M.F Sullivan is the author of The Lightning Stenography Device, a newly released Literary Fiction novel diving the reader straight into a tug o’ war of questions surrounding consciousness, creation, and the flaws of humankind. I had the pleasure of speaking with Sullivan about her book, her writing, and all things wacky, weird, and wondrous…
How would you describe The Lightning Stenography Device to those who’ve never heard of it?
The Lightning Stenography Device is a psychedelic blend of sci-fi and fantasy. An author, Cassius Wagner, gets the first thought to text device and awakens one day to a prophetic novel written in his sleep: the same novel the reader is reading, which tells Cassius he will have a seizure. As he struggles to evade his seizure and his editrix, Katherine, deals with her own paranoia, the story’s true heart emerges in the form of a surreal fairy tale exploring consciousness and the boundaries of reality.
How long did it take to write LSD?
For this final draft, I sat down with the fourth section, “Felicity” in April of 2016, and then worked my way through the story in kind of a haphazard way in terms of its chronology. By the time I finished “Katherine”, it was late December or early January of 2017. I actually didn’t decide the order of the sections until they were all written.
Is this part of a series or a standalone?
The Lightning Stenography Device is technically standalone, although because I utilize a lot of themes drawn from alchemy, I consider it part of an overarching ‘set’ with my first novel, Delilah, My Woman—the second part of the alchemical operation, if you will. There is no consistent plot between the two; Delilah’s story is self-contained. But reading both will enrich your journey. I am anticipating that The Lightning Stenography Device, while it will not have a direct sequel, will at some point have something of a spin-off. That’s for the muse to decide.
Writing a novel, especially one as unique as this one, is no easy feat. Where did the idea come from?
Well, it came from two primary sources. Delilah was an extremely dark novel and it took me seven years of writing it and rewriting it to get it right, so I was ready for something a little more light-hearted. Sort of abstractly, I decided to write my next novel about somebody who actually achieves spiritual enlightenment, instead of failing to achieve it. This was also partly because, while I was writing this first novel, about a serial killer, I discovered that when you write you find what affinities you have with these characters, and vice versa. Sometimes they infect you in a way. I was physically and emotionally exhausted by Richard’s story and my life at the time was in shambles; I felt like maybe if I wrote a story that was the exact opposite of that, it could only leave me feeling good.
As I was wrapping up Delilah’s publication in 2015, I was working part-time as a ghostwriter so as to avoid, you know, working. Sad to say that was some of the hardest work I’ve done—and not only that, but only a few weeks after starting, I tripped in my kitchen and caught myself in a way that sprained my thumb! I typed through it, of course, but rest assured I was also looking up advances in thought to text technology all those six weeks.
How did The Lightning Stenography Device originally come to you?
The idea of a thought to text device that transmits words right to the keyboard—that’s been my dream for several years now. How incredible would it feel! How close the author could feel to the world of fiction! I lamented so much about how something like that didn’t exist; and then, one morning, while I was coming down from a visionary acid trip and trying to figure out what Delilah’s follow-up was going to be about more than just ‘some guy who meets god’, the concept of the thought to text device clicked. That morning, I wrote the scene where Cassius visits Katherine and tries the LSD; I seem to recall that bits and pieces of that very early draft, jotted at 4 in the morning, did in fact make it into the final book in the form of Cassius’s litany against technology and his supposition that men would end up back in caves.
I loved how bizarre the imagery is and, I especially like the way the book is broken into four sections of perspectives. Is there a greater purpose for this structure? What was going on in your mind as you were navigating/creating the four parts?
Yes, there is a greater purpose for the structure! It’s really not just to bore you and then reward you the way some readers seem to think. The structure of The Lightning Stenography Device is largely influenced by James Joyce’s Ulysses; I view Hermenoch’s opening short story, “Mt. Ida”, as similar in its texture to that of Stephen Dedalus. To my mind, they are both rather similar men; sullen scholars with somewhat strained relationships to the divine. Although the Telemachus role is played in The Lightning Stenography Device by Cassius’s son, Thomas (or the Prince, if you’d rather talk about the second half), I still view Hermes’s role very similarly in that he is sort of the arbiter of the story, and the one who, if nothing else, initiates events.
The parallels to the rest of Ulysses are probably fairly straightforward, at least in terms of structure; Molly’s surreal ocean of words building throughout the second half are the linguistic version of what I’m trying to achieve by more coherent and readable symbolism.
I also thought of the structure in a very Jungian breakdown: ‘Mt. Ida’ is the shadow that brings readers into this vessel, ‘Cassius’ is the conscious creative part, ‘Katherine’ is the conscious analytical part, and ‘Felicity’ is the unconscious part where the creativity all comes from. It is essentially a brain; or a mind, at least.
What was the best/worst part (or rather easiest/hardest parts) of writing The Lightning Stenography Device?
I did something before I started to both over-complicate the process and make it a little easier: I did a bunch of math. When I start a project, I am nothing if I don’t have a word count goal for it. Starting on a novel without some idea of its final size would be like somehow putting blinders on a painter so he can’t tell the size of his own canvas, but I didn’t have any idea how long this beast would end up being, because I knew it would be in sections and I wasn’t even 100 percent sure what those sections were about.
