Author Q&A: Kyle Minor (In the Devil’s Territory)

Kyle Minor author photo

Kyle Minor is the author of two collections of stories: In the Devil’s Territory (2008) and Praying Drunk (forthcoming, 2014). He is the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction and the Tara M. Kroger Prize for Short Fiction, one of Random House’s Best New Voices of 2006, and a three-time honoree in the Atlantic Monthly contest. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, Forty Stories: New Voices from Harper Perennial, and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. He has also done reporting for Esquire, and writes a biweekly audiobooks column for Salon.

In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?

I’m increasingly wary of making any big claims like that for literature. I think that for people like me, literature is a comfort, a way of feeling less alone. It is also a way to live lives not one’s own, to expand experience quickly, to destroy solipsism to whatever extent that might be possible. But literature isn’t any more pure than the world it does or doesn’t intend to represent, and it can be used to destructive ends, and people who are awash in it can commit atrocities the same as people who aren’t. A Shakespeare scholar was one of the authors of genocide in the Balkans, and almost every nationalistic awfulness has tried to hitch its wagon to the national culture, literature included. That said, I think I’d rather spend time with people who read broadly and deeply. They tend to be smarter, more interesting, more likely to have a little societal compassion (but not always). Ultimately: life is not long, most of the things we chase come to naught, the things that don’t aren’t lasting anyway, and the people who make literature at least have the comfort of knowing that they made somebody they’ll never meet feel something in a future moment that can only be imagined, hopefully with great pleasure.

What was the last book you gave as a present?

I’ve been giving copies of The Era of Not Quite, by Douglas Watson, who is the closest thing to Beckett we’ve got now. In 2014 I’ll be giving copies of Demon Camp, by Jennifer Percy.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Lee K. Abbott told me it ought to cost you more than the time it took to get the words on the page.

Which author do you re-read most frequently?

There are a few: Philip Roth, Katherine Anne Porter, John Cheever, Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones, Barry Hannah, Denis Johnson. Lately I’ve been re-reading William Gaddis and Kurt Vonnegut.

What is the best sentence you’ve ever read?

It’s a fragment from the opening of William Goyen’s The House of Breath, which is set in a postage stamp of land in East Texas, but which feels, in the point of view of the speaker, like it’s set in the most expansive extraordinary dark magic laden place since Yoknapatawpha County:

“Yet on the walls of my brain, frescoes . . .”

That’s what I aspire to keep in mind when I’m painting the world. It’s all there, for everybody who cares enough to remember, or for everybody who feels enough to want it to mean or matter.

Describe your writing routine.

Right now I’m working 12-18 hours a day, all summer, a real luxury. I’m staying up all night and sleeping a little in the day. This is probably the last season of my life when I’ll be able to live this way, so I’m trying to take full advantage.

Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what’s on your playlist?

Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, but right now I am. I have the playlist next to me here on my Kindle Fire, so I can give you the list: Pink Floyd, Animals; Violent Femmes, Greatest Hits; The Lovin Spoonful, “Summer in the City”; Radiohead, Amnesiac and OK Computer; R.E.M., Up; Jane’s Addiction, “Been Caught Stealing,” Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here; The Beatles, The White Album and Revolver and Abbey Road; Smashing Pumpkins, “Rocket”; three Blonde Redhead albums; Beck, Mellow Gold; six Deerhoof albums; Pearl Jam, “Daughter”; three Jimi Hendrix albums; Nirvana, Incesticide; Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral; Carmina Burana; Steve Reich, Phases; two Grimes albums; Sufjan Stevens, various tracks; two Steve Earle albums; four Lucinda Williams albums; a few tracks from The Doors, Bon Iver, Fatboy Slim, and Starflyer 59; two Belo albums; a few of Rita Lee’s Beatles covers; seven Bob Dylan albums; two Jurassic 5 albums; The Breeders, Last Splash; Dave Brubeck Quartet, Take Five; twenty-seven Robert Johnson songs; ninety-three Leadbelly songs; The Pixies’ Greatest Hits; Velvet Underground and Nico; the Woodstock soundtrack; a Kill Rock Stars sampler; ten Schonberg tracks; ten tracks from the Berlin Symphony Orchestra; Cream, Disraeli Gears; Elton John’s “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”

I also sometimes run movies or TV shows in the background while I’m working, such as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Highlander, First Blood, The Apostle, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

If it gets to be too much, I turn it all off, but the silence makes me feel even more lonely than long stretches at the desk usually make me feel. Right now I’m in Iowa City, where I have a few friends who will occasionally stay up all night with me, working in the same room, and I like that better than the running music. One friend plays Hyderabad musicals all night, and that’s fine with me. Other friends demand absolute silence, and that’s okay with me, too.

