Interview with Rachel Kushner, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Fiction
Scribner/Simon & Schuster
Interview by Edan Lepucki
Edan Lepucki: Firstly, congratulations on being a Finalist for the National Book Award! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. What was the first thing you did after hearing the news of your nomination?
Rachel Kushner: It was from Harold Augenbraum that I heard the news, in a phone call, and I immediately changed the subject because I had been wanting to speak to Harold about the Proust class I am currently teaching, given that he is a Proust aficionado and the editor of Proust’s English language poetry volume. That conversation went on a while. It felt strangely good, and right, to shift the focus from me to something important that had nothing to do with me. Then I e-mailed my husband, of course. Then I proceeded like it was a completely normal day, which it was.
EL: Do you recall a moment in writing this book when the process seemed just too difficult to go on? How about a moment when you really enjoyed yourself? Please explain.
RK: This kind of thing—what was hard, what was easy—gets so quickly subsumed and fixed into mythology, after the journey itself, which is of course filled with moments both good and bad. I don’t know about too difficult to go on, because for me, the drive inward into the novel is something like a constant and dogged forward movement into impasse, which presents itself as a matter of course. And as a matter of course, the writer must persevere. I never would have given up. There wasn’t a possibility of that, but to explain why might be boring and a little tedious. To summarize: whatever book one writes is going to present difficulties. It isn’t the book that is the problem, I don’t believe, but the writer. So changing projects would just mean encountering new difficulties. I stick with what I am doing. There were many moments when I enjoyed myself (and because of those, I probably suppress the tougher times). This novel for whatever reason presented a lot of spaces for play, for secret aspects of my sensibility and personhood, for a kind of synthesis of diverse interests of mine, and it was sometimes just so much fun to write various sequences of it. It has humor in it, and the humor was always very pleasurable for me to write my way through.
EL: How does this novel differ from your previous one, Telex from Cuba? In other words, how is The Flamethrowers a continuation of certain aesthetic preoccupations of yours, and how is it a divergence?
RK: They felt quite different as writing experiences. Telex from Cuba is my attempt to explore an entire colonial history and national liberation movement, a midcentury American culture, the figure of the exotic tropical landscape, and a lot of other things to do with Cuba and also Haiti, the region and era. I had to learn an enormous amount to do that. Learn it and then pull away, after having metabolized this world of points I just listed, in order to build characters and a novel. The Flamethrowers covers some ground, too, but it’s ground that is familiar to me in a relatively natural way, just from living, being a person. So I didn’t have to encounter an unknown world and spend years of my life learning it, as I did with Telex. I pursued interests of mine, built upon them in what I read, and wrote. I mostly just wrote. And as I wrote, I found spaces where things I care about were of service, and had a place. The Italian politics and politics generally were all around me in my social life, which has a political dimension to it. Or rather, my political life has a social dimension. It’s perhaps a more personal book. Also, I think a better one, but maybe they are simply different. I had more control over it, sentence by sentence, and also in terms of its form, and tonal textures, so I was able to be more playful and manipulating of those levers. I was a more mature writer by the time I really got going on it, I guess. The novels are similar in their use of amplitude, maybe: politics, culture, literature, ideas, a little bit of philosophy and psychoanalysis, some poetry and aesthetics, but perhaps many novels have these things and they are not particular to me.
EL: Your novel explores the art world in 1970s New York as well as political upheaval in Italy, the First World War, motorcycle racing, and more. Can you talk about your relationships to these topics? Did you know from the start that you would have so many worlds to investigate—and was that one of the seductions of writing this book?
RK: At this point, immersed as I am in a third novel, I now know that there is a modality I can expect: writing a novel means living in a way that is completely filtered by the world of the novel in progress. Every single thing I encounter in life only has significance insofar as it either relates to and informs my novel in progress, or it doesn’t (only my family escapes that, and remains significant no matter what). So it’s not that I had worlds to investigate, but that the one I was living in sent me signals, and I followed them. I started the book as a novel set in the art world of the 1970s, which is an inescapable and ever-present history in the world of contemporary art, where I often circulate. From there, I was led naturally to think about motorcycles (Chris Burden, Michael Heizer both did pieces with bikes in the era when my novel is set). I rode motorcycles all through my twenties and know that culture pretty well, so it was easy for me to go in that direction. In 2009, as I was working on the book, we had the centennial of Futurism, which has always interested me, and about which I have written. I knew there was a link between machines, speed, violence, art, and politics. Just on instinct. I built upon that bold and unjustified confidence, I guess. Except it wasn’t really unjustified, actually. Those things are all connected.
