Fuck, I should probably write some of that, too, an interview with: Maggie Siebert
Bonding is selling like hot cakes being kept warm on an electric chair
The bonding the characters do in the eponymous short story that Maggie Siebert’s debut short story collection takes as its title is something like the bonding between Oedipus and Laius. The mood is imbued with the crimson and dread of Abraham and Isaac marching up the mountain. The fear and trembling, though, is never assuaged by a happy ending. In Maggie’s stories, you can’t tap your heels together to make a nightmare disappear. Bonding—out on Expat Press now—is unflinching. It’s violent; it’s disgusting; it goes for the jugular, slashes it, and stands silently, fixed on the blood emptying out.
The book is often shocking. What isn’t shocking is Maggie’s love for movies. That’s because these despicable/delectable tales often wriggle alive like a reel of film being made real through light and motion. If Netflix was brave enough, it would adapt the collection into a miniseries. But fuck Netflix tho. Maggie’s work matters too much to be fed to the content machine. Read the stories themselves and then read this: some ranting from me and some insight from Maggie that includes why spoilers are dumb, Italian exploitation cinema, and which alt-lit presses are hot.
Me: How’s Brooklyn been treating you so far?
Maggie: It’s been great. I live across the street from the Tea Factory in Bushwick, which is not ideal because this horrible band plays every weekend and they’re just the fucking worst. Apart from that, I really love it. I’ve always wanted to live here. It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a kid. It’s everything I wanted it to be.
Me: The way I do this, I don’t set up any questions beforehand. I don’t want to be stiff and rigid and have a list of hyper-specific things to ask you. I just wanna roll with it and see what comes up naturally. I usually compare it to Freudian therapy.
Maggie: Oh shit, that sounds great
Me: Something that’s really on my mind right now is that I’m doing a reading tomorrow and I’m like fucking terrified. Do you get nervous?
Maggie: [laughs] You know…I...First of all, where is your reading?
Me: It’s at KGB Bar.
Maggie: Oh sick. Who else is reading?
Me: It’s gonna be Shy Watson. My friend, Alisha Wexler. I think this is her first reading as well. And then another friend of mine, Amelia Gillis who’s a poet.
Maggie: Shy read at [the Expat and Short Flight/Long Drive event] and she was great. I think Alisha knows Manny [Marrero] at Expat. As far as getting nervous, prior to getting really deeply invested in writing as the thing that I do, I was in a bunch of bands. There’s only so many bands in Montana so you end up performing multiple times a week some weeks. I’m reasonably OK in front of a crowd of people. It doesn’t stress me out as much as it used to. But obviously, you want to get a drink in you or something beforehand.
Me: The bar opens at 7 and my plan is to be on the stairs at 7:01.
Maggie: You’ll do great. You’re gonna kill it. The vibe is so nice there
Me: I haven’t done—sorry, I don’t mean to make this interview about me—but I’m really on edge about it.
Maggie: It’s one of those things where as soon as you get the first paragraph out and people aren’t pelting you with vegetables, you know you’re gonna get through it.
Me: You worked on this book Bonding for two years, is that correct?
Maggie: I guess that’s kind of a misnomer. I say that because there are stories in here that I’ve been toying with since college so I guess even longer than that really. The vast majority of the work of actually assembling a manuscript and rewriting the shorter flash pieces was done right around the outset of Covid. I was unemployed and I had nothing but time. In the year prior to that, I had started really seriously writing a bunch of flash and short short fiction. A lot of that was then compiled into a zine I put out last January. I think of it all as one continuous deluge of working on shit.
Me: Is flash fiction the work that you’re drawn to the most as a reader? Did you choose it because it’s concise? What was the thinking there?
Maggie: Honestly, it was a practicality thing. Before all this, I was a journalism student. I had a degree and did journalism semi-professionally. And there was a journalist who I knew who started a website called Trashworld that I think is no longer active. But he said he had trouble running it on his own and he asked me if I wanted to take up handling submissions with him. But before that he said, “If you have any flash that you want to run, let me know.” So I just cranked out a couple of pieces to put on the site. It was a mode I hadn’t worked in much. I really like guys like Henri Michaux and people who write prose poetry and flash in that way. But it was never something I particularly had a lot of interest in until then. Now, I don’t obviously write that way much anymore. I think there’s only one flash piece in the book. But I still think it’s a really cool medium. I like how concise and bullshit-free it often is out of necessity.
