Runestone Interview #1: Kevin Moffett
Edited by Mariela Lemus
Sophia Myerly: Welcome to all of you. Thank you very much for coming to our first Runestone interview.
Without further ado, our guest of honor is Kevin Moffett. Kevin’s first collection of stories Permanent Visitors won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award judged by George Saunders, and was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and The Believer Book Award. His most recent collection, Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events, was released in March 2012 by Harper Perennial. He also collaborated on The Silent History, an innovative literary thriller about a generation of children born unable to create or comprehend language, and originally conceived and serially published as an award-winning iPhone/iPad app.
He is a frequent contributor to McSweeney’s, and his stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, the Harvard Review, American Short Fiction, the Chicago Tribune, The Believer, A Public Space, and in three editions of The Best American Short Stories: 2006, 2009, and 2010. He has received a Nelson Algren Award, the Pushcart Prize, and a literature fellowship for the National Endowment of the Arts. He also won the National Magazine Award in 2010 for the title story of Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events. He teaches at the graduate creative writing program at Cal State University San Bernardino, and lives in Claremont, California with his wife and son. kevinmoffet.org
Our first interviewer will be Paul Patane. Paul Patane is a junior in the BFA program at Hamline University. He’s a fiction, screen, and sports writer. Paul is a senior reporter at The Oracle, and serves on the fiction editorial board of the creative writing program’s new national undergraduate journal Runestone. His most recent screenplay Two Too Many was featured at the 2014 ACTC Film Festival and Screenplay contest. He lives in Minnetonka and is originally from Washington, D.C.
Our second interviewer is Deziree Brown, an upcoming 2015 BFA graduate of Hamline University majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in English and professional writing and rhetoric. She’s originally from Flint, Michigan, and will be an MFA candidate of Northern Michigan University. She arrived at Hamline wanting to become a cardiothoracic surgeon and left a poet, editor, and writer. She plans to be the Toni Morrison or Shonda Rhimes of poetry when she grows up, and often claims that she was born with a poem written across her chest. She has been published twice in The Fulcrum, Hamline’s own undergraduate literary journal, is quickly making herself known in the literary world, and plans to stay a while.
Please join me in welcoming these three lovely people.
Paul Patane: I read in an interview that you did with Adam Levin that you don’t like to mess around with surnames. Levin quoted you as saying, “Moffett sounds like a type of couch cushion. I guess I’m hoping to start a wave of first name usage.” Do you still associate your last name with couch cushions?
Kevin Moffett: I do, yeah, I always will. Adam Levin graduated from the Syracuse MFA program and everybody I’ve met from there calls each other by their last names. I associate that with PE classes and things like that, so I don’t like that at all. Call me Kevin.
PP: Your novel, The Silent History, which you co-wrote with Matthew Derby and Eli Horowitz, was a unique undertaking. Not only did you have six hands in the sandbox, the story was conceived to be serialized and read digitally through an app. Can you share some of the history behind the project and some lessons you may have learned along the way? For example, what was it like to move from focusing on short, concise story collections to working on such a large and collaborative project?
KM: Well, Eli Horowitz, who is the editor, had been thinking about this project for a long time. He originally conceived of it as children who were autistic, then found out they had some sort of superpowers. That was the first incarnation. And he just walked around with this idea in his head for a long time, and he finally came on the idea of these children who were born without the ability to communicate. He didn’t know any of the science behind it, he didn’t know what we would have to do to make this feel like it was something that could happen.
Eli was the editor of McSweeney’s for a long time, he had just quit, and he came to me and just said, “Hey, I have this idea, do you want to have lunch?” He came to me under the guise of wanting me to help him think about it. He bought me lunch, which really won me over, and we just started talking about it. The more I heard about it, the more interested I got in this idea. I didn’t even know anything about the technological part of it, and I don’t know if that would have swayed my decision one way or another. I just loved the storyline: these children who were born without the ability to communicate, it already stirred lots of possibilities in my mind. Like, what could we do, how could we write it, and I really love the idea of collaborating on something, especially with him. He’s a terrific editor and the other writer he had, Matt Derby, was somebody whose work I had already read, so I was a fan of his.
