Roy Kesey‘s debut novel Pacazo, published by Dzanc Books in February 2011, has been selected for both The Rumpus Book Club and the Newtonville First Editions Book Club. His previous books include the award-winning novella Nothing in the World, a historical guide to the Chinese city of Nanjing, and a short story collection called All Over, which made The L Magazine’s recent “Best Books of the Decade” list. His short stories, essays and poems have been widely published and anthologized, with work appearing in Best American Short Stories, The Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology and New Sudden Fiction, among other places. He is the recipient of a 2010 prose fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He currently lives in Peru with his wife and children. (www.roykesey.com)
Q (Meg Pokrass): Have you had literary mentors? If so, can you describe that relationship, and its importance for a writer?
I remember how excited I got when I first read The Odyssey and discovered that Mentor was the name of an actual character. I immediately sat down and wrote a Not Great poem called, if memory serves, “At Mentor’s Campfire.” It was about hunting with my dad (Hi Dad! Sorry the poem wasn’t better!) and he was certainly my first mentor, but more in terms of living than of writing.
I had three great English teachers in high school and two great literature professors in college before I ever realized that “writer” was something you could actually be, profession-wise. Again, though, they were more reading and thinking mentors than writing mentors. After that there were a couple of creative writing professors, both poets, who gave me very good notes. And I’ve been part of a couple of writing groups with talented, inspiring peers… but that’s still not the answer to your question.
So. Well, I remember Robert Pinsky talking somewhere about how, as a teacher, he tends to privilege example over theory. I’m hashing that quote, but his point was, if you want to learn how to write good free verse, you’re better off reading The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams than you are reading Theories and Sub-theories of Free Verse Prosody and Sub-prosody by Whoever Wrote the Book I Just Made Up. I’ve talked elsewhere about Tony Earley and Lorrie Moore and George Saunders, how important their work became to me at a given moment, how I felt like it gave me permission to keep going hard for my punchlines, regardless of what else was working or not in my stories. And in that sense, I’ve never been without mentors – Nathanael West and Virginia Woolf, Donald Barthelme and Italo Calvino, Julio Cortázar and Samuel Beckett…
What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired? Do you have any suggestions for unblocking creativity?
I’ve certainly had the experience of sitting down to work and spending hours trying and failing to get a new piece off the ground, but I guess I wouldn’t refer to that as stuckness or lack of inspiration, exactly. Usually I was trying to figure out an answer without first being clear on the question, I think. And one of the nice things about having spent a few years in the racket is that I’m now usually quicker than in the past to recognize those days for what they are — days when for whatever reason my head is a box of mud — and to leave off trying.
But even then I keep my ass in the chair. There are always a thousand things you can do, even when your brain is a box of mud. Reading, for one. Or, if I’m feeling too dense to read, then I plot out research and track down documents for whatever the next project is shaping up to be. Or I’ll find a new magazine to try my luck at. Or work on the rough outline of a new article to pitch. Or read an old Paris Review interview or two — come to think of it, that might have been where the Pinsky thing was. (Hi Mr. Pinsky! Sorry that campfire poem wasn’t better!) Anything, I guess, that is part of the writing life. And then tomorrow I’ll try again to figure out a question that needs answering.
How well do you know your characters before you start writing them?
For short stories especially, I know very little about them. What I have, invariably, is a small weird bit of phrasing, something that sounds a little, but not too much, like something I might actually say or think in the course of my real life. And that phrasing interests me in some way, usually because I have the sense that there’s a relationship worth exploring — some odd echo or harmonic or clash — between the music of that phrasing and its content. The gap between the two gives me somewhere to slide the wedge, and then I pick up the sledge and start hammering (and yes, thanks for asking, this does indeed make me feel like Bill Macy’s character in Mystery Men, “We struck down evil with the mighty sword of teamwork and the hammer of not bickering,” etc.) and at some point the two break apart, and there, in a small but tastefully furnished apartment inside, is my main character.
It used to be that I’d rush to paper as soon I had half a sentence in a music that was new to me, and lots of times it would sort of peter out and I’d end up with a totally useless little half-paragraph. I have hundreds of those damn things, and god knows why I keep them — I’ve never made any use of them at all. Anyway, now I’m more patient, or try to be, and trust my memory more. I’ll give that strip a little time to marinate in whatever juice my brain can work up over the next few days, and hopefully hear a little more of that voice, enough so that when I do go to paper, by the time I hit the end of what I already know the character will say or think, I’ve built up enough momentum that the character will keep on talking or thinking or acting, and I’m just sitting there taking notes.
Can you talk a little about how the plot develops in the writing?
This is related to what I was just saying, I think. When things are working well, all the main aspects of the story — voice, character, and plot, at least — are all sort of flowering simultaneously in a given pot we’ll call setting. It feels simultaneous, anyway, though I guess it can’t be, not literally. I guess the actual process is more like:
– Fragment of weird phrasing leads to…
– the question, “Who talks like that?”
– and the answer to that question is my main character…
– and the longer that character talks, the better able I am to understand and interpret the distance between dictional music and content, which in turn gives me…
– a way to triangulate backwards toward whatever past damage causes the character to speak that way…
– and that past gives the character a propensity to make certain specific kinds of bad decisions…
– which cause the character to end up in certain specific tubs of hot water…
– and the process by which the character stumbles from one tub into another is my plot.
But again, teasing it out into a list like this feels false to the process of actually writing it, of thinking with my hands, of imagining as fast as I can.
What can you tell us about the process of birthing Pacazo?
I remember sitting outside my boss’ office in the university where I was working — the university that served as a very rough model for the one in the book, as it happens — and my boss was still caught in another meeting, so I was just sitting there, and then I got one of those odd little bits of phrasing I was talking about before. It was weirdly formal, winded, quietly violent. I knew very quickly that it was a voice I could follow a ways, and started writing the story, and got enough down that after rushing through the meeting that had brought me there in the first place, I was able to pick right back up — just making notes at that point, I think, fragments toward possible futures.
So that was the short story “Pacazo,” which McSweeney’s published a few years later. I already had a first draft of the novel by then. And after eight more drafts in eight more years, I finally figured out was wrong or thin about the thing as a whole, and set out to fix that with history. Which took me another three years. And then I just added water, and, Presto! Instant book! Actually, no, then I added Matt Bell, my editor at Dzanc. And he did what all great editors do: he helped me to sort out which bits were over-indulgent or under-clear, and which bits weren’t pulling their weight.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.