- 10 Questions: Saint X
- Pampered Pet Tours with Professor
- Ray, we hardly knew ye…
- Interview with Kirk Nesset, Our Flash Fiction Contest Judge
- Nesset Captures National Award
- On meeting author Kirk Nesset and writing flash fiction…
- A Conversation between Kirk Nesset and Nicelle Davis
- Pitt News Interview
31 Mar 2013
TEN QUESTIONS FOR KIRK NESSET’S SAINT X
(These ten questions were posed as part of Lois Marie Harrod’s blog interview series. See below for the other interview links.)
What is the title of your book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I’m not sure that the book began with an idea, and don’t recall where or when the title arose, or the ideas associated with the title. The book was accepted eight years ago, and just appeared in December. Some of the poems that make up the collection I wrote 20 or more years ago in Los Angeles, one of the more apocalyptic cities I know.
What genre does your book fall under?
What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I wouldn’t call the haunted entities inhabiting my pages “characters”– but if pressed to the wall, I’d say maybe Grace Zabriskie, Vincent Shiavelli, Crispin Glover, Tilda Swinton, Klaus Kinski.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Saint X chronicles the joy and despair of a millennial age, charting love’s ills and the grind of mortality; its human figures are honored if not saved by nuanced reflection, measured perception and the pleasures of song.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book was published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press (Nacogdoches, TX). They did a great job on Saint X, it’s a beautiful, carefully-made book, and I’m pleased and proud to be part of their catalogue.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I think I had an early version of the manuscript together after nine or ten years of writing poems. But six more years passed before I had anything that looked like the book Saint X became.
What other books would you compare this one to within your genre?
That’s a tough question. Ideally, a new book of poems is nothing like anything else that’s been written, but informed by everything I’ve ever read or experienced. Neruda has always had great impact on me. As has Rumi. Rilke, Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Marvin Bell and Gerald Stern figure here, too. Especially Gerald Stern.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Though it doesn’t look or sound or feel much like Saint X, Stern’s staggeringly lovely Lucky Life is behind everything I do, I think, in my own book, and in the book I’m finishing now. I wouldn’t say, though, that Saint X rose out of an act of inspiration. The poems seemed to arrive on their own, almost unbidden, and at some point a pattern emerged, a gravitational energy.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Its intensity and oddness, I’d say. It’s not a casual or typical read — whatever that means. Its figures are bizarre but familiar. People born under punches, shaken by rattles and flares, latter-day pilgrims who stare at the statue that stares at America; people for whom disobedience is still a first duty, and death but a question of style. People wearing bandages rather than smiles, perversely on foot while the saddled horse follows. People who seem to survive and still seem to be laughing. “[T]hese poems,” as Li-Young Lee notes of Saint X, “will make you think twice, think again, and feel glad that such an unsettling imagination is at work in poetry.”
If the book unsettles Li-Young, well, I guess I’ve done all I can.
For more info on Saint X, click HERE
(By Sunday, April 6, 2013, another writer will be added to the list of those interviewed. Please check back here.)
Previous Interviews include:
Vassiliki Katsarou http://raggedsky.com/blog
Adrianne Kalfopoulou http://www.adriannekalfopoulou.com/articles/round_robin.htm
For further reading: http://loismarieharrodblogger.blogspot.com
05 Jan 2013
Pampered pet tours with professor
The Campus — Chelsea Fleishman (see original article )
Their friendship knows no bounds.
From work, to the gym and even at the bar, their complementary sets of luscious locks and pearly whites are iconic.
English Professor Kirk Nesset and his black Pomeranian, Ryan, are celebrities at Allegheny College.
“[They] stroll the Oddfellows hallway like a pair of gangsters,” said Kiley Fisher, ’13.
At last Thursday’s Single Voice Reading, Ryan listened attentively in the first row as Nesset read his flash fiction and poems he had translated.
“If Ryan’s not paying attention, I know I’m doing something wrong,” Nesset said.
Senior Michael Babeji recalled the time he and a few fellow students watched Ryan while Nesset’s band, Uncle John’s Band, played at Grounds for Change.
“All the while Ryan would intermittently bark, as if cheering for his owner,” Babeji said.
Nesset isn’t the only one performing for the public eye.
“Once, in the English department hallway, Kirk brought out a hula hoop and Ryan performed show tricks,” said William Brewer, ’11. ”In that moment he was the star, or, at least a part of the same star team.”
