“Defiance and Dilemmas”: An Interview with Michael J. Seidlinger on his latest book, Runaways: A Writer’s Dilemma, by Hillary Leftwich

Is writing an act of defiance itself? Or do the dilemmas we face as writers push us into acts of defiance? Michael J. Seidlinger and I got comfy and chatted back and forth via email over a week’s timespan and sunk our literary teeth into the emotions involved with writing—more importantly, the defiance that often we as writers come to from previous experiences and wisdom—both of which Seidlinger knows all too well. The author of nine books, Runaways: A Writer’s Dilemma marks his tenth, and it’s a book for every writer/creative to turn to. A “balm for anyone feeling bleak, now or later.”

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).

Hillary Leftwich: Your latest book, Runaways, is described as “a darker and more skewed literary version of the metaphysical classic, Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” I remember reading Seagull when I was a kid and being both confused and struck by it. Can you tell us what your book is about and what you feel a good soundtrack would be if someone were to compile one based on its theme?

Michael J. Seidlinger: I think the Jonathan Livingston Seagull comparison is more so that pseudo book marketing positioning the novella as a fable about identity and finding sense in a world that is so often senseless. Runaways is for every writer (or creative) working on their craft and creative careers. It’s a fable about the despair that comes from opening up the closed-off doors in your mind to create work that challenges you as much as you hope it helps anyone that might pick it up, give it a chance, and read it. That’s all to say that Runaways is a balm for anyone that’s feeling bleak now or later. I hope the book is something you read and return to when you feel that despair closing in, frustration and/or feelings of complete rejection, totally discouraged, and unable to get past that closet of demons trying their best to keep you defeated. I wrote this book to fend off those demons, and I hope it can be a weapon against a writer’s despair as they make their way through their days and nights as writers.

Hmm, well, the soundtrack would probably be equal parts overly emo/dramatic fare combined with juxtaposing tracks that border on parody. But really, I’d say that the perfect soundtrack for this book would be the reader’s most-played and memorized playlist, on repeat until they reach the end. If I’ve done anything right with Runaways, it’s a book about clarity and comfort.

HL: This sounds a bit like apotropaic magick, not to derail here. But a book can also be a kind of ward against ill wills or evil intentions. In this case, the “closet of demons trying their best to keep you defeated.” Things they don’t talk about or prepare you for in MFA programs or internshipspublishing contracts or elsewhere. It’s rare to find a book that’s written with the intention of, like you said, a “balm for anyone that’s feeling bleak now, or later.” Writing is a lonely endeavor, as we all know. I think people will appreciate reading your book and knowing its intent. 

Soundtracks mixed with books are a perfect pairing. And clarity and comfort are so necessary, especially in this climate we are all surviving in. Did you find writing this book pre/during pandemic harder than other books you’ve written, given the atmosphere, or did it push you more?

MS: I think it’s more of the latter. I tend to use writing as an escape, be it from the world around me or personal hardships. COVID really changed both the world and peoples’ lives, and same goes for mine. It wasn’t just the lockdown either; I felt like my life had suddenly moved onto a new era, one that I’m honestly still trying to figure out. I moved from Brooklyn, NY, to the west coast, Portland, OR, during the middle of the pandemic only for the situation in the city sort of not work out. I ended up back in Brooklyn, I guess where I belong. At least for now. In the past, I was purely career-oriented in terms of my mindset, but I believe 2020 offered a lot of reflection, and for the first time ever, I actually have a list of things I want to do with this life before all is said and done! Crazy to think that way, being a little more selfish with your days. Way I see it, we got to live with ourselves, so we might as well attempt to feel content, maybe even happy. Writing is very much a sanctuary and a form of therapy for me. I do it to feel almost normal.

HL: Writing is definitely a form of therapy, and I think all writers can get on board with that. In a similar vein, I’m curious, did you find writing this book to be different from your other nine books you’ve written? Can you explain your process while writing this and who was the one person you were thinking of the most while writing Runaways

MS: This one was a bit different. It began as a prompt from editor and writer Kevin Sampsell, who had joked online that he would publish a book of my writing despair tweets. However, as we both discussed it, we realized that it could be more than one of those types of books (do people even publish collected tweets books anymore?), and he dared me to tap into something deeper with the despair. This was right around the lockdown in 2020, mere days before I fled NYC for a friend’s place in New Hampshire, believing it could very well be the end of the world (and it was, in terms of how we used to live). I started writing the book the day after I arrived and spent the first week and a half of lockdown finishing it. The book came to be in one big fugue and was highly different in almost every way compared to my other books. Instead of outlining, I had a collection of tweets that I had actually used online as my structural spine. I grooved with the ebb and flow of the arrangement and intentionally forced myself to think inside a very particular kind of structural box. The result is what you see now on the page. Typically, I build out an outline, do a lot of preproduction (research, etc.), and get things squared away enough so that I have a touchstone as I begin writing. That simply wasn’t the case with Runaways, and it makes sense that it’s an anomaly in every way.

