The first thing about Kirk that struck me was his precision. With great deliberation, he minces his words, and I don’t mean he “weakens” or “softens” them, and neither is there an over-wrought pause between. There’s a vigorous delicacy to his manner and an exactness, a cleaving, to his word choice—a sheerness. A navigation. He’s one who will tell on himself wryly but not for the cheapness of a laugh, though I laughed plenty. He’s simply an honest poet. I found the jazz of him somewhat reminiscent of Barry Hannah, my mentor and friend, so it came as little surprise to learn that Barry was his friend, his hero, for many years, too. We discussed, among other things, Barry’s “Even Greenland,” one of the classics in the genre of sudden fiction. Here is my account, albeit polished, of those other things.
Kirk Nesset (KN): I read a great deal as a child, so I was inspired early. Aesop and Grimm and the Nancy Drew books had the most impact, I think, early on. Then Louis Carroll and Poe, Zane Grey and Jack London. London’s autobiographical portrait of an artist, Martin Eden, pretty much knocked me to pieces. By the time I hit high school I’d read all of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mansfield, O’Connor, Thomas Wolf, Lawrence Durrell and Hesse, and had dipped into many others. Mainly this was because of a wonderful thing my parents had done. In 1969, relocating to California from Seattle, they “killed the television,” as the phrase went then. After that all I did at home was read and sing and play guitar, stack wood and play board games. As an English major later at college and grad school, I was still a voracious reader, most voracious during the summer. The books I loved then made me the writer I am, I believe. They not only taught me craft but taught me how to perceive. Don Quixote. Tom Jones. Middlemarch. The Brothers Karamazov. Lolita.Beckett’s Malone Dies. Atwood’s Surfacing. DeLillo’s White Noise. I’m still completely TV-illiterate, and not nearly as informed as some about film. I’m not embarrassed to admit it. Bookish is good.
(ST): Are there more recent writers?
(KN): Most inspiring to me have been Barry Hannah, Jeanette Winterson, Alice Munro, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders and of course Carver, along with DeLillo and Atwood. I used to read around a lot more. These last years I’ve read less widely and comprehensively. I was relieved years ago when Barry Hannah told me how he had been reading. He was presenting that evening at Allegheny College and I’d gone to the hotel to pick him up. He was sitting reading in the lobby and tucked the book in his bag when he saw me. In the car I asked who he favored these days, expecting to hear names and titles one heard on the breeze then. I may have mentioned those titles and names. Barry said he had heard of those authors but hadn’t read them. Rather than reading around, he told me, he was rereading the books he loved. Some of them he’d read, he said, twenty or twenty-five times. The book he’d slid in his bag, by the way, was Beckett’s Molloy.
I didn’t study writing in a writing program, I should say. I’m truly “old school.” I studied literature. I didn’t know I was aspiring to write until I was well into grad school. I’d never presumed to think that writing was a thing people did. I began at UCSB as a Renaissance scholar and wound up writing on Carver. Lit crit and theory drove me to creative writing, it seems. But the books I had read and was reading were key. Aside from a pair of writer’s conferences, and aside from the help of some generous mentors—Barry Spacks, Steven Allaback, Christopher Buckley—the literary models were crucial. The books I had read were my teachers.
(ST): In hindsight, as author of The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study, what about Carver’s writing (or Gordon Lish’s editing) do you believe is possibly the least understood or appreciated?
(KN): The inexplicable thing about Ray, what we don’t talk about when we talk about Carver, is atmosphere and tone. The eerie moods he creates. For sure, Gordon Lish helped to cultivate this. Mainly it comes from compression, constriction, verbal omission, a ruthless bareness, not to mention the awkward, almost extraterrestrial voices Carver finds. It’s a poetics of silence in prose, you could say. Everywhere in Carver are hints about what can’t be represented, or written, or said. People tend to see social drama—the catastrophe of the plight of the lower middle class, poor prospects, alcoholism, et cetera—and don’t notice the nuances. Carver’s work is richer and stranger than that. The prose is sometimes so blank, so terribly “real,” it borders on expressionism. He hyperextends realism, such that an oppressive, inhospitable world seems that much less full, less hospitable. The stories make you “feel the force of the paradox,” as Claude Richard writes, “that ensures that the deepest anxiety is, precisely, that which does not let itself speak.”
(ST): While primarily a fiction writer, you also publish poetry and translation. Are there discernible differences in style, subject matter, or mood when you approach one genre or another?
