A Conversation With Brad Kessler by KR fiction editor Nancy Zafris
Brad Kessler’s latest novel, Birds in Fall, is hitting the bookstores as I write this. Library Journal calls it a “perfect gem of a novel.” A selection from it won a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts grant. Kessler’s previous books include Lick Creek and The Woodcutter’s Christmas. His essays and articles have appeared in the New Yorker, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine, among others, as well as in The Kenyon Review (“One Reader’s Digest: Toward a Gastronomic Theory of Literature,” Spring 2005). He is the author of several award-winning children’s books, and the recipient of a Lange-Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. He has taught at the New School University and in the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. He lives with his wife, the photographer Dona Ann McAdams, in Vermont. (For a summary and further reviews of Birds in Fall, click here). Nancy Zafris is the fiction editor of The Kenyon Review.
Nancy Zafris : I want to tell you before we begin that I loved your new novel, Birds in Fall. It’s a wonderful book, beautifully, lyrically written, very deep.
Brad Kessler: Thank you, Nancy.
NZ: The prologue to Birds in Fall was published as a short story in the current issue of The Kenyon Review (Spring 2006). One of the reasons that it works as a complete, rounded-off story is that—well, let me put it this way: there are several reasons. First off, there is a very big conclusion to this story. Secondly, the protagonist never appears again in the novel. His story ends here although we witness its impact throughout the novel. Thirdly, it’s written in first person as opposed to third person for the rest of book, which tells me it was conceived of as apart from the main sections. Did you at some point envision having this first-person narrator filter through the book as a kind of spiritual guide, or was he always meant to make one and only one appearance?
BK: You’re talking about Russell, who’s an ornithologist who dies in the first chapter in a plane crash. We get his story in first person as the plane goes down. So the classic “Sunset Boulevard” question is: How can the dead guy be narrating the story? Well, after that first chapter, he doesn’t narrate anymore, but I wanted him to hover over the narrative as a kind of spectral presence. I planned on him coming back in some form later in the novel, and in some sense he does. But your observation is spot on: I did write a bunch of scenes with him in the afterlife, again in first person, but I tossed all that away. It turned out too cheesy, too false. And suddenly, in the last five years—during the time I was writing this novel—everyone started writing afterlife stories.
NZ: Why do you think that is?
BK: I suspect it has something to do with 9/11. In the new century, Americans got acquainted and interested again in death. The war that followed has kept them interested.
NZ: Do you see Birds in Fall as a post 9/11 novel?
BK: Yes and No. No, because I started the book a month before the attacks on the trade towers, and it was always going to be about a plane crash and its aftermath. Yes, because it’s a novel about mass public death, grief and survival.
NZ: You told me that in the first draft, you actually had a guy working in the trade towers?
BK: Yeah, when I started writing this book a month before 9/11, not only did I have a plane crash, but also a guy who washed windows on the trade towers. What’s worse, the window washer would provoke businessmen inside the tower, by wearing a headscarf like a Saudi prince and staring into the windows at their meetings! I also had this woman ornithologist walking around the base of the towers in the morning picking up dead birds who’d crashed into the buildings in the night during migration season.
NZ: What happened to that material?
BK: I had to chuck all of it in the trash. In fact, I put the novel aside for about a year and half. How could one write about a plane crash in the wake of 9/11? How could one write about the twin towers? It was very distressing. I started other things. But after some time, I rearranged the furniture and started the book again.
NZ: Do you think that was just a coincidence, you writing about the twin towers and Saudis and a plane crash and birds crashing into the towers the month before 9/11?
BK: My wife was two blocks away from the twin towers the morning they fell. A few days later when I showed her what I’d been working on, she read it and just shrugged and said: you plugged into the “collective unconscious.”
NZ: Do you believe in that, the collective unconsciousness?
BK: Let’s put it this way. I believe in the unconscious. I was haunted by the story of the artist who had a temporary studio in one of the towers, how he fell asleep the night before 9/11 and died there. The paintings he’d been working on were of planes going through bodies. How did he know that? I’m no longer startled by these coincidences, or whatever you want to call them. I think that’s part of being an artist, recognizing consciousness on every level.