Me: How did you go from journalism to writing fiction? Was that always the trajectory?
Maggie: No. I grew up writing a lot of fiction as a kid. That was the thing I always wanted to do. And at some point as a precocious high schooler, I was like, “I’ll never make a career doing that. I have to make a career out of something more practical, like journalism” (which is a fucking laugh). I did journalism school for four years and I worked at some newspapers. I came to the conclusion at the end of it that I kind of fucking hated it. It wasn’t what I liked about writing. So I just gave up the dream and drifted for a little bit in terms of what I wanted my quote-unquote “artistic project” to be. By happenstance, I met Manny at Expat and Anthony Dragonetti and people like that and was like, “Oh, there’s people who do this and it’s just a world I haven’t really interacted with.” But it was instantly compelling and I got into it really fast. It was just like I wasn’t one day and then I was.
Me: How did you come across Expat?
Maggie: I know a bunch of people who were doing fiction/autofiction type stuff that were in my periphery through Twitter and whatnot. There was a while where I was trying really hard to force myself to get into theory. I was hanging out with a lot of Deleuzian-type guys and people like that. I tried to write some of that myself because I thought it was really interesting as a way into fiction but I kept wanting to write fiction. I honestly couldn't even tell you how some of these people came into my periphery. I think I saw Expat people tweeting funny things and followed them cause I liked their outlook. And then I was reading their short fiction and was like, “Fuck, I should probably write some of that, too.” It was really seamless and natural. Everybody that I met happened to be so welcoming and kind and supportive and encouraging that there was no reason not to.
Me: Expat is at the vanguard these days. Are there any other presses that you think are really shooting for the moon right now?
Maggie: That’s kind of the thing: There’s so many, y’know? I like Inside the Castle. I think that’s amazing amazing amazing stuff that I sometimes can’t even wrap my brain around logistically to read. But I love what they do. I love Schism Press. A guy named Gary Shipley runs that, who’s an incredible writer. And they put out some total brain fuckery. Back Patio [Press] puts out really good stuff. Apocalypse Party puts out really cool stuff. There’s so many to name.
Me: I’m starting to look at all these different presses and read as much as I can but I’m not a very fast reader; I’m a very methodical reader. I’m trying to become invested. I’m asking you this question, honestly, to do the lazy man’s version of research, which is getting recommendations.
Maggie: Give me five books that you like and I’ll try and tailor these recommendations a bit.
Me: Good question. Let me pull up my Goodreads. Right now, I have very few pages left of the poetry collection Crush by Richard Siken. I think that’s really phenomenal. I really liked The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima.
Maggie: That’s one of my favorite books, ever. I love that book.
Me: Another that I liked a little while ago—I don’t know how many people our age read John Cheever, but I read Bullet Park and I thought that was just incredible. I read Don Lellilo’s Libra and I thought that was incredible. I like Ling Ma’s Severance a lot.
Maggie: Some of these, I haven’t read. But I’m picking up what you’re putting out for sure. Have you fucked with Amphetamine Sulfate?
Me: As a drug?
Maggie: Maybe as a drug. They’re a press. Their thing is they only do physicals and that’s it. They don’t do eBooks or Amazon or anything. They put out really gorgeous physical editions and then these nice looking chapbooks. There’s a novel called Alone by Thomas Moore that I think was the first thing I read this year and it just absolutely blew me away. It’s about a very specific time and place in the gay psyche written in really sharp ultra concise prose and I just have to recommend that book to everybody because it honestly knocked me on my ass.
Me: That’s high praise. I feel like I should and return it. I haven’t finished Bonding. I was trying to work my way through it but I’m moving. It’s been really fucking rotten/chaotic time but this one [story] “Amon,” that fucked me up. I had to keep reading it. It reminded me of the darkest stories in Raymond Carver catalogue where it’s just like “OK, we’re drinking beer; we’re having a good time. Oh, we’re stoning women to death now? That was not where I expected this to go, but holy shit. Here we are now. I have to sit with this.” I don’t think I read anything for the rest of the day after reading “Amon.”
