Interview: Lincoln Michel

"Weird is a compliment... even if meant as an insult."

Publicicity image of Lincoln Michel.

Today we’re publishing a story called “Things Left Outside” by writer Lincoln Michel. It’s one of 25 stories featured in his 2015 debut collection, Upright BeastsMichel is the editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com and a founding editor of Gigantic. His work has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, Unstuck, Tin House, Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. He is the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction, and the author of Upright Beasts, a collection of short stories on Coffee House Press. He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.

WFR: What kinds of fiction or stories did you read and watch growing up? And how have your tastes changed between what originally captivated you and now, if at all?

As a child, I was obsessed with myths (especially the Greek myths) and unsolved mysteries. I remember having a huge encyclopedia of historical oddities, cryptids, unexplained phenomena, and so on that I read over and over. I’m not one to bemoan the internet and get nostalgic for the good old days, but I’m glad that I didn’t have easy access to Snopes.com or Wikipedia to quickly debunk all those mysteries back then.

By high school, I was drawn to gothic and southern gothic fiction (e.g., Flannery O’Connor), philosophy, and, above all, Franz Kafka. He’s the first fiction writer I remember feeling a real aesthetic kinship with—or perhaps he opened up that aesthetics inside me. Borges and Calvino soon joined him. My father was a big science fiction fan, and he passed down books to me. My favorites were Dune and The Left Hand of Darkness. (Somehow David Lynch’s Dune film was one of the only VHS we had and I watched that over and over.)

And in college, I remember being blown away by Donald Barthelme, Angela Carter, Kobo Abe, J.G. Ballard, Jesus’ Son, and Blood Meridian.

I suppose the through-line is an interest in the mysterious, the unknowable, the bizarre, and the darkly humorous. Summed up that way, I suppose weird fiction has always felt like home to me.

WFR: Is there such a thing as “too weird”? If someone tells you something you’ve written is “weird” is it usually a compliment?

Despite my love of Surrealist art, I tend not to be grabbed by narrative fiction that’s too incoherent and loose with its weirdness. I’m really drawn to unstable, unsettling worlds, where reality is twisted into new shapes yet the story holds together through the force of its own logic. But if that logic breaks down to the point of randomness—just a series of mostly unconnected oddities—it doesn’t work for me.

More common is what I’d consider “fake weird”—work that is a collection of “wacky” things that are meant to amuse on the surface level, but which aren’t anchored by any real darkness. I’m talking about the skateboarding panda bears work at a drive-in movie theater for ghost mandolins kind of story. The whimsical and the twee instead of the uncanny and the bizarre. I need my weird to have some teeth and claws capable of digging into my heart.

Weird is a compliment as far as I’m concerned, even if meant as an insult.

51XAq+SRfaL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_WFR: In Upright Beasts, I get hints of other weird fiction authors like Robert Aickman, Kafka, etc. Can you talk about some of the influences on your work in Upright Beasts?

Kafka was my most formative literary love, so I’m extremely happy if any of my work approaches his in any way. I’ve named a lot of influential writers already, but I do think that sometimes writers focus overly on literary influences. Influences come from all over. I remember loving Marvel trading cards, weird plastic monster toys, old 80s/90s fantasy and SF computer games, and other things that I’m sure have worked their way into my work in some form or another. I probably studied more punk and hip-hop lyrics as a teenager than I did books. I find certain philosophers—Cioran, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Debord—really artistically inspiring. Films by Lynch, Leone, Fellini, and Kurosawa. Sketch comedy like Mr. Show and Kids in the Hall. It all blends together into a strange brew in your brain.

WFR: What writers were your introduction to the “weird”, whether the Weird Tales kind of weird or something even stranger?

There were hints of the weird in some early SF and fantasy I read (Stephen King, say), but the first writer who felt terribly weird to me is Kafka. If we’re speaking of art in general, then it was probably the Dadaists and Surrealists, who I was pretty obsessed with for some time (especially Max Ernst and Rene Magritte).

I really agree with the general ethos of this site, which gives “weird fiction” a more expansive and interesting definition than just “horror stories with tentacle monsters.” I like a good tentacle monster as much as the next guy, but there really is something that connects the likes of Kafka, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Thomas Ligotti, Kelly Link, Shirley Jackson, Borges, Lovecraft, Brian Evenson, and so on together regardless of whether their work is shelved as fantasy, literary, science fiction, postmodern, or something else.

WFR: Tell us about how Upright Beasts came together. When were these stories written? Is this your first published book? 

I started writing and getting some work published about ten years ago. Some of the stories in here stretch back almost that long, but the book is very much a selection of what I’ve written in that span. The majority of the stories I’ve written, even the majority of the ones I’ve published in magazines, didn’t make the cut.

I’ve always loved playing in different forms and styles, and Upright Beasts has stories in a variety of different structures as well as stories that play with different sets of genre tropes. I had a hard time figuring out how to combine all those, although I knew that I wanted to have a diverse collection. Ultimately, I decided to collect the stories into four mini-books inside the book, each that are (hopefully) coherent while still bleeding into each other in interesting ways.

Upright Beasts is my first book as an author. As an editor, or rather co-editor, I published an anthology of science flash fiction stories called Gigantic Worlds a little earlier this year. It has original work from Laird Barron, Charles Yu, Catherine Lacey, Meghan McCarron, Jedediah Berry, and a bunch of others (as well as a couple previously uncollected stories from Jonathan Lethem, Philip K. Dick, and J. G. Ballard.)

WFR: What’s next for you? Do you plan to do another collection or possibly a novel in the future?

I’m almost done with a novel called DOOM MOOD that is about existentially depressed supervillains and body horror. Other than that, I have a science fiction novel about baseball and a weird novel about a haunted southern neighborhood, as well as plenty of story ideas, that I hope I have time for soon.