I was interested in transformation and boundaries, human potential, archetypes, the imagination, madness and sanity...

Dodge & Burn by Seraphina Madsen

Dodge and Burn
By Seraphina Madsen

Sometimes you find the right book, other times the right book finds you, as if by magic or some kind of cosmic synchronicity. Dodge & Burn by Seraphina Madsen seemed to find me. Admittedly, I was looking for something out of the ordinary and preferably something from a small press but immediately I was drawn to this debut novel – debut for the author and debut for Dodo Ink, the small press that was helped into being by a successful Kickstarter campaign just last year. Beyond the bright cover, like a nouvelle vague film poster, I was drawn to the book’s promise of a psychedelic road trip full of cosmic energy and inspired by the likes of Kerouac and Castaneda. It didn’t disappoint. Wanting to keep following the cosmic path I found myself on, I decided I should try and contact the author. Seraphina kindly agreed to answer some questions…

1.      Dodo Ink is a new press with big ambitions. Tell us how you became involved with them as one of their first authors.

James Miller, one of my tutors at Kingston University, was keeping an eye out for independent presses he thought might be a good fit for a novella I was working on, so when Sam Mills announced the birth of Dodo Ink, he sent her the link to the first part of Dodge and Burn, which had been published as a short story, “Hunt for American Heiress Continues…” in The White Review. Everyone at Dodo Ink read the story and thought it was wonderful, so she contacted me and asked if I had a novel. Even though Dodge and Burn wasn’t finished, she was still interested in reading it.

Seraphina Madsen

Seraphina Madsen

     Based on that submission, Dodo Ink decided to offer me a contract. Sam Mills, along with my agent, Jessica Craig, convinced me to lengthen it into a novel and there were at least ten drafts before the final manuscript. Even then, I didn’t think it was ready but it had to be finished at some point and I realized I wouldn’t ever be completely happy with it.      

    2.      From what I’ve read, Dodge & Burn had quite a gradual gestation and development. Can you tell us a little bit about this? Is it a typical way for your writing projects to develop?

The beginning of Dodge and Burn was a short story submission for an experimental fiction module at Kingston University. It chronicles the childhood of two girls kidnapped in the Maine forest where their captor moulds and programs their minds and bodies with psychological and biological experiments. The girls turn to ancient and occult practices as a means of escape. It was inspired by the recollection of a short story I’d written at seventeen with a malefic Dr Vargas, children, and killer bees, told in a magical realist style. Not long after I submitted the story several tutors emailed to congratulate me on having had a breakthrough. They all agreed I should submit it to literary magazines and try to gain publication.

     It was wonderful news, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to have it out there. My instinct was to put it in a drawer and not look at it again, or at least, not for a very long time. It was too personal, albeit in an abstract way, somewhere between fable and parable. My father told me it was quite autobiographical. My sister couldn’t get past the second page. Then Lee Rourke read the short story, thought it was excellent and sent it on to The White Review, who wanted to publish it. I decided to bite the bullet and reasoned that the kind of work I wanted to do involved risks and part of that was digging deep and writing things that were difficult.   

     My final project for Kingston University was an American road trip novel influenced by Henry Miller, the Beats, Anais Nin, Marguerite Duras, Roberto Bolaño, Hunter S Thompson, and Quentin Tarantino films. It was a failure, but I was still interested in using the same influences with the idea of paying homage to Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, et al. while subverting the intensely male gaze in their narratives which end up painting two dimensional women who sparkle like baubles or else erupt into fury with no depth to sustain them. To counter this the protagonist of my road trip novel would be a strong and complex woman, the catalyst and architect of the adventure, on a quest with her husband beside her as a side kick, rugged and beautiful, the male archetype of Paul Newman coolness, who supports rather than eclipses the heroine.

     In terms of structure I wanted to create a Russian doll effect, a story within a story, and saw immediately how I could use “Hunt for American Heiress Continues…” as a framing device for the novel with the American road trip taking center stage. I couldn’t quite let go of Eugenie, even though I wanted to. The story raced through my head and became an obsession. I then wrote an entirely new American road trip novel with Eugenie as the protagonist, which turned out to be much more mystical and Castaneda-esque than the first had been.  

3.      Dodge & Burn is full of mysticism, magical rituals and occult knowledge. How much of it stems from your own interests and how much came out of research and discovery?

