old Type: This is your first novel, though your poetry and criticism have been widely published before. What was it that first inspired you to write, and when did you think that it was something that you had a talent for?
NK: I always wrote little things when I was younger. My first opus was a book of poems put down in a spiral notebook at five or six, handsomely accompanied by crayon illustrations. But I guess I really started to write and knew that's what I wanted to dowhen I was thirteen or fourteen. There was a boy (isn't it always the way?) who was a few years older, and he wrote poems to me, and I wrote them back. Very dramatic, especially since we were in the school play together, and he was Romeo and I was Juliet. Why does one begin to write? Because she feels misunderstood, I guess. Because it never comes out clearly enough when she tries to speak. Because she wants to rephrase the world, to take it in and give it back again differently, so that everything is used and nothing is lost. Because it's something to do to pass the time until she is old enough to experience the things she writes about.
BT: Was literature an important part of your childhood?
NK: I read like an animal. I read under the covers, I read lying in the grass, I read at the dinner table. While other people were talking to me I read. When I was twelve my motherwho has also read an impressive amountgave me Portnoy's Complaint. To this day I have no idea what she was thinking. The scene with the Italian whore boggled my mind. I loved it. I finished it and then I started it again. Who wouldn't? Especially if you're twelve.
BT: How have you found the transition from poetry to fiction?
NK: For a long time I only wanted to write poetry. But it's harda hard life, I mean. There's that thing Auden said, about how a poet only believes himself to be a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision to a new poem. "The moment before, he was still only a potential poet: the moment after he is a man who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps forever." With a novel it's somehow easier: the duration of the writing is so much longer, and the unhappiness of the in-between less frequent. I had been working on a long-term projecta radio documentary about Joseph Brodsky for BBCand I loved the feeling of waking up every morning and knowing there was something on my desk to return to. Something that was becoming larger and more complex over time, gaining weight and mass in my mind. When it was finally finished I suppose I felt a little empty. So I sat down and decided to try to write something bigger, and that became Man Walks into a Room. Once I knew that it was going to be a novel, I started to read a lot of contemporary fictionespecially Americanto try to figure out how to do it. This is how you write a short sentence (when reading Salter), or this is how you do good dialogue (when reading Roth), etc. It was very important to me NOT to write what some people call a "poet's novel"something driven largely by the momentum of language. I wanted a plot. I wanted characters that sounded like real people. I still wanted to use everything I'd learned writing poetry, but to a totally different effect.
BT: You've studied both literature and art history. How do those two passions inform your work and your life?
NK: More than I can really measure. Literature probably in some of the obvious ways: the better your reading skills, the better your chance of writing well. Not to mention the better your chance of being wiser, more humble, more compassionateall things necessary to being a good or even decent writer. Studying artand just looking at paintings on a regular basis and trying to figure out how they workhas been crucial to my writing. I'm a very visual person, and I think I often organize ideas into images, which I then describe in words. But on another level, studying art has helped me to stretch my mind to imagine different ways of translating the luminescence of an abstractiona feeling or the raw substance of what we might call a recognition (before it's converted into an idea)into the compact substance of words. Certain abstractions work better in certain mediums, but I think we can learn a lot by trying to understand how a painter, say, does his or her work, and how the message is conveyed to us through a totally different set of circumstances, visual rather than rhetorical.
BT: Where else do you find inspiration?
NK: Some comes from reading. Although in that case two things are equally possiblethat I will leap up from the chair in a fit of inspiration, or that I will slump deeper into my chair in a fit of humility. The better part comes from being out in the world. On the subway, walking down the street, hiking around in desert. Experiencing people and landscapes and weatherexperiencing situations and conditionsin the most visceral and vital way I can. Not just for my writing, but in order to live well. I used to think that if I had a choice between writing well and living well, I would choose the former. But now I think that's sheer lunacy. Writing weighs so much less, in the great cosmic equation, than living.
BT: What is your writing process or ritual like? Do you write longhand or use a computer?
NK: I pace, I sit, I stand. I lean, I lie on the rug in a shaft of sunlight. I try not to answer the phone and then answer the phone. I also run. Mailer once said something about physically training, as if for a marathon, before beginning a novel. I'm a little like that, only during the process rather than before. I ran many, many miles while writing Man Walks into a Room. I probably ran all the way to Canada. It helps the ideas to come more easily, and also to release some of the tension. When I'm actually sitting in my desk chair, I write with one knee up, crunched into a little ball that would strike anyone who saw me as extremely uncomfortable. I try to write first thing in the morningI wrote Man Walks into a Room in a year, almost to the day, because I got up and did it every morning. And I use a computer. My handwriting is like a friendly but retarded relative that is only let out occasionally to get a little fresh air and exercise.
BT: What impact do you think the proliferation of technology and the expansion of media will have upon the art forms that you hold dear?