Going from writing stories to writing this longer work wasn’t a big step because this longer work was written as a series of first-person testimonials. So, basically, what I was doing was writing shorter pieces, first person, 1500-word pieces that were all sort of interlocking, fitting into this puzzle that we were all after. We were all figuring out this outline. The only real difference in process was having somebody to collaborate with. I could write something in the morning, send it to Eli at 1, he would read it and then by 3:30 he would call me with thoughts on it. I had instant feedback, and on the days when he would wait ‘til like 5 to call me, I would be like, “Oh, it must have been terrible,” or, “He must be mad at me,” or something like that. I got spoiled, you know?
And it was a really fun undertaking. It wasn’t always fun. We had some frustrating impasses, not between each other, but with the actual narrative, figuring out where it should go and what we should do. People say, “How did you guys work on this?” It was easy. It worked well, you know, because there was a work flow. Eli was the editor and Matt and I were the writers. Matt and I did not work on each other’s pieces. Eli worked on ours, and we both trusted his feedback pretty implicitly, so it went really well. It was really smooth.
PP: You wrote, “but time, contrary to the old saying is not money. Time is time. It is non-transferrable.” In response to that, Laura Collins-Hughes wrote in The Boston Globe in a review of Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events, “Time rarely moves at the speed we want it to move. We linger too long, or too briefly in a present that comes too soon or too late and afterward, we’re left with whatever accrues. Memories, regrets, consequences, longings.” Collins-Hughes seems to agree with your words on a more elaborate and drawn-out way. Is that a fair statement, and can you elaborate on what you wrote and how time may play into particular stories or characters you write?
KM: That was a real negative review. You read that review?
PP: It was kind of in between.
KM: No, no, no, I think you’re being too kind. I thought you were going to quote her, saying the stories are too slow and that they’re too interested in language or something like that? Um, not that I read it four times and went to bed for a bit. [Laughter]
So, you want to know how time moves in the story. You know, it’s something that I think all writers play with. Speaking from my experience, when I first started writing, every story I wrote was just abjectly naturalistic. It took place at the speed at which life takes place. And it was like, if the people in my story stopped at a gas station you were going to see them put the gas nozzle in the gas tank, pump the gas, you’re going to see everything. The story was moving at the speed of time. I was leaving certain things out, but really I was just dramatizing everything and I think it’s the same impulse that I try to, in some way, get my students to work against.
Hitchcock said, “Drama is real life with all the boring parts cut out.” On an essential level stories can manipulate time really really interestingly, so yeah, I’m always aware of moments with internal thought, moments with external action, and how those are moving in the course of the short story. The story’s got to be pretty staccato, though, so I’m always aware of it within my sentences, within the paragraphs. I think you have to be aware of time in order to control the movement of your reader through the story. Yeah, I think about it all the time.
PP: Runestone caters to primarily an undergraduate crowd, since all of the published work will come from undergrads across the nation. With beginning writers in mind, can you recall the worst piece of advice concerning craft you have ever received from an established writer or teacher?
KM: Absolutely. I’ve gotten a lot. I used to write all the advice I got from teachers down because I thought writing was like tennis and if you learned all the rules, you could slowly become good at it. So whenever somebody said, you know: don’t write about real life, don’t have more than two characters in a story, never have characters talk on the telephone in a story, don’t write about anything that actually happened, don’t write genre fiction, what else? A specific bit of advice on a story that was not helpful was—and I guess this wouldn’t qualify as advice, but more of an action—I had a professor who dropped my story in a garbage can once as a kind of analogy of what he thought I was doing to my characters. He thought that I hated my characters and that I was being very unsympathetic about them. I was really upset about this, and I asked a friend of mine who had gone through this graduate program afterwards what this was all about, and she said, “Oh, he does that once a semester. That’s his ‘you’re being unsympathetic to your characters’ thing.” It was a performance piece, and he would do it no matter what. It was the thing that he did. So I felt less bad about it. But, that was not a great bit of advice.
