We have to skillfully protect and defend people Trump has terrified, which means having a little bit of spine and calling bullshit when we see it.
Tréy Sager on moral relativism, the Odyssey as a prescriptive text, and resisting categorization alongside Fifty Shades of Gray.
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Fires of Siberia is a romance novel that features a character based on Michele Bachmann. Promoted as an “old-fashioned bodice ripper,” it’s the most recent addition to the Badlands Unlimited roster, which includes Calvin Tompkins’s interviews with Marcel Duchamp and On Democracy by Saddam Hussein. The author is Tréy Sager, also known as Trey Sager, who, when not coining yet another euphemism for snowbound cunnilingus, is a fiction writer, editor at Fence, and author of two chapbooks of poetry—Dear Failures and O New York, both with Ugly Duckling Presse. We met in the West Village to drink beer and peck at fried potatoes while talking about his most recent project. Trey was fresh from the media storm that had greeted Fires in the days surrounding its release, and our conversation verged on giddy as we spoke about the cognitive dissonance the novel was eliciting, compared notes about the temptations of writing fiction for a poet, and dissected the art of simulating sex with words.
Anna Moschovakis When you first told me you were writing this book, I understood there was a didactic impulse behind it on the part of the publisher, Paul Chan—as opposed to good, clean, ironic entertainment or some kind of multivalent institutional critique. Is there a purpose to this book?
Tréy Sager Well, I don’t want to speak for Paul, but in one of our early conversations he talked about wanting to help people figure out how to live in the world. We talked about the Odysseyand how it’s more or less a manual on how to behave at other people’s homes. I don’t pretend to know how to live life, even my own life, so Fires was never going to be overly prescriptive in that manner, like in a follow-this-path or everybody-should-just-have-sex-all-the-time kind of way. Although maybe everyone should just have sex all the time, I probably believe that … . Anyway, it’s woven in there. So yes, Fires is a morally relative, non-prescriptive prescription in some ways.
AM It’s interesting to look at this in terms of the epic, as an epic as manual for living. Usually in epics there is a hovering potentate—a god (or gods) or government whose power is being re-inscribed in every line. In Fires, the power might be the American ideal of individual will. The Danielle Powers character moves from self-ignorance and a kind of powerlessness—despite her political position and her surname—to self-knowledge and empowerment, both sexual and professional. Do you think this is a feminist novel with a kind of second-wave feminist agenda? Does Danielle Powers own a speculum?
TS Yes, I think of it as feminist. Hopefully the fact that she starts out running for president and then transforms into this existentially realized person makes the feminist perspective interesting. In other words, she’s on the cusp of becoming the most powerful person in the world, but she abandons that goal in part because society is empty patriarchal junk.
Incidentally, I discovered that speculum is based on a Latin word for mirror, and in the book Danielle has to contend with the Array of Mirrors—a Blackwater-like company. So maybe there’s some subconscious ghost language at play too.
AM I love that you came up with that name: Array of Mirrors. Until the government’s PRISMprogram came to light, it would have seemed like an evil entity that could only exist in a comic book or genre novel.
But back to the idea of the instruction manual. It makes me think about what Alain de Botton calls ethical porn—which is, from what I understand, a type of pornography that reifies self-esteem-building ideas of consensual, fantasy-positive sex. I’m thinking this might already exist in certain iterations of the romance novel. You weren’t an aficionado of the genre before embarking on this project. How much research did you do? Did you learn and follow a formula?
TS I did do research about the arcs and archetypes of a romance novel. That’s when I discovered that some people consider romance novels feminist territory, which made me way more enthusiastic about the project. I didn’t anticipate how qualitatively different romance novels were from general erotica or even pornography, which is really about their respective audiences and speaks to gendered attitudes toward sex.
Romance novels create deep emotional connections. They’re often about the slow build, the courtship, and stolen glances, whereas pornography offers a perfunctory innuendo and that’s the entire passageway to sex. For me, the sex in Fires needed to be explosive and weird, but also affirming. “Consensual” and “fantasy-positive” feel like connected adjectives, though I don’t know enough about ethical porn to comment much.
I’m a longtime admirer of D.H. Lawrence, so I reread Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Also, I used the framework of the hero’s journey for the trajectory of the story, and I never knew what that was previously. Probably the most research I did was about romance novel language, which I found on Internet sites rife with synonyms for breasts. Also the Romance Writer’s Phrase Book. That book was less helpful than I thought it’d be, but I did consult it from time to time.
