1. Kathryn Davis said, “Reading Skin is like finding yourself inside one of the great medieval paintings.” She was speaking of the quality of your images—their abundance and radiance. But it made me wonder if when you write you have a visual correlative for the work-in-progress? Do you conceive of your stories and novels as existing in space? As resembling a piece of visual art?
I think it’s true that I have an especially visual sensibility, for better or worse. It would be kind of cheering to think my images come to me like a painting that I then transcribe onto the page, but I don’t think the visual component works quite like that for me. I do have to see the world of the forming sentence in my mind’s eye before I can properly word it, but I also often think of words and letters themselves as three-dimensional objects, so the way the visual enters into the act of composition is sort of…busy, I guess.
In this way writing fiction is, for me, a little like beginning to speak a foreign language. Before you gain real proficiency, you first think of the word you want to speak in your native tongue and then you translate it, and when I do that, I always picture the word first and I often see it as type. Then I get an image of something it represents, even if it’s abstract, and it’s usually through this process that I’m able to access the word in the other language, which I also see in my mind’s eye as type.
My father was a printer and a newspaperman, and I liked to watch him typing on his even then antiquated linotype machine, liked to watch the letters slide backwards down the chute as they formed words, so that’s likely where this way of visualizing words started. Something similar happens with writing for me. (Maybe this means I’ve not yet gained fluency.) There’s a halting moment before I settle on the word or phrase I’m groping for when I see it looming hazily, and then it starts to shift and shape itself into something, a picture, a still, a kind of tableau vivant, and finally it morphs into the word or group of words I think I’m looking for. Obviously this mental language theater doesn’t operate so languidly for every single word I sputter onto the page, or I’d still be working on this sentence well into my dotage. It doesn’t happen in exactly the orderly way I’ve described it either; it’s like a dream. It is a snailish process though.
2. In a visit from Ander Monson last year he talked about the motifs that run through his work (if I’m remembering him correctly) as a set of objects—his objects—that he returns to again and again. And elsewhere he’s described the effect of these recurring motifs in and across texts as the forming of constellations, as though a finite number of stars were being combined and recombined into dazzling new shapes. This is a quality I appreciate in your work—recurrence: skin, scars, the divine, the paranormal, the landscape of Kansas, desire, suffering, etc. (The etcetera representing the elements I know I’m missing.) This constellation-effect enriches the reading experience, the recognition of similar elements reinvented and reworked, reflected and redoubled. And to the reader familiar with your work this provides an even keener pleasure. Is this something you’re conscious of in your work or are you surprised to see similar elements recur? I don’t think I’m asking the most interesting question about this—which has something to do with a writer’s compulsions and obsessions, the ideas and notions and objects and images we can’t put down….
No, that’s a great way of asking that question, and Ander’s way of thinking about it is nicely…galactic, and makes something I sometimes have anxiety about seem kind of magical. Our nagging motifs are an inevitable circumscription but one with endless variants—I like that idea. There are some things I’ve known for a long time were my compulsions, and in the beginning I was just happy to see that I had some, because I figured that was a sign of a certain, I don’t know, seriousness? Something I could point to when doubtful family members or others suggested (so hopefully!) this writing business might just be the distracted noodlings of a hobbyist. I could say, look here, I’m clearly in the grips of this, and this too! It’s not something I’m going to recover from anytime soon! It’s incurable! But, I have to say, that after some years of walking a groove in the floor, it begins to feel a little like what I’m really in the grips of is a protracted fever that should have broken by now. Or, put another way, constantly returning to these unshirkable compulsions is like that popular definition of madness, doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Well, it’s not like that exactly, but I do find myself gnawing on these same things over and over again with the (perhaps strategically vague) hope that this will yield some new illumination—otherwise why confront mysteries or experiences or phenomena that are so befuddling and/or painful if not to try to understand? Why bleed for bupkis? But I can’t say after all this writing and obsessive mining that I feel a lot smarter than when I began, a lot more enlightened about those things I’m fixated on and worry to a nubbin. In fact, I think I understand less, so maybe the virtue of the process is coming to understand how little I understand (I know somebody oft-quoted has called this wisdom) and then having to figure out how to take pleasure or find meaning or satisfaction in that which is stubbornly inscrutable.
3. What do you imagine the writer-you of twenty or thirty years from now will have to say to your younger self?
Get a dog sooner. Don’t wait until you own a house. Lots of apartments let you have pets.
4. You mentioned that recently you’ve been thinking about omniscience. Are you thinking of omniscience in the familiar way—as the point of view in which the narrator knows all, can enter all of the characters’ minds? Or are you conceiving of some kind of newfangled omniscience?
I’ve been thinking about omniscience as a condition or an ontological category, maybe an illness. I think it was John Gardner who claimed that the decline of the use of omniscience in fiction reflected the increasing secularization in the culture, suggesting that point of view reflects values and belief systems. And so I started thinking about what the preference for close third and first person narrators might say about us, about me. Rugged individualism? Narcissism? I couldn’t come up with an answer that seemed flattering. So then I started thinking about voices that would be a little paradoxical or ambivalent, at cross purposes, like secular omniscience or first-person omniscience, or an unreliable omniscient narrator or one who isn’t unreliable exactly but who loses knowledge with every utterance. And then I got fixated on how utterly lonely and necessarily alienating it would be to know everything, particularly if it was knowledge without the possibility of action, just static allseeingness. While I was in the throes of this line of thinking, we had a tornado here in Tuscaloosa, a bad one, and somehow (don’t ask me how exactly) that put a fine point on the whole quandary for me, and I felt compelled to try to take on this knowing that is both capacious and straitjacketed in my writing, so a sort of resentful or abject omniscience has been erupting here and there in stories.
