“I have crockpots,” Michael Andreasen tells me, almost apologetically, when I first ask him about his writing process. He proceeds to dive into a seemingly depthless metaphor that involves multiple stories simmering on a busy stove, sometimes for years, while he dashes around adding ingredients, stirring, and checking constantly to see if something’s come together. This explains why interviewing Andreasen feels a bit like carrying on about twenty different conversations at once — which would probably be daunting if it wasn’t so terrifically fun.
In person, Andreasen radiates the same energy and inventiveness that he packed into his debut story collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover (Dutton Books, 2018), released earlier this year. The stories are fantastic scenarios with emotional soft centers, described by Ramona Ausubel as “explosions of magic, aching tenderness, and star-bright writing.” Mermaids, alien voices, and headless teenage girls abound, but that’s only scratching the surface. These are stories that dare to be about love — familial, monstrous, erotic, unrequited, doomed — and their refusal to approach the subject by anything but unconventional means is a posture of deepest reverence.
Andreasen holds an MFA in fiction from the University of California, Irvine and lives in Southern California. Drawing comparisons to George Saunders, Aimee Bender, and Karen Russell, his fiction has recently been published in The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney’s, and Zoetrope: All-Story. We met up over coffee to talk about the unsayable centers of stories, tentacles, and liquid Coffeemate.
Each of the stories in The Sea Beast Takes a Lover features some fantastic element that feels absolutely essential: hapless sailors fend off an amorous sea monster and one another; grieving families load their fathers into crates and drop them into the Atlantic Ocean when they’ve grown too old. What’s the impulse, for you, to venture into fantastic territory?
I think that most realism tries to show us something astonishing in the familiar and mundane. The fantastic, on the other hand, tries to show us something familiar and mundane in the astonishing. Think of it this way: A package arrives at your doorstep. It’s nothing special, just a plain while mailer or a slightly dented cardboard box. You tear it open without much thought to get at what’s inside, which promises at the very least to be more interesting than its container. But with the fantastic, it’s the packaging that’s interesting, the unusual colors and patterns, the unfamiliar symbols, the strange sound it makes when you squeeze it. You take your time unwrapping it as each layer reveals its own little marvel, but when you finally get it open, inside are the things you see every day: your own boring grief or fear or jealousy, your own stupid heart.
But now, in all this weird wrapping, you’re seeing it a bit differently maybe. You notice all its contours and tiny beauties. It plays with the light in an interesting way. It’s heavier than you remember. It’s possible that the way you look at it from now on has changed a little. I think that’s why I turn to the fantastic — to see these relationships and feelings outside of their natural habitats, under the light of strange new suns.
It hadn’t occurred to me that we might not even notice what’s familiar to us until we encounter it in a totally unfamiliar setting. I have this vague memory of stumbling across a box of Oreos in a supermarket in Europe and realizing that I had deep, complicated feelings about Oreos.
Careful. We could easily turn this entire interview into a long discussion of the cultural and/or deeply-rooted personal significance of the Oreo.
How do you start a story? Do you begin with a character, an image, an event? How do you know when you have a story at all?
Each one begins differently. “Jenny” came simply from seeing a headless mannequin in a store window one day. “The Saints in the Parlor” was born from a series of images (specifically a picture book of saints I had as a child). “Rite of Baptism” emerged almost entirely out of that very rigid and precise liturgical form. I heard once that Raymond Carver got the line “What we talk about when we talk about love” from a conversation he overheard in line at the bank. This stuff is everywhere, floating around free as air. You just have to reach out and snatch it up.
Case in point: after watching all the horrible pain and uncertainty my father was navigating as my grandfather was dying, there was an evil, selfish flash of a voice in my head that said: “We could avoid all of this if we just dumped old people into the ocean.” Immediately, the dutiful grandson / decent human being voice said: “Well now, that sure is an evil, selfish thought.” But then along came the writer voice, which said: “For sure, I hear you. Totally evil. Hundred percent agree. But just out of curiosity, dump them into the ocean how, exactly?”
