Part of the charm of Michael J. Seidlinger’s The Sky Conducting is how the curt and direct writing style – short phrases, pulses of language – is mixed with the novel’s apocalyptic setting. So many books about world-end tend toward the grimmest details, a constant rain of horror and devastation, but Seidlinger instead humanizes his Armageddon, wrapping it in family, in homes remembered, and as such it becomes a book that is easy to hold on to and wonderfully sad to read.
MB: The Sky Conducting heavily relies on reflections of comfort, on humanizing loss. For instance:
The daughter gazed out the window watching nothing and seeing nothing. The rubble impersonated routine life but it wasn’t the same.
The nuclear family had this home.
This home still felt like home. The daughter disagreed. The home died the moment America suffered a heart attack.
Can you talk to us a little about the importance of ‘family’ and ‘home’ in this novel?
MJS: Around the time The Sky Conducting became more than just something in the back of my mind, slowly forming into a stack of ideas and “what-ifs,” I found myself intimidated with how, exactly, to approach something involving the death of America without it literally being about America’s death. I mean, it’s natural to pick at the hypocritical aspects of a nation but most of us already do that on a daily basis. I wasn’t really interested in writing a narrative about road-warrior style survival groups pillaging for food and shelter. There’s this momentum in post-apocalyptic fiction that typically hinges the aftermath to an adventure that’s immediately physical – the impulses and urges, instincts, and imperatives for survival becoming the impetus for most narrative conflicts – however, with The Sky Conducting, I wanted to focus on something closer, more intimate and fixated on the trauma of the everyday citizen.
So if the adventure isn’t physical, it is relocated into the search, and stress test, of something else. This “something else” I wished to be American values. One of America’s most important cultural creations is the concept of “the nuclear family.” Both home and family are constants, pillars of a human being’s need to belong, but our culture turned these constants into something so expected they’re like the obligatory free bread, or chips-and-salsa, at the start of a meal at the average restaurant establishment. We expect these constants to be there, as-is, whether we attain to have them, need them, or not. Every single one of us can fit into one of the four prototypical American nuclear family roles; together we are all daughters and sons, mothers and fathers. The manifestation of the “nuclear family” helped propel the image of the idyllic the happy family” and the safe, quiet, and cozy home into something as easily distinguishable and sought-after as any business or image of success. The concept of the nuclear family is treated with the same care as a business. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that “the nuclear family” is a business.
Wherever we look, the nuclear family plays its part as a step in the ladder the modern American climbs to reach the American Dream, that dream of financial and familial harmony. Even if we don’t intend on pursuing it, we find ourselves chasing some fractured idea of the American Dream. Stripping all of that away, leaving only the nuclear family in a jarring and devastated land, I wanted to take the nuclear family and explore how home and family transform to remain true constants in the characters’ lives.
MB: Personification is also a staple of The Sky Conducting, particularly that of ‘America’ and other countries:
Many countries have died. Countries are people too.
They grow old. They get sick.
Even the big countries. America has been sick for a long time.
How did you decide on this particular approach / method, and what effect do you hope it has on readers?
MJS: Oh, it was entirely by accident. I tend to write and edit as I go so the visual aspects of the text are as important as the scene, setting, and characters involved. The book started out in a standard prose format. I’d write a page or so and then go back and reread. Typically, I change, at most, phrases that clearly needed touching-up in order to read and generally flow better from line to line. There is the occasional scrapping of an entire section, page, chapter, whatever, if a better approach is identified, but with The Sky Conducting, I kept gutting every paragraph, leaving only the lines stacked one after the other. At first I fought against this by continuing to write in standard prose format only to, yet again, end up editing the text into a similar line-stacking form. I can’t remember how long it took for me to just give up and start writing in the line-stacking fashion but when I did, everything else – the small groupings that results of pushing certain lines together for betting cognition, the Breathing Manner, the use of the house logo – fell into place quite naturally. I’m hoping the structural format helps facilitate an accessible momentum for the reader. Bit by bit, as long as the reader is entertained and interested by the lines, the sparseness and condensed groupings should act like gears on a bike, aiding the reader as they ride up and down each incline and decline of the narrative. This is, of course, only what I hope to be the case and that the effect on the reader is at least partly achieved.