Ryan’s been jumping through hula hoops, wiping his feet on the carpet and even playing dead since his first summer with Nesset.
Just over four years ago, those big brown eyes gleamed at him through a pet store display case, melting Nesset’s heart and breaking his wallet.
Nesset admits that he was always more of a cat person, but his love for Ryan has slowly transformed him into a dog-lover.
It also helps that Ryan, who was raised with Nesset’s three cats, has developed catlike qualities.
“He’ll sit on the back of the couch and lick his paws or he’ll groom other people,” Nesset said.
Nesset feels that Ryan serves as an ice-breaker, particularly when he interacts with students from other schools.
“These are visiting writer-student-interactions that might not have happened without the dog intercession because, first, people want to see the dog, and then they talk about writing,” he said.
Kiley Fisher, ’13, attested to Ryan’s calming energy.
“He makes me feel a lot less nervous about proposing dumb story ideas and asking Kirk to help me with my life decisions,” she said. “Mostly because it’s easier to make eye contact with Ryan [than Kirk].”
Ryan is a registered service dog, having passed entry screening for physical soundness and temperament.
He has also been dubbed Oddfellows’ unofficial therapy dog.
According to Nesset, at least one student walks into his office every day with the sole intent of seeing Ryan. Students and faculty often drop by to play with the dog, sit on the couch with him or even take him for a walk.
Although Ryan’s company is what guests most often crave, it’s Nesset’s own personality traits that reveal why the dog is so adored.
Students describe their professor’s character as nurturing, engaging, attentive and calming, words that could easily be used to describe Ryan.
Brewer referred to the man-dog relationship as a team of sidekicks, portraying them as one entity rather than individual performers.
“It’s always that way, it seems, between man and dog,” Brewer said. “That’s why we love them.”
Regardless of the pressures of celebrity status, Nesset finds that Ryan has completely embraced his public role here at Allegheny.
“I think part of the psychology is that Ryan thinks he has a huge family here,” Nesset said.
01 Jan 2013
Kirk Nesset is an eclectic author and teacher who has deeply studied the works of Raymond Carver, and brings a fresh, empathic perspective to the life and work of the great short story artist. Below, my talk with Kirk about his own books as well as the life and prose of Carver.
Jill Dearman: There’s been a lot of ink lately (again!) about the love-hate relationship between Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish. As a Carver expert, what are your thoughts about the longer, original tales vs. the highly edited versions?
Kirk Nesset: Carver’s biography is just out, and it’s getting reviews, so the dead horse is getting beaten again. My feeling is that Carver benefited much from his interactions with Lish, in the same way Eliot needed and benefited from Pound, who edited him almost equally mercilessly. Carver’s stories are wonderful in their various ways, early to late, even if many from What We Talk About, the volume that Lish worked over most, seem bloodless and bare. I prefer the stories that Carver “restored,” I suppose, which is to say swelled out again after Lish cropped them dramatically. “A Small, Good Thing” and “So Much Water So Close to Home,” for example. They’re written with Lish’s restraint, even as they provide emotion fullness and, in each case, something like muted resolution. Still, they’re not the original stories. They’re closer to the originals—but tighter, more taut, and more strange. Harsh editing taught Carver a lot. He became his own Lish, his own axe, in the end, and it helped. The later stories do seem more generous, yes. They’re fuller. But they’re not hopeful, exactly. Or friendly.
What troubles me most about the debate is the fact that people continue to make such a fuss over it. The whole thing seems petty to me. Mean-minded. It smacks of territoriality, ownership. It seems to want to depict Carver as victim, either that or minimize him, make him less the unique writer he is. Carver was a better writer after Lish did what he did, ruthless as much of that editing seems. The drastically reduced stories of What We Talk About made the miracle of Cathedral possible. Cathedral embodies a compromise, or union, in terms of tone and delivery. Even if by that point Lish was out of the picture.
JD: You’ve published a lot in literary journals; do you see the world of short stories and poetry changing as the culture of publishing changes so rapidly?
KN: Things have changed a lot already, I think. There’s so much more fiction and poetry available now than when I began writing, it’s almost overwhelming. This isn’t just an internet phenomenon, either. With so many writing programs springing up around the country, things have proliferated. There are many, many more writers, and more readers, and more venues for writing and reading. Everybody seems to be starting a webzine, or print journal, or publishing company. I’m seeing more interest in flash and sudden fiction, too, in print and online, which pleases me much. Flash and sudden fiction are something the New York publishing machine is clearly not at all interested in. To say nothing of poetry!
