Interview with Maggie Siebert
March 24, 2021
MM) Coming from a multidisciplinary background and having such a broad palette of tastes in other mediums, it’s interesting to me that you have a book coming out (interesting for anyone). What made you gravitate toward the written word and stay for literature? Have you always been an avid book reader?
MS) Writing a book is the first thing I can remember really wanting to do. My grandmother, whom my mom and I lived with until I was 5 or so, was a voracious reader and had a house full of books. My mother was pretty cool about letting me read whatever I wanted, so I was exposed to a lot of grim stuff at an early age. I was experiencing early symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and was besieged by a gnawing anxiety pretty frequently. The only thing that spoke to me at the time was horror fiction. It’s a realm where people experience dread, foreboding and terror, and it helped personify the causes of those feelings, or at least made them more digestible. So I made the jump from RL Stine to Stephen King to Supervert to Dennis Cooper, (who writes horror novels in the same way Philippe Grandrieux makes horror movies). And all the while I was reading these things desiring first to match their extremity, and eventually to exceed it. My brain chemistry forces horrible images on me all day, so why not turn that into something? It doesn’t exactly help; I’m still afraid of the same things that inspired the stories in Bonding. But I at least feel confident exploring them.
MM) Your book’s milieux is often that of the working stiff. In “Messes” and “Smells” you inhabit in great detail these menial occupations adjacent to depravity.
MS) Throughout this book’s assembly I was pretty broke and miserable. There’s essentially nothing more humiliating than working a shitty job and struggling for money, and the things I’ve been willing to endure for a paycheck were already pretty horrific in and of themselves. In hindsight I’ve realized that a pretty significant portion of this book is devoted to exorcising the jobs I’ve hated most from my brain. The jobs my characters have are the material that skews closest to “autofiction” or whatever in this book. In “Messes” the narrator is a janitor at a gay sex club and is accosted by a hooded masturbator — most of the non-body horror material in that story happened to me. (I quit after one shift.) In “Smells” the narrator works as a telephone sales rep for shit money — I also did that. I cleaned someone’s opioid diarrhea explosion with paper towels and Windex when I worked at Sears. You devote so much of your life to places and people that treat you like garbage, and the sensory details of the things you endure so you can pay rent tend to stick out in my memory the most. Now I can just think of the stories I got out of them.
MM) In “Coping,” a relationship is autopsied via one ex-partner’s fantasies. What gave you the idea to cast romantic love this way? Typically, where do your ideas come from? Your book is very much a book of concepts and conceits. How did Bonding come to be? I’m always interested in the process of these stories finding themselves in one collection through iterations in other formats (online, a zine, etc.).
MS) I wanted to write a story that gets at the pain inherent to breakups that occur when the partnership simply stops working. That’s much harder to rationalize than a big explosive event like infidelity, and I think leads to more complex feelings that can make you feel like you’re losing your mind. I am pretty much always thinking about Zulawski’s Possession, and I love how that film portrays divorce as something so destructive it can turn people into monsters and murderers and summon abominations. I wanted to explore that idea from a very one-sided perspective. I also wanted to write a very flawed female protagonist; someone who is petty, vindictive and jealous, without demonizing her for having those qualities.
MM) The styles and voices on display here are all singularly you, and run the gamut from oral history to first person to third, to feminine, masculine, or unclear, and despite the intense solipsism, you write in an array with a very directorial, deliberate dialectic where many of us really write from one perspective and become one character in a work in a way. What attracted you to the oral history format to tell that story, for one?
MS) I don’t really spend a whole lot of time thinking about my characters beyond what they’re experiencing at that exact moment in the story. I like to introduce details only when they contextualize an emotion or response to something. Oral histories are interesting to me because there’s nothing to interpret but what the speaker said, (and I guess in a meta sense how it’s arranged). I wanted to write something that was exclusively dialogue, where the characters themselves tell the story directly to the reader. My goal was to convey their inner lives exclusively through how they present themselves, and all the contradictions inherent to that. I also have a great love of reading plays, and the concise way information that would be otherwise unknown to an audience is starkly conveyed by stage directions and character backgrounds.
MM) What is the significance of the intersection of cosmic horror/sci fi/futurism in your book? What about body horror and gore?
MS) Horror is just like the whole thing for me. It’s my first and greatest love. And when it comes to gore, there is really nothing better than feeling completely revolted by something you’ve read or seen. And it runs a huge spectrum; gore can be light and silly (like I attempt in “The Prime Minister”) or a day-ruiner (my goal for “Every Day for the Rest of Your Life”.) A lot of people have articulated their philosophical interest in dismemberment better than me, so I’ll keep it simple and say that I am just interested in bodies coming apart. There have been many times throughout my life where I was reminded of my own fragility and the abject fear of the inside coming out is probably the most relatable emotion. As for the future, I am interested in analyzing it insofar as I’m interested in (and constantly attacked by) fears about what it might look like.
MM) Lot of talk right now about mental illness, especially with respect to the socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic, and I wonder how this life-altering cataclysmic event informed your writing. Not only is much of your milieux post-apocalyptic, but the stories are of the mind, of mental instability.
