Karl Iagnemma

ki2 Karl Iagnemma Writer and robotics engineer Karl Iagnemma was born and grew up in the Detroit, Michigan area and attended The University of Michigan and MIT. His stories have appeared in Zoetrope, Tin House, and The Paris Review, and he was included in the Best American Short Stories 2001. His debut story collection, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, was recently published. He works in the mechanical engineering department at MIT, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is, of course, working on a novel.

On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction contains eight stories showing the lives of doctors, foresters, mathematicians, theoreticians and others as they try to connect the certainty they feel in their work with the rest of their lives: A doctor’s wife recalls his ground-breaking experiments on a gunshot victim; a phrenologist is outwitted by a con-woman; a mathematician obsesses about a former lover and the theorem that made her famous; a miner secretly attempts to educate himself, causing his wife to be suspicious…

The Boston Globe‘s Gail Caldwell weighs in, "…it is a welcome phenomenon in the past several years, with writers such as Andrea Barrett, Alan Lightman, and newcomer Anthony Doerr embracing and showcasing the natural world in their fiction. What Iagnemma brings to this realm is his careful compassion for the human condition. He has the technical savvy to know what to leave out, and the intuition for a certain evocation of tone – his characters are sympathetic, even when (or because) they are flawed, wrong-headed, selfish, or self-pitying."

Robert Birnbaum: You grew up in Detroit?

Karl Iagnemma: A suburb of Detroit, yeah. Shelby Township. You saw the movie 8 Mile? We’re at 24 Mile. Slightly greener pastures.

RB: If Eminem’s movie hadn’t come out, what would be the reference point?

KI: I’m on the map. I have no complaints.

RB: You went to the University of Michigan.

KI: And studied engineering.

RB: Why did you do that? Because you’re a first-generation American?

KI: My father is, and he is an engineer. And I was more of a math/science type, and I liked it. I never really considered anything else [chuckles]. That’s the short answer. But I was lucky that I ended up liking it. But the writing— I didn’t really write anything until college. I thought I might like to write and the professor, Burt Hornbeck, he suggested that I show him something that I had written. So I actually produced something. I wrote a three-page story about me and some friends of mine stealing beer from people’s garages in the neighborhood. No dialogue, just pure expository drive. And it was terrible, but he said, "This is excellent." And so I kept writing.

RB: Why do you think it was terrible and he thought it was excellent?

KI: It was terrible in the sense that most beginning works are terrible. I think he thought it was excellent because he saw some potential. So he’s really the one that got me started. Then I took a couple of classes at Michigan.

RB: Am I going to have to share billing with him in the dedication to your novel?

KI: Well, I was going to do the initials, for BH and RB. So no one will know anyway.

RB: [laughs] Right.

KI: I took a class with Alec Young. And then I took a class my senior year with Charles Baxter. He was a pretty big influence, in the sense that he seemed like what I would imagine I would want to be. He’s an excellent writer. I love his stories and was also a very cool guy and a great teacher.

RB: This was as an undergraduate?

KI: Yeah.

RB: Baxter is a great writer and, of course, it’s arguable whether someone deserves more attention, but I’ve felt since I first came across his writing that he would be more prominent if he lived on the East Coast. But that’s true for a number of writers.

KI: Who knows? My sense is that he is very well respected in the literary community, but he doesn’t have a glaring profile that other writers have. He’s as talented as anyone. His stories are amazingly good.

RB: Have you read his essays?

I have entertained thoughts of quitting research, but part of me thinks that my writing might become—instead of better—might become less interesting. I know for sure that I would probably lose half my idea sources.

KI: I read his essays about writing, Burning Down the House, which I thought were very smart. And he had imparted some of that wisdom in the class. I’ve taken three or four classes since then— in terms of learning how to write, his class is fantastic. You actually learn things, which before that I thought was impossible. How can you teach someone how to write? But he did a really good job of it.

RB: He has a new novel coming out this fall.

KI: About Saul and Patsy? Right?

RB: I don’t know. I just noted it in the Pantheon catalogue.

