November 2010

Sean P. Carroll


An Interview with Kira Henehan

The novel of investigation or detection comes in many forms. While traditional interpretations of this genre are bound by specific tenets, there are just as many forays into an alternate plain where the elements of such tales are bound only by the author’s imagination and their willingness to stretch the accepted boundaries. Kira Henehan’s debut novel Orion You Came And You Took All My Marbles, published by Milkweed Editions, is an impressive addition to this discursive field. Narrated by the fascinating Finley Orion regales the reader with a story that melds the existential search for identity with an investigation that features amongst its disparate strands bowling, puppetry, and Russians (real or not), and is replete with a unique cast of supporting characters, Binelli (The Boss), Murphy (The Jangler), the hated Lamb (The Rival), the mysterious Kiki B., and Lavendar (The Sidekick). Finley’s fierce convictions, unwarranted due to amnesia and her self conscious contradictory nature make her one of the most compelling narrative voices in recent memory.

In addition to Orion, Henehan has published two chapbooks, Seven Palms (Fungo Monographs) and The Investigations (A Rest Press). Her writing has appeared in publications such as Fence, Unsaid, Conjunctions and The Denver Quarterly. A recipient of a Pushcart Prize, she currently lives in New York City.

This interview was conducted by email in June 2010, after meeting with the author at BookExpo America in May.

Orion is narrated by Finley, one of a group of people that may best be described as unexpected investigators, and it is her unique voice and perspective that propels this unusual tale. Was her character developed before you established the narrative of the novel? How does her character evolve and shape the course of the book?

Yeah, definitely, Finley’s voice was what spurred the whole thing on. I had no idea what would happen, and at the beginning wrote about 25 pages then left it alone and let that voice sort of entertain me at night. I almost feel like it wrote itself once I had the voice, though of course it wrote itself extremely messily and required then quite a bit of shoveling in the direction of sense.

Your book is set in a landscape that is "all over gravel," but contains several incongruous elements such as Tiki Ty's Tiki Barn, golf carts as a mode of transportation and a theater. Also, in Chapter 1, you mention that this place is better than the last which was "all over swampland and crocodiles." Why did you decide on a borderline abstract setting as opposed to a more concrete locale? Is the setting at all reflective of Finley's fractured observations?

I think I understood fairly early on that the narrative was going to require a certain suspension of disbelief in a reader, and wanted to provide right off the bat some cues to this, almost in preparation for what would come. This story can’t happen in New York City, 2007, because New York City, 2007, has a set of rules. But almost anything can happen in a landscape of gravel. I want to add an “except” here but I really can’t think of what that would be.

One of Finley's pastimes is developing theories about one of her brethren's intelligence. Do you think she uses this fabulism about The Lamb as a substitute for her own blank slate of memories?

I think that there’s just a human tendency to fill in missing parts, that kind of “oh, well she’s like that because of this;” otherwise none of us would be comprehensible to one another. We basically have to fit everyone we encounter into our own breadth of experience, maybe? I think this tendency is particularly pronounced in people who are new -- new to a school, job, whatever -- as Finley is upon arrival into the little unit. You match people up with people you knew before, “oh, that guy’s the so-and-so of this place” which helps make a lot of newness manageable. Classification, putting into categories… it’s one of the basic ways we order our worlds, ultimately.

And then of course Finley has a sense of competition with The Lamb. They’re the girls. Girls can be pretty or clever; two girls: one’s inevitably the pretty one, the other the clever one. The Lamb’s prettiness and cleverness are clearly vexing to Finley.

Orion clearly contains traits intrinsic to the mystery genre but do you think there also elements of the questing saga as well? Is Finley a hero of sorts?

The term “questing saga” has never ever occurred to me, so if there are elements of such a thing in here, they are accidental. Finley I don’t believe is really actively searching, or questing; she is aware of course of a deficiency in herself but I believe is also pretty at peace with her lot. Murphy I think is the pressing force here upon Finley’s even thinking about her past; I’m not certain any quest that exists is Finley’s at all. So… I don’t know. I don’t think of her as a hero, as heroic. No.

You have a background in poetry and you have published two chapbooks, Seven Palms and The Investigations. Is the intense precision and deliberate language in Orion an outgrowth of these earlier writings?

