FIN SORREL is the founding editor of Mannequin Haus, a journal publishing surreal and innovative writing. I sent MH one of my footnote poems earlier this year with little hope that it would be accepted. I’ve written a handful of these kinds of poems over the past year and they’ve been roundly rejected across the board. I know they’re good poems and innovative in a way that’s interesting, so it had been really hard to get those particular rejections. But Fin accepted one and has since published it at MH. An editor willing to go places other editors won’t was immediately intriguing to me, so I was happy to talk with him about MH and more about his aesthetic and how he came up with it. The interview took place over the course of a week and, as far as I understand it, on his cell phone for Fin, for the most part.
SHELDON LEE COMPTON: Hey Fin. Buddy it’s good to get a chance to talk with you. I feel journals like Mannequin Haus and a handful of others are the lifeblood of literature right now. Fiction and poetry has never moved an inch forward or in any interesting direction at all by playing it safe and moving away from the risks. Any writer or any journal doing this, working the front lines of change and innovation, has my immediate attention and loyalty. How much of this kind of thinking was at play for you when starting the journal?
FIN SORREL: A ton of thinking about the literary norm, the accepted status quo, and formalities had made me very angry as I cautiously, and with great disdain, began sending out my first book. Ten years prior, writing for me was an escape from the status quo, (I was reading Les Chants de Maldoror and living on the street, it was not a business, it was my passion, another an act of creation, just like painting was, or drawing. I was not as much the authority (or author) but something else, the wizard, casting long, aimless spells of reality-bending- surrealism like in Teacup Galaxy, a story I wrote during that time period, which is being released in a collection from Pski Porch Press in October. That story is a good example of how I approached the conversation with the literary underground world. As the rejections poured in for the first ten years, I realized I had to tighten up my style, or go back to painting, and normalize my experiments, if I wasn’t very strong, this would have killed me. I might have given up, and I think this is a real danger with some these journals, they are trying to act all coy, they act unapproachable, kind of reminds me of a yuppie attitude, looking down on a homeless man or woman. I saw a whole platform for the elite, and powerful, and rich. I felt the underrepresented people of this country and the world needed a journal they could send their weirdest, most ridiculous out of control, surreal writing to and have acceptance. That is why I started Mannequin Haus.
SLC: That’s an amazing reason for starting a journal, to give voice to the under-represented in the literary world. So you’ve went a level further than indie and started focusing on the underground, which is great. I’ve most frequently thought along these lines when considering journals such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, etc. You’re not getting into to those places unless you meet certain strange criteria. I say strange, because exposure shouldn’t really depend on having already been exposed. But there is certainly a level of this sort of thing in the lower tier journals. So what if Mannequin Haus received a submission from George Saunders? Would you give him serious consideration or would you actually prefer work from new writers doing new things with new tools, so to speak? And, building on that question, what is the near perfect or perfect submission for you as an editor?
FS: If George Saunders submitted something to us, I’d probably be interested only if his work showed me something curious. Personally, I am a fairly moody reader, some days I want to read ancient Chinese fiction, and some days I want to read Harmony Korine. I publish a lot of authors who are experimenting with formatting, and I really enjoy seeing some new spin on how an author tells a story or presents a scene in a play, the voice they choose, diction, and I do really look for experimental authors who are breaking any of the rules. I get a lot of submissions from people who consider what they are doing experimental, and it is not anything of the sort, I also get a lot of stuff where people think cruel scenes of violence is surreal, I don’t normally take these kinds of things, unless the work can somehow reveal both sides. A perfect submission would be something that pushes the reader outside of themselves, and takes them to a new place. I really like the work Kobo Abe, and I would love to publish an author who is doing something similar to what he was doing. I’ve yet to see that.
SLC: I read Kobo Abe earlier this year (The Woman in the Dunes) and didn’t care for it very much. But I’m eager to read The Box Man. I feel like I was maybe in the wrong head space to read him at the time. I did enjoy his style, though. What aspects of his work are you thinking of when you say “doing something similar” for writers out there working? And building on that thought, do you think innovation in writing comes from experimentation or more from a sense of originality?
