Friday, April 17, 2009
Kyle Minor is worth your precious time. His first book of collected stories, In the Devil’s Territory, will break your heart from a hundred different angles, but you’ll keep right on reading it. Sucker. I first found his work in the anthology Surreal South, (Press 53, 2007) edited by Laura and Pinckney Benedict and for that reason his name was associated in my mind with not only the Benedicts, but William Gay, Benjamin Percy, Tom Franklin and Daniel Woodrell, which is tall company to stand among. Recently his story A Day Meant to Do Less was selected for The Best American Mystery Stories 2008 edited by George Pelecanos and Otto Penzler and Donald Ray Pollock said “I would walk through Hell to be able to write like him.” Damn. Better pay attention.
I saw Kyle read at the SIUE campus in Edwardsville, IL. He read a passage from A Day Meant to do Less, and made the whole assembly squirm as he described a sexual assault on a young girl in his quiet, unassuming voice and used such a gorgeous selection of words the squirming audience couldn’t leave. I think he could poke people with sharp sticks and they’d stick around just for the privilege of hearing him string words. He’s just finished a tour with Kathleen Rooney, author of Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object to support In the Devil’s Territory. The tour appropriately enough was called Live Nude Girl in the Devil’s Territory and if that don’t catch your eye, check your pulse.
Kyle graciously agreed to answer some questions I had:
How’s the tour going?
Pretty well. I write you from the couch where I’m sleeping in Baltimore. I spent most of yesterday in Manhattan with my tour partner Kathleen Rooney. We did twenty-three guerrilla readings throughout the city, then read in avant garde writer Tao Lin’s living room at 5 pm, then at Rose Live Music in Brooklyn from 8 o’clock to around ten-thirty, which made twenty-five readings in one day. Afterward, I hopped bars with new friends who came in from the city for the reading, caught the G train to Greenpoint by midnight, where I stumbled onto a small book club talking about Joyce Carol Oates’s Detroit novel Them, walked to a house party, stayed there until four in the morning, jumped into a livery with four friends, rode it to Park Slope, hauled my luggage up too many flights of stairs, slept one and a half hours, woke, showered, caught a ride to Chinatown, stood at the freezing bus stop for an hour while waiting for Kathleen to walk over from where she was staying in the East Village, rode to Baltimore, got off in an industrial wasteland (the bus had that day done away with downtown drop-off), waited for a friend to pick us up and drive us to a late lunch, ate a spinach omelet, drove to the Minas Gallery, walked upstairs, read from “A Day Meant to Do Less,” signed books, followed the audience to the after-party, drank, ate, met people, got back in the car, drove to the house where we’re staying tonight. If it sounds glamorous, it’s because you’re not doing it. I’m tired, man, but, like Kathleen and I keep telling each other: “We’re living the dream!”
So tell me about Kathleen Rooney? How were you two paired?
I met Kathleen Rooney through an anthology Random House put out a few years back, Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers. I liked her essay plenty, and wrote to tell her so, and we struck up a correspondence that way. As it turned out, her memoir Live Nude Girl and my In the Devil's Territory were coming out around the same time. It seemed to make sense for us to team up, and what book tour has ever had a better title than the Live Nude Girl In the Devil's Territory Tour?
With a tour title like "Live Nude Girl in the Devil's Territory" are you concerned that you're not pulling in your share of audience?
I guess the question answers itself!
Twenty-five cities sounds pretty ambitious for a small publisher, whose initiative was it? Would you do it again?
It was our idea, and when we asked our publishers to support it, they were glad to do it. Of course, we're doing it very cheaply, sleeping on couches and floors and blow-up mattresses, riding the MegaBus for eight bucks across three states at a time, taking public transportation in every big city, surfing the Internet for discount plane tickets. So far it's working. We're finding readers, and, town by town, we're greeting enthusiastic crowds, some of them larger than we could have expected. Of course I'd do it again; in a heartbeat!
Do you consider reading performing?