KI: They are characters from some of his stories. His book A Relative Stranger is one of the best short-story collections in the—well, Jesus — past X years. That doesn’t mean anything; I’ve only read twenty books in the past ten years. It’s one of the best short-story collections I’ve ever read. There is a really charming story in that collection about these two characters, Saul and Patsy, and I think his novel is going to pick up on them.

RB: He was a positive influence or an inspiration?

KI: Both. And [also] Professor Burt Hornbeck. [Then] I took a year off. After Michigan I went to Ireland for a year, and I was enrolled in classes, but mostly just writing. So that was my MFA, my low-budget MFA. And then I came back.

RB: You went to a writing program in Ireland?

KI: No, I was studying Math and English.

RB: I didn’t think Ireland had many MFA programs.

KI: It was a cool thing. They don’t. But they had just started doing a thing that year where they had a workshop. But being Irish it was incredibly disorganized.

RB: [laughs]

KI: We’d all get together and meet. The prof was Tom Kilroy, who is a playwright and novelist, and we’d just sit around and bullshit for a half an hour and then go to the bar, the ideal workshop experience. I don’t know how much I got out of it, but it was fun. The first time I thought about getting into an organized writing group there, I went and talked to a professor there, and he said, "I’ll tell you what to do. You go to the Dame Street Bar every Monday at the beginning of the month and there will be guys there talking about fiction and get a drink and join in." And that was the more Irish version of the workshop, which is probably equally effective.

RB: And then you came back to MIT?

KI: Yeah.

RB: You’re working on a long-range project there?

KI: I was just starting graduate school then. Having a year off to write convinced me that it was something that I wanted to do and could tolerate. Spending a few hours a day doing it. So while I was doing my graduate school in engineering, that’s when I started writing—a bunch more stories and the stories in this book ended up being written toward the end of graduate school. I also took a couple of classes at Harvard with Brad [Watson].

RB: You have something that many people who write don’t have, which is the security of a day job that you actually like.

KI: Yeah, I feel a little bit guilty.

RB: You are not going to suffer much in pursuit of…

KI: Well, writers are supposed to have a day job, right? But it’s assumed that it’s one that you can bitch about. I love my day job; it’s great. The problem is that it’s a bit too much with the writing and having a full-time job. That’s the only issue. If I liked it less I would probably do it less and have more time to write. The problem with research is that it’s not the kind of thing that you can do half way and just read half the literature and expect to make a contribution. You have to be in it. The short-term plan is to try to finish this novel, under extreme duress and sleep depravation and see what happens.

RB: Meaning what?

ki4 Karl IagnemmaKI: Which thing I’m going to opt for and [then] try to make a more reasonable arrangement.

RB: It would be hard to determine if the way your life is arranged now is not the perfect balance that allows you to write well.

KI: That’s just it. I have entertained thoughts of quitting research, but part of me thinks that my writing might become—instead of better—might become less interesting. I know for sure that I would probably lose half my idea sources. Another thing is the whole other aspect of suddenly being a writer. I have been able to hide a little bit behind this day job and like, "Well, I’m writing." In a sense it takes the pressure off, which is nice. People who work full time and have to get something publishable and marketable, that’s a tough thing.

RB: People often say, "Well, if I had more time, I could have made it better."

KI: I think if I had more time, the stories would be the same. You work on a story until you are sick of it. Maybe you get it done a little faster. But for me, at least, the process is that—no matter how many hours I spend on it there is a finite length of time before I think the ideas are matured enough in my mind and I can really say what I want to say. And I think that’s independent of the hours spent. It just has to compost a little while.

RB: That’s specific to each story. Not that it is predictable?

KI: No, it is somewhat variable. Some stories come out easier than others do. Some stories you have to search and search. One of the stories in the book, the story about the phrenologist, is the kind of story where I had the idea of it, to some extent the characters, but it took me a couple of months before I knew what they wanted to be doing and how it was all supposed to work. And then other stories just fall out more easily. Maybe because they are more from my own experience. The story "Zilkowski’s Theorem," which was about mathematicians at a conference, was by far the easiest story in the collection to write.

RB: I read it as an academic spoof.

