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To Be Sure Of Things That Are In Fact Quite Mistaken: Ken Kalfus Interview

by David Burr Gerrard

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Ken Kalfus’s last novel, the National Book Award-nominated A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, opens with a husband and wife on 9/11, each wondering about the other’s fate. You might have heard that story before; the difference is that here the husband and wife are each hoping the other has died. Kalfus’s new novel, Equilateral, concerns Sanford Thayer, a nineteenth-century British astronomer who hopes that a giant equilateral triangle in the Egyptian desert will help him make contact with the inhabitants of Mars. That preparing this triangle will require life-threatening work from nine hundred thousand Egyptian laborers strikes him as a minor detail.

One of our most protean, politically engaged, and morally penetrating writers, Kalfus is also consistently playful in his fiction, and his books are always fun to read. He recently answered some questions by email for KGB.

In terms of style and setting, Equilateral is very different from your previous novel, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. But the novels seem strongly thematically linked in their concern with empire. What was it like moving from that novel to this one?

In some respects, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, with its emphasis on the bleeding of public events into the private imagination, is closer thematically to my first novel, The Commissariat of Enlightenment. What ties the three books together is that they were written with contemporary history in mind, in a moment largely defined by the confrontation between the West and the Third World. Its story may be fantastic, but Equilateral approaches Europe’s tragic involvement with its Near East very directly.

Whenever I begin a new project, I’m usually thinking that I want to make it as different as I can from my last one. As you observed, certain preoccupations remain....

You started with two story collections and have since written three novels while continuing to write short stories. How do you the two forms differ for you, and what attracts you to each?

A novel, of course, can take several years to write and demand a commitment that essentially defines your life at the time - in recent years my family and friends have heard a lot about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. A novel can go places not conceived of when the first page was written. It often demands rethinking.  I had to start from scratch several times with Equilateral. In terms of long-term intimacy with your story, it can be very rewarding.

Sometimes short stories are just a way of fooling around, without anyone seeing the results. They’re a good place to explore provocative idea and new ways of story-telling that may not be sustainable over the entire course of a novel. I find them very appealing to read and to write. I’m currently finishing up a collection, Coup de Foudre, to be published next spring. It’s anchored by a novella about the president of an international lending institution and his disastrous weekend in New York a couple of years ago.

One of my favorite things about your fiction is that your characters are compelling and convincing rather than conventionally “sympathetic”. Do you think about the issue of sympathy at all, or is it beneath contempt?

Well, “beneath contempt” may be too strong an expression, but I do think the search for sympathy in creating characters or reading about them is a bit of a red herring. You hope to involve the reader with the story, the theme, the correct narrative voice and characters who reflect certain aspects of human personality, depending on the story’s needs. They can be bad, they can be hideous, they can even be dull. They don’t have to be likable, and you and I can easily come up with a list of great and monstrous figures from world literature. Sometime I see writers throwing into their work sympathetic details to soften their characters’ hard edges, but this either muddies the reader’s idea of them or, more likely, proves totally extraneous and false. It’s a predictable feature of TV and movies - tough cops who like Chopin, etc.

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country ends with a haunting portrayal of a triumphant Iraq war, obviously very different from the one that we lived through. This lends great suspense to Equilateral, since even though it’s set in 1894 the reader doesn’t whether there will be a Martian encounter, a Martian invasion, or what. The Commissariat of Enlightenment is similarly free with history. What does this play with history give you as a fiction writer?

History is an endlessly useful tool for the fiction writer. It can provide the basis, the setting and even the characters for her story. But the story is still fiction, and a novelist must stick to her own purposes, which are not necessarily those of a historian. The story I want to tell always comes first. Sometimes countering history, as I do for a chapter in A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, provides certain dramatic effects.

In The Commissariat of Enlightenment and Equilateral there is a vanishingly thin line between serious scientific inquiry and obsessive, possibly insane quackery. What draws you to this theme?

I love science, and I believe it may yet prove to be our salvation. Nevertheless, science is a human endeavor, subject to all the weaknesses and failures, comedies and tragedies, of any human endeavor. That’s what makes it a great subject for fiction. A good deal of my fiction is about our propensity to be sure of things that are in fact quite mistaken. My astronomer, Thayer, may be mistaken about a number of things.

