Matt Lee’s Crisis Actor is a book because it is the standard shape and filled with words. It is a novel because there are original sections that its creator wrote.
At the same time, the book’s methodology follows the postmodernists, rolling into a collage of other work until it is something else entirely, an extended excerpt falling from many wounds. In the text, you’ll see suicide notes, diaries, manifestos, the famous and the infamous, their faces serried like sutures, the border between everything only an inch of white space on the page.
In this conversation, Matt and I discuss terrorism, censorship, Donald Trump, conspiracy theories, disinformation, and a persistent question for everyone—when are we not acting?
In Crisis Actor, the reader is guided through fragments of quotes, chunks of facts, pieces of other works—from Toby Keith lyrics to the manifestos of mass murderers—interwoven with an original work of fiction. The arrangement is reminiscent of Markson, an author whose work makes an appearance as well. Crisis Actor is a book where it makes sense to have Christopher Dorner’s thoughts on the Hangover films positioned not too far from Woolf’s theories on madness. Who were your influences for this book and what drew you to this style of writing? Did the subject matter influence the style?
I think my writing operates the same way my brain does. Like a kaleidoscope. I’m drawn to randomness, but I’m also constantly sniffing out patterns. The subject matter—terrorism, celebrity, art, pain—feels chaotic. Politicians are quick to denote mass shootings, for instance, as “random acts of violence.” The deeper I went into researching the book, the more apparent certain underlying connections became, which informed the book’s shape. Seemingly disparate voices bound together by strange synapses. Novel as collage. I wanted to dissolve the boundaries between artist and terrorist. To equate Osama Bin Laden with Emily Dickinson. How we define a work of art or an act of terror is ultimately a matter of perspective. One can garner fame through creation or destruction. This slippage compels me.
In terms of literary influences, most of them are central characters in the book. David Markson, as you pointed out, has been a profound inspiration. Discovering his Notecard Quartet gave me courage to experiment with my own writing in ways I’d never considered. Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition had a similar effect. Beyond the writers who appear directly in Crisis Actor, I’d point to Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever?, and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Adler and Robison for their humor, Nelson for her blend of scholarship and narrative. The common denominator being text as nonlinear assemblage. Around the time I started writing Crisis Actor, I was also reading The Flesh Interface series online, a sprawling drug-fueled science fiction creepypasta epic that surfaced as comments on Reddit posts written by an anonymous user with the handle _9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES9. Brilliant, wild writing with a guerilla sensibility. Academic in tone with a batshit insane plot. I love that juxtaposition and try to capture it in much of my own work.
Always enjoyed the celebration of anonymity in the best creepypastas, which may be anomalous among other writing for that reason. On the opposite end of anonymity, one of those major underlying connections you mentioned could be summed up in the hijacker Paul Cini’s quote from page 26: “I’m here and I exist and I want to be noticed.” What do you see as the major similarity/difference between the artist and the terrorist? Do you buy the notion that a “normal” person is a few bad days/months away from committing violence?
The biggest parallel between art and terror is subjectivity. A US military drone strike leaves a dozen civilians dead. A Taliban hit squad guns down foreign aid workers. You can justify or condemn either. The same way one person looks at an abstract expressionist painting and says, “My five year old draws better,” while another is moved to tears at the sight. What fascinates me is the iconography of terrorism. The September 11 attacks were an atrocity, but that image of Flight 11 crashing into the North Tower has been seared into the public consciousness in such an evocative way. The visual impact is undeniable. Terrorism has bled into pop culture and vice versa. Now acts of terror are produced in the same fashion as reality television shows. The Islamic State employed a type of artistry to record and disseminate highly choreographed acts of cruelty. Footage of western journalists being decapitated is inherently symbolic, as is a video of Chris Burden crawling through broken glass. In both cases, real bloodshed is rendered into a depiction, a medium, a form. Where does one draw the line?
The artist and terrorist each make political statements using different methods, different canvases. Art can certainly include an element of violence, and terror can be artful. If Petr Pavelnsky asks for a piece of performance art to be reclassified as terrorism, should we take him at his word? Artists are often treated like terrorists, labelled as enemies of the regime and quietly executed. Many terrorists moonlight as poets or painters. We’re not so different. Like Paul Cini, we all crave attention to a degree. Yet the idea of empathizing with a terrorist is anathema to most people. Given a set of unique circumstances, you too might find yourself plowing a truck through a crowded sidewalk, strapping a suicide belt around your waist, marching into Wal-Mart with an AR-15. Not that I believe people are instinctively evil. We must first recognize the conditions that produce terrorism if there’s any hope of peace. If everyone is capable of violence, then the opposite must also be true.