As I mentioned, I actually wrote the fairy tale first; during this process, I decided to structure the book in four parts, rather than three, in honor of the four steps of an alchemical process, and in order to navigate these parts while writing I arbitrarily decided to give myself word count goals based on the Fibonacci sequence. The real key to understanding the math here is to consider Chapter 8 of ‘Cassius’, the out-of-chronology chapter which describes what happens while he is having his seizure, as its own section. The numbers are no longer accurate because words were shaved in editing, but ‘Mt. Ida’ was about 11,000, so I wrote Cassius’s seizure as being about that long, and Cassius’s section, then, was supposed to be around 22,000 words; again, that was altered by editing and re-writing, but the general proportions are still pleasing, I think. And so ‘Katherine’ had to be ‘Cassius’ + ‘Lazarus’, and ‘Felicity had to be ‘Katherine’ + ‘Cassius’. This is why “Felicity” is so long, but even while I was writing it, it outgrew its own structure.
The real worst part is that I actually started this book the first time in 2015, and re-started it in January of 2016; between January and March of 2016, I got together probably 40,000 very solid words concerning the development of Cassius’s relationship with Katherine—and then lost them in a power surge while I was on vacation. It was agony. This is not the first time it’s happened to me, but I hope it’ll be the last now that I’ve changed my back-up habits. I will say, though, that if it wasn’t for that power surge, this would be a very different book—Cassius’s memoir, The Fields, The Flowers, is actually supposed to be the text I lost. The power surge changed the direction of this book so much that its old envisioning is a completely different genre! Crazy.
I really loved your characters and how dynamic they were. In fact, Katherine was my favorite. Which character is your favorite & why?
Thank you so much! I love Katherine, too—she’s got that really acerbic attitude but a good and genuine heart. She is also the real main character, in my opinion, but it’s interesting to me to see how many people perceive Cassius as that. But for my favorite, that’s tough. I’m probably going to have to be really unpopular here and say Hermenoch/The Spider/The Snake, just because including him in the story really did cause the story to unfold itself in an absolutely miraculous way; but man, I really love the Prince. I’ve been thinking about giving him his own novel, in fact, but that’s a completely different subject and not even related to the aforehinted spin-off.
What kind of research was involved in writing this book?
Way more than I ever expected. The writing of this book overhauled my library and filled it with books about Jung, alchemy and every occult discipline you can hope to name. It literally changed my life and my entire worldview. I also took a page out of Silicon Valley’s book and experimented with micro-dosing during the writing of ‘Katherine’, which resulted in the incredible synchronicity of re-discovering that the street names in that Tucson neighborhood were related to the stars. If you check out the map of Tucson you can see the path that Katherine wanders and also see that I did not make up any of the weird synchronicities in terms of how well the street names went with the plot.
Is there a character you wished you could have shown more of?
Man, that’s hard to say. Most characters pretty much play their parts and we’re golden, but the King, Felicity and the Prince won’t leave me alone. I love them too much! The King has already gotten his own play, in fact, a five act Shakespearean play called The Red King of The West, about his first wife, Sophia. It hasn’t been produced yet, but I’m looking! And then, there’s the Prince; like I said, I’m thinking about him an awful lot lately…
What themes might a reader find in LSD?
The superficial theme deals with the struggle of the human being to overcome trauma, whether personal or societal. Katherine, in particular, has the tremendous task of identifying herself with her own psychological shadow in the form of her absent serial killer uncle, and this task is such a massive undertaking from a mental sense that it can almost only be represented in symbols. So, looking carefully, one might be able to find in the fairy tale a more surreal view of the events of Delilah, My Woman. There is also the even more superficial theme of feminism, and the more superficial theme of their love, and the even more superficial theme of the controversy of their love; but a book which is about the fictional nature of reality and the real nature of fiction is bound to have as many themes as there are readers!
What kind of readers would The Lightning Stenography Device appeal to? Who do you hope will enjoy it the most?
Readers like me, who have a hard time connecting to contemporary literature and want to read something with some meat to it! The best and most interesting book I’ve seen published in years was George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and that has below 4 stars on Amazon, which is absolutely insane. I just feel like it’s been years since we’ve had somebody writing books like Joyce, or even David Foster Wallace. Pynchon is still kicking—thank God!—but the freaky fictionauts out there have to step up to the plate before we drown in Bill O’ Reilly and YA books. (Sorry, YA readers, it’s not that the genre is a problem in and of itself; some of the best books ever written qualify as YA. It’s that YA is routinely used as an excuse by readers to stay comfortable and avoid expanding their mind; if you guys had any idea how often I read long, slow books which I don’t really enjoy just to learn about somebody’s writing style, you might start to pity me.)
Let’s talk about you and your writing for a minute:
What led you to a path on writing?
