A big perk of writing for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency has been meeting people like today’s guest, Roy Kesey. Roy and I became pen pals through our dispatches for the Tendency, if pen pal is still a valid name for what happens instantaneously and online. Roy soon will embark on a reading tour for his first collection of short stories, All Over, and the Churms will have the honor of putting him up for a night or two. Before he got here, I wanted to pose a few questions to him about education, literature as art, and his life abroad. You know, to make sure we really wanted this guy sleeping on our floor.
Roy Kesey currently lives in Beijing with his wife, Lu, a Peruvian diplomat, and their two beautiful children. His stories have appeared in some 40 top literary journals; “Wait,” first published in The Kenyon Review, was chosen recently by Stephen King for inclusion in the Best American Short Stories 2007 anthology.
In addition, Roy has signed a four-book deal with Dzanc Books, and the world is his oyster, future-wise. (If, when he gets here, he gives me the tiniest bit of attitude about all this well-deserved success, I may drop him a little further from the airport door than he’d really like to have to walk.)
The following interview was conducted—how else?—by e-mail between Beijing and Inner Station.
My dear Roy: Why writing?
I was unaware, Sir, that there were other options. You mean instead of, like, bowling? I am not a gifted bowler, but I do like the smell of the shoes.
And now the serious answer: Because (win, lose or draw) I find no other challenge so consistently compelling and fulfilling as building little word machines and seeing how far I can get them to roll.
Ah, a junkie. I understand. But what of the inordinate hours lost to your habit, the sight of your family cowering while you pace and mutter madly, the pains of withdrawal when you must eventually emerge from the fictional realm to clean the toilet?
The time question takes me right back to the bowling—what else would I be doing with it? Playing more Online Parcheesi? Come to think of it, my ranking has been slipping a bit lately... And getting outside helps with the pacing and muttering—I take my kids to school every day and pick them up afterwards, and most afternoons are spent out on the playground with them, most evenings reading or watching movies with my wife, most weekends with our friends. Making writing a 9-to-3 (or thereabouts) thing is the healthiest move I’ve ever made. And withdrawals, well, they can be managed with quick trips to the notepad whenever I Think of a Thing.
That and the methadone, of course.
In fact, I’ve noted moments of transcendent community in your fiction, which serve as a kind of salvation for your characters—I’m thinking here of things like the final scene in“The Holidays Here,”which appeared in The Mississippi Review online. What does community mean to you personally?
That’s a really good question. Also: really hard.
Let’s see. The fact stands like a bright green wart on my forehead: I’ve always been bad at joining things. By which I mean, both unskilled and awkward in terms of the process, and disinclined in terms of personality. Becoming a writer, then, has elements of both cause and effect, particularly now, when I happen to be entering the not-quite-home stretch on a novel, slashing furiously at a series of knots with the only tools left in my toolbox—a butter knife, a Frisbee, and a broken popsicle stick. So to the extent that I’m a part of any given community beyond family, at times like this I withdraw, and hope against hope that I will be forgiven such churlishness when the project is done and I come back out into the light.
Which leaves community as it functioned in my past, and community as it functions in my fiction. And, wouldn’t you know, I’m sure they’re related. The earliest community to which I belonged was that of the evangelical Christian church in which I grew up. Which means I had firsthand experience of the feeling or phenomenon of communal transcendence. It occurred most regularly, I think, through music. Sublime music, as I remember it: the most gorgeous of voices. And I was lifted and carried and I believed; there was a power that infused me against which no other power could stand, except that it was not just me infused, it was we, and the we became a single I.
I no longer believe. And (unrelatedly?) I learned fairly quickly that there are only two options as to what happens next: Either that rapturous moment of community (or, I suppose, communion) ends, and you go to Burger King and buy lunch and go home and watch a football game, and the sameness of the world seems to mock the experience you’ve just had, or even to deny it; or the moment doesn’t end, and then (because those moments of seemingly perfect clarity and unity can as easily be secular as religious in nature, and because they’re so easy to manipulate from above) you get the vast violence and waste of the Crusades, the Cultural Revolution, Jonestown, Jihad.
