An Interview With Kyle Minor
In Praying Drunk, Kyle Minor delivers again and again. Not only is each individual story in his second collection filled with wit, intelligence, and strong emotion, but every story in the book also connects somehow to every other, repeating and recasting not just ideas and themes but also events and characters and especially locales, the settings that host Kyle Minor’s obsessions: Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, Haiti. Throughout, Minor reveals himself to be an unwavering, undaunted seeker of the root truths that lie behind the stories we tell ourselves to live, dredging through the cause and effect of American history, religious life, and family tragedy for answers—and if there are no easy answers, then what is there to do but to ask better questions, to look again, to look deeper? He asks again and again: What wrong stories did we tell ourselves, in order to end up here, amid the unfolding tragedy? And also: When we stop being willing to believe and participate in these failed stories, what other stories can we possibly tell next, if we’re determined to build something better and more true?
I’ve been friends with Kyle Minor since 2007 or 2008, when I met him after a reading at Eastern Michigan University. Afterward, we joined some mutual friends for a drink at a local bar, where at some point Minor got up from the table to play the bar’s piano. I wish I could remember what song he played. If his book wasn’t so interesting to talk about, I might have asked him that below.
I. “IN THIS BOOK, FORM IS EVERYTHING”
MATT BELL: Let’s start with the note to the reader at the beginning of the book, the first of its kind I’ve seen in a story collection. It reads:
“These stories are meant to be read in order.
This is a book, not just a collection.
DON’T SKIP AROUND.”
What made you decide to include this note? What are readers losing by not reading the stories in Praying Drunk in the order they were intended?
KYLE MINOR: The book has a design, and the stories mean differently when they’re read outside the design. I hoped to announce the book’s preoccupation with design in the first story, which is titled “The Question of Where We Begin,” which turns out not just to be a formal question but also a question central to the attempt these stories are to make sense of things about which it is very difficult to make any sense—illness, death, despair, suicides, cruelty, the various troubles love can provoke, our inability to really know one another when we our inner selves are walled off by our bodies.
The book rises from a period of the teller’s life in which it seems like the onslaught of blow after blow will never cease. In the midst of all of that, where do we begin? Which blow? And, even if we’ve chosen one trouble for the beginning—the suicide of the troubled uncle—where does that story begin? If you start parsing the cause-and-effect chain backward through time, eventually you land in cosmology—does the story begin with the Big Bang or the out-of-nothing creation of the world by the word of a Southern Baptist god? And that question, for the speaker, is even more fraught than any of the others. The stakes couldn’t be any higher, because not it’s not just a question of life and death, but also a question of life after death or eternal torture after death. And that question raises another, which hangs implicitly over the rest of the book: What kind of god would allow such a thing? And also: If that creator is so wretched, does that mean this creator— the teller of the tale—must be likewise wretched?
So, already, by the end of the first story, an attentive reader might know: In this book, form is everything. Soon, that reader might also notice that the stories are recurring in different versions, in different forms, sometimes in different genres, and that seemingly unrelated stories are starting to bleed one into the other. There’s no use pretending that these stories have different tellers, because clearly these stories are rising from the interrelated preoccupations of one teller, and that teller isn’t any more satisfied with the way these stories are turning out than he was when he was living them the first time.
MB: I’m glad you mentioned your announcing the book’s preoccupation with form in “The Question of Where We Begin.” I’ve always believed that good books teach their readers how to read them, by providing the keys to the book early on, and that’s obviously happening here not just at the beginning but throughout the collection. I’m also interested in something else you said: “If that creator is so wretched, does that mean this creator—the teller of the tale—must be likewise wretched?” I remember studying Tolkien in undergrad, and being struck by his assertion somewhere that any world a writer created would have to be governed by the rules of our world, as created by his Catholic god, which for him meant that it had to include a fall, and also, somewhere in the future, a coming of redemption.
Is it possible for you to write worlds outside of the cosmology you grew up with, or are you struck grappling with that cosmology and its implications? In other words, can you imagine a time when that world won’t be the one in which all your own worlds are nested?
KM: I think that this is the first time I’ve grappled at all with that cosmology. When I first started reading seriously, I was in my early twenties, and I was just starting to make my final break with evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. The last thing I wanted to do was make a subject of it. Catholic writers and Jewish writers of all stripes had these amazing intellectual and artistic and literary traditions upon which to draw, but I didn’t think I had one at all, because so much of my childhood was about keeping things out rather than exploring and understanding and embracing them. The watchword was impurity. Well, there’s nothing less pure than literature, which takes everything in. So I thought, I guess, that if I was going to try to make literature, I was going to have to keep my distance from where I had been.