KI: Well, spoof or satire, it’s a little bit heightened for sure. And that one just rolled off the tongue. That’s low-hanging fruit for an academic.

RB: If someone said, “This is a story about academia,” I would’ve probably just passed it up. Nothing new there, I would think. Except for Mark Winegardner‘s trilogy of stories in his last collection were hilarious.

KI: That’s the direction people have gone recently, huh, with academia, just cut up a little bit?

RB: It would seem so.

KI: It’s so ripe for that.

RB: Richard Russo‘s Straight Man did that.

KI: David Lodge, too.

RB: I’ve never read him.

KI: Neither have I, I just thought I would throw that name out.

RB: One teacher of writing mentioned to me that her students, regardless of their writing abilities, just don’t have a command of a body of general knowledge. They just don’t seem to know facts about the world.

KI: That reminds me of that Simpsons episode talking about life experience, and one guy raises his hand and says he wrote his thesis on life experience.

RB: This is where I expose my own cultural illiteracy and say I have never watched the Simpsons. Anyway, your stories used factual information and used historical references. Is there a trend here, Daniel Mason writes The Piano Tuner, David Liss, The Coffee Trader, Arthur Phillips creates a faux history in Prague, Darin Strauss, The Real McCoy and Chang And Eng—is the historical narrative easier or harder?

KI: I think it’s neither. But it’s interesting. A lot of writers are dilettantes. That’s what you want to be as a writer. You don’t necessarily want to have a great depth of knowledge of the subject. It’s more useful to know a little bit about a lot of things. Anytime that you are reading, you are going to find things, if you are reading with a writerly point of view, you are going to find things that are so obviously ripe for fiction that it’s just a shame not to put them in stories.

RB: Your story "Children of Hunger" in which the widow of a surgeon recounts his experiments with a working class young man who gets gut shot.

KI: A French-Canadian peddler in the fur trade.

RB: What is this story’s basis in fact?

KI: The central episode and the experiments are from the history book. What’s true is there was an accident where this peddler got shot in the stomach and the resulting wound didn’t heal fully. And this doctor William Beaumont was able to actually see into this guy’s stomach. After a while he realized that he could observe the digestive process, which before that hadn’t been done. There was no medical imaging back then. So he started doing these freaky experiments, part of which involved actually tying strips of food on strings and actually putting them into the stomach through the stomach hole and pulling them out after lengths of time observing the digestive process. Anyway, that’s the true part. I didn’t really read anything about his wife. Oh no, I take that back. There was an incident mentioned as a footnote—and this is really what sparked it [my interest] —the voyager, Alex St. Martin, ran away twice. I thought that was strange, this poor guy was unable to work and had no means of support except Dr. Beaumont’s stipend, and yet he couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. But it made sense; these experiments were so weird. Probably so dehumanizing, and I don’t know what protocols existed back then for human experimentation, but I doubt they were too stringent in the Upper Peninsula in 1824. So that’s where the story came from, and the fact that this guy was running away, and all I had to do was to construct a reason for him to run away.

RB: You told the story from Beaumont’s wife’s point of view.

A lot of writers are dilettantes. That’s what you want to be as a writer. You don’t necessarily want to have a great depth of knowledge of the subject. It’s more useful to know a little bit about a lot of things.

KI: Because she was the biggest gap in the historical record. She really wasn’t there. It mentions she was the prettiest woman in Plattsburg and that’s pretty much all the press she got. And I wondered what she was thinking about this whole situation. Beaumont’s story had been told, and I am hesitant to rewrite history, to tell it from Beaumont’s point of view and have the events come out any other way than they did, just for personal reasons [chuckles]. Her story—I was interested in the effect of these experiments on another person and not the experimentee. People don’t tend to think about the influence that science, which is this chilly rational act, can have on the lives of the people around them. It’s just like writing, for a lot of people it’s a very consuming activity, and any activity like that is going to jostle the worlds of the people around the scientist the researcher.

RB: There is an equation in the title story, is that gibberish or does it have some application to something in the story?