JD: How much does your Northern California upbringing influence your writing, and after sixteen years in Pennsylvania, have you adjusted to your new home turf?
KN: I was raised in a small town west of Santa Rosa, near the coast. A tiny, very backwoods sort of place. So after years of apocalyptic Los Angeles, where I took my first teaching job, rural northwest Pennsylvania was a kind of homecoming, despite its harsh winters. I seem to operate less effectively as a writer in cities, except for short stints. Okay, a few things here still strike me as odd, and now and then oddly humbling. Like blue laws. In most parts of the country you can buy what you want whenever you want it, and not get taxed heavily. In most places you don’t still see people smoking in bars. Illiteracy isn’t uncommon in my county. Poverty and obesity are serious issues. It’s bracing. I’ve learned much in my years living here. I’ve met the place half-way, I suppose, and I’m not the same person, or writer, I was. My house at the edge of its forest is amazingly quiet, too. I need that to work. I can see deer and wild turkey from the window, and osprey and eagles. There’s a bear that crosses the road near my yard.
JD: What’s your writing practice like and what books have had the biggest influence on you?
KN: I tend to work in the morning on fiction and poetry, and translate in the afternoon. At the moment I’m working on several book-length projects simultaneously, which means there is plenty to do all the time. I have to force myself to take a day off, when I do. I’ve been away from teaching this whole year on sabbatical, actually, which has been a long weird wonderful dream—nothing to do for fifteen months but write, write, write, and read, and ride the mountain bike. As far as reading and influence go, I’ve been impacted by books, certain books, like most of us have. The Nancy Drew novels drew me in deeply, at a young age. As did the books of Zane Grey. An elementary school teacher I had read them aloud to the class each day after lunch, and wept during the sad parts. Jack London’s Martin Eden was impactful for me, as were Shakespeare’s plays, and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Lolita knocked me to pieces. As did The Sun Also Rises, and all of Flannery O’Connor, and later, Atwood’s Surfacing, DeLillo’s White Noise, Franzen’s The Corrections, and McCarthy’s The Road. Did I forget to say Carver? I studied him intensely, so I guess he’s in me for good. Even writers who haven’t read Carver can’t escape Carver, it seems. You read the work of other writers who have read him, who were altered or moved by him, and you absorb him that way.
JD: Thanks, Kirk. So for now, readers, I leave you with a question: what have your experiences with editors been like?
Interview with Kirk Nesset, Our Flash Fiction Contest Judge
See original article
Potomac Review’s Morgan Moyer virtually sits down with Kirk Nesset.
M: Do you start out, usually, intending to write a flash fiction piece? When and how do you know that what you’re working on will be flash?
KN: Lately, actually, it seems like I’m always starting out thinking I’m writing flash fiction. It’s less ponderous, less daunting, in terms of build-up, or planning. How awful can writing two or three pages be? Thirty or forty pages later, I’ll finally finish, pleased but bemused to see all it gained on its own, almost in spite of me and what I hoped to achieve. The flash format in cases like these is a spur, or a trigger. A trick to get the writer writing, thinking it won’t be such a big deal. Which isn’t to say the tiny tales aren’t big deals, and often hard to deliver. I spent three weeks working on “I’m Not Camille,” the title piece in my new manuscript of stories—a story barely four pages long. It fought me every step of the way.
M: What elements make up a good flash fiction piece, in your opinion?
KN: Brevity is essential, naturally. Which involves concision, compression, compactness, accelerated pacing, economy in delivery on all levels. Beyond and above and because of all this, we wind up with impact, and depth, especially in closing; we find the kind of universality one expects in a poem.
M: Do you have any advice for flash fiction writers?
KN: Write less, I would say, and read more. Read all the great works you can get your hands on, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf — and after, and before. Read Norton’s collections of flash and sudden fictions over and over. Study the pieces you like best, or find useful as models, with the attention of a jeweler examining texture and color in gems, and placement and setting. When you do write, revise your piece mercilessly. Seventy or eighty drafts are just the beginning.
M: Where do you see flash fiction going in the near and far future?