HL: I love “structural spine” as an architectural image for the replacement of an outline, Michael. So much of what we do as writers feel, oftentimes, out of our control. I know many writers who don’t outline or instead use outlines, such as what you created with yours, a body to the book itself. Anomalies are often necessary, or maybe they come about when we need them the most. It was familiar stomping ground when you mentioned you were looking for something “deeper with despair” at Kevin Sampsell’s (Future Tense Books) prompting. He’s good like that, isn’t he? How many times, as a writer, have you had someone push you to an edge you weren’t quite ready for or perhaps comfortable with? Is there one specific moment that stands out, and if so, if you were to design a book based on this experience, such as the architectural image of a “structural spine,” what would this look and feel like to you?

MS: Yeah, he’s great and finding the emotional core of a scene, chapter, entire book and steering the writer in that direction. He’s got a wealth of experience, and I think it helps that he has been actively a writer and lit citizen himself. I think it used to “overwhelm” me a lot more, being pushed by an editor in the past. Nowadays, I simply digest the feedback, pick any shattered pieces of ego and/or emotional fallout from the ground, and move forward. At some point, the feeling of challenge and discomfort with one’s writing becomes a direct indicator that maybe it’s worth looking at the manuscript in a different light. It could become so much more than it currently is, and the best feedback strips away the blinders and helps you see it more holistically. I think the biggest challenge in memory was with my book The Fun We’ve Had. I remember it was like 11 p.m. at night, and I was spending my time lazily watching some movie instead of being at some “it” lit party, just feeling a little down on everything, mostly exhausted. I get this text from Cameron Pierce, writer, and editor of Lazy Fascist Press. He published five of my books and was one of my biggest champions. He texted me something simple, “Check your email.” Sure enough, there was an email from him with no subject. The body of the email was one simple line: “This is your next book.” Attached was an already complete book cover, two characters floating in a coffin on an endless sea with the title “THE FUN WE’VE HAD” displayed prominently above them. He told me that he had dreamt the cover and had no idea what it should be about, but I would have to figure it out. It was quite the challenge and put me in a completely different mindset. When I finally finished the manuscript, he basically chopped it in half, and we went through a few passes sculpting and pairing it down to the book it is today. The structural spine here was nonexistent; I had to learn the hard way to feel my way through the unknowns of the narrative. It helped me find the confidence to create that structural spine approach that nowadays I take pleasure in having by my side, just so I have the extra push of confidence to keep going, especially when the writing sucks.

HL: It’s interesting how you speak on accountability in so many ways that are set in motion by someone elsea close friend and publisherand how this one image set in motion a book on your part. I think the keyword here is “motion” because you could have stayed, as you said, “exhausted” and “lazily watching some movie.” Yet, an email intervened, and a book was born. Do you feel accountability to others and yourself plays a part in your writing as well, especially when there is a “challenge and discomfort” in play?

MS: We got to keep moving, yeah. When it’s so easy to let those feelings of doubt and despair drag you down, there’s this sense of defiance in continuing, despite failure, despite insurmountable work still to be done on the project. Exhaustion is inevitable, but if you have a faculty of sorts for seeing things realistically, both your routines, the aforementioned structural spine, and the manuscript itself, those down moments won’t bring you down, at least not for good. Accountability is important, but I have found that most of the time, I don’t get those lucky situations like with Runaways and Kevin Sampsell, Cameron Pierce, and The Fun We’ve Had, where the prompt curates the productivity. Most of the time, nobody cares, and it’s all up to me to write the thing. The idea, the drafting, the revising, even the “packaging” of the story or manuscript is often up to me, because though people may be there to check out the work, I’ve found it personally difficult to ask people to read something so new, and just to see what they think.

HL: I think “defiance” might be the best word and motivation ever, Michael! I love that, especially when it’s so hard as writers to find a reason to keep writing (for many reasons, and we all have our own personal reasons). Can we close out this interview with an act of defiance? Tell me, what is your hope for defiance, writing-related or not, in the upcoming year? 

MS: Well, for me, that “defiance” continues even if this novel I spent years working on and am now trying to query agents is universally rejected. The defiance is remembering what it felt like to finally see the story come alive on the page after so many drafts and revisions. The defiance is feeling good about that, no matter what happens to it. If it doesn’t get published, or if I never get published again, the defiance is continuing to write that next book, story, whatever it might be, because at the core of my own defiance is this feeling of having something that I can know and trust as mine, something I can control when everything else around me feels like it’s crumbling apart. I at least have this unfinished page, all these ideas; besides, remembering that the best part of all this was hitting save for the final time, that rush of euphoria, and how everything else that followed almost felt like dampening that euphoria. The defiance is really just never letting everyone head-stomp my own interest in writing. That’s it for this year, and maybe every year. 

Hillary Leftwich is the author of Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock (CCM Press/The Accomplices, 2019), which is one of The Accomplices’ Bestsellers, a finalist for Big Other’s Best Fiction Book of 2019, and voted as one of Entropy’s Best Fiction Books of 2019. Her hybrid memoir, Aura, is forthcoming from Future Tense Books in 2022. Her writing can be found in The Rumpus, Entropy, Denver QuarterlyThe Missouri Review, and numerous other print and online journals. She runs ☿ Al·che·my Author Services & Workshop, reads/selects/judges for The Colorado Book Awards, and teaches creative writing at Lighthouse Writers. Find her: hillaryleftwich.com and alchemyauthorservices.com.

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