MB: Alongside ‘America’, the sky itself plays an integral role in the novel, even though it is restrained in its contact within the narrative:
The daughter looks up to the sky. She can’t see the sky.
The sky disappears and is replaced with a sheet of dark concealing hate.
What does the sky mean to you, and what does it mean to the characters who populate The Sky Conducting?
MJS: People look up to the sky and project what they want to see onto the sky’s clouds. It’s something revelatory when we want it to be; when we have no reason to slow down and crane our necks up for a look, it’s just a sky, easy to devalue, easy to forget, something without any meaning in our lives. I feel like the sky functions well as a meditative device. For the nuclear family, the sky might show them the way, but they seldom give it much thought. There doesn’t seem to be a reason to look up when everything is looking down. It’s something so common it’s treated as an afterthought. Thusly, the sky is the exemplification of everything important and integral that we take for granted – and it’s right there, hiding absolutely nothing; it just so happens that the characters in The Sky Conducting consume themselves with turmoil so much that they haven’t even the thought to slow down, look around, and appreciate what they still have until after-the-fact, when it’s long gone.
MB: Nick Antosca, author of Fires, Midnight Picnic, and The Obese, says in his blurb that The Sky Conducting “marks a confident new direction in [your] work.” Can you talk with us about this new direction – where have you been and where are you headed?
MJS: It used to be that my output was too burdened and bothered by semiotics and the linguistic nature of the English language. Hmm, yeah, my earlier stuff was all about being lost in the words with little to nothing but philosophical quandaries to act as buoys for the reader. Not that my earlier novels are easy reads at all. Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to go back and read any of it.
I went into The Sky Conducting intent on abolishing my linguistic-heavy prose of the past for a truer narrative. I can’t say I was completely successful but at least there was a true beginning, middle, and end with something happening. In my other work, it never seemed like anything was happening. That being said, I’ve become more captivated with the mundane turned on-edge. I love the surrealistic and absurdist narrative mentalities of taking something relatable – be it a setting, situation, concept, or character – and warping the norm so that everything that was suddenly isn’t and the reader can’t help but relish in the mystery while still being able to believe the absurd as something possible. Being able to toy with the surreal while still making it somehow, even distantly, possible is a direction I am compelled to take in the present and near future.
It seems I’m always working on something, or at least telling myself that I am. I can’t help it. If I’m not working on something, I feel like I’m falling apart. If I don’t write every day, I feel like I’m falling to ruin. I can’t help but analyze and edit and analyze and edit and write, and analyze… always about teasing out new ideas, putting more words to the page, and burning whole manuscripts until I have pieces that feel like they are capable of holding the reader’s attention and giving the reader an interesting and entertaining experience.
MB: Lastly, while some authors would prefer to be as far away from the physical design responsibilities as possible, deferring to the press and its staff for those elements, you took on both the interior layout and the cover design for this novel. Is this usual for your work, and how do you separate your design self from your authorship (or is that even necessary)?
MJS: Hmm. I think it’s just because I personally can’t get comfortable enough with an idea until I’ve selected a suitable font, structure, and visual look to accompany the project. The more I think about it, the more I’m beginning to believe that it’s an irrational need to have. I shouldn’t need to typeset everything as I write; I shouldn’t need to have cover pages/front matter, and various images to look at just to start writing… but I do. It’s not a conscious choice that’s for sure. Even when I’m working on cover designs for other friends/authors, I can’t help but read whole chapters of their work until I get a “mood” or “emotional impression” from which I use as material for the resulting design. It’s irrational, yeah, but, I think the design part helps give me an escape from the writing part if and when I hit a problem or challenge that needs a little bit of time and distance to grasp. Throwing the prose into Photoshop, InDesign or Illustrator to slice-and-dice, increase font, boldness, transparency, is different enough so that when I go back to the dreaded Word document with its obnoxious blinking cursor, I have a little bit of a fresher take on the problem. There’s really no way to separate my design-self from my author-self. I’m not sure I can have one and not the other without losing both.