But, I also got tons of really good and really helpful advice both from my professors and from my classmates, too. When I was an undergraduate, I was only interested in my own work. I wasn’t interested in my classmates’ work. I wasn’t a very good reader of my classmates’ work, looking back on it, and they were much better readers of my work. So, I learned a lot from them. They probably didn’t learn a whole lot from me, so as a teacher, it’s something that I had to get much better at. I try to figure out what’s at the heart of the story, not like, “This is what I’d do if I was writing this story,” you know, “I’d take this out, I’d take this out.” As a teacher, I have to think, ‘What’s this writer trying to do first and foremost?’ We can talk about whether it’s worthwhile or not, but let’s first figure out how to make what this writer’s trying to achieve better, and not try to say, “Well, I want this to be a genre story, I don’t want this to be a genre story, I want this to be this, I don’t want this to be this.”
PP: I have to ask about your website, particularly your store. You sell everything from lung cream to horse windbreakers to crooked foam dildos. I mean, with such amazing innovative products, why are you here? You should be home counting your stacks of cash—
KM: I know, you’d think that the orders would just be rolling in. [Audience laughter] A friend of mine who does websites wanted to do an author’s site for me and I knew that if he wanted to do it, he didn’t want to do an author’s site with like a glamour shot, and a, ‘Here’s what I’m doing, here’s all the great reviews.’ He wanted to do a little piece of performance art. He wanted to do a store that sold fake items with the little logo from my book on it, so he found somebody to photoshop this logo onto lots of inappropriate items, malt liquor and bondage stuff, and just, you know, sold it through the author’s store. Harper paid for a website and what they got was a little piece of avant-garde performance art.
PP: One of my favorite short stories you’ve written is “Tattooizm,” which is in the Permanent Visitors collection. It was originally published in Tin House and I felt it’s particularly unique because it’s so bizarre. The characters and everything that happens are all just so out there. You have a girl named Andrea who’s pretty miserable in her relationship with her boyfriend. Over summer she plans on leaving him. But she really seems to enjoy the sex, so she more or less stays with him. And then every day this guy gives himself a new, pretty crappy tattoo. I was wondering if you were willing to read a short part of that story.
KM: There’s a knock at the door. Dixon opens it and a tentative-acting drifter enters holding the same flyer Andrea is holding. Andrea sits on the bed while Dixon negotiates with the drifter. The man wants the Mitsubishi logo tattooed on his upper arm, his favorite car is a Mitsubishi. Dixon needs a picture of the Mitsubishi logo. The man doesn’t have one, maybe there’s a Mitsubishi out in the parking lot? “Listen,” Dixon says. “I’ll do a nice yin-yang for you. The yin-yang’s been around for several thousand years.”
The man considers it for a moment, shrugs.
Dixon unbuttons his cuff links and rolls up his sleeves while the man sits down with a cough on the other bed. The man smells like spray paint and stale beer. Dixon wipes the man’s arm with disinfectant, then carefully assembles his tattoo gun. Andrea turns on the TV, lies on her stomach, and gets very interested in a special about famous despots. No reason to leave now: the special has just started. Most despots, but not all, are failed students, it says. Most, not all, love dogs. Most, not all, worry about their height. The more Andrea learns about despots, the less historic her presence in the motel room feels. She relaxes. The man on the bed next to hers coughs a scuffed-leather cough.
“Did yours hurt like this?” he asks after a while. Andrea waits for Dixon’s answer, then realizes the man is addressing her.
“I don’t have any tattoos,” she says.
“It feels like I’m being chewed. No, friends, I don’t think I like this one bit.”
Dixon bears down over him. When he’s finished, his gloves are spotted with dark blood. He conceals the yin-yang under a bandage and throws the gloves onto the floor. “Drink plenty of water,” he says. “In about four days, the yin-yang will start to itch: don’t scratch it. A slap, a light slap, will suffice.”
