March 2011

Laura Tharp


An Interview with Ken Kalfus

“There were hundreds of ways to go crazy wanting to become a writer and young Joshua Glory knew them all.”

So begins the last piece in Three Stories, the newest collection by author Ken Kalfus. Luckily for us, Kalfus persevered to bring us two other story collections, Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, in addition to novels The Commissariat of Enlightenment, and National Book award finalist, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. Despite several connection failures and a particularly embarrassing email exchange (Kalfus: “This is hilarious! I’m getting a coffee house! Are you sure this number is correct?” Me: “I work for the coffee shop, so yes. I’m just doing the interview here because…” Kalfus: “And it’s called Rimsky Korsakoffee!? This is like a movie!”), he once again displayed his fine knack for perseverance and agreed to allot me this interview.

Your newest work, Three Stories, was published by Madras Press. How did you get involved with them?

It's a great outfit, run by the writer Sumanth Prabhaker, who has assembled a series of small, handsome chapbooks to be sold in outlets that aren't traditionally literary, like card shops. He's finding new readers for literary fiction -- the books have included stories by Donald Barthelme, Ben Marcus and Aimee Bender. When Sumanth contacted me, I was of course very interested.

All of the funds from the sale of your book are going to a non-profit? What organization did you pick?

The Free Library of Philadelphia, the city's cash-strapped public library system, which does great work reaching out to the neighborhoods and promoting reading among children and adults. They're one of the forces that make Philly such a vital literary town.

These stories were previously published in journals?

“The Moment They Were Waiting For” was originally in Harper's in 2003. “Professor Arecibo” and “The Un-” were published in AGNI in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

In the first story, “The Moment They Were Waiting For,” a criminal sentenced to death in an unnamed city mutters a mysterious curse moments before his execution. The following morning, each resident of the city wakes with a certain date in his mind. That date proves to be the day of each person's death. You tell the story mostly through the eyes of the prison warden...

But it's the entire city that's cursed, and the story investigates the way the knowledge of our death dates might change the way we live. The story draws on some of my private preoccupations with the nature of time, and the way human beings experience it. I began the story after I was chosen to be in the jury pool for a murder case. I wasn't picked for the trial, possibly because I stated my opposition to the death penalty. The story draws from that experience.

“Professor Arecibo,” the second story, is named after the radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Is astronomy something you're intrigued with?

Absolutely! I'm fascinated with the study of the cosmos, and this is a great time to be an astronomer -- they're probing the darkmatter and dark energy that most of our universe is composed of, they're finding new classes of celestial objects, they're finding new planets. They may be on the verge of finding life on those planets. My character, Professor Arecibo, is some kind of astronomer -- but the story is not about the radio signals pouring down from the sky, it's about the more ambiguous and troubling ones that are transmitted through our cell phones. But yes, I love astronomy. In fact. I named my daughter Sky.

And the last story, “The Un-,” is about a young, unpublished writer and his struggles.

Yes, it's kind of a nostalgia piece, about myself in my twenties, all the difficulties I had, some of them comic, learning to write and trying to get published. I discovered that I actually miss the days when my rejections would come in the mail, by my own treacherously self-addressed stamped envelopes.

How did you come to choose these three particular stories from all that you've written?

I've written several since my last collection, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, was published in 1999; I hope they'll eventually be part of another book. These three, about time, about the erosion of public space, and about the peculiar twists and turns of my own life, represent some recent preoccupations.

I know you've traveled a fair amount and also that your first collection, Thirst, was published while you were living in Moscow. Was it also written there? Did living abroad encourage you to write more freely?

The Thirst stories were actually written and published in literary magazines before I went to Moscow; it took a while to get them collected in book form. My big breakthrough was the appearance of "Pu-239" in Harper's; that's what led to Thirst's publication. While I was in Moscow, I wrote the stories that make up Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, and began my first novel, The Commissariat of Enlightenment, which is set in Russia. Living abroad isn't necessarily freeing, but it can be very stimulating.

The title story of Thirst has a really moving passage where a Moroccan student living in Paris describes his experiences with dehydration to an Irish au pair. That passage is so immediate. Have you ever been to Morocco? Ever been thirsty -- had someone relay their own experiences of thirst to you?

[Laughs.] No, no! Have you? The story is also about desire: I know about that first-hand, I think. I rarely write directly about my own life. “The Un-” may be the closest I've ever come to that. Of course, I have to pull the idea from personal events, but it's usually through a thick lens of narrative, in order to make the story work.

Your novels have been translated widely. Do you have a hand in picking a translator?

No, it's out of my control, like so much else in publishing. I can read Russian and a bit of French, but I don't know how I would choose a translator. I think they mostly do a great job, the French edition of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country sounds just like me -- if I were really able to speak French. But it's true that some of my jokes don't make it over. Disorder is a comedy that opens with 9/11; in the attacks' aftermath, there were articles in the press stating that traumatized New Yorkers, looking for some relief from tragedy, were engaging in promiscuous "terror sex." In my novel, a middle-aged woman, Joyce, sadly reflects that "so far she hadn't had any terror sex, just terror Cherry Garcia." In the French version this line is translated as "elle ne s'etait, malgre la terreur, jamais refugiee dans le sexe, seulement dans les sucreries." It loses something, I think. What kills me is that they have Ben and Jerry's in France, and they sell Cherry Garcia!

Are you working on a new novel?

Yes. It's set in Egypt. I was there for several weeks last year. I'm sure you've been following recent events...

Does it touch on the revolution?

Not exactly. It's set in the 19th century, and I hope it has some bearing on the West's past relations with Egypt, though it's not literally historical. I traveled extensively through the country, including a couple weeks in the Western Desert (I guess I experienced thirst then!), moving from oasis to oasis. I've written about these travels more explicitly in a piece that will be published in the next issue of n+1.

I recently re-read Infinite Jest and was again blown away. How did David Foster Wallace come to blurb your work?

Wallace published some of my first short stories in The Sonora Review, the literary magazine of the University of Arizona at Tucson, in the 1980s. He was pursuing his MFA there, and he was the journal's fiction editor. We exchanged some notes afterward. Years later, when Thirst was about to be published, he was very kind to write a comment for it. We met for the first time in 1999, when I did a reading at the University of Illinois, where he was then teaching.

I hear you're pretty big in Europe?

[Laughs.] I'm pretty sure I'm not really big anywhere. But my books have been translated into about ten foreign languages, and they're been nicely received, especially in France, Holland and Italy. I'm always grateful to find new readers!