The stories in Michael Andreasen‘s debut collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, sneak up on you. At first, their setting seem familiar: a suburban home with an aging parent, a seafaring vessel attempting to free itself from an obstruction. And then the weirdness settles in: a ritual involving forefathers being dropped into an ocean; an amorous sea monster with a strange sense of courtship. I talked with Andreasen about the creation of his collection, his own fondness for weird fiction, and how rites and rituals factor into all of this.
One of the things I noticed as a through-line in the collection was that you deal with a number of different groups, whether it’s the crew of the ship in the title story or a group of time travelers and children who encounter one another. What attracts you to that as a writer, and how do you best sort of convey these complex group dynamics in the confines of a short story?
There’s a Donald Barthelme story that quite a few people know called “The School.” Its narrator is a single person but also, the children of the school sort of act and speak as a group. I wish I had a kind of deeper answer to your question, but really the honest part is that always fascinated me, having a group speak with a single voice and sort of characterizing groups as characters. It can be considered sloppy, I think, if you’re just saying, “Oh, everybody believes this. This group is so uniform that everybody speaks this way.”
I think there’s also, there’s something kind of fascinating with approaching a group as a character in terms of creating large bodies of opposition, so that it’s a character might be dispensable in a situation where a group isn’t. The crew mutinies and the crew has to be dealt with all together. The children kind of break into factions, and these factions have very definite qualities and personalities.
In those moments when we might be tempted to just grab one person and describe them and use them to represent the group, I suppose my tactic is instead to just represent the group and try to turn the group into a character that is maybe, that can still be nuanced but that it is maybe just as interesting as an individual character.
One of the other things that I noticed you return to repeatedly in the book is a number of scenes including rituals and religious ceremonies and things like that–including one surreal, extended baptism. Would you say that there’s a connection between that and the group dynamics in your fiction?
I would have to say that is something I’m really interested in is ritual. Especially rituals that almost mystify rather than clarify. For example, “Rite of Baptism” was written right after I attended a baptism. I grew up in a religious household; I attended many baptisms. I was also an altar boy, so I was like attending them from both sides often in my youth. I hadn’t been to one in quite a while. Returning to that ritual that was very familiar, but having some distant in time and sort of defamiliarizing it, sort of made it even more fascinating, more mysterious, more interesting.
I think I am interested in rituals that in many ways like try to clarify what it is they’re representing, and end up making them even more mysterious and even more strange. As I was watching that baptism, I felt like I was getting farther away from the concept rather than getting closer to it. I think part of the reason that sort of made the mystery pop up in these stories a lot is that that’s something that I’m trying to, that’s something that I’m still very much thinking about. That so much of faith involves a kind of mystery and a kind of engagement with mystery.
Often we come away with less certainty than more in that sort of like, in that examination. I think, yeah, when I am using ritual it is rituals I think try to describe the world and sometimes do, in the same way that fiction is a kind of ritual, fiction trying to describe the world. In some ways it does and in some ways it mystifies it even more. For these to be kind of like apt metaphors for the way we engage with the world in our every day life, I think they have to be sort of simultaneously revealing and even kind of more mysterious. Yeah, it’s true. I am really hung up on ritual. I don’t know if that helps or why but that’s definitely part of it, for sure.
Would you say that “Our Fathers at Sea” also falls into that? I mean, because there you also develop this full-on world where it’s pretty similar to ours, but it’s also a little different.
That’s absolutely right. Yeah, that ritual is the center of that story, and I think in a very similar way it is. That story is very much kind of grappling with this idea of, not just of how to sort of let people go, but also letting them go in the right way and what happens when we want to, we have a system set up to let them go in the right way. This is what’s important, this is who you are is important.
That ritual in the story just kind of goes wrong or even is kind of lackluster. We get the sense of the story that once upon a time, this might have been a really sort of wonderful kind of majestic, kind of very honorable thing that now is sort of relegated to the strip mall parking lot.
I feel like you don’t have to look very far to see things like this all over. I was my nephew the other day and we were at the mall. There was a place to take pictures with the Easter Bunny. The Easter Bunny was sort of this animatronic monstrosity and they were charging for just to go up and sit next to it and take pictures. It sort of struck me in that way of, “Wow, what an interesting expression of this ritual or this cultural thing.”
I think in that respect it’s more about the way we would like to feel about this. Here is the way we would like to honor this, and here is the way that as humans, we inevitably screw that up. Or that we inevitably make less than through our own failures. Yeah, I think “Our Fathers at Sea” is very much about, not just the way we try to honor people, but how we inevitably fail at that and the frustration that can come out of that.
