June 2011

Chris Vaughan

features

An Interview with Kyle Minor

Before his first collection of short fiction was published, Kyle Minor had already established himself, with honours, as a writer with powers of perception and execution in both nonfiction and fiction. An essay featured in the 2006 Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers made people notice. Honours attached to him casually: three-time honoree in†fiction, poetry and non-fiction in The Atlantic Monthlyís annual contest, "Best New Voices of 2006" by Random House, "20 under 30 Artists to Watch" in Columbus Dispatch -- all before he found a publisher. †

But all of these honours are secondary to the work, to which Kyle dedicates himself with monkish determination. In 2008 he published In The Devilís Territory, a collection of short fiction which skews the often over-defined genres of Gothic, suburban and confessional literature. With that collection Kyle managed to show, in full-colour panorama, his virtuosic talents. From the beautifully confined and condensed stories such as "The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Party," to the controlled, cyclonic pieces like "A Day Meant to Do Less" -- there is a special touch which transcends the taught or the crafted, and comes from what Edward Falco described as Kyleís "crucial compassion." "The Truth and All Its Ugly," a new short story, has recently found its way into a plethora of publications -- including Fifty-Two Stories --†and quickly gathered-up the sort of cult following few short stories could ever hope for. It also marks a new direction in Kyleís fiction, steering away from familiar ground into what can only be described as In The Kyle Minor Territory. With much anticipation we await the completion of his novel, The Sex Lives Of The Missionaries. He was also kind enough to give me some time to conduct this interview. †


In your blog posts Nabokov makes an above-average appearance, can you explain your relationship with Nabokovís work?

Nabokov is a master of the sinewy sentence, the shady character, the narrative sleight-of-hand. What I admire about his work is how it is so paradoxically wild and extremely controlled at the same time. I also admire his extraordinary intellect. Sometimes, though, there is a coldness to his work that stands in opposition to what I want to do with my own work.

I agree, even Nabokov perceived this as his weakness, his inability to be spontaneous. But there are glimmers, like in his forward to Bend Sinister he said that it was really written for the father and son scenes, which are some of the most humane, tragic scenes he ever wrote. Do you think that it is possible to synthesis that type of writing, or could Nabokov only achieve that sort of pitch because he was a father, a son and had first-hand experience of the sort of tyranny portrayed in the book?

I do think that Nabokov wrote some really beautiful and warm stuff. Speak, Memory is full of such moments. I really love the passage in Pnin about the tooth extraction. And the squirrels. So I think that he achieved that kind of synthesis sometimes. You also see it in a lot of David Foster Wallace's better stuff -- "Good Old Neon," "Octet," "Adult World." Stephen Dixon's "The Apology," Interstate, End of I. Roth's American Pastoral. Christine Schutt's Nightwork. Solzhenitsyn, Kundera, Lydia Davis, Deb Olin Unferth. The list is long.

You once quoted Nabokov saying that "all great novels are fairy tales," and when I read "The Truth and All Its Ugly" the quote kept springing up at me. There does seem to be a thwarted fairy tale at its heart -- what are the fairy tale elements that translate to great novels, stories or poems?

I've been thinking a lot about how the literature I love the most is engaged with the oldest storytelling traditions -- fairy tale, myth, parable, those old structures. I was trained by writers largely beholden to the naturalist or psychological realist tradition, and that's I suppose the tradition I've mostly been writing in. But the writers I love most -- Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor, Nathan Englander, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez (the list is getting too long already) -- have been chasing a freedom that can't be contained by boxes like "naturalism."

A real breakthrough for me was my novella "A Day Meant to Do Less," which is in many ways an exploration of a consciousness altered by (and haunted by) dementia. The consequences on grounds of language -- the freedom the dementia allowed the narration -- was thrilling to the writer, and it reminded me that the stories and books that made me want to be a writer in the first place had something special at their core, and this specialness was often some combination of a risk in the direction of drama (risking melodrama, even), a risk at the level of language, and an engagement with the oldest things.