Andrea imagines a great fog lifting when she starts school. She’ll tell her next boyfriend that Dixon was avid about his work. So few have such passion! she’ll say. So few do. When Dixon concentrates he looks like a boy. She likes him most when he is concentrating, when his expression is guileless and imperturbable. He is sexiest when he’s at his most unaware. She probably won’t tell her next boyfriend this.
A woman knocks on the door and asks for a red rose on her shoulder. Dixon didn’t bring any red ink, so she settles for a palm tree. The woman falls asleep while he’s working. The next man, who wants the Marine Corps bulldog on his stomach, settles for a palm tree also. “The palm is our most sophisticated tree,” Dixon says.
The man has a blue tear tattooed on his cheek. When he leaves, Dixon tells Andrea that the tear means he has killed someone.
A woman in a Jaguars sweat suit comes in and says, “I came for some praying hands, but there’s a dude downstairs talking about his arm being manhandled.”
“He had sensitive skin,” Dixon says. “Why don’t I give you a sample with white ink. If it hurts too much I can stop and no damage done.”
“I don’t want no half tattoo.”
“It’s not a tattoo,” Dixon says. “It’s the tattoo feeling.”
[Click here to read the complete story on Tin House]
SM: Wow, and on that note, let’s transition over to Deziree’s questions.
KM: I’m recovering. I haven’t read that story in like eight years or so, so I’m just sort of reeling from it. There are some things I would edit, but go ahead.
DB: In your interview in Hot Metal Bridge you mention that nothing came naturally to you as a writer. You said you struggled with character, so, I’m wondering, how did you write past that frustration and the rejection that may have come with it?
KM: Good question. I got past it cause I thought I was brilliant. I didn’t realize I was struggling. I thought everything I wrote was great. My professors in undergraduate were very supportive of me and told me to apply to grad school. I applied to five grad programs and my professor said, “You’re going to get into every program you apply to, just think about where you want to go.” I got rejected by every single program, and that was just the long rude awakening of rejection and me not being as destined for immediate success as I thought I was.
So how I got through it, you know, I loved writing. The act of writing. I had a natural talent for making people laugh in my writing. The first stories I wrote were just little. At the library while my friends were studying I would handwrite these little stories of embarrassing things that happened to me. I would write them out, hand them over, they would read them, and I got laughter.
But as far as writing a story, structuring it, making something happen, making meaning out of words, I did struggle with it. And I think I’m glad I did, because there’s a great Keith Richards quote. He said, “If I was any better at playing the guitar I wouldn’t have been as good.” And I feel like if I were any better at writing, and if it came to me really easily, I would have tired of it. I have plenty of friends who are really much more talented than I was, and much more skilled and able than I was. They were prodigies maybe, they started off strong, but it’s not what compelled them. And I really reveled in the struggle of writing. I still do. The day to day stuff sometimes stinks, when you’re sitting down and you can’t summon the same voice or you can’t figure out what the problem is of what you’re working on. But, there’s something really kind of neat about the struggle, so I still like the process of it a whole lot.
I learned everything slowly, because I wasn’t a big reader, either. I read maybe two books in high school. Literally. And then once I did come to it, I read everything. Like, “Six months ago I read the history of the dustbowl in Oklahoma, the one you were talking about,” and my friends are like, “Did I tell you to read that? And you read it?” And I’m like, “You said it was a good book.” If somebody recommends a book and I trust their taste, I’m going to read the book. It took me a long time. Not being an avid reader, I didn’t know where the story was, so I had to train myself into that.
DB: Novelist Mary Rockcastle often talks about writers needing to be brave and touch the hot stove, meaning that there should be few things a writer should shy away from. I’m interested in what you think about this. Is there a particular type of subject that is harder for you to write than others?
KM: Sure. So this story that I just read, actually, is a segue. There have been things that I shied away from, and one of them was writing sex scenes. And I remember, not only would I not write a sex scene, but when two people were about to get intimate, it got all like 1950s with a door closing, you know? North by Northwest is a great example where two people are going to bed with each other and the door closes, and then the train comes shooting out of a tunnel. But I wasn’t even that subtle.