I think I have two completely opposing answers to this question. The first would be: Yes. Particularly in the case of The Investigations. Originally, I thought the narratives of The Investigations would be a part of this story, of Orion, and it was only after forcing them in that I realized they didn’t belong at all, though they provided a bit of the impetus towards a detective-y idea, and the idea of a sustained narrative, as The Investigations is not poetry; it’s definitely fiction, albeit quite short and dense fiction. Which leads me to the opposing answer: No. This writing, in Orion, is so loose and chatty that at least in its writing would seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with any of the earlier things. I honestly thought I’d gone awry with this book. So narrative! All the characters! The people, moving about, doing things, so explained and obvious!

The writing itself was done totally differently, and everything prior to this would seem to me to have been borne of a completely different process than happened here. That said, I don’t see why the exuberance of language automatically should be cast aside just because of a stronger narrative; it’s not like the percentages of each have to equal a hundred, so a little more narrative, a little less linguistic interest... I see no reason otherwise to engage with writing at all, to be honest. I’m not sure I’m a storyteller first, who uses the language as a tool to transmit those stories. I am rather someone who really personally just delights in how bendable the English language can be. So for me to not be precise and deliberate with the language… would be me not writing at all. I am precise and deliberate with my text messages.

Finley is a very flawed character; whether it is her terrible covetousness, her envy of Odille’s beauty and her lack of confidence in her own appearance. How do her foibles and lack of cohesive identity influence her observations and subsequently skew the narrative?

I think an automatic defensiveness is created just in the nature of her character; Finley has really no leg upon which to stand, she can’t tell herself, “Well, I was a quite talented dancer when I was eleven,” or “I was exceptionally good at maths in the early grades.” Imagine coming into being with only what you possess today -- none of your prior accomplishments or failures available to plump up your self-impression. It’s kind of like how time is different when you’ve lived less of it; for a six-year old, first grade is literally one-sixth of their entire life, so of course it seems to last forever. Whereas a year of adult life passes in a blink, because it’s so small of a percentage of our overall experience. (I work at a monthly magazine, and remember someone telling me early on that a year was putting out this magazine twelve times… and it’s true. A year is shipping an issue of that magazine twelve times. Precisely.) Finley has nothing upon which to fixate other than what’s right there in front of her, present-day, in the mirror and around her.

You received an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. How do you feel about the proliferation of writing programs across the country and how did your MFA studies positively impact your growth as a writer?

I have no feeling about the proliferation of writing programs across the country. I am very glad there was one available for me. It’s basically buying time; there was really no other circumstance in which I would have been able to spend two years essentially not having a full-time job and being surrounded by people who cared, dramatically, whether I ever wrote another word again. Because, really, the world is not waiting with bated breath for the next new writer. It really isn’t. No one was ever going to give me a deadline, no one was ever going to ask after my work, so basically what you’re buying by entering an MFA program is a community of people for whom writing is a given, who expect you to write, who feel something is in fact quite wrong with you if you’re not writing, who will tell you that you have to write a certain number of pages by a certain date, and who can  let you know whether your writing is actually accomplishing what you want it to and think and hope it’s accomplishing.

So to me it was invaluable. I wrote this book as a result of the deadlines of the program, and rely on the people I met at that program to continue to care about whether I write again, and I do the same for them.

There are references to other cases and incidents in Orion, i.e., the alleged snafu at the Great Wall of China, the Baseball Assignment, etc. Do you think that you will return to the exploits of Finley and her investigative cohorts or would that dilute the originality of your book?

I suspect I will not return to Finley and Co., not due to any threat of dilution but rather to a really simple being-done-ness. I would probably not have stopped writing this book if there had been more of it to be written; I certainly didn’t set out to withhold anything in anticipation of writing a series. I’ve been asked this now a few times and am starting to feel almost guilty about it, that I will in all likelihood never write in this voice again, but ultimately it’s not my voice, it’s a character, and it’s a character who I’ve left in a place I’m comfortable with and have really no further issue with.

You mentioned that before you began writing Orion that you had thought about the development of the book for a long time. Did you actively outline the structure of the book or did it evolve over the course of the writing and revision process? Are you working on anything at the moment?

I did not outline this book, not at all. And the structure, upon completion of that first draft, was a total fucking disaster. It was like a snake that had almost digested a kitten; thin, thin, thin, and then all of a sudden at the back end totally bulky. This book moved at a pace of tra la la la la and now everythinghappensallatonceandthentheend! So I needed to print it all out and fill some things in and move some things around and make it a bit more evenhanded. I was able to do some of this work on my own, after reading it objectively once it was originally completed, and then my editor helped immensely with structure, with a sense of framework.

And I’m working on something new, yes, a new novel.