All of My Desire to be Involved: An Interview with Robert Kloss
Robert Kloss is the author of How the Days of Love & Diphtheria (Mud Luscious Press/Nephew) and The Alligators of Abraham (Mud Luscious Press, 2012). He is found online at rkbirdsofprey.blogspot.com.
Jackson Nieuwland: This is my first time being a ‘real’ interviewer. I’ve interviewed people before but they were pretty close friends of mine and I just posted the conversations on my blog. I don’t know you that well and hopefully this interview will be published somewhere cool. I enjoy interviewing, the finished product often feels like a significant achievement. I’m going to try and continue with my personal ‘style’ of interviewing here by asking you questions in bunches to be answered together and putting myself into the interview a bit (you are encouraged to ask me questions if the urge takes you). Have you been interviewed before? Have you interviewed people before? Do you have any interest in the artform of the interview? Do you read many interviews? What sorts of interviews do you prefer? Text? Audio? Video? What are your thoughts on each medium? Have you watched any of Nardwuar’s interviews? Do you have any favourite interviewers? Do you have any favourite interviewees? Are there any types of questions you particularly like or dislike?
Robert Kloss: I’ve interviewed a few people but I never really felt too comfortable with the process. It was fun and the writers I interviewed were very good to give their time and thoughts, but I don’t know that I had a knack for the form. I think a good interviewer is curious and is open to a certain process of discovery and I’m afraid I’m just not a very curious person. And, when it comes to people, I’m at the opposite of curious–the thoughts and particular cares or wants of a certain person just aren’t interesting to me anymore. So I don’t read or watch too many interviews. I don’t even read the letters or journals of famous writers anymore. Even if the conversation is profound (and they rarely are) I’m not sure I get much out of it. It wasn’t always like this. I used to watch Charlie Rose, for instance, because I was interested in World Figures. And I used to read interviews with filmmakers and composers and writers I admired. But I’m just not terribly curious anymore. That said, there are some people, some writers, who take the interview and turn it into a real art, a sort of extension of their work, and I do find that interesting/readable. Partly because I’m new to the idea of presenting myself to the wider world, and shaping that image in a certain way. But partly because while the mundane thoughts and opinions of some stranger aren’t terribly interesting, that stranger’s art probably is. I feel like any writing worth much is a reflection of the truest part of the writer anyhow so why shouldn’t the writer present themselves as what they are, a reflection of their art?
JN: Who are some of the writers you think do interesting things with interviews? Do you find reviews more interesting than interviews? I don’t feel like I’m a good enough reader or writer to be a good reviewer.
RK: Well, Blake Butler is the one who jumps immediately to mind. Gregory Sherl is another who seems to do interviews or tweets or status updates that read like his poems and stories.
I like what Woody Allen has said about reviews, and I’m paraphrasing, that he doesn’t read them because he doesn’t see the point in working so hard, putting your heart and blood into something, just so someone can give it two and a half pineapples.
So, I write reviews (I don’t know that I’m any more confident in my abilities as a reader/writer than you) but I just try to write what I liked about a book and why I liked it. For me, it’s about being involved and pitching in, somehow. There are people who are very, very involved and supportive of many different writers and presses and I wish I could be like that. But I’m terrible at keeping up with what is going on and I’m worse at saying something about it when I do see something I like, so I am glad I get to say a few words in favor of these books.
JN: I’m completely with you about not reading reviews of your own work but do you read reviews of other people’s? Are there any writers that you think do interesting things with reviews?
RK: When I started writing reviews I did study reviews, no one in particular. Now, however, I’m careful not to come across any reviews of books I am scheduled to review or could review. I don’t read many reviews now, but there was a time I read the Review of Contemporary Fiction religiously. Every move I’ve made as a writer in the last two years is somehow owed to the books I found reviewed there. Plus, I just don’t have time. I had more time to read everything that was coming out, reviews and stories and blogs, when I wrote short stories and flash. But are like black holes, at least for me. Everything I read now, other than that book or two I review each month, must have something to do with what I’m writing.
JN: In my head I associate you with people like Blake Butler, Matt Bell, J.A. Tyler, and James Tadd Adcox. What sort of relationship do you have with them? What traits do you think your words share with theirs? Who are some of your influences? I’m not very interested in who inspires you, that is to abstract an idea. Michael Phelps inspires me but I am not a swimmer. Who do you study? Who do you steal from? Who do you write fan mail to in the hopes that you will become friends?
