Michael J. Seidlinger is a Filipino American author of My Pet Serial Killer, Dreams of Being, The Fun We’ve Had, and nine other books. He has written for, among others, Buzzfeed, Thrillist, and Publishers Weekly, and has led workshops at Catapult, Kettle Pond Writer’s Conference, and Sarah Lawrence. He is a co-founder and member of the arts collective, The Accomplices, and founder of the indie press, Civil Coping Mechanisms (CCM). He lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he never sleeps and is forever searching for the next best cup of coffee. You can find him online on Facebook, Twitter (@mjseidlinger), and Instagram (@michaelseidlinger).
Every so often someone writes a book I want to slip into people’s jacket pockets. The sort of book a writer might leave on the refrigerator, so they know where to find it those mornings when the impossibility of the task at hand weighs on their chest. Not because it distracts, but because it keeps you company.
Michael J. Seidlinger knows what a bitch writing can be. He tweets about it. About stuff that gets in the way. About self-doubt and procrastination. About the dopamine-suffused lure of “likes” conjured in corporate think tanks to algorithmically suck you back to social media even in your moment of highest inspiration. About how easy it is to lose sight of oneself. Online, Seidlinger doles out despair 280 characters at a time. His tweets are sharp, often funny, and highly entertaining. So much so that editor Kevin Sampsell suggested he’d be willing to publish a book of them. Runaways: A Writer’s Dilemma (Future Tense Books) is that book. It’s Seidlinger’s 10th.
In Runaways: A Writer’s Dilemma, the quips come fast and hang together on a tale skillfully threaded through them. It’s the story of a writer. Seidlinger doesn’t identify the narrator any other way. I asked him about that recently when I called him at his place in Brooklyn, New York.
Mark Ari: Your protagonist in Runaways is unnamed and ungendered. They are simply “a writer.” They have a day job in some generic office, doing whatever. Beyond that, they’re a blank slate. They can be anyone and everyone. A reader can see any writer there, any creative person, even themselves. Is that what you’re after?
Michael J. Seidlinger: Absolutely. Kevin Sampsell, the editor for the book, wasn’t sure about it. I understand that. As readers and writers, we like a character to have a name. We’re more familiar with that. We want a backstory to enrich the character for us. I made a conscious choice to be as template-like as possible. I wanted it to be a sort of a cautionary tale. But something more, too. I wanted to deliver a dose of writing despair to get a reader thinking, “I’m not the only one who feels this way.”
MA: The lure of social media is one thing “a writer” wrestles with, and you construct the novella around a series of tweet-like mini-lists and epigrams. How did that come about?
MJS: I had been doing these writing despair tweets for a while. It’s the only note I hit on Twitter these days. What happened was I tweeted one of them, and it was getting some likes and retweets. There was a little bit of a thread going. On that thread, someone suggested I should publish a book of them. I replied I’d totally do it if someone wanted to publish it. Kevin Sampsell of Future Tense Books chimed in to say he’d do it, and that’s how it got started. But he prompted me to write something more than a bunch of tweets. He wanted me to use them, instead, to write a story about that less discussed part of the writing process, the part of going through rejection, writer’s block, and all these things that affect us as we try to carve out time to work on our craft.
MA: Runaways put me in mind of another short work. I thought of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. But in that book, a generous and already acclaimed poet offers advice and encouragement to a younger one. There’s a hierarchy. Runaways has no hierarchy. Any writer reading your novella finds a protagonist who is down in the foxhole with them, shoulder to shoulder in urgency and indecision. Rather than mentorship, you offer your readers companionship. We think of despair as something we go through alone. Something that’s isolating. But you use it to create a connection with others going through the same things. I can’t help but wonder if the isolation of these plague days inspired that.
MJS: I like the way you use “companionship” as a term, and I think that’s the best way to look at it. I wrote it during lockdown. I finished a draft of another novel in late February, early March. That’s when everything started getting bad. I was in Brooklyn, and I fled right before lockdown to stay with friends in New Hampshire. While there, Runaways was my little sanctuary project, something I could think about and work on, trying not to think about the world crumbling around me. I thought, maybe, it would be a comfort for someone. Ideally, you can go back to the book frequently and be reminded we all face that inherent doubt.
The idea of what success is can be scary, specifically capitalistic success. You feel you’ve got to be on the big presses. There’s this attitude here in the city among so many authors on the scene that you don’t actually matter if you’re published by an Indy. But if you’re published by Anchor or Vintage? Pantheon? Say a name like that, and they all perk up. Suddenly, they care. I aimed Runaways at that side of it, that despair. We don’t talk about that enough. We don’t want to see it, and no one wants to be seen that way. It sucks. That’s what I wanted to bring out. But not only that. I used it to call myself out, too. I was forcing myself to make peace with the fact that I fell into all of that. I needed to get a bigger book deal every single time. I lost sight of what matters most with writing, which is the writing. What matters is to achieve something on the page you’ve never been able to do before. The challenge. I lost sight of that for a while, and my writing suffered.
