January 6th, 2020

Interview with Mike Sauve

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[Mike Sauve's fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s and elsewhere, and his novels The Wraith of Skrellman, The Apocalypse of Lloyd, and I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore are available from Montag Press. His latest work is the non-fiction book, Who Authored the John Titor Legend? He is currently working on several exciting projects. We here at Mutable thought we'd sit down for a little virtual chat and find out what we could about the crevices of his working mind.]

 

What I am struck with in your work is the macabre playfulness. Would you like to talk about the relationship between comedy and pain in your writing?

 

As I respond to your questions, it is Christmas morn, and I have messaged several friends asking, “Know of any local bukkakes I might partake in?” This is not going to go over at my in-laws breakfast table, but to me it unearths something very vital: the vertex of all that Christmas is meant to mean with not only the lurid nature of the bukkake, but the logical extrapolation that:

 

1) Bukkakes are known to exist.
2) Since bukkakes are known to exist there must be men ever on the prowl for one.

 

As a lapsed journalist, I see little value in simply making ledger entries regarding the world’s immeasurable darkness. We know human’s heads have been stomped against curbs. We know people boil dogs alive to release an adrenaline they find flavourful. I’ve largely outgrown horror fiction as both a reader and as a writer because there isn’t a single thing Jack Ketchum or Stephen King might conceive of that anyone couldn’t find in the news were they motivated to look. And yet for me to write any alternative to the boiled dog reality results in platitudes that are worse than banal, they are insulting to the boiled dogs! Regardless, I must abide these platitudes. I must direct my feet to the sunny side of the street. I must live, laugh, and love to the extent I am capable. (I have gone calendar years without laughing aloud.) In this need for capital-P positivity, I find myself at the same sacred and profane vertex as the Christmas morning bukkake: taking a deep breath, practicing gratitude for my daily bread and NBA basketball and the more wholesome pornographic categories such as “nude breasts,” all while knowing perfectly well that the world is full of rotten old ragamuffins who needed to boil a dog alive rather than dead just so it would taste 5% more adrenaline-y or whatever. In other words, you got to laugh to keep from cryin’.

 

That being said, as I mature as a writer, I often remind myself of this maxim of Goethe’s,

 

Humor is one of the elements of genius—admirable as an adjunct; but as soon as It becomes dominant, only a surrogate for genius.

 

Let’s replace genius with something so tepid as even “works of merit” and follow that up with a similar sentiment of Rilke’s:

 

Irony: Do not let yourself be governed by it, especially not in uncreative moments. In creative moments try to make use of it as one more means of grasping life. Cleanly used, it too is clean, and one need not be ashamed of it; and if you feel you are getting too familiar with it, if you fear this growing intimacy with it, then turn to great and serious objects, before which it becomes small and helpless. Seek the depth of things: thither irony never descends—and when you come thus close to the edge of greatness, test out at the same time whether this ironic attitude springs from a necessity of your nature. For under the influence of serious things either it will fall from you (if it is something fortuitous), or else it will (if it really innately belongs to you) strengthen into a stern instrument and take its place in the series of tools with which you will have to shape your art.

 

I notice you are fond of Donald Barthelme. Could you describe your influences a bit?

 

To use his own phrase, I consider Bad Don B to be the purest invocation of “St. Hilarious, of whom we’ve seen too little lately.” Those outside the Wonkish classes are instinctually repelled by postmodern experimentalism because rarely-if-ever have they seen it executed in a fashion they might consider “entertaining.” Certainly I used to feel this way. With his saint-like hilariousness however, Barthelme, like Thomas Pynchon, reminds us that if anything is possible in the fictive realm, then why for Pete’s sake are we doing so little?

 

Beyond expanding the horizons of the subjunctive, for me Barthelme has done more than any other 20th century author towards advancing the following aims of the author as he described them:

 

1) To restore freshness to a much handled language
2) To find what might be called a “clean” language
3) To relieve the pressure on language from […] our devouring commercial culture—which results in a double impoverishment: theft of complexity from the reader, theft of the reader from the writer.

 

Pynchon called Barthelme “one of a handful of American authors there to make the rest of us look bad.” While Pynchon was being needlessly self-effacing, it does often feel like work to read labyrinthine works such as Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, whereas while Barthelme is no less significant, reading him feels entirely more recreational. At my highest aspiration, I strive towards the Barthelmesian by returning to the reader some of the complexity stolen from her by clickbait and marketing inventories, while doing so in a way that, to return to your first question, feels like having fun.

 

Another thing Goethe says is that, “I have dedicated my whole life to the people and their improvement.” That line happens to appear with a tossed-off grandiosity that is pure Barthelme in his story The New Music. And while he is likely poking fun at the phrase’s messianic chutzpah, I believe that’s exactly what Donald Barthelme accomplished in his 58-years on earth.

 

Going a bit further into How to Market Your Grief Blog, I’ve heard from readers of early drafts that it defies description and is ambitious beyond all scope. I was wondering if you could give a brief description for our readers. To what extent is the book about grief, and to what extent is it a book about marketing? Of course it’s about much more than either of these, but again, I’m not sure how deep you want to go into all that. What darknesses would you care to divulge that are explored within the pages of this book? What themes are being unraveled or revamped?