RK: That’s a great, great list to be associated with.
I think all of these writers places an emphasis on language and style. And all of them have a fearlessness in their approach to writing. I feel like each of them, in their way, is open to try anything and to do it for the pleasure of trying to do it. And I always feel like each of them lives and breathes literature–they write it, they promote it, they publish it. And they do all of those things in very exciting and innovative ways.
So, I hope I can be said to share some of those traits, although I recognize that I’m not remotely in the same conversation with them as far as promoting and publishing work and being involved in literature beyond writing it.That’s a great, great list to be associated with.
I don’t really steal from or study other writers anymore. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not–like I’ve become satisfied or complacent, which I hope is not the case. I do know that some of the adventure and excitement in reading fiction is sort of lost because of it, and now most of my joy in reading comes from histories and biographies, my research reading. I think it’s important to grow and to push yourself, but sometimes it’s also good to find the thing you do well and settle into that and push those things, rather than finding external influences.
The four writers you mentioned above, and many other contemporary writers, gave me the courage to push myself to write the way I wanted to write. At a certain point, maybe four or five years ago, I realized I wanted to write in a certain way. But I didn’t have the guts to learn how to do it or to follow through with it. And when I started reading Blake’s stuff or Matt’s stuff or J.A.’s or Tadd’s or so many others, there was just so much courage and individuality and so much openness. And I think that’s what is so important about indie and online literature–that there is an openness to new styles and voices and a willingness to experiment that is really otherwise lacking out there. And I know other writers have mentioned this, that there is something very freeing and inspiring about discovering that there is a group of readers and writers who are willing to pay attention and willing to push each other to try new things.
Specifically, though, the last major move I made with my writing was the move to remove exposition and interior thoughts and scenes and dialogue. And to be free to write about whatever I wanted to write about, no matter if it was disgusting or weird or shocking or improbable or impossible. And books by writers like Cormac McCarthy and Aase Berg and David Ohle and Ben Marcus and Ted Mathys helped push me in those directions. I remember having a copy of Berg’s WITH DEER open in one hand and my laptop on my lap and just revising and revising and revising different flash pieces so that they were as compressed and muscular and interesting as some of Berg’s poems. And these are things that those writers you mentioned before also helped influence me toward, as well as other folks I was discovering around that time like Andrew Borgstrom and Amber Sparks.
JN: Do you feel a need or desire to contribute to literature beyond writing it? Do you have any plans to get into the publishing side of things? Are you in dialogue with any of the writers we’ve mentioned (I assume you are with Tadd) through email or whatever? Do you consider them friends? Do you view that sort conversation as contributing to literature?
RK: There have been occasional pangs of wanting to contribute on some other level, but nothing that I didn’t quickly snuff out. I am putting together an anthology with another writer that may see the light of day early next year. But it ends up being the last part of my attention and it turns out that all the things that have to do with editing and publishing that are important, the little details and the big details, are things I have no interest in or patience for. I really do think there must be a different thought process for writers who think of themselves as novelists. When I wrote stories I constantly thought about how I could get involved and what I could do to pitch in etc etc etc. But the moment I realized I was writing novels from now on and I didn’t have any interest in ever writing another story was also the moment all of my desire to be involved in other ways ended. Have you ever heard of that before?
I mean, you mention Tadd. I would never suggest doing that blog switch project with him now, but when I was a short story writer I was open to any sort of creative project at any time. Now I just think about heaping up pages into leather volumes. I think about filling shelves with my novels.
Maybe, and then I’ll get to the rest of the question, it has something to do with this: when you write stories or flash there’s only so much that can go into that writing. It’s such a focused art. When I was writing stories I would have a dozen ideas on dock for the moment I finished a flash piece or when I finished a story. But a novel can hold everything. There are no stray ideas. Who knows.
As for who I’m in touch with or friends with, I mean, I communicate with those guys but nothing overwhelming. I’m not a terribly friendly person, I mean, I’m not in touch with … anyone really, unless there’s business to attend to. I suppose I’m in touch with J.A. almost everyday because we have business with the Nephew and with The Alligators of Abraham and with the stamp stories anthology and with the reviews at Red Fez. I mean, when you think about it, and sometimes I do step back and do so, 99pct of what I now write ends up on J.A. Tyler’s desk. And that, to me, is a very good thing.
