I first met Michael J. Seidlinger a couple of years ago, and have been increasingly aware of his work as both a writer and a publisher since then. His literary work includes surreal novels that shatter and explore the concept of identity; as publisher of Civil Coping Mechanisms, he’s released fantastic books by the likes of Juliet Escoria and Sean H. Doyle. (Full disclosure: CCM will be publishing my collection next year.) His latest novel, The Strangest, is a re-imagined version of Camus’s The Stranger for a time when emotional distance is less from existential dread than it is from the distractions of social media. Seidlinger conducted this interview over the course of several emails, exploring both his own work as a writer and the complex literary legacy of Camus.
What first prompted the idea of doing a modern version of Camus’s The Stranger?
There should be a better answer than the one I’m about to give, one that involves a lot of initial research, a true “eureka” moment, but really, what happened was that I was drunk on whiskey one night, Facebook chatting with a few people, namely Matthew Revert, about who-knows-what and between back-and-forth rambles and diatribes, I remember mentioning that I had reread The Stranger recently for the ___th time. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve read the book. I’ll be reading that book at least a couple times a year until I die.
Through drunken talk (at least on my end) I ended up making a play on the title, considering what might be a half step more absurd than the absurdist classic, and “The Strangest” sort of just popped up. From there, it was a lot of—what could The Strangest be? Maybe it was initially a dare, a joke, but I quickly took it as a challenge. I remember texting Cameron Pierce, editor of Lazy Fascist, pitching him the idea. His response was much like everyone else’s response, when I mentioned the idea: “You crazy.”
How did you first end up reading Camus? And what about The Stranger initially appealed to you?
I wasn’t much of a reader until after I moved away from music (I’m a failed musician), and it was when I finally went to college that I came across books like House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski, Life After God by Douglas Coupland, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, and, yup, Albert Camus’s The Stranger. It all happened in quick succession. I bought House of Leaves and swiftly devoured countless other books, many of them transgressive, experimental, surreal, and absurdist in nature. The Stranger crept up on me; I believe I bought it alongside a few other titles by Hubert Selby Jr, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec. At the time, I had become completely enamored by the Oulipos and other formally experimental practitioners. Structure was paramount and a puzzle I became obsessed with solving. The Stranger was an accident. Amazon “also bought” wormhole style purchase. I think I tossed it into my shopping cart because it was under ten dollars. I had no idea what awaited me. The book completely changed me, more than most. Perhaps more than any other title ever will.
What was the process like for you, as far as referring to Camus’s original text? Did you look for direct equivalents of characters and situations all the way down, or were you looking more at making things line up thematically?
After I decided on actually giving it an attempt, I gathered up my copies of The Myth of Sisyphus, Exile and the Kingdom, The Rebel, and, of course, The Stranger, and systematically reread/studied each work. I must have had a whole notebook, 70-80pgs full of notes. Talking meticulous jottings, my focus being on the general tone and cadence of Camus’ prose, and even more important: the key principles of absurdism. I knew that I needed to follow the general plotline—a death, a murder, a trial—but outside of that, I needed, or at least wanted, to have more room to invent, explore. Just based on what I knew about my own writing habits, I needed the general structure to get started, but I couldn’t be limited to the point where there was no longer any mystery. That would result in absolute failure. Talk about complete doom. I needed a little bit of a playground if I intended on being productive.
I also needed a main character, Zachary, paralleling Meursault just enough to be somewhat relatable, if even recognizable as Meursault. Still, the moment I decided to “step into the shoes” of Zachary, I had to be able to walk a couple steps in any direction and not feel like I had to be doing things a certain way. Hmm. I guess the biggest hurdle was being able to feel like I was writing something wholly original, allaying the pressure of the fact that it was essentially a retelling, an homage. The process was all about subverting all that pressure and treating the project like a typical novel challenge, which is simply: Stay focused, stay interested, stay motivated. Ignore everything else.
Has your relationship to The Stranger changed over time? Have you revisited it since finishing The Strangest?
After finishing The Strangest, I took a step back from Camus’ bibliography. Though absurdism remains quite practical for me, philosophically, I have purposefully taken a break from Camus’ work. It’s not that I don’t want to go back. In fact, I have recently felt the urge to revisit The Plague. It’s the only one by Camus that I’ve read once. I think I need to fix that. I’m due for a reread.
As for The Stranger, it has continued to be a touchstone, one of a handful of books that I look read, research, analyze, and ultimately hold in my hands, marveling at the majesty of the masterpiece. It’s the whole “aged like fine wine” deal—every time I’m there for a revisit, if even for only a chapter, it gets better. I feel as though it is due to how I’m able to further appreciate Camus’ prosaic subtlety, how he was able to write something so concrete while leaving enough to suggestion so as to stimulate the minds of readers worldwide. It continues to compel me, as any perfect novel should.
I read your book and Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation back to back. Do you think that there’s anything in the air right now that’s made 2015 the year of re-imagined versions of Camus’s book?
Good question. I had no idea that The Mersault Investigation existed until long after The Strangest had been sold to OR Books and prepublication had begun. Since I handle reviews for the literary site, Electric Literature, I receive a lot of press releases and pitches. I don’t recall when exactly it happened but it must have been this past spring, maybe April or May 2015—that’s when I first heard about The Mersault Investigation via one of Other Press’s press releases. You bet I was curious.
