I do not feel I have been giving 100% to Zulkey.com this summer but I have some very good excuses: travel, a book project, travel and my thesis. Fortunately this will all abate by the end of next week so you also feel Zulkey.com has been somewhat on summer hiatus this summer, never fear, it will return in full force as of September 10. Of course I will be taking a Labor Day Break and return September 5.
Fortunately, I do think that the interviews, when they've happened, have been pretty great this season. Today's interviewee's fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in more than fifty magazines and anthologies, including McSweeney's, The Kenyon Review , The Georgia Review and Other Voices. His novella Nothing in the World won the 2005 Bullfight Review Little Book Prize and was published by Bullfight Press in 2006, receiving praise from such writers as George Saunders. His next book, All Over, will mark the debut publication from Dzanc Books. His dispatches from China appear regularly on the McSweeney's website, and his "Little-known Corners" meta-column appears monthly in That's Beijing.
The Roy Kesey Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions
What was the initial idea that inspired you to write Nothing in the World?
\Whenever I try to write from ideas, things take a turn for the stupid almost immediately, so I usually don't fire up unless I've got a bit of voicing that sounds new to me, or a visual I can dig into, or, preferably, both. Nothing in the World started with the image of a head on a café table, which didn't require any great amount of creativity on my part, since earlier that day there had been a real head on a real table a few hundred yards away. This was in Split in 1992, and the head was that of a Bosnian soldier, and the guy who put it on the table was the Croat who'd killed him. As he set the head down, he said--or maybe declaimed--the kind of line you'd expect from a Bruce Willis movie. And then the waitress threw up on the people at the next table over. All of which I heard about because the waitress was a friend of the woman I was staying with a few blocks over from the café where it happened.
As you can imagine, I was in well over my own head at the time.
Anyway, that image ended up keeping company with a few others from that same stretch of time, and together they made their way into a story that was interesting but kind of incoherent, which a few years later turned into a novel, which a few years later, once I'd cut out the sucky half, turned into Nothing in the World.
Tell us how you and Dzanc came to partner together. You're both sort of taking a chance on each other.
Well, I think most authors and their respective editors are taking chances on each other. In this case it maybe feels magnified a bit only because All Over will be their first book, which lends the project an extra (and cool, but nerve-wracking) sort of energy and urgency on all sides.
I was one of a number of people who got an email from Dzanc back in October of last year soliciting manuscripts. I was in Nanjing doing research at the time, so it took me a little while to get things together, but I had two collections that I'd been working on, so when I got home to Beijing I sent them off. And Dzanc liked them, so we started to talk, and the more we talked the more excited we all got about the possibilities, and in a couple of months we were hitched!
Why is Beijing your home?
Back in 2002 my wife was finishing up the two-year stint at the Foreign Ministry in Lima that all newbie Peruvian diplomats start with, and we'd spent about six months trying to come with a list of places we wanted to put in for. And everywhere we thought of had a push-and-pull kind of feel to it--lots of good points but always something that had us wondering if it was quite what we wanted. It was coming down to the wire, and we'd already turned down a couple of postings that felt less than right, and then one night my wife said, China! And we looked at each other, and clapped our palms histrionically to our foreheads, because that was exactly what we wanted and we should have figured it out sooner.
What have you observed, first-hand, that's changed as Beijing prepares for the Olympics?
The incredible proliferation of reporters coming from all over the world to report on how Beijing is preparing for the Olympics! Seriously, you can't swing a chainsaw without hitting half a dozen, even if you're careful--and I always am. And what's frustrating is, there are good stories to tell here on the periphery, but most of the stories I see are on the easy stuff, old cud that's been brought up for re-chewing every day for the past two years--traffic, pollution, cabbies trying to learn English, etiquette campaigns, construction, Will They Be Ready?
I guess what I'd like to see would be stories on the effects rippling out from these big, obvious changes: the plans people are making for the weeks when they won't be able to drive, and the repercussions those plans will have; the long-term vision for the factories that have been shut down toward the city center, and what those plans mean for the people who live around those factories, or used to work in them; Like Every Other City That's Ever Hosted the Olympics, Beijing Will Be Ready In Most Ways and Not Ready In a Few, and Now's Your Chance to Put Your Money on Which Will be Which.