KN: That’s a tough question. In the near future, the profusion of mediocre micro tales will keep crowding the net. Farther down the road, flash fiction will help to save literature, I think. It’ll keep people reading—on their phones, on their pads, and in their heads, where much of what we know, or can know, or experience, will finally be downloadable, and downloaded.
Kirk Nesset is author of Paradise Road, Mr. Agreeable, and Alphabet of the World: Selected Works by Eugenio Montejo. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, others, and most recently The Potomac Review issue 48.
01 Jan 2013
“Nesset Captures National Award,” Interview in the Meadville Tribune (November, 2006)
November 10, 2006
By Mary Spicer
11/11/06 — Kirk Nesset was in his office at Allegheny College Thursday morning, just about to teach his 11 o’clock class, when the telephone rang. When he said “hello,” life as Nesset knows it changed forever.
Ed Ochester of University of Pittsburgh was on the line — calling to notify the associate professor of English and creative writing that he has been named 2007 winner of the coveted Drue Heinz Literature Prize.
“I was completely astounded,” Nesset recalled. “This just isn’t a ‘better’ achievement award for a writer of stories. It’s the ultimate.” In addition to $15,000 cash and publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press, “it’s an instant boost to anybody’s career — and a vote of confidence, I think.”
Designed to recognize and support writers of short fiction while making their work available to readers worldwide, the award has been described in PittChronicle, Newspaper of the University of Pittsburgh, as “one of the nation’s most prestigious awards for a book of short stories.” The competition is open to previously-published writers; manuscripts are judged anonymously by a different nationally-known writer each year.
Nesset’s winning manuscript, “Paradise Road,” was judged by Hilary Masters.
The short stories in “Paradise Road,” in Nesset’s words, “explore in their various ways the pitfalls we suffer trying to find lasting meaning in love, experiences that tear us to pieces, making us think trust won’t ever again be possible — experiences that lead us more deeply into ourselves, hopefully, into compassion for self, and for others.”
A formal announcement will be made by University of Pittsburgh Press in December or January.
“I’m tickled,” Nesset said with delight. “They kick us around for years and years and then they pick us up and dust us off and kiss us.”
Winner of the also-coveted Pushcart Prize in 1999, Nesset describes himself as “always working in multi-directions.” His latest project, for example, is “Alphabet of the World,” a translation of the poems of Eugenio Montejo, a Venezuelan poet. “I found that working in Spanish — and creating works of English out of Spanish — has really expanded my sense of what my own language can do,” Nesset said.
The translations themselves, he added, are selling like hotcakes. “Everyone loves translations. They love ethnicity, especially if it’s from countries that are in opposition to (President George W.) Bush. Montejo’s a great writer. I’ve learned a lot about him, and it’s very transforming to work in another writer’s mind. And to translate work from another way of thinking. Spanish and English are two different ways of thinking.”
Originally from northern California, in the western Sonoma County area north of San Francisco known as the Russian River region, Nesset studied at University of California Santa Cruz and University of California Santa Barbara. Before coming to Allegheny, he taught for four years at Whittier College in California.
Now in his 11th year at Allegheny, where he teaches fiction and poetry writing as well as a variety of courses exploring American and English literature, Nesset spends alternate summers as writer-in-residence at the Writers Center at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York.
Next weekend, however, he’ll be working in yet another direction, performing at Meadville Town Tavern singing and playing lead guitar for Unkle John’s Band. The music begins Friday night at 9:30 p.m.
Today I met the man Kirk Nesset, author of two short story collections (one of which, Paradise Road, I bought and am currently reading/enjoying), a critical study of the short stories of Raymond Carver, and a volume of translated works from the Spanish writings of Venezuelan Poet and Essayist, Eugenio Montejo, as part of my college’s Literary Festival. Today was to be Nesset’s reading and writing workshop; these events were wonderful, homely, and informative and entertaining at the same time, and it was a real pleasure to meet this man today.
Besides writing poems, stories, and non-fiction, Nesset teaches creative writing and literature at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. Though tall and young-looking with his blonde-colored bowl cut hair style, the man is rather soft-spoken, wise and contemplative in both voice and thought, and in our small talk with each other, I found a sophisticated innocence that exists strongly both within and despite the elements of his fiction writing (like I said, I am reading and enjoying his book of stories). In his reading today, I was inspired by the flow and poesy of words into composing three new poems for my 50 poem project. When I told him I was sorry if this was distracting to him after the presentation, the man laughed, and said, “No, it is actually flattering when one writer is inspired by another’s writing, reading, or both.” Then he continued showing off his Pomeranian, Ryan (whom I got to hold for a while during the writing workshop, by the way.)