AM You do unleash a lot of figurative language. In some scenes, I had to work to create the image of the actual bodies and activities you describe without the metaphors getting in the way—literally, like I’d see a tender button sitting on top of Danielle’s clitoris. It’s tempting to make a grand statement about what’s missing from contemporary literary fiction, but I can’t really back that up. Still, reading Fires made me acutely aware of how little of this exuberant use of metaphor and simile I’m used to encountering. What was it like, as a writer, letting loose like this?
TS I wanted the language to have a lot of velocity but feel claustrophobic at the same time—the way you’re in a few different places when you’re having sex. Also, I think the sex is sometimes more psychological than literal, so of course that lends itself to associative and sometimes figurative language. I have been accused in the past of gilding the lily, and this was a way of hitting the gas instead of tapping the brakes. It was great to have total permission, which is why I find fiction so appealing.
AM Yes, I’m curious about your genre-hopping. For many years you primarily wrote poetry. More recently, you’ve moved into writing fiction and memoir. How has writing this book affected what you do in other genres? Do you still write poetry?
TS I’ll probably need a while to unlearn a lot of the ecstaticisms. Right now I’m working on a short story about a poet who has writer’s block, and he goes out to visit a neighbor who is planting mums in her garden. So he returns to his lawn and digs a hole in the backyard, then plants himself in it. It’s kind of inspired by a Paul McCarthy exhibit I saw in Los Angeles many years ago where these two businessmen are having sex with the forest.
AM I totally want to read that. You’ve said publicly that you don’t agree with Michele Bachmann’s politics but that you respect her. What do you respect about her?
TS Well, it’s complicated for anyone to sort out how they feel about Michele Bachmann. Everything I know about her is from media reports about the incendiary things she’s said or done, like being imprisoned in a bathroom by a lesbian. But the woman ran for president of the United States of America! That’s f’ing courageous! We live in a man-in-power society, and I’m not even someone who thinks having any president is a good idea. But she’s denigrated so intensely. Maybe I’m sensitive to that. I mean, look what they did to her on the cover ofNewsweek. To me she’s sympathetic. It’s hard to be a woman.
AM It’s hard to be a man, too: I’m curious about the character of Steadman Bass, the male hero/anti-hero of the story. You seem to be trying to make the reader—via Danielle—fall for a person who is, among his many charming qualities, a liar, a control freak, and a stalker. Did you base Steadman on anyone? What were the challenges of building his character?
TS Well, it was hard to write about myself like that. (laughter) No, Steadman was loosely modeled after the woodsman in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the god Shiva, and the deckhand in Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away—the Italian film, not Madonna’s remake. After I wrote the first draft, my friends told me that Steadman was too inexplicably raw, and that it was hard to understand his motivations. So I fleshed out his backstory, which is a bit heavy on the Oedipal but hopefully works. He’s someone who lives in the margins, like a trickster, someone opposite of Danielle. Swept Away helped me with that. It’s a class battle—a Marxist vs. Capitalist love struggle. Anyway, I felt like Steadman needed to be really opposite of Danielle, a major counterpoint to her life and her involvement with civilization—Shiva vs. Vishnu.
AM I’ve never seen Swept Away, but I found myself thinking about Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and two brilliant responses to it—Ali Fear Eats the Soul and Far from Heaven. In all three films, different as they are, a woman falls for a man in a comparatively less powerful position in society, and I think that difference is meant to be, at least in part, figured as authenticity or true emotional connection. (It’s interesting that in both Far from Heaven andFires of Siberia, the cuckolded husband is also beset with sexual desires forbidden by the mainstream of their times.) Anyway, these films also lend themselves to didactic readings, and when you bring up Marxism it makes me wonder about the relationship of this book to propaganda—which also speaks to your earlier comment about the Odyssey. But let’s move on.
Next question, perhaps somewhat related: Is there an ideal reader for Fires of Siberia? Or are there distinct sets of readers from whom you expect and desire distinct reactions?
TS No, I don’t think there’s an ideal reader, or I hope there isn’t. It’s like the Madagascarmovies—there are a lot of levels to the jokes, but even if you get all of them, you’re not experiencing the movie at the level of a five-year-old, for whom Madagascar is probably so extreme and astonishing. My hope is that a lot of people can experience Fires in many different ways. I know it sounds flip to mention Madagascar, but I think it actually explains things better than some high-low story, because I often find high-low debate to be cynical.