Of course, there is a literary tradition, in English, to draw upon, and that’s the received stories that come from the Hebrew and the Greek, and there’s also the special language of the King James Version, those special cadences, and those elevated constructions, which are very much a part of my interior life because I was made to memorize so much of them as a child. Rereading Praying Drunk, it’s entertaining to see the places those cadences rise up unexpectedly in, say, a line of dialogue such as: “HMO or PPO, I care not which.” If you scan and emjamb it, it’s a couplet of trochaic trimeter, and you might not even know what that is if you’re not a formalist poet or else, like me, a person educated in a weird hybrid of the fashions of a 19th century British upper class boarding school and Bob Jones University. I could diagram every Germanically-inflected multiple compound-complex sentence available in English, and I could recount to you all the many times genocide was righteously commanded in the name of justice, and I could recite for you every detail of the sinking of the Spanish armada in 1588, but I could also explain for you the canopy theory of the Genesis Flood and what it has to do with the refutation of plate tectonic theory, the Six-Thousand-Year-Old Ex-Nihilo Earth, and why dinosaurs and humans walked the planet together.
As it turns out, that stuff is weird, and alien to an audience of any sophistication, and therefore interesting and useful as material. But you can’t know how weird your own life is until you get some distance on it. Everything seems mundane or boring or embarrassingly small. In my case, I felt like my people weren’t worth taking seriously, because the culture I was coming to admire didn’t take them seriously. But everyone was wrong. Everyone outside of that community should have taken all of that stuff seriously, and one consequence of not taking it seriously was that a fringe wing of the Republican Party made token overtures, flattered a little, gave lip service to a few closely-held pet ideas, and then harnessed the organizational power and the sheer numbers of the people I’d heard yammering all my life, and suddenly they weren’t impotent anymore. Suddenly they were being used, and the ultimate use was the empowerment of the Bush Administration to completely remake American foreign and economic and social policy and to turn it in a disastrous direction, a trouble that has not been undone by the popular backlash that followed, and probably won’t be undone for a long time, because once people get power, they find ways to entrench themselves in power, to make it hard for others to take that power away.
I don’t know what all of this will mean for my work in the future. I can only work one book at a time. But I do know that I’m less preoccupied with this stuff than I was when I was writing what will be my first three works of fiction—In the Devil’s Territory, Praying Drunk, and the novel I’m now finishing, which will be titled The Sexual Lives of Missionaries. Already that third book is veering outward, toward a wider, more public subject. America, colonialism, the Third World—these things are only barely starting to creep into the first two books as subjects. And that’s reflective, mostly, of changes that have happened inside of me. It seems like it takes a lot of time for a preoccupation to shake out in a way that allows me to do something useful with it on the page. I hope that I’ll keep growing book by book, and I hope that I’ll keep changing, that I won’t keep doing the same thing or thinking about it in the same way or doing it in the same way.
One of the most useful parts of my education as a writer was the practice of reading a writer straight through—every book the writer published, in chronological order, to see how the writer changed over time, and to see how the writer’s idea of his or her project changed over time, and to see all the writer tried and accomplished or failed to accomplish. I did this with quite a few writers—Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Alice Munro, John McPhee, Philip Roth, John Updike, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Milan Kundera, Cormac McCarthy, Cynthia Ozick, more than a few others—and I’ve found challenge and comfort in it in equal measure. There’s no way to predict when or how a writer will change or experience a great breakthrough, but in almost all of those writers, you can see the origin of the breakthrough in the earlier work, and you can also see in the greatest work how the writer finally found some freedom in rejecting a profitable earlier way of working, and in taking a big risk, and coupling it with a big subject, and literary fashion and the approval of friends and the world be damned.
MB: I love reading everything a writer has written: I don’t think I know any other way to truly come to know a writer, and the writers who I’ve read everything by have stayed with me much more strongly than others. I’m fascinated by this idea of a writer’s big breakthrough being visible in early work, and then later revealed in a new work that combines the big risk and the big subject. Can you give us an example of this, in one of the writers above? Is this something you can purposely try for in your own work, or is it something that has to naturally work its way out over the course of a career’s worth of books?