In the hour-and-a-half-long workshop, Nesset introduced us to some flash fiction pieces and got us to exploring writing themes and plots from a miniaturist standpoint (this is my paraphrasing of his words, of course). As Nesset put it, if we can make it seem fresh, inventive, and exciting to us in less than 500 words, we can learn to extend it even longer and make long works work the same way. I wrote an entire piece in the workshop, a 1-page work entitled “No Point of Reference”–I might put the piece up in the future.
Overall, the man has proven to be an asset to both literature and humanity, and I enjoyed learning from him today. Maybe in the future I will write a review of his book; I am two stories in currently, so it will take me some time, but I promise to let the people know what I thought of it once I finish it. Keep with me for future updates.
Also, tomorrow, March the FIRST, I will be reading in front of people in my school for the Festival’s student section. I am sifting through my material to find good stuff, but I am nervous. Keep me in your thoughts and prayers as I prepare for this, and thanks very much in advance for all the support.
OK, that’s it–good night and good nachos, folks!
[PANK / February 13th, 2010 / All Things Pankish / Interviews ]
ND: The stories in Mr. Agreeable are considerably shorter than the stories in your first collection, Paradise Road. The two books demonstrate your control of narrative. You can hold a reader’s attention for thirty pages and/or rip their hearts out in two. How did you decide on the short-short form for Mr. Agreeable? What advantages are there in writing for brevity?
KN: You can risk more, I think, working in miniature. You can experiment. You can do outlandish things with structure and point of view, and with language. You can do just about anything, as long as the piece finally feels focused and whole, and as long as there’s impact. Which is wonderfully liberating, if you’re used to working in longer forms, where we tend to respect laws of verisimilitude. In flash mode, you kind of throw character out the window. Premise and theme predominate, as does voice, and omission—what you don’t say in a story, that is, but imply. You can’t possibly develop a character in two or three pages. But you can represent a universe in the head of pin, and shatter the reader quickly, the way one hopes to do in a poem.
The best thing about flash fiction, though, is that it’s less daunting to write. Or seems to be, initially. You sit down with your sketchpad or keyboard and the feeling is, Well, this won’t be so bad. Five hundred words can’t be that daunting. And it isn’t. Except that sometimes you write twelve or fifteen pages to find that one paragraph, or one sentence, that glows, and build your tiny tale around that. Or you realize, after drafting a while, that the piece you’re writing isn’t flash fiction at all. I finished a story lately I thought would be flash, or at least sudden. I wrestled with the thing for a year. It needed to manifest on its own terms, as fictions often do. It turned out to be eight thousand words, or just over.
I didn’t set out to write a book of short shorts, I should say, by the way. I’d imagined sprinkling the miniscule fictions in with longer stories, and had been configuring differently. But an editor at Mammoth wrote to ask if I had a book’s worth of shorts, saying he’d seen the shorter short fictions, and liked them. Lucky me, I guess. Books of short stories are horrendously hard to sell, as you know. Books of flash fiction are harder yet. As in impossible. Unless you’re Lydia Davis or Etgar Keret. Or Barry Yourgrau!
ND: I’m looking forward to reading your book of poems, Saint X, due out in 2010. What can you tell us about this collection?
KN: Like the short fictions, the poems examine persona, and they deconstruct self. They unravel the psychic fabric we layer over ourselves and each other, for whatever reasons. They puzzle over romantic failures, and sniff up what’s sacred in human endeavor, or try to. It’s a zany collection of poems, I think, solemn as few of them are. They don’t pretend to appeal to the reader on the rational level. A number of them began as exercises in verbal collage. They’re at the farther end, you could say, of the “risk” continuum. Writing poetry is a more tenuous enterprise than writing flash fiction, obviously. Writing a poem is like stepping along in the dark on ice in a wilderness. The poem insists that you not know where you’re going, then says, Okay, step over the edge. It invites you to fall, to say something unsayable. To stop making sense, as David Byrne said in the 80s.
ND: If you were stranded on the cliche desert island—and doomed to die alone—without an audience for your work—would you continue to write?