It also really does seem like The Stranger itself is having a bit of a resurgence. I’m not sure what exactly is spurring this on but it could be our current social climate. We are never more aware than right now, this moment, the present, of how absurd our society, and modern condition, really is and it could be why so many readers are turning to Albert Camus’ absurdism for some semblance, an understanding.
Are there any other takes on The Stranger that you can think of, besides your book and Daoud’s?
I don’t know of any, no. But then again, The Stranger’s influenced popular culture enough that I bet a number of neo-noir, literary thrillers, and perhaps some horror titles incorporate certain ingredients of the absurdist classic. Yeah, I really do wonder about the general influence of a crucial text. In general, I think we’re going to see a lot more in the way of classic texts facing “retro revival.” And no, definitely not in the vein of crap like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Several of your novels prior to this one are overtly about questions of identity, or treat certain personas as malleable and (sometimes) transposable. Do you see The Strangest as a continuation of this?
It’s true. I’m fascinated with identity. It’s one of the most important aspects of an individual in the face of a society that quickly judges and forms assumptions upon the nature of the individual’s identity. There are a number of basic questions that open up what I feel to be seemingly endless curiosities: How much of an individual’s identity is manufactured by their upbringing? How much of it is under direct control of the individual, capable of sculpting and/or designing a persona? What kind of effects does society inflict upon the ideal identity? Are we able to evolve our identities by choice as we navigate through society’s various pressures, responsibilities, and hurdles, or are we essentially steeling, dispelling/redesigning in order to slip past? Why is it so difficult to abide by a more honest and open identity than one that is layered so as to be (seemingly) more complex, enigmatic, and impossible to fully comprehend?
The Strangest continues this personal fascination with identity. I, myself, am grappling with how I fit alongside so many dogmas, philosophies, religions, etc when what I find meaningful and/or compelling tends to result in a dizzying mix-and-match across preexisting religions, philosophies, and so forth. And yet, I continue to search, beyond what is already there. I’m certainly not satiated. There’s so much to explore and understand about how identity conjures, compels, and controls how we function as a society.
The Strangest features emotional detachment, an abundance of social media, and characters failing to adequately communicate. There were points where this read like a take on (or critique of) certain aspects of alt lit–was that something that you were intending to incorporate in here?
It certainly wasn’t intended. These days, I’m not entirely sure what “alt lit” entails.
I’ll give it a shot—there could be quite a bit of concise, almost “surface level” details paired with dialog that may or may not use modern platforms like Gmail chat, Facebook, or standard txt. The immediacy of the prose, especially in relation to a scene that affixes to something recognizable—people texting, people using technology to augment, people boycotting all of the above and going rogue. Whenever a narrative incorporates an influx of these technological platforms, there is that tendency to assume that it is operating within a common ground, a preexisting genre term.
In the case of The Strangest, I made a conscious choice to use the same platforms due to their prevalence in social interaction and personal identity in our modern day. Zachary’s position is left to the reader’s interpretation but, I’ll be honest, I see myself more than I’d like to in his routines, his fixation with the online stratosphere. I’m almost inclined to believe that everyone looking to disengage have maybe felt like they’ve gotten too close to the center of the social media “sun.”
As a writer who’s also a publisher, do you ever find that those two impulses clash? You’re working with a publisher with a very distinctive distribution plan for The Strangest; how has that experience been?
By clash, do you mean a constant battle for time? If so, definitely—functioning as Publisher-in-Chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms (CCM) while being an author myself creates a lot of constraints, namely the implicit need to micromanage every minute of my time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt miserable, like my day had been ruined because the allotted amount of writing time I had given myself was cut down due to an influx of press-related tasks. It’s a lot of micromanagement and even then, it tends to feel like a continual hustle, a consistent scramble of action and reaction where the only dream is being able to see that to-do list a little bit smaller, if even just for the evening.
I haven’t really felt much of a difference, honestly. Well, okay yeah—it is weird to essentially find the book missing or underrepresented on Amazon; if you search for the book it won’t come up; you need to search via something like “The Strangest Seidlinger.” Even then, you’ll get a page that’s sparsely populated, the availability being “Currently Unavailable.” Eventually, OR Books will begin selling the book on Amazon as a third party seller, as well as an eBook; however, the publisher actively avoids playing into Amazon’s game and I respect them for the choice. To be able to tell Amazon that you don’t need them, and flourish? Yeah, it takes a lot of guts and I respect them for the choice.
You have a YA novel due out next year on Unnamed Press. How would you say that it fits into your overall body of work?
I think Falter Kingdom, the novel in question, rests well with the rest of the books I’ve been lucky enough to publish if only for because it exists for the same reasons as all the others: The desire to write it consisted of a mixture of a curiosity, a need to explore an idea, as well as a formal challenge, in this case, the attempt to write something for a different audience. Technically it’s New Adult, which just means it can be a little bit darker than the YA fare. But yeah, the book was written under the same desire. Hunter Warden, the main character, faces his own unique quarrel with perceived identity and how society views him, given the choice to keep the demon that possesses him. It’ll be interesting to see what people think of the relationship that transpires between Hunter, the demon, and society itself, with its ever watchful, judging eye.