KM: If I knew how to do that—to engineer the great breakthrough—I’d do it right now. Anyone would. I’m not sure that’s how it works. The writer doesn’t get to decide. But there are instructive patterns, I think, that one writer can learn from another. I think that Philip Roth learned something about freedom, for example, by reading Saul Bellow (and Roth said as much to David Remnick). If you look at Bellow’s first two books, Dangling Man and The Victim, you’ll see great restraint, and, to my taste, not much to get excited about. They might as well have been written by any high-minded novelist from England or New England. But then, with Augie March, that great exuberance kicks in, that special language. Not much restraint at all—Bellow is riffing forever. And you can see him moving back and forth between these poles for the rest of his career, and in the best of the books he finds a synthesis of form and exuberance. The freedom he found in Augie March is the starting point for all of that.
If you read Roth from beginning to end, you can see a lot of what’s great about the later books starting to manifest already in the stories in Goodbye, Columbus. Roth’s personality is in those stories—his wit, his tendency toward pushing his material further than other writers would, his delight at breaking unwritten rules, his seriousness of purpose. But something unfortunate happens in the books that follow. He tries to be Henry James, and he writes a series of turgid, boring novels. His Augie March is Portnoy’s Complaint, in the sense that he abandons what he thinks he’s supposed to be doing and chases a great freedom. Portnoy’s Complaint isn’t a great book. There’s something gleefully juvenile about it, and Roth keeps on in that vein for a while, and writes a few more books that aren’t so great—The Breast, Our Gang, The Great American Novel. But you can see the synthesis start to assert itself in My Life as a Man and the first Zuckerman trilogy (which starts with The Ghost Writer, his first masterpiece), and by the middle-to-late Eighties, he is writing books that are really exciting to read and re-read, such as The Counterlife, which tells competing versions of the same story thread and contains within it the seeds of Operation Shylock and the Zuckerman trilogy, and Deception, which is a high-wire act that proceeds almost entirely in unattributed dialogue, and eventually Patrimony, which is a nonfiction book that contains scenes that are precursors to the most thrilling scenes Roth ever writes, in American Pastoral. By now, Roth is back from his exile in London, and his focus is turning outward, from the self as subject to the public subject, to Israel and Newark and America and capital-H History. And then arrives the great flowering of the nineties—Operation Shylock and Sabbath’s Theater back to back, and Sabbath’s Theater itself the fulfillment of the promise of Portnoy—the great comic novel that seems to be unrestrained, untethered, but which is really under great control, a study of depravity in conversation with Shakespeare, and then American Pastoral in conversation with Sabbath’s Theater, a study of decency to follow a study of depravity. And American Pastoral uses everything Roth set up in the first five Zuckerman books, all that inward examination, and turns it outward, with an observer-narrator like we’ve never seen before in American literature (except, in the one brief Anne Frank chapter, in The Ghost Writer, and in the beat-playing of The Counterlife), who is telling a story to which he has almost zero direct access, and in so doing telling us the story about the Fifties and the Sixties and the great upheavals of America and the culture wars in a way that forces up to see them through the lens of the family, and, listen, I’m not nearly doing justice to all the things this book does, but what I mean to say is: You can see Roth gathering all his resources throughout his career, and you can see them in full flower in American Pastoral, by which time he’s in his sixties, and the reader is tremendously grateful for all that effort, all that experimentation, all that synthesis.
II. “THE STORIES… ARE REALLY CLOSE TO THE BONE”
MB: There are two stories in the book titled “Q&A,” and in the first, the subject of the interview says, “I knew a woman, my teacher. A mentor in many ways. She said the most useful thing. Our job is to identify the distance between the story we’ve been telling ourselves about our lives—the received story, or the romantic story, or the wishful thinking—and replace it with the story that experience is revealing about our lives, the story that is more true… It’s the reckoning that changes. The narrative itself is the reckoning. The choices you make about what is or isn’t significant, and what it all comes to mean.” Can you talk a little more about what you mean by this idea, of narrative as reckoning, assuming it’s something you agree with? (I hate to start out with the assumption that the speaker in this case is the author, even if it’s tempting.) In what ways is Praying Drunk a reckoning for you? How is your approach to the work different from in your previous book of stories, in The Devil’s Territory?
KM: Well, if you conflate the speaker with the author, it’s in part because the book invites you to conflate the speaker with the author. Of course, in the book’s version, the author has been dead for a long time and is stuck in eternity in the only thing worse than hellfire or oblivion, which is the literal Southern Baptist heaven, where there’s not much to do after you’ve earned your crowns but throw them at the feet of Big G and sing the same old songs of devoted servitude. There’s no getting ahead up there. All the action preceded the eternal life. The possibility of death raised the stakes, I guess. And now, what else is there to do but fixate on what was, get more than a little obsessive about it, turn it around and around in your glorified head and still never get to the whole of whatever it was.
