INTERVIEW: LAIRD HUNT

 

 

Through the patch-work of voices rasping from the most notorious era of American history, Laird Hunt s most recent novel, Kind One (Coffee House Press, 2012), depicts the ordinary, excruciating lives of three women in antebellum America.  Though minimalist in approach compared to previous works by Hunt, Kind One operates via a series of trompe l’oeils, that is, if you are lulled by the steady round sung by Ginny, Zinnia, and Cleome as they embrace and beat, soothe and scar one another, you may not notice that slowly, slowly you have been saturated with countless other stories – an infant who drowned, a secret walk in the woods, a purple string extended between a shack and a well like an artery, an uncomfortable afternoon with one’s own stunned ruminations about the humiliation of American history.  The exploration of power struggles fought at close range is the engine of the text, and characters no sooner become pliable and plain, a cozy surrogate from which a reader might comfortably take a seat, before they implicate themselves in a more difficult, bruising human dance of cruelty and friendship. 

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

Of all your work I’ve read, Kind One operates the mostly closely to realism, although I would argue that if realism is the convincing illusion of reality, Kind One is the convincing creation of a work of realism. The intentional materiality of narrative and language both induces a dream and calls attention to the work as a creative act. Like other novels of yours, Kind One calls into question the nature – and reliability – of reality as a phenomenon itself. Can you tell me about this choice to write a novel that appears to be more realistic than your past works? Were there particular writers that influenced this choice? 

I’ve been listening to Roscoe Holcomb sing today, in fact he is singing in my headphones as I type. I was trying to imagine parsing whether what he was doing was a kind of realism – in fact I can barely understand what he is singing most of the time and who knows what the sound of a banjo, his banjo means (both aspects of what he does certainly, of course, signify). It is certainly real. It’s coming through my headphones.  But it seems to me real in much the way the coffee in my mug is real and not at all in the way a novel written in the realist manner is typically experienced as representing/counterfeiting the real. I’ve always aspired to something like Holcomb rather than something like Dickens, if that makes sense.  This isn’t to say that some of my work doesn’t make use of realist devices and approaches. Kind One certainly does. But I like to think I will have lost whatever more or less serious game it is I’m playing if I ever begin, in a fundamental way, to imagine I’m working towards or away from a set of group think conventions (and group think happens across the aesthetic spectrum). In this context I could cite as influential work as diverse as Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families and Akhmatova’s Testimony and Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian.

Violence isn’t censored much in Kind One and that narrators are indeed quite frank in their recount of events. The use of language, however, tends to avoid clinical descriptions. Ginny says her husband “comes in at her morning and evening” to describe six years of a routine of incidents that includes both consensual sex and marital rape. Alcofibras is “fitted for drapes” when he is whipped to death. Rather than concealing the violence, I thought this understated diction was frustratingly distant and therefore powerful as a mode of description for the content. Why did you choose to depict violence primarily in these voices as opposed to an authorial voice? 

It’s certainly the case today that you can sit on the bus or in a restaurant or almost anywhere you can conceive of and listen to someone speak in outrageous detail into a cellphone about the injuries suffered by someone’s cousin in a car accident or a fight over a parking spot or about the colonoscopy that someone has undergone as a result of the natural deleterious processes of aging, and that a whole array of television programs and movies exist seemingly with the single goal of laying out with great precision the results of trauma on the human body, actual or imagined.  All of this is aided and abetted by the internet, which can serve up the specifics of horror suffered by those who cohabit our planet at the touch of a link. I’m not sure though that any of us speak to ourselves in this way, not to our deeper selves, not to the parts of us that are really listening to what we have to say. What is the shorthand of the soul? Kind One proposes itself as a kind of whispering, the voices pitched between speech and writing. A whisper can chill. A quiet remark can annihilate. And sometimes it is all that can be managed. All that we are up for saying.  Frederick Douglass speaks of the “blood-stained gateway” that led into the institution of slavery. He meant the whip. He is far from being afraid of specifics but he also makes use of this kind of chilling, potent, experience-based metaphor. In Kind One, Zinnia “tells” Prosper what was done to her by Ginny by holding his hand up to her scar. Sometimes all we can do is point. 

