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Maggie Siebert On: Hyper-morality, Transgressive Fiction, Her Collection “Bonding,” and Why She Chose to Make it Available for Free Via Twitter photo

I got my hands on Maggie Siebert’s short story collection, Bonding, when she posted on twitter that she was looking for people interested in reviewing the collection. I had already tried ordering the collection from Expat Press only to discover that it was sold out, so I jumped at the chance to get my hands on a copy. Bonding has since sold out a second time and Siebert recently made the collection available for free via Twitter for those unable to get a copy either because of demand or lack of funds.

Honestly, it is no surprise that Bonding has met “unprecedented” demand. Siebert is a masterful writer whose ability to practice restraint in the face of chaos is enviable. The collection is reminiscent of Brian Evenson’s Fugue State and Paul Temblay’s Growing Things. My favorite story in the collection, “Ammon,” is written entirely in character testimonials that convey a story of childhood friendship that feels seeped in satanic imagery and anxiety. The story employs elements of magical realism and fantasy, yet it is easy to make the connection between the story’s fantastic events and modern-day morality crusaders mobbing the internet with performative social goodness.

Siebert’s writing feels like a mirror depicting images you might not be keen at looking into. She regularly backs her characters into impossible situations where they are forced to make decisions that transcend logic and are rooted in the primal experience of being human. On the surface, her character's actions often appear grotesque, immoral, or bizarre, but because she renders their motivations and what they’re up against so clearly, the gore never comes across as gratuitous. It always feels necessary - relatable even. Part of what is so haunting about this collection is that no matter what sort of moral high ground you might think you stand on - she makes it clear that we are all one situation away from being brought to our most basic impulses.

I spoke with Maggie via email about Bonding, morality, transgressive literature, and Magic the Gathering.

Shelby Hinte: First off, congrats again the publication of Bonding. The collection feels so deliberate and even though the stories range in style and content they feel so essential to one another as though each one is working to reinforce a particular reality. Can you talk a little bit about how this book came to be? Did you set out to write a short story collection from the beginning or was there a single story (set of stories) that compelled you to write a book?

Maggie Siebert: Thank you so much! Writing a book has been the dream since I was probably 5 or 6 years old. In 2019 I started writing fiction in earnest after years of fits and starts in college writing workshops and on a now-defunct blog I used to operate. I wrote flash versions of some of the stories that appear in this collection (“Smells” and “Every Day for the Rest of Your Life” in particular) and got decent responses. In early 2020 I published a zine called Pulverization, and my initial plan was to write a new collection of flash pieces like the ones in there. I ultimately found the early efforts to be kind of insubstantial, so I went back and rewrote all of the zine material save for one story from the ground up. Then I went back and rewrote everything else I’d published in various online lit mags. It was really fulfilling to feel confident enough to hash out some of these worlds a little more. 

SH: These stories feel a bit hard to categorize in the way that stories (especially the earlier works) by Ben Marcus or Paul Tremblay are hard to categorize. Your work definitely feels seeped in horror and sci-fi, but they never come off as "genre(y)" (is that a word?) - they feel much more literary (whatever that means) than genre writing, which often feels a bit formulaic and plot heavy. What are some of your influences and did you have a particular genre in mind when you set out to write these stories?

MS: I am a huge lover of genre fiction, warts and all, and really believe it’s one of the most vital art forms. While I understand what you mean about certain works that are guilty of being too on-the-nose, I think one could essentially make the same argument about much of what passes for contemporary literary fiction; really it’s just all about intent. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about my own conception of “horror” and how my work fits into that. The horror tradition is, to my mind, the richest literary field we have at our disposal, as it speaks most plainly to our worst impulses, thoughts, desires and anxieties. It’s a safer way for us to encounter the unknowable.

Artists who I think are particularly good at these things and who influence me are people like Brian Evenson, Dennis Cooper, Jim Thompson, Kathy Acker, Georges Bataille and Cormac McCarthy. I also tend to think about my stories through the lens of film, and directors like Philippe Grandrieux, Claire Denis, Todd Solondz, Jim Van Bebber and Lucio Fulci have been essential to my understanding of pacing, atmosphere and depicting brutality. 