In the Devil’s Territory was constantly pushing against certain formal constraints, especially concerning structure and time and the technical construction of point of view. The three longer (and stronger) stories have a novelistic bent that strains against any conservative idea of what a short story can tackle in terms of scope. But somehow I got the idea that it was an elevated thing to have a middle style, even a lush middle style, when, really, the writers I had all along loved the most—Barry Hannah, Cynthia Ozick, Denis Johnson, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Christine Schutt, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Frank Stanford, Lucille Clifton, David Foster Wallace, Lee K. Abbott, Stephen Dixon—were always blowing shit up, language-wise, if and whenever it suited their purposes. Instead of doing it that way, with language pushed past the limits of literary decorum, I tried to do it with form alone, especially structure, and I think I succeeded exactly once, with “A Day Meant to Do Less”—a story, incidentally, whose form requires the language toward the end to abandon its fidelity to reality, except for the subjective version of reality filtered through the dementia-troubled consciousness of an elderly woman who is dying in a bathtub and who thinks her preacher son, who has been bathing her, is really the returned-from-Mexico devil-spawned cousin who ruined her childhood by half-raping her in a tobacco field and killing the boy who tried to come to her rescue.
The rest of the stories in In the Devil’s Territory are competent enough. They can make some readers feel things—sometimes deeply—and they are in many ways technically accomplished. There is nothing wrong with them, and they read true and operate out of some power. Or maybe that’s not fair—maybe the problem isn’t so much the stories themselves as it is that the stories aren’t being told the way I really wanted to be telling stories. They have too much Chekhov in them, too much Alice Munro, too much of the wrong voices of the wrong teachers in my ear. They’re evenhanded stories, after the manner of Andre Dubus, in which I tried to inhabit the point of view of people still mostly caught in that fundamentalist world. True believers, many of the doubting variety, but few of the pack-up-and-leave variety. People whose reasonable natures cause them to eschew rage, keep mostly quiet about all nagging dissonances, make accommodations, accept a life of denial or middling misery. The empathy is true, and the consciousnesses are fully rendered, but none of them fully resemble the Wagnerian opera inside my own messed-up skull, which pleads alliance less to fidelity than to whatever William Goyen might have had in mind while making his masterpiece The House of Breath, when he was in the process of turning a spindly East Texas farmhouse, a few spindly trees, and some tumbleweeds into the mythic everything it had been for him as a child, so that he could give an invocation as expansive as: “And yet, on the walls of my brain, frescoes…”
I was, in fact, writing this other book, Praying Drunk, all along but without knowing that was what I was doing, sometimes publishing the stories as stories, other times publishing them as essays, which some of them were before they were dropped into a fictional frame (fire-breathing angel, etc.) that made it impossible for them to any longer be essays.
The stories in Praying Drunk are really close to the bone. There’s not a lot of hiding behind third person. There’s not much in the way of self-protection. The forms the individual stories create are often exploded by those stories because the stories require the exploding in order to demonstrate all that was blown up by life. The broader structure becomes a container for that which isn’t containable—antimatter held away from matter by powerful magnets. Or maybe it’s a book trying not to be at war with itself, so equal and opposing forces are held equidistant from the center. A standoff, an awful and frightening Cold War, because it beats the alternative of annihilation, an alternative already chosen by so many loved ones, or an alternative not chosen but nonetheless… well, you read the book. A lot of people die horribly, and some kittens, too, and it’s always some woman of low standing who is the only person with the internal fortitude to clean up the mess.
One other thing I was thinking, in terms of wanting the reader to read front-to-back, is that reading the book in that way actually opens up more ways of reading the book than reading piecemeal does, at least the first time through. The reader can say: This is a book narrated by this dead version of the author in a sterile eternity where the central attraction toward which life was supposed to be marching turns out to be the ultimate conduit toward despair and loneliness forever. Or the reader can say: That stuff in the Q&A’s is just one more iteration of the bigger story, we know that heaven is impossible, it’s one more manifestation of the sorrow of the creator of these stories, one more way of trying to achieve a reckoning that will always be incomplete. Or the reader can say: Both at the same time. Or the reader can pledge allegiance to one of the other stories and declare it the guiding spirit of the whole enterprise and read through its lens. (Likely candidates: “You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace” and “There Is Nothing But Sadness in Nashville.”) Or the reader can psychologically or philosophically or morally or aesthetically or theologically diagnose the narrator, play that parlor game so far from the complications literature would seem to encourage, declare explorations of the subjective interior life of an individual person to be acts of gross solipsism, reject literature. Or the reader can do what readers often do, and extend the story past the borders of white space these stories hope but fail to transgress, except by inference.
