K.M. Soehnlein is the author of three novels: Robin and Ruby, just released, which follows characters introduced in his debut, The World of Normal Boys; and You Can Say You Knew Me When. His short essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times; Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys; and Love, Castro Street. He’s been published in San Francisco Magazine, 7×7 Magazine, The Village Voice, Out and The Lambda Book Report. He teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco. Visit http://kmsoehnlein.com.
James Warner: Much of your fiction has an intensely autobiographical feel to it, that absorbingly confessional quality that’s also found in the fiction your work pays homage to — Baldwin, Kerouac, Salinger. Although Robin and Ruby actually feels less autobiographical than The World of Normal Boys, maybe because less of the focus is on Robin?
K.M. Soehnlein: Of the authors you listed, I’m less directly autobiographical than Kerouac, and more so than Salinger. Baldwin’s a good model: not so much "write what you know," but write from where you’ve been. Fiction for me often starts with an element of autobiography, usually in the form of setting. The places I’ve written about — New Jersey, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia — are places where I’ve lived or spent some significant amount of time. I usually write about the times I’ve lived through, too: pop culture, current events. So setting becomes infused with personal experience. The characters sometimes display my own traits: Robin’s rebelliousness mixed with his desire to be liked and accepted is something I know well; Ruby’s balancing act between faith and suspicion is much like the ongoing conversation I keep with myself. But the events of these novels — what happens to the characters, how the plot unfolds — are rarely based on what’s happened to me. I never had a brother, much less one who wound up in the hospital with a life-threatening brain injury. My parents did not divorce. And — too bad — there was no older-brother-of-the-girl-next-door who seduced me on a golf course.
JW: "Autobiographical feel" may have been the wrong way of putting it — I didn’t mean that you’re reporting real events, more that you invest your characters’ struggles for self-discovery with a particular kind of urgency. Would it be fair to say that all your novels are preoccupied with the processes of coming of age?
KS: I think what preoccupies me is transition, that zone between one place of relative stasis to another, in particular how we act, or react, when we don’t know what will happen next. Or, put another way: during moments when external circumstances throw us into crisis or flux, what do we do? Usually we react pretty quickly, and poorly, and only half-consciously, and then later are forced to look at our behavior and sort through what it says about us. Maybe that is the process of coming of age, which depends upon self-examination. Robin and Ruby all takes place in one weekend, so it really lends itself to that pressure-cooker narrative. I really resisted the label "coming of age story" for The World of Normal Boys. Robin in that novel goes from age 13 to 14, which strikes me as too young for any real self-articulation. It’s the same reason I resisted the label "coming out novel" for that book: though he reaches some understanding of himself as not "normal," and is perhaps liberated from expectations of how a "normal boy" should live his life, Robin doesn’t self-define as gay at the end of the book, and probably won’t for several years. Maybe of my three novels, You Can Say You Knew Me When most adheres to the coming of age genre, and the point there is that sometimes we don’t come of age — make some kind of peace with our own worst behavior, take some step toward adult responsibility — until we’re already of age. Spelling it all out like this sounds almost didactic, as if I’m trying to impart lessons in maturity through my novels, which really I’m on guard against. I think it’s a huge challenge for a novelist working in character-driven psychological realism: to show characters changing — a basic tenet of narrative fiction — without tying everything up neatly in the end with "lessons learned."
JW: In You Can Say You Knew Me When, you describe a movie — "The script, layered in pulp-fiction dialogue, stayed mercilessly unaccountable to all of its characters, humiliating and bumping them off creatively, so that by the end there was literally only one man standing, covered in blood, a suitcase of money in his clutches." I like this use of the word "unaccountable:" tell me about what it means for a work of fiction to be accountable to its characters.
KS: I mean that the author should render each character with humane dignity. The author should be willing to embody all of his characters, whether victim or villain, hero or fool. The author shouldn’t take sides against his own creations. The temptation is to play God — and by that I mean the judgmental, Old Testament Yahweh, always smiting those deemed unworthy. But it’s best to resist that. Chekhov once wrote in a letter, "The artist should be, not the judge of his characters and their conversations, but only an unbiased witness." To a large degree, I share that opinion. What Chekhov did so well, and why he’s so influential, is that in his mature style he wrote as if he himself was living the life of his characters. He got inside their skulls and under their skins for the duration of the story. Think about it: We all go through life believing we are essentially right, or justified in what we do. We have reasons and explanations for our behavior. The mistakes we make may look horrible from the outside, but we usually have some sense of why we’ve done what we’ve done. We’re all essentially kind to ourselves, even in periods of self-loathing. (I’ll make exceptions here for serious mental illness.) So if that’s the reality of human experience, the writer of fiction should be accountable to that reality.
JW: Talk about the evolving significance of New Jersey in your work. I felt that in You Can Say You Knew Me When, you portrayed New Jersey as a place to try and escape or transcend, or else return to after accepting such attempts are doomed — and there’s a bitterness that goes with that — whereas the San Francisco characters are still chasing their dreams, a process with its own attendant miseries. In Robin and Ruby, there’s more of a sense of New Jersey as a place where answers might still be found?
KS: Maybe what you’re picking up is less about New Jersey than it is about my sense of home, or of family. I grew up in New Jersey, so it’s had to stand in for all the burdens of home — the place that can nurture or suffocate, or both. As I’ve gotten older, my perspective on home is less rigid than it once was, and that’s probably coming through in the novels. In Robin and Ruby, the return to the family home in Part Three is a kind of opportunity for reevaluation. Both characters are beginning to understand their parents differently. Robin opens up his old diary and confronts his younger self. And so on. But New Jersey itself? Well, it’s a little state with a big, probably permanent identity crisis. I was happy to sneak into the novel the former state tourism slogan: "New Jersey and You, Perfect Together." As if away from New Jersey, you’re somehow less than perfect.