SH: One element of sci-fi I saw in these stories that felt especially effective at creating tension and urgency was the way the world of each story unfolds simultaneously for the reader and the narrator. I'm especially thinking of Opportunities here, where the narrator never seems to know more than the reader and it feels like we (reader/writer) are learning how to navigate the world/story together. It reminded me of the way worldbuilding in sci-fi often happens in learning about the new world as the narrator does. Since the narrator in Opportunities seems at the brink of becoming unhinged (as many of the characters in the collection do), the effect was pretty visceral as a reader - like I could feel the chaos and stakes of the story as though they were happening to me. How do you get such close psychic distance to your characters? Do you have a process for this or is it just intuitive?

MS: I’m really glad the intended effect came across for you, that means a lot! I tend to write from experience, and so a lot of these stories are borne of personal anxieties. I have a sometimes extreme struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the sometimes reality-bending way one’s obsessions can warp memory and even present experience is something I tap into frequently. “Opportunities” for example was based on a frequent fear I experienced while driving back when I had a car — any time I ran over a bump, especially at night, the thought would enter my head that I had just unknowingly run over a child. I would sometimes be able to ignore it, but on days where my brain was already struggling I would sometimes get out of the car and examine the road and my vehicle for evidence that this happened. Then I would check the news the following day to see if there were hit-and-runs reported. All this for driving over a pothole. But the very idea that the possibility exists, even if it’s very remote, kept the fear going.

When I write these stories I tap into that thought spiral, and force my characters through the same ordeal, only to make their worst fears actually come true. Funnily enough, I discovered after writing a lot of these stories that this is actually a therapy technique for obsessives — writing out your fears and making the worst possible outcomes true. It doesn’t do a lot for me in that regard, but I at least feel like I’m coming from an authentic place. 

SH: I am so glad you mentioned Brian Evenson! This collection actually reminds me a lot of Fugue State in the way the stories often feel sort of dreamy and "reality" adjacent (though, thankfully, it never veers into that "it was all a dream" territory either). Even when the stories feel dreamy or fantastical, they also have a real grit to them. One of the most compelling elements of this collection to me is how fantasy and desire create fear. In the story Coping, the narrator gets to carry out her violent urges through a virtual simulation and even though she "felt like a freak," explaining her fantasies, the man facilitating the simulation comforts her by saying "People have restrained their desires for a millennia. . . we are now in a place where we can make space for ourselves to be uninhibited." It seems that becoming uninhibited is the danger here and throughout the book. Why do you think fear is so often rooted in lowered inhibitions and desire?

MS: I think it’s just difficult to confront one’s inner self generally. There’s a lot of tension inherent to trying to separate one’s “true” thoughts and desires from the stranger “intrusive” thoughts everyone experiences. It brings up all manner of uncomfortable questions: what does it mean that almost everyone experiences violent or destructive thoughts from time to time? Does that somehow imply that violence and aberration are inherent to the human experience? What are the implications of suppressing or ignoring them? If one sits and ruminates on those urges long enough it’s liable to drive you insane. Most people do not engage in the kinds of extreme behavior I tend to write about, but the potential to do so combined with the relative ease by which certain situations can bring out deviant or oppressive actions is frightening enough on its face. 

SH: This book explores a lot of transgressive topics, particularly around sex and violence, though I hesitate to use that word transgressive now because sometimes I think that nothing is a transgressive topic anymore. Maybe that's because I live in the bay area and it sometimes feels like anything goes in terms of desire/fantasy/morality/etc., but then I visit somewhere else (like the southwest where I'm from) and I'm like, oh shit, people really feel funny talking about certain things still and maybe it is apt to use that word. What are your thoughts on "transgressive fiction"? Do you think there are certain stories/topics that are difficult to get published?

MS: I really don’t like the term “transgressive.” I think it implies that there is a surface world where everyone abides by a certain set of norms and a parallel world where everyone violates them. One only needs to examine the major news events of the last five years or so to see that no such distinction really exists; “transgression” itself is the norm. Drug abuse, extreme violence, aberrant sexuality — these things are not restricted to the realm of strawman perverts and deviants. The “transgressive” label is a marketing fallacy that aims to sell works about artificially untouchable subjects to the kinds of people who want to experience those things without any of the danger inherent to truly doing so.

For me at least, it’s not about the actions my characters undertake so much as how they feel about them that’s interesting to me. I don’t think it’s terribly difficult to get any sort of content published these days, unless you’re aiming to have HarperCollins or another major publisher pick you up. (And Jesus, even hacks like Chuck Palahniuk got picked up by Norton back in the day.) There are so many niche presses and journals that specialize in work with upsetting themes that I think it’s patently ridiculous to say there’s no room for that kind of work anymore. Yes, many readers today are quite vocal about their sensitivity toward and objection to certain kinds of content, but that’s hardly a new development in literature. I do not think things are any more or less censorious now than they were twenty or thirty years ago. The benefit writers have today is that we’re able to find communities who want to engage with this kind of work with more ease than ever before. And sure, people who find the idea of writing about immorality grotesque can find your stuff just as easily, and can communicate their distaste for it to a huge audience. But that’s unfortunately the risk you run writing about dark stuff, and it always has been. Use the block button God gave you and keep probing the depths. 

