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On Outlaws and Other Characters  An Interview with Chuck Kinder photo

On an unusually sunny February afternoon in Pittsburgh, I had the pleasure of talking with Chuck Kinder in his sixth floor office at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning building. Kinder is the author of three novels: SnakehunterThe Silver Ghost, and Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale. His latest book, The Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life, is due out this fall [the new book was released in the fall of 2004, after this interview, and recently went into paperback]. At the end of the summer in 2003, Chuck toured on the Outlaw Writers Tour with fellow West Virginia writer Lee Maynard and the band Deliberate Strangers. At the time of this interview, the band was about to release a CD of the Outlaw Writers Tour, which includes readings by Kinder and Maynard. The CD release show was to be held at The Quiet Storm, a coffee house and performance space in Pittsburgh’s Friendship neighborhood, the same venue where I caught the opening performance of the Outlaw Writers Tour in August 2003. Chuck had recently become the director of the writing program at Pitt, and on the day of the interview I found him surrounded by admission files to be evaluated for the graduate program. We chatted about the writing program for a few minutes while I set up the tape recorder and we settled down. The following is an excerpt of our conversation.

I’m a character chauvinist—meaning that I like stories that are character driven. And in fact, it’s a form of gossip. 


DA: I’d like to talk about character a little bit because that was the thing you stressed in the workshops, almost 10 years ago, when I sat in your class.


CK: As I have always said, I’m a character chauvinist—meaning that I like stories that are character driven. And in fact it’s a form of gossip. As a little boy growing up, my grandmother—name was Daisy Dangerfield Kinder, my dear old grandmother—was the best storyteller I’ve ever heard. And I loved nothing more as a kid than hanging out under the kitchen table with the old aunts telling family stories and ghost stories, mountain legends and I listened to all that oral tradition. Their stories were all very different, kind of family gossip, which to my mind is at the core of every good story. Gossip.


DA: The aunts in Snakehunter are important characters. One thing I like about your work is that you write well-rounded women characters. They’re very lovable— 

CK: I had swell women as models. Including Mimi. Daisy—I call her Mimi. Her life is sort of the prototype for Aunt Erica in Snakehunter. You know that’s pretty much Mimi. All through my life, I’ve just had good, strong women. First there was my mother, who read to me as a kid Robert Louis Stevenson, A Garden of Verses, and she encouraged me. That’s pretty much the story. And I had an imaginary little playmate, named Jeto, and Mama would hear me talking to Jeto at night and even encouraged that special little friendship.

DA: How old were you?

CK: Oh, I don’t know, fifteen or sixteen. No, according to my mom, I was only about six-months-old, which is unlikely. But I remember, and she remembers, a crazy little boy who had imaginary little buddies. But she encouraged me to tell her stories about Jeto and what we were doing or what we had done at our imaginary games.

DA: And what kinds of things did you do with Jeto? 

CK: Well, nothing. Mostly we’d just talk, make up things. He was just someone to converse with who believed all my earliest bullshit.

DA: So you didn’t get into any trouble with him?

CK: Oh I got into a lot of trouble. It’s been a pattern throughout my life. But, Jeto mostly was just my little imaginary companion. Everyone claims on my mother’s side of the family that they have the sixth sense, and so my grandmother, Maw-maw, my mother’s mother, had her imaginary—it wasn’t imaginary, but a ghost playmate that even her older folks could see. There are a lot of ghost stories in my family. A lot of folks say they have the sixth sense where they can see a spiritual world. So mother just assumed I did too. So who knows, maybe Jeto really was a little ghost boy that I played with.

DA: You had some brushes with the law? Is that true?

CK: Oh, when I was a teenager. Teenager stuff. I was seventeen. Read Silver Ghost. . . that’s based on it. I ran away from home. I was with another kid, and we went down to Miami and got hooked up with this guy named Morris, and he’d been in prison many, many years—we didn’t know it at the time. He looked like Humphrey Bogart, and we were fascinated by him. He was a big bad gangster guy. And we pulled some armed robberies, four cabs and three bars. And there you go.


DA: You came from a blue-collar background. Talk a bit about that. Have you had blue-collar jobs? What set you toward getting an education?