JW: I think this is your first novel to deal much with religion, through Ruby’s attempt to understand her faith? How did you decide to bring God into the equation?
KS: God’s been at the margins all along. You Can Say You Knew Me When includes a scene of Jamie stumbling into Grace Cathedral, seeking spiritual direction (which he doesn’t find, in part because it’s the wrong venue and in part because he’s drunk), and his journey culminates at a pagan ritual after a rave. In The World of Normal Boys, Ruby reacts to Jackson’s accident by accompanying her grandmother to church, praying regularly at the hospital and lighting votive candles around the house. That aspect of Ruby’s personality is what I built on in this new book. I imagined her getting more deeply involved in her religion, and then years later, being on the other side of it, a self-declared atheist who continues to mutter prayers despite herself. I was a religious teenager, part of that 1970s–’80s Catholic youth movement that unfolded in weekly prayer meetings, folk-guitar masses, community theater productions of Godspell. I drew pretty heavily on those experiences here. Questions of belief are ongoing for me, as I imagine they are for anyone who has ever been devout and then rejected it.
JW: This is from Robin and Ruby, about Robin’s acting teacher: "In acting class, his professor told them to identify the moment when they freeze up, when they can’t go any deeper. At those moments, ask yourself: What am I afraid of?" Is this good writing advice also?
JW: Were there any moments while writing Robin and Ruby where you froze up and had to ask what you were afraid of?
KS: Not only were there moments, there were extended periods. Weeks. Months. What was I afraid of? Failure. The fear, the freezing up, can always be distilled to failure, which is the artist’s enduring demon, because it can not be conquered. Art cannot really be mastered. I’ve been speaking in this entire interview of artistic challenges — of characterization, of realism, of setting — but these are all subjective. They can’t actually be done "right." There is no formula to tap into. Indeed, you have to veer away from anything that smacks of formula in order to do something that satisfies the need of art to offer truth or insight. And so art always approaches failure. But what I realized at a certain point in writing Robin and Ruby was that I wasn’t really afraid of artistic failure. I wasn’t afraid of words failing me, or of the story being uninteresting; I knew I was capable of dramatizing that story. I was afraid of something I’m almost embarrassed to admit, which is that in writing a sequel to a book that a lot of people liked, I’d let them, these fans, down. Those readers who wrote to me about how Robin MacKenzie’s teenage story, in The World of Normal Boys, was their story — I was afraid they’d no longer relate to Robin. That he’d turned into someone they would no longer identify with. This pressure to write a likeable character started eating away at me. At some point, also, I got a not-so-subtle message from my publisher that they wanted a book that would sell. So there was all this external pressure, which created a lot of mind-chatter, which left me in a pretty insecure place.
JW: That’s an interesting fear, that people who identified with the young Robin might no longer identify with him… It makes me wonder if Salinger had similar problems. Isn’t it the case that adolescent characters are by their nature more universally identifiable-with than more mature characters?
KS: Absolutely. Readers are more likely to forgive bad behavior in an adolescent narrator than in an older narrator. I felt this acutely in some of the online reader reaction to You Can Say You Knew Me When. Though that novel got some of the best critical reviews of anything I’ve ever written, there was a kind of recurring thing on Amazon and places like that where readers complained that they couldn’t relate to a narrator who smoked too much pot, cheated on his boyfriend and lied to the people in his life. Never mind that the whole point of the book is that Jamie is acting out during a time of unchanneled grief — these readers seemed to want a less complicated, or at least better behaved protagonist. On one hand, I understand this. I deliberately set out in that novel to tap into the tradition of the anti-hero; what I didn’t expect was that readers wouldn’t meet me there, on those terms. When I think about enduring novels with difficult protagonists like Bellow’s Herzog, or Plath’s Esther in The Bell Jar, or even Holden Caulfield, I wonder how they’d fare in our contemporary age, where book review space has diminished — and along with it, serious consideration of literary merit — and much of what drives the industry is how many stars a book gets on a popular website. I wonder too if the current boom in young adult literature, which is driven in part by adults reading novels written for teenage readers, has changed the way adult literature is being received.
JW: Those Amazon reactions you cite are surprising to me — I wonder if because you’re a gay author your core audience holds your heroes to stricter standards of morality than would be the case for a straight author?
KS: There’s no way for me to speculate on how my experience compares to a straight author’s, except to say that I think it’s true that many people are still freaked out by the idea of sex between men — even gay people, who worry that if "we" seem too sexual then we’re playing into "their" stereotypes. In You Can Say You Knew Me When a lot of the sex is transgressive, for lack of a better word: the narrator has sex with a stranger on a beach, and with a skuzzy dude in the bathroom of a dive bar, and again when he’s high on ecstasy. Whereas the sex in The World of Normal Boys has a more exploratory feel: a teenager’s first time, with the attendant excitement and romance that conjures up. But I don’t think of any of the sex scenes I’ve written in any of my books are gratuitous, or even particularly erotic — they’re there as part of the story. I’m not a fan of fading-out, like in an old Hollywood movie, when things heat up. Character development continues while the characters are having sex.
JW: If the sex in The World of Normal Boys is exploratory and in You Can Say You Knew Me When transgressive, what adjective best applies to the sex in Robin and Ruby?
KS: This is like playing “Match Game”! Let’s see… Well, for Ruby, “exploratory” still holds, though the word that emerges at the end of the book for her is “passionate.” For Robin, it’s something else, a kind of rediscovery that has to do with figuring out safe sex, and then the whole business about having sex with a friend you’ve never done that with before… Maybe: restorative.