Friday, May 27, 2005

The Kind I'm Likely to Get, revisited

Jarod Kintz, a student at Florida State University, recently conducted an email interview with me regarding my collection of stories "The Kind I'm Likely to Get," which his class has been studying. The class surprised me with a conference call the first day of their reading from the book, and then he followed up via email. I decided to post the interview here, since there isn't a whole lot of Ken-centric content on my site.

1. On the speakerphone when we called you up in class, you said your style of writing is minimalism. In what ways do you feel minimalism conveys a more focused message within the stories?

I think it is more focused, more immediate, perhaps as if you've just walked into a room where the characters are already engaged in a scene and you can't help but become involved in some way. Obviously not everything can or should be written in this way--there are many stories that require a denser style--but more often I find myself wishing that writers would simply focus on their characters and find what is interesting and humane in their own work, rather than fluffing everything up with style.

2. On the phone you mentioned that your writing reads like a diary. That you find diaries are more honest and believable. Can you elaborate more on this?

I think there's an immediacy, an intimacy to a diary, and also a shorthand, because the writer intends for it to be read only by themselves, so they say things they might not ever reveal otherwise. But they also believe so strongly in the truth of what they are saying--becuase it actually HAS happened to them--that they don't go overboard in trying to convince. I think fiction writers, including me, tend to worry a lot and work to hard at convincing, and then as readers we can become suspicious. The easiest example is the misguided use of superlatives: It was the most disturbing thing...or the funniest...or it was unbelievable, etc. Anything that follows those words is bound to be disappointing.

3. You also mentioned that you write about things that scare you. Are these characters in your stories representative of your feelings of estrangement?

I think the stories represent moments in the characters lives, and probably my own, but they aren't meant to suggest an ongoing mood in either my life or the characters. As dark as some of the pieces are, I think they are just pieces...and we all have those moments where we wonder how we got here, or how we can get out of the hole we've dug for ourselves. Usually, we try to put those moments aside and forget about them. Unless we are writers, and then you want to take those feelings and dig deeper if you can. I also think some of the humor in the stories comes from how seriously the characters take things that are really just fleeting moments in their lives.

4. You said you and Chuck Palahniuk were classmates. I see a lot of similarities in your work, besides the style of minimalism. His characters in some of his stories all seem disenfranchised as well. Did you guys share similar experiences in college?

We actually didn't go to college together. It was after college, and we both ended up in a class taught by Tom Spanbauer in his kitchen in Portland. Tom was a former student of Gordon Lish, who was also the editor of Carver and Hempel and other minimalists, so there are certain aspects of style that we all share, and also it was really pushed on us to reveal things that others might shy away from...

5. Thinking back on your college days, either undergraduate or grad school, what is one piece of advice that you vividly remember a professor telling you?

In grad school at Columbia, Helen Schulman told me that I was really good with a punchline, and so maybe I should try avoiding them. I'd been writing lots of smart, sarcastic, empty stories that felt "good" because they had lots of jokes in them, or sometimes not even jokes but things that sounded funny. But there was nothing beneath the surface.

6. In your stories, the characters all seem to bounce around. Some from New York to Portland, to California, and some even bounce around within New Orleans. In what ways do these cities represent America? Were these places chosen to intensify the feeling of 'estrangement', as you perfectly stated on the phone?

They were all places that I'd lived in a short period of time, so they were familiar to me, and also the characters I'd been writing about seemed to be bound in some way to all of these places, and to bouncing around between these cities, just as I had done. I was curious, and perhaps a little concerned, at the directionless ambitions of many of the people I met in all of these places, and, in fact, several of them showed up, in real life, at several of these locations. There was sense of this population of people connected in the disconnectedness.

7. With settings like New York and Portland, your characters mostly seem to exist in places you've lived. Have you ever lived in New Orleans? If you did, did New Orleans character as a city (loose morals and lots of partying) affect your outlook on life as reflected in your writing?

I have lived in New Orleans, and hope to be living there again soon. But the thing about New Orleans is that most of the loose living is done by the tourists, not by the locals. The one thing I did learn from and admire is that in New Orleans you are never reduced to being just what you do for a living. Whether you are a waiter or a lawyer, your life is something that you do outside of your job.

8. Name three authors that have influenced you, and in what ways?

Oh, I hate this question. There are so many writers who I love but I don't know that they have actually influenced me, and many others who have influenced me yet I don't think I am anything like them. But I'll pick three off the top of my head:

Mary Gaitskill, because her characters, in her collections Bad Behavior and Because They Wanted To, she makes us feel something for characters who are never heroic.

Denis Johnson, for the gorgeous way he writes about ugly things.

Sheila Kohler, who was the first teacher who took my writing, or my desire to write, seriously. And, like the others, because her own work is unforgivably dark.

Other important people, as far as I'm concerned: Joyce Carol Oates, Ernest Gaines, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen.


