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Books & Comics | Interviews

Traitor | a Michael Cisco Interview

February 18

First off, I’d like to thank Michael Cisco for agreeing to this interview and welcome him as our guest at Boomtron. Michael Terry Cisco is an American writer and teacher. He currently resides in New York City and probably best known for his first novel, The Divinity Student, which has won the prestigious of the International Horror Guild Award for Best First Novel of 1999. Other works by Cisco include The Tyrant (2003), The San Veneficio Canon (2004) and two books published last year, The Traitor and Secret Hours.

Lawrence: What were your aims when writing The Traitor?

Michael Cisco: The Traitor is a first-person narrative, and is meant to be read more or less as a performance, like a long monologue. The narrator’s character had therefore to come out more in his manner of telling his story than in expository passages about himself. While this was more an intuition than an idea when I wrote the book, I wanted him to betray himself in his own way of speaking.

Lawrence: I find I am intrigued by the particular names you chose for your characters in The Traitor. Nophtha, Wite and Tzdze all sound ‘alien’. Is there a story behind the names of the characters as well?

Michael Cisco: Wite was meant to imply both the blankness of whiteness and the old English word “wight,” which is, I believe, a generic word for “person.” Otherwise I named the characters in keeping with their sounds. Evocative names are a very economical way to produce the ‘air’ of another history, culture, etc.

Lawrence: What were your literary influences when writing the Traitor?

Michael Cisco: An important influence – the inspiration, in fact, for the novel – was the style of Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard. The repetitive approach I took in The Traitor is stolen from Bernhard; I loved the versatility of his particular use of paraphrastic repetition, which could be used to both dramatic and comedic effect, as well as the way in which it enables the reader to examine an idea or event as if in three dimensions, like a statue, presenting it again and again from slightly different angles.

Lawrence: The first time I read The Traitor I admit I struggled with the book. I felt that in some sense the stylistic elements overwhelmed the plot mechanics. Was this on purpose?

Michael Cisco: With respect to the struggle to read my work, I do make something of a religion out of difficulty per se, and I don’t know that this is entirely to be despised. I want readers who are prepared to contribute something of their own to making the novel work; I prefer this way of getting my work to live for and with them. I don’t so much want to tell my readers things or to guide them through something; I want them to make something of their own out of what I’ve done, and I want my work to overwhelm them.

This leads to some problems – naturally, this kind of thing isn’t going to be very popular, but that doesn’t bother me. The greater difficulty is that I feel I must be myself as confused as my characters are!

Lawrence: “Not so much guiding the reader through something”, reminded of how Gene Wolfe approaches his target readership. As Wolfe often creates unreliable narrators, it is some times hard to determine the “meaning” of the text. Other than that, it creates a wider and deeper space of possible meaning for the reader to discover and explore and thus encourages multiple readings. Would you say Wolfe’s approach is similar to yours? When you write a novel, do deliberately want to encourage multiple readings?

Michael Cisco: I find I’m often compared to Gene Wolfe; those comparisons were what caused me to begin reading his work, and I still don’t see the resemblance all that clearly. I think that, if our work is similar, it’s because we’re both indifferent to the usual snobbish distinctions between genre and “good” literature. Our fields of literary familiarity are, however, generally if not exclusively discrete.

The text doesn’t contain meaning like a box, it’s a machine for producing meaning when read. The writing doesn’t correspond to anything, or it doesn’t get its value or importance chiefly from correspondances; the writing is something or does something. I write for the most part in the present tense because I am not relating or pretending to relate anything that has happened, I’m making something happen for the reader, which happens only as it is read and in the reading.

I take a great deal of care with everything I write, and I try to make every choice significant and meaningful, so my style is dense. My favorite books easily sustain rereading, although that often is a matter of enjoyment. I don’t want to write works that need to be laboriously deciphered, but I am addicted to a kind of riddling in my work.

Lawrence: You are maybe best known for your novel the Divinity Student. How do you think your latest novel compares to the Divinity Student? Do you consider the Divinity Student more ‘accessible’ (in terms of prose or approach) than The Traitor for that matter?

Michael Cisco: The Divinity Student is I suppose more readable than The Traitor, but I can’t really say by how much. The style is more brisk and telegraphic, the work shorter overall, so perhaps that would make it more straightforward. But, as I think about it, I don’t know that it makes a difference where, in my work, that you start. While I want to challenge people, I want my readers to enjoy the work we do together, so I would hope pleasure is the guide.

Lawrence: In the last few years, there has been enormous proliferation of on-line sources of reviews and discussion of genre fiction. What do you think of this recent growth? How has the rapid growth of internet affected you as a person and as writer?

