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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
A Correction of the Untruths I Was Told as a Child about How the World Works: An Interview with Kyle Minor
The genius of Kyle Minor’s fiction—and there’s no other word for it—finds its clearest expression after we’ve put his story down and are left alone with our own spiraling thoughts. His new collection, Praying Drunk (Sarabande Books), raises any number of enormous questions about human nature and the possibility, however remote, of understanding the divine. It’s a book that demands several hours of quiet contemplation after one has finished reading it.
In the essay “More On the Same Subject,” John Barth wrote:
“My contention, as some of you heard yesterday, is that a novel is not essentially a view of his universe (though it may reflect one), but a universe itself; that the novelist is not finally a spectator, an imitator, or a purger of the public psyche, but a maker of universes: a demiurge. At least a semidemiurge. I don’t mean this frivolously or sentimentally. I don’t mean it even as a figure of speech (as Joyce does, elsewhere in the Portrait, when he speaks of the artist as God, standing in the wings of his creation, paring his fingernails). I mean it literally and rigorously.”
The inhabitants of the universe that is Praying Drunk have lost their faith; they are outcasts, unmoored from the comforts of their inherited moral codes. They are forced to invent their own myths and their own meanings and to try to make sense of the terrible things and the glorious things that happen to them. Minor understands as well as any artist working today that while each of us is ultimately alone, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The moments of transcendence, when they come, are hard earned.
Minor is also the author of a previous collection of stories titled In the Devil’s Territory. He has won a number of awards, including the Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. I met him a number of years ago at the Winter Wheat Literary Festival in Ohio. I was asked to organize a panel presentation, so Jacob Knabb and I wrote sock puppet adaptations of “No Exit” and a mash-up of “Rocky IV” and the butter scene from “Last Tango in Paris.” It turned out that we needed an additional hand, and Minor was nice enough to step in. Only two people attended the panel, but he and I have remained in occasional contact via email and social media. He answered these questions via email in January.
Andrew Ervin: The “Note to the Reader” insists in bold: DON’T SKIP AROUND. Tell me about how you ordered this collection and why you’re so insistent that it’s read in order.
Kyle Minor: When I was a child, a traveling preacher came to town and told us that at the Great White Throne judgment, all the living and the dead would be gathered, and all our deeds and even our evil thoughts would be projected in 16mm film for all humanity to see and hear. After that, the sheep would be divided from the goats (a metaphor, nobody would actually be turned into a sheep or goat), and the sheep would go to heaven, and the goats would go to hell. In heaven we’d all get crowns in honor of our good deeds, but we wouldn’t get to keep them. Instead, we’d throw them at the feet of he who sits on the throne, and then we’d send the rest of eternity singing the songs we sing in church, in worship of the one who declared us sheep and condemned us not to the eternal lake of fire.
But I was thinking: Wouldn’t that be boring after a few years? And there wouldn’t be any new stories to tell, because all the trouble would have been removed from existence, and trouble is what makes stories interesting. I imagined if I ended up there, in this literalized Southern Baptist heaven, I’d spend all my time writing competing versions of the stories from the good bad old days when we all had skin in the game, and that’s what this book is, a partial document of some of that postlife writing.
The structure, then, is in part an argument—it begins with “The Question of Where We Begin.” The book is a digressive essay-in-stories, sort of, a working-out of whatever that was when we were alive. The teller is grinding on the stories, telling and retelling them, worrying his obsessions, finding new containers for things he still incompletely understands after hundreds of thousands of years of trying. Like memory, it’s contradictory, it’s relentless, it’s a hall of mirrors, a chamber of horrors, a liar’s lair. If you follow memory’s order through time, it takes you back to near where you began. Whatever meaning it tries to make is mostly in the meandering. I wanted the reader to live through that, and let the patterns emerge and then recede, the way they do in the afterlife.
AE: I can’t help but wonder about the relationship between preaching and writing fiction. Are there correlations that you see?