Of course, between those two possibilities (ending or not) there is a tension that is useful for fiction: for scenes that deny neither the emotional and psychological truth of the phenomenon, nor the possible consequences. I like those scenes best when they are (for the characters involved) unexpected, unprogrammable and thus unmanipulable, genuine and strange.
So why can’t you (or individuals in general) inhabit that messy, contradictory space between those two possibilities? Do you require a purity in your life that you don’t need in your work?
My first thought is that maybe it’s not so much a question of purity as of the demands of a binary system—what would it mean for something neither to end nor not to end? My second thought is that my first thought was moronic, that surely there’s a way to maintain a low level of communal radiation, a quiet but constant state of… what? Grace? Prayer? Song? It seems that there must be, seems that I know or can imagine people who manage it. But for whatever reason, I’ve never found my way there.
Also, you cuss a lot for a guy who’s seen transcendence.
I do. Fortunately, my mom forgives me and sees that language as nothing more or less than the good old glottal pressure-valve it is.
Tell us a little more about your family growing up, and how you put yourself on a path that would lead you to Lu.
Growing up: small town, most excellent family, good friends, sports and church and books. The only drawback once I hit high school was the bit about “small.” Fortunately, my parents—in the course of hunting and camping trips, of standing silent to watch the backyard carefully—showed me the joy of seeing things. New things. And thus of the value of doing the work necessary to put oneself in a position to see those new things. And then, once that position has been reached, of sitting and thinking about where one is and why. Which led me across the country for college, and hitchhiking zig-zaggedly back home a few years later. Then Alaska, and Europe. Central America. South America, where I met and fell in love with Lu, and where our children were born. Now Asia. And more to come, I hope.
In that glorious phrase from Brazil, there comes a time to close down the factory and open the amusement park.
(Maybe it sounds better in Portuguese.)
Somebody said the short story is written by and about the perpetual outsider. Given your peripatetic nature, does that describe you (or your characters)?
Well, it describes all writers, right? We’re the ones so perverse that at the funerals of friends we’re distracted from the eulogies by mental searches for the adjectives necessary to describe precisely the wainscoting along the closest wall. Less dramatically, we’re the ones at parties who tiptoe off to the bathroom not to do a line or sneak a quickie against the sink but to write down (on toilet paper, invariably) the particularly clever bit of dialogue we just overheard. We place ourselves (or are placed by genes and whatever came before) in a position to report back, and the constant awareness that the next report is soon due is the lower half of the double life we lead.
As for characters, sure, most of them are outside of something, and struggling to stay there (but then drawn inward) or struggling to get in (but pushed back out, or not, and et cetera.) But what would it mean, for a character or a human being, to be inside (or, for that matter, outside) of everything in all respects? To be inside anything is to be outside of something else, and to be caught in a crack is to be outside everything except the crack itself--and surely there’s at least one other person or character already there, or soon to arrive.
I wonder. I just asked students to tell me why they think literature is always about “bad stuff.” They see conflict necessary to drama in the outsider struggle you describe, and imagine a boring (and often blissful) lack of awareness for those on the Inside, who have everything they want. Is this untrue?
No, I think that’s a fine definition of the role of conflict. But I think a character without conflict of any sort, internal or external, would have to come from either a planet orbiting the most distant star from our own, or from the deepest depths of a mental institution, since I can’t imagine anyone (real or fictional) living a conflict-free life anywhere else. Self-delusion (and any number of other psychological mechanisms and disorders) can go a long way toward stifling one’s sense of internal conflict, of course (as my first witness I call the relative cohesion of the George Bush administration, 2002 to mid-2007), but sooner or later the cracks start to show (and as my second witness, I call the stream of rats now deserting the ship and finally starting to squeak their doubts, not to mention Bush himself, what with the parade of politically sympathetic historians and “historians” he’s recently dragged into the White House and begged for reassurance that his “legacy” will be “favorable.”)
So you can imagine yourself writing a novel that extended empathy to the plights and turmoil of our current political leaders’ lives?
I can certainly imagine someone else writing it. In fact, I think someone already has.