SH: Similarly, how do you think the internet has shaped or changed the way people talk about things that were previously considered taboo?

MS: It’s simultaneously made us more and less prudish, I think. When you have access to all the world’s atrocities at your fingertips you often have to force yourself into thinking about things in a binary way to cope — men are evil/men are civilization’s godhead; kink is wicked/kink is always liberating and fulfilling; etc. I find myself doing it a lot. When you see the world’s injustices laid bare it forces you into a hypermoral mode of thinking that paints broad strokes with little room for nuance. Literally everyone is guilty of this to some extent. And at the same time, we’re forced to sublimate a lot of really awful shit just to get through the day; I don’t know anyone who hasn’t seen an ISIS beheading video or really horrific dash cam footage at this point. This onslaught of horrible information, combined with the urge we’re now conditioned to feel to air our thoughts publicly, leads to some pretty stupid ideas about what morality is and isn’t getting expressed. “How could you want to consume art about [xyz]?” is a rhetorical question I see asked a lot on social media. It is acceptable to listen to true crime podcasts that detail brutal acts of rape and murder but morally suspect to watch a fictitious film about those same themes. I think this attitude comes from a newish tendency toward treating the art we consume as an extension of ourselves, as means of creating taxonomical “types of people.” This is a really dangerous inclination that erases any possibility of exploring the ways in which people are categorically unclassifiable. We’re surrounded by violence and bloodshed and everyone thinks they’re engaging with it in the correct or morally upright way, when no such way exists. 

SH: I think you make a good point about morality and the ways people try to hide behind it or create an identity based on it as though what they believe/consume/endorse somehow determines their "righteousness." Your story Ammon does a really clever job at dealing with morality and its structure reads like testimony. As the community shares their interpretation of the events that took place with two young boys, their morality appears more and more performative. Can you talk a little bit about where this story came from and how you chose to structure it? 

MS: In short, I’d had an idea for a short story about a kid who spontaneously combusts for years that I couldn’t ever quite make work. Initially I tried to write it from the perspective of the victim’s friend, but it wasn’t coming out the way I wanted. I‘ve often thought that oral histories are often the best means of communicating complex or multifaceted events, and when I started writing it that way it just came right out. As for the actual content, most of it stems from my own childhood preoccupation with the apocalypse and mine and my siblings’ own histories of childhood illness. I was also directly inspired by my hometown’s Mormon population, although the religion the characters in ‘Ammon’ adhere to could realistically be any number of things. 

SH: These stories practice a lot of restraint. No matter how disordered the worlds of your characters appear, the stories always feel highly controlled. How do you find the balance between chaos and restraint?

MS: Balancing those is a big goal of mine so I’m glad you felt that way! I really learned the fundamentals of writing through journalism; I went to school for it and did it semi-professionally for many years. Really it’s just all about economy of words. I really try to scale back any “overwriting” that I catch myself doing. My friend and colleague at Expat Anthony Dragonetti has a similar background, (who actually published this collection’s title story back in the day!) and when editing a story suggested I eliminate most of my adverbs. That’s the best writing advice I’ve ever been given. I just want to portray the events that occur in my stories with as few frills as possible, I guess. 

SH: One thing that stood out to me about your work was how tender some of these stories are. It honestly feels a bit weird to describe your work in this way considering every story either involves violence or the threat of violence, but I really did experience a lot of tenderness reading these stories. I think this was especially true in Best Friend and Every Day for the Rest of Your Life - both of which deal with animals. The narrators of these stories seem so concerned with doing the "right thing" and not causing any harm, yet they also can't seem to avoid it. Do you see your work as tender? And what do you think the relationship between tenderness and violence is?

MS: I don’t necessarily think of it as “tender” myself although I understand and appreciate that perspective. I guess I just think there’s a lot of tragedy inherent to causing harm, even when it’s in reaction to harm you’ve experienced. A lot of my characters are in essence practicing self-harm, which in my own personal experience at least is a misguided attempt at a kind of atonement for one’s actions. I think more than tenderness I’m trying to convey the idea that hurt and heartbreak are inescapable, as much as we may want to believe that they aren’t when we’re at our best. I put characters in extraordinary situations in which there is no “correct” response because that’s just the way it is sometimes. And so I like to afford some sympathy in the text itself because oftentimes by the point in the story that it’s necessary things have already passed the point of reversibility. 