Maggie: I’m so tickled you picked up on the Raymond Carver thing. That’s not something I can even consider but I remember him being a really formative author for me. I think I picked him up for the first time in high school. What’s the name of the collection that has “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”? Or whatever it’s called in it. [Ed: It’s called “Everything Must Go”; “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is a story by Joyce Carol Oates.]
Me: Is that Will You Please Be Quiet Please?
Maggie: They made a Will Ferrell movie.
Me: Will You Please Be Quiet Please? or What We Talk About When We Talk About Love?
Maggie: What We Talk About When We Talk About...Yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember, when I read that, being really struck by how much desperation he was able to portray in really stripped-back prose and I think being able to get to the heart of those really horrific human emotions, it’s something that you couldn’t want to emulate that enough. I’m touched that you thought of that.
Me: I think he’s worth reading, always. There’s always a lesson to be learned from his prose. Even if there are some accusations that his prose is not really his own. It’s not even a controversy really but I think The New Yorker or maybe it was Harper’s [Ed: The New Yorker] printed an original copy of before Gordon Lish did the edits on it and it’s like, “Oh, wow, very different.”
Maggie: Isn’t that so much of the process, tho?
Me: Yeah, why not?
Maggie: If I didn’t have people like Elle [Nash] and Anthony [Dragonetti] and my friend B.R. Yeager as well—had those people not had their fingerprints on the book—I don’t think I would have been anywhere nearly as happy with it. I like to think of writing as a semi-community process or at the very least editing.
Me: I think writing is a very lonely, painstaking, personal process and editing takes a village.
Me: I feel like you’re dealing with a genre here that I’m not even very familiar with. I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole it in any way but these [stories] seem to me like horror stories. There’s something dreadful about each one of them. You really exemplify the Hitchcock quote where he says, “Surprise is when you’re watching a movie and a bomb goes off. Suspense is when you’re watching two people have a conversation and the camera shows you that the bomb is ticking underneath the table.” There’s this sense when I’m reading you that I have to keep going.
Maggie: I love that quote. I think it’s interesting that you bring up Hitchcock because so much of my understanding of my own sensibilities, as far as it comes to pacing and general structure, is informed by film. I don’t think it’s at all incorrect to say that I’m trying to work in the mode of horror. I jokingly like to think to myself that what I’m writing is straight pulp horror. That’s the stuff that I tend to be most influenced by. I have a great love for exploitation cinema and Giallo movies and all that crap. In addition to that, I have a great love for the horror novel and horror short fiction. Tales from the Crypt and all of that. My goal is to take high-concept plot-driven ideas where I can essentially summarize what is happening plot-wise in a log line or a sentence. I also try to strip the affect from it and present those situations as horficially as they presumably would feel if they really occurred.
Me: Yeah. But I felt like affect was part of the “Best Friends” story. Maybe not to the fullest degree. There was a sense of body-horror but you didn’t linger on it. It’s not a gradual process like in Cronenberg’s The Fly or anything like that. The whole time I’ve been reading this, the thing I’ve been thinking is, “There’s no way Maggie isn’t a film nerd.” Exploitation films. What are your favorites?
Maggie: My big love this year has been the Emanuelle movies. Idk if you’ve seen any of those but it initially started as a French series of sex films about a titular Emanuelle getting into all sorts of sexcapades. But there was an unauthorized Italian spinoff series during the golden era of unauthorized Italian films about a different version of the character Emmanuelle who would wind up in these horrific sexcapades. The one that I really love the most out of all of them is Emmanuel in America. She comes from overseas to be a photojournalist and then keeps having sex with people. Then, she stumbles across a snuff film ring. It’s a lot of things like that but for all the horrific content they are so bright and fun. The films are full of the best music you’ve ever heard. I have a great love of those movies in particular right now.
Me: How much of your process involves cheaply ripping people and things off?