I’ve written ever since I started forming sentences. In 2nd grade we had a dedicated day each week to write and draw little picture books and I was definitely the most prolific ‘author’ in class, but when I was in 3rd grade, my teacher gave us a spelling assignment where we had to incorporate 12 spelling words into a little story. I just remember sitting on my bedroom floor and feeling the magic for the first time ever as one page turned into two turned into three and four, and suddenly the next day I had this packet to turn into her. It was like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but they went back in time to rescue their pizza from aliens who transported it to ancient Egypt. I had never seen Bill & Ted, so who knows its genesis. She loved it so much I wrote her two sequels.
Are you a plotter or pantser?
A little from column a, little from column b. I like to go into a story knowing where it’s going to end, and I generally prefer to know where it starts, but that’s not necessary. The most important thing is knowing the characters. All twists and turns and plots tend to be rooted in the interactions of their players; I just find a plastic cast of characters and let them write it for me.
What is the best and worst part about writing?
The best part is the act. I see so many people complain about the act of writing and I’m like, man, keep that shit to yourself. There’s starting to be this Kafka-esque attitude about how real writers just hate writing, and that’s not true at all, or it shouldn’t be. Do birds hate flying? Do fish hate swimming? Writing, to me, feels like the most natural and wonderful thing in the world. For the period of time I’m at the keyboard, I cease to exist in any conventional way; I’m just a camera’s lens. I do it every day, sometimes for as many as six hours, and by the end of the day not only do I feel completely blissed-out, healed of my personal problems and that much closer to the divine, but now I have a product that I can edit and eventually share with others.
That’s where the worst part comes in. It’s trying to share this thing you’re super excited about only to have door after door slammed in your face, sometimes forever. By the time you find people who are excited about it, you’re sick of it! Maybe that’s why modern writers all hate writing.
Do you ever get blocked? If so, how do you cope?
I used to get really, really blocked on and off, mostly because I suffer from (probably) bipolar II, so I have a really long depressive cycle of three months followed by a really long hypomanic cycle of three months, and when I was younger and had yet to notice this pattern I suffered from absolutely dreadful creative drys pells, especially during the writing of Delilah, My Woman. In that novel, I was very fortunate because Richard is an artist who also has manic depression and also suffers from creative dry spells, and so I could channel my angst about the subject pretty much into him; but it’s not always that easy, of course, and during the seven rewrites that novel had I frequently had long periods where I just didn’t know how to proceed. Inevitably, I’d realize the story was just so wrong I had to write it over again. And I would; that would get the juices back flowing.
After that novel, I have never had that problem again. Writing that novel through so many drafts, and especially its final draft, taught me how to write the kinds of stories I want to write from the minute I start writing; but it didn’t cure my bipolar symptoms, and when I’m depressed I find it very hard to be creative. What I have discovered in the past year, however, is that it is extremely possible for me to be critical in that state; so, rather than thinking of it as ‘depression/mania’, I am thinking of it as ‘editing/writing’. Once a writing phase stops, it’s time to edit; and I have such a build up of material to edit after finishing three novels in 2017 that I think I’m in good shape!
Are there any other works you draw inspiration from?
Oh, tons. I’m pretty up-front about my influences and usually doff my hat to them by slipping them into the work somewhere. The Lightning Stenography Device still bears large traces of Pynchon’s and Nabokov’s influences on my work, and I mentioned here Joyce, but really everything I see and read affects me and delivers inspiration. Music, movies, television; David Lynch is a big influence on that trilogy I’m editing.
What is your writing kryptonite and how do you overcome it?
Haha, my writing kryptonite…maybe drama. If real life drama gets into my brain before I can sit down to write for the day, I pretty much just clock out. I need a mental clean slate to effectively write. To overcome it, I get up at 4 in the morning and try to start writing as soon as possible, usually around 6, after breakfast.
Any advice for fellow writers?
Make it your routine. Yes, it seems at first like it sucks. But after you’ve written semi-regularly for ten years, you will magically start to love it, and you will not be able to live without it. And if you make it your routine, you will never have to. Not only that, but if you make writing your routine, you will build other routines around it without even thinking about it, and then one day you’ll suddenly be a functional adult like you never thought you could be. (No? Just me? Sorry.) Really, though: consistency is so magic. You are what you do. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Birds don’t take days off; I don’t, either.
And now, for the FUN questions:
If you could assign a theme song to The Lightning Stenography Device, what would it be?
I have three! The music of Florence + The Machine was a big influence on ‘Felicity’, and if you listen to ‘Queen of Peace’, ‘Which Witch’, and ‘Howl’ in that order, it produces a super pleasing sequence which also helped me understand the chronology of the story I was telling.
What is your favorite word?
‘Susurrus’ is still my favorite word. I put it into Delilah so I feel like I can’t use it in another book for probably 5 more years since it’s such a particular word, but ooh buddy am I counting down that expiration date to use it again.
What are you reading right now?
Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson, and a set of plays by Ionesco: I just finished Exit the King, and it just excellent. I’m about to move on to The Killer and MacBett.
If you could name a drink after your book, what would it be?
Dude, this question is great. LSD: Lemon, Seltzer, Daniels? Haha, that sounds terrible. Maybe just a glass of water with some drops of lysergic acid in it!
There you have it, ravenous readers. A massive THANK YOU to author M.F Sullivan for the AMAZING opportunity to interview her.