INTERVIEW: Seraphina Madsen

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Seraphina Madsen was born in San Rafael, California and grew up on both the East and West Coasts of the United States. She taught English in France for four years and has lived in Germany, The Netherlands, and Sweden involved in the underground Electronic Dance Music industry. She received an MA in Creative Writing from Kingston University, London. She resides in the UK.

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Tell us a little about your background – geographic, economic, familial – and your earliest experience/engagement with literature?
My upbringing was similar in many ways to the one depicted in Dodge and Burn, so I don’t like talking about it. I’ve said all I want to say about it in an essay I wrote called “The Making of Dodge and Burn”.

I’ve always been interested in telling stories and began from the age I learned to write. My father has one of my first illustrated stories called The Purple People Eaters about aliens who come to earth and scare everyone but my father and I discover they are benevolent and become friends with them.

 

When and how did you realise that you wanted to be a writer and which author/s inspired you to pursue a literary career?
I wanted to be pretty much everything at once, an astronaut, a ballerina, an anthropologist, a biologist, a chemist, an Olympic gymnast, an equestrian, a composer, the list goes on. Writing is the only thing I loved to do that I kept at through the years and began to identify with more and more as time went on. As a teenager I was obsessed with Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Homer’s Odyssey.

 

Aside from literature, which other artists or art forms might you draw inspiration from?
All forms of art have inspired me, music, dance, film, fine art, photography, outsider art, architecture. There’s a particular aesthetic that I’m going for. I’m interested in creating magical realist worlds. David Lynch’s films as well as his collaboration with Mark Frost in “Twin Peaks”, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Quentin Tarantino’s films, many of Werner Herzog’s films, and Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle, were very influential on the creation of Dodge and Burn.

Music was also great inspiration. I often feel like it’s the highest form of art. I lived for well over a decade under the radar in San Francisco and Europe as part of various underground rave scenes and spent days and hours in studios watching and listening to musicians making electronic dance music. I was also ballet dancer for the first fourteen years of my life whilst training and competing in gymnastics until I was nineteen. I found the rave scene in San Francisco my twenties.

 

Describe your early writing habits and how you sustained the motivation to write. Have you noticed any differences/changes over the years?
I used to write anywhere and everywhere and always carried a notebook with me, but now it seems like I need to have my ‘safe space’ in my ivory tower, far from the maddening crowd with lime oil burning, chain smoking American Spirit cigarettes.

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Dodge and Burn.

In your recent essay for ‘For Books’ Sake’ (5th September 2016) you stated that you were heavily influenced by William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, and Alexadra David-Neel, among others – how did they influence your writing?
That would take another essay explain but the Beats and their innovative techniques like the cut-up had a huge influence over Dodge and Burn, as well as the frenetic energy that came, in part, from automatic writing. Alexandra David-Neel’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet was a revelation to me, from her voice to the content of the memoir. I wrote an essay called “The Making of Dodge and Burn” which addresses a lot of these influences.

 

What impact, if at all, did your studies at Kingston University have on your development as a writer and how did your engagement with other writers – both academics and students – influence you personally and professionally? Did your time at Kingston University help you to complete the novel, and if so, how?
My studies at Kingston University were pretty instrumental in the making of the novel. I needed the calibration and the stimulation that it brought about. I was so far out that I needed anchoring in general society to be able to create anything that anyone would be able to understand. I didn’t realize it then but I was very much in my own world and had to build bridges in order to be comprehensible. The expertise of the tutors, the selected reading material, the workshops with other students and visiting lecturers all came together to provide a rich atmosphere for creation. The beginning of Dodge and Burn was written at Kingston for an experimental writing class and shortly after I handed it in the tutors told me I’d had a breakthrough. I had no idea it was better than anything else I’d written.

