This one's massive. We're just going to get right into it.
Kyle, our friend, is the author of the new collection, Praying Drunk.
The title page says that this is a book of “Stories, Questions.” Why questions?
The stories themselves are often attempts to answer questions, many of which probably can’t be answered in any definitive way. The speakers (or the speaker—one of the book’s conceits is that there is one speaker doing all the puppetry) are stretching out into the questions. Also, the first “story” is “The Question of Where We Begin,” which isn’t just an interrogation of the story’s subject, but also an interrogation of story itself, beginning with the trouble of beginnings of stories, and the trouble of the cause-and-effect chain, and the trouble of time, and the trouble in the way everything is related to everything else. And then, weirdly, the book’s heart is in the two tiny “Q&A” sections, which maybe are stories and maybe aren’t stories, but which are certainly questions with answers. One more thing: Many of these stories take the form of essays, and the essay form is more or less a way of wallowing in a question for which what answers might be found are found subjectively, on behalf of individual askers, who are themselves not full of anything resembling certainty.
At the front of the book there is an admonition to the reader to read the stories in order. “DON’T SKIP AROUND,” you tell the reader. Why does the order matter so much for this book?
Because the book has a design, and because the stories are in conversation, and because it’s possible that this is all the work of a single author, and because it’s possible that this author is dead and has become “the fiery angel,” or perhaps not. There isn’t a single way to read the book, but you’re more likely to come into all of the book’s pleasures if you read it straight through, and let the patterns begin to come into focus, and then you can make of them what you will.
Nine of the book’s thirteen stories are written in the first person. Three more are all dialogue, which means that the characters are always speaking in the first person. And the remaining story, “In a Distant Country,” takes the epistolary form; it’s a series of letters, again all written (as letters tend to be) in the first person. What gives?
It’s a first person kind of book. People are working things out, often aloud, sometimes on paper. That’s what we do, and third person can’t abide it the way first person can. I think third person is good for big confident narration, empathy in broad strokes, literature writ from the position of the gods. But first person is good for the tenuous, the conjectural, the what-if, the what now, the bold and brightly lit, the fierce and the raging, the depths where live the darkest of the darknesses.
I’d like to quote in full the final lines of one of the most moving stories in the book, “You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace.” It falls to the narrator, a preacher, to speak at a friend’s funeral. “But when it was my turn,” he relates, “I had no comfort or hope left to give. All I could say was that I loved Tony, and that he loved me, and that he was a stubborn and intractable person, and that I was, too, and that I believed, truly, that Tony had found his greatest joy in watching Kung Fu movies. That was all I could say. And when I was done, I stepped down from the only pulpit from which I had ever preached a sermon, and I walked past the altar, and down the steps, and down the aisle, and through the back doors of the church, and I have not been back since.”
“The only pulpit from which I had ever preached a sermon… and I have not been back since.” Does a person have to lose his faith to find his voice? Is that a theme of the book?
I can’t speak to the generalized condition of people everywhere, but the speaker of that story had to lose his faith to find his voice, it’s true.
Some of these stories were previously published as essays, and in general the writing, which again is mostly first person, feels very close to the bone. At one point a character in Praying Drunk says that “Fiction” is the word people put on the covers of their books “when they want to get away with telling the truth.” Does the fiction-nonfiction distinction matter?
Yes, it probably does matter, and this book takes advantage of the correspondence between the two that sometimes animates one or the other, and it also takes advantage of the ambiguity the reader might rightly perceive: Here, which is which? The answer, maybe, in this book, is: They’re all workings of the same consciousness, which is grinding on the same questions, and the variations are in conversation in a way that requires one not be separated from the other.
Two of the stories in the book are set in Haiti, as is your latest project, a novel. What led you to travel to Haiti and to begin writing about it?
Sometimes I say I went because I was going to write a screenplay for a film project that never got off the ground, and sometimes I say I went because of what the stories of Edwidge Danticat meant to me, and sometimes I say I went because I needed to know more about the world, and Haiti is the place where so many of the important things about history and humanity and then and now intersect, where the greatest stress falls. All of these things are true, I suppose. I kept going back, though, because I loved the place, and I loved the people I met there. If I hadn’t the obligations of family, I probably would have moved there semi-permanently. Maybe one day I will.
The opening story casts the world as an “atrocity parade,” with an apathetic God looking on, you know, apathetically. In other words, there is perhaps a sense of darkness in these stories, maybe even despair. Yet you write such beautiful sentences. Is a lyrical prose style an answer to despair? Is that a stupid question? Is music (in the case of the narrator’s brother in “There Is Nothing but Sadness in Nashville”) an answer to despair?