Maggie: I love that question. I’d say it’s 50/50. The genesis of these stories usually come from some personal anxiety that I’m trying to grapple with in some way. I also definitely find myself doing things like watching a movie or reading a book and being really enamored with the concept, but disappointed by the execution and thinking like, “OK, how can I spin this into something else?” Sometimes I do that with my own stuff. There’s a story in Bonding called “Smells” about a woman with really bad breath. I had originally written that as a 300-400 word flash piece and I thought it was OK. But I went back and was like, “I can take this concept further than I did.” So I went back and poached that and rewrote it. It’s hard for me to say. My brain is just like a torrent of all my influences at any given time that it’s hard to be definitive.
Me: I think the reason there are so many bad poets is because not enough of the people writing poetry read poetry. If you’re out there absorbing influences and even ripping them off to a 50 percent capacity but if you’re eclipsing them in execution, you deserve the credit. Did Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone or did he just make a better one than all the losers out there?
Maggie: I 100 percent agree. Not just engaging with art but engaging with it seriously is the most important thing you can do as an artist. I really feel like you have to be able to engage in critical dialogues with yourself about the things that you consume and enjoy to be able to make really successful art.
Me: What were you reading while you were putting all this together (refining, writing, whatever)?
Maggie: I got a fair amount of reading done last year, but I watched a lot more movies than I read books. I really took the getting steady unemployment checks and not having to work and staying indoors all the time to heart. I spent a lot of time engaging with art of all kinds. In terms of books that I was really taken with at the time, I was reading this incredible book called Hunchback ‘88 by Christopher Norris who was actually nice enough to blurb Bonding. It is an extremely loose onslaught of the most horrific slasher film-esque imagery you’ve read in your life. It’s so impressive and frightening and unsettling and everything. It’s not how I write at all either. I could never in a million years write in such an abstracted kind of way. But the imagery and the things that it invoked in me was like, “Wow, these are feelings I would love to chase in my own writing in a different way.” Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts, too, was huge. That book is the fucking “Great American Novel” as far as I’m concerned. And Blood Meridian. Those are the three, I would say.
Me: Cormac McCarthy?
Maggie: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. That book is divinely inspired. It’s something else entirely.
Me: Have you ever seen the movie Ms .45?
Maggie: Ahh, I fuckin’ love that movie. It’s so good.
Me: Yeah, idk, I was thinking about that at some point when you were talking to me. Idk what it was but it just seemed like, “If Maggie hasn’t seen this, Maggie would like this.”
Maggie: That was the first Abel Fererra movie I had ever seen. It’s the premiere rape-and-revenge movie. It’s so stylish and cool. And what a lead. She’s [Zoë Lund] incredible in that movie. I need to watch Ms .45 again.
Me: I saw it—idk how enmeshed you are in New York culture yet so I don’t mean to condescend at all—but are you familiar with theater Metrograph?
Maggie: I’m glad you bring this up. I feel like I lost essentially the first half of this year to Covid bullshit. And so I know the people who I knew prior to moving here but I have been, in the last month or so in particular, really actively trying to figure out where to find the film people. I came across Spectacle, which seems like it does cool stuff. And I came across Film Noir [Cinema] in Greenpoint. But those are the only theaters I know about besides fuckin’ Alamo Drafthouse. What is Metrograph?
Me: Metrograph is great. It’s in the Lower East Side. I think it’s on Ludlow Street. They have really excellent programming and really nice restored whatever millimeter films. Idk. I’d call myself a film person to the extent that I like to watch movies and think about them critically, but I’m not a snob. Most of the stuff that I like is bad comedies and exploitation horror movies and big-budget movies that are fuckin’ weird and outliers. Last summer I did this experiment where I tried, every day, to watch a movie that came out exclusively in the year 1980 and write a review about it.
Maggie: Ooh, what was the best one?