The Sky Conducting is flat out a good book. Don’t let the apocalyptic theme throw you – this isn’t like all of those other novels. This is a vibrant, personal story, and it is as fantastic as it is brutal. Get yourself a copy of The Sky Conducting here, & read more from / about Michael J. Seidlinger here.
Like so many other places, we here at Monkeybicycle think summer and books go hand in hand. So—also like so many other places—we’ve compiled a summer reading list. Take a look and let us know what you’re reading this summer.
Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith by Joanna Ruocco (FC2, March 2012)
This book is a winner of the Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, and it is stunning. I started reading it already and can’t stop, and won’t, can’t.
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus (Random House Inc., January 2012)
I’ve read the first few pages as well as a load of positive and negative reviews of this, and all of that makes me even more excited to devour it in earnest very soon.
Snowflake / Different Streets by Eileen Myles (Wave Books, April 2012)
Who isn’t excited to dive into this book? Plus it sincerely looks and feels beautiful.
Daniel Fights a Hurricane by Shane Jones (Penguin, July 2012)
It has been years – YEARS – that I’ve been waiting for this, and now the release date is so so so close. I’m obliterated with excitement.
Resurrection of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson (Picador, July 2012)
Denis Johnson is one of my favorites, but I’m way behind on reading his full library. This is his latest novel, so it’s a good place to jump back in. Picador also released the paperback edition of Johnson’s Train Dreams last year, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I’ll be reading that, too.
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub (Riverhead, 2012)
Ever since reading Fly-Over State a few years ago, Emma Straub’s work has made me happy. I usually fight against reading or watching things that aren’t of this time, but I have a feeling Ms. Straub will convince me that living in the 1920s isn’t so bad after all.
Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation by Tom Bissell (Believer Books, April 2012)
I love all things pop culture, and this book seems to look at them in a smart and unique way. Since pop culture is primarily stupid, Bissell’s approach is about the only way I can see myself digesting it and having a good time while doing it.
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s, June 2012)
A lot of people aren’t fans of Dave Eggers, but I sure am. I love his work and am always excited to learn that he has something new available. In this case, it’s a novel, which hasn’t happened for some time. I’m extra eager to read this one.
Man-Made Lands edited by Scott Geiger (A Ninth Letter vol. 9 supplement, May 2012)
This is just such an interesting concept: The mingling of fiction and architecture. Stories are structures, after all, so the two seem to fit together perfectly. And I recently went to this book’s launch party in NYC, where I learned a lot about what the book explores. It was fascinating. And as a bonus, this book comes with the latest issue of Ninth Letter, one of my favorite journals. Two books for the price of one!
I’ve lived in the NYC area for the better part of a decade now, and I’ve been to events in all kinds of venues: Concerts in pizza shops, movies in parks, readings in art museums. All of them felt like “New York” events, even though the locations ran the gamut from highbrow to skid row. But one of the places I’ve always enjoyed the most is Cake Shop on Ludlow Street, where we’ve held the last two Monkeybicycle Lightning Round events. This place is, let’s be honest, a hole. It’s a dark basement with black walls and a tiny stage (though they do also have a pretty great upstairs café). But to me that’s what makes it great. It’s gritty, the way a New York club should be.
And even though Cake Shop has only been around since 2005, they’ve gained a reputation for supporting the little guy. Bands like Surfer Blood, MGMT, and Vampire Weekend all played here regularly on their way up. And that’s just the music.
Cake Shop also graciously hosts several well-respected reading series. Our friends at The Enclave have been running their monthly events here for several years now, and Melissa Febos’s Mixer Reading Series can be found in this charming basement, too.
With all of these great events going on, it’s hard to accept that Cake Shop—like so many other places in NYC right now—is in financial trouble. Tax woes have left owners Nick and Andy Bodor facing eviction if they don’t find a way to raise $58,000 by July 26th. And that’s where you come in.
Cake Shop has teamed up with Pledge Music to create a Kickstarter-esque campaign to raise money and keep their doors open. If you donate, you’re not only going to help preserve a great indie venue, but you’ll also get a great thank you gift: things like t-shirts, guest list spots at upcoming secret shows, and guest DJ slots are all available with a donation.
So please, whether you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Cake Shop or not, kick in a few bucks to help keep their doors open and keep NYC’s independent movement going.