CK: Yeah. My family, all my old uncles, were coal miners, and this and that. . . moonshiners. My mother was a nurse, my dad had a multitude of jobs over the course of his life, and he was pretty much an unemployed hero a lot. . . . He finally got in the insurance business as an insurance adjustor, so our family was moving up. And my jobs, I worked at Consolidated Coal, down there in the Kanawha Valley. I’ve been a coal miner, and I worked at Republic Steel in Cleveland for a while. I worked in the coke plant to get marrying money at one time. I’ve been a bartender and a bouncer and all that typical dust jacket stuff you cultivate when you always suspect you’ll be a famous writer someday.

I was suspended over the first two years at Huntington High—oh, about a half-dozen times—until finally I couldn’t go back for my senior year. 


DA: When did the writing start?

CK: Oh, I don’t know, I think I started trying to write poems and other stuff as a kid. And I had to write, for my second or third grade class, a Christmas story. This was down in Huntington, and we went to school in what they called doghouses. They were like old barracks, and there were holes in the walls and it was really pretty grim. I must have been in third grade. But a kid in one of the other doghouses, they brought him over to read his little Christmas story—and he was a kid who was dying of leukemia. And he read his Christmas story about going out in the woods and cuttin’ a tree down. And I remember Miss Baxter, who I was in love with, she hugged this little dying boy and made me envy him and hate him with all my heart and soul. So she asked us to write a Christmas story too. It was the first story I ever wrote. It was awful. I remember one night watching a movie on TV – was it Flying Tigers? – anyway, you know, a John Wayne movie. And I remember watching that and looking at the light on my old man’s face—he was asleep on the couch; that’s John Wayne (points at memory of father on couch) and that’s John Wayne (points at memory of television). And I made my Christmas story from that. It had all these American pilots, singing “Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder” and shooting down Jap Zeros, just like in the movie. So I stole it for in my Christmas story. I had big John saving Santa from attacking Jap Zeros. I never got a hug from Miss Baxter. That’s the first story I can remember writing, and for no reward whatsoever. 

DA: How about in high school?

CK: No. I didn’t. I think I always wrote poetry. I don’t know how that came about. For a kid down in southern West Virginia, it made me kind of a delicate boy. I didn’t like to hunt. I shot exactly one squirrel and one rabbit when I was a boy. I was a dead-eye shot, but I mourned them, you know? And so that made me a sensitive little sissy-boy. I didn’t like to hunt—it’s so utterly against my nature, and that’s when I started getting into, you know, the Golden Gloves and one thing or another, so nobody could call me a sissy-boy. ‘Cause I’d just kick their ass. You know? But I just wrote poems—which made me suspect, too. And from that point, no one would even think of kidding me about it. 

DA: Did I hear that you graduated from Bluefield?

CK: Yeah. After two years at Huntington High, where I got expelled. 

DA: For what? 

CK: You know, typical thieving stuff. Fights. And I kept a little pint in a locker, you know, and thieving stuff, like hubcaps, and finally I was suspended over the first two years at Huntington High—oh, about a half-dozen times—until finally I couldn’t go back for my senior year. Poor old Mae Newman, the principal, she was the sweetest woman. There were tears in her eyes when she said that I couldn’t return. She was real nice to me, but she had no choice. By that time my dad was working down in Bluefield and he commuted, so he just moved the family down there. So I just went there for one year until I graduated from Bluefield “Beaver” High School. We were known as The Fighting Beavers.

DA: Were those high school problems James Dean related? I know he was big influence.

CK: Well, and Jack Kerouac. They’re sort of my double identity. That rebel quantity, and that vision of myself. The beatnik poet and the really wild conman kid.

DA: You’ve lived a number of places: West Virginia, it’s your home, you were born there; San Francisco; Missoula, Montana; and now here, Pittsburgh. Those seem to be places you’ve settled, at least for a little while. Why did you to leave West Virginia?