Me: That’s a good question. The truth is there were some movies I had already seen 25 times. The Shining was probably the best one that came out that year but as far as the ones that were new to me… Kagemusha directed by Akira Kurosawa. He did Seven Samurai. It’s this three-hour epic about feudal Japan. I’m not really into that genre of sweeping shots of scenery and lots of silence between dialogue, very moody, whatever. I indscrimantly used Letterboxd to watch any movie that came out in 1980, I would just go down the list. If I hadn’t seen it, I’d watch it. I watched 30 of them. The reason I did it that way was because I didn’t want to allow my inherent biases of, “I don’t want to watch a foreign movie, I don’t want to watch a movie that’s longer than an hour and 40 minutes, I don’t want to watch this or that or the other thing.” I would say, “OK, too fucking bad. We’re watching this movie.”
Maggie: I love that. I love doing little exercises with myself as far as like pushing your own boundaries. That’s so important. I haven’t seen too much Kurosawa, admittedly. I think I’ve only seen Throne of Blood, which is his Macbeth adaptation. It didn’t totally titillate me but his craftsmanship is undeniable. There’s so many different things you can pull from art beyond enjoying it so I like that philosophy and that approach to art.
Me: I’ll give you a few more. The ones I gave four and a half stars were: Paul Schrader, American Gigolo. This really surprised me: Urban Cowboy, the movie with John Travolta. I thought it was gonna be really stupid and then I was like, “You know what? There’s substance here. These are characters who you care about.”
Maggie: He’s got that je ne sais quoi, too. We think of him as maybe a little washed up and sad now but God, Travolta was a star. He had real charisma.
Me: Travolta was a star. You’re so right. I also really liked Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to recreate the same experiment with 1981. One of the few things I watched from 1981 so far was another De Palma movie, Blow Out—John Travolta stars. I’m not attracted to men but John Travolta is mesmerizing.
Maggie: That was peak era for him. The dude looked good. Blow Out  and Blow-Up , whichever one is which, one is a riff on the other one, I haven’t seen either of them. But I feel like I know all of the plot points just cause of how it’s been absorbed culturally and referenced in other things. But you bringing this up is making me think I should probably watch Blow-Up.
Me: I wanna push back at that. This is something I write about in one of the reviews. I think it was Urban Cowboy, which is that I had come to it convinced I knew the whole movie. I was like, “What is this going to show me that I don’t already know?” And I read this essay from The New York Review of Books from 1986 by the Italian author Italo Calvino called something like, “Why Do We Read the Classics?” and there’s this one line in where he’s like—I’m paraphrasing here—but he’s like, “When presented with the classics we start off thinking we know what it’s about. But what makes them the classics is they knock you off your feet.” You’re not prepared for what they actually have to say. You know the broad outlines but you don’t know the fine details and the fine details are what makes or breaks anything.
Maggie: I would absolutely agree with that. I think about this a lot in relation to my constant annoyance with concern over spoiler alerts because I think that presupposes that the absolute height of any work is its raw narrative when there are so many different elements of any given work of art, but especially film. I think you’re absolutely correct that you could go in and theoretically know the entire plot, but with a filmmaker as visually arresting as De Palma, somebody who’s throwing every trick in the book at you, there’s so much more beyond the narrative to appreciate. If anybody understands the form of cinema, it’s gotta be De Palma.
Me: Yeah. He’s definitely someone who goes into the theater with a notebook. To what you just said, I think West Side Story is stunning. It’s so not cool but it is. Then 1996 Romeo + Juliet, that movie fucking sucks.
Maggie: Yeah, absolutely.
Me: Nobody goes to that movie and is like, “What’s this all about? Never heard about Romeo and Juliet before. What? Do they end up happy together?”
Maggie: [Romeo + Juliet] strips all the beauty out of it. It strips all the nuance out of it. It throws bombast and spectacle at you, which is not the appeal of the original work.
Me: I don’t want to keep pushing the recorder too far because it’s gonna take me all this time to transcribe, but is there anything about Bonding, you, about whatever that the people out there who are going to read this need to know?
Maggie: I really feel as if it’s beyond me at this point. I finished it. I can’t change it. People are going to take from it what they will. I have been really overwhelmed by the response to it. People have been very nice about it. I expected to sell 75 copies to my friends and then be done with it. I can’t think of anything that would help contextualize it. I just feel like it’s not my thing anymore. As most art becomes.