KM: I think there’s a shared interest in trouble. The preacher is as interested in transgressions as the fiction writer. I think the primary difference between the two is what the teller thinks is the path to what’s true. The preacher thinks that all stories lead to a fixed, one-dimensional, singular, absolute capital-T Truth, so the question of what the story means is decided before the story is told. The story is a means to validating the thing the preacher—and, most of the time, the audience—might already know to be true.
The fiction writer, if the fiction writer is worth anything, believes that the story is always in the process of complicating things for the teller, because the telling of the story is constantly forcing the teller to confront the dissonances between the things the teller thought were true, and the harder mysteries the telling of the story will make evident. As a writer I know used to say, a good story is almost always about the business of revealing the distance between the story the teller is telling himself or herself about the story, and the more complicated version of the story that the telling is revealing, the same way it happens in life if we’re walking around with an openness to what we’re receiving, rather than a preordained, fixed idea about how everything is, even though everything is always telling us how everything is not exactly fit to any particular preordained, fixed idea.
AE: The stories are set in Florida and Haiti and Kentucky and the halfway point between heaven and hades. Can you tell me a little bit about place and how it informs your characters?
KM: Maybe we live in a time in which “place” is a harder thing to define in a literary way, because the world has become so mobile and interconnected, and because at the same time so much of so many of our lives will be spent in sub-spaces, sub-places, which have their own rules, and those of us who are mobile among sub-spaces alter our behavior as we move among them, if nothing else so that we can be understood and function and avoid being kept from what we want or need, and those of us who stay put in a single sub-space are often confused by the social milieu inside the house next door or the building down the street.
When my first book, In the Devil’s Territory, was published, I was interviewed by a reporter from the Palm Beach Post, and I knew from the tone of his questions that the Palm Beach County I was writing about was very different from the Palm Beach County of his imagination, even though it was the place where he lived and worked and also the place where I had spent my entire childhood. I could tell he was thinking about the Palm Beach of power, Boca Raton and Jupiter Island, Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago and the Kennedy compound, the wintering people from New York and old money Europe, the movie stars and the Porsches and the surfers at Carlin Park. I had written about the Southern Baptists across from the dog track who believed in the rapture, the creationist people who had built the Christian school in order to keep their children from going to school with black children in the era of forced integration, the elderly people who lived in the trailer parks thirty miles west of the Intracoastal Waterway, who had been brought to town in their youth to dig wells and ditches and canals for the mansions and the golf courses on the other side of the water. White people whose parents and grandparents talked with Southern accents, and whose children sorted themselves along the class divide by choosing whether or not to continue to talk with Southern accents, and who negotiated varying degrees of uneasy distance from or increasing closeness to neighbors newly arrived from Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Honduras, or Guatemala.
I think that almost everywhere, “place” is a function of the conditions of a person’s birth, family connections, religious or social immersions, access or lack of access to opportunities, and most of all the attitudes about the world that attend to those who have influence or power over a person. Place is an abstraction of overlapping individual experiences and imaginations, ever-changing.
By the time I was writing Praying Drunk, I had become a very transient person, and I was married to a transient person. We spent the important holidays and commemorative days—Christmases, Thanksgivings, weddings, funerals—in places we no longer lived, mostly in Florida and Kentucky, and the crises of childhood and of the present began to look very different with the perspective distance provided. Those places were changing, too, and the people who lived there either did or didn’t notice and participate in the changes. I began to think of my place as more a mobile tribe from which I was in exile than a people who could be represented by a geographical marker.
And then I began to spend the summers in Haiti, and the wheels came off everything, because now I was in a place where the forces of history impacted every person I knew in a daily and transparent manner, and where everyone’s business was more in the street than in the home, and where community meant what community must have meant in, say, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, with outcomes beautiful and ugly, life-bringing and deadly. I could see, most of all, the ways in which my people of origin had conspired, wittingly or not, to bring about the conditions in which everyone around me was living, and that impacted my way of thinking about place as well, because in this more cloistered, integrated place, I saw even more evidence of the interconnectivity of place, of how the Earth is all one place. The colonialist history of France and Spain and West Africa and the United States had not ended here—it was fully present, and I had always been a participant, I just hadn’t been forced by proximity to see it clearly.