Amid AWP Chicago, some of the loudest buzz was from the Rose Metal Press table, with much of the clamor centered around I Take Back the Sponge Cake, a book described as “A Lyrical Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” and lauded for its full-color production yet reasonable price-tag. Of course we had to get our hands on a copy, and now, having fully ingested this tremendous sponge cake, we need to know more about how it happened, where it came from, and as luck would have it, behind this book are two generous authors willing to talk with us about it.
MB: As you write in the preface ‘The Making of I Take Back the Sponge Cake’, this collaboration was born out of a lucky convergence between two strangers at the Vermont Studio Center, both attending for one-year artist-staff residencies, but was it ‘love at first sight’, or did it take a bit more time to develop this newfound friendship into a working artistic relationship?
LE & SN: We definitely felt drawn to each other’s work right away, sensing an affinity in our images and styles in the different media, even sense of humor (which is important!). We both felt from the start a good potential for collaboration between us. But it was a bit of a slow build-up to get to the “relationship” part—the actual working together, determining how best to approach the project, and figuring out not only how to be creative together but also how to make decisions together and how to trust to bring the project to fruition. This also coincided with getting to know each other more as friends through our year in Vermont, and exploring our own individual practices as artists—the development of our collaboration seemed a natural part of this progression.
The relationship analogy does seem especially fitting for collaboration: starting with an “art crush” and liking each other as people—but also the willingness to give the time and effort needed to see if this can really go somewhere! Finding someone who has a compatible communication style, with a strong artistic vision who is also willing to let go and negotiate through the collaborative process, is also important—we feel like we really lucked out with each other!
MB: Also in that opening explanatory note we learn that the book didn’t really feel fully formed until you decided to implement the choose-your-own-adventure approach, bringing, as you call it, “the third catalyzing element” of the reader into play. Can you talk with us a little about how important the reader’s interaction with the text and images are for a book like I Take Back the Sponge Cake?
LE & SN: It was helpful for us to add an element of interactivity and play into the project through the choose-your-own-adventure structure—we hoped it would enhance the reader’s engagement with the work and make it more fun to read, but it also made it more fun for us too when putting it together. Read a poetry and art book, or go on an adventure? We wanted to choose both! And we feel like most of our readers will too.
We both share a great fondness for the Choose Your Own Adventure books we read as kids—it felt so exciting to decide your own way and to take an active role in how your reading experience would unfold. We wanted to bring that enjoyment into our collaboration. Plus what you see and read next means more when you have made the conscious choice to get there. When we do live readings from this book, we have the audience choose what we’ll read next by majority vote. You can feel the excitement and attention build as we make our way through the book together, aware of the possibilities and creating a particular trajectory—we hope something similar happens when people read on their own as well.
So much of our individual work has to do with our subjective experiences in this strange world. With the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format we could allow the reader to construct their own subjective experience by journeying through the book. Thinking of the project in terms of a journey, in terms of various journeys, was exciting: at each juncture what turn would they take? And what did we want to place ahead of them for them to discover next? It felt like we were creating an imaginary landscape for them to explore.
MB: And while some may mistakenly view I Take Back the Sponge Cake as a collection of poetry with accompanying illustrations, you make it abundantly clear that the images are in conversation with the text, and vice versa. Can you tell us a bit more about that process, about making art or texts that are in dialogue with one another rather than created as stand-alone entities?
LE & SN: Some collaborations between writers and visual artists have a more linear, and distanced, process—either the writing or the visual art is created first by one person, and then that work is used to inspire the other person and his/her medium. (Often with the words coming first, and the artwork created second as illustration.) But in our case, the collaborative process focused on immersion and conversation. It came more from finding where our existing work overlapped, bringing together those pieces that already seemed to share a world, and then generating more written work (collaboratively and individually) from inside that particular space.
It helped that the body of work we focused on from Loren’s art was her collection of individual drawings on pieces of 4” x 6” paper—about the same physical size as a short lyric poem. So as we began laying drawings and poems down side by side to determine the most interesting conversations and pairings, they visually seemed of the same world too, living in the same dimension, with similar proportions. For the poems we wrote together, we would usually write in Loren’s studio with all of her drawings pinned in a swarm on the wall beside us—allowing it to influence us, but not basing our writing on any one particular piece. And sometimes Sierra would take a group of Loren’s drawings to her studio (which was right next door), and use that batch as inspiration for a new poem.
