Book Review: The Sea beast Takes a Lover
From UC Irvine graduate and Marquette alum Michael Andreasen comes The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, a sci-fi/fantasy book brimming with both grisly and whimsical tales. Andreasen’s work, which is his first, is comprised of eleven short stories that chronicle the escapades of a hodgepodge of characters, from alien abductees, to wandering saints, to nervous time travelers. The titular story tells of an amorous kraken who mistakes a mutinous ship for one of her own. Andreasen’s writing is skillful, with colorful vocabulary and minimal worldbuilding that adds to the absurdity of the collection. This approach at times leaves the reader feeling disoriented, but it’s never a question that this is intentional.
Writer Eudora Welty once said artists rediscover the world as children do, and Andreasen lives up to this in full. His settings are familiar, but anachronistic and strange: a cadet on what seems to be an 18th century vessel plays with a Game Boy. A young woman without a head enjoys a dinner of chicken Kiev. A washed-up king stays at a La Quinta Inn. The stories are vaguely adrift in time and space, but at the same time tethered to specific, recognizable landmarks of everyday life.
Michael answered some questions about his time at Marquette and his writing process.
Tell us a little bit about yourself -- what were your experiences like at Marquette and University of California Irvine, and what made you decide to pursue the career you did?
I grew up in Omaha and was the product of a Jesuit high school, so Marquette was always a good fit, and became an even better one once I switched my major from psychology to English freshman year. A great experience working with Prof. Atsuko Tani, who at that time was the head of the Marquette Japanese Department (actually, I think she was the Marquette Japanese Department), led to a couple of years teaching English in Japan after graduation, where I started to take writing a little more seriously. From there I applied to MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs and eventually ended up at Irvine where I still teach. I’m not sure I ever “decided” to pursue a career in fiction writing. For a long time I considered myself a teacher who occasionally wrote fiction, and in many ways I still do.
I was excited to see C.J. Hribal in your acknowledgements, whose creative writing class I took last semester. Did your time at Marquette influence your career path at all? Were there any particular classes or professors at Marquette who inspired you?
I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be writing today if I hadn’t taken C.J.’s creative writing classes. I had always liked reading and would occasionally scribble down little things in my spare time, but C.J.’s class was the first time I ever had to write a story for someone who would take it seriously, read it closely, and give me honest feedback. It was terrifying, but in that roller-coaster way that makes you immediately want to get in line for another ride.
I was also being exposed to so many writers in that class I’d never read before, some of whom would become enormously influential to me later on: Franz Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, George Saunders, Donald Barthelme, Tobias Wolff; it felt like every week we were reading something that turned my notion of fiction on its head, then dressed it up and took it dancing. I don’t think I knew at the time that something important was happening, but it was. The creative parts of my brain were just starting to wake up, and they needed nourishment.
I took all of C.J.’s classes and loved them. I also took Postmodern lit with Prof. Hathaway and Renaissance literature with Prof. Zurcher and poetry workshops with Prof. Sorby (I’m still a terrible poet, but I learned a lot). I took playwriting classes with Prof. David Ravel and acting classes with Prof. Phylis Ravel. Prof. Marquardt’s mythology class was incredibly important to me, as was Prof. Tani’s Japanese literature class. At no point during any of this was I thinking “This will be useful to my future career as a writer.” I didn’t even know I wanted a career as a writer. But now, looking back, they were all enormous influences, and I’m amazed that I ever had so much great knowledge – and so many great teachers – right there in one place.
Can you talk a little bit about your writing process, and what challenges you face when being creative?
I tend to think of myself as a burst writer. There are people who make a ritual out of writing and can do it every day, and I wish I was one of them. Discovery on the page is important, but I don’t usually start a story until I have at least some sense of where I’m going with it, and this can take a while. I’m constantly taking notes as they come to me and am always working through stories in the back of my mind while doing other things. Once I have a critical mass, I can usually barf out a crude, skeletal draft in a few days. Then I set it aside again, think about it some more, take some more notes, and do a hyper-focused burst edit, and rinse and repeat as necessary. The real challenge is knowing when a story is done. I’m a relentless tinkerer. Sometimes the most useful thing an editor can do for me is say, “I’m taking this away from you now. Go work on something else.”
