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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
An Interview with Jim Krusoe
With Toward You (available April 1st), Jim Krusoe completes what’s come to be known around here as The Resurrection Trilogy (with Girl Factory and Erased). We’ve had the great pleasure of publishing all three titles, and getting to know the man behind such strange and wonderful fiction. Jim was kind enough to answer some questions from editor Meg Storey–we hope you hope you enjoy getting in his Krusoe’s mind as much as we have.
Meg Storey: Unlike the first two books in this trilogy, which have one male narrator, Toward You’s narration alternates between a man and a young girl. Why did you decide to vary the narration in the last book?
Jim Krusoe: I started this book with high hopes for my narrator, Bob, but after a couple of drafts, became impatient with his poor attitude, considering the fact that he’d done a terrible thing and seemed barely sorry. So almost in revenge, I began trying to discover his victim’s side of the story, in part to remind the reader not to forget her, in part not to let Bob off the hook. The more I wrote the more I began to identify with Dee Dee and her situation of wanting to escape a place she didn’t want to be in (death). In the end, it turned out to be her story I was writing.
MS: How did you approach writing from a young girl’s (which you’re obviously not) point of view?
JK: Dee Dee c’est moi. We had the same goal: to figure out a way, while still staying true to the rules of the universe of St. Nils, to spring her out of heaven. And while I tried to keep her sounding eight years old, at times she sounds grown-up because one of the rules of the book’s universe is that all dead people get a “power-up,” so they can communicate on equal terms with each other (dogs get one, as well).
But actually all these post-life-communication thoughts came from one of my favorite moments ever in teaching. One night in class, many years ago, a woman read a longish story and then, after she’d finished, informed us that she wanted no criticism because the whole thing wasn’t hers; it had been channeled. I asked her if dying transformed people into better writers, and she became flustered. She wasn’t sure, she said. So I started thinking about it, and in my universe that’s exactly what dying does; it makes us into better readers, too.
MS: The male narrator, Bob, is working on an invention he calls the “Communicator,” which will pick up “Terminal Waves” that allow a person to communicate with the dead. Have you ever communicated with the dead? If so, what did you learn?
JK: Anybody who has taught has plenty of experience communicating with both the living and the dead. Actually though, the key word here is communication. All three of these books are about people trying to communicate with others. In the first (Girl Factory) there’s no successful communication at all, only a lot of trying (someone once said it was like me writing drafts of a novel). The second, Erased, starts with only a postcard from the grave. In Toward You, Dee Dee tells her story in order to bridge the gulf between life and death.
MS: Bob’s invention is inspired by his studies at the Mind/Body Institute, where he took classes in such topics as Speed-reading with the Third Eye. How has living in Southern California influenced your work?
JK: I don’t know about Southern California specifically, but one of my favorite radio stations here is KPFK, which devotes a large portion of programming to one sort or another of holistic-self-improvement show in a fairly unbroken stream, at least during those hours I’m stuck on the Southern California freeways. There are speakers who tout diet supplements, meditation practices, psychic thought, hypnotherapy, the power of crystals, plus practically anything else you can imagine, and while each promoter promises a complete transformation of our unhappy and unhealthy lives, they also seem to ignore the fact that the show just before theirs promised the same, and the one yesterday, and the one the day before that. Best of all, the hosts of these programs seem to participate in this miraculous aphasia as well. It’s this hope, the ability of all of us when proven wrong to regroup and try again, against all odds, which fascinates me, not only in the Mind/Body world but also in politics and life.
MS: Are there any books or movies that inspired or influenced Toward You?
JK: The book that burned in my ears as I wrote the first few pages of Toward You was Back, by Henry Green, and specifically the moment when the main character, upon returning to England after being a prisoner of war, steps off a bus at the cemetery where the woman he loved lies buried. Amid a cascade of roses and the color rose, he closes, heartbreakingly and hopelessly, with the line “and her name, of all names, was Rose.” That doubling of the name (and the rose) comes into play with the dead dog that shares Bob’s name.