MB: I’m glad you mentioned “There is Nothing But Sadness in Nashville,” because I think it’s one of my favorite stories of yours, and I can remember reading it when you first wrote it four or five years ago. At the time, you also told me that the form was modeled on John Cheever’s “Miscellany,” and I’m curious both how Cheever’s story informed this particular story of yours. Do forms and structures from other stories you’ve read spawn new work directly? Do you have a mental catalog of these forms that you call upon as you’re writing? How direct is this kind of influence in your work, and what does it take to make your inspirations your own?
KM: That story has gone through probably ten or twenty versions (and several different titles, too, including two I liked: “O Death” and “Godspeed to Ontario,”) since more or less being restored to the version you first saw, so it’s been a long time since I’ve thought of the relationship of its composition to Cheever’s “Miscellany,” and I’m glad you’ve reminded me.
Cheever is a writer that I didn’t immediately like. He’s a snob, for one thing. He has great affinities with a New England WASP-y power structure which will never abide a person like me, a fact which made me, initially, very resistant to reading his stories. Finally, I thought there was something falsely cheery about the endings to his stories, and even though in my secret heart I thrilled at some of those endings, I thought it best to be very suspect.
But I was wrong. Cheever is a writer who is always having his cake and eating it too. Every up ending is undercut by whatever came before. The narrator who thinks so grandly is either knowing about the complication or deluding himself about the complication. And there is always a complication. Cheever is always offering the reader the opportunity for double- or triple-vision.
And one other thing: Cheever was among the most restless writers when it came to formal experimentation. He rarely repeated a structure, and toward the end of his life, he was writing stories that would hardly fit any textbook definition of what a story might be. He was going to all new places, and it’s really exciting to see what he’s up to, and think about how many things are possible for a writer, by which I mean: Everything is possible for the writer. There isn’t anything anyone can tell you that you can’t do, and there is no such thing as “getting away with” anything. There’s no one to tell you what you can or can’t do. You’re only limited by the fences you allow yourself to build around yourself, for whatever reason, including fidelity to some idea about literature someone else imposed upon you some time long ago or five minutes ago.
In “Miscellany,” Cheever is listing the characters who won’t appear in his next novel, and the whole thing is a big inside joke for Cheever readers, but it’s also an interesting way of getting at some preoccupations and some characters the writer is going to be messing around with anyway, and I had some of the same stuff going on. I was sick of myself, and sick of my preoccupations, and feeling as though I was becoming predictable to myself, and yet I had a great big story weighing on me, and I knew it had to do with this fairly vast cast of characters—Liam, the raconteur and songwriter and producer and liar and owner of the place the story calls the Sexy Sadie; the red-haired girl, whose death was so unnecessary; the people at the trucker place; the family members; all the suicides. I thought maybe if I just made a numbered list and started writing about them, one by one, I might start to find my way into a version of the story that was more true, and which accommodated the necessary connections among all those many stories without getting too mechanical about it.
As the thing progressed, I found that there were other presiding spirits. By writing without paragraphing—a thing lifted from Thomas Bernhard—I could allow every vaguely connected thought to find its way into the forward motion of the story thread, and that made possible a very interesting relationship among paragraphs when I went through and tried to find places to stick the tab indents. And by working in four parts—the idea here lifted from the four quadrants of a murder ballad—there were four containers for thought that could be in conversation, and move forward associatively, rather than strictly chronologically—a big thing for a story in which essaying, not scene-making, is the driving force.
Then, as I stretched out into all of that, I found that the most important external conversant was James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” a story which, like mine, is offered by an observer-narrator, an admiring older brother who is trying to make sense of the thing that is happening, about which the narrator cares so much but is not at all empowered to do much about.
Thinking through all of this, I have to say that it sounds like a very strange and inefficient way of making a story. But I’m thinking right now of what Cormac McCarthy said, about how the dirty little secret is that books are made of books. Well, they are, but nobody would know unless you told them, because what would a story look like if it was going to be a hodgepodge of Cheever, Bernhard, murder ballads, James Baldwin, and some things that I saw in Nashville, Chicago, Columbus, Toledo, Rust Belt Indiana, Appalachian Kentucky, central Florida, and West Palm Beach? It’s a ridiculous thing to consider, and it only means something to the composition of the story because for me the act of reading isn’t separable from the act of writing any more than the things of life are separable from the act of writing. The things that I have read have become a working part of me just like the things I have seen and experienced have become a working part of me. The things that went in contribute to the things that come out, so it’s my job, I guess, to continue to feast on the best things, and hope that they will continue to nourish the things I am making.