I think that the ending of that story is the best I can do along those lines, when the narrator says: “But I want to say that everything ends badly. Don’t we all of us live under the shadow of death, that end of all ends, and isn’t life too short to give fourteen hours a day to a trucking company when you could be standing under stage lights making somebody you never met before feel something? What’s khaki pants and health insurance compared to that?”
The book seems to contain three separate attempts to tell the story of the same suicide, that of a boy named Danny who is alternately the narrator’s son or nephew. Are there some stories that can never be told adequately? Or that can be told adequately only when told in more than one way?
Yes. And now that the book is done, I realize that there are many more versions of that story which are missing, and it’s futile to go chase them and make them, because then you’re just like my friend Joyce up there in dreary heaven, grinding away on all the variations, when, ultimately, they’ve already been suggested to the reader, they already live in the questions that the stories have raised, and no matter how many times you move around in them, you’re not going to get any closer to satisfaction, because the mystery at the center is a black hole of despair, and the more you circle it, the greater the chance you’ll get sucked into it and disappear altogether, forever. You have to be careful with despair, maybe more careful than I was in the ten years I spent sparring with it in the ways for which this book is the fullest representation.
The book’s title is an allusion to a line from an Andrew Hudgins poem. How has Hudgins’ work influenced yours? And has it been a good or bad influence?
The poetry of Andrew Hudgins showed me something about the people from whom I came, and how they’re as interesting, as three-dimensional, as attachable to special language, as any other people. I don’t know that Hudgins is an influence, in a direct way, so much as he is, on the page at least, a dark prophet of the sort I can endorse. The poems of his which mean the most to me are “Heat Lightning in a Time of Drought,” “Babylon in a Jar,” “In,” and “Praying Drunk.” I should say that another poem, “Questions for Ecclesiastes,” by Mark Jarman, also haunts these pages, as does Wislawa Szymborska’s “Maybe All This.”
Praying Drunk is more formally inventive, more restless in a craft sense, than your first book, In the Devil’s Territory. In Praying Drunk we have several stories titled “Q&A,” which seem to be direct questionnaires put to the author by the author; we have that epistolary almost-novella, parts of which are tremendously funny even though the story is essentially a tragedy; we have “Glossolalia,” which, like Roth’s novel Deception, consists entirely of back-and-forth lines of dialogue between a man and a woman; we have a robot story, which is really a grief story, set in a not-too-distant dystopian future; and we have a story called “Seven Stories About Sebastien of Koulèv-Ville,” which presents, in fragments, the narrator’s fragmentary understanding of the country in which he is a visitor. Where do you think this urge to push the boundaries of the short-story form comes from?
I am glad you noticed this. These two books were composed in overlapping time periods. The stories and the novella in Praying Drunk were written between 2004 and 2012, and the stories and novellas in In the Devil’s Territory were written between 2004 and 2007. I think that in the first book I was chasing an idea of literature that I never could fully embrace, which had to do with a more plainspokenness, a language that didn’t get out of hand, an orderliness at all costs. The things that are most thrilling about that book, to my taste, are the places where I was fighting all of that, and you can see it, such as in “A Day Meant to Do Less,” when the second point of view doubles over the first, and the voice of dementia allows the story to move in the horrific direction that grants it what power it has.
The presiding spirits of that book were Andre Dubus, Alice Munro, and Katherine Anne Porter (the most unruly of the three.) When I traveled with it, and people were only reading those stories, but not these others I was also writing, I felt trapped into this thing that seemed too tame, when what I really wanted to be, as a writer, was whatever it would be if I were the love child of Alice Munro and Barry Hannah. I wanted to set everyone’s hair on fire, while still chasing the kind of formal complexities that can be found so intelligently deployed in, say, Open Secrets or Friend of My Youth. But I wanted that ferocity of language that can be found in Bats Out of Hell, and I wanted all those freedoms you find in late-middle-period Philip Roth (American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater, The Human Stain, etc.). Also, I was publishing genre and pulp stories in these out-of-the-way places, and building a readership there, and I know they were scratching their heads over the stateliness of that first book.
