An Interview with Writer and Professor Michael Cisco at his home in Queens, New York
The fictional works of Michael Cisco are often described as being dream-like and phantasmagoric, horrific and surreal, brilliant and demanding. Regarded by China Miéville as being “of a different kind and league from almost anyone writing today” and one of the key figures in the experimental fantastic, Michael Cisco’s visions of the weird are as intelligent as they are indispensable. His novel The Divinity Student (1999) won the International Horror Guild Award for best first novel. The Great Lover (2011) was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award and named Best Weird Novel of 2011 by the Weird Fiction Review. His novel Unlanguage (2018) was among the nominees for Best Horror Novel by Locus Magazine. I spoke with him on the precipice of the release of his new novella, Do You Mind if We Dance with Your Legs? from Nightscape Press.
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to be a writer?
I don’t think so. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I’m sure that I encountered some sort of work of literature that inspired me, but it must have happened so early that I can’t recall which one.
If you could work within a past literary movement, which would it be?
There isn’t one school or movement. The Surrealists might have been fun in principle, but their doctrinaire approach, their rigidity, would have gotten old fast. I would have preferred to orbit them rather than to be directly involved. I’m skeptical of movements that aren’t mainly social, built around friendship, or at least camaraderie.
Can you discuss the significance of surrealism, maximalism, and phantasmagoria in your work?
Phantasmagoria is what I would use to describe my work. To me it combines the ideas of fantasy and delirium. Surrealism to me means dream-like art. I became interested in the Surrealist school of art as an example of what I would consider to be a broader phenomenon of dream-like art. The Surrealists have a particular approach to it, but it’s hard to overlook the way everyone’s subconscious sounded just like Andre Breton’s. I like the perverse rigor that they brought, or pretended to bring, to it. Maximalism is not something I’ve ever formally considered. I like the idea of over-saturating a piece of writing with ideas, so perhaps that’s Maximalist in a way.
How would you define a good story in a few sentences?
A good story changes the way you see the world. It should rewire your nervous system. A good story is like an encounter. It should activate you. Even a story that is crummy in other respects is basically good if it activates you or helps you to connect to something outside your ordinary circle of thinking.
Do you have a favourite piece of art from a medium outside of literature that inspires your writing?
Not only one.. I draw a great deal of inspiration from films, paintings, illustrations, and even dance. I got the character of Super Aesop from a dancer named Nonstop. I have a painting over my desk that has followed me everywhere... The Death of the Poet Rheiner by Felixmuller. I remember somebody dismissed this painting as false seduction, but I was not falsely seduced. I was genuinely seduced by it. I’ve always loved the expressionistic landscape of that painting, and it seems to dovetail with the landscape of Dr Caligari. In art, music, and film, I am always inspired by anything dreamlike, bizarre, unsettling. I try to find ways to do comparable things in writing if I can. I think it's safe to say that The Divinity Student came about in part from a kind of mental confrontation between Santa Sangre and The Street of Crocodiles (film).
Does the culture of New York City impact your work? How did it factor into the development of The Great Lover, specifically?
I have mixed feelings about New York. It always seemed like jail. However, it provides you with unparalleled opportunities for people watching. Wandering the streets of New York, encountering people, dealing with the way New York dwarfs you… I’m sure all of that had its effect on my work. The Great Lover grew very much out of my observation of people on the subway, and the experience of riding subway trains. The train is a neutral zone where people from all over the city, from all manner of backgrounds, are flung together by chance. I still make notes on the subway all the time about what people are doing, sometimes what they are saying. The subway is kind of a social cut-up. And a subway trip can be a version of Exquisite Corpse.
What do you think or feel when you look back on past dark writings like The Divinity Student or The Tyrant?