Best bookstore you’ve ever been to?

Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas; Powell’s City of Books in Portland; Prairie Lights in Iowa City; Brookline Booksmith near Boston; Skylight Books in L.A.; the late and lamented Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor. Used bookstores: John King Books in Detroit; Half-Price Books in Columbus and Austin.

If you were standing in line at a bookstore and noticed the person in front of you was holding your latest book, what would you say to them?

I wouldn’t say a word. Actually, it’s happened before, and I was afraid they’d put it back if I said anything.

What literary landmark would you most like to visit?

I’d like to take a time machine back fifty-something years and four blocks from where I’m now sitting and see the room in Iowa City that Kurt Vonnegut covered with butcher paper when he was solving the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Do you own an e-reader?

Yes. I was an early adopter of the Kindle, and now I have a Kindle Fire HD. I am still partial to print books, though.

Is Facebook good for you?

Yes. I recently spent six truly grueling years in Toledo, Ohio, where there weren’t many people who were interested in what I was doing, and Facebook was a tremendous tonic for the loneliness that experience provoked.

What about coffee?

Sure. I endorse all varieties of uppers. It’s the downers writers ought to avoid. Alcohol might get you one or two good stories, but it will hurt you in the long run more than it will help you.

What job have you held that was most helpful for your writing?

Teaching is the most nourishing kind of job, for me, but it’s not for everyone. I remember that William Gay drove a bread truck.

What is one of your vices?

I need to quit the Coca-Cola. It’s the worst thing, for real.

What is one of your prejudices?

I don’t like moneyed snobbery at parties. I also dislike coolness.

Favorite books you’ve read in the past year?

William Gaddis, Carpenter’s Gothic, #1. Also: Barry Hannah, Bats Out of Hell; Pamela Erens, The Virgins; Paul Hendrickson, Hemingway’s Boat; Bluets, Maggie Nelson.

Favorite word?

Advance.

Photo of Kyle Minor by Jennifer Percy.

Visit Kyle Minor at KyleMinor.com.

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  • I think without believing in the purity of literature it can do a lot more than be “a comfort, a way of feeling less alone”. I’m with the questioner who suggests that literature might change people’s life. The drama is that you don’t know if you do or if you don’t, and if you do, how. This drama doesn’t have to be a tragedy, it could be a comedy of errors and misunderstandings. But in the light of past writers of note, from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to Kafka, Sartre, Shaw, Hesse, Neruda (all of them lonely in their own, splendid way)…it seems wrong to me at least, to back down from the possible huge impact that literature may have. Sadly, so little writing these days seems to take on the big issues. To do so which still seems necessary and possible to me, the first step is to think that literature may change the world, all of it, from the smallest to the largest scale.

    • Really?

      That is a good way to misread what he said and reduce it to banality. You are talking about a writer who ambitiously writes about God, war, colonialism, poverty, America, and globalism. Have you even read his fiction?

      • No, I have not read Kyle’s fiction except in excerpts (which I enjoyed). I didn’t think it was required reading for this interview but I’m now looking forward to checking out his work.

        If he focuses on big issues (and all of the issues you mention are “big” in some way though they can be handled in a small-minded way, as much journalism and bad writing shows), then I perceive a disconnect to the statement that I quoted. Perhaps a misunderstanding that could be cleared up easily enough. Kyle seemed to distance himself from big issues and focus on subjective needs. There’s always an overlap, clearly, but the intent, I think, matters still.

        For the record my comment was not meant in a disrespectful way. I respect anyone who speaks out on behalf of his muse and who shares his views in an interview—the net is a vulnerable place. I certainly didn’t think he was being banal. Otherwise I would certainly not have bothered to reply. It seemed important to me to respond to the implication that I perceived.