KI: That’s the equation that the story started from. It’s a very famous non-linear equation describing, well, a lot of things, but partly describing the interaction of predator and prey. And of what happens if you plot this equation over time and sometimes the predators are a large population and the prey has died off and other times vice versa. What happened was I was taking a class at MIT in graduate school. And it was in Non Linear Control taught by this famous French professor. We had to do class projects. It was the beginning of Spring. I remember because the windows were open and everyone was staring out the window while everyone else was giving their presentations. This student got up—tall, red hair, glasses, buck teeth—the whole shot and he started talking and he said something like, "It’s springtime, and the birds are singing, and so I thought I would talk about love." And the class is seventeen guys and we are looking at him like, "What the hell are you talking about?" But what he had done was develop this mathematical model of two people’s relationship, their interaction, modeled on the predator prey equations and then he derived a control system, and if you satisfied this equation which was half a page long. The people would come together and it if it wasn’t satisfied they would diverge. And I just thought it was hilarious and strange and sort of touching and weird.

RB: He was sincere?

KI: It was a bit tongue and cheek. But I think he was masking his sincerity [laughs]. He was probably cautiously optimistic. But that was the basis for that story and in some sense it was the basis for a lot of the stories in the book. Until then, I wanted to write, but I hadn’t really figured out a way to do it, in a way that felt human or interesting. And that was sort of a small Eureka moment.

RB: If someone asked me what these stories were about I wouldn’t say they were about science.

KI: About scientists.

RB: And I wouldn’t call a phrenologist a scientist. [laughs]

KI: No, a pseudoscientist.

RB: And he [the phrenologist] is not the interesting person in this story.

KI: He’s bit mopey, isn’t he?

RB: And then there’s the story about the Indian agent, is that about science?

KI: No that’s not. There are a few stories in the book that aren’t scientific, and I think the overriding them is one of frustrated scientists, but I don’t think it rigorously holds to that.

RB: You’ve published stories in a number of literary journals and the decision of what to include in this collection was based on what, the centrality of science?

KI: To some extent. Right when I was finishing my thesis, I realized I had enough stories for a book. Eight stories, two hundred pages, whatever. So Peter [KI's agent] and I decided to send out, "I know the perfect place for this book and I think they’ll love it." So we sent it to The Dial Press and they liked it but they said, "We want it, but would you be interested in writing some more stories about science." Four of the stories in the book were in the original manuscript I submitted. And there were four other stories. I thought, "That sounds great. I’ll rewrite the whole book, I don’t care." But it made a lot of sense. When I looked back at that original manuscript there wasn’t really a central theme. But those scientific stories were the most recent stories I had been working on. I had two or three other stories that were half done which were scientifically based. The theme of the book emerged after the sale of it and during the final writing of the last stories.

RB: The intention was for "On The Nature Of Human Romantic Interaction" to be the title story?

KI: Yeah, from the beginning I thought that would be a good title for the book. It seemed to fit the general theme of the stories.

RB: How many stories do you have lying around… not lying around but…

KI: How many stories have I written?

RB: That are publishable.

KI: Probably nine, maybe ten.

RB: [both laugh] Any carcasses?

KI: Beside the book, maybe there are three or four other stories that are decent. The one’s in the original manuscript were decent. But I don’t know that they were anything special. And well, I think you can tell when someone is writing about something that they care about or that they know a bit about or that extra little spark, for me at least, when I read the science-based stories, some of them seem to have that. Whereas the others, maybe not so much. They feel a bit more generic. They don’t feel like me.

RB: What fiction writers do you think write about science well?

KI: This is going to get ugly—just because I haven’t read that much. When I went to have that meeting with the Dial Press, one of the editors gave me Andrea Barrett’s book, saying, "You’ve got to read this." And I read it and it was kind of depressing, "Oh fuck, she’s already written them all."

