Michael Fink is a writer, actor and visual artist who lives in Marina, California. He has been intermittantly involved in theater, radio, music and writing for much of his life, recently adding graphic art and photography to the list. Originally The Found Diary was posted in full online, but has since been removed. Short excerpts can now be accessed HERE and and audio excerpt HERE. He is currently adapting the novel for radio.
When I think of serial novels, I come up with Charles Dickens, his Pickwick Papers, Oliver and many others. But recently Slate presented an online “real time” serial novel by Walter Kim entitled The Unbinding. Meghan O’Rourke claimed that it was “the first time a prominent novelist has published a genuine Net Novel.” This is arguable. There was, for example, The Plant, a novel presented online by Stephen King, although I understand it was something of a bomb. But O’Rourke states that a “genuine” net novel is “one that takes advantage of, and draws inspiration from, the capacities of the Internet.” Presumably, she is referring to an online novel employing all the linkage, bells and whistles that one can use online. I’m not sure why that would make an online novel any more “genuine” than any other; but in any case, I’ve never read an entire novel online before, mainly because I never thought that it could hold my attention. Believe me, I’ve tried. However, The Found Diary of Avery Alexander Myer held my attention, and kept me interested and puzzled all the way to its surprise ending.
Aside from its fascinating storyline, The Found Diary interests me because it’s a long narrative presented on the internet in an age when, arguably, the internet itself has shortened the attention spans of many readers, including those of the so-called “millenial generation,” born when fast-paced, ever-changing global technology seems increasingly to be the matrix of our lives. Many of us still rely on the comforts of the printed page. My experience in teaching, however, suggests that an increasing number of people don’t even have the patience to finish reading a whole novel in print. What, then, can engage our attention long enough, nowadays, to read a whole novel online? Perhaps a special feel for writing that stimulates the sensorium and memory. The author addresses some of these issues in this interview.
Jean Vengua: Michael, I was surprised to learn that this is your first novel, partly because your writing voice seems pretty well developed. Why did you decide to publish it in its entirety online?
Michael Fink: Thank you for the compliment. I should point out right at the beginning that when I started the Found Diary (as I’ve come to abbreviate it) it was never my intention to write a novel. While I had a strong idea where the story needed to go, I was a little unclear on how long it would take to get there. Trust me, when I totaled up the word count I was as surprised as anybody at the final number, which was about 48,000. As I will elaborate upon later, I wrote the Found Diary in stages, as if it were indeed a diary. So in effect I was writing a serial novel, with each part (or Entry, as they were called) being posted online as I finished them. To answer your question, then, I published it online in part to keep me honest, as it were; to encourage me to write what I knew was probably going to be my longest work yet. If I knew people were expecting the next part, that would be a goad to writing it. This mostly worked. However, there was a long stretch after the 99th Entry where I left it alone, due to growing real life concerns. I fully knew even then that I would finish it, but finding that place again required external events to reach a level. When they did, over half of a year later, I completed the story.
JV: The story really had me going for awhile. For about one-third of the novel, I really thought it might end up being a play off of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but I was wrong. You have a distinctive writing voice: very 21st century in some ways, but with a 19th century sense of self-possession and attention to detail. Do you count Poe or any other 19th century authors as an influence?
MF: Upon reflection, I would have to agree that Poe is an influence, albeit a subtle one. Poe had a cadence that I would be hard pressed to emulate, but he also had a baroque sensibility that, in a way, bubbled out from “Avery’s” fictional pen. This wordy, expressive style was a deliberate attempt on my part to carry across my hero’s character. The novel, after all, was written in first person: a difficult perspective to communicate external or objective details, by definition. If [I]were to point to any 19th Century author as a prominent wellspring for my writing style, however, I think it would be Lewis Carroll. In his way he could be as dark as Poe; a Hallowe’en-themed reading of mine a few years ago included not one but two pieces from Carroll: “Jabberwocky” and his grim, absurd and grossly overlooked “The Hunting of the Snark”, subtitled “An Agony in Eight Fits.” His writing more often than not contained an inky black layer subtending a skin of bemusing nonsense and disarming symbols, but it was assuredly there, even in his “Alice” works. Too many Americans are only familiar with the damnable Disney version of Alice in Wonderland, unfortunately. Other late 19th and early 20th Century authors that may have influenced my writing include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft.
