An Interview with Roy Kesey
There are plenty of reasons to say e-nterviews are a product of a world overabundant with information and morbidly lazy, but while I claim laziness is no different from Bertrand Russell's form of positive indolence (when it suits me), and often cite Will Self's Slackerism as a bona fide religion, there are occasions when the ability to conduct an interview across continents at an easy pace is the only way to work.
Roy Kesey, hailing from Northern California, lives in Piura, Peru, the setting for his new novel Pacazo, with wife and two children. Already in America, where Kesey is doing the rounds, Pacazo has caused a levanter of praise, adding to his accolades, which include a Bullfight Media Little Book Award for his novella Nothing in the World, and a finalist nod for the ForeWord magazine Book of the Year award for his collection All Over which also got him The L Magazine's Best Books of the Decade vote. So, all the way over there in Peru, with me here marooned in Malta, I had little choice but to propose an e-mail interview, to which he typically agreed -- hospitably and patiently.
Reading over some of your past interviews, it seems expatriation is always top on the interviewer's agenda. It's interesting for all the obvious reasons: cultural polarization, displacement, isolation, and the ability to create cultural or national microcosms. But do you feel that this distance is still as important to you now, or is there a kind of cultural incubation period that wears off eventually? Could you be writing in Texas, Peru, or Paris without it warping your perspective too much?
I'm afraid the answer to this is going to sound schizophrenic in at least two ways. No matter where I'm living, my best writing is going to happen in the closest thing I can find to a padded cell, in which sense it makes no difference at all what culture surrounds the building. On the other hand, one of the main reasons for going expat in the first place is to use one's non-writing hours to roll around a bit in other cultures and languages, and inevitably they'll bleed back up into the words. I don't think there's any way for either of those phenomena to wear thin for me, and I wouldn't want them to.
I sense in the expatriate teacher in your new novel Pacazo only superficial parallels to you -- the location and the teaching, for example. Were you conscious not to fictionalize yourself in the protagonist, as he is so similar in certain ways?
These days I'm careful never to mine the autobiographical stuff too deeply, not because I'm afraid of it running out, and not because I'm saving it for anything else in particular, but because it's maybe the only thing that's in some sense truly mine. I don't want to protest too much here, though. Friends in Piura and elsewhere who happen to read Pacazo will surely recognize a few old punch lines retooled for new jokes and new tellers.
Pacazo is full of Peruvian names and places that lend the surface a unique texture. Similar to the way you use local foods, names, customs, places in some of the stories in All Over. Do you go looking for these names and deliberate over a list, or does the "cactus find you," as Don Juan said?
I love names, and spend a fairly ridiculous amount of time tinkering with them. In terms of character names, for Pacazo I started with a several-pages-long handwritten list of first names that my wife wrote out for me, each with its meaning, variant spellings, etc. That was a wonderful gift, one that I used right up until the very end. There were also a few names that I just happened to run across in the eight years of my first stay in Peru that I liked for whatever reason and wanted to shoehorn in at any cost. The names of historical figures and places stayed as they were, though even that got problematic in interesting ways at times, since the "correct" way of representing some Quechua and Aymara names in Spanish has either changed over time or is otherwise up for debate in some sense, and some simply have more than one acceptable spelling in.
You do this with South America, somewhere you have obviously become assimilated, but you also spent time in Beijing, yet there's never been a Beijing story. Why is this? Is the surface of that city and culture too hard and demystified for fiction?
I don't think any given city is any more or less problematic for fiction than any other. A given writer might have more or less access to a given foreign space, of course, but that's the writer's problem, not the city's -- there's nothing a priori-esque, nothing genetic, about that access or its lack.
And as it happens, I have written a fair amount of fiction set in or structured by Beijing (or in and by China more generally), but most of the stories were written too late to make their way into All Over. They've found good homes in magazines, and the majority of them will fit into the next collection, I imagine. But even in All Over there are a few that couldn't have been written without good time in Beijing -- "Loess" and "At the Pizza Hut, the Girls Build Their Towers," certainly, and probably "Scroll" as well.
I was interested in your own interview with George Saunders how you referred to the principle of Donald Barthelme's Not-Knowing. As with George Saunders I've always perceived in your work a lineage with Barthelme. What do both the approach of "not-knowing" to writing and Barthelme himself mean to you?
For me, the not-knowing takes place at the level of plot, certainly, and more importantly at the level of theme. It's not uncommon for me not to know what a story's really wanting to be about until the next-to-last draft. I start almost exclusively with voice, and just follow the sound of things until I've gathered enough info to make a guess at what kind of person would talk like that. Voice-to-character, then, and from there to plot. Then I search through to figure out what I'm avoiding, and that's usually the theme.