Pointing out that one’s upbringing creates the circumstances shouldn’t cause controversy, yet it does. There is another figure who may be different from the terrorist, victim, or artist—or maybe a mixture of each—the crisis actor. The idea is contentious, though using crisis actors has been proposed by government forces (Operation Northwoods). How did your background as an actor influence your writing process for those sections? What do you make of the conspiracy theories that appear around every mass shooting?
I was born into a family of actors, so I’ve been around theatre as long as I can remember. For me, drama and literature are inseparable. I’m intrigued by the performative quality of text. The actor embodies a strange paradox. Take something artificial and make it “real.” A performance is both authentic and illusory, fact and fiction. Deep philosophical terrain to explore both on and off stage. Many of the actor’s techniques also serve the writer well. Improvisation, sense memory, the magic if, inhabiting a character.
During a strange period of my life, I worked an acting gig on a military base. We were called “Standardized Patients.” Our job was to portray hypothetical subjects in training exercises for nurses, doctors, emergency personnel. Some days I’d play a soldier suffering from PTSD or a schizophrenic planning to murder his boss. Other days I was just a guy coming in for a routine physical. Occasionally we’d get assigned disaster scenarios for first responders. A plane crash, a suicide bombing, a mass shooting. We’d be decked out in special effects make-up, painted with fake blood, prosthetic broken bones, silicone skin. All the actors had different briefs. You be in shock, you be difficult, you be dead. We’d all be screaming bloody murder with pre-recorded sounds of carnage blaring from hidden speakers. We had to make it as convincing as possible. “These exercises save lives,” we were frequently told. Macabre stuff. Almost immediately after I started working there, the idea for Crisis Actor began gelling. Much of what I describe in the book is based on these actual experiences.
Conspiracy theories are akin to religion. A conspiracy is a belief system, a higher power in which to bestow faith. It makes people feel special, as if they’ve figured out the secret of our existence. It’s a coping mechanism. The reason so many conspiracy theories popped up around 9/11 or the Sandy Hook shooting is because some people simply cannot wrap their minds around the sheer horror of it all. They’d rather believe anything else rather than accept the gravity of what has happened. The September 11 attacks are arguably the most successful act of terror ever committed. Many Americans couldn’t swallow the fact we’d been so badly beaten. It defied everything they’d been taught, so they constructed new realities to fit their ingrained narratives. One can hardly blame them. Processing violence and trauma of that magnitude is no easy task. This is why there are Holocaust deniers. The scope of our capacity for evil is often beyond comprehension, especially for people who live relatively sheltered existences, like most Westerners. On the flip side, there is often a nugget of truth in many conspiracy theories, and a healthy dose of skepticism is useful when studying the “official report” of momentous events. Governments unquestionably concoct lies and cover stories all the time.
Damn, those scenes sound wild. Lately, such conspiracy theories and other alleged thoughtcrimes get regulated on the largest sites, but forums exist outside Twitter. Traditional publishing too has excommunicated certain styles and views, yet “taboo” work continues to live elsewhere. Similarly, in Crisis Actor, you mention facts about the attempts to end violence that seem to hint at the futility of certain methods (e.g., legally purchased guns are often used, the increase in truck murders). What is your take on censorship/control both in the literary world and in general?
I feel there have been both positive and negative consequences. There’s a greater sense of accountability regarding abuse, particularly for those in positions of power. I’m glad people are generally more sensitive to longstanding prejudices, less tolerant of institutionalized evils. Everyone should make an effort to stamp out hateful rhetoric of all shades. As with any movement or ideology, the downside is when dogma gets taken to the extreme. Much of the current crusade seeking to neuter the arts strikes me as insanely puritanical and repressive. Why all the pearl clutching and finger wagging? Censorship, like conspiracy theories, is a means of protection or a defense reflex, a method of social control, as you pointed out. When heightened to the nth degree it becomes fascistic. To disagree with what has been deemed “acceptable” results in exile, or worse. This leaves little room for subversion. Merely silencing your opponent’s voice is the same as treating the symptom instead of the disease. Deplatform bigots and predators all you want, our society will continue producing them, Hydra-like, unless we remedy the cause, dam the source. Trump is the perfect example. He was not created in a vacuum. We made him. Banning Trump from Twitter does not eradicate Trump’s message or make his millions of followers stop caring about him. Now Trump is like a social media martyr.