CK: Those are some of my emotional Meccas. Particularly San Francisco and Missoula. I got my master’s degree at WVU, where I wrote my creative writing thesis. In fact, I wrote the first one down there. And I got a job at Waynesburg College, where I taught for three years, and then. . . . Actually I was accepted for a fellowship at Indiana University, out in Bloomington, which has—outside the Ivy League—the strongest Victorian Studies Department there is. But I turned them down. I just had a change of heart. My first wife and I weren’t getting along all that well, and I had some friends living in San Francisco. They had kind of an expatriate doper West Virginia commune going, and I was on leave from my job to go work on a PhD and I just informed them I wasn’t coming back, and not gonna get the PhD, and got on the bus. Then I rushed out west to become a flower child. I had the love beads, you know—the Age of Aquarius in San Francisco. I was an utter failure at that. I mean, I’d eat red meat. I had a redneck temper. Well anyway, the following year I applied for the Iowa Fellowship, and I got it and I accepted it, and then two weeks later I found out I had the Edith Mirrilees Fellowship at Stanford. By then my wife had joined me and we were trying to get things together, so I went to Stanford instead.

DA: So it wasn’t the fellowship that took you out there?

I’m still a born and bred West Virginian. But I love Pittsburgh. And I consider it to be sort of the Paris of the Appalachians.

CK: No. It was just something to do. I was making money, uh, sort of in illegal ways, and it set me back on the straight and narrow, so we moved to Palo Alto. I was there two years as a fellow. Then they asked if I’d stay on as what’s called a Jones Lecturer in fiction—a 3-year appointment. So I did. I was at Stanford for five years all together. Then my first wife and I did split up, permanently, uh—but that’s an old story. I mean, I’ve written it, in Honeymooners. Then I moved to Missoula, Montana, with Bill Kittridge.

DA: Did you meet Kittridge at Stanford?

CK: He was at Stanford. Yeah. And all that’s already been written about, where I met Diane when I took her these letters that she’d written to Ray Carver. And then, Diane and I got married.

DA: When did you leave San Francisco. Where did you go from there?

CK: I was still teaching at Stanford. I spent time in Missoula, but then after Diane and I were married, we came back to the Bay Area. And then I don’t know, some years later. The Silver Ghost was out, and I had an NEA, so I had some money. I was the writer-in-residence at the University of California at Davis, which is nearby Sacramento, and they offered me a writer-in-residence down at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Actually I went down there and kind of carpet-bagged old Barry Hannah’s job. I didn’t know Barry at that point. His department chair somehow got my name and called—said she had a faculty member who they were going to have to let go because of alcohol problems—and they called me (laughs). Barry and I ended up becoming very good friends. Those were the days when he was still drinking. He’d always drink a double vodka martini with six olives. Always had the same thing. But anyway, then I applied for a job here at Pitt. Only to be near my old folks down in West Virginia, who were passing away, to get down home, and Diane stayed in San Francisco—I don’t know, three, four [years]—it was a while. Then San Francisco became very, very expensive. And I commuted, for those years. I’d go back for the holidays, and spend summers there. And then they treated me very well here, and Diane liked it here quite a bit, and we could afford to live here on what I made, so she moved. And she’s been here, not regrettably, ever since. I have no sense at all of Pennsylvania, frankly. I’m still, you know, a born and bred West Virginian. But I love Pittsburgh. And I consider it to be sort of the Paris of the Appalachians, so certainly it’s a great place. It’s a stealth city. That means it’s under the radar. And I personally don’t care if the young people go away. Go away, young people.’ They destroyed San Francisco. I mean all the yuppies, and the dot-com-ers. Although, I still love San Francisco. Pittsburgh now reminds me of the San Francisco I used to live in because of the ethnic neighborhoods and the real sense of local color.

DA: I was looking over some of your work, looking at characters—your recurring character names—of course Jim Stark. And the nicknames—Squirt, and Captain—run through it. What about Captain? 

CK: He’s a character pretty much based on my father. And he actually did look very much like John Wayne. A big, gregarious, kind of full-blown character. And he had indeed pretty much won the Second World War single-handedly, according to him. But he was a decorated hero, and famous throughout the state, and people tried to get him to go into politics. But he didn’t. Although, he would have made a good governor of West Virginia, except for the fact that he wasn’t a crook or a drunk …And so that’s why he’s recurring. I mean, I do write pretty close to the bone, unfortunately, about people, so you know, it’s pretty autobiographical.