I grew up in the US where the influence of Christianity is quite pervasive yet from a young age I remember believing that everything was alive, everything had a consciousness, that the birds and dogs and all animals were just as intelligent and nuanced and emotive as human beings, and that I could communicate with them, which was a kind of animism looking back in hindsight. My parents were atheists but I drew pictures of Jesus as a child and cried and told them I believed there was a God.

     I developed an interest in social anthropology at a young age and became fascinated by the belief systems and folklore of other cultures. So, I suppose the subjects have interested me for a while. Colin Wilson was a huge influence on ideas explored in Dodge and Burn. His studies of the occult and mystical practices are very enlightening and intriguing. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge by social anthropologist Jeremy Narby on his experience with Peruvian natives and their ayahuasca rituals also greatly informed the novel.

     Alexandra David-Neel’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet, an account of the author’s sixteen year travels through Tibet from 1911 to 1929 at a time when women of high society did not travel alone and foreigners were forbidden entrance into the country, was a revelation. The world David-Neel depicted and the way she constructed it gave me a lot to think about and learn from, in terms of content and style, as well as being a rich resource of Tibetan mystical culture. In terms of character, David-Neel had the kind of strength and devotion I wanted to create in my heroine. So, this was a very important book for me. 

     I could go on, but I will leave it there and say also that Carlos Castaneda’s writings on Don Juan were also instrumental in the creation of Dodge and Burn.

4.      The opening part of the book felt like it could be a Wes Anderson film and then it becomes a Kerouacian, mystic road trip. It’s an exciting combination and felt like the kind of book I haven’t read in a long time. Is it just my reading habits or do you think it’s a type of story that is less common now?

I envisioned the novel as Pan’s Labyrinth meets a David Lynchian, Tarantinoesque road trip. I see what you mean about the Wes Anderson. I was interested in portraying childhood and magic against brutal realities, as well as the dangers of magic which is so beautifully and powerfully realised in Guillermo del Toro’s film.

     I’m not sure if this kind of novel is less common now. I tried to create a delirious, unscrewed atmosphere similar to Kerouac’s in On the Road, as well as a search for identity and forging a place in society in one’s twenties, on the bohemian edge of society.

     In terms of content and style I wanted to have a magical realist bent with elements of horror, of adventure and a quest, unashamedly postmodern in design with influences from Nabokov to Joseph Campbell, to Carlos Castaneda, Colin Wilson and Carl Jung, as well as the films of David Lynch, Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino. I was interested in transformation and boundaries, human potential, archetypes, the imagination, madness and sanity, mysticism and everyday reality. Haruki Murakami also addresses many of these themes and has similar concerns. Stylistically, Dodge and Burn is quite different from his work though I would say. People have told me that it resembles some of Tom Robbins’ novels. I think it might be closest to Castaneda.   

5.      Dogs play important companions in your book and are a constant presence. Do you have a dog?

I don’t have a dog now but I grew up with dogs. The white wolfish dog called Hemingway in Dodge and Burn was inspired by a dog my father had rescued in Alaska of the same name. He was a bit of a dog whisperer and always used to bring home stray dogs as a child and into his teens. Someone mistook Hemingway for a wolf and shot him. I have a photo of the dog in a field of marigolds and wanted to bring him into the story.

6.      Dodge & Burn is your first book and came out in the summer of 2016. What kind of a change or impact has it had on your life since then?

Working with Dodo Ink and having an incredible agent, Jessica Craig, has been wonderful. I can’t believe my luck. I’ve met a lot of interesting and inspiring people through the publishing process. Readings are difficult. It’s something I really need to work on. I’ve been bowled over by the positive reviews but I’ve remained sceptical of the work still, personally.

7.      Tell us a little about your writing habits and your current set up.

I can’t really seem to write anywhere but in my flat, at my desk which is low to the ground because I have low ceilings. There’s a tree out the window so it feels like a treehouse. I write mainly at night these days.

Writing among the trees

Writing among the trees

8.      What was the last thing you were doing right before answering these questions? What are you looking forward to after answering these questions?

I was reading a first-hand account written in 1879 of a party who goes hunting for lynx in the Maine forest. It’s part of the research for my next novel. I’m looking forward to reading or going to sleep.

9.      What are your plans for 2017? Can you talk about what you are currently working on?

I’m researching for the next novel which is going to take place after the American Civil War in Maine on a homestead. I’m hoping in two weeks I’ll be able to begin writing it. That’s my plan for the next three years at least.