NK: So far as I can tell, there are two issues involved here. One is whether the book as we know itas it's been for hundreds of years, with a spine and pages the smell of inkwill disappear. The other is whether people will become so thoroughly indoctrinated into the culture of electronic media that their capacity to absorb knowledge, and to delight in the power and beauty of the written word, will survive as something more than vestigial. Obviously if the latter happens, the former will follow. I think we can all agree that the proliferation of technology and the media is radically altering our perception, our sense of time and space and motion and a hundred other things. Many of the things I hold dearnot just art formsare threatened by this: slowness, for example, in all of its forms. But despite all of that, I'm not planning on sounding the death knell anytime soon. To begin with, all this stuff about the explosion of information just isn't true. What we have is an explosion of data. What we are sorely lacking, I think, is the practice of analysis, of synthesis, of the poetry of thought that finds connections between remote things to bring us symbols, ideas, meanings, metaphors. And nowhere is this practice more highly refined than in the realm of art and literature. So the need still exists, and so long as we remain recognizably humansearching, questioning, wonderingit will continue to exist, and there will be those who are drawn to write, and those who will be moved to read.
BT: How did you come up with the initial idea for Man Walks into a Room? Was it a desire to write a novel about memory, or did the character of Samson Greene come first and his memory loss something that evolved later? What usually comes first for you when you writea character, an image, a fragment of an idea?
NK: I'm a relatively disciplined (or perhaps relatively stubborn) person, and once I got it in my head that I wanted to write a novel, I sat down at my kitchen table and decided not to get up until I thought of an idea. Probably not the best way to go about things, but it happened to work on this occasion. While I was sitting there feeling stubborn and a little bored, I remembered a small newspaper article I'd read years ago. It was about a man who walked out of his office one day and was found a few states away with no memory of who he was. He had a wife whom he didn't recognize. The doctors discovered that he had a tumor, and after they removed it his memory returned. I don't know why I suddenly remembered that story, but then I thought to myself: What if his memory hadn't come back? There are lots of reasons why being liberated from the responsibility of memory appealed to me. I described some of them in the essay, On Forgetting, that I wrote for Bold Type. I'm a very nostalgic person, and for a while, at least in literary terms, that state of amnesia was a practical solution to the sadness of remembering. Only things turned out to be more complicated than I thought, and that's where the novel really began to be born.
BT: The acute detail, in both the Cold War-era prologue and the sections that deal with the medical background of Samson's amnesia, conveys an almost first-person knowledge of nuclear tests in the fifties and a strong command of the minutiae of neurological science. What kind of research did you do for the novel?
NK: Not so much, really. My father is a surgeon, and he put me in touch with a neurologist and a pathologist who answered some questions. I corresponded with a few GIs who were stationed at Desert Rock in the 1950s during the nuclear tests. Many have died of cancers of all kinds; the ones that are still alive call themselves atomic veterans. They helped me with certain details. Beyond that that, I read a lot of Oliver Sacks. I was interested in the ideaone that seems to be at the heart much of his workof the adaptability of the brain, of its need, above all, "to construct a coherent self and world," whatever disorders befall it. I think we all see the world so radically differently from each other, that we construct ways of being and modes of perception that allow us to survive given our particular brain. The knowledge that this is our own constructionand therefore singular to us is part of what makes us feel so alone. So while Samson's alienation might have resulted primarily from the bizareness of his medical condition, I wanted to suggest a way in which his experience is what all of us experience, only on a more extreme level. Another thing that interested me about Sacks was how many of the patients he described underwent forms of metamorphosis (his word) brought on by neurological chance (an accident, say, or a tumor). I was interested in how Samson's brain tumor and his resulting amnesia might force him to arrive at a new state of being, one perhaps even more evolved than his former self, despite his great loss.
BT: The desert, in addition to being a powerful metaphor for Samson's memory loss, is almost like another character in the novel. Was it simply a convenient setting for that reason, or is it a topography that you are particularly attracted to and wanted to explore in your writing?
NK: I love the desert, especially the Mojave. The first time I ever saw it was driving across the country, from New York to California, on my way back to college. Something about the place spoke to me on a gut level. Its beauty. Its crushing perspective. Its lack of tolerance for any sort of easy indulgence in sentimentality. Its massiveness and its fragility. It took a couple of drives, but eventually I got out of the car and started wandering around in the dry air and the light. There's a kind of purity of space and time that I've never found anywhere else. To hike out alone in the desert; to sleep on the valley floor on a night with no moon, in the pitch black, just listening to the boom of silence: you can't imagine what that's like. I guess the answer to your question is both that I love the desert and wanted to write about it, and that it was the most obvious place for a man with no memory to be drawn to, a physical counterpart to his own oblivion.
BT: Don DeLillo leapt out at me right away as an influence on your writing. Who else, authors or others, has had an impact on your writing?