RB: Which book?

ki1 Karl IagnemmaKI: Ship Fever. Like in the feeling was, this is how I wanted to do it, and I think she does it very well. And she has a great balance between scientific fact and idea and character. But the first story that I read that really impressed me as a smart way to write about science, an engaging way, was a story by Johanna Scott called "Concerning Mold upon the Skin." It was about Leeuwenhoek, one of the inventors or the inventor of the microscope. And it was this gorgeous story about this guy who became obsessed with this development of the microscope at the expense of his family. It was a strange and weird story. I read this years ago in Best American Stories maybe ten years ago. I thought, "Well God, this is it." And there are not too many other people writing about science. There is science fiction, which is different because it’s often not about character but idea. The character-based writers; there is another school it seems. They are more concerned with scientific idea. I would almost separate the two in an academic way: We have people who do theory and we have people who do applied. I am applied, I think. And there are other writers who are more theoretical.

RB: Doesn’t it seem strange, I find it strange that it would be such a special thing for writers to write about things that have science as basis?

KI: A couple things. One, it seems there is a barrier to entry. You have to know these things. To some extent that’s not true. Writers are very good at learning enough about something to write about it convincingly. And to be honest, you don’t have to know that much about anything to be able to write about it somewhat convincingly. You want to know a little bit about it. That’s all you need. The other thing is that a lot of writers really don’t like science. Wouldn’t like the side of studying it. There is a reason that writers were English majors, probably because they hated physics.

RB: [laughs]

KI: That may be the greater factor. You don’t find that many writers who are interested in science. That said, it seems like a fair amount of people like to read about science. I mean the Dial Press bought my book. They thought that people would buy the book. So I don’t know why people don’t write about science. I don’t understand it. Especially since science is more and more part of the popular culture. Part of people’s everyday consciousness and you can’t get away from it. You look on CNN on the home page and they’ll have, not even scientific breakthroughs. They’ll have what I’d call mid-level breakthroughs, the "might someday" stories, where the last line is "And might some day lead to…" and then you just sigh and ignore the thing.

RB: Maybe they don’t have that People magazination hook the characters that make these stories accessible?

KI: They are there, that’s what I don’t get. But it’s just not been done yet. Or not a lot. But it will, I don’t see how it can’t not be?

RB: What’s your novel about?

KI: I can talk about what I know about it. I’m only on page one hundred. There are two story lines; one is concerning a scientific expedition to the Upper Peninsula in the 1840’s to search for evidence of the lost tribes of Israel. There was a theory back then that—it’s kind of a long story—the lost tribes of Israel…

RB: I hope it’s a long story.

KI: Yeah, A three hundred-page story, actually …had been in North America. There is an expedition searching for evidence of them. And there is another story, a minister from Massachusetts who is traveling to the Midwest to track down this expedition which contains his son who is a bit wayward. Prodigal, if you will. So, they would meet at some point and hilarity ensues and I don’t know what happens.

RB: Good. This is one of those silly speculative questions, but take a shot. Do you have any sense of what your worldview would be like if you hadn’t grown up in Michigan?

KI: Jesus.

RB: You’ve been to Ireland, living here for a while.

KI: Well…

RB: Alright, how does having grown up in the Midwest, uh, "inform" your point of view?

KI: Someone asked me that a while ago, and I had absolutely no answer for it. I don’t know I can’t answer without resorting to cliches about what Midwesterners are like compared to what people on the East Coast are like.

RB: I’ve been living on the East Coast for thirty years, as an expatriated Chicagoan, and it’s still a shock to the system.

KI: Oh, it’s the most insular place I have ever been. My indicator of when I knew things were strange? When I came here, I turned on the sports on the news to get the out of town scores. They don’t show the out-of-town scores. I mean it takes three seconds to flash the out-of-town scores. Literally, three seconds. They don’t do it! It’s like it doesn’t exist. How can they not show the out-of-town scores? It still bothers me.

RB: There is something so healthy about the rest of the country.

KI: [giggles]

RB: That seems not to be present here.

KI: And the question is "How does this inform people’s writing?"

RB: Hmm.

KI: I don’t know.

RB: Mark Winegardner, head of the Florida State writing program and soon to be the author of the continuing Godfather saga…

… none of these guys are too burdened with the writer’s ego. People who are serious and have done it enough have been humbled enough times to have checked their egos at the door.

KI: Winegardner. That’s Italian huh? Must be Sicilian.

RB: [laughs] He writes a great brief for great American writing coming from the Midwest.