JV: And as for 20th century writers, perhaps Roger Zelazny?
MF: That is an interesting comparison. I have never set my writing next to the Big Z’s, but I can see where you get that. My reading of Zelazny’s work occurred entirely during my childhood, so it might have been a fundamental influence and I would not even know it. My core writing style draws inspiration from Tom Robbins, Nick Bantock, Douglas Adams, Edward Gorey and probably Nicholson Baker. The Found Diary, on the other hand, owes a great deal to several other authors in addition: the ubiquitous Neil Gaiman for his particular take on the Hero’s Journey, Barbara Hodgson for a modern example of the mysterious-diary-as-novel, and most particularly Rand Miller for the setting’s inspiration.
JV: These are all writers who exercise their powers of visualization in really interesting ways, whether it’s in their approach to detail, literally working with images, creating interactive realities (games), or sort of voyeuristically allowing us into the minds of their characters through the device of diaries and letters. I think The Found Diary works as purely text, but I also know that you are a visual artist; so do you have other plans for taking this beyond text and into image?
MF: I do, indeed. In fact, I have already done a fair amount of work in that direction. I designed and animated the icon that represents the story on Livejournal, the site that presently hosts it (I enlisted the help of a more experienced designer to reduce the memory size of the icon). I also hired a man to be a photographic model for the novel’s hero. We spent about two hours in a couple of different locations to provide material for later digital manipulations, which I have yet to do. I would like a good, sizable “splash-page” style graphic to use as promotional art. I also plan to design a logo for the same purpose.
JV: Can you tell me a little about your writing process for this story? I understand that it was a little unusual.
MF: It was unusual for a novelist, yes. It gets back to the fact that I wrote it as a serial, for all intents and purposes. I would post each part right after they were written, only allowing myself to go back to them to correct unwanted spelling and grammatical errors (as opposed to the wanted ones, which I used to indicate my hero’s state of mind). What I did not do was alter details of the story itself, even if doing so would have solved some narrative problems down the road. If I had suddenly discovered, for instance, that a plot point hinged on the hero having a firearm in Entry 47, I had better have allowed for that detail earlier in the story already, or I had some serious tap dancing to do, authorially speaking. In other words, it required what comic book writers have to do all of the time. Not being one, though, made that fact a cold comfort. Interestingly, (to me, anyway), my previous experience telling semi-improvised stories to small audiences helped considerably during those points where tap dancing was, in fact, necessary. It also gave me an edge when it came to ending an Entry on a cliffhanger, incidentally.
JV: But I can see how writing serially in this way would require a good memory. And in a way, your narrative is all about mnemonics, about remembering detail and keeping one’s wits despite the dangers of an ever-shifting world (or worlds). In that sense, it’s very contemporary; and yet there are aspects to the narrative that are so strongly allegorical in a way that’s almost medieval. It seems to me that allegory really under girds the whole novel. Is that something you were aware of, or that you tried to cultivate? Or did it just arise naturally out of your writing process?
