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An Interview with Roy Kesey photo

Roy Kesey's best stories manage to be hilarious and poignant, absurd and intelligent, amusing but still close to the heart. And like all great writers, Roy somehow makes this balancing act look easy. 

I still remember the first Roy Kesey story I read, "Blazonry," about a character, Wayne, struggling not to let his job, his brother, and the universe drag him down. Wayne's boss scolds him with the words, "We need this account, Wayne. You, me, the company, we all need it. Do I have to remind you of what happened last month? Of Simmons? Of White? Of Blanchard?" Wayne says, "no" and his boss says, "So you show up after lunch girded for battle?" "Girded, yes, absolutely," says Wayne. 

It's the perfect satire of professional life in an organization. Success depends on internalizing an unstated sensibility -- being "girded" -- and Wayne's repetition of that word -- "Girded, yes, absolutely" -- tells us that the inexpressible attitude he must acquire is doomed to remain beyond his reach. 

Roy is not only talented, he is prolific. He is the author of more than 40 published short stories. His work has appeared in Ninth LetterMcSweeney's, and the Iowa Review, among other journals and magazines. He also writesdispatches from Beijing for the McSweeney's website. 

2007 has been a good year for Roy. His story collection All Over will arrive in October, as the debut title from Dzanc Books. "Wait," which originally appeared in the Kenyon Review, was selected by Stephen King for the Best American Short Stories 2007. These happy events follow last year's publication of Roy's debut novella Nothing in the World

Roy grew up in Ukiah, a small town in northern California, and spent his college years in Washington, D.C., Chestertown, Maryland, and Oxford, England. After college he worked for two years in Paris, then bounced between Central America and northern California before landing in Peru at age 26. 

In Peru, Roy taught English, English literature, and literary theory for more than eight years at universities in Arequipa, Piura, and Lima. He also married Ana Lucía, a graduate of the Peruvian diplomatic academy. In July of 2003 Ana was posted to Beijing, China, where she and Roy now live with their two children. 

Roy and I talked by e-mail in April and May of 2007.

Hi Roy. Let's start with your story collection All Over. How would you describe the book? How did you select the stories? 

When I first started thinking about putting stories together for a book, I had way too many stories to choose from, enough for two books and change. I tried all the usual groupings -- geography, common characters or concerns, time period -- simply because that's the way I'd seen most collections cohere. We've all seen the jacket copy -- "exploring the American South in a way that no collection before it..."; "bringing the 1970s alive like no other book since..."; "delving into love and loss in a radically new..." 

And none of those approaches worked at all. And I started to get nervous. I was going to have a book with nothing for the reader to latch on to from the get-go, and no publisher was going to want it. 

Then I realized that instead of fearing or lamenting or fleeing the situation, I could embrace it. An anti-hook! A book whose hook is its hooklessness! A book full of stories with nothing whatsoever in common! Or rather, with nothing in common except the fact that I happened to write them, meaning that to whatever extent they share a given voice, that voice could be their glue. 

But that still left me without a knife with which to cut this mass of stories into two approximately equal halves. I ended up gluing a spare shard of sheet metal to a length of broom stick and naming it Formal Complication, which is to say, I got out a sheet of paper, drew a continuum with "Realism" at one end and "Not" at the other, wrote the title of each story in its corresponding place on that continuum, drew a thick black line down the middle, and decided to start with the "Not" half. 

And from there it was the usual drill, I think: picking the strongest of the lot, and then trying to arrange them such that interesting echoes and anti-echoes occurred, and also such that there was a sense of warp and weft, such that the hooklessness became the organizing principle, with no one story touching another story with which it shared a geographic location, or a given 1st/2nd/3rd point of view, or too much in the way of structural conceit. Impossible, but fun! 

So these are all stories in the Not Realism category then? I can see how that will make for a fun read. It will be like a roller-coaster -- you won't know which way you are about to get jolted or thrown. What are the stories about? 