I don’t know if I view our conversations as contributing to literature. Well, in some sense I do. But I do keep to myself.
At one point I thought all of the great writers were either dead or very old or just so famous and untouchable it wasn’t even worth thinking about. And then I discovered Ben Marcus, the Age of Wire and String, and I was not only blown away by that book and almost shamed by that book, but I remember thinking “This guy gets it. This is the guy I need to talk to.” And all of a sudden I was having that thought, constantly. You go very quickly from thinking “Wow, everyone who writes wants to be like Jonathan Franzen” and feeling very isolated and alone and purposeless to all of a realizing you’re hardly alone, and that’s very invigorating, to realizing you’re just one faceless part of a pretty large mob of people who are as talented or more talented and as into books or more into books and that is very intimidating and exciting.
JN: I’m interested in your process. Is the first draft usually long and then it gets condensed? Everything I write ends up being shorter than I expected it to be. Do you use any constraints in you writing? You mentioned research, can you explain how that fits in to the creative process? I’d also like to know about the physical act of writing. Where? When? Longhand or typing? Any eccentric [physical constraints, habits, circumstances, I can’t find the word I’m looking for here] you need in order to write? Do you need to have your feet in a bucket of ice water? Do you need to hang upside-down? Do you need to write in invisible ink made from your own semen?
RK: I read that last part first and I thought “What the hell …”
My process has evolved. And it has evolved as I started writing to match my lifestyle. So, when I was in graduate school I would wake at 5am and write until 1 or 2 pm or whenever I needed to leave for class. And I did that every day of the week for two years. It took me a long time to learn how to not need that routine.
At one time I wrote these very long, 8 to 10,000 word short stories that were entirely dependent on long drawn out scenes and involved exposition and dialogue. And you almost have to take your time in front of a computer screen to process and create those types of stories. But, here’s the thing, after I finished grad school so much of my time was spent on trains, in class, waiting for class, in adjunct offices killing time, waiting for trains etc. If I had an hour in front of a computer during the week it was a miracle.
And between the style of writing and between my lifestyle I was writing very little and I was regressing as a writer. I wrote some very, very mediocre to bad stuff. None of it was publishable. And, every writer knows how this is, after years of ceaseless rejection without any hint of an acceptance, and thinking the world is closed off to them, it gets hard to bother to find the time to write anyhow. It can be very defeating.
But then I found about the great lit journal, Quick Fiction, which happened to be based in the same town as I am. And when they sponsored a flash fiction class taught by Rusty Barnes, I signed up and started writing flash. And now I had to write for these weekly assignments and the only time I could write and revise was on the train or in the adjunct office. It was very freeing and exciting to realize I could write on the train or write in a hallway.
It took a long long while before I was comfortable writing like that, but now I can write just about anywhere, at any time. I just need my notepad and my pen. And I can be very rude and annoying now at the dinner table or wherever, but when an idea comes, I just start writing.
So, my process: most of my writing is either first written in longhand and then typed out and revised or it is outlined in longhand and then typed out and filled in.
Again, it took me a while to get out of writing the way I had been writing and to train myself to compress, compress, compress. For instance, I had written this story called Life During Wartime in graduate school. It was in that style of scenes and exposition and dialogue. And at some point in 09, after I read Wire and String, I returned to it and wanted to see what I could do with it. So, I rewrote the story entirely, but there was some much in the story that I found dull. I didn’t see what it was then–it was all the dialogue and character building and exposition etc–but I just knew I didn’t want it anymore. So I edited it with a scissors–I cut the story into a hundred pieces and I threw out the pieces I didn’t like and what I did like I rearranged and taped onto sheets of paper. And that was the story. And I wrote like that for a while, until I had trained my brain to see the way I wanted it to. If you read that story, Life During Wartime, in the Emprise Review, you’ll see that process pretty clearly. You can make out what it was before, too.
And it wasn’t until I started reading Aase Berg and some of the flash pieces in Scorch Atlas, and started seeing how those stories worked that I was able to latch onto building around repetitions in language and building around images, which is what I’d wanted to do the entire while, but for whatever reason it just didn’t click.
Now I automatically write the way I write, for the most part. I don’t have to trick myself to write in a compressed style or to write in the types of sentences that I want to write. I write in longhand, type it up, fill it out on the computer screen, print it out, mark it up etc, and then type in the changes. And I just do that until it feels done. It’s a nice routine, because ideally on a day off or during the summer I can walk to the park, write in my notepad for an hour, return home and type that up, and then print it out and edited it in the afternoon. If I’m lucky I can print it out, go through it again etc before the evening. In one day you can have 3 or 4 drafts. I’ve heard about writers who need to take time to let the work breathe between drafts, but for whatever reason I write like that.
JN: What was it that brought about the shift from writing shorter things to writing novels? Where does How The Days Of Love & Diptheria fit into that transition? Is it a novel? It definitely has more words on each page that the other two Nephew titles. How do you pronounce Diptheria (I had trouble with that while reading)? What is your relationship with Mud Luscious Press like? Do you see them publishing more books by you after The Alligators Of Abraham? Can you say a bit about that book? Do you have any other completed manuscripts waiting on publication? What are you working on at the moment?
RK: I think I was always a novelist. I’ve never read as many stories or poems as I have novels and so its just a form I’m more comfortable with. But I never had the confidence needed to write a successful novel. There exists a draft of a novel I wrote from ’07 to ’08, a 50,000 word rewrite/rethink of The Great Gatsby and to look at it now is fairly embarrassing, because it is a bold project entirely lacking confidence in execution. And maybe it’s a good thing that I lacked the confidence to write it, because it’s also a very commercial book and I don’t think I’d be happy with myself now if that was the sort of book I was writing.
So, maybe the process of writing flash and short fiction was just the process of gaining confidence in myself and in my prose. I always wanted to write “languagey” stuff but it wasn’t until some of the flash pieces that I started seriously teaching myself how to write. I’m still a good distance from where I want to be, but I’m at least on the road now.
Diphtheria came about because I had just finished a year of writing nothing but stories and flash and one morning I realized I wanted to write something sustained, based on atmosphere and language and emotion. I think all of my stories are more ideas for novels anyhow so it was just a matter of admitting that’s what I wanted to do. Probably also there was a little ‘publishing anxiety’ with all of this. I always heard you need to publish stories and build your credits up before you could publish a book, and I’m sure that was somewhere in the back of my mind. But by the time I started Diphtheria I’d published a few stories and was feeling comfortable with myself and my situation in the world. I felt like I was ready to take the challenge on and it was a big challenge for me to go from 2,000 word stories to 15,000 or whatever the first draft was. It was originally meant as a novel, but I think I realized a novel was more than I was ready to handle. I’d call it a novella, based on the length.
My relationship with Mud Luscious is almost impossible to articulate. I have a MFA but submitting to and being rejected by and then finally accepted by MLP has been my real graduate school. The last few years has been an extended workshop in unlearning everything I knew about writing and then filling in the white space with language and images. J.A. rejected me many many many times and those rejections really pushed me to see how far I could go and let me know it was worth doing. Most of what I know about myself as a writer came from his feedback and just the almost silly process of being rejected over and over and over and building those muscles and developing some courage. And Diphtheria was written at the end of that process.
After Diphtheria I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I took a few months to work with other writers and to just see what had to happen. I had been thinking for a little while that I hadn’t pushed myself far enough, that many of the stories I’d written hadn’t been as bold or as ambitious or as wild as they should have been. And so I started thinking about what eventually became The Alligators of Abraham.
It started as being about a father who loses his son and his wife and does not want to lose his other son as much as he wants to regain what he has lost. So, that is the story at the center, but there’s also a wider engagement with the American Civil War and the years that followed. There’s no question that it’s the best thing I’ve written. It’s my first novel and, in many ways, it feels like my first real writing. Where I finally said what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it.
That’s with MLP also, obviously, and hopefully we can do more books after these books. I can see books and books and books in our mutual future. Hopefully they continue to like what I do and it continues to make sense to publish my work. Because it does feel like home, over there, and that’s all any of us wants in life, right? A home?
And I’m working on something now, something much longer than anything I’ve thought about writing. It’ll be three volumes, the first volume is called His Black Mountain and the last volume will be called The End of Time. I don’t have a title for the entire work, yet. Hopefully it ends up being a very long and violent and epic and sad book. We will see.
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How the Days of Love & Diphtheria is available now (Mud Luscious Press/Nephew).