Richard Godwin interviewing Michael J. Solender at The Slaughterhouse, September 2010.
Michael Solender is known to everyone who visits A Twist Of Noir, where you can find many fine examples of his chiselled dark stories. If you don’t know what I mean check out ‘Seventy-two Hours Or Less’.
He worked for years in Corporate America as a Human Resources professional and is now giving worthy attention to his creative output that ranges from noir to music reviews. He is a consummate professional in his approach to writing and manages to achieve an edginess in his prose that is built on a carefully refined technique.
Michael met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about theatre and insects.
Your stories often contain detailed descriptions of physical processes and use the alien menace of insects to achieve their effect. Why do these two themes preoccupy you?
Process fascinates me. I like understanding how things work and how they are put together. When writing I like to create strong visuals. Sequence of actions and activities are important to me in developing scene and character. What I don’t do is describe motivation or purpose behind these actions or the why behind the process. I leave this for the reader to assign.
Early on as I started to get feedback on my pieces people shared with me all sorts of wild and way out theories behind what they thought was going on in my characters’ heads. Outlandish notions of why people did things, what they were thinking and what must be driving them. Stuff so out there that I could never have possibly imagined it.
I quickly came to realize the power that lies in what the reader brings to one’s work and how, if provided a template that was detailed enough, the reader would project all sorts of their own motivations, thoughts and emotions upon the framework that I laid out. That is what makes a story so satisfying for people, they bring their own sensibilities and experience to everything they read. People don’t want things so detailed that they can’t fill in some blanks on their own.
The same is said for insects or alien menace. These are blank canvases for people to project their own fears and insecurities upon. I try to be descriptive in terms of shape and form but don’t want to suggest what they mean to my characters or the readers. That is up for them to conjure up. The fear and horror of the individual reader will be far greater than anything I can assign. Why not let them do the hard part of frightening themselves?
In Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect and the story has been interpreted as a dramatisation of alienation. Imagine you are one of the readers you mention, what outlandish things do you see in insect tales and what do you find frightening?
I interpret Kafka’s Samsa as embodying more than alienation with the external world. Anyone who finds himself a monstrous vermin has in effect met the enemy and the enemy is he.
Who amongst us does not find the prospect of unlocking our core hidden self, our most base desires, peccadilloes and peculiarities as perhaps the most frightening and disgusting discoveries we can make? Exploring and enjoying behaviors and beliefs that conventional society finds abhorrent does not make for a well socialized citizen. Most of us can keep these in check.
I worked for many years with a behavioral psychologist who was a well researched expert in the field of psychological assessment. Large firms retained him to evaluate executive candidates for selection and promotion. He also did a fair amount of public sector work and evaluated law enforcement candidates.
He often spoke of the incredibly fine distinction between the psychological profiles of successful law enforcement personnel and sociopaths – the difference he said was very slight between people who thought about and were fascinated with non-normative desires and those who acted upon them.
My own fears are probably run of the mill and pedestrian. Wild animals, large or small frighten me upon initial discovery, especially if I don’t expect to see them.
I wrote a Halloween story a while back called Orange Dot. It was about a suburban couple who liked to take their morning walks through the neighborhood quite early before they day got going. This couple, like my wife and I, walked their neighborhood in the dark and were confronted by all sorts of things that bump in the night. Fear doesn’t appeal to the rational brain; it is only the irrational part of me that fears something will jump out of the woods to harm me.
The greatest fear I have is of drowning and the ocean. I used to be a very strong swimmer but have become a bit soft in my advancing years and a few years back my wife and I had a scare in Mexico after she got caught in the rip current. One moment she was right next to me and the next she was fifty yards away and trying to swim directly in, the worst thing you can do as it tires you out and pulls you under.
I ran along the shore line to the point where she was and swam out to get her, when I reached her she was exhausted, throwing up and almost drowning. I had her swim parallel to the shore, where I could keep her afloat, holding her hair tightly and swimming with her until we made it back in. It was the most afraid I have ever been, I really thought we were both goners.
Do you think that large corporations eliminate identity in their workers?
Work and self actualization are not mutually exclusive. A small number of individuals can find that their work is satisfying, innervating and perhaps even noble. I envy them. Most people I know work to live and definitely do not live to work.
I am afraid in my experience the overwhelming majority of people are trapped into careers and jobs that not only create an environment that stifles individual creativity and individual voice but goes further than identity elimination and can drain one’s very soul.
Large organizations are the worst because the infrastructures that are created become so cumbersome and institutionalized that it becomes almost impossible for those in power to recognize their inefficiencies and often, contrarian outcomes to stated corporate goals.
For almost thirty years I was an “organization development professional” much of the time for Fortune 500 corporations. I was often called upon by senior management to help shake things up, change the status quo and work with organization leaders in aligning their goals with those of the corporation.