I do consider it a performance. I choose material that is emotionally charged, and I try my best to come as close as I can to the gold standard, which, for me, is Brad Pitt's performance of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses in the two cassette abridgement I found in the used tapes rack at the Lake Wales Public Library in 2001. Listening to that recording was a Come-to-Jesus moment, and by God I hope one day to match it for somebody else.
Recently you took part in a panel on Postevangelical Literature and said you hadn’t heard a definition of the term yet. Any luck since?
I’ve heard plenty of definitions, and they don’t interest me much. I did the panel because my friend Scott Kaukonen (Ordination) had invited three other writers whose work is real, gritty, and true: Pinckney Benedict (Town Smokes), Angela Pneuman (Home Remedies), and David McGlynn (The End of the Straight and Narrow). The five of us have plenty of differences – aesthetic, temperamental, political, religious, commercial – but what we have in common is that we’ve decided it is brave and important to write about religion and religious people as forthrightly as the great Catholic writers (Andre Dubus, J. F. Powers, Graham Greene, Erin McGraw, etc.) have done before us, even though it runs us the risk of alienating, on the one hand, religious readers who don’t like it when people acknowledge how they are capable of pettiness and cruelty to match their generosity and goodness, and, on the other hand, literary readers of a particularly anti-religious bent who would just as soon have literature pretend that we don’t live in a country in which religion is a defining force for at least half the population, on account of some notion that talk about religion or religious people is bound to be vulgar, unsophisticated, unseemly. I guess it can be all those things, but those, anyway, are things literature is always involved in, when it’s doing its job. We ought to be writing about human trouble, not fantasizing about worlds of aesthetic and ideological purity.
Your voice sounds like it comes from experience, and not merely as a writer looking in. Just what is your fascination with evangelical culture?
I was raised Southern Baptist, spent fourteen years preschool to high school at an extreme fundamentalist high school where I was taught by graduates of places like Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College, went off to college planning to become a pastor, briefly became a pastor, rejected the role because of the dissonances my good and useful college education introduced into my understanding of the world, worked briefly in religious publishing, and finally decided to get out altogether and devote myself to literature instead. So: Yes. I lived it.
As for the question of my current relationship to evangelical Christianity, what I can say is that I haven’t gone to church for more than eight years now, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Many of my friends still do, and while I can’t reconcile their choices with my own worldview, I don’t disrespect them or say that they are in every way wrongheaded. Even if not-knowing (and we can’t, really, with things supernatural, by definition – if they exist, they are not directly observable) is a prerequisite for a loss of faith like mine, then it also precludes the possibility of strident atheism. If we can’t know, we can’t know. I don’t spent too much time worrying about these things, but I think that the psychodrama that informs the daily lives of people who do is among the most fascinating things a writer could explore.
Though you poke holes in the inconsistencies and delusions widespread in that culture, you seem to retain a genuine affection and warmth for the people immersed in it or affected by it tangentially.
I don’t really think evangelical Christians are as different from everyone else as they or their detractors think. I think they’re human. They eat, they drink, they want, they need, they get, they shit, they love, they hate, they give, they bicker, they scheme, they trust, and they try every way they can to find a place for themselves in the world, and then fight like hell to hang onto it. In other words, they’re as complicated and contradictory as everyone else, and as likely to be noble, and as likely to be horrible, and, often enough, likely to be both at the same time.
Do you get much feedback on the references to that culture in your work, (for instance: in “The Navy Man” Leslie reads Oswald Chambers and Genie recalls a summer camp experience with Elizabeth Elliot). Are they included for anyone but yourself?
My old teacher, Lee K. Abbott, used to talk about a man named Eric Haas who worked as a fact checker for fiction stories at The Atlantic Monthly, whose job it was to concern himself with whether there was in fact a bar with a red door at 2984 Alameda Drive in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The question this fact naturally raises is: Why is it necessary? It’s fiction. Who cares? And the answer is this: The guy who picks up the magazine, starts reading the story, falls into it, makes himself vulnerable to the emotional power of it, then falls right out of it when he realizes that the bar at 2984 Alameda Drive really has a blue door, not a red door, and thinks: This story isn’t true!