Did you know sort of from the outset what the sort of ritual in that was going to be? Or did you kind of, did that end up going through some permutations before you settled on it?
Yeah, absolutely. That was one of the joys of discovery. I’m one of those writers where I usually have to have a really good sense of where I’m going before I can start a story. I’m not one of those who can just kind of just sit down at the computer that day and just say, “Whatever comes, comes.” I did have a sense that this ritual was going to be part of the story when I started, but as I wrote into it… I would say one of my favorite kind of discoveries as I’ve worked is, the moment where you realize that this something they’ve been doing a long time and existed in a very different form, both technologically and sort of the way the local community observes it.
I actually got an enormous amount of energy from that because it sort of fit into, again, what I thought was going on with that character. He’s sort of like a culture lingering to think that this is an honorable thing to do and that this is a perfectly good and normal thing to do. I didn’t want to put my thumb on the scale in terms of the morality of that action because then it just becomes a preachy story.
I was excited when it seemed like this was the strip mall version of this, this is what it had inevitably become as opposed to what it has been in the past. There are little cultural things that we’re dealing with all over the place that sort of reflect that. I knew the ritual was going to be part of it with that sort of history and like, for example, I was calling them crates for a very long time and I thought, “This is a giant titanium box. Like why am I calling it a crate?” Then that kind of realization, “Well, maybe it was a crate. Like maybe it actually was just a wooden crate once up on a time.” Then that unlocks that whole past in a nice way.
I didn’t have it fully formed. There were some moments of discovery but yeah, yeah, that ritual was a pretty set part of it from the very beginning.
You mentioned Donald Barthelme before. Have you always sort of had an interest in the surreal, the fantastical, the kind of work you’re mining and tapping into in the story?
Yeah, I think I always have. I’ll read whatever you put in front of me. I’d say at the very beginning when I was first taking writing classes in college, I was encountering writers like Raymond Carver and John Cheever and Hemingway and these great realists. There’s wonderful stuff there, but I think I was drawn to surrealism because I feel like realism tries to show us something familiar, and then looks for a way to find the unfamiliar in there or surprise us with the emotions that are contained there.
When I would read Barthelme, when I would read Kafka, when I would read George Saunders, the sense that I got was these writers were showing me something unfamiliar as a way of kind of luring me in. “Oh, this is an interesting world. I don’t know what the rules of this world are. I don’t really know what’s going on here.” Then through that mysterious process, I was inevitably ambushed by the familiar. We figure out that, yeah, these characters are in an insane situation, but the way that they’re feeling the feelings of loss or love or isolation are deeply familiar.
I was always so amazed by their ability to do that, by their ability to do that. By their ability to throw me into a situation that felt ridiculous, but by the end of it really forge a connection, an emotional connection that I just was not at all prepared for. I like to think of it as like an emotional encrypting and decrypting, that the surrealists are taking the familiar and wrapping it up in a strange package.
By the time you open the package, you find that it’s something that, even though the package was strange, it’s something that you’ve always known or you’ve always felt. That was always a really fascinating thing to me when it happened in reading other writers’ work, and I think that is sort of why I gravitate towards that side of it.
In some cases in the collection, you’re dealing with very archetypal figures. How do you sort of decide how archetypal versus how specific you want to get with something?
I’ve always enjoyed sort of like the fairytale mode and genre section. I sort of grew up on sci-fi and fantasy and stuff, so those tropes, those archetypes, are very vivid for me. I don’t want to say that they’re fallbacks but they are, the archetype is often a place that I’m starting from. Then just sort of seeing in what ways the stories can kind of draw us away. Often, I’m bringing in those archetypes hopefully to divert them or to mess with them a little bit. In “Bodies in Space,” I had the idea as I was writing it for an alien abduction, but we all kind of know what to expect from aliens and alien abductions.
One idea that came to me while I was writing it was, “Well, what if these aliens are just kind of stupid? What if they’re just not really going about their research in the best or most efficient way, and what if they’re just kind of half-assing it and asking other people to do their research for them?” I think that’s why in the title story, anachronisms come in and we have mermaids who, yes, they’re mermaids and they’re preying on sailors, but they’re also literate and they’re curious about books.