NZ: We’ve talked before over coffees about the use or overuse of irony in contemporary literature. Your work avoids irony, at least in the contemporary sense of the word. One of the reviewers in your great pre-pub reviews of Birds in Fall comments on your “studied seriousness.” One of the things I’ve always liked about your work is its seriousness. Why do you think she used the word “studied” to characterize what I think is a natural literary sentiment that you apply to your writing? Do you think that irony is so much used today that it’s the default sensibility–that seriousness, therefore, must be a self-conscious, anti-ironic stance?
BK: It was an interesting choice of words, and I’m not sure what the reviewer meant by “studied.” Can you “study” seriousness? Is there some exam? But seriously….the irony question is endlessly fascinating. This American generation of writers that both of us belong to inherited from the structuralists and postmodernists a kind of distrust of words and concepts like “beauty” and “truth.” And to write about such things, with a straight face, was and still is, to risk being considered cornball and sentimental. So you have to mask your intentions behind a scrim of irony, but sometimes the mask takes over, and there’s no truth or beauty behind it. The mask is all there is. I like what Adam Zagajewski, the poet says: Irony is seeing without penetrating. I think, at any rate, there’s tremendous anxiety among writers and artists not to appear too earnest or heartfelt or, as you say— “serious.” Charles Baxter, I believe, calls this an anxiety “of belatedness,” of writers arriving at truths that have already been discovered.
NZ: This anxiety can infect not just your writing but your personal life. My husband and I had that anxiety as graduate students in New York when it came time for one of us to say “I love you”—that remarkably cornball and cheesy phrase that came in the midst of studying deconstructionism and the anxiety of influence and all that. But you know what, you get over it, or you should. The question for me as a writer should be, How do I talk about truth, beauty, and love in a way that is both honest and linguistically ambitious and lovely? That doesn’t mean you have to be direct and can’t be oblique. Flank attacks can be the most effective by far. Obliqueness can lead you to an apt phrase that penetrates, sometimes it can lead you to a funny phrasing, and sometimes it can lead you to a funny ironic phrasing that is just so good it tempts you into more funny ironic phrasings. Before long, you can start to get lost as a writer.
BK: I think you’re absolutely right: They must be flank attacks. You always have to go by indirection. The rear entrance, as Ibsen said, is more piquant. But I’m not sure irony is anymore, as you say, the “default sensibility” of American literature. I think there may be a shift going on. One that dates to 9/11 and the Iraq war. Perhaps frivolity and irony seem a bit, I don’t know, outdated?
NZ: I don’t know either. Living in Ohio, I didn’t feel a big sensibility shift. What there was was a shift in New York sensibility. About a month after 9/11, I remember waiting at the school bus stop with a friend and the two of us turning to each other and saying, “For God’s sake, enough already! Are two Ohio moms the only cynical people left in the world? New York’s gone down the tubes in sincerity!”
BK: It was a bit surreal after 9/11 to see American flags hanging from fire escapes in the bohemian East Village.
NZ: Well you know, your bringing up 9/11 and the wars has got me thinking. You see authors praised now for turning away from a self-conscious irony and taking on 9/11 with an estimable sincerity. So maybe seriousness is now considered another kind of schtick, a new innovative mode to be studied and utilized.
BK: Interesting. Certainly the phenomenon of “recovery narratives”—the whole Oprah thing—has skewed the market and shifted slightly the emphasis of what’s being written and bought, and those narratives tend to wear their sincerity on their sleeves.
NZ: Let’s go back to seriousness. Even your children’s books don’t try to entertain with contemporary humor or speech that “relates.” The
Woodcutter’s Christmas is a Christmas story about a Vermont woodsman who sells Christmas trees each year in New York City. I read this book aloud to my son and we both fell into its fictional dream. I’ve thought a lot about why American writers tend to avoid a grammar that is up-front serious and instead try to go through various back doors—irony, humor, defamiliarization, etc. When my son and I listen to tapes by British writers as opposed to American writers, there seems to be a great difference in tone. Any thoughts?
BK: I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest something I haven’t really thought through—but what the hell. There’s always been among American writers a strong current of the rebellious, call it, I don’t know, innocence or willful adolescence: Think of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp. But what’s happened in the last fifty years or so since World War II, is that America is no longer innocent, no longer the rebellious one, but the one being rebelled against. So it’s hard for American writers to maintain that pose of joyful naivete. At some point it comes off as weirdly nostalgic or delusional. Perhaps we’re collectively going through a kind of teenage phase of development. And teenagers tend to express themselves with sarcasm and irony. No longer innocent, but not quite adult.