In the literary world, the fear of being canceled acts as a gag against critical thinking. Writers, academics, artists sacrifice freedom of expression for the sake of keeping a career intact. This produces watered down art that does nothing to challenge people’s perspectives. It makes us afraid to have conversations about race, sex, politics. How are we going to confront these issues if we can’t even discuss them? Because these subjects are often troubling, as well as complex, people are eager to erase rather than reconcile with any piece of unsavory history. That’s the easy way out—forgoing any effort to contextualize why something that was written 100 years ago is now considered politically incorrect. I should be able to appreciate the work of Céline without condoning his anti-semitism, for instance. Likewise, the torture scenes in Crisis Actor are not an endorsement. Quite the contrary. Without nuance (or a sense of humor), people are quick to take everything literally.
On watering down, your answer also reminds me of my frustrations with a literary establishment that claims to want POC writers … but only if they present the “correct” aesthetic (thinking of an experience where a journal not only copyedited my slang dialogue [the kind from lived experience] for grammar/content but also felt the need to italicize Navajo words I used—a conventional othering). That said, you and I are not edgelords. Along with Ashley Wagner, we have edited Ligeia for two years, and I’ve always known you as someone who cares about and makes an effort toward representation. Can you tell the people about Ligeia, its origins, how we view the alleged MFA vs not-MFA divide, and what we’re actually about?
Your experience is sadly not uncommon. It’s tokenization plain and simple. Performative inclusivity. A call for diverse voices met with total whitewashing. Yuck. Part of seeking broader representation must also include granting those marginalized voices more agency. With Ligeia, it’s been a joy to feature such a broad array of contributors, and most importantly, let them speak for themselves. I think because our tastes are eclectic, we attract a wide range of artists. The whole project has been such a wonderful surprise. Legend has it three graduate writing students, fed up with reading slick dick fiction in The New Yorker, decided they could do it better. I’m told there was a blood pact made at an all night diner just outside Baltimore, though my sources are dubious. With the spectre of Poe on their side, Ligeia was born. Since then, I’ve been astounded by the support we’ve built up over the years. Getting to publish and interview some of my favorite writers has been a dream. We’ve always said Ligeia is a home for misfits. I see us as carrying on the gothic literary tradition with a modern twist. Poe’s story “Ligeia” is all about duality, contradiction, paradox. I like writing that operates on a similar level.
Weighing in on the MFA debate, I think it’s silly to chastise someone either way. Plenty of amazing writers come out of MFA programs, whether they get published or not. As we’ve seen with Ligeia, there are also loads of equally talented and innovative writers with zero formal training whatsoever. It’s not a matter of needing or not needing an MFA to call yourself a writer. Do what’s best for you and ignore the snobbery on both sides. I pursued a master’s because I want to teach, not because I thought it would improve my writing per se. But I do feel I came out a sharper, more confident writer, and I think the process of sharing my writing and being critiqued, while also reading other people’s writing and critiquing them, helped me solidify my voice. Not to mention there would be no Ligeia if the three of us hadn’t met in school.
I can’t confirm or deny any blood/adrenochrome rituals at the diner. Getting back to Crisis Actor, how did you get involved with tragickal and what was the process like for creating and editing the book?
When I first started submitting short fiction to online journals, I stumbled across tragickal after seeing some other writers I admired on the site. I was instantly drawn to their mission statement and aesthetic. I thought, “These are my kind of people!” The editor graciously accepted a story of mine and we kept in touch over the years. True kindred spirits, both literary and otherwise. Through our correspondence, the editor asked if I might happen to have a manuscript, as tragickal was in the process of expanding into a press. I sent in a draft of what would become Crisis Actor, which in that early stage was much more anarchic and loose. Initially it was just a stack of mismatched, handwritten note cards. We spent a year or so fine tuning the beast and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. My editor was instrumental in shaping the book, both in terms of its focus and structure. They had the brilliant idea of formatting it like memos or emails. This complemented the idea of all these disparate voices melding together. The best editors know how to suss out how a book is trying to function, how to ask the right questions that push a writer where they’re trying to get. I feel fortunate to have collaborated with tragickal so closely. It’s an honor to have Crisis Actor as their inaugural release. After reading the follow up publication, the excellent Dox by A. Beaumais, I can’t wait to see what they put out next.
A persistent figure in your book is our previous president, the Donald. Many of his presented quotes are about marketing, including his idea that modern art is a con based on popularity. Meanwhile, ratings are down for news across the board, and the media—despite all the bans—seems to crave the return of the man. What’s your take on his ideas about art and mass media in general, and why did you choose to include many of his words and words about him?