When I do employ those tropes, I am usually bringing them in to inject a certain amount of energy and familiarity to the story, but inevitably, I’m hoping that by the end, I can find a sort of a unique thing to do with them that either plays into one of the themes of the story or helps generate something within one of the characters to make them a little more three dimensional or a little more interesting.
The fun thing about having stupid aliens is that they’re really irritating to the characters they’re talking to. That generates a little more friction and a little more itchiness. You’re always looking for the way you can break the convention or break the genre to get a little more energy in there. I usually start with those conventional approaches, and then try to find my way out of them in an interesting way.
At the end of the title story, there’s the sort of scene in which the sea monster’s young kind of appear on the scene, which leads to some visceral moments. In “The Saints in the Parlor,” you have these fairly bizarre but also visceral images in there. Have you ever written something that really unsettled you, in terms of the images that you were coming up with?
I was just having this conversation with a friend the other day about horror movies, because we were talking about how neither of us was particularly interested in horror movies. For me, it’s a lot of, it has to do with a lot of a viscera. Then she brought up that exact point, which was sort of like, “Well, what about when you’re writing, or what about sometimes you use things like that?”
I think I want to take it a place that’s a little uncomfortable for me just because, like I said, that’s where you get some of the energy. I can also feel myself sort of holding back and not writing things because they might get too uncomfortable and I think that’s a bad impulse to follow so I try to beat it down when I can. I don’t mind it as much when I’m reading it in fiction and I don’t mind as doing it is, the reader always has control over the image.
Unlike film or television, I don’t think you have to worry about traumatizing your audience quite as much because they have that sort of image control. Now that doesn’t mean that books can’t affect us, and can’t affect us in a negative way, or really have images that stay with us that are powerful. I do think I am, if I was say a filmmaker or involved in television, I don’t think I would be able to do the same things because I would be more worried that I was inflicting something on a reader or an audience.
We do have that special thing in fiction where we are entirely at the mercy of the readers’ imagination. If we put our faith in that, then we can take them to some pretty dark places and still be confident that they’re okay. I’m not trying purposely to unsettle them but I may be trying purposely to unsettle myself, so maybe that results in the same thing.
Since finishing this collection, are you dealing with some similar themes and issues or do you have other things you’re looking to explore now that this is a completed work?
I’ve been working on some stories recently. It’s probably a while before they’ll be ready, but I would be lying if they didn’t seem to have at least been influenced a little by our political climate and what’s been going on. I don’t think I am a political writer, but we’re all writing in the times that we’re in, and so are inevitably influenced by that.
Especially watching just the ways now we try to manage what we say and how we act in a way that has made us, I think, super conscious of the things we say and the things we do. In a good way, but that inevitably has some kind of psychic fallout and now, I think a lot of my characters that I’m writing now are quite over-conscious about the things they’re saying and the things they’re doing. They’re trying to do the right thing, and a lot of it comes from that kind of tension.
Another thing I’m actually a little interested in is all these sort of new and different forms of narratives that we have now. I’ve been really sort of paying attention to the way that, this rise in how virtual reality and video games and stuff are used to create narrative. That to me is a kind of Wild West frontier narrative where there aren’t really any rules yet and everybody’s throwing everything at the wall. Some games try to be movies and some try to be art and some try to just tell a story.
We’ve been looking at it in the nostalgia sense, like with Ready Player One, but I don’t think we have really examined these new forms of narrative and what it means to tell a story in this way. I would actually love to explore that through fiction. I’ve been kicking around some, maybe a novel idea or something like that. I’m in the very, very early stages of trying to find my way into it. It night not happen.
These new distractions and these new opiates of storytelling that we have are just very, very interesting to me. Especially because with games, there seems to be such an interesting tension between the social aspect and these communities, which at times can be very affirming and at times be very toxic.
Also, the flip side of that, which is that some of these are incredibly solitary experiences, and there’s a kind of inherent loneliness to them. All of these things, I think, are just fascinating and they’re new enough that I don’t think we’ve really explored them that thoroughly in fiction. I don’t know yet for sure, but I might like to give it a try at some point.
Are you familiar with the game Kentucky Route Zero?
I’ve only played like the first chapter, but that’s exactly what I’m talking about. I’m hoping to get back to it sometime soon. Exactly, like just inventing new and interesting ways to tell stories, abstract ways, nonlinear ways, player-driven ways. We may still be in the primordial stages, we might not be like even at our Tristram Shandy stage ye,t but it is absolutely fascinating to see people experiment, and Kentucky Route Zero is a great example of that.