I'm also interested in the top-down shading that's happening as the nine people who make all the decisions here try to figure out exactly how to handle things like press restrictions, police presence, protests, that sort of thing. They wend ever so slightly back and forth on these issues, measuring response both here and abroad (but mostly here) to each change, trying to find the exact balance point where they can achieve a level of domestic control that keeps them safe in their big soft chairs without getting hammered (politically, economically, in the press) abroad.
Do you feel that you've gotten 'used' to living abroad? When I studied abroad and lived in Italy for a year I felt exhausted all the time just from living in a different country and always having to potentially solve a problem. Does that abate after some time?
I think it does abate, a little. It takes time to learn the codes (administrative, social, linguistic) that make life so much easier anywhere; time to make friends; time to find the really amazingly cool little things that can make up for (or even make you forget) the similarly cool but now unavailable things that you miss from back home.
That said, there are definitely still days when I feel like I just got here, and wonder if I should maybe someday choose some easier life option--days when something that should take twenty minutes ends up taking two hours because I stood at the wrong teller window, or when I want to scream, I understand what you're saying but how can that possibly make sense to you? Which is just sort of a tax you pay for all the cool stuff that you'd never have seen if you weren't out and about in the world.
What was your experience like at Georgetown? From my time there I found that creative writing isn't their focus.
I had a great two years at Georgetown, but I was working full-time, so I was off campus a lot. Writing-wise, my literature professors were terrific, so that was a good start, and I wasn't making fictions at that point (instead I was making Very. Bad. Poems.), and I guess I just wasn't really looking for a writing scene to be part of. That's probably because at that time I didn't know there was such a thing as a writing scene. Really. I thought writing was something people did only in private, like voting, and masturbation.
What did your Very Bad Poems tend to be about? (Mine were about boys or friends I was mad at.)
My brain has done me the great favor of forgetting most of the oldest stuff, but I know there was some slightly twisted lyric lovework, and there was one Georgetown-era poem, an update (!) of "The Wasteland" (!!!) that, if I remember correctly, quoted early Springsteen more than you'd think would be necessary.
What's the difference between a short story and a novella?
Diet and exercise? Speed and surgery? So many options!
Every generalization I could possibly make on this topic would feel instantly false, so I'm tempted to punt, but, what the hell. Novellas have more in common with novels, I think, than with short stories--at least that's the intestinal sense I have right now. With short stories there's always the concern with everything leading toward some sort of rich, full flowering that needs to happen quickly in the reader's mind, whereas with novellas you have time to walk halfway down a few not-immediately-relevant alleys, find your way back and move on, and then later let the odd shapes of the echoes and shadows in those alleys provide a sense of amplitude to the story. With short stories, of course, you rarely have time to go down those alleys at all; with novels you often need to go all the way down them and poke around in the piles of leaves, hoping to find something cool.
At readings, how do you choose which pieces you perform? Do you practice reading aloud much?
I like work that reads fast, in and out, preferably at least a little funny. And I do practice a bit when something's coming up--there are plenty of things that work fine on the page but not so well out loud, and there's no harm done in skipping or shading them, I think. Plus it helps me to remember to breathe, which is a good thing, since passing out on stage can end up costing you a fortune in dental work.
Who are some of your favorite writer-peers?
Long list! Some of these are stretching the concept of 'peer' to its upward breaking point, but: Jim Ruland, Lucy Corin, Mark Richard, Pia Ehrhardt, Pinckney Benedict, Ron Currie Jr., Gary Lutz, Elizabeth Crane, Grant Bailie, Sam Lipsyte, Roger Morris...
What do you do on the days that you're supposed to write but nothing is coming to you and you just don't want to, godammit?
Oh, I always want to. Always. And there's always something to do, some part of the project, to fill the time when clean words aren't coming: checking out new magazines, plugging the holes in my reading, looking back through old unachieved work to see if there's anything worth saving. It's a question of balancing all that with the other truly important things in life, like teaching my kids how to spit and when to double down.
Who have you learned the most from as a writer, whether it's a teacher, an author you admire or just someone who inspires you?