One way that Kind One produces an illusion of realism without actually utilizing the traditional techniques of realism to the letter is via a relapse of imagery – the baths, the key, the purple string, the well, the silent coupe, the daisies, the pigs. It’s rather songlike in that way and there’s a definite nod to poetry at work here and the patterning of motif is elaborate. Bizarrely, this is also the mechanism of propulsion taking precedence (I suspect) over plot. What is your process for conjuring a narrative with direction and energy?

One of the particular challenges of first person narration is that plotting finds itself doubled. First the person speaking needs to decide how he/she is going to tell the story, how it is going to be arranged, plotted, then the writer needs to do this. One could argue that this is of course all part of the same authorial gesture, but in the case of Kind One, which has multiple first-person narrators, I found it very much worked this way. Ginny needed to decide what she was going to say and see what she could say, as did Zinnia and the others, and when they had all finished I needed to go in and rearrange the narrative furniture, paying close attention to what was distinct in what they had to say and what overlapped. Patterning — and you’re right that there is a fairly complex system of reprise and echo at work throughout the book — is much more interesting to my mind than putting into play some sort of received mechanism used to create the illusion of a causal universe. The patterning has to be complex and unpredictable, or verge on the unpredictable, and it may well be the variety of pattern that is only fully apprehended afterward even if it is felt throughout. I think there is great propulsion to be gained by working with both blatant repetition (pigs, pigs, pigs!) and a subtler, much subtler system of reprise (kind, nice, gentle, demon, fury).

When Barthes calls literature a tissue of quotations he is also calling it a tissue of repetition and reprise. We don’t need Barthes to tune into the dominant that reprise represents in life on and off the page. All you have to do is live among others to hear yourself and them say the same or practically the same thing about some reasonably small number of things over and over and that is life. Far from finding this numbing, I hear (and see: our gestures repeat and reprise themselves too after all) great energy and power accruing in this mechanism of resaying that plays itself out over the course of our lives. Spells and chants and words of power are powerful exactly because they insist, they say again, they confirm: which we all do all the time without necessarily thinking of it in this way. In this context, withholding, delay, echo and return are powerful tools for exploring the potential as well as kinetic energy of a work and the language that manifests that work. To organize the constituent elements of books (which is another way of saying to “plot” them) with this in mind strikes me as completely reasonable.

The features of the inner human life that are examined most frequently in your work are madness and memory. Another crucial quality to the relapse of imagery – and I suspect, the propulsive energy it invokes and rides – is the exploration of the process of recollection. How does narrative relate to memory?

It is overlapping to the point of being identical. Still, there is that gap, that small difference between narrative and memory, that keeps them distinct. I remain powerfully drawn to the exploration of that gap. It feels to me like a planet or planetoid object that (like Pluto) that for so long was sensed but not seen.

Like prior novels, Kind One is written in a series of fragments. A narrative arc is intact (or rather mostly, but broken in choice ways to create space for haunting absences) and the plot deals with time as linear. On the one hand, I’ve always read your use of the fragment as a form of subtle play with the fragmented nature of memory. On the other hand, I often wonder if writers who work in the fragment are responding intuitively or intentionally to the impact of technology on attention span. William S. Burroughs correctly predicted that the television would supersede the book as the most popular form of narrative art and new technology has irrevocably changed the publishing industry in the last five years alone. What is the future of written narrative, in your opinion?  Do you think that the use of the fragment is a way to appeal to the preferred (and trained) modes of modern consciousness without losing artistic sophistication? 

I’ve been very interested in and heartened by the explosion in very recent years of book arts, in some cases as a very conscious rebuttal to the shifts being enacted in the world of books by the cigarette-like spread of technology that shows all the signs of being produced not to empower but to ensnare. New Directions is among the higher profile places that have moved aggressively and with great success to celebrate the technology of the printed book. I’m thinking of work like Nox by Anne Carson or the Untouchables by B.S. Johnson, but also the lovely edition of Microscripts by Robert Walser and the very handsome, magenta-stamped edition of essays by Roberto Bolaño. The graphic novelist Chris Ware just published his own book in a box, which is essentially a collection of gorgeous fragments. He wanted to make and disseminate something that could not be reproduced digitally (his drawings often feature parents spacing out with iPads in their hands as children play nearby). 