So I wanted to write a sex scene. I wanted to do it in a way that was not gross and gratuitous, and I wanted to do it in a way that was not overly mannered. I just wanted to write one sex scene. In the course of writing that story, there are like three or maybe four? I got carried away, and it became what the story was about. It became this unhealthy relationship that this young woman was in, and so that became a really important thing. I think it’s being brave, but I also think it’s confronting your weaknesses and not shying away from them.
That collection reads like a bunch of writing exercises I gave myself because there were things I wasn’t doing in my writing that I wanted to be doing. All my characters were roughly the same age, so I wanted to do a story with a much older character. There’s a really voicy first person story, and I had never really done that. It was a way of making myself do something different.
With my students, they write one story that’s just their story, and then with the second story, I try to figure out things they’re shying away from. I talk to them and try to figure out what they’ve never done in their writing, and I give them what I call a challenge story, a story that I think would be really tough for them to write. Sometimes, it’s writing a story in the first person. One of my students wrote a story with no characters, she really wanted to see what that would be like and it was great. It was just a battlefield changing through the years, becoming farmland and then a battlefield again, then things rusting on it. That’s a hard kind of story to write, though; you’ve got to be really talented with writing setting and details. So she did a really great job of it.
I’m still trying to figure out the things that I shy away from. Autobiography is something that I’m scared of a little. Writing from that “I” that sounds a lot like me, it’s kind of scary, you know?
DB: So, I think the moment that I realized I was a poet, I was in the grocery line, and I was thinking of a list of my groceries. All of a sudden I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to write poems.” And that’s when I knew, “I’m a poet.” At what moment did you realize that you were a short story and essay writer rather than a poet or anything else?
KM: Hmm, well, I took poetry classes because there were mostly women in those classes. You know, there was me, a couple guys, and the rest of my classmates were women. I was like, “I want to take that class.” [audience laughter] I took that class, but it was one of those things that worked against me. I showed how shallow and un-literary I was. So I was in this class with all these women, but wasn’t a very good writer. I thought it would maybe be better if I just kept the air of mystery about me. I knew what a good poem was, and I knew how far away from those poems my poems were.
When I read certain books and certain stories, I realized, “I really want to do this.” And then you read stories that aren’t very good and you think, “I can do this.” You know? [audience laughter] I think all writers have that experience of reading something that they’re not that impressed with and you think, “Man, I can throw myself out there. I can at least do this well.” But maybe you come to find out later that, “Oh, I underestimated that story and I underestimated my ability to reenact it.” I think you need moments like that.
For me, it was a combination of reading people like Faulkner who both confused and excited me—I didn’t know why it was good but I knew it was good—and then reading Faulkner’s not-very-good books and thinking, “Whoa, this is interesting to see him trying to do what he’s doing in these other books, but not as well.” So I think it’s equal parts reading stuff that’s really impressive and inspirational, and then it’s reading stuff that’s maybe less so.
DB: So at the end of reading one of your collections, what do you want readers to take away from reading your work?
KM: I don’t have one prescription at all. I think I want them to be moved in some way. I don’t see stories like little vessels for hidden meaning. I think stories are meaning. A story isn’t something that’s used to get something else, it’s its own thing. I want readers to feel in some way that they’ve been transported to another consciousness or voice. I want them to feel what I feel when I read something that I really like, and that is the sort of connection with a voice, but also with an author’s mind and vision, you know, a connection.
It’s really mystical, but it’s kind of what I feel when I read something that I didn’t know existed from, you know, 1948 in Hungary. There’s this voice and the characters are on a train and they want to talk to each other but they’re feeling self-conscious. The time and the space couldn’t be more different, but the underlying concerns and emotions are the same.
DB: What question do you wish someone would ask you about your book that nobody has, and how would you answer that question?
KM: That’s a trick question. I don’t mind hostile questions or antagonistic questions like, “Why don’t you ever write this?” Or, “Why do all your characters do this?” Since I rely on humor pretty heavily in my stories, maybe a good question would be, “What would happen if you challenged yourself to write a story with no laughs, with straight, sober humorlessness? What would that look like?” And I’d say it would probably look like the stories I wrote as an undergraduate. Straight tragedy. People die and then somebody’s sad about it.