How are you feeling about the end of the world? (The publishing industry’s current hard times) Are there any unique opportunities to exploit therein? Are you still looking for work?
I read in San Francisco two weeks ago with one of my heroes, Daniel Handler, who wrote the Lemony Snicket books. He said this was just a panic, not a collapse, and that the winners would be those who stayed the course. I think he’s right, at least in the long term.
In the short term, though, I’m worried. I’m a visiting professor at a university where I thought I was pretty safe, but I just learned that my job class was cut due to budget reductions. In previous years, I would have thought I could float myself for a year by selling the nonfiction project I’ve been working on, but now I’m not sure anyone can command the advance they could this time last year. The short term is troubling, and I’m boning up on my manual labor skills, which, I’ll admit, are few.
What’s the importance or handicap of literary labeling?
It’s good for marketing. It’s bad for writing. My book is being marketed as literary stories and novellas, but there is a crime story in there, there is a story that made Best American Mystery Stories, there is a story that owes a debt to Alice Munro in its construction, there is a story that originally ran as an essay and could have fit right in at any food magazine on the supermarket shelf on grounds of its descriptions of ice cream making. But I worry that I’ll get painted as a literary writer of narrow scope, when, really, I’ve written all sorts of things, from reviews of books of poetry to a robot story.
What’s your attraction to Crime in literature?
Literature is all about our crimes, isn’t it? Sometimes they’re big, like murder, and sometimes they’re smaller, like telling a lie for personal gain. But those are the places where literature is situated – where a wrench is thrown in the progress of social nicety, and social nicety is replaced by the human impulse for retribution, and we get a chance to see what’s beneath the surfaces we’ve all been making out of our pretendings.
What’s harder to write, big crime or small?
I think it’s all hard to write. I’m having a harder and harder time writing. I keep thinking about the question of what kind of writer I want to be, and that keeps leading me to the question of what kind of reader I am. On the one hand, I can’t stay out of the work of the lyric masters like Denis Johnson, Mark Richard, Barry Hannah, Christine Schutt, Donald Ray Pollock. Stuff that is devastating, delivered by way of high-octane language much given to consonance and cadence and metaphor making that mines the dirty places and there finds beauty beyond what anybody could imagine up in the high places. On the other hand, I’m daily haunted by the work of the moral masters like Andre Dubus, Anton Chekhov, and Alice Munro, those plainspoken masters who rely upon accumulation and juxtaposition of the daily to uncover the frightening and powerful contradictions that rest just beneath the seemingly banal surface we all coast upon.
But, really, the more defining question for a writer might be: What kind of person am I? That’s where it gets messy. Man, forget all this crime and literature stuff. What I really wanted, when I was starting out, was to be Kurt Vonnegut or George Saunders or David Foster Wallace – to do a dance with language, to dazzle and delight, to be goddamn funny. But those writers are operating one hundred percent out of their real true selves, and that’s why their work rises beyond mere amusement and breaks the reader’s heart. Me, I’m not that person. When I really strip down to what’s inside me, it’s dark, and it’s ugly, and it’s hard to look at. To write truly, I have to acknowledge things about myself I don’t want to acknowledge, and invest my characters with that terrible knowledge.
What responsibility does the writer have to entertain the reader?
I don’t know. I don’t want to write a boring story, and I don’t want to read one, either. But there are different ways literature entertains, and the reader who defines them too narrowly does so at the cost of a whole lot of pleasure. I think readers and writers ought to keep open to every kind of thing. Like Zadie Smith says, literature is a big tent.
“Goodbye Hills, Hello Night” was inspired by true events?
Sure it was. When I was in the fourth grade, a young man close to our family participated in several evenings of rousting or bum bashing. A bunch of guys got in a car, drove around looking for vagrants, beat them up, had some laughs. One night it got out of hand. Somebody died, and a whole lot of other lives were near ruined, too. No one was the same after that. Me included, even though I was just a kid on the outside looking in.