MF: “Memory” is a theme that crops up repeatedly in my work. Even my digital art occasionally addresses it, with images of distorted or obscured faces, or holes where familiar objects should be. My personal relationship with memory is tumultuous. It provides the thematic energy for much of my writing. From some of my earliest poems as an adult to even the zany office comedy I wrote for radio a few years back, the consequences of recollection (or of forgetting) show up time and again. The Found Diary is no exception. Indeed, it presents my most pointed thoughts on the subject. Other sources of energy I draw upon for my art include eroticism and the desire to explore bizarre new environments. The former was sparingly placed in the novel, the latter I indulged in to my heart’s content. As for allegory (and here I am treading carefully lest I run the risk of giving away too much to those who have yet to read it), I will say that the story in its entirety was not designed as allegory, but I certainly intended particular elements to act in that manner. It could be argued that I ran extended commentary on religious symbolism, as well as the nature of power. In large part it depends on how literally the reader chooses to take the hero’s transformation. That is a question I deliberately left standing in the dark. It is up to the reader to invite it into the light. After all, the story is called the “Found Diary” for a reason — by the end, it calls into question just who the reader is.
JV: Eroticism comes up overtly in the novel, but briefly. And yet, it’s also present in a more diffuse way because the protagonist is always thrown back on his physical and intellectual senses throughout; it’s a very physical and sensory narrative, and the protagonist is constantly attending to his physical state. And the fact that the reader’s identity is questioned at the end and is even addressed personally seems like a gesture toward interactiveness…
MF: You’ve touched on the difference, to me, of eroticism and sensuality. The erotic element appears in the story both externally (punctuated in Avery’s environment) as well as within the fictional author’s writing about his life. Both elements are infrequent, but noteworthy when they appear. On the other hand, there is a strong sensual style throughout the entire story, as you noted. This was important to include in order to ground the reader; to counteract the equally strong sense of surrealism, or “fantastic disconnection” that can be a narrative danger in this genre. The problem with vivid unreality is the risk of losing the reader to the ether. A writer needs some sort of ground to keep a sense of tension within such a story. My solution, in part, was to continually remind the reader of the visceral side of Avery’s identity. As a human he has basic needs he ignores at his peril. Additionally, the hero is a physically unremarkable man in his fifties. I couldn’t have him do extraordinary feats of survival without equally dire consequences, or it would have been a strain on believability. If he climbs, he risks a fall. If he bleeds, he risks infection. If he cannot find food…
JV: This may be getting a bit personal, but can you just say a little about your “tumultuous” relationship with memory? It seems important if it provides, as you say, much of the “thematic energy” of your writing.
MF: I’m going to be cagey and let my work speak for itself, but I will offer this: both my sister and I have some seemingly physical, perhaps biochemical disconnections where memory is concerned, albeit in different ways. In my case, one example is poor visual recollection, particularly with people. I would have been one of the few saps actually fooled by Clark Kent’s disguise! I cannot form a mental image of people, even those I have known for over a decade. However, my head for facts and trivia is more accurate than most, while my musical memory is exceptional.
JV: Memory and speech are closely linked…and you mentioned earlier that you are working on a radio script for The Found Diary. Can you say something about that? For example, how would one translate a novel into a script for radio?
MF: With difficulty! Seriously, there are many consideration in the transition from novel to radio play. Fortunately, one of the main ones is made much easier by the fact that the story is in first person. One of the qualities of radio, as opposed to a visual medium, is that everything needs to be explicitly described by a character or narrator, or it does not exist. This can make for some clunky language (“Bob! Is that a gun in your hand?”), trapping many novice scriptwriters. In the Found Diary, however, my hero is already describing everything. So I will take the diary idea and change it from a written diary to an audio journal via the device of a digital recorder. There are other concerns, however, and I can only hope I am up to the task. Some examples: the letter matrices in the story will need to be abstracted or dropped altogether; I’ll need to provide a sound for the code key, among many other things (including recording all of the environmental ambiance); making the language sound like something a man would say, rather than what he would write, etc.
JV: It seems as though you are exploring at least several different sensory realms with this novel. It’s been great having this talk with you. Finally, do you have any other writing or creative projects cooking?
MF: While the radio show is multidisciplinary and exceedingly involved, I am currently also working on a photographic commission, a poetry submission for a local lit paper, and portraying a recurring character on a Bay Area “Creature Feature” -esque television show. I recently had a graphic art submission accepted to the Human Pixel Project.