KN: Yes. Absolutely. The kinds of inner transformation writing offers, in all its guises and forms, would make it worthwhile. Would make it necessary. Don’t you think? Besides, the writing habit would be hard to break. And ridiculous as it sounds, the writer-zealot in me who lives to communicate thinks that some poem or short fiction I write, and seal up in a coconut shell, will survive. Will be read. And maybe matter to someone.
ND: While doing research for this interview I came across some great photos of you playing guitar like a rock star. It turns out you play and sing in a band—a Grateful Dead cover act, right? How do you think music informs your writing?
KN: I started playing guitar in a disciplined way long before I began writing, or began writing seriously. So your question is hard to address. The writing I do wouldn’t look or sound the way it does, I’m pretty sure, if music hadn’t come first. Musicians tend to think in sounds, and express and emote in nonverbal ways. I do, anyway. To a degree, writers share in this, too. Language is rhythmic and sonic, and if your ear is trained writing can be music as well. I’m as interested in the way something sounds on the page when I write, or revise, as I am in what the thing says, or conveys. But it’s hard to say how exactly I know what I know, or how influence works, or what might come out in the wash in the end. I’d like to say that the way I structure my stories or poems arises from music, and that my modulations in voice, or in rhythm, or my awareness of such, arise likewise. But I can’t. It’s a thing you can’t pin down, since what we absorb is internalized. And what’s internal is mysterious, finally.
One thing I can say with certainty is that writers work words and sentences the way musicians work measures and notes. We improvise a lot, of course, as we go, unless we’re working in poetic forms. When I play a riff of lead on the guitar with my band I’m playing notes, yes. Notes that are measured. But what makes music music isn’t just notes, or the beat or arrangement. What makes the riff the riff is the way you inflect. The way you pack notes in a phrase, or bend a note, or sustain it, or tweak it, or nurse it, whatever. It comes down to voice, really. Language and writing work the same way. Voice guides articulation. It informs rhythm and timing.
ND: Next time I sit down to write, what CD should I be listening to?
KN: In an ideal world you’d be sitting in silence. Or listening to the sound of the spheres, as they said in days before Galileo. Recorded music can get in the way of writing, I think. Not necessarily, not always, but often. It can add to the clutter of motion and noise, this media onslaught we suffer so much of the time. Silence, though, I admit, is intimidating, or can be, especially when you sit down to compose. Some albums or stations, I notice—if I’m conscientious about what I put on—can draw me deeply into the writing. Ambient music works best for me. And now and then, this droning downbeat electro-lounge stuff I find on the internet. Renaissance dances are helpful, I find. Motet and madrigals. Gregorian chants. The two best single albums I’ve found to compose to are David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Ab Ovo’s Le Temps Suspendu. And if I’m going great guns on a draft, Seventeen Seconds, by The Cure. These work for me, anyway. We’ve all got our own triggers.
ND: One of the narrators in Mr. Agreeable says, “The inner dark might be dark but the dark doesn’t lie. It brings into relief what’s beneath the facade, the useless colossus of what one is and does and believes.” All of your stories incorporate “dark” elements to expose the person behind the mask. What drove you to write a book that takes the facades off the Mr. So-and-Sos of the world?
If I was driven at all, what drove me were names, dumb as it sounds. In each case I began with a title. “Mr. Agreeable.” “Mr. Destitute.” “Mr. Ironic.” “Mr. Transcendent.” I was on a “Mr.” kick for eight or ten years. A number of these pieces turned out not to be stories but poems. I’d land on a title, basically, and dive in to explore the persona. I’d find a situation and a figure to dramatize something, a condition or quality—agreeability, transcendence, ecstasy, irony. Then I’d weigh the condition in light of a particular life, a particular way of seeing, a particular constellation of images. “Mr. Excitement” came first. I’d seen a man in fact in a supermarket, a bizarre, joyful guy, with those very words on his tee shirt. So I came up with a voice. An observer, a narrator. A wistful, crestfallen man. And a young daughter. At some point in the process I hit on the pivotal sentence, the one we look for moving into our drafts. It came as a question, from daughter to father: “Why is that man so happy?” she asks.