SH: I saw on Twitter that you are now offering Bonding for free via PDF. What led you to this decision? 

MS: Really I think all art should be freely available, but that’s a whole other thing. I did not write this book with any expectation of making money off it. It has already sold more copies than I ever expected it to. There are tons of people that I interact with online who do not have $18 to spend on a book plus shipping, and more still who don’t live in the US who get stuck with exorbitant shipping costs. And truth be told, when I was making $9/hour in college back home, there were many, many books I wouldn’t have read had I not found PDFs of them. I think the edition we put together at Expat is gorgeous, and worth owning for Sophia’s cover spread alone, but the financial barrier is one I know is insurmountable for many people. I just want ‘Bonding’ to find the people that will get it. This seems to be a great way of helping that along. 

SH: I admire your choice to provide free access to your art. I think you're right that access to art is an equity issue, but there is also an equity issue around how this country values creative labor. Most of the writers/artists I know (myself included) have to sustain multiple jobs to support their creative work. I read in another interview that you've also had to work many "shitty jobs" to pay rent, and in Bonding, many of the stories revolve around work, particularly labor that is mindless, demoralizing, and/or dangerous. Did you struggle making this decision to forfeit income from your writing?

MS: I guess I just don’t really see it that way. I still get royalties from any physical copies that sell, for instance, so it’s not like I’ve eliminated any chance of me making some residuals. I feel like ‘Bonding’ has been fairly appraised by the people who have read it thus far. I don’t like to think of my art as a commodity so I don’t think of the time I spend working as a means of supporting my writing habit; I work a day job to support my eating and shelter habit. In a perfect world, I would have those needs met and could spend my days writing. But the idea of making a “career” of writing fiction right now seems like an impossibility, if only because I have no interest in making the concessions one has to in order to make large press money. I have never worked a particularly glamorous job, nor do I expect to. Many of the jobs characters have in the book are ones I’ve held in real life, and I think work is one of the most horrific things we’ve forced on ourselves. I want to avoid making writing feel like work as much as possible. 

SH: Much of your work has been published in online journals and now your book exists publicly on the internet. The internet is also how I found your work (I love Expat which I discovered because it was referenced in other online lit journals I was reading). How do you think the internet has shaped/evolved writing?

MS: I mean, it’s kind of permanently changed the landscape, right? It’s completely shifted how we think about publishing, reading and writing. There are a billion new schools of thought about what literature should look like, read like, feel like, and a small press for each of them. What I can say for myself is that I wouldn’t have written this had I not met the Expat community, full stop. I’ve made life-changing friendships since meeting Manuel and Anthony and Elle and everyone else. If the trade-off is that I’m constantly getting in stupid arguments with people I disagree with then I’ll take it a billion times over. The point is your people are out there and they’re looking for you. Someone will understand what you want to achieve with your art and they may not even live in the same hemisphere as you. That’s more than worth the trouble. 

*Magic The Gathering Bonus Round!*

SH: If it isn't a total pain, would you mind a Magic the Gathering bonus round? I recently saw on twitter that you got a new deck for your birthday (happy belated btw and I am not a total cyber-stalker, but I do my research and am also new to twitter so I don't follow that many ppl yet, lol). If you're interested -

1. What deck do you play with? (I currently built a swamp-forest/zombie-elf deck that I'm obsessed with)

2. Do you play Commander? If so, who is your current commander?

MS: Literally not a pain in the slightest!!

1. I always play some sort of swamp + something deck. (Play me online if you do! I love swamp-forest decks they always have the craziest creatures.) Lately I’ve been having a ton of fun with swamp-island; it makes for a nice mix that mostly plays to my strengths (spamming instants and summoning tanks). Deathtouch is like essential for me. A friend of mine just sent me a bunch of vintage cards from around 2003-2005 and there seems to have been a lot of emphasis on ice monsters in swamp builds back then, so I’m thinking of building a new deck that’s all ice. We’ll see! 

2. Truth be told I have never played a game of Commander in my life. Not out of lack of interest, but more so due to the fact that I mostly play with one friend here. Now that the plague is semi-contained in NY though, I’m planning to start going to Friday Night Magic nights and I imagine I’ll have a Commander deck built before too long.