9. In the story, "The Circuit," Kevin is lost. He is searching for meaning through meaningless situations and aimless friends. Does he represent your struggle for belonging? In the end there is a character with a good book and a guitar riff. Does this character represent you finding yourself and figuring out that you are on the outside, and that's ok?

I actually wrote that story after having a great trip to visit friends in Portland, but like the story "Indelible," it is about my feeling split between two places at once. I missed Portland, but even though I enjoyed visiting again, it really didn't have anything to do with my life at that point. Also, it seemed I was identified in New York as being from the West and in Portland I was a New Yorker. The first line "Kevin flies to Portland to tell stories about his life in New York" came to me, and made me laugh, so I continued with it. I used a lot of famiilar details from Portland, to ground it, and I really had trouble figuring out the end, because I knew there wasn't one for this particular character. It seemed like that moment, of him looking at someone sitting alone with a book and music spilling out a window, suggested an epiphany on his part, but I hoped that readers might also see how empty or anti-social it might be.

10. Your writing is very diverse. You blend wit, melancholy and humor in a very intellectually stimulating manner. How do you maneuver all those elements into each story?

When I knew that I was writing a collection, I began to make a point of not repeating myself too much. There were obvious recurring themes in the stories, but I wanted to push each story in a different direction, some more funny, some more dark, some more blunt and poetic. I'm influenced as much by music as I am by writing, and so even the pattern of reintroducing some characters, dialogue and ideas comes from the musical structure. I also literarally put the pages out in front of me, across a room at Yaddo (an artist colony), so that I could see how much time/space each scene and story was holding. These days, with computers, too many people write without ever looking beyond the paragraph that is in front of them on the screen.

I'm working on a new collection now, and find myself doing some of the same things with trying to hold the stories together and make them diverse as well. I'm currently working on a story about a funeral, and I realized that I actually have several stories now about death, and several of them involve violent deaths, so I'm pointedly pushing one of these stories in a new direction. The death is still an element, but it isn't the story itself.


11. Although I've never read his works, I heard you have been compared to Raymond Carver. What characteristics as writers do you both share?

When I was in graduate school, people told me I was obviously influenced by Carver, and I was afraid to say that I hadn't ever read his work. I wondered if I should go read it, since I was supposedly influenced by him, but I decided not to, because I didn't want to get too self-conscious about whatever it was we might share. Of course, I've read his work now. He's a minimalist too, although I really hate that term. I don't really think that people should all write a particular way, but that people should write the way that is necessary for the story they are telling. Sometimes that is quiet and simple, sometimes not. I guess the things I might also share with Carver are the occassional setting of stories in the Pacific Northwest, the desire to find "story" in simple scenes and conflicts. Maybe?


12. Finally, what advice do you have for an aspiring writer who wants to perfect his/her craft?

To write and read as much as possible. To push yourself to try things that you think won't work. To take classes from as many different kinds of writers as possible, and steal a little bit from each of them.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Francine Prose on neurotic motherhood and the perils of reading your own reviews

In Francine Prose’s latest novel, “A Changed Man,” Bonnie Kalen, a foundation fundraiser, surprises her teenage boys with a thirty-two year old Neo-Nazi whom she invites into the home in the same way some people might welcome a stray puppy. And like a stray puppy, Vincent Nolan, the skinhead in question, is looking for a reprieve from his wild early ways. But stray humans need not camp outside Prose’s door. “It’s not tendency of mine,” Prose says of Bonnie’s compulsion to open her home to a stranger. “My husband (the artist Howie Michels) says that his father was always bringing home strays of one sort or another, but that was not something I did.”

That fictional leap wasn’t enough keep Prose from identifying with her characters. “Everything I know about neurotic motherhood went into Bonnie,” Prose cheerfully confesses, “and there’s plenty, believe me.” The mother of two sons—both now grown—Prose spent the early part of her writing career augmenting her novelist wages by writing pieces on “How to Get Your Kids to Eat Vegetables.” That is, until her sons told her to stop. “Having kids was so transformative in that way, going from a reasonably calm person into this worried wreck, as if overnight.”

Prose published her first novel in 1973, after “failing out of graduate school. It was life-saving. It was the only thing I could do.” Yet, even after more than a dozen books and numerous awards and acclaim, the publication process has always rattled her. “In general,” she admits,”I’ve been saying that publication is the punishment for writing, but so far—and I’m knocking on wood—the experience (with “A Changed Man”) has been so whatever-the-opposite-of-punitive is. But its nerve-wracking because you do feel a little bit like the dream in which you are walking around having forgotten to put your clothes on. Its that kind of vulnerability.” And it’s not just the bad reviews that sting. “In the past I’ve surprised at how a good review can make you just as unhappy as a bad one. But people have been getting the book, they’ve been understanding what I’ve been trying to do. It makes me feel very encouraged about having gotten across what my intention was.”