How does it feel to complete your first collection of short stories?
So far it’s been mostly a third-person experience. When I was at Marquette I had a brief introduction to theater, and those acting skills have come in handy in assuming the role of a published author. At readings I’ll try to channel the character of “The Writer Who Confidently Believes He Is A Writer.” Sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse of my name on the book’s cover and think, “Hey, good for that guy! I’ll bet he worked really hard on that. Maybe someday I’ll have a book.” I suspect that if I was suddenly forced to think about all of this in the first-person, my head would explode.
What was your experience in publishing a book -- how did you get connected with Penguin Random House, did you work with an agent, etc.?
There are so many wildly different paths to publication. I was basically working on stories here and there over the course of several years and workshopping them with a close-knit group of writers I’d met at UCI. At one point one of those writers encouraged me to send the collection to her agent, who soon became my agent. We spent some time sending individual stories to magazines and journals, and I was lucky enough to get stories in some great places like The New Yorker, Tin House, and McSweeney’s. After that we started talking with potential editors, and I found a good fit with Dutton, who agreed to publish the collection. Rattling it off like that, it sounds like an easy, on-the-rails process. It wasn’t. There are so many factors that you can’t control in publishing (Will an agent respond to your work? Will a magazine accept it? Will a publisher be willing to take a chance on it? Will an editor share your vision for it?). At the end of the day, all you can really control are the words on the page, which is where the lion’s share of your attention should always be.
Your writing is fantastical and imaginative. What were some sources of inspiration for The Sea Beast,or some of your other work in general?
All the writers I mentioned earlier were important influences, but I began as a sci-fi and fantasy kid, which I imagine comes through pretty clearly in the collection. Every writer has a lens they use to view the world around them. Mine happens to be all cluttered up with aliens, ghosts, monsters, robots, and mermaids. Faith also plays a role in some of the stories. I don’t think I’ll ever stop marveling at the amazing imagery and vocabulary that a Catholic upbringing provides and the questions of faith that we’re constantly wrestling with. Braid a rope out of those things, and then use it in a tug-of-war between optimism and cynicism, and I’d say you’ve got a pretty good description of what these stories are trying to do.
What advice would you give to someone considering completing an MFA or pursuing a career in writing?
I think many people go into an MFA program thinking that it will teach them how to write, which, in my experience, isn’t really the point of an MFA. When we teach writing we don’t say, “Here’s how you write a story, now go do it.” The writer produces the story first, then brings it to workshop, and that’s when the instruction begins. This is good for two reasons: 1) It means we’re always coming to a story on its own terms, and 2) it means that we’re never tampering with the creation process, which is and always should be unique to the writer. The most important thing that I think an MFA provides is a group of smart, serious readers. You don’t need an MFA program to practice writing or learn the fundamentals. All you need for that are good books and time. But a reader who’s smart, sensitive, and willing to engage with your writing on its own terms isn’t easy to come by. That’s not to say that every workshop is all gushing praise and affection – they can be tough, especially with tough, honest readers at the table. But finding thoughtful criticism in the wild, the kind that encourages while it critiques, is incredibly difficult, and an MFA program can lend a hand there. I’m still regularly exchanging work with friends from my MFA program. They’re always my first readers.
As for a career in writing, I think the first thing you need is the ability to accept that you might not have a career in writing, that sometimes it can take years to get even one publication, that it may not happen at all. It needs to be something you’re willing to do for nothing, because for a long time, it will be.
What other projects are you currently excited about? What’s next for you?
I’d like to try my hand at a novel. I’m still trying to figure out if I have any novel-sized ideas. But I suspect I’ll always come back to stories. I’ve always loved the short form. Get in, throw a few punches, break a few hearts, get out. A good short story is like a good meal. It can be consumed in an hour or two, and you can spend the rest of the day pleasantly digesting it.
Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?
Tons, but I’m saving them for the next book.
Andreasen, Michael. The Sea Beast Takes a Lover. Penguin Random House, 2018.
Interview by Abby Vakulskas