AM I was struck by how the early mainstream media attention to the book completely ignored any art-world cred it might have as a result of its publishing platform. I saw a lot of “a Fifty Shades of Grey for Michele Bachmann,” without much discussion of whether or how this book might differ from standard romance-novel fare. Has this surprised you? Was there a specific goal in terms of the publicity that you and Badlands sought, and was your marketing geared toward that goal? I guess one way to word this question is: Was this whole thing a publicity stunt?
TS It’s been super weird and fun to watch the coverage metastasize over such a short period of time. We didn’t introduce the idea of Fifty Shades at all. I haven’t even read Fifty Shades, but supposedly there’s a lot of BDSM in it. It’s crazy to me how people are titillated slightly and then immediately foist that kind of sex into the world of Michele Bachmann. That cracks me up. Or maybe Fifty Shades just has so much pop-culture currency, I don’t know.
It might be worth mentioning that the idea for the heroine in Fires didn’t exactly originate with Michele Bachmann. It started with me thinking about a character who was a master, or near-master, of civilization, and thinking about separating her from that life to explore a non-civilized way of being with another person—sort of the most basic survival society possible. What was important in that world? What is happiness and love? Michele Bachmann just seemed to dovetail with what I was reading about heroine behavior. Thinking about her interest in governing the body—as in abortion and Christian moral codes—and after a long conversation with Paul … well, it made a lot of sense.
AM When I read Fires, I assumed a lot of Danielle’s backstory was actually Bachmann’s, until you set me straight. For instance, I totally bought the idea that her rabidly emotional anti-abortion stance originated in her discovery that she’d been an unwanted child. Call me gullible.
One of the laments of the mainstream liberal media has been, for a while, that Republicans know how to keep on message while Democrats are unable or unwilling to compromise on their more nuanced view of reality. Whether or not this view holds, there seems to be some engagement with it here. At the end, Danielle learns to appreciate that life is full of contradictions: “She’d spent forty-four years trying to eradicate them and now she saw paradox as life’s essential ingredient. It was the very backbone of her existence, now that she’d fallen completely in love with her stalker.”
In fact, Danielle sheds her hardline conservatism and becomes a moral relativist, basically as soon as she has the chance. Later, she takes her political career into her own hands, and the slogan she chooses is “This Is Real.”
TS I admit that it’s a stretch for her to shrug off god and politics so fast. But there’s no one for her to control in Siberia, except herself. Everyone in her campaign dies in that horrific plane explosion. She’s in shock. Transformation becomes a critical component of her survival. As for her campaign slogan, thank you for mentioning it. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of.
AM So at the end of the book, you have Danielle in discussions about setting up a “temporary autonomous zone.” Besides being an in-joke to readers familiar with T.A.Z., is there a way in which this is pretty much what you’ve created for the characters with the plotline, which sets both Danielle and Steadman free from the shackles of their lives and from those who want to control their self-conceptions? Is this movement, from the embrace of complacency to the discovery of paradox to the claiming of autonomy … something like the moral of the story?
TS Yeah, they have to find a middle path between Danielle becoming president of the United States and their isolation in Siberia. At the end of the book, they’re basically seceding from theU.S. on a glacier in Montana. It seemed like a logical progression from their experience, and maybe that’s something prescriptive after all.
AM Why the pseudonym?
TS The accent was maybe Paul’s idea. I can’t remember. On a blog post someone said my name must be fake because it meant “very wise” in French, which is funny because I am extremely wise, if nothing else. (laughter)
AM Do you think this book is A) avant-garde, B) subversive, C) uncategorizable, D) a joke, or none or all of the above?
TS The term avant-garde sort of fizzled for me after I heard what John Ashbery said about how people go to graduate school to learn how to be avant-garde. The book is definitely not a joke. I think it does resist categorization, but that’s what I want it to do.
AM What kind of reaction did you expect, and what has surprised you?
TS Like most people, I’ve grown accustomed to no one giving a shit—that is, other than other artists in our communities, friends, et cetera. So everything has been a crazy surprise. I sometimes worry that people think we’re just having a laugh. The book is fun and funny, I hope. But it wouldn’t have been worth writing if it were just for laughs.
AM Have you heard from Michele Bachmann’s people?
TS No, though Badlands has reached out to them.
AM Would you call the book A) optimistic, B) pessimistic, C) realistic, D) nihilistic, or none or all of the above?
TS Optimistic nihilism.
AM What were you going for in all those sex scenes?
For more on Tréy Sager’s Fires of Siberia, visit the Badlands Unlimited website.
Anna Moschovakis is a writer and translator as well as an editor at Ugly Duckling Presse.
We have to skillfully protect and defend people Trump has terrified, which means having a little bit of spine and calling bullshit when we see it.