questions posed by Selah Saterstrom, October 2006
SS: Your book of fiction exercises, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, offers unique strategies by which writers might uncover prose and all of its elements. In thinking about creative writing in terms of teaching, you’ve been vocal about not liking the “usual workshop method” so often employed in workshops. Your workshop paradigm seems to be less concerned with deconstructing existing work and more excited by uncovering stories and questioning their elements as a way to pitch one’s self and one’s work into a new beyond where possibilities proliferate.
Assuming your relationship to language has informed the ways in which you have re-visioned the workshop experience as well as the strategies you offer in The 3 A.M. Epiphany, I want to ask you about something in your writing statement, found on your website: “I also believe language is infinitely malleable, a live being in our hands, which deserves our great respect and curiosity.”
In your own writing practice, in what ways do you experience/live out, and/or enact this kind of respect and curiosity? What things do you do in your writing practice that keeps your work, and your commitment to your work, vital, alive, pulsing?
BK: One exercise I’ve designed (and used myself) is to take the full name of someone you love and use the letters from that name as the only alphabet available for a set of words and sentences which serve as the raw material for a very short piece of narrative. I did this using my brother’s name. My brother died of AIDS in 1993, and I’d been trying for years to compose my thoughts on him. The page of fiction that grew out of this exercise was a construction of the last moments—and thoughts—of his life. The story took several years to write (even though it was never much more than a page long), which seemed like a natural amount of work for a project about my brother’s last thoughts. The way these sentences—and this language—came to me, in laborious and methodical pieces, is an example of how one can reflect on language—words and letters even—in a microscopic way, not seeing narrative of any sort but seeing the most basic elements of fiction. The vignette arranges and rearranges the words I could come up with from a set of Scrabble letters (literally) scattered around my desk. I had to seek out the only words available to me in this arbitrary fashion and yet I also saw how much my mind was still manipulating the material, without the more conscious part of my mind knowing it. This is a good example of what I mean by “language is a live being in our hands.” Language speaks us as often as we speak it.
SS: You’ve recently completed a novel, The River Gods, a 400-year history of Northampton, Massachusetts, the town you grew up in. I wonder if you could speak about the kinds of things this writing-based engagement with history has revealed for you? What are your particular concerns regarding “history”?
BK: In the end, history is writing, for me. What I can experience of history, especially very distant history, is accessible only through words other people have written, in letters, journals, newspapers, and books, or in a sense inscribed in the layout of towns or buildings. I enjoyed doing the research for this book. In a way, I got too caught up in it, and an early draft of the novel contained about 100 pages of fairly straight, undigested language other people used to describe emotions and events from the past of this small Massachusetts town. Eventually, I either eliminated these sections or I rewrote them considerably, turning their words into someone else’s voice or putting together two or three distinct voices from different periods to make one relatively seamless voice of a moment in time.
SS: How much of writing, do you think, is talking to the dead?
BK: A great deal of our writing is just that. Obviously, also, much of what we read was written by the dead, so we are communing with ghosts, even when we’re reading something some still-living being has composed. The hard thing for young writers to endure in their first fiction workshops is the command to stay silent while other people are discussing their work. Writing teachers say that this is to imitate the experience of letting your writing go out into the world—you can’t sit beside everyone who reads your work and say, “You don’t understand. I meant for Jack’s fear of outhouses to represent his botched potty training as a kid.” Our writing is dead when it leaves us, alive when we’re writing it. Or, as Eudora Welty said in The Eye of the Story, “Each story, it seems to me, thrives in the course of being written only as long as it seems to have a life of its own.”
SS: You have also written pieces that are considered within the genre of “travel writing.” How do you understand “travel writing”? What are some of the possibilities within this genre?
BK: The travel writing I like plays with the genre, if there is one actual genre we can call travel writing. Travel writing is the oldest kind of writing there is—the Odyssey, Exodus, Herodotus. Well into the 20th century it was a grab bag of genres: anthropology, fiction, fantasy, botany, political manifesto, archaeology. The modern travel writing I like—Alphonso Lingis’ Trust, Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs, Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land—maintain this grab bag notion, throwing several distinct things into the blender: philosophy, history, semiology, ethnography. The simplicity of the narrative line in travel writing—taking a boat up and then down the Nile—leaves room for all sorts of other rumination and reflection. The story doesn’t matter, only the description does, and description is a rather open form, if you think about it.
Do you think writers, even if by default, must assume certain “obligations” – personal, intellectual, political, and so on? What kind of space does the contemporary writer hold within (particularly American) culture, as you understand it?
Yes. Writers should feel obliged to express their political, intellectual, and personal ideals. We all should bite off more than we can chew. The old feminist saying was the personal is political. I think the personal is historical, political, aesthetic, whatever. Let me end with another quotation, from William Vollmann in an old issue of Conjunctions: “We should never write without feeling. Unless we are much more interesting than we imagine we are, we should strive to feel not only about Self, but also about Other…We must treat Self and Other as equal partners.”