Michael Cisco (1970 – ) is an American writer best known for his first novel, The Divinity Student, which was published by Ann VanderMeer’s Buzzcity Press and won the International Horror Guild Award in 1999. Since then, Cisco has published The San Veneficio Canon, The Traitor, The Tyrant, The Narrator, The Great Lover, and most recently Celebrant. Taken together, these books represent the greatest oeuvre of any late twentieth/early twenty-first century writer of weird fiction — all the more remarkable because of the difficulty of sustaining the visionary quality of such narratives over the novel length. His latest novel, Member, will be published by Chomu Press this month. As of today, we have also reprinted the last installment of our serialization of The Divinity Student, in promotion of the Cheeky Frawg release of e‑book versions of his first four novels. In general, Cisco is a valued contributor to this site in a variety of functions: as fiction writer, translator, and, on occasion, psychic medium. Considering this, he has been more than overdue for an interview here…
WFR.com: 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?
Michael Cisco: I liked Tolkien, Tove Jansson, the Oz books and Alice, Watership Down, nothing too out of the ordinary. They retain the same value for me now, although there is added to that value another one, which reflects my surprise at the tenacity of the impressions they originally made on me. My tastes have only broadened since then.
WFR.com: What would you consider your favorite weird or uncanny story or stories, and why?
Cisco: My favorite weird stories are the ones that take me entirely by surprise in some way, and that achieve an effect that I can’t explain, which makes explaining why I like them very difficult. I like them because I can’t explain why I like them. I like them, in part, because they keep giving me something when I return to them.
What I really like is to feel weird, either that I am made to feel I am weird, or to feel like I’ve visited a weird place.
WFR.com: Can you give an example of a story you’ve read, then, that has made you feel in such a way: feeling weird, or visiting a weird place? Something you think more people should read, perhaps.
Cisco: Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side very certainly has that feeling of dreamlike otherworldliness.
WFR.com: What writers or storytellers do you look up to the most, in regards to setting models for your own writing?
Cisco: Tolkien and Lovecraft were early influences. I remember also vividly reading a passage in The Stranger: Meursault is alone in his apartment. He watches the street, sees some people going to the movies, takes a shower, comes back to the window, smokes a cigarette, sees the people coming back from the movies. I was shocked by this scene, because it had never occurred to me you could write about someone not doing anything; it shocked me especially because I enjoyed reading it so much. It was like getting inside someone else’s time, or creating time with someone, in much the same way you really do share time with people.
William S. Burroughs taught me how to write. I didn’t think Naked Lunch was all that interesting when I read it, but I for some reason had some recordings of Burroughs reading that I did enjoy. Then, reading passages from The Western Lands that I had previously heard him record live, I could hear him as I read. I found I could also hear him in passages I had not heard him read. This taught me to think about getting the voice down on paper, and being able to hear the voice. Often I hear the voice in a piece of writing and I am immediately won over or turned off in the same way you might be turned on or off purely by the tone or mannerism of someone’s speech, irrespective of what is said.
Franz Kafka I would like to claim as an influence or a model, but he’s just too high above me. His work is miraculous, impossible. You read it, but you can’t read it, it can’t have been written, but it is written, there it is! Impossible! How do you think of that, of The Trial or “A Country Doctor”? How do you even start? Even before the beginning, it’s already too late to try to write like Kafka.
Proust is another hero. His metaphors are by far the most sophisticated in literature, and there are so many! His rightness of tone and the unerring clarity of vision are perfect, his handling of emotion is unparalleled.
Beckett revolutionized failure and decay. He manages to be stark and wildly funny at the same time, without compromising either aspect; and this is true also of the way he manages to bring abstract thought into living contact with intense feeling, with screams and ravings. Nothing is excluded, even in the narrowest of circles.
I could go on and on.
WFR.com: How would you characterize or describe your own creative philosophy, as it pertains to your fiction? Do you find it changing from project to project, in your view?
Cisco: Some aspects change but it’s like saying “I want to win” and then adjusting what victory would be. The idea is to create living monsters that will go out into the world and wreak havoc on readers. Once that idea is set, you experiment this way, that way. The writing has to live, that is, it has to do something, not just be about something. It has to be that thing.
Lovecraft’s horror stories, for example, very seldom stop with the characters. There is almost always a leap that throws the snare of jeopardy over the reader as well, usually by means of implications. Lovecraft made the idea of implications his own; Lovecraftian implications are immediately recognizeable and distinct from any other. Dracula might well be the unique vampire in the world; whether or not he is, Stoker doesn’t care. He’s describing what happens to the characters. Lovecraft’s stories detail specific events, but also lay out implications which stand even if the events are fictional. The attitude and values that inform those stories were carefully thought out opinions that Lovecraft maintained were valid. Ligotti is most Lovecraftian in this way.