EL: As a fiction writer, how do you approach nonfictional material? Do you do much research? Do you feel beholden to the facts? What can a novel do with history that a book of history can’t do?
RK: “Nonfiction” is a curious category. It means to elide everything fictional, but it doesn’t tell you much beyond that, does it? I read all kinds of things. I have a hard time reading anything that isn’t written in an artful way, however. I prefer density, texts with a theoretical component. I did read an illustrated manual on the weapons and uniforms of the Arditi—Italian shock troops of World War One—but even that kind of thing can feel like a journey into artfulness, poetry, like one is alongside Celine, or Malaparte, or Cendrars.
I felt beholden to facts with this book to the degree that I didn’t want the reader to feel she or he had entered a silly or topsy-turvy world that didn’t relate to and approximate the “real” one. There is a place for that, a book of that kind, but my novel was not that kind of book. I was trying to work out certain truths of the twentieth century—truths that I would never want to manipulate or degrade. I care, and cared, about these things.
The novel as a form is unique in that it employs the unconscious, perhaps as fully as is possible, given our lack of access to that subterranean world of ourselves. The novel takes instinct and knowledge and sensibility and makes of it something new, newly visible. Proust is very articulate on this. Memory is not about recovering what happened as it happened, but about coming to a new, elevated understanding of experience. A nonfiction book doesn’t leave the terrain of what can be inferred from research materials. Revelation is something else. For me, personally, it happens in reading literature.
EL: The Flamethrowers crisscrosses eras and shifts perspective and tone. But every book, whether large or small in scope, is written with sentences, one after another. Can you talk a little bit about how you approach prose-writing, and what your relationship to sentence-making is?
RK: The sentences are beads on a string; I see each one as essential. As a moment, a thing, an object, and as the conduit, the track, down which meaning can course. As a reader, I love to feel that the writer is keeping me close, letting me know, in the mere arc of a phrase, that he or she is alive to humor, irony, complexity. I want to do that in my sentences. I try to. I don’t claim I’m successful at it. I don’t want dead sentences that simply service plot, but who does? I don’t want to declare special vigilance in that, but that kind of vigilance is a big part of the experience of writing. The form of the sentence, the cadence, how it looks on the page, is as important as what it says, where it leads to, and from. I have certain chapters whose formal rule was that they started mid-sentence, which made me think more about the sentence’s properties. When I feel I am getting lax, I read those writers who are, for me, the masters of the sentence. It always feels good to see the gap, to know I have to work harder, in order not to fly unnecessarily low, but only as low as my absolute, objective limitations decree.
EL: If your book could go on a cross country road trip with another book, what book would that be, and why?
RK: My book is a homebody. It is agoraphobic, in fact. It stays in bed, or maybe sometimes, on occasion, takes walks, like when nature is on show, in the autumn. But then it is always relieved to quickly return home, ‘the center of the world.’ It prefers to read a book than to sit next to someone in a car for five days. It takes in the world while seldom leaving the house. Some of us have already left the house enough times to see what is out there. ‘What is out there’ can be joyous, splendid, treacherous, banal, ugly but useful, beautiful but senseless, all of those things at once, and does not need to be experienced regularly. Maybe my book would be okay to spend a moment on a wind-buffeted mountain slope with volumes of Shelley, Wordsworth, gazing up at Mont Blanc. But really, does that sound so pleasant? No, my book is at home, in bed, reading, or maybe reading between lines.
Edan Lepucki is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me and a staff writer for The Millions. Her first novel, California, is forthcoming in 2014 from Little, Brown. She's the founder and director of Writing Workshops Los Angeles.