Michael J. Seidlinger interview with Karen Stefano
This excerpt from Michael J. Seidlinger’s novel Absence and Trace is haunting, capturing so perfectly the angst and confusion of feeling stuck. It is loaded with terrific lines:
“What time is it anyway? Feels like it’s overcast, on the verge of late night, whenever I’m in this house.”
“Just give me a voice that isn’t my own.”
“I look across the table at Vincent’s chair, his table setting, then to my left, where Vera’s plate remains clean and untouched. I look to my right, where Mitchell would sit if he ever showed up for dinner, and I warp my face into something like a grin. Is this acceptable?”
What you’ve shared with us is an excerpt from your novel. Tell us, what is this novel about?
The novel is an exploration of the traces left by a series of mysterious family disappearances in the American Midwest during the winter holiday season. I want to say more but I probably shouldn’t, what with how it’s currently unpublished and such.
In this excerpt, your narrator is so stuck, and her loneliness is palpable. Do you have any experience with loneliness?
Oh man, yeah. I feel like there isn’t a single person that has had the luck of never feeling lonely. I’m definitely not one of them; I feel lonely more than I’d care to admit. From the fact that much of my work is a solitary act, long hours at the computer without so much as a single face-to-face conversation, to how being around people isn’t a guarantee that loneliness will be cured, lifted… Yeah, it’s a condition that’s common enough to be part of the so-called modern condition. You could be in a group of people and feel as lonely as being by yourself in some empty house or apartment, left to your devices, the only voice being your own. To be alone is often needed and part of being able to concentrate on a book; however, to be lonely is like its own sort of mourning, a loss in its own right. We all get so damn lonely sometimes.
God knows I do, and it can be downright terrifying. What’s your own prescription for loneliness?
Wish I had a catch-all remedy. For me it varies. Sometimes all you got to do is acknowledge the feeling and it begins to fade. Other times it’s this ever-present entity, almost tangible, annoying you when you need to concentrate the most. Taking long, aimless walks helps. I can see why some people take up hobbies when they’re bored; the simple task of, say, collecting books, Blurays, something tricks you into momentarily feeling better. Maybe it’s the dopamine rush that comes with buying something. I don’t know. Videogames can help too. Movies don’t, at least not for me. Watching something mindless makes it worse; watching something with depth exacerbates the feeling. I bet someone reading this right now is feeling lonely.
What was the inspiration for these particular pages?
I had this idea for years, actually around the same time I got the idea for My Pet Serial Killer. Something to do with a family but more importantly a family that is dissolving in more ways than one. I tried exploring the idea but the novel never seemed to fall into place. Must have had something like four false starts before finding the right ingredients. One thing I had right from the start though is this image, which happens to be the main focus of the excerpt: a lonely mother fraught over whether or not she should call her husband. We all know exactly what it feels like to be in such a situation, debating about reaching out to someone you feel disconnected, someone you love and yet haven’t been good together for a period of time. Relationships are tough and eventually there’ll be rough spots. The novel has a number of sequences depicting each family member’s own defense (or lack thereof) against a prevailing loneliness. Maybe I just needed to write about loneliness in hopes of feeling less lonely.
Tell us about your writing process.
Write every day, 2000-word quota, edit as I go. If I don’t get my session in, I don’t feel like myself and am frequently unable to sleep (read: I will not sleep until I have written). There’s always some kind of project in the works, typically a novel, though most recently I’ve been working on a screenplay. So yeah, a lot of writing and hating myself when the writing doesn’t go well. Lots of headaches, coffee, and wishing I could just get away, forego writing for the evening in favor of, I don’t know, watching Netflix or something.
How do you know when something’s finished?
I used to be better at this—knowing when something’s finished. Nowadays, if I let myself go back to something I’ll almost always get ideas about how to redo it from the ground up. I have to be careful or else I might end up rewriting the same novel over and over again, never feeling satisfied by the result. Normally, though, I plan out the novel down to the number of chapters, rough estimate of the number of pages in the manuscript, and, if I can, the nature of the narrative and how it’ll evolve from chapter to chapter. If you know where things are going and generally how everything will fall into place, when you finish the draft, you have a better sense of whether or not anything else (besides editing) needs to be done. Structure is a writer’s dear friend and confidant.
What are your ultimate goals as a writer, editor, and publisher?
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to continue publishing more books and growing as a writer but beyond the usual, I really want to keep a stranglehold on the joy of writing. I’ve noticed how easy it is to feel tired, burned out, when a project isn’t going well, or if I approach something with more demands than the typical “tell a good story / write the best damn book you can write.” The more I demand of myself, the more likely the book will be more difficult to write. The reason I write in general is for those joyous moments when things happen on the page that I hadn’t expected. It comes as a surprise and it’s such a great feeling. I never want to lose that. As an editor and publisher, the goal is to continue working on inspiring work; there’s nothing better than when an editor and writer get along tremendously well and the project at hand is falling perfectly into place. Really though, the goals for all roles seem to be the same. I don’t want to lose the ambition and motivation that led me here in the first place. Scary as hell to think that you can lose the essence, your writerly spirit.
What are you ultimate goals as a human being?
To not be lonely. Okay, I’m joking. Well, half-joking. Hmm, money comes and goes (or never happens to land in your wallet) and the idea of success is just foreign to me because, really, what is success? It’s all so relative. I’m leaning more to personal goals that result in being happy and motivated. That means spending time with the people I love and admire—you all know who you are—and remembering to step away from the computer sometimes to just enjoy the day. I don’t do that enough: just chilling and having a good time. I’m always multitasking or preoccupied with some idea or project or problem. The mind never slows down and man it does get tiring. I want to be able to look back and not have any major regrets. Life’s short enough that your last chance to do something could be right around the corner; it’s horrible to think you might get there and see that the opportunity has already passed you by.
Michael! You are amazing. Thank you for sharing yourself so deeply. I know that every person reading this can relate. I sure know I can.
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