DB: What do you think is the biggest stereotype attached to fiction writing and how do you overcome that?
KM: Well, there’s the stereotype about inspiration as this thing that comes from the heavens that you grasp at, and it’s either there or it isn’t. I think that it’s just hard work—not hard work in the sense of physical hard labor, which I’ve done—but in that it’s repetitive. It’s a lot of hitting my head against the wall because I don’t start with a vision that I can smack on the page. Sometimes it happens. I think some writers can do that, but really for me, it’s just straight-up trial and error, sniffing out the story and trying to follow it, and making a lot of mistakes.
In every story there are a lot of other stories going on. In both my books, when I go back and read the stories I think, “I couldn’t write these stories now,” but I can also see in those stories, there was a choice made this way, where it could have been this way. Every story’s a series of choices; A versus B versus C, and the story’s just a collection of decisions made one way or another. Especially in the first book, some of these stories make me cringe. I feel like I made some choices because I wanted to make the work a little easier on myself.
That was a long-winded way to answer the question, but I think there’s a misconception about inspiration. I believe in inspiration no more than I believe in writer’s block or the need to be in a precious space to write. Write when you can for as long as you can. Don’t feel like it’s this thing that comes down from the heavens, because stories are composed of hours and minutes spent in the chair hammering away.
DB: You mentioned that you cringe at things in your first book. How did the final version of your second book, Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events, compare to what you expected?
KM: Well, there are one or two stories in there that I’m not totally happy with. I mean, when your book’s coming out, you secretly know it’s flawed, but you’re hoping that nobody notices. I’m paraphrasing, actually, this is from a David Foster Wallace interview. Maybe you know exactly what it is, maybe you don’t. You just hope nobody notices. I feel like with the first and the second book, I know what I think is wrong with them, and maybe a reviewer will come up with fourteen other things that’s wrong with them that I don’t know about.
I think Further Interpretations came together a little bit better than my first book, because my first book is my graduate thesis. George Saunders was judging this contest, and I like George Saunders a whole lot, so I sent that book off before I think it was really ready to be sent off. But he liked it. He chose it for the award, so it worked out. My second book was me saying, “I’m not writing a thesis. I’m writing a book of stories. How does this story gel with this one and this one?” I was thinking about it as a collection of stories that were going to appear next to each other.
I wish it had one more story in it. There’s a story I was working on when it was coming out that I still kick around. There is one story that’s in it that I wish wasn’t. I’m not going to tell you which one it is, but there’s one that I that I feel like shouldn’t have been in it. My editor thought otherwise, but I still hold to that idea.
SM: Let’s open up the floor to any questions you might have in the audience.
Audience Member 1: I know for novels and longer works there’s a lot of research involved in the writing process. Do you like to do a lot of research?
KM: No, no, not at all. I was teaching a historical fiction class, and I realized while I was designing the syllabus that I’d never written a historical story, so I felt like an imposter. I needed to figure out what the process is like and what fiction writers need to do as far as research. So I did a little bit of research for a story. I think there are writers who do tons of research writing stories that are set in the fifteenth century, where they need to do that kind of research, but there are also writers like Jim Crace who wrote a book called Being Dead about these two marine biologists. At the center of the book there’s an insect called the water nymph, I think. He wrote long passages about this water nymph and what its habits are and what it does. When he visited the grad program I was in, I said to him, “Those passages are amazing, you must have done so much research for it,” and he said, “I did no research at all for this, it’s all invented.” I feel like all you need in any given story is the vocabulary to describe it, an honest fiction writer’s vocabulary.
Have you guys ever met a really skilled liar? I’ve got an anecdote. So, I was telling this story involving a Greyhound bus to this couple that lived above us. This guy worked for the World Bank, and the couple was really impressive on paper. I mean, they both went to really great colleges, and he had a great job. So I told this long-winded story. We went to their house for dinner like six months later just with the husband, and, I didn’t realize this, but he was a very skilled liar. He started telling this same story I told, but as if it happened to him. It was really surreal, but the most surreal thing was that he was telling the story better than I did. You know, he had kind of tapered off the edges and really sort of fashioned it into a believable, but fictitious story that happened to him. I was so surprised. My wife and I were just sitting there looking at each other like, “I cannot believe this is happening.”