You’ve been around. Do places have vibes or personalities, beyond their topographies and human cultures? How important is it to get that tone built into your fictions’ settings?
I think maybe the topography (and geology and climate and et cetera) of a place is one prong of the tuning fork, and the human culture there is the other prong, and we writers and other artists smack the tuning fork with our butter knife or our Frisbee and then try to describe the sound. As for how important it is to describe that sound precisely, the answer is:
Then again, that goes for everything.
Such as hairstyles? And what about dental appliances? Oh, and frogs!
Sorry, no, not frogs. But everything else.
And are you haunted by the past?
Do you mean to imply that there are people who aren’t? Who are they, and what is the matter with them?
How many books have you got in you? And what’s your metaphor for getting them out?
These days, for extremely personal reasons that I’m not at liberty to share, regardless of the comparison in question I only have the one metaphor: It (whatever “it” may be) is like scraping clusters of rabbit shit off the bottom of a blue plastic litter box with a broken popsicle stick.
I’ve actually thought about the larger question here more than is probably good for me—not in terms of deciding on a number, but in terms of specific projects I’d like to tackle. It came as a totally unwelcome surprise, this realization that the number of such projects was going to be not just finite but, well, pretty small.
The fact that the books I’ve published or signed on for have come in something of a cluster maybe gives the impression that I write quickly. I do not. With one exception, I started those projects long ago, and they just happened to come to fruition at more or less the same time. Four or five years per project seems a fairly reasonable average for me, given my gearing. I turn 40 next year. So that gives me how many more projects? Five? Ten at the outside, I’d guess. I think I know what three of them are. I’ll sort out the rest when it’s time.
Except, hold on. You know what the real answer is? The only possible answer? It is, only and always: One more, please. Please, just one more.
Would you say it’s hard or easy to be an expat?
It’s just a question of personality type, I think. It’s easier for me to be an expat (and to deal with the resulting complications in terms of languages and border guards and new intestinal fauna) than it would be for me to stay calmly and contentedly in one place for any great length of time.
Do you ever feel you’re being held responsible for our nation’s actions or policies?
As it happens, I’ve almost never been held to account for the actions of anyone but myself. I’m perpetually surprised by that, and grateful. I think what happens is, there simply aren’t that many people in the world who are genuinely spoiling for a fight. And the few who are so spoiling are either only interested in, or only prepared for, a fight not against an individual but against the stereotype they hold of “The American.” (Or, 2000 years ago, “The Roman”; then “The Mongol”; then “The Spaniard”; et cetera.) And because they only want to fight against a stereotype, an abstract distant Them, well, the moment you act in any way outside of that stereotype—by speaking the local language, say, or knowing which local reality program contestant to mock—now they’re dealing with an individual instead, which they find sort of disarming, and also fun. All of a sudden they’re happy to engage you as an individual and buy you drinks and tell you secrets.
Curiously, or perhaps not, a very slightly more common phenomenon is that of me going home and being accosted by fellow Americans who attempt to take me to task for injustices visited upon regions I happen to have just visited. They get all up in my grill about current policies or historical events in China or Croatia or Peru or Lithuania, as if by virtue of having the visa in my passport, I’m required to strike a defensive posture immediately. For a time I tried to engage these people, to talk about the policies or events, to address the issues and complications as I saw them, but then I realized that the people in question generally weren’t interested in that kind of discussion, and that their agendas had nothing to do with me. So now I respond by smiling and walking away, and then, weeks later, by signing them up for those 10 CDs For a Penny! clubs that are impossible to get out of.
Do you try to assimilate to Chinese culture? (Take language classes, for instance?) Or do you encapsulate with your family?
I rarely encapsulate completely, and only at times like now when the work demands it. For our first four years here my wife and I took Mandarin classes; I still speak it poorly, but it serves for day-to-day life. Our children, naturally, speak it better than we do thanks to their hours on the playground with other kids who live in our apartment complex.
Our language teacher and her husband were our first and best gateway into the non-expat life of Beijing, and we still meet at festivals or to play mahjong now and then. Other good gates include Chinese ex-colleagues of mine from a university here, writers and artists we’ve met along the way, people Lu’s run into through her work at the embassy. Also, I write a monthly nonfiction column for a magazine here, which requires me to get out and walk around and pay attention. A requirement I welcome and sometimes need, as it happens.