It became a lesson in futility for me. I had the opportunity to interface with those on the frontline, who were rightfully distrustful of management and rarely asked for their input even though they interfaced directly with the customer. I also dealt with top executives who often didn’t trust the workers to think for themselves and prescribed everything down to the minutest actions.
Functional groups often had competing, not complimentary goals and reward systems. All this leads to work-arounds and self preservation, people end up abdicating their thought process and quit voicing their opinions. To protect what little sanity they have left, they take lane of least resistance and end up becoming a mindless droid, it is so much easier to do this than continually piss up a rope.
For me I could find pockets of change and success, though in the end the system is simply too powerful to be changed from the bottom up, even top down efforts only succeed less than twenty-five percent of the time. The average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO is less than five years, what does that say??
It indicates you are inside a power structure. To what extent do you think the basic tenets of power and rule advocated by Machiavelli in ‘The Prince’ apply today in the politics of big businesses and the way they are structured?
Machiavelli gets perhaps an undeserved bad rap as people are quick to forget, or don’t recognize that the time and place in which he lived was quite tumultuous and did not lend itself to democratic principles.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a guy I’d like to have over for dinner nor do I subscribe to the cruelties he advocated in the name of protecting the state, I just think we need to keep in mind that Florence at that period in history was quite chaotic and he was advocating tactics that could bring some sense of order to the chaos – not dissimilar to martial law or what we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Business is NOT a democracy and I never have advocated equal “voting rights” amongst workers and management. The Machiavellian “my way or the highway” management style is dead. The contemporary business leader understands conceptually that participatory management will lead to results more aligned with management outcomes than the stick.
The real problem, in my mind is not between management and the worker, it is between management and itself. Today’s organizations set up inherent competition between Marketing, Operations, Info Systems, and Finance etc. The mini-Machiavellis come in the shape of department heads who won’t play nice with their peers and/or act in the best interest of their functional groups even when that is at odds with the overall business goals. Ie: “I’m not going to give up headcount, even though I don’t need them and the dollars could be better used elsewhere. If I lose these headcount, I lose power…”
Which writers do you admire and why?
I’m drawn quite often to traditionalists and playwrights.
Theodore Dreiser is a classic American author who wrote my all time favorite book, An American Tragedy. The story is that of an ambitious young man who comes from very little means and a poor background, gets introduced to power, wealth and society and is ultimately ruined by betraying the values he was brought up with. It builds like a rambling freight train and leaves such a rich and lush trail of pain and devastation. Dreiser is a master at tapping into readers psyche and exposing rawness that we all can summon given the right framework. I reread this book every year and never tire of it.
David Mamet is a genius. No one writes better dialogue. Many have seen his plays, films and now television. I suggest they read the plays, Oleanna and Glengarry Glen Ross. Brilliant pitch, tone and fire. He is a masterful craftsman and uses talk overs, interruption and emotion better than anyone I know of.
Garrison Keillor is a native Minnesotan and someone I grew up reading and listening to on the radio. I have many times been to see The Prairie Home Companion in St. Paul. The man knows satire and is a fine, modern day Mark Twain. He is biting with his wit and spot on in his critiques. He is a frequent book reviewer for the New York Times and provides wonderful insight.
Jim Thompson is a classic noir writer and was one of the best pulp fiction writers going. Nothing More Than Murder is my favorite Thompson tome though he has tons of great work available including $.99 Kindle downloads of short stories. His earlier work is darker and draws heavily on his own alcoholic troubles.
I bought a Kindle for my wife but have commandeered it and am just starting to dedicate more time to novels as I have gotten away from reading as much as I would like, I need to make time and will, especially for the classics.
David Mamet’s dialogue is effective because it has complete authenticity within highly dramatised situations. Do you think his play ‘Oleanna’, which dramatises the power struggle between a male professor and his female student within a patriarchal power structure, works because of or in spite of this?
This is precisely the reason it is so effective. The male dominated power structure, particularly in the academic setting where this play takes place is firmly entrenched and the reader/audience brings with them an implicit understanding of the “rules of the game.”
That a younger and supposedly naïve student can completely turn this paradigm over upon its heels and use sexuality as a power device not only in the subtle context of a one on one relationship but in the larger societal context of abuse of power and authority makes the climax of this work so very powerful.
Athol Fugard is another playwright who is extremely effective in using this technique. Bar none the most incredible stage experience I ever was part of was witnessing Master Harold and The Boys, a story of power, subservience, race and societal convention. Like Mamet, Fugard is skilled at dialogue and can almost lull his readers into complacency with seemingly banal discourse then out of nowhere BAM, he socks you in the gut.
I was witness to one of those once in a lifetime theatrical events that had Mathew Broderick and James Earl Jones on stage in of all places the venerable Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Fugard is a contemporary Becket, his work stands alone and should be both read and experienced.
Samuel Beckett used a very different dramatic technique with dialogue that is stripped back and heavy use of symbolism. How do you think the effect of his writing differs from a playwright like Mamet?