Right after I wrote My Pet Serial Killer, I took a sidestep into something completely different from the speculative horror stuff I tend to write and have always enjoyed writing. With my next novel, Dreams of Being (Maudlin House, 2020), and then Runaways, I was coming to grips with realizing I was lost in the sauce. I let people tell me I’m this type of writer, or I can never be that type of writer. I let them convince me I had to live up to their idea of success or I’d be torpedoing my career. No one would read my stuff. They’d say to me, “you write too many books.” All that noise got to me. I channeled that into Dreams of Being and Runaways.
MA: The two books certainly seem connected. The main character of Dreams of Being is also unnamed, and very self-critical. Though he’s a director rather than a writer, and the main metaphor for the creative process is culinary—sushi making—, you hit on many of those same notes of despair and devotion.
MJS: That’s right.. Dreams of Being and Runaways are different, but they’re actually the same. The books complement each other. Both reflect what I’m most interested in when it comes to writing: finding and forging bonds of empathy, getting at the humanity of what it is to be a writer. Not just writing habits or how many words per day you get down. Who needs any more of that?
MA: For your protagonist in Runaways, the writer’s anatomy is mostly unstable ego, social media, compulsion, caffeine addiction, and brooding, with 5% leftover for actual writing. Elsewhere in the book you say that 98% of writing is just tricking yourself psychologically to keep going. But it’s the impulse to keep going despite the pull of social media and the ever-present specter of failure that fuels this novella. A writer—your writer—pushes through. It’s as if these stumbling blocks are necessary for progress. Are you saying in some cruel way that we need these things that hold us back?
MJS: Oh yeah. You’re going to fail so many times in so many ways. In the writing and editing, sure. But you also feel it in the rejection you get from other people. You hit these walls, and you get to learn how to climb over them. Eventually, if you keep doing it, you become a better climber.
MA: Is there a wall you find most daunting?
MJS: Fear of the blank page. One of the toughest lessons is learning to embrace it rather than avoid it. I find that I only have trouble writing when I haven’t started yet. In the back of my mind, there’s this pressure, that bit of doubt about whether it will be any good. But once I get started, there’s a light that flicks on. I didn’t always have that. I’ve written so many shitty stories and novels, so much crap—I’ve a graveyard full of bad books no one will ever see because I’m going to burn them. But I found I had the patience and drive to keep going. You have to take on the hardship. That’s going to make you a better writer, a better person, and just mentally more stable. Rejection will always be there. Doubt will always be there. I’ve made peace with that.
I did some soul searching about why I do what I do. Why I write so much, and why I’m driven back to the blank page to write more. It’s not for publication. People might call “bullshit” on that, but it’s not. And it’s definitely not for the money. All I want out of writing is to feel that way I feel when I can make sense of a character, or when I see a simple idea form into something that’s alive. Those are the boundaries I want to push. I want to see how far I can get with language, with spinning a narrative that people can’t put down. A lot of people are reading Runaways straight through, which is great. That’s what I want. No one can take that away from you. People can pan your book, or it might not sell. But somewhere someone will read it, enjoy it, and will have benefited from it. That’s what keeps me going: someone might learn something that helps them, or be inspired in some way, or maybe just escape. Honestly, we need that more now than ever. All the world’s on fire.
MA: So, despite the heartache, there are these things you get from writing you can’t get any other way. A writer in Runaways hits the same uplifting note, and they want to hold on to that feeling for as long as they can before it runs away.
MJS: Exactly. You don’t want to forget why it is you write. You want to hold on to that. I think of it as something like a necklace. You keep it around your neck. You grip it when you think you’re losing it, because you feel like nothing is working out. You hold on to it, because that’s going to help you through those rejections, those bouts of writer’s block, and the jealousy. Jealousy. That’s the big one. Seeing people with all these book deals all the time, seeing your peers, or people you thought were your peers, climb that proverbial ladder. And when they do, maybe they don’t talk to you as much, because you’re not there. You’re still over here, and they’re too big for you now. There’s plenty of that in this world. You hold on to that necklace, and it will get you through the darkness. At least, it helps me.
I say this as if I’ve figured it all out. But I’m still in it. I could go on Twitter an hour from now. Someone I know will have a book deal, and it could send a pang of jealousy through me. Then I have to remind myself, hold on to the fact that I actually enjoy the writing, and throw myself into it. Lose myself in the narrative I’m creating. When you are deep in your groove, you can forget everything. You forget time. It doesn’t exist. All you have is this document and a bunch of words, and you’ve transported yourself into a world that doesn’t exist except as you’re creating it. That’s amazing to me. Every book I’ve written, and every book I’ll ever write, is just the aftermath of that.