There are also projects like the magazine Birkensnake, co-edited by Brown and Denver graduate Joanna Ruocco, that exist to move from eye to hand to hand to eye and could never be experienced in all their wild papers and materials and unusual inks with an Android or iPhone. I don’t at all want to give the impression that I’m a Luddite.  I’ve been interested since the short-lived early Rocket Readers in the possibilities of electronic reading experiences. And it is quite possible that I have been stitching shards all these years as a kind of response to and affirmation of the visual experience of reading little chunks at a time of Waiting for Godot on my Palm Pilot in 1997 or so. But my writerly sense of self is still dominated by the exigencies of post-scroll pre-smartphone reading technologies and I’ll likely keep principally attending to them, both consciously and not, as I continue to work on my central preoccupations: memory and narrative and fiction and prose.

The subject matter of Kind One explores race and gender in antebellum America and as far as I am aware, this is the only novel you’ve written that primarily takes the perspective of women. Additionally, the novel spends a significant amount of time in the perspective of a woman of color. The portrayal of the main characters is not objectifying, degrading, self-congratulatory, or facile – though there is a remarkable shared stoicism to their voices. As a white male author who began his career at the height of identity politics in America, what was the impetus to take the perspective of the other? What challenges did you face in your process in writing these voices and characters?

I recently found myself in conversation with the excellent writer and editor Kate Bernheimer, who made the comment, about Kind One, that it must have been really hard to write.  Which it was. And how much harder, of course, infinitely harder, must it have been to live these things that the novel evokes. Peter Warshall, an early mentor, whom I served as a teaching assistant at the Kerouac School in Boulder, reserved the highest place in his vision of things literary for those novels that took on the most complicated quandaries and deepest moral dilemmas and most difficult situations. He spoke of Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom among a good number of other books. 

I think of this because for a number of years I felt like some of the greatest writing challenges that an American might usefully take up were cordoned off for me. It was the mid 1990s and I was expressly told by my peers in writing school that I must not, under any circumstances, write the other. That if I did this I would be perpetuating a violence that was very real and very much ongoing. Plus as a straight white male I could never convincingly enter the head of someone who was unlike me. It would be a joke. A violent one. I am nothing if not attentive to the concerns and feelings of others and for years I took this injunction as an opportunity to avoid a fearful trespass. Also, somewhere along the line, most probably upon the publication of Beloved by Toni Morrison, it came to seem as though slavery was something only writers of color could legitimately address, in the way that the Holocaust seemed a subject that only survivors and their descendants had the right to take up and wrestle with in all its awful, heart-wrecking depth. 

No doubt the work of W.G. Sebald, who as a gentile and son of a Nazi soldier wrote at length and compellingly about the Holocaust and its after-effects in Germany, put into my mind the idea that I might take up or try to take up the subject of antebellum chattel slavery and its legacy, which after all still sits dead center in the national psyche, and with so much still to be considered. In that context, I remember a comment made in passing by Tony Horowitz, that there remained so many, many unexplored stories about the Civil War, its antecedents and aftermath, and that too had an energizing effect on me.  More than anything else though it was the voice of Ginny Lancaster which came spilling one day off the tip of my pen, and the other voices it gave birth to, that called me to this work. And maybe, thank God, I had aged out of being afraid of offending the vocal members of my workshops who were still and are still (in my mind) telling me not to do this and that. 

The novel is very aware of power in human relationships and moreover intimate power is unstable. There’s also a bit of a mockery of constructed power roles at work (for example, when the main character though barren must be referred to by the black slaves as ‘mother’ per the rules of her tyrannical husband). It occurred to me while reading Kind One that ceding or taking power is often an intellectual act – something that requires a certain amount of deliberation even in the face of coercion and pure force – as humans, as primates, we’re always very aware of power. I suspect that one of the great misunderstandings of oppression are the internal calculations of both the oppressor and the oppressed. Internal language, which is best accessed and portrayed via literature, is possibly the most effective way to portray the long-term, conscientious, internal processes of oppression artistically.  How does one go about exploring and then depicting the inner lives and reckonings of an oppressor and of someone who is oppressed?

This is lovely in that it speaks its own answer even as it formulates its question.  There is self and then there is awareness of self and we all have both even when we are shackled, even when we snuggled down by choice in a cold frame by an outhouse. An editor at a major publishing house who has now gone on to edit a famous literary magazine read the central narrative of Kind One (Ginny’s tale), which for a long time was the whole book, and commented that he could not believe in this poor, rural woman’s voice. It does quite a lot of work this poor, rural woman’s voice, and perhaps it seemed to him that it did too much. All the voices in the book are set to work and to speak complexity in their different ways. Attention to the shallow and deep parts of the pocket both, to borrow a bit from Ginny, seems crucial in this. I imagined Ginny as simpler and more complex than it was reasonable for her to be. I imagined all the characters in the novel in this way. Their voices are pushed past reasonableness, towards reticence, towards hyperbole. As the subject of slavery required that they be. There could be no easy middle ground. Just as there could be no clear conclusion. They were and are in a vortex.

