Mike and Rachel met in 2007 in the popular Northampton hangout “Hugo’s.” They were both friends with the charismatic Chris Cheney and all three were enrolled in the Umass-Amherst MFA program. One year Rachel lived with Cheney and a bunch of troubled cats. Mike lived really far away. The next year Rachel lived with Mike in a clean looking apartment (like repainted recently and tastefully and blandly) that they kept pretty messy. Then Rachel moved to a big polluted fancy loft space and Mike stayed in his collapsed book palace. Then they got their books (Pee On Water and We Are All Good if They Try Hard Enough) published by Publishing Genius as part of Publishing Genius’s ‘platonic friends publishing plan.’
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Rachel: Why didn’t we hang anything in our apartment?
Mike: hahaha i am not sure, i thought we did
we hung that poster behind the TV
i feel like there was at least one painting in our living room
Rachel: The ‘painting’ you are referring to, is this switch plate cover that my cousin made that was instead of a normal light switch cover.
Mike: ah yes!
that was it
Mike: hmm ok let me think of a question
ok here’s a question
often in your writing you are personifying random things, but the interesting thing to me is that you seem to personify everything toward the same character, a sort of shy teenager with shy teenaged feelings. do you consciously experience the world through personification (“the sun is being bashful today”) or is that something that arises in your attempt to interpret/convey/mimic/re-tell the world?
Rachel: Wait but the book is personified into an intellectual, in Magic Umbrella.
Mike: that’s true
i think i mean minor descriptive personification
Rachel: Oh… like on the sentence level?
Rachel: Give me some examples.
Mike: well like the ducks in pee on water
but i think i am thinking of even more minor things than that
let me see if i can find some
Rachel: Maybe I had most of my important ideas when I was a teenager and so when I make objects think, I give them these same teenager thoughts and feelings?
Mike: i guess what i am wondering the most is do you consciously experience the world through personification or is that part of the act of like re-seeing the world or telling the story of the world
i guess it is two separate things
the teenager thing being separate from a more general question about personification
Rachel: Part of me definitely does experience the world through personification, but a light glaze of personification. Like I enjoy having a messy room with my belongings in little piles on the floor (especially clothes, books, and then other things like a stray shoelace, or a medicine bottle, a roll of tape, a guitar) because they each have their own presence, and I don’t think of the presence as an animated one, but their visual existence presents an additional presence. I notice this more with found things, like litter, (seeing something you weren’t expecting) or when I am still (like being in the bathroom or sitting at a reading)
I think some of the teenaged aspects of my writing have to do with the fact that I really loved being a teenager in high school and then I went to art school which had its own rebellion and created culture and then I had a bunch of different part time jobs, and whether I’m an artist or a writer it places me with other people distracted and involved with art which can be an escape from a more adult point of view.. possibly.
Mike: i think it is good to escape adult perspectives because obviously part of being an adult is chasing after the world, accepting the world’s assignments and completing them instead of standing in one place thinking newly and fondly about the world and thinking of what to say to it
Rachel: When did you first think of the title for your book and under what circumstances?
Mike: yeah that is interesting about the seeing objects you don’t expect to see, the way strangers sometimes seem more like real people than people who are close to you because they have some version or idea of being a person that is new/surprising/exciting
you mean the poetry book?
Mike: hmm let me try to remember
i know i wrote that poem in late 2007
right after i got to umass
actually i feel like this isn’t a “cool” response but i wrote that during the obama/clinton primaries and i think initially the idea was to make fun of the sloganeering that went around, which felt especially weird because these two people were so similar competing against each other, so they had to tweak their differences in these maddening and absurdly subtle ways
and then i think i named the whole book that because i like how it’s linguistically such an impossible idea, it’s like a programming error or something, and i think it is part of some larger idea about me not trusting togetherness or finding togetherness mostly a rhetorical gesture or something
even though i really want to trust togetherness
Rachel: Good answer.
What were your first poems like?
When were they?
Mike: oh shit, i guess my first poems were in fourth grade maybe?
they rhymed and were very moralistic
i remember some poem about an elephant in a room
and it was this admonishment that no one saw the elephant in the room
and then there was another poem about how some people are lonely and unnoticed
and it was berating the reader for not noticing lonely people
i remember one poem with the lines “a wish / does it depend on what you wish for / or does it depend on you?”
i had an upbringing that encouraged intense moral self-righteousness
Rachel: I like what you wrote about your early poems.
Mike: people have a lot of opinions about your title. i remember you telling me you resolved to pretty much say “fuck it, i have wanted this title for years” and decided to ignore all the other opinions. can you talk about that resolve?
Rachel: I considered everyone’s opinion about the title Pee On Water, many people whose opinions I really respected, including my whole thesis committee, said the phrase did not sum up my work well, and others had said the phrase sounded immature or gross, and I got to a point where I realized that Pee On Water in other peoples ears sounded different than it did in mine, and that it sounded different in mine because I had been saying and thinking that phrase since 2006 when I started writing the story Pee On Water, and that phrase had taken on all this meaning, had come to represent this huge aspect of being human, but I started to realize that to someone who had never read the story it would just come out as immature and irrelevant to anything a story could be about. So I tried hard to find another title within the book. Each had its own problem, or its own group of people not liking it. Other titles I considered: “The Totems Are Grand,” “I don’t know Outer Space” and “Wear Fur, Have Babies, Catch Dogs” also “Stars smell huge”
Mike: i remember Stars Smell Huge, i liked that one
but i also remember talking about it with you and both of us ending up agreeing it was too twee
Rachel: What does twee mean again?