MB: I think of it in similar terms: I talk to my students often about there might only be two sources of experience you can draw on, your real life and your art life, trying to explain that this balance is different in every writer—some of us draw eighty percent of our stories from events we’ve lived through and twenty percent from the art we’ve experienced, while others take the opposite approach, and of course every combination in between can be found in the books already on our shelves. That’s a useful distinction in many conversations, but it’s also completely false, in another light, because to read a novel well is, in a certain way, to live through the experiences rendered, via the writer’s language and the character’s consciousness. There’s almost no way to increase experience as fast as reading great books, and this is part of the reason that fiction is one of the finest tools we have for expanding empathy and awareness in people. In the exact way you describe it, what I’ve read is a huge part of who I’ve become, and it makes me increasingly grateful for the art experiences I’ve had in fiction and excited about ones yet to come.
One of the locales Praying Drunk frequents is the country of Haiti, where I know you’ve spent a significant amount of time, and it’s the setting for some of the collection’s most powerful stories, including “In a Distant Country” and “Seven Stories about Sebastian of Koulèv-Ville.” Unless I’m misremembering, it’s also a country you first visited as a missionary, but then returned to often, including to research the kidnapping of Fabi Désir, which you wrote about for The Rumpus in 2010, after that year’s devastating earthquake. In your preface to your recounting of Fabi’s experience, you wrote that “It is my hope that this story will give American readers a glimpse into the lives of people I have come to love in Haiti. We must not forget them.” Can you talk a little about your experiences in Haiti? When did you first go there, and how has your experience changed as you’ve returned over the years? What’s different for Kyle Minor—and for our narrator in Praying Drunk—when he’s in Haiti, and why, out of all the places you’ve traveled, has this country held such a powerful influence over you?
KM: I was never a missionary, although I was around lots of them as a child, and I’ve continued to meet and know others as I’ve become interested in them as a subject. There are as many kinds of missionaries as there are human beings. There are the terrible, colonialist power-grabbers, still, and there are plenty of the sort of well-intentioned villains who do great harm and don’t understand that they are doing great harm. There are proselytizers, social justice people, maternal figures who just want to raise orphaned babies, doctors and dentists, founders of personal Kurtz-like kingdoms, sycophants, schoolmasters, pilots, accountants, people who have given up faith altogether but pretend to it so they can keep building houses and wells and agricultural projects. You name it, it’s out there, and as a subject it’s incredibly rich, because here we have, often, the greatest possible modulation between the story a person is telling himself or herself about the world and the great dissonance that is five inches from the front door.
I started getting interested in Haiti in two ways. First, because I was reading Edwidge Danticat, and second because a film director said he wanted me to write a screenplay about a restavec—a “stay-with,” a poor child given to a wealthier family as a domestic servant in exchange for a promise to feed and educate the child. The film project fell apart as film projects will, but by the time it did, I was in. I had been reading Haitian history and literature, and I was starting to fall in love with the place and the people, and I was starting to realize that here was the shadow history of the last five hundred years. This was the country where the only successful slave revolution in the history of the world was accomplished, and all the major powers have been forcing the country to pay the price ever since. This was the country that repelled Napoleon’s navy, forcing him to give up his dream of North American conquest, which paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase, which paved the way for American empire. This was the country in whose affairs the United States (and other powers) intervened darkly at every turn, and yet somehow all of Haiti’s problems get blamed on some inherent racial or cultural fault in Haitians. This was the island whose original population, greeted by Christopher Columbus in 1492, was gone by the middle of the sixteenth century, dead from European-brought disease and overwork and death by dogs and torture and every other horrible thing you can imagine, and this was one of the first islands turned into a slave-labor camp by Europeans who imported African men and women in chains and turned them into the economic engine that brought about the great prosperity upon which the United States began to make its rise, and the British before them. And this is now the country where the coming troubles of the 21st century—overpopulation, deforestation, the trouble of finding water, the trouble of sustainable agriculture, the trouble of extreme weather, the trouble of housing—have already arrived in their fullness. And the counter-story is this: Haiti is a country full of people living more-or-less nobly, a functional anarchy where despite great shortage and lack of opportunity, people are growing food, eating, living in community, living out a vibrant and exciting culture, making art, taking care of children, being hospitable to neighbors and strangers, loving one another, caring for their old and infirm, telling stories. If you visit, you’ll see—it is difficult not to fall in love with the place. It is easy to make friends. It is hard to leave when it is time to leave.