I didn’t set out to knock down facades, to answer your question. If that’s what happens in the stories, I’m happy to hear it. On some level, that’s what any good story should do, I suppose. It should see behind or beneath the facade. It should expose common myths, or distortions, truisms, public or private—the myth of the stable self, above all. Fiction examines the masks we wear, among other things. It wonders why it’s this mask and not that, and how the thing got there, and what it replaced. It describes, if and when possible, what the mask seems to want to protect. “[T]he essence of man is derived from the chaos of fakes,” Nabokov observes, discussing Gogol. “We did not expect that, amid the whirling masks, one mask would turn out to be a real face, or at least the place where that face ought to be.”
You’re right, though, we’re certainly driven as writers, like it or not—driven by questions we don’t often know how to frame. What drove me, in this case? Curiosity, on one hand. What’s in a name? I must have been thinking. How far can it pull a particular character? What are the contradictions this odd creature suffers? How did he get here? How is she not only fractured or tortured, but nuanced, complex? What is he dreading, or hiding? How does this story need to be told? Why does this sentence seem to need to be worded exactly like this, to quickly crescendo, or stagger, or rise and fall like a wave?
On the other hand, we’re driven I think by a need to understand. To understand on a personal level, on the cellular level, on the level of soul. Our characters, each and all, of course, are ourselves. They’re the various facets of the writer mutually at war with each other. All this scratching and digging we’re doing is finally about seeing why we’re the peculiar beings we are. Which is daunting, I know. But worth the risk, if we take the chance and let the thing happen, let the story unfold. If we get quiet enough to hear the voice on the page, and be guided, understanding will come, I believe. Or something at least in our knowing and not-knowing will change. Transformation happens in minute, subtle ways. In us, and our characters. The facades crack, the masks begin slipping. We might not end up with answers, but the pertinent questions, the stories, remain.
18 Sep 2014
Is it boring to write about/talk about your work? Or is it sort of a nice closure after working on it for a long time?
Definitely not boring — though touring and talking about the work in many ways forestalls the closure you speak of. The book won’t lie down and die quietly, as we say.
1. I know that writing doesn’t generally spark from just one influence or impetus, but what was the impetus for this collection?
This collection was written — unbelievably, even to me — over the course of 20 years, so it’s hard to talk about an initiating event or events, or a spur of any kind. I did notice, I guess, at some point that the stories in Paradise Road seemed to need to belong together. To a degree I tailored the stories after the fact so that they might mutually reflect on each other.
2. What informed your decision not to use quotation marks?
I fell away from quotation marks years ago, and for some reason haven’t been able to return to them. It’s a stylistic choice — which is to say an emotional one. If pressed to the wall, I might say — well, that characters like mine in this book aren’t stable enough identity-wise to warrant the stability that such demarcation implies. But that’s awfully philosophical sounding. I like the way dialogue and narration tend to bleed together — in anybody’s work — when one reads down the page.
3. How do you navigate between different styles, non-fiction, poetry, fiction? Or, is there an easy relationship between the three?
One navigates between them with great difficulty. I do, at least. It’s kind of alarming to find that the poem you began has morphed to a story, or vice versa — or to find at some point that you can’t distinguish the fictional web you wove, the lies you told, from the “truth.”
4. Pushcart mentioned that “Until recently, [you] sang and played guitar in a post-punk, postindustrial, neo-goth band called Cousin Stanley.” What instrument do you play? Do you write song lyrics? If so, does that make its way into more formal writing?
I’m part of a Grateful Dead cover act now called Unkle John’s Band — I play lead guitar and am one of the vocalists. I haven’t written original tunes in a while, given time constraints. During the Cousin Stanley days, though, I did find lots of crossover. Between songwriting and poetry writing, that is. We’d come up with a tune as a band in rehearsal, and I’d take the tape home and knock one of my poems apart — a published poem, often — and see how it came over sung. Going for rhymes, I should say, in revision. In transposition. Striving to rhyme, I suppose, where before I’d avoided it.
5. I also read that you DJ an FM radio show. What do you like about radio?
I do a weekly gothic and electro-industrial show in Meadville called Black Planet. I broadcast as a persona. As Dr. Death — a fellow both like and unlike me. He’s a character, basically. Another of my creations. I enjoy being somebody I’m not, and in public no less — heard but not seen. But unlike the figures you find on the page, this guy’s alive. I’ll admit he scares me sometimes.
6. If you could write/do anything, what would you do?
Visit the Philippines, and write a long travel piece documenting my journey there, island to island, and my impressions. And sell the piece, of course, to The New Yorker, or GQ, or Harper’s. For many thousands of dollars.