Will there be stories about China you’ll be able to tell us once you’ve moved from there, but can’t now?
Thousands. Well, hundreds. Well, one.
What is it?
This is just between you and me, right? Okay, so, remember the movie Dodgeball, starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughan? Almost no one knows this—the mainstream media all over the world squashed every mention of it on the orders of their corporate/political overlords—but that movie was actually based, scene-for-scene, on something that happened right here in Beijing. Minus the happy ending, of course. I was there. Blood all over the walls. Fucking tragic.
Right. When we started talking, you were a teacher. Where, what, for how long?
Lots of different places and subjects and durations. My first teaching job was a month’s worth of seminars on the American Romantics to professors and students at Vilnius Pedagogical College in Lithuania back in 1990. After I got my B.A., I spent two years teaching U.S. Civ, English lit and an assortment of TEFL-type courses at the University of Paris XII. There was a semester of Creative Writing (poetry) at Mendocino College in California, and then seven years of English lit, Literary Theory and TEFL at the two campuses of the University of Piura, Peru. There were three years or so of English lit and Creative Nonfiction at a university here in Beijing, which ended when the department’s administration took a whopping big turn for the autocratic about a year ago—among other things, the new dean wanted to establish a committee to write the final exams for everyone, probably on vague and well-intentioned orders from far, far above—and that happened to coincide happily with me signing for two not-yet-finished books for Dzanc, so I took some time off. And now I’m doing a series of fiction workshops for a bookstore/library/café/bar here called The Bookworm.
You went to Georgetown, Oxford, and finished at Washington College. You were lit and philosophy all the way?
No, I started as a business major, which ended about a week later when I realized that I sucked at it, though it took me a year to sort through the paperwork. Oxford was where I did the bulk of my philosophy coursework, and Washington College the bulk of the English lit.
For me, higher education is, in the words of Heraclitus, totally rad. Good books to read and think about, smart people to discuss them with—I just don’t see the downside.
Then why no MFA or Ph.D.?
Well, my senior year in college I got waitlisted at Iowa for poetry, and before getting final word from them I decided to go live and work in Paris instead, which was just as well since no one made it off the waitlist that year. Then I made the jump from mostly poetry to mostly fiction, and when I came back to the States, I applied to a few MFA programs, but didn’t get in, perhaps—and I’m just spit-balling here—because the stories I sent were really, really bad. That was in earlyish 1994, I guess. I left for Peru in January of 1995, and haven’t lived in the States since then, so….
So…you MFA types go hug a root? Is that what you mean? That’s what you mean, isn’t it?
Not at all! Some of my best friends have MFAs! Seriously, from everything I’ve heard, I like Pinckney Benedict’s analogy best (and apologies, Pinckney, if I’m getting this wrong, or if it wasn’t you): You’re stumbling on ice skates through a snowy forest, and suddenly you come to a lake frozen solid and swept clean. There are certainly other ways to get to what’s on the other side of the lake, but for most people it’s fastest to skate.
I’d like to ask about your presence on MySpace. You currently have 867 friends, Pinckney and myself among them. How do you find time for fatherhood, husbanding, writing, publishing, AND nurturing social networks virtually or the old way?
There are as many levels of friendship online as there are off-, I think. I signed up at MySpace just to enter an extremely loose confederation of people who like books or music, who might happen to be interested in the books I write, and in whose own work I might be interested. Now, from what I can tell, most people there have totally different priorities, and hey, that’s cool—I hope that, like me, they’re getting whatever it is they want out of the site. Except for the pedophiles, of course. I hope they all get their dicks caught in blenders.
Anyway, within that loose confederation, I’ve been lucky enough to meet a number of writers whose work I’ve long admired, or have since come to admire—the aforementioned Pinckney Benedict, plus Elizabeth Crane, Kyle Minor, Michael Fitzgerald, Corey Mesler, Diana Abu-Jaber, Amy Güth, Scott Snyder, Jason Fagone…. [ With typical generosity, Roy mentions, like, 30 more people here. Go see his MySpace site for a complete listing. –Churm] These are all people I’m pleased to be in contact with, people I hope one day to meet in the flesh.