I tend to remember only what I consider the faults. If I go back and look at them, I'm usually, and this may sound conceited… I’m surprised. If my work has become more colorful, it had been heading in that direction from the start, with a few detours. I first began publishing toward the end of the 90s, when there was a fetishizing of darkness and nihilism. A lot of that seemed contradictory or confused to me. If you love this darkness so much, is it really darkness? There’s a gulf that separates the despair of someone who is struggling to realize an affirmation of life in good faith, and the posturing of someone who wants to be seen as beyond caring. You have to earn your nihilism, I guess. If I were going to write dark material or gravitate to it because I enjoyed it, I had to be honest with myself and my reader about that. Otherwise you fall into “grimdark,” which is a cliche. I was wondering if you could make horror or dark fantasy colorful, vibrant… lurid, rather than this sort of monotonous void-talk that ultimately didn’t come to mean that much to me anymore. If nothing means anything, then there’s nothing to be afraid of. What’s at stake?
Have you had moments of questioning your vocation as a writer?
No. I have wondered if my destiny is to be a bad writer.
Can you please describe your writing space?
My writing space is small and cramped. I’m surrounded by all of my books. I have room to pace up and down and listen to music, with notebooks within reach so I can scribble down notes as they occur to me. It’s like being in a furnace. It’s also like being in a shrine... a place of intense highs and lows. It’s a superstitious place. I’m really very scared to write unless I feel genuinely inspired to do it. My writing space is designed to allow me to go into my own mind with as little outward distraction as possible.
Should writing be used to influence political, religious, social, environmental views, etc.? Do your own views show up in your writing?
I think if we speak from our own experience, then our politics, values, and concerns will speak in them. On the one hand, I've tried to address political and other concerns of the sort you mention, but only as far as they preoccupy me as problems. I haven't tried to preach solutions to people. I don’t want to write propaganda. But my writing would be incomplete or worse if I deliberately shut out my political and other related concerns. I don’t simply want to encourage people to think, since that is a cop out. When I think of the literature that has most influenced my opinions on these topics, it’s almost never anything overtly focused on them.
Who is your favorite character that you’ve written?
I have lots of favorite characters. The Prosthetic Libido, Thrushchurl, Goose Goes Back, (laughs), Super Aesop, and ASSIYEH MELACHALOS. I could go on.
Is there a story, book, or character that you wish you hadn’t written, or had written differently?
No. I think that if I don’t like the way I did something, I will try it again in a different way. As long as what you write is coming from who you are at the moment, I think it will be valid.
Even if it isn’t quite what you wanted. I almost never produce exactly what I envision, but I feel that is as it should be. The only thing I don't want to write is something flat and perfunctory, uninspired and dead.
If any of your novels could be made into a film, with any director, which one and who by and why?
I’d love to see The Quay Brothers do The Divinity Student. I’d like to see David Lynch do something with Do You Mind if We Dance With Your Legs?
“Michael Cisco’s works are indispensable to contemporary fantastic literature. They not only elevate this genre, they hover above it.” – Thomas Ligotti
Does your writing contribute to society? Does that matter to you?
I don’t know if it contributes. It does matter in that I want it to affect people. There are a lot of aspects of society I’d like to see destroyed. Sometimes I like to imagine my books as monsters let loose to destroy people's bullshit. I don’t think I can do much there, but it’s worth a try.
What is your earliest memory of reading or hearing a story?
My mother reading to me from something. I know I used to like In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. We read that over and over. Beatrix Potter books and Dr. Seuss as well.
Can you describe in what way literary figures like Thomas Ligotti, Franz Kafka, and H.P. Lovecraft have influenced your work?
All of them have influenced me in different ways at different times. Lovecraft drew me into a sort of Borges-ian world of references and hoaxes… of fabricated lore. I was originally interested in fantasy, which involves entering another world in some way, but Lovecraft showed me that it was possible to enchant this world, the world around us. If I look at a row of boring suburban houses, and you tell me that one of them is haunted, then the depression doesn’t hit. Those houses are suddenly vitally arresting now. Also, Lovecraft was an oral writer. His sentences all had a distinctive voice. I always gravitated to writers like that. His writing steered me towards writers he admired, like Machen and other writers of classic Weird Fiction.