I think that the reason Haiti has started to find its way into my fiction is that we write about our preoccupations, and the place has become a preoccupation not only in the concrete ways, but also in the abstract, as a crossroads where so many of the other preoccupations intersect. And ultimately, when I’m writing about Haiti, inasmuch as I’m writing about Haiti and Haitians, I’m also writing about America and Americans, because everywhere you look in Haiti, you see the two hands of the United States, the big one that gives and the bigger one that takes. You see the way that ideas of altruism and goodness and religion have been used and continue to be used in the service of the self-interest of power, and you see the ways in which the inversion of the old pious formula holds: To whom much is given, more will be given, and from whom much is withheld, more will be withheld. What does all this mean? What do we do with any of it? What does it say about people and who we are?
III. “A PAINFUL BUT ULTIMATELY LIBERATING RECKONING”
MB: This seems like a good place to ask you about your work ethic, which isn’t just about your work but also about your service to others. You have a well-deserved reputation as one of the hardest-working writers around, and I’m not sure I can even begin to capture everything you’re doing, although I’ll try: You’re constantly writing new fiction and essays, and have been working on this shorter work throughout the years you’ve been working on your novel. You write a bi-weekly audiobook review column called “The Listener” for Salon. You’re starting to work with television scripts. You read more than anyone else I know—and from what I can see, you don’t sacrifice depth of response to get through the books faster. You also teach full-time (and have, in the past, taught at least double-time), you’re frequently traveling, and you’re also an incredibly supportive member of the literary community, judging contests and reviewing books and generally spreading the good word about books you think are important. You may not know the meaning of the words “day off.” You do so much that a couple years ago, you started writing from midnight to dawn or so in a Waffle House in Ohio night after night to get done everything you wanted to do, because normal waking hours just weren’t enough for you.
In the end, work ethic alone doesn’t necessarily make the quality of the work, but I think it absolutely makes the quality of the writer. How did you build your work ethic and your stamina into what it is right now? What is that drives you, day after day and night after night, to keep this kind of pace up? Is there a point where you think you’ll slow down, or is the goal always to do more, to make more? In other words, what is that puts you in the desk chair (or Waffle House booth), and what does it take to get you back out?
KM: I worked at the pace you’re describing for ten years, and right now I’m still keeping a pretty brisk pace, but, to tell you the truth, I’m getting tired, and I don’t know if I can keep doing that. I didn’t set out to be a person who worked all the time. At first, it was just that I wanted so badly to get better, to read everything, to know how everything worked. Then it became a problem of money—I had to do all this teaching and extra writing to keep the bills paid. Then it became the problem it is now, which is that I owe a lot of things to a lot of people to whom I’ve made promises, and I have to work until all that work is done, and do my best not to miss too many deadlines.
What I hope, eventually, is that I can get to a situation where I’m spending most of my work time on the projects I care most about—the stories, the novels, the screen work, the essays—and carve out more time for reading and for doing things that aren’t work. I feel troubled by the knowledge that my example has caused some other writers to adopt what turn out to be fairly unhealthy habits of overwork. It is hard on the body, and I don’t know that it’s best for the long term in other ways.
I went to visit my friend Don Pollock a little while ago, and I admired the way his life is set up now. He has a little shack behind his house where he works, and he goes in there every morning, works for a few hours, eats a little, goes for a walk, then goes back inside and works for a few hours. The rest of the day—the rest of his life—is his own, to enjoy. And he’s writing great books and writing them as briskly as anybody else. He’s just not taking on too much else, and he’s not killing himself. He’s learned to say no.
At the same time, I really enjoy a lot of the ancillary stuff—doing interviews, traveling, doing readings, reviewing books, writing about writing in the abstract. So I probably won’t abandon any of it altogether.
I think that the writing life is not the easiest kind of life, time-wise or money-wise, and I think that if I didn’t enjoy it, think it was worthwhile, and have a vision of where it all was leading, there wouldn’t be any reason to put in all those hours. But it would be misleading to say that it was all a big grind. It hasn’t been. It’s been mostly a joy. I’m doing with my life what so few people get to do with their lives. I’m spending my days working at the thing I want to be working toward, living among stories and books, and making my own.