Well, my favorite stories in this world (say, Nicola Mason's "The Lizard Man of Lee County," and Lucy Corin's "Sixteen Small Apocalypses," and Harlan Ellison's "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore," [editor's note: Roy listed a number of stories here; the full list is reprinted below]) are ones that meet this question with a sort of flowering so rich that in the end you have a rain forest for an answer. 

That said, part of the fun of putting together a collection like this -- one organized according to any criterion but theme -- is that once everything's in place, you look back through the stories, and you find that regardless of your intentions, there are still certain interests (if they appear in two stories) and concerns (three-to-four stories) and unhealthy obsessions (five or more stories) that have been struggling to make themselves known. They were invisible, of course, while I was working on the stories individually -- at that point it was all about the forward rush, the voice, making sure nothing was throwing sand in anything else's face. 

But looking back through them now, I see repeated attempts to explore things like principle vs. compromise, like regret and amelioration, like attempts at love and the million ways they can go bad, like the tools needed for building these little word-machines in the first place. If there's any 'about' to this book, I guess it's things like these. 

You know, in January I met the novelist Maniza Naqvi, here in Washington, D.C., at a Super Bowl party, of all things. We talked a little about writing, and she said that the most astonishing thing about writing novels was that at some point you realize what you have been writing about, and it's never what you thought. "It comes as a complete shock," she said, "every time, that you had no idea what you were really writing about." 

The cable package we have here in Beijing is pretty sucky, but I get to watch a lot of NFL games on -- this is the best part -- the one Japanese channel we get. It's the best! I don't speak any Japanese at all, so I get to pretend that the announcers are trading witty yet incisive banter when in reality they're probably saying the exact same things as television sports announcers everywhere else in the world. The games are all on tape delay, with all of the advertisements and time-outs cut out, so it's just one play after another, fluid and fast, with the announcers shouting "(Something something something something) dime package!" every now and then. Perfect Football, is the way I like to think about it. 

And there are probably writers in the world who know what they're after and head straight there, but I definitely work more along the lines Naqvi described. Although, frankly, it never comes as a surprise to find out that I had no idea what I was really writing about -- that's a welcome precondition, in fact. 

Well, it probably says you are on the right track, because the best stories seem to arrive from some place just beyond the limits of recognition. 

I want to ask about your story "Wait," in which a group of international passengers is trapped in an airport, waiting out a delayed flight. The story is told through the characters' nationalities, but in a playful and caring way. You never let them become stereotypes. Was it tricky to make that story work? Was there a point at which you said, "Aha! This is how I have to write this"?

The trick with "Wait," I think, was keeping the ball moving fast so as to trick nationality (and class and gender) stereotypes into love/hate/coldly ignore relationships with themselves, where sometimes the punch-line involves the stereotype, and sometimes involves its opposite, and sometimes is totally unrelated, making them into a long line of crutches, a third of which are made of rubber and a third of which are made of cheesecake, so to speak. 

You've been an American expatriate for several years now, and I wanted to ask both why you left for Peru, and if you feel your relationship to the United States has changed in the time you've lived abroad? 

I was back in northern California for a while after the two years I spent in France, and was just looking around for somewhere new to go poke around. I went down to Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, learned a little Spanish, was back in California for a bit more, and then started looking for work abroad again, and Peru was one of those places that had been hanging in the back of my mind since childhood -- to be more exact, since the night when I was six or seven that I watched a documentary about Machu Picchu with my parents and sister. 

At the time that I was considering a full-time move south -- this was 1994, I guess -- my knowledge of Peru was completely superficial -- Machu Picchu, the Andes, the Amazon, Sendero, maybe the Nazca Lines. All of which seemed to fulfill the usual requirements of adventure and distance and difficulty and fun, so as soon as I got word of a teaching spot open at a language institute down in Arequipa, I packed my bags. 