I started writing what would become Crisis Actor around the time Trump was elected. In many ways the scenes I composed and the notes/quotations I gathered were a direct response to the Trump presidency. It all seems so obvious in hindsight, but at the time his victory came as a huge shock. I felt as if we’d jumped timelines into some parallel universe. Trump’s presence became pervasive. You couldn’t escape him. Every time I turned on the television or went online, there he was relishing in the attention, delighting in the outrage his words and actions caused. For me, Trump embodied everything wrong with American society. Our obsession with fame and wealth, our bald-faced hypocrisy, our narcissistic sadism, our racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. People adored him for “saying what other politicians would never dare.” In other words, he gave license for a massive swathe of our increasingly disenfranchised population to be their most debased selves. Trump has all the hallmarks of a snake oil salesman. His whole MAGA schtick was one big show. The theatricality of it fit perfectly with Crisis Actor. A true theater of cruelty.
Trump is fascinating because he’s a contradiction. Reality television star and POTUS. Uber-privileged New York City millionaire and blue-collar populist freedom fighter. Comically absurd and viciously cunning. One minute he’s posing before a buffet of McDonald’s hamburgers at the White House, the next he’s signing legislation to put immigrant children in cages. He calls modern art a con but also refers to business as a fine art. He both adored and loathed the media coverage surrounding him. He inspires intense hatred and blind devotion depending on who you talk to. He also created the conditions to disintegrate the boundary between fact and fiction. I try to do something similar in Crisis Actor. Living in Trump’s America forced us to question what is real. Hopefully my book has this effect on readers. JG Ballard wrote of his novel Crash, “I wanted to rub the human race in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror.” I believe writing about Trump the way I have achieves the same goal.
The contradictions seem to define America. Along those lines, in Crisis Actor you mention Conor Betts liking a tweet about gun control shortly before his rampage. And you later write, “Do any of us ever stop performing?” Much has been spilled about social media’s influence—and it seems a lot of indie lit places today have a similar, techno-ennui theme—but I want to get your take on whether it has accelerated a decline, making everyone a reality star in their mind, or simply exposed what was always there, or something else entirely?
This question points to the idea of authenticity, whether it’s achievable or not, which is something I wrestle with in Crisis Actor. I’m reminded of Sartre’s concept of Bad Faith—the waiter in a cafe who plays at being a waiter as a means to an end. Social media can operate in this fashion. An avatar is no different than a mask. Online personas are deliberately constructed to convey a certain image or attitude. People are judged on whether they come off as “real” or “fake” on social media. I’ve observed loads of brutally honest posting, from Facebook suicide notes to Blogspot confessionals. But there’s also plenty of cringeworthy, soulless bullshit. Whatever pole you look to, I do believe people are always performing to some extent. I think it’s impossible not to. Every word you speak, every page you write contains a level of artifice by design. Social media, in attempting to depict reality, simultaneously abstracts it.
There’s also a voyeuristic quality, like vicariously enjoying an argument on Twitter or seeing a photo of your ex. It’s the same tension as watching a film in a crowded theater. Online, we can alternate between audience and performer instantaneously. I don’t necessarily believe social media has been a detriment to society. Even without these platforms, people are going to consider themselves the center of the universe. Instagram doesn’t change human nature. It’s an extension of human nature. Social media is a tool. We decide how to use it. Personally, I’ve always viewed my own social media presence as a type of performative project, and my experiences have been mostly positive. I can promote my work, chat with writers, compose diaristic musings. Of course, there’s a dark side as well. Social media can be addictive. Anonymity can embolden people to be exceptionally cruel. Disinformation can be easily circulated. People can be exploited. Again, I’d counter that these phenomena are not at all unique to the digital world.
Right, there’s self performance but there’s also creating other people’s lives as an audience member. People imagine in this way for a variety of reasons, but taken to its political extreme, you have this quote in Crisis Actor from Heidegger’s The Essence of Truth: “The root requirement is then to find the enemy, bring him to light or even to create him.” Much of modern warfare occurs through information, the enemy as a persona. If not censorship—the default solution of ‘modern’ countries—what can be done about disinformation? Especially when the people in charge sling it night and day and sometimes censor the opposite views? There are also those who believe that it isn’t the role of artists to dwell on politics/psychosocial matters or solutions, but merely to describe what they see. What’s your take on this?