You’ve mentioned in an earlier interview that you’re so interested in astronomy that you named your daughter Sky. Why astronomy?

I was a child of the space age; my parents let me stay home from school to watch the Mercury and Gemini launches, and I had a pretty good six-inch reflector telescope growing up. I’ve long maintained this interest in space exploration, and in the night sky, astronomy and all the great mysteries that we may be on the verge of resolving. In this century we may find extraterrestrial life, or resolve the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Living in Center City Philadelphia, I can’t do much observing these days, but I still find thinking about the stars very stimulating.

“Bouquet,” the first story in your first collection, tells of an eroticized encounter with a misconstrued Arab in a Paris museum, one exhibit in which is devoted to 19-century engineering. Female pubic hair seen in a painting is referred to as an “equilateral.” Is this just a coincidence, or do you see that story as related in some way to the new novel?

Oh wow, I never made that connection to “Bouquet,” which I wrote nearly thirty years ago, and I certainly forgot that pubic equilateral! Thank you. But certainly, as I suggested above, contemporary history, and specifically the difficult relations between Europe and the Arab world, has occupied a big part of my imagination. “Bouquet” can certainly be seen as the first stirrings of my idea for Equilateral, a novel that I began making notes for in the mid-1980s.

One story in Thirst is called “Invisible Malls,” an explicit homage to Calvino. Philip Roth--whom you’ve also cited as influence--said that a writer’s influences fall away after ten years or so, and you just become yourself. Do you find to be that true, or do you find yourself still engaging with your influences?

I think I’m still very aware of the influences of other writers. A great book, a great voice, still leaves a deep impression not only on how I write, but on what I want to write. It’s possible, though, that as I’ve become more experienced as a writer, I’ve become less malleable, or less willing to consciously write in another writer’s style, or just less able to change my voice. I’m still crazy about Italo Calvino, by the way, and Roth too, and reading The Collected Stories of Vladimir Nabokov from front to back reinvigorated my desire to write short fiction.

Of your three novels, two have been set within a couple decades of the turn of the 20th century and one is set at the dawn of the 21st. Did writing Disorder feel different from writing the other two?

Every novel feels different, and the settings in Commissariat and Equilateral are considerably remote from each other. I have no strong connection or even familiarity with that era, except for what I needed for my stories. For Disorder, I enjoyed working within the contemporary setting, exploiting many of the rich thematic possibilities offered by current events. Several stories in my collection next year will engage with contemporary history.

How do you know when you’ve done enough research?

I have seen or heard about writers who get bogged down in research before they’ve even written a word. I strongly believe that research is not important; it can be an excuse for not writing. If you really care about your theme, and really have a story, you already know enough to begin. I always do my research after my first draft is done, most of it to fill in gaps in my knowledge, in order to add plausibility. This can be a fair amount of work, and I can be exacting in my research, but I can also ignore research that is inconvenient to the story.

You published your first collection at 44, and have since gone on to great success. What would you like to tell your younger, struggling self?

Hmm, what I would really like to hear is what my elderly self can message me now. But given that you’re asking me to play Bruce Willis to my younger Joseph Gordon-Levitt , I would probably tell myself to keep plugging away, to keep writing. I would remind myself that progress is slow and incremental, and that you have to put the hours in. I would suggest that I might want to cut back on Strat-a-matic baseball.

I would add though, as I tell my daughter and any younger people who ask, that it’s not enough to plug away at something that is difficult: you may be working hard the wrong way. You have to be critical of what you’re doing. If you’re struggling, you have to analyze why. You have to be willing to think differently and change your way of working and even your direction. This, in fact, is probably what my older self is trying to tell me right now. 



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David Burr Gerrard is a writer living in New York. His debut novel, Short Century, will be published by Rare Bird Books in 2014. A graduate of Columbia’s M.F.A program in fiction, he is a contributing editor at Tottenville Review, and his short fiction has appeared in Extract(s).