The integration of the post-life “place” and “time,” and the attendant recontextualization of all of that seems like one of the most important projects I was trying to chase in Praying Drunk. You can’t make sense of individual lives if you’re only looking at them as individual lives, and you can’t make sense of communities and other systems of thought and power if you’re only looking at them in the abstract, on their own terms, and absent their relationship with other systems and other communities. You have to find a way to see the individual as an individual, as a part of a community, and in opposition to a community, and to see a community as part of a broader global people, as an imposition on the individual, and as an ever-changing thing whose ground-level and global conditions are set in part by power on the inside and in part by pressures from the outside.
Then you have to do all of that in stories, and maybe when you’re done, you can see your own life, your own childhood, your own people of origin, more clearly, and even then there is so much you don’t understand.
AE: What exactly, then, can fiction accomplish that other genres and forms of expression cannot?
KM: I think there are two primary powers that attend to fiction, which don’t attend to non-fiction. First, the power to inhabit points of view not one’s own, which means subjectivity is multiplied, which means we can stuff the world full with competing versions of the story, which means almost anything is possible if you can find a way to make it true. The whole world is yours, and the afterlife, too, and outer space. Anything. Second, the power to tell truths, subjective and objective, without attribution, without apology, without fear of lawsuit, without worry that the techniques of literary amplification (hyperbole, modulation of language, invention, disguise, recontextualization, combinatory strategies, etc.) will render the story untrue for most readers.
So often I read a nonfiction book, especially one in which the author thinks he is on the side of objectivity, or in which the author believes that facts alone tell a story, and it’s just bullshit from word one. So often a really good fiction book is shocking in its commitment to the subjectivities which shape everything, every day of our lives, and without which we can’t say much that is true about the world. There’s more news worth hearing in a novel by Toni Morrison or William Faulkner or Edwidge Danticat or Javier Marías or Cynthia Ozick or Philip Roth than there is in any ten issues of the New York Times.
AE: There’s an essential decency that comes through in Praying Drunk—a generosity of spirit—despite the litany of terrible things that happen. What do you want people to know about the world as a result of reading this book?
KM: I don’t know that I was writing in hope of enlightening anyone about anything in the world except myself. The earliest story in this book was written in 2004, so the book is ten years in process. For me, it was an often painful process of coming to terms with the stories that life had given me, and how the way other people talked about them didn’t seem to match up with what became apparent about them over time.
When you come from a community in which all the answers are readymade, and insistently provided, you cause yourself a world of trouble when you start chasing questions for which the readymade answers aren’t adequate responses. For one thing, you piss everybody off, and they stay pissed off forever. Some people stop dealing with you altogether. Others continue to deal with you, but every interaction is a reminder, intentional or not, that you are a disappointment. And you also have to deal with yourself. You spent your entire childhood being shaped, allowing yourself to be shaped, allowing your mind to be shaped, by a set of ideas and ideals and values, and in many ways you become all of those things. They are your whole life and your whole history and the baseline for all your relationships. So when you reject them, you are also, in no small sense, rejecting yourself, rejecting your life, and if the new life you build for yourself is more livable in some ways, it’s also less livable in others, because now you’re out far away from everything and everyone you’ve been conditioned to seek out for love and support and encouragement and affirmation. It’s lonely, but also necessary. There is no easy resolution to any of it, except by death, a thing I hope to put off as long as I can put it off.
Kyle Minor is the author of two collections of stories: In the Devil’s Territory (2008) and Praying Drunk (forthcoming, 2014). He is the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction and the Tara M. Kroger Prize for Short Fiction, one of Random House’s Best New Voices of 2006,and a three-time honoree in the Atlantic Monthly contest. His work has appeared online at Esquire and Tin House, and in print in The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, Forty Stories: New Voices from Harper Perennial, and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. He also writes a biweekly audiobooks column for Salon.
Andrew Ervin is the author of a collection of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions (Coffee House Press, 2010). His debut novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House will be published next year by Soho Press.