I never met Barthelme in person, but it's hard for me to imagine the world without his stories and their diagonal leaps, their intuitional hierarchies, the sadness underlying their raucous play. I came to them quite late, which I think is a good thing, as otherwise I'd have spent years doing bad copies, but I'm immensely grateful for them, both as sources of complicated pleasure, and as education. Every time I read Sixty Stories, it expands my understanding of what fiction can be asked to perform.
I remember reading that you considered at one point your work was perhaps not suitable for literary magazines, but reading Nicola Mason's "The Lizard Man of Lee County" changed your mind and you decided your stories just had not been good enough up to that point. Your short story credits are impressive, Kenyon Review, Subtropics, McSweeney's, Iowa Review, and so many others. Do you feel that your work improved the more you submitted, and the more you were rejected the more determined you were to get it right on your own terms?
That was one of the stories, certainly, that helped clarify how I was falling short, and it's one I still go back to from time to time -- sheer pleasure. I think my submitting technique improved the more I submitted, and my writing technique improved the more I wrote, but neither was particularly dependent on the other. I definitely had a chip on my shoulder when I started off, the way most young writers do, I guess. And to a certain extent, I suspect that's what carried me through the long barren years at the front end. At first it's a blind confidence that your stories are already good enough; slowly it turns into a slightly-less-blind confidence that with enough work, some day they will be.
In stories like "Follow the Money," and directly in "[Exeunt.," there is a cinematic quality. Do directors like David Lynch or Werner Herzog have any influence on your work?
I'm certainly a fan of those two directors, but then, who isn't? I don't think cinema as a medium has influenced me more than music, say, or painting, but I think writers do well to pay attention to what's happening on big screens around them. While I think it's wrong-headed to allege that cinema has somehow drained all interest from contemporary realist fiction, it's very much worth thinking about (a) why cinema is so good at what it's good at, and (b) which things written prose does better than film. Many of them have to do with time and its passage. Kieslowski talked about trying to film the sentence "He began to come to see her less and less, until he stopped coming altogether." Prose nails it in seven seconds and a single line, but let's see you film its action without taking forever and making a mess.
Tobias Wolff denied the idea of a revival in American short fiction; he said there was a tradition all the way back to Poe. Do you think there is currently anything like a revival, with publications like Electric Literature and online apps adapting well to the form in general?
Revival is too strong a word -- there's a ton of vital work being done these days, but as Wolff says, that's been the case continuously for centuries now. So maybe we should retool the question. Are more people publishing American short fiction, or buying it, or reading it these days than before? Maybe, but I haven't seen any good numbers on the topic. Are web-based magazines helping more writers pay their rent? Electric Literature certainly is, and god bless them for it, but to the best of my knowledge, at the moment they're pretty much alone at the end of that pier.
So, what is the role of Electric Literature and Narrative and The Collagist and failbetter.com and the rest of their electronic ilk in the midst of and as part of whatever changes are going on? For the most part I think it's Same Great Drug, All-New Needle -- it's fiction coming to terms with the ever-higher percentage of our lives that's lived digitally. Maybe if that coming-to-terms had been delayed by a couple of decades, we could later talk about a revival and mean it, but as it is, I think fiction is making the adjustment no more or less smoothly or quickly than any other aspect of our lives. If in the end digital literature bumps David Foster Wallace's guesstimate as to the size of the literary fiction market in the U.S. up a few notches, so much the better, but I'm not sure we can count on it to save the day -- and I'm not convinced the day needs saving.
Now you have a collection of stories, a novella, and a novel out, do you feel more flexible in choosing what project comes next, that there is less of a mountain to climb? And do you have anything on the stove at the moment?
It would be great if having climbed a given mountain meant that climbing some other similar-shaped mountain would be easier, but I don't think that's quite the way it works -- at least not for me. In some ways it might actually make it harder, since you don't want to repeat yourself in any way -- not dictionally, not structurally, not in terms of characters -- so there are doors that have shut to you since the last time you started poking around. And thinking in the abstract about starting a new story now doesn't feel any less terrifying -- What if this time I can't pull it off? -- than thinking about it ten years ago did. But then along comes a new voice, and I'm as interested as ever in finding out who would say such things.
As for stuff on the stove, sure, ever and always. A few smaller things to wrap up in the midst of promoting Pacazo, and then deeper into a project that I'm reading for now, one that I can't talk about too much just yet, but it will have me up in the highlands for large chunks of the next few years.