DA: Stories and lies. Let’s talk about lies. You used to say LIES in workshop in your West Virginia twang. And that was an important lesson for me, learning about lying.

CK: It’s just another word for fiction, for being a fictioneer. I’ve taught “The Liar,” Toby Wolff’s story—I think it’s the best story of his I’ve ever read. It deals directly with the propensity to lie and that the “truth” isn’t just based on facts. I believe in factions.

Ray[mond Carver] wasn’t big on guilt. You know he quit drinking, but he still smoked dope—well it contributed to his death, I guess, he smoked so much. He was still an utter outlaw. An utter outlaw. 


DA: One of my favorite things in Honeymooners was Alice Ann’s speech to the judge. It’s kind of a monologue—it goes on for several pages. What made you decide to do it that way?

CK: I really just recounted what went on. Well, to a degree. We took Ray down there to court. He was teaching at Berkeley at that point, kind of part-time. Adjunct. And he was still collecting unemployment checks. You’re not allowed to do that. That’s against the law. I mean, it’s all true. And they caught him. I mean all that is based on—the facts. And so Bill Kittridge and Max Crawford, and myself—I can’t remember if I put us all in the episode of taking him down there. We drove him down to face the music. There it is. Go to court. Ray wanted to take off. He wanted to go to Mexico. We literally, bodily, took him down. And Mary Ann saved his bacon. She gave a nice, beautiful speech. That’s the essence of that story, but I didn’t even capture Mary Ann’s vibrancy. And hey, that’s how it happened.

DA: In Honeymooners, one of the dedications is to Richard Snowcroft. Who is he? 


CK: He was my professor at Stanford. When I got there, Wally Stegner was just retiring, so I never had Wally as an actual teacher, but he was very kind and generous with his time. He’d read my stuff. We got to be friends. And Dick was taking over as director. And he was like our coach. We called him the coach. Scott, and all of us, we had a softball team. And after we’d play, we’d all go over to Dick’s house and get drunk. We got a big old trophy for him—Coach, you know, To Our Coach. The time before last I was out in San Francisco, Dick passed away. Fortunately he got to see the book first, and it was dedicated to him. Toby set up a memorial service for him. And so Scott, and myself, April Smith, and Toby—we all spoke and eulogized Dick. That’s who Dick was. He was our coach, and we just loved him utterly.

DA: And the other dedication in it is to Diane.

CK: Oh, of course.

DA: And also in Silver Ghost? She’s the Cecily, right?

CK: Right. 

DA: And your first book was dedicated to your mom.

CK: Well, no. That was dedicated to my first wife, but then when it was reprinted, that’s when I put my mom in there. It went into paperback a couple of times.

DA: So it was originally dedicated to your first wife.

CK: Yeah, to Janet. She was very good woman. I have nothing against her. The only thing she had wrong with her was me. But she’s my ex-wife, you know.

DA: Honeymooners had a really great review in the NY Times by Jay McInerney. Did you know he was going to review the book?

CK: No, no, I didn’t. I met Jay when he was a student at Syracuse, a student of Ray’s and Toby’s at that point. And I met him when I went up there to read with Barry. Barry Hannah and I read together up there. And I don’t remember meeting Jay at that point—he was one of the many students hanging around. But soon after that, Toby asked me to judge a writing contest at Syracuse, and I picked Jay—without knowing who he was. And the story he won it with later became the best chapter in that Kung Fu book of his—the title [Ransom] escapes me right now. So that’s how we got connected. And then over the years I’ve met him a couple of times in passing. But, no, I had no idea he was going to review the book.

DA: Rumor has it that you used to have a class called “Friends of Chuck.” Is this true? That you would make telephone calls to famous writers. Or is this just legend?

CK: No, no. I never had a class named something like that. Ever. But what I would do, when I would teach a Readings Class, many times for fun I would select books by friends of mine that we’d discuss. It was a typical Readings Class, but what I could do was set up interviews with my friends. . . . Toby Wolff, Scott Turow, Richard Ford, Michael Chabon—I did this after Ray had already died. Who else? Jayne Ann Phillips. Others I can’t recall at the moment.