 

I have written two books about time travel: the fictional I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore and the non-fictional Who Authored the John Titor Legend? which is currently being adapted into an investigative television series. I had the grandiose idea to write a novel that dealt with issues of non-linear causality: a refutation of the “folk causality” that time’s arrow must obviously progress from past > present > future for the sole reason that we perceive it that way. These ideas have been addressed in fiction before, a fine example being H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time. And since Einstein, there’s been broad scientific acceptance that the present is as likely influenced by the future as it is by the past. This is demonstrably the case at the sub-atomic level. However, despite increasing validation from what the scholar Erik Larson called with trademark wit and wisdom “the always nebulizer of quantum physics,” this concept is largely confined to high-level theoretical discussion, probably because, as John Updike said of the Many World’s Interpretation, non-linear causation is “intellectually repulsive.”

 

While I could write such a work in an experimental stream of conscious, this would not return the gift of complexity to the readers I aspire to return that gift to. To concretize such an undertaking while making it readable for the broadest possible range of narrative sensibilities, I constructed the narrative as a series of dated blogs to establish a tangible linearity that could then be infringed upon by agents of nonlinearity.

 

The title, is of course, a joke: it is crass to market one’s grief blog. Ideally one should not blog of their grief in pursuit of traffic or remuneration. So while tackling plot elements as seemingly disparate as incest, artificial intelligence, Abrahamic certainty, the Swedenborgian model of hell, intercessory meditation, and nootropics, the tone itself is satirizing the “devouring commercial culture” of marketing, clickbait, and anything that makes language “unclean.”

 

If you’ll allow me a moment of intercessory zealotry: Bibliomancy refers to a process of using texts as diving rods. In its most literal definition, a book such as the Bible or Quran is allowed to fall open and a passage picked at random is deemed to have oracular import. On a more practical level, this process can simply involve encountering a precise passage of value at precisely the right moment. It can be conflated with a term as mundane as synchronicity. Throughout the composition of How to Market Your Grief Blog these synchronicities have reached a spookiness of Philip K. Dickian proportions. When I started writing a segment of the book concerned with theological interpretations of predestination, Calvinism, sempiternalism, divine foreknowledge, etc. I stepped out of a streetcar and the book Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views had been left, by itself, on the sidewalk. This is an abstruse academic text with a print run probably no larger than a hundred, and also the precise book I required at that precise moment.

 

Let me zealously restate this: I am writing a book concerned with how future forces unknowable may manifest the present. The texts required to do this justice are literally appearing before my feet as I step off the Dundas streetcar. This is but the most extreme of a dozen such coincidences. Less dramatically, it seems every passage I casually and causally flip to is absurdly rife with relevance. Of course, skeptically speaking, any wild-eyed old zealot consulting ontological texts may pareidoliacally perceive what’s found therein as fitting some grand pattern because by nature these texts are concerned with the grand scheme. But skeptical hand-wringing is the domain of the coward, so let me conclude another windy response thusly:

 

A hilarious bit of Barthelmismo involves two unnamed characters discussing their “contemplatin’” of “the mysteries.” While writing Grief Blog that’s become something of a personal motto. It seems if you contemplate the mysteries long enough the mysteries start contemplatin’ you. And while that might sound like a hoot, it is a rather unsettling and lonely position for an otherwise rational person to occupy—subject to the whims of something as credulity-defying as a Vast Active Living Information System, as Dick called it, in nascent contact with a Bloomian gnosis informed by all the books and all the records of a lifetime; trying to write your way out of what Robert Anton Wilson styled the “chapel perilous.”

 

I feel like you’re a ‘Man in Hole’ kind of writer. (You know, Kurt Vonnegut once famously said, “The story is ‘Man in Hole,’ but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.”) I feel like, in your work, your characters have fallen into holes they will never get out of. Is this true? Would you like to elaborate?

 

Most of my characters start out in holes that are so dark and disturbing that I fear they alienate conservative readers who may dismiss my novels as mere smut or the boiled dog nihilism discussed above. Unfortunately for me, only by beginning in the hole amidst the fester of the boiled dog carcass can any grace notes eventually achieved possess value for me. Otherwise it’s all platitudes. Otherwise it’s “live, laugh, love.” Otherwise it’s “don’t talk to momma until she’s had her wine/coffee/Netflix.”

 

If as you suggest, my characters fail to escape their holes, I would agree with Vonnegut that this is not the point. After all, there’s only one way to escape this collective hole we’re in. And that way is called voluntary exiting of the mortal coil—little number goes by the less cheery moniker of suicide. The reason your more unhinged and archon-obsessional gnostics refer to this world as “the prison planet” is because we are involuntarily confined to it. So if we’re all serving time in the boiled dog timeline anyway, in lieu of escape I will have my prisoners and narrators decorate their holes, hang some portraiture of Saint Hilarious, contemplate the mysteries, and laugh about the Christmas morning bukkake to keep from crying.