5. You also mentioned that you’ve been thinking about compression because you’re teaching a course on the prose poem/flash fiction. Of course, compression is always at play in fiction—even in epic novels. So I’m wondering if you’ve reached any new hypotheses about compression and how it operates in longer versus shorter works. Do you think compression is a condition, a quality, an end result? Is it a technique?
I wonder, too, if this idea is an any way connected to what I see in your work as a fascination with scale, for example how in your new novel you have Wallis the giantess building miniatures of crime scenes.
That’s a really interesting connection. It’s true, I am interested in scale, but in a kind of bald, diametric, and therefore perhaps overly obvious or overdetermined way, but there’s something about measuring the size of things and then juxtaposing them with their physical opposites that brings the world into focus for me, and I always have to find a way to trick myself into clarity (or the illusion of it in any case), otherwise I just murk about endlessly. In the novel you mention, I have a giant who miniaturizes crime scenes and another who works with an electron microscope, and there were a lot of different reasons why these things seemed useful to me, but the primary reason for these tiny vocations was that I thought these women, who are keenly mindful of the fact that they take up more space in the world than others do, would likewise have a very particular kind of attraction to and insight into the thing which they are so very not, the thing they might in fact long to be, small and contained, distilled, happily negligible.
But compression as a technique rather than a fond hope—I have students who are writing novels in short-shorts, and what fascinates me is how this contradictory form slyly allows the writer to have her formal cake and eat it too, allows her to work with compression and expansion at once. I’m not writing in this form myself at the moment, but I’m attracted to the idea of doing two seemingly incompatible things at once, and my students are accomplishing such amazing narrative feats in this form.
6. Several years ago you directed me to a lecture by Gary Lutz that appeared in The Believer (January 2009), “The Sentence is a Lonely Place.” He speaks of “narratives of steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language — the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude…”
Among all the things that I love about your work, I confess it is almost certainly your sentences for which I hold the most affection. As I read the Lutz piece, his discussion of sentences with sumptuousness and dimensionality, I kept thinking, he’s talking about Kellie’s work. What does the sentence mean to you as an entity in itself, as a place where invention occurs?
That’s kind of you to say. The sentence does seem to be my unit of composition. I think of the micro-space of the sentence as the place where the macro gets staged. A whole story or paragraph or scene or chapter or novel, even, can get enacted in miniature in the space of a single sentence, and this notion of the theater of the sentence interests me a lot lately. It’s just another very focused way of thinking about the relationship between form and content. I heard Janet Kauffman once say that the page is a very conservative space. And there are lots of interesting texts that try to liberate it, exceed it. So far, I mostly accept the flat and limited squareness of the space of the page, but I do think a lot about how the space of the sentence might be syntactically costumed in such a way that the very shape and pace of it communicates meaning.
7. In an interview with Dan Wickett you stated that verisimilitude has never served you well in terms of portraying “complex and/or morally ambiguous emotional truth.” Does this mean that when you conceive of a new piece it’s usually with certain so-called non-realistic elements already in place? Or do you turn to those elements—the magical, mystical, improbable, and bizarre (floating people, visiting the spirit world, opposite-sex conjoined twins, angels, and so forth)—as a solution to a narrative dilemma?
What I usually have in place when I start to write is a kind of language, perhaps a character or two, maybe a vague idea, and then these things determine the nature of the cosmos that surrounds them. The opposite-sex conjoined twins story came from a news story I heard on NPR about conjoined twin babies that were about to be surgically separated, and they referred to the twin that claimed fewer of the shared organs as “parasitic,” so that word sent me in search of the story that would allow me to investigate the idea of human parasitism. And you can literalize and then exploit or explode metaphors in fabulist conceits, and I have found that useful.
8. Do you like to give advice?
Insofar as teaching can be said to be the giving of advice, I guess I like it, but I’m not particularly sage, which I think you have to be to give advice Johnny-on-the-spot. Also, I often hold conflicting opinions, which I think is anathema in the advice community. You wouldn’t catch Dear Abby waffling.
9. Do you think of yourself as a funny writer? A funny person?
I think I make a terrific third impression.
10. What makes you laugh?
I have a dog who, when I’m working at my desk and ignoring him, which is when he develops sudden playfulness, drops a large orange rubber bone in my lap, and if I continue to ignore him, he stands at the top of the stairs, waits until I turn to see what he’s doing, then, with his most sarcastic expression, he drops it down the stairs, trots down and retrieves it, looks at me, drops it down the stairs again. He has a very dry sense of humor. Unlike my other dog, who’s less subtle, more a pie-in-the-face kind of cut-up. Dogs make me laugh. It’s cheap hilarity, I know.