Michael Cisco: I think generally the more access and discussion the better. Not all or even most of it will be meaningful, but those who have meaningful contributions to make will be able to make them far more readily than before. The amount of literary activity on the web plainly gives the lie to the common notion that nobody reads anymore. Any writer can judge readily how far his or her work has travelled, and how it is being received. For that matter, here I am, conversing with you in the Netherlands. In general the internet is pretty nearly as important as the vastly increased pace of contemporary international travel in shrinking the world, and this is promoting what seems to be an entirely new level of intercultural exchange.

Lawrence: What do you enjoy doing with you are not writing behind your computer?

Michael Cisco: Nothing particularly noteworthy or unusual, I think. My whole life is bound up in books, so there isn’t much time left to me once reading and writing are accounted for!

Lawrence: Let’s change roles then, we’re not talking to Michael Cisco the author now, but to Michael Cisco the reader. You’ve already mentioned Bernhard as one of your influences and you’ve already mentioned you’ve read (some of) Gene Wolfe’s works. Which authors do enjoy reading and for what reasons? Any gems you have discovered lately?

Michael Cisco: Burroughs, Denton Welch, Kafka, Dick, Julio Cortazar, Beckett, Stepan Chapman, the Surrealists, Blake, Melville, Poe, Calvino, Lovecraft, Proust, Robert Walser, Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, Jeff VanderMeer, Rimbaud, Jeff Ford, Flann O’Brien, Dostoyevski, Fernando Pessoa, Leonora Carrington, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges, Tove Jansson, Konrad Bayer, M.P. Shiel, K.J. Bishop, Arthur Machen, Mary Shelley, Jeffrey and Scott Thomas, the Brontes, Georg Trakl, Leonid Andreyev, Gerard de Nerval, Rosamel del Valle’s Eva the Fugitive, Jean Ray, Rene Leys by Victor Segalen, Arthur Machen, Unika Zurn, Eric Basso, Jarry, Ligotti, Lem, J.G. Ballard, Knut Hamsun, Lucius Shepard – I’m sure I’ve forgotten many.

Recently I’ve read what I believe is a new translation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s superb short stories. Boris Vian is another recent discovery for me; his novels are entirely unique. My appreciation for Raymond Roussel’s work continues to grow, and I begin to feel a mounting affinity for his eccentric idea of literature. At long last I managed to scare up and read Gaspard de la Nuit, by Bertrand. Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio has recently been published (abridged) by Penguin in a new translation and it is enormously enjoyable.

Lawrence: One of the things I first noticed when picking up your novels, is the strikingly distinctive cover art. How do you feel about these covers? Did you have any influence in the cover design and artist?

Michael Cisco: When my first novel was accepted by Buzzcity Press, the editor, Ann Kennedy, suggested Harry O. Morris for cover artist and illustrator. I was delighted – I already knew his work through his incredible magazine Nyctalops, which was in my opinion (and mine isn’t the only one) the best American small press horror magazine. HOM was not only approachable, but completely open and adaptible to suggestions. So the covers of those books he’s done, The Divinity Student, The Tyrant, The Traitor, and Secret Hours, are all his reflections on my meager suggestions. The cover artist for the San Veneficio Canon is an immensely talented English artist, John Coulthart, who has done an excellent comic adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu” and a great deal of other similar material, Lovecraftian and not.

Lawrence: 2007 must have been quite a busy year for Michael Cisco, not only The Traitor but also a collection of 14 short stories (Secret Hours) was published – could you discuss that we can expect to see from you in the future?

Michael Cisco: It was a busy year, but not really with respect to those projects. The collection had been in the works for the better part of a decade – in fact, I’d forgotten all about it, and the news that it had been released took me by surprise. I wrote The Traitor around 1996. I’m just not especially diligent when it comes to hunting down publishers. This would tend to explain why I have three complete, unpublished manuscripts looking at me, with weary reproachfulness, as I write this. (And I am currently working on my eighth novel.) My peculiar problem is that I’m not conventional or avant-garde. No one knows what to do with me. Me, least of all.

Lawrence: The reference to a possible eighth novel piqued my interest. Could you lift a tip of the veil and tell us a bit about this new novel?

Michael Cisco: I never discuss current projects. I will admit that it is the first of my novels whose title does not begin with “the.”

Lawrence: What do you consider to be your main strengths as a writer/storyteller?

Michael Cisco: I’m still trying to ascertain what I am able to do, and I intend to go on trying different things indefinitely. Let who reads decide what strengths, if any, my work has. It’s the work that should be strong; I only need to be strong enough from time to time, in whatever ways it demands of me, to realize it.

Lawrence: The concept of a soul-eater and soul-burner is quite an unique one, a concept one rarely encounters in fantasy. How did you come up with the idea?

Michael Cisco: I got the germ of the idea from reading about the practice of sin eating, which was a kind of folk absolution that entailed eating food passed over a dying person in order to transfer his or her sins to the eater. Once I had the notion of substituting troublesome ambient spirits for sins, the other elements – the question of what effect this eating would have on the eater, what controls might be established, what the penalties for violating controls might be, and so on – followed straightforwardly.