(KN): Actually, when you weigh the numbers of pieces appearing over the years, you’ll see I publish more poems and translations than fictions. They’re shorter, easier to place and more manageable, given space considerations. But you’re right, I do consider myself a fiction writer first and foremost. Lately I have also been publishing essays—on Carver, and on writing, fiction pedagogy especially. Issues related to genre do arise, yes, each time I sit down to write. Above all when I begin something new. “Approach” is the key word here. When I’m working from a prompt, or a solicitation from an editor, I tend to move fairly straightforwardly into the genre in question. It’s always a challenge, of course, starting a piece. With nonfiction I tend to outline and plan ahead, even if I wind up discarding those plans. The writing is intuitive, certainly, but it’s nice to line up your ducks, even if you don’t shoot them all down. With fiction, I locate a character and setting and try to discover what’s lurking. What’s intriguing, disturbing. And then sniff out motivation, causality, tap into the mystery, hoping the story will grow or unfold, revealing its secrets. With poetry, typically, it’s the exhilaration of language itself that draws me in, that incites the poem. Some of my verse is narrative, and much of it makes sense. But it doesn’t have to—which is incredibly freeing, since nonfiction and fiction only rarely allow for such freedom. Margaret Atwood believes different parts of the brain are at work in what she calls ambidextrous writers, depending on genre. When you write fiction you’re methodical, organized. And poetry is “a state of free float.”
What’s complicated, though, I find, is that sometimes you write and look what you have and don’t know what you’ve written. I’ll write what I think is a poem, and take out the line breaks and see it’s a story, a compact micro tale. Or vise versa. I have pieces in the mail now, I hesitate to admit, that are submitted in both genres. As stories and poems. Which genre will win?
Translation on the other hand is something else altogether. I like it and do it a lot, maybe because as a way of writing it feels less intimidating. It’s like sitting down to work out a puzzle. It’s not my soul or vertiginous inner abyss on the line, seemingly, but somebody else’s. The matter is already there on the page. There’s more to it, though, as we know. A translation isn’t a puzzle, finally. It isn’t just transposition, substitution, clever maneuvers with dactyls and dictionaries. It’s its own creature. It’s an enacted, unfolding thing, an experience in a new tongue that approximates the original. It may be easy to start, but the piece in English must live and breathe as a poem or story. It needs a beating heart. It needs musical and emotional coherence, as well as semantic finesse.
(ST): Of your short-short story collection Mr. Agreeable, Barry Hannah declared, “Nesset is attuned to the fine-edged songs of the mundane,” while Bret Lott said that you have “given us a beautiful bouquet of crystal shards, each one of which, when held to the light, refracts and amplifies and makes new the entire notion of light.” How conscious are you of technique—of discovering and refining that fine edge, that crystal shard—when inside the writing process of your first draft?
(KN): I’d like to say that I just draft when I draft—write like an ape, go to town, let the gate down. But that’s very rarely the case. Which is why the process of drafting is often so awful to me. I write slowly. Excruciatingly. I’m lucky to get a page a day, if that. And while I’m aware of the fact that polish comes later—attention to the fine edges and shards—I can’t just madly excrete, idiot savant that I am, that we all are, or should be, initially. For me, voice must click from the very first sentence and keep clicking from there, or come close to clicking. Otherwise, I won’t believe the voice, or the piece, enough to go on. So yes, there is attention to technique from the start, but not the intense attention that comes later. The early sensitivity is about getting voice right. Which necessarily includes sentence rhythm, diction, cadence and sound.
Other writers work or worked this way, too, obviously. Flannery O’Connor, Richard Ford, DeLillo and Hannah, among others. I worked with Ford, in fact, late in the 80s, at the Squaw Valley Writers Center in California. I remember asking him what he did in a draft when he got stuck. He backtracked, he told me. He returned to where the voice of the prose sounded true, and looked to see where it diverged, or derailed. He’d work to fix that, he said, and proceed from there.
I love revision, as a lot of us do. There’s very little suffering there, unlike with drafting. And I’m a ruthless reviser. If I’m lucky I’m done after sixty or seventy drafts. Usually it’s more like a hundred, one hundred fifty. Two hundred drafts isn’t unusual, depending.
(ST): Depending on what?
(KN): Depending on how the story complies, unfolds, aligns energetically. On the way voice, rhythm, urgency, tension and pace comply or fail to comply. Fail to arrive. Or arrive. Become manifest on the page.
(ST): About your collection Paradise Road, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, Ann Beattie said, “These stories are melodious when they need to be, jangle when we need to hear what’s discordant.” I understand that you have a background in music. How coincidental are Beattie’s instincts?