MS) Pretty much every story except for “The Alumni Association” and “Coping” had a draft written prior to the pandemic. In one way, the pandemic was what finally got me to finally put a manuscript together. I was sitting around unemployed and receiving more money than I had ever made in my entire life in benefits. I have pretty bad asthma so I wasn’t exactly feeling the push to run out and get a service job. So I was financially secure and had endless free time at my disposal. I had just finished putting together a zine called Pulverization, and a while after printing it, I started hating every story that was in it and set out to rewrite all of them. The flipside was spending all my time indoors ruminating, which took a severe toll on my mental health. I was briefly hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital in Rhode Island only a few months prior, and I would have had a much better recovery were it not for the pandemic. But at least I got a book out of it.
MM) Do you believe in good and evil? God? Superstition? That sort of thing.
MS) I went to Catholic school for eight years, so I am obligated to believe in two out of three of those things. My conception of God is strange and personal and probably heretical so I don’t talk about it much.
MM) There’s a paranoia at play in stories like “The Alumni Association.” I’m reminded of Burroughs’ and PKD’s writing in this one almost, their preoccupation with multiplicitous agents of control. What’s your opinion of the US government? Your work isn’t ideological, but it resonates at a more universally oriented unease about human nature at the levers of power; power over others and also power over oneself, an increasingly idealized promise pimped out as desirable by dystopians.
MS) A huge swath of my favorite writing is deeply ideological in some way, but I no longer have any interest in articulating my own politics beyond “Marxist” because I am constantly at war with the person I was a week ago. That said, it is unfathomable to me that anyone could live here and not feel extremely paranoid at all times. The history of this nation is one of cronyism and conspiracy. Living here and seeing how the disenfranchised and oppressed are treated should make anyone with a conscience angry and fearful beyond reason. But I try to only let these feelings animate my work in the way they color my everyday life. I have no interest in critiquing capitalism or modernity or anything like that in my writing; merely amplifying the horror inherent to those things. It’s easy to forget the very obvious root causes of your disenfranchisement when you’re experiencing all of them in very slow motion.
MM) There’s a tenderness to this book, and gut punch after gut punch, a lot of affection buried in there juxtaposed with or fused together with horror. Much of it is from trauma having to do with family or relationships but your characters all seem to want the same thing I’m having trouble placing, and it’s a solipsistic thing. They’re alienated, they’re very literally often working through stuff, such as in “Messes,” though it’s obliquely presented in a way that is far from delimiting and completely universal. In “Every Day For the Rest of Your Life” the reader is implicated by the second person.
MS) There’s a lot of fear in being unsure of your place in the world, or feeling like your sense of self is in some way compromised. It’s interesting that you picked up on that. My own personal obsessive-compulsive tendencies usually involve being flooded with “what if?”-type questions. I will reaffirm to myself that “I’m not x.” and my brain instantly spits back “But what if you were Y?” There is an exercise therapists recommend for OCD sufferers where you write out your worst fears and obsessions in extreme, matter-of-fact detail, so as to strip them of their power. Extreme fear leaves you incredibly vulnerable, and my darkest moments are often borne of the fear of losing loved ones. There’s no way to convey that fear without first conveying the love.
MM) These stories mirror a kind of compulsion. They feel like picking at a scab, chasing some elusive conclusion or catharsis. They’re very existential in that they’re reckoning with an extant malaise and restless with the task. In a sense, the peduncles are flowering in real time as you read it, mirroring the whole process of loving this book into existence. What is resolved, in your view?
MS) What’s resolved is I can go back and tell ten-and-eleven-year-old Maggie, who read Stephen King’s On Writing probably two dozen times memorizing every piece of advice, that she actually did eventually move to New York and get a book published. None of the other stuff goes away; everything I pulled out of myself for this book went right back in as soon as the draft was done. You just trudge ahead.
MM) Which stylists, of the written word and artists in whatever medium, genres, aesthetics etc. influenced you?
MS) Aside from everyone aforementioned: Scott Walker, Jim Van Bebber, Kathy Acker, Jim Thompson, Buddy Giovinazzo, Kristin Hayter, John Wiese, Sam McKinlay, Georges Bataille, Maya Deren, Umberto Lenzi, Les Blank, Jordan Perkic, James Stinson and Gerald Donald, JG Ballard, Peter Greenaway, Thomas Ligotti, Jane DIESEL, David Wojnarowicz, Three 6 Mafia, Koji Shiraishi, B.R. Yeager, Yukio Mishima, Todd Solondz, Philippe Grandrieux, Anthony Dragonetti, Lucio Fulci, Brian Evenson, Henri Michaux, Patrick Tam Kar-Ming, Mikita Brottman, Matthew Stokoe and Josh “King Cobra” Saunders.
MM) What are you working on now/next? Where do you see yourself vis-a-vis your local scene and the global village?
MS) I have a million little plans in the works but nothing concrete yet. I will continue on my journey of attempting to create a piece of fiction with the worst vibes of all time. As for my place in the the broader writing community, I don’t know that I have one beyond trying my best to champion my friends and peers, who are the most talented artists I know.