 

A famous author publicly criticised creative writing courses and declared them a ‘waste of time’ with only ‘99.9 percent [of students] who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent.’ What were your experiences of studying on a creative writing programme and would you recommend such a course to other aspiring writers?
I disagree. I don’t think I would have written anything nearly this good if it weren’t for taking writing courses. Writing is a craft. As a teenager I attended writing courses at Choate Rosemary Hall and the Bread Loaf Writer’s conference which were incredibly valuable to me. I really don’t think I would have a published novel if it weren’t for Kingston University and James Miller. I certainly wouldn’t have written anything this good. Creativity can’t exist in a vacuum. I feed off of everything.

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James Miller, author of Lost Boys and Sunshine State and MFA Course Director for Creative Writing at Kingston University.

In your acknowledgements you reveal that Dodge and Burn began life as a short story you wrote when you were seventeen years old. What influence, if any, did your growth as a person and a writer have when you revisited the original short story?
I didn’t have the short story to work from, that was lost long ago, I only had the memory of it. I took components from it like the killer bees and the Dr Vargas character and went from there. The original story was a quiet magical realist tale, whereas Dodge and Burn is a Tarantinoesque, all guns blazing kind of story.

 

Describe the creative process of re-working and expanding the original short story into a full novel? Did you experience any obstacles/difficulties during this period, and if so, how did you overcome them?
I got the idea that I wanted to play with structure and have a Russian Doll effect with stories within stories so it wasn’t difficult moving from the short story I’d written to another connecting narrative.

 

What are the key differences between writing short stories and writing a novel? Do you enjoy working in one form more than the other? What do you like and dislike most about the writing process of each?
It’s a different process. I can’t say I prefer one to the other. I like the challenge of creating a story with a limited amount of words and the freedom of being able to go on and on in a novel.

 

Have you written short stories beyond the early inspiration for Dodge and Burn, and if so, might these also be expanded into full novels, or can we look forward to a Seraphina Madsen short story collection, courtesy of Dodo Ink?
I’ve written quite a few short stories, most of which I don’t have anymore and were no doubt crap. I spent years writing an epic poem which I have bits and pieces of and will probably burn those I do have out of embarrassment. I’m working on a short story at the moment that plays with the One Thousand and One Nights. I wrote a few gonzo short stories drawn from my illegal raving days on Ibiza and the couple of years I lived in a large squat/commune in Amsterdam, but I definitely don’t want to turn those into a novel. At the moment I’m thinking I’d like to write a quiet magical realist novel.

 

An early extract of Dodge and Burn was published in The White Review in May 2012, can you describe your journey from unpublished to published author. What have been your experiences of the publishing industry so far (submitting/agents/publishers/media), and do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
It was pretty incredible to have “Hunt for American Heiress Continues…” published in The White Review. My tutors at Kingston told me it was a huge honour because unpublished authors don’t get published there very often. That was the beginning of everything. My current agent, Jessica Craig, contacted me after she read it, as well as a few other agents and Dodo Ink.

In my mind I wanted to go with an independent publisher because I liked the subversive, grass roots energy indie publishers have. When I met Sam Mills of Dodo Ink I just said yes, yes, yes. It was a dream come true. I’m still pinching myself. Dodo Ink have been incredible. I couldn’t have asked for or imagined a better publishing house.

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Sam Mills, Managing Director, Dodo Ink.

Your debut novel; Dodge and Burn, combines a range of genres which make it hard to pigeon-hole. How did you weave your words between these very different genres and successfully arrive at your own distinct style? Was it a natural consequence of your scholarly evolution, or honed through the writing and re-drafting of the novel?
Dodge and Burn was meant to be a postmodern novel with all kinds of genres mixing together to create a kind of alchemy like David Lynch and Mark Frost achieved so wonderfully in “Twin Peaks”. I was terrified the whole time that the balance was way off and I was making a hideous monster. Many people have told me that the voice is quite distinct and unique, but I wasn’t thinking of that when I wrote it, I was thinking of the characters and what their voices would be like. I wanted Eugenie to have a voice that was similar to Carlos Castaneda’s with a balance of academia and a conversational tone.