With Praying Drunk, I realized that all these competing dictions were in conversation around the questions the book raises, and when I set down what I had, I saw all these symmetries, and these competing versions of stories, or what looked like sequels, and I began to think about the speaker from whom they all came, and that was the unifying factor, and then I was in mind of Tim O’Brien’s and Stephen Dixon’s satisfying experiments along the same lines, and when I built the Q&A’s, I was also in mind of Donald Barthelme’s “The Emerald” (rather than his own Q&A stories, although they would have made fine models), and by time it was all put together, I felt so much happier with it than I did with the first book, because I realized it was singular, it was a thing that rose from my own preoccupations, in life and in literature, and it was a book that nobody else could have written, and that’s what I should have done the first time, too.
I really do hope, with time, to marry the formal preoccupation with the freedom that can truly rise from it, and I hope this book is a first step in that direction, at least for me.
Leslie Ratliff, the school principal whose wife betrays him in “The Navy Man,” a story in In the Devil’s Territory, reappears in “In a Distant Country” in Praying Drunk. What is it about this guy that won’t let go of you?
He also appears in two other stories in In the Devil’s Territory—the title novella and “A Love Story.” And he will also have an important role in The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, the novel I am finishing. He’s an interesting figure to me, because he’s a true believer, and his life is crushed for it. His wife leaves him for a navy captain, but he never stops believing she will return to him, and that his duty to God is to love her in her apostasy. Then he dies of brain cancer. Meanwhile, to my taste, he never seems to have any fun, although, to him, his life is heroic, and to many others he is likewise a hero. In some ways he is a hero, and in other ways he is a fool. But he’s an appealing fool, a romantic fool, a person who in his own way is willfully other, and that’s a thing with which I can identify and find ways to admire.
As a young man, you were a preacher. You became a fiction writer. Some may see a clean break, but in your view, is there a continuity of purpose? Of style?
Briefly a preacher, in the most junior way a preacher, sadly a preacher. And now it is so far from me that it is hard to believe that the same person who now lives was that person who was. That person who was is a subset of the person who now is, but one would horrify the other. Although: I think that person already probably wanted in some way to become this person. I used to spend my one day off holed up in movie theaters, noon to midnight, and lucky me, because 1999 was the best year in my lifetime for movies.
This book and the last one are the great workings-out of that life. In the next one, the subject of religion moves from the personal to the public and the geopolitical, and I don’t know, after that, if I have much left to say about those matters except in increasingly abstracted ways, because when it comes to that life, and those I knew there, I have burned the house down, and I have received the reciprocal rejection that comes with it. It is a thing to know and accept, and then you move on, because life is short, and there is time yet, I hope, to keep living it with as much verve and freedom as I can find.
What are some things that are wrong with contemporary American fiction?
I’m with Zadie Smith: Literature is a big tent. There’s room for all sorts of things, and I’d rather spend my time on the stuff that brings me great pleasure, and allow for the likelihood that the other stuff brings great pleasure to other people, and hooray, I say, for pleasure.
Some things that are right?
Edwidge Danticat, Philip Roth, Katherine Anne Porter, Barry Hannah, Edward P. Jones, Nathan Englander, Cynthia Ozick . . . (the list will get too long too quickly, so imagine 300 more wunderkinds in the ellipsis).
From one of the book’s “Q&A” stories: “Q: How does Big G decide who gets into heaven? / A: It’s as arbitrary as everything on the earth. No rhyme or reason, except this: To whom much is given, more will be given. From whom much is withheld, more will be withheld.” Is that a fable for our time or for all times? And why can’t houses of worship be more up-front about this basic principle?
That’s the story that replaces the story my people have been telling ourselves all this time, which is: “All things work together for good, to them that love God, to them who are called according to his righteousness.”
It’s not true, and it’s sad to watch people build their lives upon this joyless lie.
I doubt my book will change too many minds, though. Either you can see it clearly, or you can’t, and we hold onto our wish-fulfillment fantasies with great ferocity, especially when they have the force of the ostensible word from the mouth of God behind them.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but one of my favorite characters in the book is the old man’s tumor in “Sebastian of Koulèv-Ville,” which, the narrator says, looked at him “like a giant, dying eye.” This made me think of the giant eyes the characters keep driving past in Gatsby. What does the old man’s giant, dying tumor eye see?
A scared American who doesn’t want to have to touch it, and who doesn’t want to pray, and who does it all out of an uncharacteristic decency.
Can you tell us more about the novel you’re working on?
Instead of telling you, I’ll show you an early version of the first chapter, which was published at Guernica: http://www.guernicamag.com/fiction/kyle_minor_7_15_11/
It might be worth noting, as well, that the letters home in “In a Distant Country” are written by characters from The Sexual Lives of Missionaries.