NZ: I love that. What an interesting idea.
BK: The Brits have always looked upon American literature with a mixture of admiration and disgust. I love D.H. Lawrence’s essays on Classic American Literature. And George Orwell’s wonderful essay “Inside the Whale,” on Henry Miller. They both seem to be saying: You Americans have a fresh voice, a wonderful language, you’re protected and swaddled inside the guts of that far, insulating continent. But we’ll see what happens once you grow up. Maybe we’re starting to grow up?
NZ: So what about Canadian writers? Where do they fit in?
BK: I find Canadian literature very refreshing. A great experiment in literature seems to have quietly occurred in Canada in the last several decades, whereby the Canadian government actually supports its writers. And lo and behold, look at the result. Some of the most exciting literature in English has been coming out of Canada: Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Ann Carson, Ann Michaels, Andre Alexis, to name a few . . .
NZ: Some of those I see are poets. Do you read much poetry?
BK: All the time. When I’m writing a novel, I find it difficult to read fiction—especially contemporary fiction. I’m an extremely porous reader, so what I’m reading at night usually ends up leaking into my work the next day or day after. And then, a month or two down the line, I’ll be editing my work and wonder: how the hell did this voice get in here. And then I’ll remember . . . oh I was reading, I don’t know, Proust then, and have to strike the whole section because a bad imitation of Proust has suddenly invaded my pages. Poetry allows me to read while I work, and read contemporary artists. It also constantly reminds me that economy and precision and the enigmatic are good things.
NZ: Your love of poetry reminds me how poetically you are able to describe music in Birds in Fall. Since music is an art beyond words, how do you manage to portray it so well? Do you have any tricks? Are you musical yourself?
BK: I think of writing actually as music, and a finished novel as a kind of symphony with many movements. A short story is a song. I talk to my students about this all the time, how they should think of their short stories or novels in musical terms. Is it time for a guitar solo here? Do we need to get back to the chorus, the leitmotif? What about the rhythm? I don’t think the two art forms are far off.
NZ: Beautifully put. Music is a great instructional metaphor for writing. If I say to a student, “Your guitar solo is too long and frenzied here,” that might illuminate the problem of an overwritten epiphany for him in the way that using other writing terms cannot. But what about music itself—how does one write about music without falling into the trap of non-specific generalities like leitmotif, rhythm, symphony? Can music be concretized in writing or must it always fall away into poetic terms?
BK: It’s tricky isn’t it? First of all, when you write about music, on some level you’re assuming the reader knows the style of music you’re referring to. Perhaps the only way to write about music is not to write directly about the music, but go at it obliquely: by showing the effect it has on your characters.
NZ: I get asked this all the time, so I’ll ask you: Do you work from an outline?
NZ: Ah, a one-note guitar solo answer. Here’s one you’ll have to strum on a bit: Your first novel, Lick Creek, takes place in 1920s West Virginia. It’s about the coming of electrical power lines to a small Appalachian town and what happens between one of the local girls and one of the linesmen, a Russian immigrant. The book presents its story with a sober, poetic realism. Then at the end of Lick Creek there is an epilogue in which the writer or at least the omniscient narrator addresses the reader in first person from the present day, relating that the young protagonist—the Russian—had been his grandfather. This seems like a postmodern move on your part. I’m wondering why you chose to do it and whether you felt that it disrupted the fictional dream you had created.
BK: It did disrupt the fictional dream, and for that I was punished, perhaps rightly so. A lot of people actually thought the first person narrator was me, and the story somehow real! I suppose I did want to play with the idea of storytelling, but I thought I’d tipped my hand by having, as the very last word in the novel, the word “dream” as in: this is all a dream. All fiction is a dream.
NZ: Anything you’re working on these days?
BK: A novel about a real painting that hangs in the Met.
NZ: Do you want to say anything about it, or do you prefer the one-note guitar chord?
BK: I’ll take the chord and keep my mouth shut.
NZ: As always, Brad, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you.
BK: The pleasure was mine, Nancy.