 

In Dodge and Burn the reader encounters an unforgettable cast of characters, such as Camille, Benoit, the Moth Man, Hemingway, Maynard, Dr. Vargas and of course, Eugenie. Which of these, if any, was your favourite to write/create, and why?
I spent the most time with Eugenie, but I enjoyed creating all of them.

 

Describe how you approach the process of characterisation and character development? Do you take inspiration from real/fictional individuals? Can you see any elements of your own personality in the characters portrayed in Dodge and Burn?
I think that ideally to be a writer you have to be an actor and get into the head of the character, but Eugenie comes out of a lot of personal interests. She is definitely her own character, however there’s a lot of me in there. I was inspired by people I’ve me in creating the other characters but none of them were trying to be replicas of anyone in particular.

 

The majority of Dodge and Burn is narrated by Eugenie through her notebooks, and framed by two mock news stories. How did you combine these different elements to move the plot forward and successfully navigate your characters through the novel?
For me the news stories and the third person passages with Maynard helped to create the world. It wasn’t just Eugenie’s voice, there were also fragments of the universe she inhabits framing her notebooks, which I hoped would give the story more depth.

 

Dodge and Burn contains some wonderful scenes and imagery, particularly the passage involving Eugenie and Benoit’ move to the cabin and the following arboreal section. Is there a scene in the novel you enjoyed writing the most, and if so, why?
There were scenes I thought were hilarious and then later, when going back over them, was mortified at how terrible they were and cut them out. The whole process was exhilarating and terrifying because even when it was ‘finished’ I worried that it was worthless and awful.

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Jack Kerouac.

It was refreshing to read a ‘road trip’ novel constructed around a very strong female character who calls most of the shots in her life and/or relationship/s, but what might you imagine of a road trip with Eugenie Lund, Jack Kerouac, and Raoul Duke?
Wow. Jack Kerouac and Raoul Duke are pretty misogynist so there might be some fireworks. I think Jack and Raoul would have a huge bromance. They would probably both try to possess Eugenie or at least be making moves on her. No doubt they would try to make her a pawn in their game. I imagine Eugenie would gracefully shoot them both down and get on with it, doing her best to keep the peace and find the Ariadne’s string through the wild, drug fuelled madness.

In your essay ‘The Female Gaze’ (For Books Sake, September 2016), you describe your desire to create a ‘feverish, drug-fuelled road trip odyssey as seen through the lens of a female protagonist, to challenge and venerate the works that had inspired it.’ What themes would you like to examine and explore in your next novel?
I’m not sure about anything as far as the next novel is concerned. I’ve got a lot of reading and thinking to do.

 

What are you writing right now and when can your fans expect to read more of your work? What’s next?
I’m working on a short story at the moment inspired by the Thousand and One Nights, and hope that soon an idea for a next novel will come to me.

 

What are you presently reading and which authors would you recommend?
I’m reading Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar by Robert Lebling, Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin translated and edited by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski, and My inventions and Other Writings by Nikola Tesla, and would recommend all of them. They are all superb.

THANK YOU!

You can purchase a copy of Dodge and Burn from Foyles Bookshop:

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Discover more about the making of Dodge and Burn here

Dodo Ink

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Dodo Ink is an independent publishing company based in the UK. Founded by author Sam Mills (The Quiddity of Will Self, Corsair, 2012), digital publishing and marketing specialist Alex Spears, and reviewer Thom Cuell, Dodo Ink will publish original fiction, with a focus on risk-taking, imaginative novels. We are looking for books which don’t fall into easy marketing categories and don’t compromise their intelligence or style to fit in with trends. We are passionate readers, and we believe that there are many more who share our appetite for bold, original and ‘difficult’ fiction. We want to provide a home for great writing which isn’t being picked up by the mainstream.

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