And but surely you’re also working on five or six other novels, a screenplay or three, a television pilot, four plays, ninety-three poems, fourteen stories, half a baker’s dozen magazine articles, four hundred twenty-three blog posts, and a novella that is really a recipe book in the form of a tombstone?
I have what might be the start of two other novels, it’s true, one of which is a kidnapping story, the other of which is also a Broadway musical. I’m finishing a teleplay and a screenplay, although those things never get made (but you have to say yes and try your hardest every time, because wouldn’t it be great if something were made, and TV and movies became a big new canvas for the telling of stories?).
What is the most important question I forgot to ask you?
I wanted to say something else about the question you asked earlier, about the reappearances of Leslie Ratliff. When I wrote In the Devil’s Territory, I had an idea that all of my stories might one day add up to one big novel, but already everybody was overspilling the borders of place. It seems almost impossible, in the year 2014, to have a Yoknapatawpha County, because even in a place like Haiti, there is constant traffic with everywhere else. Maybe it’s always been that way—certainly Mississippi was originally populated with Native Americans, and Faulkner’s people came from Europe and Africa not so long ago—but remoteness isn’t possible like it was, and the Internet and satellites and the ever-presence of Americans everywhere and the globalization of markets and of Americanness itself means that, for almost anyone alive and aware, their “place,” in the old-fashioned sense, has little footholds in remote and other places.
I learned this when I was writing the title novella to the first book, which concerned, among other things, a story not unlike the story of my own fifth grade teacher, a Cold War hero of sorts, who made her way to West Palm Beach, Florida, so she could, in the words of the speaker, “ruin the lives of fifth grade boys.” To tell the story of the boy I was and the man I could have become if things had been different, I had to also tell the story of the building of the Berlin Wall, the story of the late integration of the Palm Beach County school system, and the story of the twenty-first century Internet property search.
When you add to that the idea that a fictive world must also include, now, an Appalachian robot story set in the near-future, things originally published as personal essays, and so on, and that some of your stories are competing and sometimes contradictory versions of others of your stories, and you begin to think about the ways in which you don’t want to be pinned down aesthetically or stylistically—that, ultimately, you want every freedom—but, at the same time, you want your body of work to be a unified thing, then you might sit down and write a couple of two- or three-page “Q&A” dialogues in which you offer two possible versions of what all of your work is, one of which is that it is the work of the you you will be, after death, in a heaven that turns out to be more-or-less the one promised by the Southern Baptists, which is bad news for you, because all you do there is sing terrible songs and throw crowns at the feet of Big G, and, worse, you can’t switch allegiance to hell, because, as it turns out, the Baptists were right again—Once saved, always saved—so, in your stuckness, you’re left to spend what’s left of your days either drinking, blowing fire, or writing versions of the thing that preoccupies you, which is the life you lived back when there were still choices.
As terrible as that sounds: What a relief!, to have a unifying something behind everything I write for the rest of my career. Those Q&A’s aren’t just the key to Praying Drunk. They are also license to great freedom for a lifetime of fiction writing, and a reason to say I have license to stretch out in any direction I want, be it realism or surrealism or what-if-ism or formalism or genreism or essayism or any other whatever, as long as the synapses fire with sufficient authority to make possible the generation of another story.
That’s the greatest claim, I think, of Praying Drunk. All stories, if you push them back far enough into the beginnings of their cause-and-effect chains, are interrogations of cosmology. Big Bang or Big G or the turtles that hold the earth on their backs? And all stories, if you push them forward enough through time, have something to say about eternity or oblivion or whatever else you might think resides in the deep future, with all the consequences for reckoning implied therein. And all stories, if you go deep enough, are ultimately subjective in the biggest way, projections somehow of what’s imprinted most deeply on the consciousness of their teller. Which means, as a Katherine Anne Porter scholar once so helpfully told me: The world is your oyster. The universe too. Or, as my best teacher prescribed, “All Things, All at Once.” There is no permission that must be sought. There is no one who must be pleased. There is nothing to get away with. All things are available, all things are permissible, the less advisable the better and the more thrilling, if you want to imagine an authority so you must transgress, then transgress with greatest fieriest glee. You are free.
Kyle Minor is the author of Praying Drunk and In the Devil’s Territory. His work appears in print in The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, and Gulf Coast; online at Esquire, Tin House, and Salon; and in anthologies including Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best American Mystery Stories, Harper Perennial’s Forty Stories, and Random House’s Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers.