Joshua Kornreich’s characters are oftentimes detectives of the familiar, deconstructing what once passed for the reader’s everyday, in processes just as equally regimented or overlooked. With The Boy Who Killed Caterpillars Kornreich delivers a mystery unlike any other, in his positioning of sentences outside of the traditional paragraph structure. This gives weight not only to the tale’s eight-year-old narrator, but also a rhythm and pacing that is tense yet playful, wondrous yet unforgiving.
Kornreich is the author of the novels The Boy Who Killed Caterpillars (Marick Press, 2007), a debut novel set to be reprinted in e-book format by Dzanc Books, and Knotty, Knotty, Knotty (The Black Mountain Press, 2013). Other publications that have reviewed or published his work include Unsaid, Meridian, Largehearted Boy, and Emerging Writers Network. Kornreich lives in New York City with his wife and son. Knotty, Knotty, Knotty is his second novel.
HFR: The Boy Who Killed Caterpillars (Marick Press, 2007) seemed to operate on an emotional and linguistic plane all its own when it was first published, in terms of both form and content. Now that The Boy is set to undergo an electronic revival of sorts via Dzanc Books’ rEprint Series, what do you expect this new platform to do for your work?
JK: I think the most essential thing in seeing The Boy go electronic is that the book will now live on to be consumed by future readers for—well, forever, I suppose. What’s great about the small press world is its tendency to take on more artistic risk than its more mainstream brethren. What’s unfortunate, however, is that these small presses usually have very limited resources, and once these sort of books have gone through a print run or two, they inevitably go out of print. This inevitability is also present at some of the more literary imprints that operate within the confines of the major publishing houses. So, for authors like me who’ve had their work published at a respectable yet not-so-deep-pocketed press, having this opportunity to revive the work, and keep it in that revived state, is an opportunity to be cherished by any author who cares anything at all about the legacy of his or her work. There’s also the opportunity for me to go back and tweak a sentence here and there that I’ve felt could use a little tweaking—I mean, it’s been five years since the book first came out, so obviously, going back to the book after not looking at it for some time, you’re going to want to make those little-bitty edits. And then there’s the opportunity for the novel to have another go with an audience that, more than likely, missed it the first go-around given its very limited distribution and promotion. Now, I guess you can say counter to everything I’ve said here thus far is that as long as any book or manuscript is saved on a computer somewhere, it can be digitally published or republished by anyone—that is, if they have the time and money to do so and assuming that they have it within their right to do so. But, obviously, having the Dzanc seal of approval is a wonderful thing to have going for you. I mean, my god—have you seen Dzanc’s rEprint list? It’s quite an impressive list, the list is. I feel honored, quite frankly, having my Boy included on such a list.
HFR: You mentioned artistic risk. What about your Boy? Was he ever a risk for you?
JK: There wasn’t really a moment during the writing process that I thought, gee, you shouldn’t write that, or others, they wouldn’t write something like that, or the publishing houses, they wouldn’t accept what you’re trying to write here. I mean, I really didn’t know what was out there being published to begin with anyway, so I never really thought of it as taking any sort of risk. It wasn’t until after I went through the whole process and read it back to myself that I thought, hey, this is really different from the books that I have sitting on my bookshelf. To be honest, I didn’t even know terms like “literary fiction” or “experimental fiction” back then, so, little did I know that there were other writers out there who were also writing strange sort of stuff and publishers out there who were willing to publish it—it was a world I was completely unfamiliar with. And perhaps being so ignorant of what was out there insulated me from feeling like I was doing anything really that daring or risky on the page. I think the only thing I knew I was going have to contend with was what others who interact with me on a day-to-day basis would think of it, but that probably made it all the more fun to write. What was great about going back and reading the book over for the first time in five years was that even though I obviously still remembered what transpires over the course of the narrative, I had forgotten some of those sentences I had written, which, for me, made it that much more enjoyable—not just knowing that I was this book’s author, but also just as a reader. It all sounded so fresh to me, which was a relief more than anything else—I mean, I thought I was going to cringe at what I had written, since I like to think I’m now a more technically skilled writer versus back then. And, yeah, there was a sentence or a word here and there that I would have tweaked had I known better, but I think I did okay with it—I mean, I think it still holds up pretty well. But I’m not so sure The Boy was necessarily a first book that made for an easy platform to build on for my subsequent work, if you know what I mean. I don’t think writing in first person from an eight-year-old boy’s perspective is something I plan on making a career out of, and I don’t think that was a narrative voice that I could deploy in future work. I know that when it comes to my second novel, Knotty, Knotty, Knotty, that a few motifs from The Boy popped up now and then, though most of that was inadvertent, I have to say. And I have, occasionally, flirted with the idea of “rewriting” The Boy from the perspective of the father—after all, I’m going to be a full-blown father of a boy myself before this interview is published!—or that of the next-door-neighboring “midget,” or even the dog, but right now my literary focus is on other subject matter.
HFR: Congrats on being a father! Now, your new novel, Knotty, Knotty, Knotty: an excerpt is forthcoming in our second issue. What can you tell our readers about it here?
JK: Well, it’s narrated by this orally obsessed philanderer who’s got a mouth that aches—probably from too much philandering, I suppose. And he’s got a lot of problems, or issues, or “conflicts” as he puts it, conflicts which center around growing up without a mother and dealing with the suicide death of his “avant-garde,” drum-playing brother during adolescence—a suicide that appears to be incited by a traumatic bullying incident. The narrative (if that’s what you want to call it) bobs and weaves between past and present and from obsession to obsession—obsessions which, aside from the oral one, include, but are not limited to, an analog cable box (which coincidentally has a brand name that matches the name of the narrator’s brother); a beloved plunger; some brown rust on a metal comb; a call girl service; an omniscient man in black; a demanding wife; a shadowing dog; the deaf-mute nature of the narrator’s closest childhood companion; the ticket-scalping habits of his dysfunctional father; and square dancing. I guess you can say the narrative structure is sort of like square dancing in how it rotates between past and present and from obsession to obsession in sort of a do-si-do, if you will. It’s a work obsessed with the aural as well as the oral: as much as the character is obsessed with the visual nature of objects, he’s probably even more obsessed with what he hears—even when he can’t actually see the objects in question: for example, the drums his brother bangs on violently behind a closed door; his wife’s buzzing vibrator; the swiveling sound of the chair that the man in black sits in as the narrator free associates on a couch; the channels on the narrator’s television dial which have no picture, only sound. The narrator is also obsessed with the sounds people make, even if they can’t physically talk, and the sounds objects make, even when he’s not actually in the same room to witness their presence. And I think these obsessions—these aural obsessions—were expanded, or were probably even derived from, my own obsession with sound during the writing process: namely, the acoustics of the sentences and the words I was choosing to build those sentences. And sometimes that meant adding or taking out a word or syllable in a sentence or repeating certain phrases over and over again. There are, indeed, as the reader will see, certain tropes and often-comedic turns of phrase that the narrator repeats over and over again throughout the book that are to him sort of an obsession unto itself, and for me—well, it was sort of like composing chorus stanzas for a musical composition, is how I saw it. I think I was listening more to the sounds my sentences were making this time around—or at least more conscious of it—versus my first novel, and I think that’s why the sentences torque here in more interesting and more unpredictable ways. As far as the origins of this book are concerned, I guess you can say they grew out of a real-life suicide committed by a roommate of mine, not at college but during my college years. And he had a name: Shawn. Only I thought, until minutes—if not seconds—before I discovered first-hand this commitment he had made with his pants belt, that his name was Sean, not Shawn. This thing about his name—this sort of similar thing plays out in Knotty, Knotty, Knotty. That said, I can assure any prospective reader of this second novel of mine that no actual names are assigned to any of the characters involved: I tend to keep my work as free of names as I possibly can in order to avoid any unnecessary associations the reader, or even I as the writer, might attach to them. But why did that roommate of mine commit himself in this fashion? Hell, I don’t know. Maybe that was part of the origin of the book as well. Maybe the reason was simply that he had always wanted to be a Sean, not a Shawn. Or some other simple thing like that.
HFR: Whoa. Thanks. Regarding the aural/oral motif, do you prefer to hear other readers read, or read yourself, to a room full of people? And, on another, perhaps infinitely more complex, note, do you believe there is a time/place for arguments against evolving technologies, publishing or otherwise?
JK: Well, I’ve been to more readings than I’ve given them—but that’s only because I’ve only had one book in print so far. But I’ve really enjoyed giving them, when I’ve had the opportunity. But it’s fun going to readings, too. I think I once mentioned to you that I went to a Matt Bell reading here in New York City for Cataclysm Baby, and met him there for the first time—he’s a strong reader. Of course, the acoustics of one’s sentences is what makes for a good reading, so I guess I seek out readings from those whose work exhibits that sort of mastery of sound and form. And it always helps to have the right natural tone and inflection in your voice for the work that you’re reading from. My friend, Peter Markus—I’ve been to several of his readings. He’s one of those writers, who, when he reads from his work, he really owns it, if you know what I mean. But the whole technology thing—I guess you can say I’m pretty adequately versed when it comes to evolving media technologies, actually. Though I haven’t laid a hand on it in almost four years, I have an author website, joshuakornreich.com, that uses some pretty nifty flash technology. That said, I think, for me, it’s been more an issue of having more finished projects to promote. I guess my plan was to get into the whole Facebook thing once Knotty, Knotty, Knotty found a home, but the chronology of events in my life and in my writing career have taken some surprising turns. I mean, here we are talking about The Boy Who Killed Caterpillars again, many thanks to Dzanc Books, so maybe this is the point where I finally say, okay, time to jump in. Which is cool, because while Facebook was on the rise when the original release happened, it wasn’t nearly as omnipresent as it is now. Back then, social media still had a little bit of that cheap stigma to it—at least that’s how I remember it. So, now maybe my Boy gets another shot here on the social media scene, and we’ll see what happens. But other than for promoting work, I probably wouldn’t consider being a big user of Facebook; I mean, don’t a feel an impulsive need to tell the world what I’m up to, what I like, who my acquaintances are, etc.—I’m a really private guy, I guess. And, yeah, okay, it probably doesn’t help that I’ve had some struggles with social anxiety in the past, either. As far as Twitter goes, I don’t really see a need for it right now. I think the only situation I would see myself needing Twitter in my life is if I became a publisher—which is something I’ve considered—like yourself and had a whole lineup of other people’s projects to promote. Otherwise, I find the whole Twitter thing really irritating, quite frankly, and, unfortunately, I think it’s pervaded our national discourse way too much, both formally and informally. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I pick up a book, even ones of alleged literary value, and feel like I’m reading someone’s Twitter account. It’s like, look, I don’t need to hear every thought or non sequitur that pops into your head—only the ones that count for something, and don’t hurt the ears of those tuning in. Having said all this, however, I’m going to need something to do between changing my son’s diapers, so maybe some of that social media will trickle in and take up some of that time. Yeah, that’s it—maybe I’ll just do it to irritate the world back!
HFR: Excellent fellows, both Bell and Markus. New York must provide a lot of distractions. How long have you lived there? Is it an ideal locale for the kind of writing you do?
JK: There is a lot going on here in New York, if that’s what you mean—but I wouldn’t call any of it a distraction or disruptive or an obstacle or it taking my focus away from work or anything like that. If anything, I would say, living in New York has been a bit of a source of material, on the margin at least, for my work. I mean, I don’t want give it that much credit though: I think most of my inspiration is internal, or triggered by certain interactions I’ve had with people who have either passed through or stayed in my life, and I don’t think that has anything to do with living in New York per se, really. But I guess my first two books—well, the first one, there is a explicit mention of a town in Long Island, one that is not far from the one I grew up in. This second book of mine, Knotty, Knotty, Knotty—there really isn’t any mention of any locale, but I guess the narrator’s childhood whereabouts would feel slightly suburban to the reader, and there is a fleeting mention of one of the New York Mets players from the ’80s. But in the present time period of the book, the narrator lives in an apartment, so there it definitely feels more urban, and with the couple of references to 9/11 along the way, not to mention some of the narrator’s nocturnal activities, someone might assume this guy is a New Yorker. But I didn’t really spend much time describing any setting, really, in this second book—it’s all pretty nondescript. So, yeah, I was born in Flushing, Queens—and if you wish to draw any conclusions between the name of that locale and some of the content of my work, you can go right ahead for all I care. But I grew up in a suburb of Long Island, lived in Philadelphia for four years to attend the University of Pennsylvania, and then went right from there to living in New York City for the last fifteen. I love it here, to say the least. I mean, I never lived on a farm or on a beach or in the desert or anything like that, so maybe I don’t know what I’m really talking about here, but from what I know, I think NYC is a great place to live and write, whichever way you choose to live and write. Of course, the rent’s way too fucking high here, but that’s a whole other discussion. Speaking of high, what I meant was “a suburb on Long Island”—or “in” Long Island?—but definitely not “of” Long Island.
HFR: One of my favorite sections in The Boy is “Patio,” wherein your Boy riffs on music:
I remember my dad always liked Kiss.
Not Kiss, I mean, but KISS.
All in capital letters.
KISS is the band that plays loud music with all the black and white make-up on their faces.
I didn’t like KISS.
KISS scared me.
Prior, he’d established his taste in The Stones. I wonder: did KISS ever scare you? Also, in this section, we learn that your Boy’s favorite Stones song was “Shattered.” Is there a section that is your favorite?
JK: It’s true, it’s true: KISS scared the living shit out of me back when I was a little kid—or, more precisely, it was Gene Simmons. I didn’t know his name was Gene Simmons back then, much like the Boy doesn’t know his actual name, either. For whatever reason, back in the late ’70s, I had a lot of friends who had older brothers who had various posters of the members of KISS dressed in full-on-scary attire, and that image of Gene Simmons with all that makeup and that crazed look in his eyes scared the bejesus out of me, no doubt about it. I would start crying when I saw these posters of Gene Simmons, and so much was I disturbed by them, that these mothers of these friends of mine would take down these posters of KISS down just to calm me down. I think it was one of the first things that I can ever remember being scared of, come to think of it, and maybe one of the more vivid memories of my early childhood. I mean, make no mistake of it, I was scared of everything back then. Say, I got a funny story for you here, but I’ll keep it brief: back in my days of being a media investment analyst—did you know that I was once a media investment analyst? well, there you have it, I was, I was! for eleven years, I was!— and about a year before The Boy Who Killed Caterpillars found a publisher, me and this firm I worked at had this “opportunity,” let’s call it, of investing in a pay-per-view company run by Gene Simmons that he had hoped to take public in the future. It goes without saying I wasn’t interested in the idea from the get-go, but there I found myself, full manuscript sitting unwieldy in my lap under the table, ready to hand it to him whenever the time was ripe—though I got to tell you, I wasn’t so sure if this idea of mine would work given what I say about the name of his band in the book, never mind what I have happen with him in the book in his likeness. In any event, I’m sitting in this empty boardroom waiting for Gene and his entourage, when as luck would have it, my eye catches a typo on the title page of my manuscript, a page which I had only conjured up in only minutes before the meeting in haste. Well, just about in that same instant, in walk Gene and his entourage. Howdy, I remember him saying to me. Needless to say, if I was on the fence about handing him the manuscript up until then—to do what with it, I had no idea— this was definitely the tiebreaker for me for not handing it to him. But it really shook me up that typo—catepillars, I think the typo was—and when he sat right next to me in that boardroom, he could tell I was really nervous and all, and I think he probably figured I was star-struck or something. And then he went and added fuel to the fire when he pushed my swivel chair out of the way during this corporate video presentation of his—with me in the chair, mind you!—so in order that he can see his own fucking presentation! It was like I was being bullied in front of everyone by my own fictional antagonist in real life! And then after the presentation, seeing that I was still nervous, and as far as he saw it, star-struck, Gene, he takes out a pen of his and signs an autograph right on my notepad in front of everyone in hopes of calming me down: “There, you happy now?” is what I think the guy said. That’s when the presentation ended and everyone got up and went over to get his autograph and snap a photo with him. But much later down the road, I got another opportunity to present the book to him—this one in late ’09, I think it was. Gene—should I really be calling him Gene, or should I be calling him Simmons instead?—was doing a book-signing here at the last standing Borders here in Manhattan for some eighty-pound graphic collection he was hawking, so I decided right then and there to surprise him with the book—the already-published book, that is. I signed it for him, of course—”Dear Gene, Thanks for the nightmares! Best wishes, Joshua Kornreich”—handed it over to him, and that was that. No, I never heard back from the guy. Fuck KISS, anyway, right? Shit, that wasn’t brief like I said it was going to be, was it? But, yeah, “Patio,” that was a good one, I think. I think all those passages that surveyed the backyard was the point where, I think, the book ascended to another level—or at least that’s what I like to think. But I think “Fence” might be the passage that pleased me the most of that sequence, though—the whole sharing of the property around the fence thing. But I also remember liking that “Thunder” section—it’s short, but I remember liking the way that one just seem to flow onto the page, and it’s one of the sections that I’ve read at the few readings I’ve done thus far. And then there’s that little part where the Boy says he wonders if his next-door neighbor grew a mustache upstairs in his house. And, of course, that dustbuster sucking up the you-know-what, and the Boy thinking he just might lick—well, I don’t want to give anything away here to those who haven’t read the book yet. But for the record, while “Shattered” might be the Boy’s favorite Stones tune, it certainly doesn’t come close to being my own.
HFR: Media investment analyst. Huh. Do you think this past livelihood of yours prepared you in any way for the stresses and rewards of writing? What do you do now?
JK: I’m still an “investor,” per se, but I am no longer an analyst—though I do still read the business/finance section just to keep up. I quit about seven months after The Boy came out—I wanted to focus more exclusively on something that had more meaning for me for a change, and for me, obviously, that was writing. I mean, you live only once is how I felt about it. And, yeah, I did have a feeling that the markets weren’t going to be so hot for a while—this was just around the time of the Bear Stearns collapse, but well before Lehman’s demise—so I thought it was a good time to split with no regret. I think the two worlds I was involved with were way too different, both mentally and culturally, and having my head in both of them got to be too rough at a certain point. It’s a demanding job, being an investment analyst. There’s a constant flow of information coming in, and you got to be on top of everything or else—especially when you have these little devices in your hand that enable you to get this information on demand and in real time, so even more is expected of you, no excuses. I think I viewed the writing, at first, as something fun to do on the side—and on the surface, you couldn’t argue that that was a good life to lead: a high-paying day job plus this creative thing on the side. But then it became, at least in my heart, that I wanted to make the writing more front and center—I felt more connected to that, I felt it represented who I was more—but I just couldn’t because the investment job became more and more demanding, with me covering more and more industries and companies. My time to write utterly evaporated. I mean that literally: I wrote absolutely zippo between early 2005 when I “finished” The Boy and early 2008 when I quit my job—three years of no writing. Pretty fucked up, right? I mean, those were some prime years, my early thirties, and I missed them. As far as the analyst job preparing me for the life being a writer—well, on the most basic level, it taught me how to work hard and be analytical about everything, but, you know, I was already like that since I was a kid, so maybe that wasn’t the thing it prepared me for. I think the biggest takeaway from it, really, as far as having a writing “career,” or whatever you want to call it, is concerned, is research, research, research. And I mean outside of the writing itself—I mean more in regard to the business itself, knowing who the different players are, be they writers, agents, editors, publishers, whatever, whoever—and knowing what they are up to at all times, or at least something close to that. I admit it, I probably know more about the book publishing people I know about than they know about me—and usually they don’t know me at all. But if I’m researching a publisher, or a specific editor let’s say, I learn just about everything there is to know about her or him before I ever contact them in any way. I mean, I followed publishing for a long time as a media analyst, so I knew what I was in for as far as business and financial prospects are concerned, but I didn’t know the guts of these publishing companies like I do now. Another thing I can say it sort of prepared me for, even subtler still, is that in the same way literary fiction or avant-garde fiction or even fiction itself has been considered a declining art form from a commercial perspective, being a media investment analyst, though it sounds glamorous—and for a while it was, having lunches and dinners with all those media and entertainment moguls and CEOs—well, that industry, the general media industry, began to implode the same way you hear about the book publishing industry imploding: with the internet, DVRs, more and more devices and more and more channels, and thus more and more ad inventory pushing down ad prices, these very healthy businesses started to slow down or even decline even before the Great Recession began. But I still followed the media industry despite its deteriorating prospects and declining reputation because I still found it fascinating, at least to some extent. So, I guess what I’m getting at is that I know what it feels like, psychologically, to get involved in something you just love and feel connected with—for me, that’s fiction writing—even if there’s a lot of doom and gloom floating around. But I’ve flirted with some other things, you know: teaching, perhaps—I’ve done some volunteer work in that area. Or maybe starting up a publishing company of my own. I’ve even written a pilot and some episodes of a TV comedy series and started something that I’m not sure should be a play or a screenplay, but when it comes to writing, I think I realize its fiction that comes most naturally. I mean, I guess I’m in the sort of position, having done well with this former career I had, that I have some leeway in what I end up doing with myself. For now, though, I see myself focusing on writing more fiction and being ambitious with that, and being all I can be as a husband and father.
HFR: Returning now to your Boy, what have you seen in evolving e-book technologies (e-readers Kindle, Nook, or iPad) that makes you excited for the future of publishing?
JK: I think a lot of the exciting stuff is real simple stuff. For example, you’re out with a friend, and the friend says to you I just read a book I think you’ll like, and instead of this friend having to remember to show it to you or lend it to you the next time they see you, she or he might be carrying that book right on their phone or e-reading tablet or whatever type of device it is your friend likes carrying around, and so then you take a look at like the first few pages of this book they think is so worth reading on their device, or maybe you even look at it on your own device that you are carrying around after this friend of yours transfers it from their device to your device. It’s like with all these devices everyone’s got, everyone has the potential to be a walking library! I mean, obviously iTunes really killed the music business, but I actually think, if used wisely, a similar model can work really well for the book industry. Call me crazy, call me loony, call me anything you like, but that’s what I think. But, see, the problem with the music album business model from the get-go was an inherent thing: when people would say oh I love such-and-such album, what they really were saying, in most cases, was that they liked two, four, five songs on the whole album and the rest was somewhere between sucky and so-so. So, when iTunes came out, and a band had an album they were putting out, people had the opportunity to pluck out just the songs they really liked on the album, and so what became the “unit sold” was no longer a full album but a single ninety-nine-cent song. Now, on the one hand, maybe if you’re a writer who’s been making a career out of writing collections of short stories, the same sort of thing could happen to your business if you adapt that same kind of iTunes model, and maybe that would really suck for you. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of writer who can do both the short-form and long-form sort of thing, you have the opportunity to sell a standalone story that, who knows, with a little luck, could go viral at about fifty cents per unit, and you can take that opportunity to parlay it into selling that novel you’ve had sitting on the back burner for so long that it’s growing mold on the insides of it—only, hey, wait a minute, it’s not growing mold anymore, it doesn’t have to grow mold anymore, because this novel you got on the back burner, you’re going to make it available on that same iTunes-like platform for like nine-ninety-nine, nine-ninety-five, or like whatever nine-ninety-number you’re into. Of course, if you have already made a bit of a name of yourself within a community of readers, maybe you can use the iTunes-like model to hawk sizeable excerpts of your back-burned novel for that fifty cents, or even twenty-five cents, and then use that as a platform to sell the whole back-burned novel or whatever else you want to get out there—sort of like a sampling is like the word I think I’ve been trying to get at like. Okay, fuck the word like. But I guess editors and agents would still have a role to play within this type of business ecosystem—I mean, there are still music producers and music labels out there, aren’t there? But you can also see where this model can give the author a lot of freedom to be commercially inventive, on his or her own, and, in sharp contrast to what the music artist has had to go through over the last decade or so, the author can actually go out there and improve their business with this new economic model. You see, the problem with book publishing, or even all publishing for that matter, is that anyone who knows a lot about technology and marketing is in no hurry to make a living in publishing and, on the flip side, no one who’s already in publishing wants to make a living using modern technology or having to actually go out and market something—or maybe they do want to, but it frightens the shit out of them. So, what you end up of having is an industry—the publishing industry, I mean—that has fallen behind commercially versus other industries, and even other entertainment industries for that matter. It’s also consistent with why mainstream book publishers have taken fewer chances in terms of what sort of work they take on versus even their low-profit-margin brethren in the entertainment sector, like the film and music studios. So, yeah, I do think this new technology stuff could be a good, exciting thing for the book industry—that is, if they want it to be. My guess is that the book form will become more intertwined with the animated-motion and interactive audio industries as the form moves to these new devices—at least for the more genre-oriented work, anyway. But what do I know? Maybe someone reading all this will say, you know, this Kornreich fella, what a fucking blowharding idiot, and start to poke holes in everything I just said. God, I hate hole-pokers. When is someone going to make a device for you to carry so you can zap out one of them? Because if I know one thing, that one thing that I know is this: there’s always a hole-poker lurking around the corner, just waiting to poke holes in all of everything you ever said or even thought of. I mean, am I right or am I right? I am right. But tell me something? Did you see it coming or did you see it coming? I mean, I bet you didn’t see all that coming from me now, did you now? I bet you thought you were just talking to some artsy-fartsy literary writer who never read a business plan in his life, never mind an income statement or balance sheet. Well, I sure showed you, didn’t I? I mean, do I know my debits from my credits or do I know my debits from my credits? I mean, give me some credit, will ya? Stop poking holes in me and just give me the credit where credit is due. For once. For once! For once in your life! Somebody!
HFR: I’ve read and heard a number of editors/publishers say they never started editing/publishing to make money, but that they are in it to put out the best “craft” available to them, that this is what they are happy doing. What are your thoughts?
JK: Well, for writers such as myself whose main focus is craft, these sort of publishers are a godsend, but that’s from a writer’s perspective. I mean, in a perverse sort of way, it’s the biggest compliment in the world having a book publisher willing to publish your work based simply on its artistic merit even if it could potentially mean hardly making any money or even losing money. That said, I think if your intent is to get into book publishing on a sustainable long-term basis—and this is coming from someone who is not a book publisher—you better love what you do and have some deep pockets behind you, because there’s at least a fairly decent shot you’re going to barely make money, or even lose money, year after year, and that goes for if you’re a literary publisher or a commercial publisher, a nonprofit or a for-profit. But maybe this response I’m giving to this question is backward-looking and antiquated; maybe—and this is going back to your previous question—it will be easier, or less difficult at least, to make a profit in this new digital world, as the cost of producing units gets cheaper and cheaper; maybe there will even be enough money left over for publishers, large and small, to have the capacity to really promote and market their titles, which, in these challenging economic and secular times, they are understandably quite constrained from doing so. Perhaps the new problem in the digital world becomes less about the production costs and more about the marketing costs as the number of publishers increases exponentially as it becomes less and less expensive to enter the business but more and more expensive to compete in it as these publishers need to distinguish their titles from other publishers’ titles amid the proliferation of supply brought on by the latest technology. I imagine that that technology would also allow these publishers focused on craft to do new and exciting artistic things with the look and physicality of their titles, but it would also require graphic artists and technicians with an entirely different set of skills—skills that might require a little more of a publisher’s resources. But the fact is, I think, that right now, that most of these book publishers who are focused more on the craft than the financial rewards happen to have an audience, for the moment, that still likes holding that paperback in their hands—and this audience, mind you, happens to consist heavily of readers who are writers themselves. It’s not hard to imagine, though, going forward, as the younger generations of readers and writers are brought up reading on e-readers and other digital devices, that even these publishers will have to get more than comfortable with the new technology. I think that’s why you’re seeing a press like Dzanc Books, a creme-dela-creme literary publisher, move into the new space more aggressively than some of its brethren. But whether we’re talking about the digital market or the paperback market, I think it’s deeply significant and highly fortunate to have these sort of publishers who are focused more on craft and artistic merit around; they’re part of that last line of our cultural defense against falling into that irritating and filthy abyss of complete and utter commercialism. Okay, that last line sounded really hyperbolic and cliché, but you get the picture, right? Right—wait! Hold on a minute! Hold on! Grace Jones! Yeah, Grace Jones—that’s the one! She also scared the shit out of me, too, as a kid, for some reason. Just like Gene Simmons with all that makeup did. She always looked really angry to me, Grace Jones did, and looked like she might hurt somebody. But maybe it was the whole gender identity thing that freaked my little-boy psyche out—you know, he was a man who looked like a scary woman, and she was a woman who looked like a scary man. You know, that sort of thing. Maybe my next book could be Gene Simmons vs. Grace Jones—you know, sort of like Freddy vs. Jason, but with more artistic merit so that a publisher wouldn’t mind losing money on it.
HFR: You’ve published one short-short fiction ["We Make," Unsaid 4 (2009)]. Have you ever envisioned yourself compiling a manuscript of collected stories, or do you view yourself strictly as a novelist?
JK: My wife just recently read “We Make” for the first time a few weeks ago—she thinks I should write more of those. What’s different about “We Make” from my two novels and most of my unpublished work is that at first you expect it to be first-person plural—”we make”—and then when you start reading it, for the most part, it’s in third-person, but in the end that first-person singular takes over. Both of my novels are first-person singular. It’s not something that I had set out to do, and if anything, I’ve been more and more trying to come up with a sustainable long-form project that is in third-person. Actually, right now I’m working on something where half of it is centered around a character verbalizing in first-person-singular-epistolary-form, and the other half is centered around a different character who is being addressed by other people with seemingly no oral retort coming in response; I don’t know what point-of-view that is formally referred to as—”passive”-something singular, I presume? But I guess I’m going at your question kind of sideways here thus far. I would definitely have to say that I wouldn’t hold myself to being strictly a novelist, nor would I say I am a writer who wouldn’t delve into shorter forms of writing in any meaningful way. I mean, I have, in private, written plenty of short stuff, but, even the few occasions where I think it’s pretty good material, I feel like I’m just masturbating with language and not really as connected as I have been to the longer projects that I’ve done. And I don’t think that masturbatory quality is an inherent thing about the shorter form—I think it’s just a personal thing for me. I mean, imagine I put together one hundred “We Make” sort of works together and called it a collection: I wouldn’t want to read that—would you? But I think it was a neat, little trick as a standalone work. And I do feel I have a bunch of those still in me. Which goes back to the whole iTunes model: I mean, why can’t writers just put out one single at a time instead of a whole bunch of them mashed up together where it’s post-rationalized as all one work? You look at a “great” rock album, an album that has ten to fifteen songs on it, and in reality there are only two or three great tracks on there. Then these big rock stars, after putting out a few of these allegedly great albums with a couple of good tracks here and there on them, put out a “Greatest Hits” album. It’s like, why did you waste my fucking time and money with all that pedestrian shit mixed in with the great shit for the last decade, and instead why didn’t you just give me only the great shit to begin with? I mean, I know, I’m oversimplifying it, and, yes, people are entitled to make a living, but I guess I feel, right now, at this very moment, I don’t want to put out a collection, or an “album,” if you will, until I think I got something where I can say here is a collection of my greatest hits and only my greatest hits. And maybe I’ll be an old man by the time that happens, or maybe I won’t ever end up being able to do that. I mean, sometimes I look at some of my failed novel ideas and think there might have been short story potential in them—like maybe I pushed too hard with them or something—and even with some of the stuff I’m working on now, maybe they’re really just random, disparate things that should be separate pieces and should be assembled together in a short fiction collection and maybe this collection should be my very next published book. That could well end up happening, but I don’t know. But what I do know is this: that if I put something out that I want published so others can see it, it means that I think it is worthy of being read by others, that I think it is—if I were to ever to produce a collection big enough—worthy of being on my own album of greatest hits, and that goes for whether it’s a novel of mine or a short-short fiction piece.