So they come from all over the place, which is good, I think. If a story comes at you from a different angle than the last one, it forces you to throw out the tools of the previous story and approach it on its own terms. Each one inevitably presents a unique set of joys and disappointments. With any luck, the former are enough to weather the latter.
That makes me think of something Laura Kasischke once said, “I guess you use the tools you have at the time, and maybe use them up?”
I like that, but I think you’re also inventing new tools as you need them. Or sometimes, as in the case of the set form of “Rite of Baptism”, the tool is basically handed to you, but you have to teach yourself how to use it.
As for knowing when you have a story, you don’t really know that until you get it onto the page. There are times when a story collapses under its own weight, or, even worse, has no weight at all. You’re always balancing. How much weirdness can this story bear? How much emotional gravity? How much humor and lightness, and distributed how, and where? These questions might seem abstract, but they become real and measurable when looking at a piece of writing, and different writers weigh them differently. To me, fine-tuning those sensitivities is an enormous part of finding your voice and what you value as a writer.
Going off your point about fine-tuning sensibilities — when I try to teach my students how to revise their writing, I lean a lot on Marie Howe’s idea of locating a piece’s “organic heart” and “unsayable necessity.” When do you know that you’ve found what a story wants to be about?
I like “unsayable necessity.” I once heard the writer Brad Watson call it the story’s “black hole” — the invisible thing in the story that has so much emotional mass it pulls everything else toward it. I usually don’t see this until very late in the editing process. It can be dangerous to go looking for it, or, even worse, to know what your story is “about” before you’ve even written it. Every time I’ve tried to do that, the story inevitably implodes under the pressure. Occasionally you can tease out a theme without letting it take over. There was a moment when I was editing “Rockabye, Rocketboy” and realized that there sure were a lot of people watching other people do things in this story, and maybe, from a certain angle, this was a story about voyeurism and the distances we create for our own safety, but I think all I did after that realization was add a few more binoculars and viewing devices. It didn’t need much more. It was already in the story’s DNA. I think you’re right to say that stories have their own ideas regarding what they want to be about. You can disagree with them, of course, but you’ll need to be ready for a fight.
What was it like going from individual stories to crafting a whole book? Did you have some kind of core organizing principle? Was the recurrent sea imagery something you were pursuing from the outset? I hear you’re a sucker for Cthulhu.
Naturally, I’m a fan of all the eldritch beasties. Who doesn’t love a good tentacle? Lovecraft had that bit right.
They’re like the iceberg of creatures.
Exactly! A blind, unnerving reminder of the much larger menace lurking below. For a while I was actually writing them into scenes when I got bored. They’d get nosy, root through the cupboards, find little secrets. Usually they’d draw my attention to someplace I wasn’t looking. Just another way to inject a bit of energy into a story. You can always get rid of them later. Or you can’t, and you end up with the book’s title story.
I’m not sure it was recurrent imagery that brought these stories together so much as a recurrent mood. I think even the stories in the collection that are technically disparate have a common feel to them, like listening to a choir of yodelers as you wait for your malfunctioning ski lift to catch fire and tumble into the gorge. Every writer has a lens. Mine happens to be all cluttered up with mouthy ghosts and bored mermaids. There were one or two stories that we took out late in the process because they didn’t quite fit with the others, but in the end it pretty much felt like all of these odd little worlds could be spiritual neighbors, or at least in the same zip code.
I laughed out loud during the scene in “The Sea Beast Takes a Lover” where two doomed sailors are fantasizing about drinking a real cup of coffee, and one of them muses about adding a little liquid Coffeemate to it. The other promptly slaps him across the face. “How dare you,” he says in a low, hateful timbre. “In my coffee. How dare you.”
Hah! I like that scene too. Since everyone in that story is more or less over the whole dying thing, it was difficult to create scenes with anything resembling stakes. (Ugh, I hate that word. It’s such an overused craft word. But never mind.)
What do we talk about when we talk about stakes, anyway?
I don’t mean to dismiss the whole idea of stakes out of hand. There are times when it can be useful to examine the relationship between what characters need and how they’re responding to that need. But I think more often than not, when “stakes” are invoked in a workshop, it’s because the reader isn’t really interested in the writer’s point of focus. “I wanted the stakes to be higher in this scene” usually means “I’m not interested in understanding what’s meaningful to you here. I need you to make it meaningful to me” which is rarely a useful way to approach a story.