Do you read everything people ask you to read (which seems to be implicit in the online writerly “friending”)? Put another way, we all can become The Beast; which Beast do you become when there are too many demands on your time?
Lots of it I would have read anyway, or already have. For other sorts of requests, I do what I can. When I can’t help for whatever reason, I say so. And when the immediate demands of writing or life become too much, like I said before, I withdraw from all else and hope for the best. Not so much The Beast, then, as the Invisiblish Man.
You also dobook reviews of a certain odd sort, and in one of them you talk about the “high genius” of someone’s book. What constitutes high genius for you?
What I want when I read fiction is to be required by the text to read at the height (such as it is) of my abilities (such as they are), and in that state to be consistently astonished at the linguistic feats successfully attempted, at the risks taken that paid off. This can come in the form of new and important questions elegantly asked, or new ways of asking old ones—Marilynne Robinson manages both fairly regularly in Housekeeping and Gilead. It can come in the form of new formulations for ancient phenomena—think of what Cheever did with rain in “The Swimmer.” Or of heightened language that just keeps rising without ever turning cloying or vague—the best of Pynchon, Delillo, McCarthy. And I’m a big fan of new structural approaches to old emotions—say, Nathanael West and Flann O’Brien back in the day, or [Donald] Barthelme less long ago, or Lucy Corin right now this minute.
As for all the work that doesn’t do those things for me, I guess I just choose not to think or worry about it very much, because maybe it will in fact fill those needs for other, non-me readers. Or maybe it’s work that simply intends less, that seeks instead only to entertain gently one’s few remaining working brain cells at the end of a long day. Regardless, I don’t worry much about finding a bright-line definition to distinguish art from non-, both because I’m not convinced such a bright line can be found (believe me, I’ve looked), and because I’m no longer convinced that I particularly need one.
Would you be willing to promote a friend at the risk of damaging your own reputation? And how much will this cost me?
Hell, I’ll do it for free. But from now on, you’re in charge of the rabbits’ litter box.
So other than the ones you’re willing to testify that I possess, what would be the traits of a great writer of your generation, real or imagined?
Regardless of the size of her or his feet, she or he would almost certainly wear the same size shoes as Samuel Beckett wore when he was wearing the same size shoes as James Joyce regardless of the size of his (Beckett’s) feet.
Do you have an agent now? If so, given your recent multi-book deal with Dzanc, why?
I do indeed—Maria Massie is her name—and she’s great.
It’s certainly possible for writers these days to get by without an agent, but: Do I speak Contractese with any fluency? No. Do I have the contacts necessary to make foreign editions a legitimate possibility? I do not. Would I be pleased to land a story in the glossies some day? Sure I would. And for all of these things, and others, agents are somewhere between helpful and indispensable.
The McSweeney’s community has been kind to us both, especially since, compared toBrian Beatty’s jokes, or any of the “take a cultural phenomenon and deconstruct it” type of things that theInternet Tendencydoes, you and I are just not that funny. What do you think you’re doing when you writeyour dispatchesfrom China forMcS?
I’m dispatching! It’s right there in the title!
Okay, so, in a larger sense, I’ve never been entirely sure what I’m doing, and that’s part of the fun of the project. But on a line-by-line basis, in terms of content I’m experimenting with ways of making sense of my life here, and in terms of form and language I’m experimenting with ways of telling the literal truth, or as close as I can come to it—that is, experimenting with ways of resisting my natural (and perverse) impulse to go for the best punch line regardless of how fictional it might be.
Thanks so much for your time, Roy. I look forward to seeing you soon, and we couldn’t be more excited that you’ll be staying with us at Churm House. What’ll it be: Pasta Oronte, or Boeuf Churmignon?
As I implied above, I am haunted by the pasta. Therefore, the answer to this final question was predestined before the ages to our glory:
Boeuf. Totally, boeuf.
Contact Roy at email@example.com.