Kafka is almost impossible to emulate. What struck me about Kafka was that he was so utterly unique. He was the model to follow if you wanted to be really yourself. There was an unparalleled purity about everything he wrote, and clarity. Kafka's work is just impossible… no amount of reasoning or planning would enable you to write a Kafka story. I can’t account for him, and that’s why he fascinates me. Everything I know about him personally deepens my admiration for him. I am in awe of him. There is a tendency to read him allegorically, which is a terrible mistake; Kafka always meant exactly what he said, without any tricks. There’s a kind of discipline that comes in reading a Kafka story, that involves sticking with the utmost fidelity to what he says, resisting the temptation to tack on meanings.
In Ligotti’s case, what struck me about was that he renovated a hackneyed literary genre... horror stories, and made them his own effortlessly. Like Lovecraft and like Kafka, Ligotti writes entirely from the heart, expressing his own view of life as any true artist does, without pretense. Reading Ligotti was like being given horror fiction all over again for the first time. It was that fresh. And he was also so scrupulous, the way he wrote… so careful, so serious. This idea of dignity… Ligotti has sort of a seriousness and dignity so that for him a horror story wasn’t a diversion or just a corny gag. It was something that was a really expressive art form. He’s been a presence in my life and his influence is in some cases direct and deliberate. I’ve never had a more sensitive reader or wiser teacher. I admire him very very much. He turned horror fiction into a place for searingly honest and bitter self-reflection.
What is your favorite story by Edgar Allan Poe?
The Fall of the House of Usher. I love it because of the bottomless mystery of the story. I love it because it shouldn’t work as well as it does or at all. There’s no other story like it, none. If you tried to write that story in a sophisticated, philosophical, worldly way, it would lose all of its power and become an empty exercise. It has to have the lurid, grotesque, crazy stuff in it. I have no idea why the atmosphere is so attractive to me when it's described as nothing but depressing, but I want to be there… maybe I am there. Immensely powerful writing, a tour de force of sustained mood, and I suspect there’s a deep irony running through it as well.
What is your favorite Lovecraft story?
It changes. The Thing on the Doorstep is the one that induces actual fright, both in that it is about losing your identity and the terrifying sense that the person sitting next to you has suddenly ceased to be familiar, or even human. I find The Dunwich Horror very funny, with phrasings like “jocose fish peddler” and “visible cattle” and “barking menace.”. I think The Shadow Over Innsmouth has a kind of formal perfection to it. I don’t know if I can choose between them.
Do you think you see the world differently than non-writers?
Yes. I am always writing. Writing starts with what you see and hear. With fleeting impressions. I have this sort of neurotic need to catch them and note them down. I am always reading what is going on around me. Living and writing are largely indistinguishable. It’s as if living without this obsessive collection of notes and mishearings and odd impressions weren’t being fully alive. It’s as if you have to resist the flow of events, if only to pull a little away from them in order to note them down.
Do you intend for others to understand what you are saying with your writing?
Of course. Any time you really understand something you have to work to understand it. Sometimes I'm just sharing with the reader my own perplexities and struggles to understand things.
There are reader’s-writers and writer’s-writers, and then there are artist’s writers. How would you feel about being categorized in this way?
It’s an interesting thought. I don’t know, I would have to figure out what it meant. I read writing as art, so I approach writing as art. I care about how my sentences sound, how the book feels, the atmosphere, not just in terms of what the story requires but the almost like the gallery setting, a museum quality surrounding the work. Also the sort of thing you can create in a film with setting and music, but which has to be put into words in a story. You want to maximize the expressive potential of as much as you can. People have such a limited idea of what writing can be. I always want it to be more.
Is the end result more important than the process? Or the process? Or are they equal?
The problem is that the process is only available to me. The end result is what I can show everyone else. If the process is important, it is something I need to integrate into the story as such.
In what ways are your writing a means of reflection?
I don’t know. I don’t pick a way. It’s all a means of reflection. The point isn’t so much as using it to look at myself, but as a way of thinking. If I've done my job right, the book itself sits there thinking… a sort of proto-thinking until such a time comes when a person picks it up. It’s not exactly the reader's own thoughts. It’s an interaction between this book I made and the interaction with the reader. It’s not about producing me, it’s about communicating with people or to people.