The other snippet I specifically remembered came at the far other end of the book, in the very last scene. It’s from Elleston Trevor’s Flight of the Phoenix, an adventure novel (and after that, a movie) in which a plane crash in the desert leads to an incredible ordeal of heat, bad luck, and anguish. After everything, at the very end of the book, the last sentence is “Out of the desert there came seven men, and a monkey,” a vision so full of surprise and clarity and hope that it made me want to cheer; in fact, I think I did. I had wanted this for Dee Dee as well, though my version is less cheer-inducing.
Between the first pages and the last two, other works of literature were very much on my mind. The first, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, because of the wonderful and sad speech Troilus makes after he is dead, standing on the Eighth Sphere in the afterlife, looking down on those who are still struggling here on earth and questioning everything he had thought was so important: fame, his great love, his life. Along with that, the book I worked hardest not to think about was Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, a book I admire on many levels, and, of course, which also has a dead girl telling stories. I tried so hard not to cover Alice’s ground that at one point I changed Dee Dee into a boy, but Dee Dee would have none of it.
Oh—and a scene in the police station was inspired by Mickey in the Night Kitchen.
MS: You’ve published several books of poetry. Do you approach fiction writing the same way as writing poetry? Do you think there is something about your being a poet that lends a more “absurdist” tone to your fiction?
I define poetry in terms of rhythm and jumps of intuition. A fiction sentence is usually (though not always) somewhat flat, and fiction likes to fill in the spaces between intuitive leaps with details. Once the direction a book needs to go is set both for the reader and for me, I like to open out the space by changing style, voice, location, and even genres. It’s probably this sideways movement, along with a certain love of lists and of rants, that has caused some people to call my books “poet’s novels,” whether out of praise or out of disparagement I can’t say. I wouldn’t argue with either.
MS: You’re very comfortable creating worlds in which things don’t have to make sense or come to any pat conclusion. How do you advise students who believe that stories have to make sense in order to succeed?
JK: I believe that within the context of a story everything has to make sense. That is, everything should fit the rules of that story’s particular universe, which I hope, is very much, but not entirely, like ours, because as an artifice, it can’t be exactly the same. As for conclusions, there are a lot of people who require a sense of certainty (against all evidence, in my opinion) about their lives, and if all they want is a story with a simple rise and fall, a place to stay awhile that leaves them pretty much unchallenged by what has happened, I don’t expect I’m the person to change their minds. For me, a pat conclusion, one that stops the conversation begun by the narrative, is not only untrue to life, but is the least possible interesting ending we can arrive at. Answers allow us to stop thinking, which may be pleasant, but, after all, how many answers are there to important things?
MS: How does the writing of a book influence the book that comes next?
JK: Sometimes one book will influence the next, and at other times it won’t. The whole process is difficult to be certain of because I have a limited number of themes that attract me in the first place. Sooner or later, no matter where I begin, a book will often wind up circling what turns out to be a familiar concern. About these three books in particular, every time I finished one it appeared that I had more to say. I think that with Toward You, however, I’ve finally topped off the tank on communicating with the dead. I hope so
MS: If you could write anything, what would it be?
JK: I’d write a whole book that only describes one thing: a hill in West Virginia I looked at forty years ago. It was spring, and the hill was bright green, covered with white dots of grazing sheep beneath a blue sky filled with white dots of clouds. I think I stared at it for a whole five minutes, and have never forgotten that moment; it made me feel small and stupid. If I could, I’d describe only that hill, without humans, without any plot—just grass, sheep, and clouds—but though I’ve tried, I can’t, because it just so happens I’m the kind of writer who needs a narrative on which to hang my words. My bottom line is that I can only write about what allows me to write, what unlocks the actual act of writing, not to imitate the writers I admire. I’m not saying, though, that every writer shouldn’t constantly struggle to expand his or her possibilities; I do.
MS: The trilogy is complete. What’s next?
JK: I have a book called Parsifal that I’m excited about because the narrative moves backward and forward at the same time. It’s the Parsifal legend, of course, about a boy raised in the forest who goes on a quest. The book is probably as close to a psychic autobiography as I’ve ever done. The hero fixes fountain pens.