KI: Sherwood Anderson and… Obviously the center of gravity of publishing and writing is in New York, and it’s natural that New York writers tend to get a disproportionate amount of attention. But it comes down to human nature. A lot of the New York writers know the New York reviewers and editors, so to some extent it can be explained. But there is a lot of great writing in the Midwest and other parts of the country. I don’t know that it’s under appreciated, maybe just under publicized. People who know, know. Charles Baxter is a good example. Inexplicable, he shouldn’t be read by everyone… I don’t want to talk about Southern writing…there’s no defined Midwestern school?

RB: Not unless you accept that it’s really everything American. What would Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald be? Anyway, has a lot changed since you’ve have published a book? That is, your relationship with the lit world and it’s auxiliaries.

KI: In the past I had no relationship with that world.

RB: You had an agent. And your workshops and teachers.

KI: I viewed the workshops as classes that I went to and my agent as this mythical person that I talked to on the phone occasionally. I didn’t have any sense of belonging to a writing community or the writing world at all, really, until the book was bought. And until recently now that book is out, meeting a few people–writers and things like that.

RB: Anything unusual about that? Surprises?

KI: Yeah, in the sense that I had very little expectations, and I think I was blessed with very low expectations. So they’ll say, "They want you to be on this radio show." "Radio show! I’ll do it." So I am surprised by how much fun it is and how little like business it is. In the kind of setting I am used to, there is much more criticism and heartbreak and in some sense, that’s how advancement is made in science. But the whole writing thing, it’s not that I don’t take it seriously, but the business side of it and all the surrounding stuff is incredibly interesting and fun. And I haven’t done it enough to be tired of it or jaded by it.

RB: There seems to be a lot of young writers being published in this area now.

KI: Yeah there’s a bunch. You have the omnipresent Steve Almond in Somerville. Lise Haines is local. Chris Catelonni and he’s very cool guy and he lives in Arlington. Michael Lowenthal. And Ben Cavell who you talked to, Matthew Pearl. And I am sure I am forgetting twenty other writers.

RB: Yeah, me too. What’s that like meeting writers who have just published their first books? Is it competitive?

KI: There is a sense of shared, confused joy. The good thing about and the thing I have been surprised a little bit about is that none of these guys are too burdened with the writer’s ego. People who are serious and have done it enough have been humbled enough times to have checked their egos at the door. So I was a bit surprised by that I always carried the expectation, going through graduate school, that I had a bit of a grudge against the people who were actually doing it. Thinking, "Well they are all stuck-up bitches anyway." But they are not. At least the people I have met are very down-to-earth and cool types. These days you are just happy to get something published. The odds seem fairly remote and everyone has been telling you for years how remote they are, I believe it. So getting something out there and getting published and being happy with the publication, I think you get a sense of gratitude from most writers that you talk to. I don’t know if that’s different from the past and I am sure it varies from person to person.

RB: You recently appeared with some the people we mentioned.

KI: They [readings] can be great and energizing when they are good, which is something of a rarity, but it is a bit of a lost opportunity. It ends up being a live book on tape. I don’t like so much, not just reading but the whole exposure of the writer. I almost think it was better when I was twelve years old and I thought that living people didn’t write books. And seriously thought that until I was seventeen. [chuckles]

RB: I read an Ann Beattie Writers on Writing piece that talks about author overexposure and my recent conversation with Graham Swift echoes that.

KI: The reading experience is another level of suspension of disbelief. Another layer. And it’s a big one. You don’t want to think that book that you are reading was written by the guy you just saw read and you are imagining him in studio apartment in his underwear.

RB: As Tim O’Brien would describe himself.

KI: His fingers stained with Cheetos. It can kill the reading experience.

RB: As you say the good ones are treasured moments. I’ve seen Will Self declaim a story for twenty minutes (from memory) with no glitches.

KI: Yeah, the good ones rock. They sometimes let you re-see the written work, which is unbelievable. I saw Frederick Busch read a story when I was an undergraduate, that, God, I thought I was going to pass out.

RB: A great writer too. I have begun to view audio books as a different thing now. The book, the movie, the audio.