This is spot on. What you are speaking of is the difference, the literary difference, between implicit and explicit.
Beckett, while not at all being coy, was metaphoric, obtuse and symbolic in much of what he wrote. Scholars to this day debate the meaning behind his classic Godot and he was famous for letting people interpret it however they chose.
Mamet is beyond direct – his dialogue is abrupt, clipped and completely in your face. There is no debate in what comes out of his characters mouths. The mystery comes in the next response or the reaction and series of reactions between antagonist and protagonist. Mamet employs an ingenious device in which he flips roles between strong and weak, antagonist and protagonist, male and female, seemingly at will. It is not random but very deliberate. Suspending a sense of control is required for engaging in Mamet’s work because it is precisely when you think you understand, you don’t.
With Beckett, you never understand, until you think you do and then you’re not sure.
They are both master head-fuckers.
The English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham, who inspired utilitarianism, designed a prison building called the Panopticon, which allowed an observer to observe all prisoners without them knowing they were being watched, as if they were under the scrutiny of an omniscience. Do you see any correlation between this and big business management, and if so could these power structures be the cause of much pathology in the work place?
Look, I’m not out to paint all business with a broad big-bother brushstroke, but people are naive to think that actions they take in their lives are anonymous and outside the purview of their employers.
The Wall Street Journal reported that over 70% of employers use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to background check candidates for employment. Most all large and even many small companies utilize screening software for email. People are naïve to think that personal data they maintain on work computers is safe from their employers view or is even in fact their data.
It’s too simplistic to reduce the Us vs. Them equation down to the little guy and the big-bad employer. The research and my own personal experience in the area of employee dissatisfaction shows the overwhelming majority of employees think of their boss as “management” – invariably workplace violence is between coworkers, colleagues and/or subordinates and bosses. It is not as random as one might believe.
There are contracts, implied and explicit we enter into when we work for an organization. The first and the most very basic is that individual freedoms are subordinated to the organization. People know this and for the most part are OK with it, they get compensation for this in exchange for their consent and labor they provide. Where employers start getting into trouble is in not recognizing where they have abusive management, believe me the signs are there whether in excessive turnover, employee complaints or a host of other signs that many employers choose to ignore. That’s when people start taking matters into their own hands and break the social contracts – usually with unproductive outcomes.
Thoreau felt strongly enough about slavery to go to prison, when he refused to pay tax because the revenues contributed to the support of slavery. In his work ‘Civil Disobedience’ he argues that people should not permit governments to overrule their consciences and he encourages people not to become acquiescent and enable governments to make them the agents of injustice, do you think he was right?
Morally he was right unquestionably. As a matter of practicality however, behaving outside of the laws of sovereignty where one is domiciled is problematic at best. I agree with his stand and advocacy for people to rise up not only against injustice but in all matters of government actions that don’t further the social agenda of the people.
When individual citizens decide that certain laws are unjust or taxes shouldn’t be paid or they should have three wives it gets very messy. This is called anarchy. The arguments Thoreau made at the time regarding morality and conscious are the same ones being made today by anti-abortionists. You see where I’m headed, I’m sure.
It is not simply a question of right and wrong it is by what standard, whose morals and ethics and how much room for compromise exists. This entire business about Quran burning is an example of those self righteous individuals who believe in their heart of hearts they are right. This does not make it so. Given the everyday divisiveness that exists in our society (re: Democrats and Republicans) it is no wonder that where religion, values and beliefs are involved, the “my-way-or-the-highway” school of thought seems to trump reason, logic and tolerance every time.
Gandhi had it right, you must change the system from within, demonstrate your civil disobedience in a nonviolent way, absorb the consequences of your actions and soldier on.
Do you think Cole Porter was a poet?
Porter was one of the very few Tin Pan Alley composers that was also a lyricist. He was most definitely a poet, a student of verse, meter and of course rhyme.
I’d sacrifice anything come what might / For the sake of havin’ you near / In spite of a warnin’ voice that comes in the night / And repeats, repeats in my ear: / Don’t you know, little fool, you never can win? / Use your mentality, wake up to reality. / But each time that I do just the thought of you / Makes me stop before I begin / ‘Cause I’ve got you under my skin.
One of my all time favorite stanzas. Absolutely LOVE the highlighted lyric.
When my wife and I honeymooned in New York City in 1992, we went to the Carlyle and saw Bobby Short. His entire repertoire was Cole Porter. He has long since passed but it was one of our all time favorite evenings.
I’m a sucker for romance.
For a sample of just a few of the many rewarding Michael Solender links, try these:
Michael’s blog ‘Not From Here Are You?’, affectionately known as ‘The NOT’, is here.
In addition to ‘Seventy-two Hours Or Less’ on ATON, here are some other good examples of Michael’s work: ‘Pewter Badge’ at Yellow Mama and ‘Bug Lady Audio’ at Cast Macabre. His essay ‘Unaffiliated’ will be published at blairpub.com in early October.