A worrisome number of people simply opt out of paying attention to the news. “Too depressing.” Others refuse to believe anything period. Just the other day I heard someone say, “Reporters are all liars. CNN, Fox, all of them.” Then there are those who swallow everything they’re told without question. If they see it on television, it must be true. This presents a two-fold problem. Objective information is disregarded by some, while agitprop is treated as gospel by others. And this is true for the right and the left. If you look at the same headline or story across various news outlets, you’ll see countless different spins or interpretations. Last year’s social unrest in response to police brutality was alternatively billed as a “protest” or “riot” depending on the source. The US military bombs a hospital in Afghanistan and calls it “collateral damage.” I call it a war crime. In both cases, language is a powerful tool when it comes to manipulating reality. Depravity can be made palatable (torture as “enhanced interrogation”). A threat to the status quo can be demonized (legitimate demonstrators as “anarchists”). The military in particular traffics in phantoms, constructing boogeymen to act as scapegoats, to justify imperialism, to distract from more pressing domestic affairs. Communism served this purpose in the 20th century, now Islamic terrorism has taken its place. The Iraq War, one of the worst military blunders in modern history, was founded on a lie. Ditto Afghanistan. But at the onset there was widespread, bipartisan approval for both conflicts. The propaganda machine works wonders.
If we’re to combat disinformation, we must become experts at sniffing it out, but this is a monumental challenge. If I read something in The Washington Post, I have to scrutinize it carefully because the paper is essentially owned by Amazon. I fear it has become virtually impossible to escape a certain level of corporate influence when it comes to media consumption. Unfortunately this pushes people to seek information from even more dubious sources, like your racist uncle who gets all his news on Facebook. I’m a bit of a news junkie, but I take it with a grain of salt. Typically I’ll put a little more faith in independent, nonprofit organizations. I also keep up with lots of international news agencies. It’s important to see how the outside world is reporting on current events in the US. Fact checking is hard work. It’s time consuming, so I can’t blame people for not digging deeply. My hope is that in post-Trump America, we’re at least more self aware when it comes to disinformation. Where are these facts coming from? Are the facts consistent? Who is the intended audience? Is the source neutral or do they have an ulterior motive? Are they using this information in a specific way in order to influence you? These are the questions people should be asking. Ironically, this is the same way we should interrogate art. For me, all art is political. Whether the artist intends it to be or not, art exists within a political framework by default. So do we all. Shirking any sort of political responsibility is a cop out. Frankly I think it’s cowardly to renounce any engagement with political discourse. You might as well be a zombie.
It’s a truism that most of the people who read literary websites are also writers. To be read by people who don’t write is probably the real signal of popularity. But anyway, to take advantage of that here, some easy questions: Can you tell the writers about your writing routine? When and how do you write? What music do you listen to when writing? When I’m working, I’ve realized I can’t listen to anything with words.
My routine is pretty sporadic these days. Anytime I can manage an hour or two in solitude. I’ll often let ideas marinate in my head for weeks or even months before writing a single line. I like writing longhand as “exercise,” usually free verse or stream of consciousness text I have no intention of ever publishing, but this practice can be helpful as a sort of idea generator. When it’s time to get serious, I always write on a computer. I like composing small sections at a time. With Crisis Actor, I had color coded scenes organized by subject in various documents, split between fiction and nonfiction. I’d pick and choose whichever had the strongest connective tissue while assembling the main manuscript. I don’t outline per se, just compile loads of material and figure out how it all fits together after the fact. I prefer the process to be organic. It’s more fun not knowing how everything will turn out. I leave ample room for surprises, opportunities for improvisation. The research component is also crucial for my work, so I devote a lot of energy tracking down sources to feed creative projects. I’m an obsessive bibliophile and relish any opportunity to go digging through articles, books, films, you name it.
The older I get, the more important I feel it is to not put too much pressure on myself. I stay disciplined to an extent, but I don’t feel the need to write every day. I never force myself to write. Real world experiences are equally informative and take precedence over my “literary career.” I value my humanity above my productivity. I almost always play music while working. Like you, I can never concentrate if the music has lyrics, so it has to be instrumental. Anything ambient or hypnotic does the trick. Writing Crisis Actor, Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon was a favorite. Dominick Fernow’s Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement project was another. Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works. Joanna Brouk’s Hearing Music. Honorable mentions for Hiroshi Yoshimura, Terry Riley, Jon Hassell, and Liz Harris/Grouper.
I think I’ve also listened to Thursday Afternoon too much. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Matt. What’s next for you creatively? Any teasers for future projects or books?
Thank you, Sean! I’ve had a blast talking shop with you. I’m 99% finished with a memoir that explores the tension between disability and monstrosity. I hope to start looking for a publisher in earnest later this year. I also have a concept for my next novel, which I think has the potential to be something special if I can pull it off. It’ll probably take five years to complete. Stay tuned.