways my work can add to that conversation. If call goes well, I’ll be working on a couple more similar anthologies in different genres.
Photo: Andrew Owen