Getting back to coffee: It seemed like all these sailors really have left to get worked up about were the unimportant things, and coffee is one of the most important unimportant things there is. It’s one of those marvelous inconsequentials that everyone is permitted to be very particular about and everyone else is permitted to mercilessly judge. A friend of mine once watched me empty a thimble of hazelnut flavored creamer into my mug and audibly gasped.
That’s my lamentable preference, by the way. I’m one of those philistines who adds way too much cream and sugar. My coffee is basically dessert. I feel an enormous amount of shame in even telling you that, which I guess proves my point.[Interviewer’s note: At this point, Andreasen is so overcome by reminiscing about coffee that he scuttles off for a refill.]
Nerdy craft question —
My favorite kind.
Nearly every story is in the present tense. What went into making that choice?
I like the immediate, wrecking ball-ness of the present tense, the way the scenery whizzes by and the subtext of every sentence seems to be C’mon man we gotta go!, so hanging out there tends to feel the most natural to me. If I do use the past tense, it’s usually because the vantage is important. Someone who knows this story, who lived it and survived it, has decided to tell it again, and that always brings with it a bunch of interesting questions. Is there something this narrator is trying to understand? Something they need to get off their chest? Are we just reminiscing, and if so, has the interim provided our storyteller with any clarity? Future narrators can access anything, reflect on anything. They have the luxury of a more perfect knowledge. Present narrators are trapped. They’re armed only with whatever thoughts and feelings are handy, and the only way out is through.
Spoilery story question: One of the most stunning moments in the collection comes at the end of “Bodies in Space,” a story about infidelity and the elusiveness of genuine relationships in an age of internet fame. It ends on this frightening image of the main character pulling wires out of his forehead, endlessly. And then there was the line that took my breath away, when the story suddenly gestures to the man’s lost wife: “And here, under his forefinger, this could be the wire that connects him to her, the line that knows where she is and how to bring her back.” How did you get to that image, and that ending?
That story went through a lot of revisions, but the penultimate scene was always a desperate act of entreaty and apology that was ultimately in vain. At the risk of musey-mystifying again: there are always questions that our stories ask as we write them, and to make it through the draft we often have to resign ourselves to figuring them out later. By the end of the first page I knew this guy had an alien implant in his head, the purpose of which he didn’t really understand, and to be honest, that was because I didn’t understand it either. I didn’t know what it did besides blink. Early in the story, when the most-likely-alien narrator muses about what its function or purpose might be, that was really just me reminding myself to figure that out at some point. After our protagonist tries to contact his wife and fails, in light of everything he’s been through, a little bit of self-destruction felt inevitable, and suddenly you’re in one of those rare instances where you realize that this is why you asked the question in the first place, so that you could do that work here and now, in this moment. I usually have a good amount of a story worked out before I sit down to write, but those little bursts of discovery, where the answer comes from the thing you didn’t know until you came to that exact point on the page — there’s nothing like that feeling. Your hair starts to vibrate. Your fingers twitch against the keys. That’s the good stuff, right there. That’s why we do this.
Lastly, can you tell us a secret that went into the making of a story, or the book?
I don’t know if this qualifies as a secret, but there are some things you don’t notice about your writing until you combine all your stories together into a book. For example, I didn’t realize until we were deep into editing that at least five of the eleven stories in the collection feature one or more characters vomiting, which strikes me as kind of a lot. I don’t know what that says about me (nothing, I hope), but it’s certainly something I’m aware of now. Also, I’ve been doing this thing recently where I’m trying to find ways to love words that I hate, and “barf” is one of them. It’s such a gross, juvenile word, but I’m coming around to its charm.
How do you feel about ending this interview on the underappreciated charm of the word “barf”?
That sounds about right to me.
Find out more about Andreasen’s work at michaelandreasen.net.
Inez Tan is a fiction writer and poet based in Singapore and California. Her writing has appeared in Rattle, The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of California, Irvine. Find out more at ineztan.com or on Tumblr the-end-of-art.tumblr.com.