MB: Before we finish, I want to return to the idea of writing-as-reckoning, first mentioned in the “Q&A” stories, and the several events in Praying Drunk that repeat in different forms throughout the book: I’m thinking first of the sermon about the biscuit, where “a tasty life is made from bitter parts,” which appears in several stories, but also about the various moments of school-age bullying, as well as the two stories about different characters named Danny, both of whom commit suicide with a firearm—only one Danny does so in a near-future science fiction and the other in a story set in contemporary Kentucky. In the second “Q&A,” very close to the end of the book, the subject is asked if he has anything new to say, and responds, “Only the same things turned over again and again, as though turning them again will bring some new insight. But the new insights are the same as the old insights. Heaven is a hamster wheel.” For me, this was one of the saddest passages in a book full of sadness. There’s something heartbreaking in the idea that revisiting our obsessions won’t lead to anything new, and yet, like many writers, you’ve returned to some of the same events and characters and memories often, sometimes repeating them, sometime recasting them. What’s the purpose of these repetitions? Is to understand the past, or to come to terms with it? Is it to remember it forever, by telling it again? Is it somehow finish it, so it can be left behind?
KM: That preacher who says that the sweet life is made from bitter parts is more or less telling those who have come to mourn the teenage suicide that this is just one bitter ingredient in the sweet thing foreordained by the benevolent god. To which I want to shake my fist and say: There is not one sweet thing about it. It is only bitter. It is only bitter. But that kind of talk happens every day of the year in America. Someone dies tragically, there is nothing to be redeemed, there is nothing to be gained, there is only loss, there is only badness, there is only the worst worst worst, and some morally repugnant creature comes along to chirp: All things work together for good, to them who love god, to them who are called according to his purpose. Nobody is ever impolite enough to tell the truth in those moments, since the lie is told in the name of comfort, and nobody wants to further inflict pain on those who hurt the most and welcome the comfort. But here is the truth: All things don’t work together for good. Eventually everything moves in the direction of death, and eventually the sun will overtake the earth, and eventually no one will remember us at all.
And yet: I think that the book rages against the idea of meaninglessness. I think the book wants to insist, again and again, against all evidence to the contrary: It is all so important. It means so much. It means and means. It is everything.
I will say, though, that one unexpected thing happened when I gave this book over to Kirby Gann, my editor, and declared that it was finished. I realized that the ten years of unhappiness, this great heavy darkness, had lifted. It didn’t lift at the moment that I gave the book over. It had been happening gradually. But the making of these stories really did force, over time, a painful but ultimately liberating reckoning with the harsh fundamentalist worldview and the lingering harsh Southern culture and the harsh Medieval pear of anguish I had learned by long habit and instruction as a child to turn upon myself and inflict upon myself.
Already, for me, this second book has become a historical document. I couldn’t write it now because my preoccupations have changed, and my relationship to the material is no longer so highly charged. I’m thirty-seven years old, and for the first time in my life I don’t feel like I’m swimming in liquid shame, thick and viscous and yellow-green. When I’m in Florida and it gets to be that time near dusk when the sky turns blood red, that animal fear doesn’t come into me. I don’t expect the warrior Christ to appear in the sky on a white horse with an army of fearsome angels behind him. I don’t expect the graves to open. I don’t expect the corpses to rise and take up arms. I don’t expect the living to vanish and leave behind their piles of clothing. I don’t expect airplanes to crash for lack of pilots. I don’t feel the urgent need to confess all my sins, to get on my knees or fall prostrate and get penitent for fear that I’ll be like those Seventies girls in the 16mm films they used to show in the church fellowship hall between the potluck banana pudding and the New Year’s fireworks while the teenage boys were out back throwing M-80’s into the canal and grilling the fish when they floated up dead. Those girls in the 16mm films were running for their lives. They didn’t want their heads cut off in the guillotine. They were being chased through the mountains by men in United Nations helicopters, and even though it’s been almost fifteen years now since I rationally rejected the uncompromising and awful things I was taught as a child about how the surface of the world is a big lie, how the part of life that matters is the part of life that starts after we’re dead, how what’s true is what we can’t see, how we can’t trust our intellect or even the things our ears hear or our eyes see, even for all of that I was still physiologically a dark believer. It took my body fifteen years to follow my brain, to put the autonomous responses to rest. I do believe that writing these stories helped.
When the first book was published, even though it was less direct than this one, it set so many bridges aflame. I got angry emails, even letters, phone calls, third-party back-chatter received indirectly and sideways through distorted and half-open channels. My family of origin wasn’t happy, certainly, and let me know it. And all of this because it is wrong to tell the story that experience is proving to be true if it violates the sanctity of the false story everyone champions as capital-T Truth, because that’s the surefire way to destabilize everything, which is what I did.
But I started to realize: If my community of origin is going to write me off, and if my family of origin is never going to accept the things that are most dear to me, then what is left to hold me in bondage to guilt and relational agony? With all those losses came a great gift: For the first time in my life, I am more or less free.
Matt Bell’s debut novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods was published by Soho Press in 2013. He teaches creative writing at Northern Michigan University.
Author Photo by Miriam Berkley.