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 an