 

Your work is often very grounded in a place and an understanding of a place, whether it’s Sault Saint Marie or New York City. In an introduction to a collection of his short stories, Paul Bowles once said he wrote to remember the places he’s been. What’s the relationship between your work, your memories, and the places they inhabit?

 

Sault Ste. Marie is an isolated industrial town wherein interpersonal relationships were all we had to occupy our time. Drinking six packs on the golf course or the intricate ironies borne of insular living seemed all I’d ever need to be happy. When I left to attend university in Toronto, I hadn’t realized that big city culture would somehow spoil those small town pleasures for me. In those early days I resented Sault Ste. Marie for its backwards attitudes and dominance hierarchy built entirely on one’s OHL hockey trajectory. I lashed out against former friends, raising my middle finger on the town’s small dance floors, denigrating its total isolation from what I considered “the real world.” It wasn’t such a clean break however. As years passed, I continued to dream of those friends and that place almost nightly. I came to believe that if there is a multiverse accessible in dreams, then almost every other iteration of myself was still living happily in Sault Ste. Marie. By the time I was ready to do something about it, those friends had moved on to bigger and better cities themselves, and even the town had undergone a steep socioeconomic decline as a result of de-industrialization followed soon-after by the ravages of the opioid epidemic. As I wrote in The Wraith of Skrellman, “It is the intersection of both a time and a place that is lost.”

 

The three books in my Lac-Sainte-Catherine trilogy sought to reconcile these memories, to illustrate how something so quotidian as a happy and healthy adolescence could take up so much subconscious bandwidth. The paranormal elements allowed me to address this ineffable sense of loss: In Skrellman, a ghost tries to curate his legacy as former peers continue to enjoy themselves in his absence. In The Apocalypse of Lloyd, an apocalypse not of zombies but of a breakdown in logic and order addresses the futile nature of trying to redeem and relive disparate memories that have long since fled the scene of the crime. In I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore I brought a time travelling version of my self back to those bygone Sault Ste. Marie days to face head-on whatever felt so lost.

 

I am glad if the books evoke Sault Ste. Marie for readers unfamiliar with it. However, this was not my purpose in writing them. My goal was to go back and live there, in my head. To try to get a few more six packs in at the country club with the old gang, to hold a few more chubby Italian girls in the chilly football game evening, to visit the Husky Truck Stop for Christmas dinner instead of enjoying the bounteous spread my parents provided, because to eat something ridiculous like Chicken Parm at the Husky was a miracle of ironic understanding amongst the old gang that will never again exist in this world, so I can only pretend it does. The only artist I respect more than Donald Barthelme is Bob Dylan, who was so precociously wise that he wrote these words when he was only 22:

 

While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had

 

Could you tell me a little bit more about the The Many Fentanyl Addicted Wraiths of Sault Ste. Marie? What are you trying to achieve with these fentanyl addicted wraiths?

 

With that Lac-Sainte-Catherine trilogy completed I THOUGHT I had dealt with my myriad Sault Ste. Marie issues. Yet the dreams did not cease. I realized that to give that small northern Ontarian town at the banks of the St. Mary’s rapids the send-off it deserved, Lac-Saint-Catherine would need to shed its flimsy fiction suit and reveal itself as what it had always been: sad old Sault Ste. Marie.

 

The Many Fentanyl Addicted Wraiths of Sault Ste. Marie is a historical novel in which Sir Edward Henry Capp, real-life author of The Story of Baw-a-ting, being the annals of Sault Ste. Marie (1903) encourages a smart-alec overdose victim to update his history of their hometown to include the ravages wrought upon it by the pharmaceutical industry. Other wisecracking wraiths such as Ojibwe chief WauboJeeg, industrialist Sir Francis H. Clergue, and Purdue Pharmaceutical founder Mortimer Sackler weigh in on the tribulations of not just Sault Sainte Marie, but any small town decimated by opioids. Drawing on resources including Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic and the New Yorker article “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain”, the novel aims to humanize a few of the statistical figures robbed of life or loved ones by the Sacklers of the world.

 

The reason I returned to the wraith concept in general, is that my preferred perspective is to write in the first person. However, this can be very limiting. I get tired of being trapped in the one perspective. A wraith however can float around and observe all kinds of action, offering all the freedom of the omniscient perspective with the stylistic advantages of the first-person voice.

 

“All writing is autobiographical.” How much is that true for you? Or is it? Where is the place inside you that your writing comes from?

 

Friends who read my books tend to refer to my narrators as “you” when discussing the book with me, e.g., “That part where you attend the bukkake on Christmas morning was where I stopped reading, gross!” so I won’t fool anyone by claiming they aren’t largely biographical. And yet because the happenings are maximalist in nature (ghosts, apocalypse, time travel) no one mistakes them for straight reportage either. Also, as I plumb the depths of my limited biography, my writing has grown increasingly research-based. I admire the encyclopedic nature of Pynchon or David Foster Wallace, and I’ve come to realize you don’t have to possess encyclopedic knowledge to pull that off. You need an encyclopedia.