Once we had generated a fair amount of poems, we came together to decide which image and poem pairing created the most interesting affinity and dialogue—and when the pairing felt right to both of us, we knew we had our answer. We followed the same process for mapping the trajectories: determining which homophone pair belonged with which page spread, and how each word felt to determine where it would lead next in the book. When we had differing ideas, we would discuss our views, and the dialogue between the work on the page reflects in part the dialogue between us—not as a record of debate, but more as an alignment of intuition.
MB: And even as much as I Take Back the Sponge Cake is a unified text by two authors, it contains numerous texts and images that allude to or focus on the idea of separation or the struggle for individual identity. For instance, the poem ‘Pseudomorph’:
Releasing a false body from my body
my shadow emerges and I am beside myself.
I am all startle and
while she is all desire
a body of ink in water–
Or the image of ‘Jackpot Laundry Machine’:How important is separation and individual identity in terms of art and poetry, in terms of making a book like I Take Back the Sponge Cake?
LE & SN: We weren’t thinking about these themes overtly as we collaborated, but it makes sense that they would emerge in both the writing and artwork, and how those two elements came together. The human desire to connect with others is a strong motivational force (for seeking love, for making art), as well as the desire to understand oneself and to create, which requires some separation to do the work, even loneliness or isolation. These two desires can help each other and deepen the experience of the other, but they also sometimes work in opposition.
Both of our individual studios practices often entail a good deal of time spent alone. This project required that we move beyond our individual practices without eclipsing them. Our separateness is just as important as our synthesis.
MB: Lastly, the choose-your-own-adventure structure of this is genius, and beautifully produced, but even with these directions:
If you become lost, or would like to return somewhere that you have already been, please refer to the map on page 52.
and the corresponding ‘Adventure Map’, is there any level of concern that readers might end up missing a poem or image by never taking a path that leads there? Or is that part of what I Take Back the Sponge Cake is about – finding your own way as a reader and then rifling back through the worn and unworn paths alike, seeking out each portion of the book as a whole, trying to locate each and every moment?
LE & SN: We hope people enjoy the book however they decide to interact with it—choosing (and re-choosing) their way through trajectories until they’ve explored all (or most) of them—following several adventures through, and then skipping around (or using the map) to see what possibilities they’ve missed—even reading the book straight through without making any choices. The active choice of the reader is an important part of the experience—in creating this choose-your-own-adventure structure, we trust that each reader will move through the work in the way that is most interesting and meaningful to them. And that makes it exciting for us too!
I Take Back the Sponge Cake is a gorgeous book, one that offers amazing poetry and art while also saying so much about the possibilities of collaboration, and the fact that Rose Metal Press took on a project such as this and produced it as it deserved – in full-color and with beautiful stock – reminds us that so much brilliant goodness is on the horizon of our indie press landscape. Start your own Rose Metal Press adventure by picking up a copy of I Take Back the Sponge Cakehere, & read more from / about Loren Erdrich and Sierra Nelson here.
Every year May sees the small press corner of the internet flooded with short story recommendations and analyses. Writers, blogs, and journals all celebrate literature in its short form by sharing some real gems. No one takes this month by the horns the way Dan Wickett does over at the Emerging Writers Network, of course. But collectively, I think everyone else comes close. At the beginning of every June I find myself wishing Monkeybicycle had done more to participate, since short stories are our wheelhouse. May starts out with such ambition! But a small staff and many day jobs makes it tough to keep up. This year we did a bunch of posts on the last day of the month, which is decent for us, where we flooded Facebook and Twitter with selections all day long. But because social media is so scattered and because Twitter especially can become so flooded that things slip by unnoticed (By the way, if you’re not following us on Twitter, I really hope you will by clicking here), I’m going to list all of our selections in one place below. And then I’ll list a few links to sites that participated as well, so you don’t have to spend so much time searching, and can, instead, spend your time reading, which is what Short Story Month is all about.