An Interview with Michael Sonbert
We Are Oblivion is a badass of a novel. This story is as dark and gritty as they come. It features scenes of physical and sexual violence than could make hardened criminals wince. The author, Michael Sonbert, certainly doesn’t pull his punches. That being said, WAO is a fascinating story featuring characters that will stay with the reader for a long time. Sonbert’s prose is refreshing and honest, and to write this off as simply an exercise in violence would be a sorry mistake indeed.
The protagonist is Stephen Mansfield, an ex-professional boxer who has rather severe mental impairment as a result of his career. Together with a pregnant prostitute named Fancy, (not her real name, Mansfield suffers from amnesia and can’t usually remember what she’s actually called) he leads us across America on a voyage the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
Mansfield wants nothing more than to piece together his fractured past. In order to do so he must undertake a journey that takes him to dark and brutal places, a journey that seems to be taking him not only across space, but also across time. Surreally, it seems that the very timeline he lives in might be falling apart alongside his mind.
WAO is Sonbert’s second novel, following 2008’s The Never Enders. With this new tale, he pushes the boundaries of what a novel can do. This book is nihilistic and disturbing and all the more memorable for being that way. Michael was kind enough to answer me a few questions about the monster he has created and unleashed upon the world.
You can find the book at Otherworld Publications here.
Hi Michael, welcome to Solarcide.
Right on. Thanks for having me.
First off, I’d like to ask about how We Are Oblivion came into being. There are many curious aspects to this tale, but the end results are somewhat akin to a road trip to hell and halfway back again. What were the ideas and inspirations that originally seeded this story for you?
I’ve always been fascinated by people who do whatever they want. I think a part of me has always wanted to be like that. So I wrote a book about two people who exist outside of what most people think is normal. They don’t adhere to the same rules or conventions as the rest of us. They do what they want and they don’t care what happens.
Mansfield is a very memorable character. For me, a brain-damaged boxer is the perfect set up for an unreliable narrator. It’s something I hadn’t seen used before but it let you work in the sensory loss and the amnesia and have it feel natural. How did he come about? Was he always this way or did he change along the journey from first draft to finished novel?
You’re right. It was the perfect setup for what I needed to do. And the fact that the back of the book blurb talks all about it, really helps people buy into it. Perhaps, without them even knowing it. He changed in the sense that he needed to have some grasp on reality. In the first draft his thoughts were so random and scattered. It was hard to follow. At least now, his dementia is somewhat controlled.
This is a very violent book and there are also some rather grotesque scenes of a sexual nature. General opinion seems to be that you handled these aspects impeccably and comparisons have been made to writers such as Bret Ellis and Hubert Selby. However, I’ve seen more than one person refer to WAO as the sickest thing they’ve ever read. I’m guessing this is something that took a fair bit of consideration on your behalf, how did you gauge how far you needed to take it? Did you ever wonder if you’d gone too far?
Yeah, in the first few drafts it was too much. Especially Mansfield. He’d done some things that made him totally unlikeable. Really terrible things. I couldn’t deal with that. Some people might not like him now and that’s fine. But I like him now and I really needed to get to that point. So some of the sick stuff was eliminated there and I also took out anything that I thought got in the way of the story. But I’ll tell ya, I was a bit worried about how the book would be received. I thought I’d be locked away or something. But people seem to dig it so far.
Another element you throw into the mix is a sort of decaying of the timeline your characters are living through. Was this hard to implement, and how did you choose where to take them? Did you spend a lot of time researching these historical events in order to have Mansfield and Fancy gatecrash?
Not a ton of time researching. Just enough to find a way to get the two of them into a situation and then out again without disturbing too much. I focused on what some people were wearing and certain dates but really didn’t do much beyond that. I always liked how Forrest Gump” comes in contact with all these famous people and how he’s involved in all these transcendent events. So, this is almost like a demented “Forrest Gump.”
Your bio tells me you’re a musician as well as an author. Does music have much of an impact on your writing? Also, what’s the deal with Rio, why is Mansfield obsessed with that particular song? It’s a pretty obscure choice for a novel released in 2011. Are you a Duran Duran fan?
I like Duran Duran but I’m not a huge fan or anything. I just think it’s a cool song. Plus it’s a girl’s name and you know why that’s important. The video is big and memorable and there’s water and a beach and it just all kind of fit. As far as music, writing lyrics has had the biggest impact on my writing. People often ask who my favorite authors are. I don’t have any. I do have favorite lyricists though. Writing lyrics forces you to condense your ideas, to get them into a certain time frame, and to make sure they have a musical, rhythmic quality. I hope that comes through in my writing.
WAO is your second novel. How did the process of writing and then publishing differ between this book and The Never Enders? Do you consider yourself a better writer now, and was it easier to get a publisher to take notice of your work this time around?
Yeah, I think I’m a better writer now. But because of how dark the book is, it wasn’t easy to get noticed. A few houses really dug it but then turned away at the last minute because of the content. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do but then Brandon Tietz signed with Otherworld. He opened the door for me and I stepped right on through. They really get it over there. They’re still learning obviously, but they’re committed to doing great things and that’s pretty damn cool.
Finally, I’d like to ask you about the ending of the book, as the last chapter is something I have noticed is dividing opinion. You credit your father for giving you the ending, also your fellow Vespertine author Brandon Tietz told me in a book club discussion that an early draft he read didn’t contain this chapter. How come you changed your mind? Care to weigh in on why you went with the ending you did?
The chapter was always in there except in the earlier versions, it ended without any clear resolution. You’re not certain as to what happened. I don’t mind some confusion but having every single person who read it, have no idea what happened at the end, was too much for me to take. My dad asked some questions and without realizing it, gave me the ending I have now. I’m much happier with it.
Many, many thanks for your time, Michael. I wish you continued success with this book and all the best for any future projects you are planning. Rock on, man!
Cheers Martin. Thanks so much.
Michael Sonbert, a New York born novelist, currently teaches English and composition to eighth grade students in South Philadelphia at Mastery Charter Schools, a nationally recognized leader in school turnarounds. His second novel, We Are Oblivion, a nihilistic journey of discovery and destruction, is due in stores May 2011 through Otherworld Publications.
Sonbert’s debut novel, The Never Enders, was released by New York publishing house, Brick Tower Press, in November 2008 to high praise and outstanding reader feedback. Daily Candy called The Never Enders, “a nonstop ride through a mental home.” Chuck Palahniuk’s official website, The Cult said, “Sonbert’s voice is so authentically young…it brought to mind Bret Easton Ellis.” Daniel Alleva of Charged by the System called the book “…a sledgehammer to the psyche…” while Lauren Becker of Shooting Stars Magazine said The Never Enders, “…is full of passion and twists.”
Aside from writing novels, Sonbert also writes rock music as a lead singer and lyricist. His current band, Royal Slang, is presently in the studio writing songs for a debut record. His former band, The Never Enders, released its first album, Air Raid Romance, on Indianola Records (IndianolaRecords.com) in 2006, followed by Dance Party in Hell, released by Chamberlain Records (ChamberlainRecords.com) in 2008.
Sonbert was a member of two prominent New York writer’s groups, The Biggs and Voxvocis, and has performed at venues such as Bowery Poetry Club, KGB Bar, and Cornelia Street Café, where he has captivated audiences with his rapid-fire, high-energy performances.