I say this to my students who are writers when they send me emails like, “I can’t be in class because I have a family emergency.” And I think, “That might be true, but that’s a lie.” You know, that doesn’t have the ring of truth to it. You should include something specific that happened that’s true. If you’re going to lie, make it a good lie. I’d rather hear a good story.
With the story that I did a little research for, the more research I did, the harder the story was to write. It was about John D. Rockefeller. As I started to research him, I found out lots of interesting things. For example, I thought he was this sort of robber-baron guy who burned a trail through government laws, but he was actually a huge philanthropist. He donated half his money to charity, his wife founded Spelman College in Atlanta, he eradicated hookworm in the South. All this cool stuff, none of it appeared in the story. The more research I did, the more I realized I didn’t know my character as much anymore, because John D. Rockefeller was the character, but he was also a real-life person. I learned how pious he was, how religious he was, and my character isn’t very pious at all. So I needed to stop doing research after a while.
To answer your question a little more succinctly, Wikipedia is the perfect writer’s research tool, because you learn just enough, you get the edge of truth. You really only need a vocabulary. A little goes a long way, especially in a short story. In a novel you absolutely need to do more research because there are more places for the reader to start to doubt what you’re doing. But in a short story, you can get away with like, little gestures toward it.
AM2: Could you talk a little bit about the contrasts and similarities between writing short stories and essays?
KM: I love non-fiction writing. I love reporting. I love actually going to a place, interviewing somebody, and observing, because I think writers tie these two together. I depend on a shorthand style for writing stories. I don’t have to worry about say, how did the trees look in Wisconsin in May? I don’t need to know that, I can just describe it without knowing too much about it. But reporting relies on getting out in the world to observe. I think it’s kind of selective observation. I really enjoy doing that, and I think when you’re writing nonfiction, you can go outward. Fiction is about the author in some way, that’s the subtext. With non-fiction, I’m interested in doing profiles on people who interest me, or writing about some phenomenon that interests me.
I’m teaching a non-fiction class in the fall, and I’m just trying to figure out ways of getting my students out into the world. I want them to write about what they’re interested in and what they’re passionate about. It’s really important to get writers outside themselves a little bit. Plus, non-fiction pays better than fiction does. Fiction can be hard to place and get any kind of money for, whereas non-fiction offers lots of outlets, lots of people want to publish it.
AM3: I love hearing writers talk about their earlier work. I’m a thirty-year old writer who can’t let something sit for more than six months without turning it into a tone of regret and bad vision. So, I’m wondering what your process is as someone who needs to write a little further. Is it about a matter of confidence, or do you just not look back? Are you a different writer now, and can you feel that quantitatively versus your undergrad self?
KM: I think it’s a combination of not reveling in your past successes nor dwelling in your past failures. For me, when Further Interpretations came out, it was about two years after I’d written it. It had a kind of weirdly elongated publication cycle. By the time it was out, I was like, “I’m done with this book, I don’t care if it gets reviewed poorly or well, I don’t care.” You know, because I was focused on what I was working on then. I think it’s a matter of having a really short term memory, and accepting that whatever you’ve just written, whatever it does well or doesn’t do well, or whether it’s good or whether it’s bad, or whether it’s still haunting you or not haunting you, it’s in the past. Sure, revel in memories of your childhood, things that made you happy, but as far as your own stories and poems and essays, put them aside and focus on the project that you’re working on at any given moment. That has to be enough, you know.
Take musicians, for example, who probably could have made a lot of money as studio artists, but the songs they want to write aren’t going to make them a lot of money. They’re not frustrated artists, they’re just guys who are satisfied with writing a song and being able to perform it for a few people, you know? That process is what sustains them. You have to love that process and make it that thing that you’re obsessed with at any given time.