(KN): I’m less conscious than some, I think, about what sings or clacks in my work. Crafting sound is an intuitive process, at least for me. Even a sharp listener, a musically-illiterate writer at some point senses the orchestral nature of narrative, the melody and harmony and rests and refrains in every story or poem, the rise to crescendo. Still, my writing wouldn’t sound the way it does, I suppose, if music hadn’t preceded. I was a musician long before I was a writer. Musicians think in sounds, express and emote in nonverbal ways. Language is rhythmic and sonic, obviously. And if your ear is trained, writing is music as well. I’m as interested in the way something sounds on the page when I write, or revise, as I am in what the thing says, or conveys. It’s hard to say, though, how exactly I know what I know, or how influence works. I’d like to say that the way I manage and measure my stories or poems arises from song. That my modulations in voice, rhythm, or awareness of such, arise likewise. But no. It’s a thing you can’t nail down, since what we absorb is internal. Is internalized. And what’s internal is mysterious, finally.
What’s not mysterious is the fact that music is fun. Much of it for me, all of this singing and playing on stage, is about not writing. I’m in two bands now, with three rehearsals a week, 5 or 6 shows per month and daily music homework. That’s a lot of time away from writing, or from preparing to write. Nabokov had his butterflies, so I can have this, I guess. For me, we could say, music is creativity minus the agony, unease and worry, the incinerating self-conscious flames. It’s not lonely or solitary. And there’s free beer.
(ST): What do you love or hate most about writing or publishing, and what do you intend to do about it?
(KN): I love hearing that something I wrote mattered to someone. Especially when whatever it was mattered to someone for reasons I could never have imagined beforehand, much less intended. I got a letter years ago from a high school teacher saying he liked my book on Carver so much he wanted to apply to grad school in English. And he did. And got in. I still get fan mail for Mr. Agreeable andParadise Road, some of it strange, some vaguely frightening, but most of it very uplifting.
I love, too, the rare affirmation that comes in the form of acceptances. Stories, poems, essays, translations, pieces slated for press. Book manuscripts, especially, which can be exhausting to the point of nightmarish to peddle. There’s a glow, you know, that remains, after the news comes, which can last days. Wow, look, you think, I’m not only not getting kicked or beaten today, but somebody likes what I wrote. And wants to promote it.
Best of all I love the feeling of completing a draft. The glow of that lasts quite a bit longer.
(ST): What do you hate?
(KN): That nothing’s consistent. The process and progress of writing, I mean. I thought early on that there were lessons you learned that eventually made it all easier. On one level that’s true, maybe. Mostly it’s not the case. Each project is like building Rome again from the ground up. The process is laborious, tedious, fraught with doubt and misgiving.
I also don’t like the fact, speaking of which, that writing turns you so inward at times you think you’re moving completely over the edge, which isn’t pleasant. But even more I despise the alternative—not writing. Sometimes you need to lay off awhile to refill. A day or two is okay, but after that things get tricky. How did Kafka put it? “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”
More and more these days, though, I don’t hate much. I try to be grateful for what I’ve accomplished or earned and resent less and less. Because if you’re in this for good you can’t expect much. You write and write and take what you get and feel thankful. The rewards usually aren’t very visible. When I was fresh out of grad school, rejection was a palpable, personal thing. An agent would respond with cutting remarks—less than charitable, cruel, but also helpful and true—and I’d feel disemboweled for weeks. Which doesn’t help. You eventually stop taking things personally. Your skin thickens. It has to, or you won’t last in this business. I read a review weeks ago of Saint X, for example, my new book of poems. The reviewer destroyed it. Did I hate her? Yes, momentarily. Then I reread the review and thought, how sad. Here is a woman who seems to take the craft seriously and has a degree but hasn’t yet learned to read, can’t tune in to the way poetic language evokes. How sad, when journals give reviews to reviewers unprepared to review.
What to do, you ask, about the diminishing hating, and loving? Keep writing. If we’re here for the long haul there’s not much else to do. The best meditation practice, we know, comes in part from not attaching to notions of outcome. The same goes for writing. “The point of sitting is to sit,” my teacher Sasaki Roshi told me, once upon a time at the L.A. Zen Center. The point of writing, likewise, I think, is to write.
(ST): What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
(KN): My sixth book, a book of translations, is due out this summer at Calypso Editions, a fine arts press in New York. Disappearances, the new book will be called. A selected anthology of micro fictions by a wonderful, highly visible Bolivian writer, Edmundo Paz Soldán. His enigmatic, mellifluous fictions, translated pour moi, have gotten some attention in this country already. They’ve appeared in the Boston Review, Chicago Review, Literary Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, PANK and Arroyo, among others, including two of Norton’s anthologies–Flash Fiction International and Sudden Fiction Latino.
At the moment I am finishing a manuscript of flash fiction, a bizarre, inspired book-to-be I’m calling Burn. I am also at work on a historical novel, set in northern California in the 1880s. And a travel book involving the Philippines and Filipino cuisine. And I am banging together what seems to be a novella, an eighty or ninety page something-or-other that may join a small constellation of old and new stories, all of which I hope to call the next book-to-be.