“They Take You” ventured outside evangelical culture into a nameless Warren Jeffs type FLDS splinter cult, but it blended the familiar themes of your work into a corker of a crime story. Any more coming from that corner of Minor-land?
That story provoked a lot of response from readers of crime fiction. I want to go on record and say that, although that scenario had some things in common with Warren Jeffs and the FLDS cult it was not a story about any particular church or cult or whatever. It was its own thing, like Margaret Atwood’s things are their own things, you know? Sources get transformed into new things sometimes, especially in speculative stories like that.
I want to do more stories like that. I did one other one, an Appalachian robot story titled “The Truth and All Its Ugly,” which appeared in Laura and Pinckney Benedict’s Surreal South alongside wildish work by writers including Joyce Carol Oates, Daniel Woodrell, Chris Offutt, and Lee K. Abbott – heroes of mine, all of them. I like how it felt, I like how they turned out, I like the new kinds of readers the stories attracted.
Both “They Take You” and an abridged version of “Goodbye Hills, Hello Night” appeared on the Plots With Guns site. Why publish online? Do you encounter any resistance to your work because it was online, for free?
I publish some things online (at Plots with Guns, at Freight Stories, on blogs and so on), and some things in print (in literary journals like The Southern Review and The Gettysburg Review, in anthologies, and so on.) I like them both plenty. I like the prestige that attaches, rightly or wrongly, to the higher-end print outlets, and I like the broad readership a good online magazine like Plots with Guns can offer. I also like finding different audiences. I hope to take them with me from place to place, so they can discover new writers working in other genres and other publishing communities. These things are so hard to write, and they take a long time to get right. I want as many people to read them as possible, and I don’t care if the readers are literature professors or wellpoint foremen. Although, between you and me, maybe I prefer the wellpoint foreman a little, at least in theory. Maybe I’m romanticizing the wellpoint foreman. My grandfather was a wellpoint foreman.
What kind of feedback do you get on your writing in a female voice? How much do you worry about that kind of thing?
I got some letters from women about “The Navy Man,” to the effect that I must really understand women. My wife thought this was irritating and hilarious. These letters usually came on a day when I didn’t do any laundry or wash any dishes or prepare any of my own food, like the caveman I know I can be. But the response the story provoked made me feel like maybe I got that character right. The way I did it, by the way, was inverting everything about the chauvinist male protagonist of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” including plot and gender, setting her in Florida, investing her with a few grievances borrowed from women I know and love, and marrying her to Leslie Ratliff, hapless nonhero of some of my other stories. It was a weird way to write a story, and I’ll never do it again, but once the idea came it seemed right. You never know where a story will come from.
You’ve been published alongside weighty names from a wide swath of contemporary literature. Where do you belong? Who would you call your contemporaries? Is there a community you belong to/to belong to?
I follow the work of contemporaries I admire: Christopher Coake, Benjamin Percy, Donald Ray Pollock, Edwidge Danticat, Holly Goddard Jones, Joshuah Bearman. And I keep my head in the generations before: Katherine Anne Porter, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Philip Roth, Peter Taylor, Andre Dubus, James Wright. I think a lot about the work of old teachers like Andrew Hudgins and Lee K. Abbott, and the distance between their work and what they have to say about the making of literary work, and how one might get from here to there like they did. I show my work sometimes to trusted friends with sharp eyes: Douglas Watson, Bart Skarzynski, Jane Bradley, Letitia Trent. So the company is large and diverse, and mostly a function of my own imagination. If it is a fiction, it is a very functional and generative one.
Why a short story collection? Why not a novel? Is there a novel on the way?
There is a novel on the way. It is set in Haiti. Some people from the story book find there way into it. That is all I can say at this time, for fear of spoiling something.
Until May, anyway, you are teaching writing. How do you teach that?
You help people avoid the mistakes we all make when we’re starting out. You introduce them to great writers. You teach them how to read. You talk about language and vision. You draw charts and diagrams. Sometimes it takes.