Mike: like that song five years time by noah and the whale
or zooey deschnel
pee on water is weirder and bolder than stars smell huge
Rachel: I’d have to go to youtube to hear those but I think I know. Yes, I agree. I had the title “Pee On Water” since 2006 and had been drawing little daydream doodles of book covers with that title, and it is my most epic story, and it seemed to suit the work in many ways and had a boldness and a weirdness to it. It felt like if I changed it, I was changing it because people didn’t like it.
Rachel: What are your dream jobs?
that is your next question
Mike: i would like to be the hunter s thompson of food writing, i want to be able to go to restaurants and have them give me free meals and then write reviews of those restaurants that are wild and mostly made up and then publish those reviews for $$ in stylish venues and get both free food and paychecks
Rachel: Good dream job. That seems possible.
like jay mcinery with his wine
i spelled his last name wrong
Rachel: Still haven’t read his second person book but I carry it along every time I move
yeah you did
Mike: i don’t like it
Rachel: I’ve never read him.
Mike: i think it’s boring as hell
Rachel: Everyone is “Eh”
Mike: bright lights big city?
MORE LIKE BRIGHT LIGHTS I FELL ASLEEP
What’s your dream job?
Rachel: My dream job is to design patterns for socks, sheets, or wallpaper. Or to write a series (like sitcom or drama) with a group of great people. Or also, I would like to write dance songs for Brittany Spears and others to sing and popularize.
Do you ever write by hand?
Mike: no i don’t, not anymore, an occasional jot or note here or there
but i think the rhythm of the stuff i write is very dictated by the tactility of the keyboard
like the start and stop of it
it’s like a bunch of little drum solos
i write by hand on airplanes and buses sometimes when my battery runs out
Mike: i know you really like(d) simcity, right? if you could write a story like or as good as a computer/video game, which game? i know you already wrote one really good story about the idea of video games in jon lennin experience, but what other game would have a cool structure to imitate or play with for a story?
Rachel: LEGEND OF ZELDA FOR SNES
or MARIO PAINT
Zelda is like the Old Testament to me
and Mario Paint is like liquid fun
and both of them employ my favorite video game occurrence, the game inside the game!
Rachel: You grew up in a small town, and you have been living in a small town and I think you also went to undergrad in a small town, how does this inspire/effect your writing?
Mike: i think living anywhere can start to feel like a small town. like you get into habits and schedules and routes and routines. but in a small town there is a sense of isolation and repetition in a different sense, like there is a sense that you can’t slip into a new rhythm. i feel like there is a dwelling on stuff that happens in small towns that tends to come out in the writing, and of course the mythology is going to be different. like i am going to mythologize train tracks and canneries and bars called the meat barn. a few days ago when i called my mother asking what christmas presents i should buy people, she said that a local madcap landlord had just five minutes prior fallen in his sinkhole. which he calls a wine cellar. this is a guy who bought an abandoned convent house and had it driven it to the topmost spot in downtown. this knocked out everybody’s power for an afternoon. it was an event on a communal scale that was, for my town, the equivalent of the nyc power outage. there is always in a small town the sense of neighbors wandering warily in the dark.
what about you? how did living in philly and nyc affect your writing?
Rachel: After graduating from undergrad, I lived in NYC and Philly, trying to find a job, and only finding weird part time jobs (painting murals, teaching art and chess at after school programs, etc). I wanted a fiction workshop and ended up taking a Gotham Writer’s Workshop and later auditing fiction classes at UPenn. I think all this contributed to the lost, floating sensation I felt as I drifted between old friends and ran into old boyfriends. A lot of the stories I wrote during this time had searching, anxious post-teen protagonists. There was a lot of take note of, and a lot happening in those places. When I was with my friends I felt more attached to things, and when I was alone I felt anonymous and unattached and like I was staking out my own tiny existence.
Mike: I know you’re into teaching creative writing and you believe in the classroom/workshop as a space for fostering writing or maybe writers. What would you say to people who think the classroom and stuff like fiction writing have no business going together?
Rachel: I’ve had some of my happiest times in fiction workshops and painting crits. I feel really relaxed and sharp in environments like that, where people are sharing their work and everyone is thinking on their feet and reacting to the work. I feel with fiction in particular, it is very important to get a reader’s reading on a story. I feel as though a writer can never have the experience that a first time reader has with a work, and that a first reader’s perspective is pure and helpful. I appreciate how in a class of ‘first readers,’ many perspectives are expressed and battled against each other and find it interesting how the readers might unite under an idea, or that a workshop would end with multiple differing opinions. Most of the stories I’ve written have benefited from a big revising that I am reluctant at first to perform. I’ve realized that I need readers’ opinions to help me know how to revise, or just to distance myself slightly from the work, in order for me to go in and change it. In a really good workshop it feels like the class is doing their job and their job is so fun. In a really good workshop, one can zone out and get irrelevantly good thinking done, because there are nice brain waves in the room.
Do you feel that many writers would write more interesting things if they didn’t have academic or editing/literary types jobs?
You can answer a different question
How about: Do you think when we are older we will write less cool stuff?
Mike: i am stumped by your question, honestly. i feel like some of the most audacious and ambitious stuff i’ve written has been when i’m in a community of friends pushing each other, wanting to shock and scare and dazzle and sex each other. and these communities have often sprung up under the umbrella of academic institutions, but they’ve also benefited from the time and reckless, irresponsible freedom of being students, not teachers. when you’re soaking in this mood of consumption, reading everything you can get your hands on, palpably chasing new sensations and the time to think about those sensations. i do feel like people in general need to travel and be restless and not acclimate, ever, but i think that’s true of any “job” situation, not just editing or academia.
i think when we are older i will just write about country music and you will write about dogs.
Rachel: Good answer, I think we already write about those things- I think when we are older you will write country music and I will have babies.
Mike: ha, that is true