Do you create to understand or do you express what you have already learned? Or is it some combination of both?
You don’t start off trying to understand anything. You produce and then, for some reason, you stand back and ask yourself why it is the way it is, if that’s the best way for it to be, and what does it want? You can understand what it wants and do what it wants; without that, I don't know what you have to work with.
What does it mean to be original or unique as a writer, particularly within speculative genres?
You blow up cliches. You bring a dead genre back to life. You make people feel like they are seeing a ghost for the first time.
Are you better today than when you first started?
I don't know. I think I know how to do more things, otherwise I don't think I've changed that much. When you find your voice or your style, everything that comes after that is outwork from that style, perhaps even a pivot in style.
Is there any particular publication you would like to be remembered for?
Unlanguage. It is a book that I wanted to write for the longest time. I’m so glad I got the opportunity to figure out how to do it. That whatever its flaws, it may be my most original work.
Can you tell us about the process and circumstances around your writing Do You Mind if We Dance With Your Legs?
It started with the character, who became Pedrito. I got the premise of the first scene right away and the story took shape, largely organically, from there. My then-girlfriend (now wife) encouraged me to turn the story into a screenplay, and in doing that I learned more about it and could go back and make it more what it wanted to be, which in a strange way was an autobiography. I found that I was confronting a lot about myself. I learned a lot about myself through writing that story. Despite our many obvious differences, I see a lot of myself in Pedrito.
Who are the obscure writers that you think fans of weird fiction or horror should check out?
In no order -- Amparo Davila, Denton Welch, Robert Walser, Unica Zurn, Adelheide Duvanel, Felisberto Hernandez, Virgilio Pinera, Bruno Schulz, Marcel Bealu, Jean Ray, Stepan Chapman, Dambudzo Marechera, Dino Buzzati, Tommaso Landolfi, Silvina Ocampo, Kyusaku Yumeno, Can Xue, Renee Gladman, Farah Rose Smith, Nathalie Sarraute, Leonora Carrington, Alfred Kubin ...
Do you have other publications in the works?
My novella Ethics will be published by The Lovecraft Ezine later this year. There will be a Spanish translation of The Narrator from Dilatando Mentes. I am shopping a collection of new material I hope to see published in 2020, and a collection of older works from Centipede Press. I’m working on monograph about weird fiction, a novel, and a translation project at the moment. I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to things to write.
What do you think the future of horror and weird fiction will be?
Right now is an especially fertile time. The diversity of the field will continue to develop. We’ll be hearing more from writers from all over the world who we haven't heard nearly enough from. The amount of energy we see poured into the field is not going to diminish. I can’t predict with any confidence what direction it will take... It’ll take all kinds of directions simultaneously and any major trends solidify it will most likely be for commercial reasons.
What are the most intriguing books you’ve read in the past year?
The Houseguest, by Amparo Davlia
Bacacay, by Witold Gombrowicz
Comemadre, by Roque Larroquy
The Snail on the Slope, by the Strugatsky Brothers
The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle
In Search of the Grail, by Svetislav Basara
Vlad, by Carlos Fuentes
Firefly, by Severo Sarduy
Thus Were Their Faces, by Silvina Ocampo
Samalio Pardulus, by Otto Bierbaum
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Mt. Analogue, by Rene Daumal
Poor Things, by Alasdair Gray
The Taiga Syndrome, by Cristina Rivera Garza
Creature, by Amina Cain
Birthday, by Cesar Aira
Do You Mind if We Dance With Your Legs will be released in Spring 2020 from Nightscape Press. Pre-Order your copy here.
Michael Cisco's previous novel-length publications:
The Divinity Student (1999)
The Tyrant (2003)
The San Veneficio Canon (2004)
The Traitor (2007)
Secret Hours (2007)
The Narrator (2010)
The Great Lover (2011)
The Golem (2013)
Animal Money (2015)
Wretch of the Sun (2016)
This interview was conducted by Farah Rose Smith on March 5th, 2020.