NK: My fiction is a relatively recent invention: it began, more or less, with the first page of the novel. And it's true that as the story began to take shape, DeLillo was someone I sometimes thought about. But I wouldn't say he's been, in general, an influence on my writing; certainly nothing I wrote before bore any mark of him, though I first read his books years ago. I guess something about the experience I was trying to describe, this stark alienation, felt to me specific to the way in which we live now. And DeLillo is very goodone of the best reallyat capturing the feeling of what it's like to live in this moment, the peculiar sensations and sensibilities of our time. I always think of his writing as impressionistic: he doesn't describe the event, but what it feels like to be part of the event, inside of it, experiencing it first-hand. But there are things DeLillo doesn't seem to care about that I do. Heat, for example. I mean emotional heat: passion, jealousy, love, grief. The whole messy scope of human emotion. He seems to court detachment. He's not so interested in his characters' psychology. He's not even, I don't think, interested in rousing any compassion for them. To me that's a very limited way of writing. So while I have learned from him, and I take my hat off to him, I don't really want to be like him.
So many writers have influenced me, I mean influenced who I am, which is far more important than writing. Lots of them are poets: Joseph Brodsky, perhaps most significantly. Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet who may be the writer I love most in the world. Rilke. Auden. Beckett. Italo Calvino. Borges. My favorite living writers are probably J.M. Coetzee and Kenzaburo Oe. If the sound of these writers is less evident in Man Walks into a Room, it's because I had this idea that I wanted to write an American novel, whatever that might mean. So I read a lot of Roth and Bellow and Cheever, just to see what was going on there. But I'm not convinced anymore that putting aside those foreign influences is the best way to go about my own writing. Part of my identity as an American is defined by having grandparents from four different countries, and a mother from a fifth country. One grandparent spoke Herbert's language, another spoke Brodsky's, another spoke Rilke's. Why shouldn't the sound of those languages and sensibilities inform my writing as they've informed my life?
BT: While reading Man Walks into a Room, I kept feeling like the perfect environment to read it would be in a mid-century modern house in Palm Springs, perhaps reclining in a Le Corbusier chair. Did you have a particular mood or palette in mind when you were writing the novel?
NK: That's funny. It sounds a little like Ray's house, the scientist in the book. And his house was loosely based on the house I grew up in, a brutally modern thing built by a well-known architect who shall go unnamed here, lest I be tempted to use an obscenity. When I was about nineteen I wrote a poem that had the line, "architects should try to live in their own houses." I would have liked it if that fascist architect had tried sleeping in the bed of my childhood. It was a platform bed built into the floor and I remember asking my parents, who are relatively small people, "What happens if I get too big for this bed?" and they said, with the assurance of genetics on their side, "You won't." Only they were wrong, and I grew tall, and sure enough a few years later my feet were hanging over the edge.
Anyway, we'll be moving out of Palm Springs and Le Corbusier furniture for the next novel. When you describe that setting, I guess what I want to say is: Wait, that doesn't fit me anymore, if it ever did. My feet are hanging over the edge.
BT: As a poet, did you have a difficult time sustaining your interest and energy in a project as large as the writing of a novel? How do the experiences differ?
NK: A novel is something you can live inside, like a house. It has lots of rooms that serve different purposes. You build it with your own two hands, and although it's never perfect, and things are always breaking or need fixing, the dimensions are such that you can pass years of your life there. You can feel at home in it. You eat, you sleep, you have sex, you open your mail. A poem, I suppose, is more like a room. The word stanza actually means "room" in Italian. If you work hard enough on arranging the furniture, you might actually be able to make that room perfect. I think there's the possibility for perfection in a poem that I'm not sure there is with a novel. But as lovely as that room might be, with just the right light and view, eventually you have to leave it. You get hungry or tired, or you have to go to the bathroom. And in the end, as you walk out, you realize you've closed that door behind you forever. Heraclitus said you can't step into the same river twice. Well, when a poem or a novel is finished, you can't ever go back in the same way. It's just that a novel you live in for longer. And I like that. Wandering around in that house and making a life there.
BT: These are trying, some would say crazy, times. What relevance and value do you believe literature still offers people in a world gone mad?
NK: What is literature, really? Boiled down to a single sentence, I'd say it's this: a endless conversation about what it means to be human. And to read literature is to engage in that conversation. There seems to be a growing tendency among people to disengage: with the ideas, with the world around them, with other people, with their own feelings. To say whatever, because it's easier than actually caring. I find this attitude, and its mass appeal, very unsettling. Fearsomething we've experienced a lot of in the last yearonly heightens that urge to turn off and withdraw, to choose not to extend oneself. But great books force people to engage in the human conversation. They teach empathy and they teach compassion. They remind us of all the words there are beyond whatever. In a large sense, this is what Man Walks into a Room is about. It's about a man who becomes disengaged, and whoafter a lot of loneliness and painrelearns the difficult beauty of engagement. If I could reduce what matters to me most right now to a single word, it would be simply that: engagement.
BT: You've already accomplished much at a relatively young age, what challenges are you looking forward to next?
NK: More. More everything.
|Photo credit: Laura Buchwald|