DA: Let’s talk a little bit about Ray Carver. You’re interviewed about him a lot, but we kind of have to talk about him because he’s so famous. There’s “Good Ray”—“Saint Ray” which was the later Ray, and—

I really resent it when folks want me to claim I’m Grady Tripp, which seems to me such a sort of a cheap backdoor to fifteen minutes of chicken-shit fame.

CK: That’s Tess’s Ray. Yeah.

DA: I saw a video awhile back on PBS. It’s probably ten years old. Tess and her brother were in it, there was a brief interview with you and Diane, and um . . . 

CK: Toby Wolff

DA: Toby Wolff was in it because one of my favorite scenes was when they talked about why Ray returned to some of the material in his early life as material for his stories, and some academic, it might have been Chip McGrath.

CK: I know the one you mean. No. Charles McGrath really understood Ray. He was, until recently, the editor of the New York Times Book Review. No, it was some other guy. He’s an editor of Tess’s. Ray couldn’t stand the son-of-a-bitch. And he, you know he pipes up, and says ‘it was mostly about guilt,’ which is a stupid thing. And Toby says, ‘NAH, no guilt.’ Ray wasn’t big on guilt. You know he quit drinking, and that’s always good, but he still smoked dope until—well it contributed to his death, I guess, he smoked so much. He didn’t change. He was still an utter outlaw. An utter outlaw. 

DA: Do you have a favorite Carver story?

CK: Every story’s a favorite. I love Ray’s stories. I regularly teach “Cathedral” because it’s such a turning point story for him. That’s the one I generally teach. And pretty often I’ll read to my classes that little short story called “Why Don’t You Dance.” That’s the first story he wrote after he quit drinking. And it’s based on an episode when we all were up in Missoula, Montana. Basically we’d gone on a fishing trip, you know, Jim Welch, and Bill Kittridge—Jim just died last summer. And you know we’d gone fishing. Of course we were hanging out in bars, and this bartender, a woman, she was out there not working that day, just hanging out drinking. She had a black eye, and she told us the story behind it. She and her old man, the previous day, had gotten drunk and started carting each other’s stuff out of their little house. They put it all out on the lawn, and then got tickled about it. They’d already had their fight—he had two black eyes—she’d cleaned up on him. So the bed was in the yard and the neighbors were watching, so they started screwing, and the cops and the sheriff came—they arrested him and left her alone. All of us had our ubiquitous little notebooks out and we were writing it all down. And Ray wrote the story, “Why Don’t You Dance” from that incident. So I like to relay that, the story behind the story. I like just the anecdotal nature of it. I teach a few of them at least once a year. I like to look at Toby Wolff’s, “The Liar.” And then Tess has a version of “Cathedral” called “The Harvest” about the blind man, so I usually teach those three together. All interesting first person narrators—and I approach it by looking at the credibility of the first person narrator, and the reliability, of course. But “Cathedral” is the story I love to teach.


DA: You talk about outlaw writers. I caught the first reading, last summer, of the Outlaw Writers Tour. How did that come about?

CK: Oh, that was just for fun, with my buddy Lee Maynard, who published Crum and Screaming with the Cannibals. It’s a funny, great book. When Lee and I met a few years ago we really hit it off, and we just became good friends. And we just finally decided, what the heck, let’s just drive around the hills and look up old oddball characters. And we’d go to various places where one of us had family. And then I told him how I’d been giving readings with my house band—The Deliberate Strangers, and he said ‘well I’d love to do that,’ and I said fine, let’s do it. And that was our trip. We did it. We did that Outlaw Tour. And the band came along, and we played various clubs and beer joints down in West Virginia—Morgantown, Huntington, Charleston, Fayetteville, Oak Hill—and we had a good time. At The Empty Glass, which is a beer joint in Charleston, West Virginia, they taped us—it was the most redneck place I’d ever been. We pulled up in front of this place and the windows were all smashed out and boarded. It was a real redneck bar. And the people in there, about 25 or 30 people—half of them couldn’t have had high school diplomas even. So we got to reading, and I had my cane then because I’d hurt my foot—I had my beer joint cane with me as my staff, and I almost got into a fight. This big, fat redneck was playing with a machine and making noise while Lee was reading, and I’d had a couple of drinks, so I almost got into it wit him. I never drink before I read, but I had that night. In fact I didn’t go on until about midnight, and by that time I’d had a few drinks, and I gave a horrific reading—and that’s the one they taped. 