What’s changed with me is mainly how I write. The Divinity Student, The Golem, The Traitor, The Tyrant and other early books were written straight through from beginning to end, while now I end up working on the whole book at once. The key for me was never to know too well what I was doing, either by taking things as they came, step by step, as I did at first, and then later, by putting everything up into the air and being able to turn it this way and that, any way I chose. I don’t want to plan out my books except in broad strokes. I want to plunge right in and work pointilistically, with my face squashed against the canvas. What I’ve learned is that I can jump around on the canvas, and also go through and adjust macros as well. I don’t know if that’s philosophy or just technique.
WFR.com: How would you characterize the difference in your artistic approach between, say, writing your short stories and your novels? You’ve had such success writing novel-length weird fiction, which seems like an anomaly in a field of literature often dominated by short stories and novellas. What do you think is the key to writing a quality weird fiction novel?
A weird tale is usually a showcase for a single weird idea. Writing a novel that way, built around a single weird idea, calls for a very versatile idea, like a strange setting, or a maguffin, or a curse. The novel then will be mainly about the characters and their everyday lives as affected by that whatever that one weird element is, but necessarily dwelling on quotidian stuff, written to highlight the ordinariness and point up the contrast.
The ordinary world doesn’t need any shoring up as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have to describe the ordinary; all the reader has to do is look up from the page to see the ordinary. The contrast isn’t in the book, it’s between the book and the ordinary life around you.
I don’t come up with an idea and compose a novel around it so much as I dredge connections between streams of ideas to overload my ability to follow what I’m doing. The density of ideas is part of the weird effect. The idea is to make the book itself like an insane artifact from another dimension, without allowing it to degenerate into a mere exercise in being weird for its own sake. It still has to be recognizeably a novel, a story, with pathos, but the idea is to try to get that another way, not by asking the reader to see him or herself in characters, but to create an experience for the reader.
WFR.com: By now, hopefully many of our readers have had the chance to start – and continue – reading your novel The Divinity Student here at WFR. What inspired you to write that novel in the first place?
Cisco: I had been writing stories set in San Veneficio for about a year and a half to two years by that time, with the idea of building up the setting organically, as an amalgam of stories, rather than laying out the city from the top down and all at once. I felt I was working my way up toward a longer narrative. Then I got the opportunity to spend my junior year of college at Oxford, and I spent that year surrounded by old architecture and studying the Bible as literature with the late Canon of Christchurch, John Fenton, who looked like the Quaker oats man and received me in his house on the Christchurch quad. So that was all pretty fucking gothic and on top of that I was discovering the treasure trove of critical literature on the Bible, which is the most extensive and technical body of criticism in the western tradition. I was especially interested in a structuralist interpretation of the theology of prophecy from a book by a German high critic named Gerhard von Rad. He maintained that the Biblical prophet didn’t simply relay messages from God, he was to a limited extent entrusted with the power to bring them about, by words and deeds. I thought it sounded interesting so I decided to try it myself: I am San Veneficio’s god, since I made the place and everyone in it, so why not try to create a prophet and see what happens? That was the germ, and by walking endlessly around Oxford I eventually came up with the right ideas. By roughly the end of Autumn 1991 I knew I had a novel in there, and a heap of notes. I wrote the first half in the Spring of 1992 and the rest over the summer.
WFR.com: What kinds of projects do you have in the works now? I understand you have a new novel coming out with Chomu Press soon.
Cisco: The new novel should be coming out in October. It’s from Chomu and it’s called Member. I don’t find it easy to describe; it’s about a man who gets unwittingly swept up in a cosmic game and who doesn’t know anything about it, isn’t sure he doesn’t want to play, and makes things inconvenient for other players. Part of the idea was to write about a character so totally ambivalent about belonging to anything that he barely even belongs to the novel about his life. He’s a bad hero for a novel to have, always straying. The straying is more interesting.
There are two other completed novels that seem to be on an approach path to publication, and I am currently working on a longer novel called Animal Money where I think I’ve finally figured out how to talk about certain subjects in a way I can live with.
WFR.com: Finally, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever read, and why?
Cisco: I can’t designate a weirdest of them all. My highest ambition might be to read my own work and find it the weirdest, not because I’m vying with anyone, but that, to become weird to yourself is something you couldn’t possibly contrive to do, you either do or you don’t, who knows why. As to other writers, not to be too repetitive, but Kafka’s weirdness is, maybe not the weirdest, but so perfectly its own, so out of nowhere, owing so little to anyone, so pure, so rich, so innocent of any gross fumbling for an effect, that it will always seem to me to be a kind of beacon or clarion trumpet showing the way.