Writers whose books have shown me things I didn't know you were allowed to do: Virginia Woolf and Nathanael West and Flann O'Brien, Cortázar and Borges and Bolaño, Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver; George Saunders and Tony Earley and Lydia Davis and Michael Martone and about a hundred others. Paul Betz was the professor at Georgetown who showed me that there is such a thing in this world as literary magazines that publish non-dead people--he also pretended my poems didn't suck to keep me going. Georges Borias (rest peacefully, old friend) reminded me constantly that it's all about the complicated pleasure that good text can provoke in people's minds.
Did you correspond at all with Stephen King after he selected your story "Wait" for Best American Short Stories 2007? If so, what did you talk about?
I did! We talked mainly about you, and which of us was more likely to get picked first to be interviewed for Zulkey.com. Suck it, Steve!
Actually, he wrote me a very cool email, which he did in fact sign "Steve" (a tiny fact that gives me no end of pleasure), and in which he used the phrase "absolutely mad shit," which has already been carved on the tombstone under which I hope one day to sleep the good sleep.
What have been some of the favorite books you've read to your kids?
One of the greatest things about having kids, aside from getting to cancel your life insurance because now you have someone who'll take care of you forever, is getting to read books written for them. There's a fair amount of really, really bad kid's literature, and I'm not even talking celebrity writers or whatever, just run-of-the-mill condescending, simplistic, moralizing nonsense that shouldn't even be read to houseplants. But on the other side of the scale, man, some of these books are amazing. Harold and the Purple Crayon. Oscar and Arabella: Hot Hot Hot. The Giving Tree. Olivia. Go, Dog, Go! Books like these, some of which are only a few hundred words long, have a sense of fullness and linguistic play that I, for one, have a lot to learn from.
According to the "About Dzanc Books" section on the press release for your book, it was created to "advance great writing and champion those writers who don't fit neatly into the marketing niches of for-profit presses." What would you say about your writing might not fit into those particular niches?
You'd probably get a better answer asking them. But I get the sense that they're looking for work that is essentially (rather than ironically) playful in terms of form or language. It's not that books like that never find a public, I think, just that the road leading uphill to publication for that kind of work tends to be steeper than for work shaped more like what most people have read and enjoyed before. And it happens to be the kind of work that the powers that be at Dzanc best like, so they've built a home for it.
What are you working on now, writing wise and not writing-wise?
Writing wise, it's all about a novel. It took me years to figure out what it was about--say, forms of memory and what we do with them, instead of, say, lizards--but now it seems to be straightening itself out.
And just to set your mind at ease: yes, I'll be keeping most of the lizards.
Non-writing wise, it's mostly about Crazy Eights and ninjas. We here in the Kesey Household just can't get enough of those Crazy Eights and ninjas.
What are you reading now?
Most of what's on my desk these days is history and historiography that I need in my head for said novel. Some of it is modern stuff--Ginzburg and White and Novick, Hemming and Lockhart, Porras Barrenechea and Rostworoski. And some of it is older--Cieza de León, Martín de Murúa, Titu Cusi Yupanqui. Absolutely mad shit!
How does it feel to be the 191st person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
It feels like a dream come true! Specifically, like that dream where all of a sudden your hair starts growing uncontrollably, just flowing out of your head, and for some reason it's almost black instead of your regular medium brown, and then you realize that it's actually made of the richest, most sublime dark chocolate you've ever tasted in your life. And you eat and you eat and you eat until you just can't eat any more no matter how good it is, and now it's starting to pile up at your feet and you're beginning to worry that you're going to suffocate under all this chocolate, because you just now realize you're in an elevator, and the chocolate hair level is up to your chin and still rising when the door opens and all these stockbrokers come in and start eating it for you, and they just can't get enough, because it's so, so good, and now they're ripping the hair right out of your scalp, which hurts like hell, which is weird, because, you know, chocolate, and now there's blood dripping down your forehead from the wounds on your scalp so you break out the kung-fu moves (and when did you learn kung-fu?) and beat the stockbrokers down and now the door opens again and you escape out into a huge warehouse full of professional chocolate-hair stylists, honest ones, and for a ten-percent commission they'll package the clippings and sell them and pretty soon you're all billionaires, but it's still kind of a hassle, because you can never leave the warehouse, ever, for as long as you live.
Man, I love that dream.