I've spent 15 of the past 16 years abroad, and, sure, my relationship to the U.S. has changed in that time, though it's hard to be sure which changes are the result of living abroad and which are just the result of getting older. The distance seems particularly magnified whenever something big happens in the States. I felt incredibly isolated and distanced the morning of 9/11, for example. I had classes to teach that day, and after watching the early reports come in and seeing the early footage that morning with my mother-in-law, I went to class and just kind of stood there. I had absolutely nothing to say to anyone. 

Sometimes, though, I think the distance is good for me. I find the saturation coverage (not just in terms of the mass media, but in terms of water-cooler conversations and whatnot as well) that attends certain kinds of events in the U.S. to be stifling, and I find the predictability of the ways in which political battle-lines are drawn up immediately after these events to be both tiresome and very sad. 

That said, there are times when I miss living in the States very much, times when I do want to immerse myself in what's happening there. Living abroad is nice in the sense that that choice (i.e. sit alone in a room and stare and think about what has happened vs. 24 hours a day reading magazine and journal and newspaper and blog articles about any given event or phenomenon) is much easier to make when you're already at a physical remove from what has happened. 

To what extent do your stories intersect with your own experience as an expatriate? Do you see that experience reflected in your stories? And if so, I guess I'm curious about whether the way in which that experience comes across in your stories is ever a surprise to you, and to what extent the appearance of those kinds of themes is a conscious choice, and then to what extent they just inevitably seep into your stories, without you necessarily intending to write about them? 

That's a good question. Not too many of my stories involve expatriate characters as such. On the other hand, most of the main characters are set at sort of oblique angles to the people and groups and interests around them, and for all I know that's (partly? entirely?) a function of my own condition as an expat. Then again, that sort of character has always interested me, even before I lived abroad. And while I suppose that, gun-to-the-head, I could make up a list of literary themes I've worked with that seemed ex-pattish in nature -- isolation, distance, confrontation, immersion -- those kinds of things can show up in any context. 

And like I said, I usually don't start thinking thematically until a story's well along -- the fifth draft, say, or the tenth, when I'm finally starting to get a sense for what the story wants to be about. (I'm not sure you could get away with that in a longer form, though -- and, come to think of it, the novel I'm working on now has a main character that is, of all things, an expat, albeit an odd one.) 

All the same, like anybody else, I use the material I have at hand, so, for example, it's not uncommon for me to pick up something here that I've never seen before -- a custom, a linguistic tic, a form of architecture, whatever -- and then try to imagine what form it would take if it were native to somewhere else. Not that I make a point of doing something like that in every story, but it's a trick that has worked in nice ways a couple of times. 

I want to close with a question about your next project. What are you working on? 

I'm about to sign with Dzanc to do two more books, both of them projects that are already well along, so right now I'm going through what I've got of the novel mentioned above, the one that is going to be my next book, trying to sort out exactly what I want to do with it, how hard to push the material, and in which directions. 

Thanks, Roy! 

Thank you, Sean. 

Complete list of stories that came to mind as Roy's favorites earlier in the interview: 

Nicola Mason's "The Lizard Man of Lee County"
Donald Barthelme's "Paraguay"
Harlan Ellison's "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore"
Tony Earley's "The Prophet from Jupiter"
Lorrie Moore's "Terrific Mothers"
Mark Richard's "Where Blue is Blue"
Andrea Lee's "Winter Barley"
Raymond Carver's "Cathedral"
Ann Cummins' "Where I Work"
Pinckney Benedict's "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil"
Alice Elliott Dark's "In the Gloaming,"
Chris Offut's "Melungeons"
Jim Shephard's "Batting Against Castro"
C.S. Godshalk's "The Wizard"
Denis Johnson's "Car-crash While Hitchhiking"
Steven Millhauser's "The New Automaton Theater"
Lore Segal's "The Reverse Bug"
George Saunders' " Isabelle"
Lucy Corin's "Sixteen Small Apocalypses"
Padgett Powell's Typical, all of them

image: All Over cover design