My thoughts on these matters are half-formed, so I would point readers in the direction of Kate Bernheimer's anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me -- the argument I want to adopt is in her prefatory note.

Your work is laced with tragedy, your characters are hurting on some level -- physically or emotionally -- but suffering seems to be a springboard for tiny optimisms. In "The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Party," for example, a lot of suffering is boiled down to a very short episode of hope when the family are together in the living room. Do you feel the need to give the characters, and the reader in effect, pain relief?

No.

Thinking specifically of your novella A Day Meant to Do Less you seem to shy away from making spectacle, the Big event, or the Violent Episode the pivotal moment. In that story, for example, the assault, the accident -- those things seem secondary to smaller moments. How do you approach scenes like the assault?

I don't think I shy away from anything spectacular, big, or violent. It's just that, in that story, the pivotal moment isn't the violent episode (which is rendered directly enough that I got angry notes from some readers.) The pivotal moment is what happened after the victim of the violent episode had lived with its memory for decades, and in her moment of weakness it rose up in her in the most terrible way, and became part of her experience of death.

Ian McEwan in a recent interview cited What Science Offers the Humanities as one of the five books that helped shape his fiction. He said "Most of us in the humanities carry about us a set of assumptions about what the mind is, or what the nature of knowledge is, without any regard to the discoveries and speculations within the biological sciences in the past 30 or 40 years." How important do you think these discoveries are to writing fiction?

I think that everything is important to the writing of fiction. We live in a world that is being increasingly shaped by what science and technology are offering, and the changes are happening very rapidly, whereas human evolution happened very slowly. We're not fully equipped, probably, to deal with all the emotional, physiological, and ethical consequences of the things we're making. We don't even fully understand the things we're making or the ways in which they're interconnected with other things. Atomic energy, to give one example, is something that we're in our seventh decade of playing around with, and we've become so complacent about the fact that at any moment a careless mistake or accident of nature or horrible act of a madman could render human beings extinct because of this genie we've let out of the bottle.

I don't know how my fiction will or won't reckon with these things. I have been thinking, though, about novelists whose conception of their work is as thematically ambitious as I hope my work has been characterologically ambitious. I'm thinking here of Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, Saramago. I'm giving them very close attention. I'm studying them. There are reasons that their work is passing these first tests of time. They've realized that the human experience, in addition to being the experience of individuals and the experience of families, is also the experience of history, of systems, of the massive forces that are brought to bear upon and shape societies and all humankind. I want to learn to become that kind of writer, too.

The kind of writer that can fit a ''500 Watt Metaphor'' at the heart of a book -- to use your phrase?

When I wrote In the Devil's Territory, my working method was to "not-know," to write my way into it. And to write out of character, not in the direction of theme or event. That's the way a lot of writers I admire work, and it's a good way to keep yourself from writing didactic garbage. But a few years ago, I made an accounting of the books I read again and again, and asked the question: Why do I return to these books again and again? Certainly many of them do the things that I purport to value. The characters are fully rendered, the language is beautiful, the story has a power that transcends its events. But there are plenty of stories and books I admire who do those things, but which I don't reread. Why is that?

I began to notice that a lot of the really big books -- the books that become the important books of a reader's life, and not just one reader, but lots and lots of readers -- are books that are ambitious in the old-fashioned way. They mean to say something. They mean to mean, or they mean to call meaning into question. They foreground their thematic concerns rather than muting them. They seem to have been built not just out of an engagement with a character, but also out of an engagement with an idea.

The novel I'm writing right now, The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, is being built in this way. Bottom-up, starting with the characters, but also top-down, starting with the title, which conflates sex, religion, the impulse to colonize and dominate. But lately I've been thinking about books that push this idea even more, and wrap themselves around what I'm calling a big obvious 500,000 Watt symbol/metaphor. Books that you can say what they are in the word or phrase that stands in for the whole. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Don DeLillo's Underworld. Pink Floyd's The Wall. Stephen King's The Shining. I want to be willing to take that kind of big risk.