DA: I wanted to talk about Michael Chabon—probably your most famous student.

CK: Well, so far.

DA: We have to talk about Grady Tripp.

CK: He’s not my character. He’s Michael’s. 

DA: He’s not you?

CK: You know, I didn’t write the character at all. He’s Michael’s. Michael wrote that. I mean there’s really nothing I can say about it. And I really resent it when folks want me to claim I’m Grady Tripp, which seems to me such a sort of a cheap backdoor to fifteen minutes of chicken-shit fame. There’s nothing I can say about it. And Michael’s such a wonderful writer. He’s become a major writer. And he’ll become more and more major. But, in terms of that, what can I say? I didn’t do it. Michael did. It’s Michael’s character. It’s Michael’s creation. 

DA: When he was studying with you, was he working on Mysteries of Pittsburgh?

CK: No. Some of his early stories, I can see them in that. I have a bunch of his undergraduate stories. I just passed out copies to my class. Here we go (gives me copies from a stack—one of them is “Quentin Diner”). I marked out the grades. My Senior Seminar, what I’ve asked them to do, is to read these stories and for fun we see what kind of grade they would give Michael’s stories.

DA: Well, I happen to know this wasn’t an A.

CK: Oh, no no. I didn’t give him an A. Maybe a B+ or A-. No, I never once gave him an A on a story. I did it deliberately. He’s so talented. He always got an A or A+ in my classes, but on an individual story I never gave him an A. The only thing I’ve said at all—sort of tongue-in-cheek, because people ask me about the movie, of course—there isn’t anything I can possibly say about it, except Michael Douglas is certainly not cute enough to play Grady Tripp. And that’s all I have to say about it.

Michael Douglas is certainly not cute enough to play Grady Tripp. And that’s all I have to say about it.


DA: What’s that status of [your new] book? Is it in press yet?

CK: No. It’ll be out this fall [since the interview, the book came out in the fall of 2004 and recently went into paperback]. Carroll and Graf is putting it out. And Phil Turner is my editor. He’s the Editor-and-Chief, and a brilliant editor—he’s not a little boy editor. I took some lesser money to go with them. Where another publisher had a young man who wanted the book, and yet he said he wanted to change a lot of it. So I said I’d take less money and go with Phil, who is from Dayton, Ohio—you know, kind of a redneck himself. So we’re working on revisions right now. Not many either, just some linear stuff. So it’ll come out in the fall. A Spanish publisher just picked up Honeymooners. It did real well in Italy. Did real well. Several editions. A bestseller. Then a year ago last October, my Italian publisher Fazi Editore flew Diane and I off to Italy. We went on a 10-day book tour. It was unlike any other book tour experience for me. Scott [Turow] was over there to promote a book, and he couldn’t believe I was blowing him out of the water publicity-wise. It was so funny, because he’s Scott Turow—and I’m not. But in Italy, my editor said, “In Italy, you’re Elvis.” And then they brought out The Silver Ghost this past summer in Italy, and I think I have—let’s see (finds Xeroxes of foreign newspaper articles). That’s just a sample. I don’t know what they say. I ran them off to see if someone could interpret them for me. I heard they were good, but I don’t know. . . As I said, a Spanish publisher picked it up and it’ll be out in the spring next year. It’s the same publisher that does Stephen Dobyns and Don DeLillo. 

DA: What’s ahead? What are your plans?

CK: Well, I’ll retire here in a few years, and we’ll move to Belize.

DA: Are you serious?

CK: Yeah. We plan to vacation there this summer with friends. We just want to all kind of retire together, and Belize looks kind of cool. And so we want to go down this summer and check it out.

DA: So is there going to be a Good Chuck Kinder? Is there going to be a Saint Chuck?

CK: Never. (Smiles) 

DA: Never?

CK: Not even if I lived a thousand lifetimes.


This interview was first published in the Fall 2004 issue of Paper Street

image: The Last Mountain Dancer cover design