FS: I guess I shouldn’t name drop too much here. I haven’t read The Woman in the Dunes, but I saw the movie, and it wasn’t the best. I read The Box Man, and I loved it. A Face of Another is also good. Kangaroo Notebook was my favorite. I feel like authors today hide behind their voice, they maybe milk it too long. It’s interesting to see someone who can write many different styles, blending them together. I guess they call this a hybrid, which I like. It’s like a mixed media painting, art work. I request literary art writing in my submission page, so I call it literary art, but hybrid is similar, I suppose. Innovation in writing comes out in quite a few different forms. Sometimes it is from a life in academia, personal study, or diy. But the point is the innovations usually come way after the experimental stages, when an author has tried all the known styles and can now come into their work knowing how the will approach. Others may be natural story tellers, who once they can create a flow working with equipment like computers, recording devices, can delve deep into subterranean worlds and take us on wild rides. There are some who cannot see their work become too absurd, who create this other kind of absurd that is so close to reality that it almost breaks us in two, choosing which reality that we need to occupy.
SLC: That sounds really interesting, an absurd that is so close to reality it almost breaks us in two. What are some examples of work like this? If there are certain writers you’re thinking of, who are they? Do you have any links to their work you could include here? In regard to the second question, you are the one and only editor who has accepted for publication one of my footnote poems, the poem “Psychedelic Death Shroud” and for that I’m eternally grateful. I had given up on those poems (I have others and am working on a collection of them now) finding homes due to rejections that had piled up. Do you actively seek out work that seems innovative to the point of strange?
FS: I don’t actively seek out much work. When Cassidy Rios Kane was on board as editor, he did actively troll the internet in search of some of the most amazing authors. I leave it up to authors to approach me, but there is a rare case when I will approach an author, requesting submissions. I do, though, look for in people’s submissions, for something a bit amiss, something off in it. Something vulnerable, and strange and human.
SLC: At what point will innovative writing require a return to traditional forms and concepts? Or do you feel this circular tendency doesn’t apply to literature?
FS: I think it returns to traditional forms all of the time, and will most likely always do so. I think in anything there is a point where you get to diminishing returns, and a lot of experimental writing can risk this danger, I enjoy writing that follows some kind of theme, but goes off into many unsettling areas and returns in a way back to the place, I feel like there is a danger to go off the rails and lay there crashed. Instead of getting back on the line. The end, end of story, I find this to be a bit of a waste of time, and energy, but it happens to me personally in my writings all of the time. There is always this idea for me that I am having fun with it, so there are no risks, just the act of writing or not writing. If I am not writing, why should I beat myself up, I am not interested, do not have a plan, or the energy, if I am writing, why should I always push myself to make something like a Hollywood movie, or a Stephen King story if that is not how I write, I mean if I cannot get published so be it, I will continue to write no matter what.
SLC: Tell me a little about the first few months operating Mannequin Haus, the early stages, those first few weeks reading submissions. At what point did submissions begin matching the aesthetic?
FS: My first call was an awfully quick return, everyone in my circle is pretty odd, so it makes sense. I was staying with friends in a hotel room in Biloxi, Mississippi, basically draining off the gambling world, for free rooms and drinks, buffets, we had it made for a week. After three years of traveling, this was much needed down time, and I had already been getting submissions, Anyway, they have these free printers and computers that you can use if you’re a guest at the hotel, so I printed out my manuscript for Caramel floods, (Pski Porch Press, 2017) and built the first issue of Mannequin Haus. They tried to kick me out, the security thought I was a vagrant who had wandered in and was using the computers, which I essentially was, but not this time. I had a room number and they had to apologize to me personally, that was how i knew this would all work out in the end.
SLC: How often do you work closely with submitting writers on aspects of their work before publication? It seems editing is a disappearing art in the independent lit world. Do you accept a piece that shows promise but might need a little editorial guidance? And lastly, do you traffic in form rejections?
FS: I do not use rejections, I simply accept or you do not hear back, (unless I lost the email, this means I cannot use your work). I hate getting rejections, it slows my wave of madness. Creative intentions have a flow; rejections are a waste of time, and a waste of words in my opinion. I don’t want to do that to others. they will find publication somewhere, on their way to the top, if they send out only one thing at a time, I wouldn’t want to break someone’s heart, because it breaks mine to see half of the journals reject my voice. Timing is a big thing. If I have a ton of time and an author requests to work on their piece with me, I would be more than happy to help, or add my two cents, but no one has really done that yet.