Monday, July 11, 2011

Kate Christensen Interview, Part One

Kate Christensen is the PEN/Faulkner Prize winning author of The Great Man, Epicure's Lament, and other lauded novels.

Her newest, The Astral, follows Harry Quirk, a Brooklyn poet in his mid fifties whose marriage and professional reputation are in decline. Set in contemporary Greenpoint, the first-person narrative captures the texture of Harry's consciousness with an uncanny facility and truth to life.

PH: To me, Harry Quirk represents New York bohemianism before it became irrevocably self-conscious. What about his aspirations and struggles moved you to portray this man so carefully, so inventively?

KC: There's a certain kind of New Yorker I don't see written about much -- the artist who keeps making art without any reward of money or fame -- the artist who reaches middle age in a state of scruffy, striving dedication. Successful artists of any stripe interest me far less than struggling ones. I know so many people -- painters, photographers, poets, novelists, musicians -- who are still in that state, middle-aged, living hand to mouth, no insurance, no savings account, still paying rent, trying to survive, but not giving up -- their lives have been shaped around their art. It's a quiet heroism. I'm inspired and moved by artists who do it because they have to -- because it's who they are -- and for no other reason. I admire their integrity, authenticity, and deep dedication. They are an unsung and crucial part of the city's character.

PH: What was the biggest piece of editorial advice you accepted on this novel, and the biggest piece of editorial advice you rejected?

KC: After he read the first draft, my editor, Gerry Howard, told me he wanted more back-story and history. He wanted to know more clearly who Luz was, and he wanted me to flesh out Harry's marriage, family, and friendship with Marion. His idea was to make Luz more sympathetic, to let us see her side of things as clearly as we see Harry's. I agreed with the first suggestion and rejected the second. I added seven or eight full scenes from Harry's past, which I felt helped deepen and shape the book -- but rather than making her sympathetic, I showed Luz as a controlling, cold, histrionic bitch. This was completely necessary to the novel; my editor agreed with me when he read the next draft.

PH: What have been turning points for you in terms of craft? What were the lessons you learned, the breakthroughs you made, the epiphanies? Did they come from your Iowa MFA, or a novel you read, or essays on craft, or elsewhere?

KC: The major turning point for me came when I was almost 30. I had spent the entire decade of my 20s writing stories and novel chapters that were simultaneously earnestly overwrought and callowly underdeveloped, an attempted imitative amalgam of Ann Beatty and William Faulkner. These were not terrible stories and chapters; I was encouraged to keep going in this vein by getting into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, winning the 1988 Mademoiselle fiction contest, and then, after I'd moved to New York, getting a series of handwritten New Yorker rejections asking me to keep submitting -- I thought I was on the right track.

But one day -- I remember this so clearly -- I looked over the thing I was working on and felt a profound revulsion, an aesthetic nausea. I couldn't stand it another minute. That was the day I started writing "In the Drink," the day I realized that my own voice was not the one I'd been writing in all these years. I realized I'd been faking it; I had a flash of what my writing was going to be. It felt so good to switch to my real voice. It felt like taking off the training wheels and flying down a hill for the first time with no hands -- freeing, euphoric, subversive.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fiction's For Fools?

A dean of American novelists just announced publicly that reading fiction is for fools. What has the response been from his peers? Nothing so far. According to a June 24 Financial Times interview, Philip Roth now reads history and biography instead of fiction. Asked why, he says "I don't know. I wised up."

Can we ascribe Roth's statement to his well-known eccentricity? Unfortunately, no. Roth speaks for the general readership , as increasing numbers of readers have turned to non-fiction. The utility of spending one's time reading facts can't be disputed in the Information Age. That humanity believes we have little need for the humanities these days cannot be in serious doubt either.

Considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, Philip Roth might be expected to stand as a partisan for the value of reading fiction. One could inquire, again somewhat flippantly, whether Roth has nothing left to learn from Melville, Woolf, Tolstoy. I'd argue that Roth has not absorbed the full richness of Cervantes, or of the greatest of Cervantes' heirs.

Nor have any of us, whether readers or writers. But why stop trying?

Readers are turning away from fiction for good reasons, many of them having to do with writers. With some exceptions, contemporary writers have not made available the best of Quixote's infinite possibilities to readers. How might they do that? Through passionate essays that confront greatness and make it our own, and through the creation of ambitious new novels that benefit from that confrontation.

Instead, as society shunts them aside, novelists and other artists seem to have accepted a peripheral, decorative function. Roth's old friend Milan Kundera refuses that position. He considers art vital to our humanity, and continues to publish impassioned essays on the inexhaustible depths of Kafka, Cervantes, and Broch, as well as on more contemporary writers such as Cesaire, Chamoiseau, and Marquez. I've never read essays by an American novelist with as much vitality and insight into the novel as Kundera's, as Vargas Llosa's, as Calvino's, as Woolf's.

Mightn't it behoove every novelist, when readership is dwindling, to extol the virtues of our medium strenuously, with greater boldness and vigor than ever? What was the last contemporary essay or novel you read that made you think "The ambition of this amazes me. This person has taken on Melville, or Joyce, or Woolf. This is an attempt at a masterpiece."

Joshua Cohen's WIT has some of that hubris. We know Jonathan Franzen has it, and have learned that Jennifer Egan has it. David Foster Wallace had it. Grace Krilanovich has it in ORANGE EATS CREEPS, though she expresses it less overtly, with more subtlety than some. There are other examples. But show me the novelist who reads brilliantly, and I'll show you the form's best defender, and potentially one of its greatest writers.

Is there anything less productive than a leading novelist pronouncing useless all of imaginative fiction? Perhaps only our failure to refute him thoroughly, emphatically, ceaselessly.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Walt Whitman Saved My Life Too

At the consistently amazing lit site called, I read a July 4th post about America's bard saving the life of the article's author Michael Bourne. Amazing piece, and more like it I would welcome.

Whitman saved my life too.

When 2010 began, I still disliked Whitman, and held a fierce grudge against myself, not just for failing to grasp his barbaric yawp, but for a lot of scarier stuff too. Then I began to understand that Walt was not just trying to write uplifting arias to the self. He was renovating the stale soul of humanity.

After a few passes through Leaves of Grass, the poems that struck me hardest were Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and So Long. "I say you shall yet find the friend you were looking for."

More on this to come, but I ended the year a Whitman devotee, happier than I've ever been, and highly recommend this book on the poet's impact on his contemporaries.