KI: It works in other ways too. I have seen stories read, that read extremely well and when you go to read them it doesn’t work on the page and you feel gypped, like you got taken.

RB: In the Best American Stories you are in, I heard someone read the Trevanian story. I only knew of him as a thriller writer, but this story about a rivalry in a Basque village was incredible, and I had the same reservations that you just voiced.

ki3 Karl IagnemmaKI: Oh boy, this is going to get embarrassing, I haven’t read that one yet. [laughs] There are about four I haven’t gotten to.

RB: You were an undergraduate, did some writing, thought about your commitment to it. You did graduate work in?

KI: Mechanical engineering and robotics.

RB: And then you continued to write and when you shipped off your stories to various places?

KI: It was pretty standard, we would send them to The New Yorker, and then when they rejected them…

RB: [laughs]

KI: We would send them to everyone else. That’s the basic situation. I was thrilled to get in the Paris Review and Zoetrope, which is revitalizing literary magazines.

RB: It may be my entrenched position, but I am not seeing a diminution of literature in the culture.

KI: Did you think there was…a general trend over how many years are we talking? What scale?

RB: Do you remember people talking about the death of the novel?

KI: Yeah people are always saying that.

RB: Exactly.

God, I have no worries about literature. If you have engineers wanting to be writers…maybe I’m more optimistic than you.

KI: And it’s always bullshit.

RB: You’re smarter than me because I would worry about it, "Oh, there’s a reason why some one is saying this, let me think about it." Of course as an undergraduate I fell prey to the notion that civilization was declining. It also became a post-graduate sport.

KI: I’m sure that it comes back to statistics. What’s the sample size? I’m sure there are months and months that go by there are more crappy novels published than good ones. And then you have years that’s the opposite. Writing seems to me such an instinctively human thing, I can imagine but I would be very surprised to find over a sampling over x years that fewer really good books being written. I’m not interested in writing experimental literature, but I do think it interesting how writing adapts to the changes in society. The obvious thing being science and topic. Topics changing. But also form. Different ways that people are writing novels. I’m always shocked at how much good stuff is being written and how many good books are out there. It seems almost overwhelming. The books are there. The problem seems to be that a lot of people don’t care.

RB: Right. And that will be determinant. People can write all they want but without readers…

KI: I think of literature as a larger thing, with a capitol L. The books that remain. I can’t see that being diminished. I can see the primacy of reading decreasing in the culture, of course. It makes sense in an age when there wasn’t any competition, now you have Super Nintendo. So how are you going to compete with that? God, I have no worries about literature. If you have engineers wanting to be writers…maybe I’m more optimistic than you are. Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination.

RB: I’m not pessimistic, I just think that the lit world is a constant number but the other worlds seem to get larger. Which makes the writer somewhat marginal and a more difficult way to live one’s life. Let’s agree that there is a future for you.

KI: At least for the next three years, let’s say.

RB: Is that how long your novel will take?

KI: Another year or so. I can’t imagine spending ten years on a novel. I’d get so sick of it. I’d just quit. Quit that novel for sure.

RB: What do you think about writers that do that?

KI: Maybe in a few years I will be the kind of person that will want to spend that long on a single book. Or will find a topic that is rich enough or have I’ll have enough of a stretch of time that I can create something that is worthy of that much work. But right now I am a little too impatient to spend that much time on a single book. I think the people who do that, god bless them, because it’s not like they are thinking the longer they spend on it, the more they are going to get paid for it. They are thinking the better it is going to be. Look at Brad Watson. He spent six or seven years on his book. And it’s a gift to readers.

RB: Donna Tartt spent ten years on The Little Friend and eight years on Secret History, Sandra Cisneros spent ten years on Caramelo

KI: If you can do that.

RB: What I noticed is that business expects a certain productivity from writers.

KI: Well it’s an industry they need to know when the product is going to ship.

RB: Very few writers have the luxury to take a long time…

KI: The luxury or the courage to say it isn’t done. Yeah, that’s a reality and the result of that is you probably get a fair number of books that aren’t quite done. But, what are you going to do?

RB: What are you going to do? Well, good, see you in about two years

KI: Yeah, I can do two years.

© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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