an interview with Walter Kirn      
photo of Walter Kirn

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When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?

At college I wanted to be a poet. I liked the extremely concentrated language, the atmosphere of otherworldliness. And I had some success, publishing work in small literary magazines. But something about the poetry world seemed too small and restricted and academic, so I set out to write plays. The only problem: writing a play and getting it produced are two different things. I started writing fiction almost by accident, when I interviewed the Knopf editor Gordon Lish for a BBC radio program. He asked me as he left if I was a writer. I said "yes," and then I ran home and composed a short story, which I sent to him. He asked for another, then another, and soon I had a book.

Tell me about your education, at Princeton and Oxford. How did those experiences influence you?

I studied English at Princeton in the early eighties in what I consider a period of high obscurity. Professors and students ran around discussing the work of critics and philosophers that I doubt they'd read or understood. It was Wittgenstein this, Derrida that, and I was as bad as anyone. It had an awful impact on my prose style, causing me to prefer words I could barely define to ones that I was comfortable with. Then came Oxford, a lonely period of reading by dim, underpowered bulbs in chilly rooms. No lectures, no midterms--just books. At least there were fewer intellectual pretensions there. Also, the Oxford system emphasizes writing lots of quick, short essays, which prepared me for the deadlines I face now as a journalist.

Thumbsucker is a coming-of-age story set in the eighties. How did that period shape your writing?

The eighties weren't the decade of shallow materialism that everyone tags them as--not for me, at least. For me they were more of a hangover decade in which the excesses of the sixties and seventies, the experimental ideas and lifestyles that may have gone a bit too far in certain cases, were treated with all sorts of cultural aspirin tablets, from flag-waving patriotism to health clubs to New Age religion.

Many bildungsromans are autobiographical, or semi-autobiographical. Is that the case with Thumbsucker?

The book is autobiographical, to a point. I did grow up in Minnesota, for example, but not in the period specified. I'm a magpie in my fiction, taking whatever looks shiny and curious to line the nest of my story.

How would Thumbsucker have been different if it had been set in the nineties, rather than the eighties?

The nineties aren't as interesting a decade as the eighties. We're more sophisticated now, more jaded and knowing, and every question comes down to economics. Sometimes I wonder if the nineties will be remembered as the decade of computers and the stock market. A shiny, inhuman time, it seems to me, without a lot of emotion or human drama. Unless you're O.J. Simpson or Bill Clinton.

You are a tough book critic (for New York magazine); how do you balance reviewing with writing fiction?

I balance writing reviews and writing fiction by trying to do each with total focus and not letting different projects overlap. That's the goal, at least. In practice, the vigilance and skepticism needed for reviewing are not a big help when it comes to fiction writing, where one needs to be relaxed and natural. You can't write a first draft and look scowlingly over your own shoulder at the same time.

What do you enjoy most about being a critic and a novelist?

Being a critic means being able to support myself by writing about my reading, and that's a dream come true. I'd be doing the reading anyway. Also, it means I don't have to teach to make a living, which I'm no good at.

What advice can you offer to aspiring writers, as both critic and novelist?

I have very specific advice for aspiring writers: go to New York. And if you can't go to New York, go to the place that represents New York to you, where the standards for writing are high, there are other people who share your dreams, and where you can talk, talk, talk about your interests. Writing books begins in talking about it, like most human projects, and in being close to those who have already done what you propose to do.

Do you expect a harsh reception by your peers in the reviewing press?

I don't expect harsh reviews that are merely the result of personal grudges or professional vendettas. Call me an optimist, but I don't think that's how reviewing really works. Most writers give the reader an honest reaction, based on the work, not the writer, and on what's between the covers, not what's outside of them. I know this because I'm often accused of having hidden agendas myself. I don't. Not that I don't have emotions; it's just that I try to be aware of them and keep them out of print. At the dinner table, on the other hand, or in the café or the bar, anything goes...

Tom Wolfe criticized Thumbsucker publicly before its publication, without having read a single word. Why do you think the book struck such a nerve with him, and what is your response to his attack?

Tom Wolfe's condemnation of my book--on the basis of its title and a brief, inaccurate summary from a newspaper column--represents literary cocktail party chatter at its emptiest.

What are you working on next?

I'm working on another novel about which I've already said too much in public. I don't want to rub the precious dust off the butterfly wings by discussing it further.

--interview by Larry Weissman
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