Michael J. Seidlinger’s new novel Dreams of Being is simultaneously a haunting story of depression, an ode to delicious food, and one of the most unsettling takes on the creative process I’ve read in a long time. In telling the story of the bond between a novice filmmaker and an expert in sushi, Seidlinger has created a fantastic book on isolation and frustration; even better, it’s a memorably immersive read. I spoke with Seidlinger about the book’s genesis, its literary lineage, and more.
You’ve spoken in the past about this novel coming about as a result of a prompt from Cameron Pierce. How long did it take to get from that stage to being finalized?
Cameron posted a bunch of joke prompts back in, I want to say, early 2017. One of them went something like this: “It’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi, where Jiro does nothing but dream of sushi, having failed to become a sushi chef.” I was already a big fan of the documentary, so when I saw that, I replied and tweeted about it, basically saying, “Hey man, I’m doing it. I’m for real.” I grabbed the prompt and kind of left it on the backburner for a bit, maybe six months. During that time, I sold My Pet Serial Killer to Fangoria and used the advance money to go on a one-month social media-driven roadtrip, where I had to get from Brooklyn to Portland Oregon in one month, only going where social media told me to go—and only if that person or people let me crash on their couch. It was supposed to be an experiment that would inspire a book called Follow Me. It never happened, for a variety of reasons, both personal and professional (some agents aren’t so great, it turns out), and when the trip ended and I was back in Brooklyn, exhausted and frankly traumatized, I remembered the prompt. I wrote Dreams of Being as a sort of cleansing, a way to fight back all that I was feeling, including abandonment and failure.
Did working on this novel change your relationship to Jiro Dreams of Sushi?
Well, it forced me to watch the documentary another 30 times. I think my record for viewings is now in the three digit mark, like 103. I’ve memorized the documentary. I do feel like I’ve absorbed the thing, and it has become a part of me. Think like that scene from Videodrome when Max Renn (aka James Woods) shoves the VHS into his stomach. Like that. But less body horror. I didn’t actually eat the DVD.
Were there any similarities between the process of writing this book and writing your book about House of Leaves?
Nope, they were two entirely different projects. Actually, thinking about the question, you did stumble upon something I never really noticed before. For one, I do enjoy prompts and really being challenged to take some idea and run with it, turning it into something else. The Fun We’ve Had, a book I wrote in 2014, began with Cameron Pierce texting me late one night, telling me to check my email. Sure enough, waiting for me, was an email with no subject, the only thing being an image attachment, the very same cover that graces the book today. Cameron texted me, “That’s your next book.” He challenged me to write based on the would-be idea of the book, two characters in a coffin floating on an endless sea.
With the Bookmarked title, Robert, the editor at Ig Publishing, Facebook messaged me out of the blue, asking me if I was interested in the Bookmarked series. I thought he was asking if I wanted some galleys for possible reviews consideration but really what he was asking was if I wanted to write an edition. Caught me off guard man. But I ran with it.
The same can be said for Dreams of Being. It was a joke prompt that I took seriously, took to heart, and turned it into a meditation, a cleansing.
I’d say it’s more so a similarity in how I seek out and take challenges. For every book that I labor over for years, like My Pet Serial Killer or The Strangest, I adore being challenged and thinking outside of the box, writing books like The Fun We’ve Had, Bookmarked, and yeah, Dreams of Being. I feel like I’ve started to desire both approaches—because if I’m stumped and suffering on the long term novel, I can run away for a bit and battle an imposed challenge.
Unless I’m completely mistaken, the style that you used for Dreams of Being feels different from your past work — simultaneously more condensed and more philosophical, maybe? Was this novel the result of a conscious effort to try out a different register of prose?
It was an accident. Initially, I wanted to capture some of the “voice” of the documentary, which is incredibly straight forward so as to become outwardly philosophical. You watch the thing and it feels equally long yet short, the run time being something like an hour and some change. There’s nothing to hide behind—if it isn’t about Jiro’s past, his practicum with sushi, it’s about the philosophy of sacrifice.
I wanted to capture that. The way I see Dreams of Being, if it comes off as condensed and highly introspective, focusing on the philosophical and existential essence of craft and creativity, then I am happy to know that I’ve at least succeeded, no matter what becomes of the book.
Besides the questions of art (both culinary and cinematic) that you bring up in this book, there’s also a pretty haunting meditation on failure and inaction. Was venturing into the minds of characters dealing with pretty severe depression a difficult task?
I was fucking depressed when I wrote that book. Not at my worst, but close. I mentioned earlier, the road trip, well after I got back I wrote the proposal and even wrote the query letter that my agent sent to editors. Nothing worked, it all fell apart, and I left my agent, or rather, it was clear my agent wasn’t going to be able to help me. I had left a job too, and I was kind of gigging and trying to freelance. There was not much going on too, personally. I had ended a relationship shortly before the road trip, and I had a lot of alone time, sitting in my room in Brooklyn, unable to ignore how much I took up space, how little I had to my name, how much it took to exist.
If anything, the haunting nature of the book came from how much I was being haunted by my own failures as I wrote it. Man, I’d spent some nights in a corner of my room, lights off, some whiskey at my side, just sitting and staring. No tears, I couldn’t cry. Just that utter sinking feeling in my stomach, the fogginess of my mind making it so easy to let hours pass without so much as a thought. I was languishing and lost. The book was written with that state of mind.
If you were going to write another novel about food, do you have a cuisine you’d like to focus on?
Since the quarantine, I’ve actually been cooking. I was never a cook prior to our world being upended. Literally, I was the type to somehow burn hot dogs or fuck up scrambled eggs. I mean, how can you fuck up eggs? But now, possibly because I didn’t have the choice and was inspired by some tutorials my roommate and friend, John Maher, gave me to help face my fear of cooking, I hit the ground running and have been trying recipes, learning to cook, and discovering the joy of being able to cook. It’s really something, clears the mind. Like going for a long walk.
Cooking is like playing music, jamming and finding a rhythm. If I wrote another book about food, it would be a cookbook. A bunch of recipes that nobody could fuck up.