In that vein, the image of masculinity in Kind One is complicated. The novel in fact begins with a short vignette from the perspective of a farmer who is digging a well. The portrayal of this character depicts a rich inner life including the expression of emotions and self-awareness about the delivery or withholding of violence (particularly in regards to his wife and child).  This gentler depiction of masculinity is counterpoised to the brutality of other straight, white, male characters in the text and thus there is the implication that the qualities of violence, domination, and cruelty are not intrinsic to male identity. If depictions of the other, particularly when beheld by the gaze of privilege, must shift, must the image of privilege (in the example of Kind One, masculinity, whiteness), shift as well? 

If writing, if literature, has work to do, and I believe it does, it is in this domain. 

Though primarily realistic, there are flights of surrealism, which are frequently in response to trauma. Zinnia and Cleome teach Ginny about the escape of the mind, which she is already very amenable to from her love of books.  Alcofibras is called upon to deliver oral stories. And when Ginny is imprisoned and near death, she experiences flights of the mind. Thus, imagination is held in direct contrast to trauma in Kind One. What is the role of imagination in the contemporary mind (a mind inundated with technologies and mass marketing, a mind frequently confronted by the trauma of war and poverty warped by the often false sense of distance)?

Even as I make reference above to the challenges facing American writers, I do not fool myself even for a minute that the corporate advertising-driven gadget nightmare we are building for ourselves is any more urgent, or rather anywhere near as urgent, as the nightmares of illness and poverty and environmental devastation and war that so many people on the planet are facing. The endless cavalcade of apocalypse books and shows remind us here in the west that we are always only a meteor or virus or nuclear weapon away from a return to the “old ways”, to lives that are “nasty, brutish and short” to borrow a bit from Leviathan. Too many people are already and still living with seemingly incommensurable challenges, like how to find a drink of water that hasn’t been polluted beyond hope of recovery, and while I would never presume to suggest what would be most helpful or useful in these contexts (which also play out here, daily, in the richest nation in history), I do know that every one of us can and does imagine, and that it is the imagination and the closely related faculty of dreaming, whether controlled by fear or joy or desperation or tech-enabled passivity, that can and does still allow us to be both here and elsewhere simultaneously. And that is something.

Similarly, the role of parable is crucial to Kind One, though unlike traditional parables, the lessons of Kind One are often ambiguous in their final statements and more seemingly invested in creating an emotional or psychological texture. Most striking of these is the parable of the skulls with flames who hunt all the other animals out of jealousy, as told by Cleome.  This story doesn’t offer a lesson in the sense of prescriptive advice and rather endows the real world with both magic and evil.  What is your interest in parable?  I can’t help but think about how children’s stories are often allegorical, so – were you told parables as a child that have perhaps influenced your sense of narrative?

If you have read the Palm-Wine Drinkard by the late Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola you will recognize the skulls, though his are up to different things than Cleome’s. Almost since I started writing I have been interested exactly in the textures as you describe them on offer in fables and folk tales. As often as not the ones I have been exposed to are non-Western in origin and they move in different ways and with different rhythms than we are accustomed to encountering in the works, say, of the Grimm brothers or Hans Christian Anderson. The stories my characters tend to tell or that exercise their imaginations are like parables or fairy tales with their moralizing ends broken off. Tutuola’s stories within stories tend to function this way.  I was never much interested as a kid in the moral conclusions in Aesop’s or LaFontaine’s fables, but the worlds they evoked burned new pathways in my brain. Those new pathways had the curious virtue of leading me straight into spaces that felt very, very old.

What forthcoming works do we have to look forward to?

I am working on a collection of autobiographical essay-stories that admit fiction to varying degrees. I’m thinking of borrowing and adapting the subtitle of the short novel I just co-translated from the French. The book, by Arno Bertina, is called Brando, My Solitude, a biographical hypothesis. So I might call this book, Runner, a hypothetical memoir. I’m working on other books too, at least one of which is a novel, told from a woman’s perspective, set in the 19th century.