Jamie Iredell: I noticed when I read How the Days of Love and Diphtheria and The Alligators of Abraham that your style reminded me a lot of Cormac McCarthy: rich, sonically layered, often anaphoric, prose that trounces along the page beautifully. And, since I’m one of your Facebook friends, I know that you indeed do love McCarthy. Can you talk about the ways McCarthy has informed your writing, but how you still manage to make your fiction yours and only yours?
Robert Kloss: He was kind of an ideal from the first glance, along with Faulkner and Melville, but it was four or five years before I had the guts to do anything about it. I tried to take different things—the compression and momentum and anaphora in Blood Meridian, the dreamy mythic elements in Blood and Outer Dark—the fearlessness of the prose and the violence in most of the books—but I think the thing I was most interested in was the way events in his books feel very natural, a progression of image and texture and landscape and event. I think in a way it’s a quality that reminded me of Terrence Malick’s movies.
As far as making it my own, it helps a little that McCarthy is just a more talented prose writer and a more fearless one. There are passages in his books that I would edit out, even if I were capable of writing them. But I think I also have a broader sense of story than he tends to. He has his characters that he follows, even in a book like The Road or Blood where there are larger events taking place. I tend to see things more as a broad progression of events and images and these characters just happening to inhabit them.
JI: You’re right about that broad stroke you paint with your stories. The Alligators of Abraham, for example, covers almost the whole scope of American history, but also feels like a single story, a single narrative voice. That second person choice of course works well for that, and it seems that if there’s a character it’s that voice. Why did you choose that point of view and why did you choose to cover such a wide range of time and narrative in that novel?
RK: Well, I’ve always felt more at home with the less traditional POVs. First person always felt like I had to write in the voice of the character, which I’m terrible at, and third person these days is that kind of close third person perspective—everything you read in the third seems like it’s fused with the mind of the main character. For a writer like me, who wants to get outside of the character’s head and really outside of character entire, that’s a nightmare. It’s not fun at all. But those are the only tools you are given for so long. In my MFA days I was really big into Donald Barthelme, so I tried out the first person plural a lot, and really liked it—I just never had the guts to go further with it or even really show the stories to anyone. Because, you know, it’s totally outlandish in those programs to try out something like that. Anyway, I can’t remember the first time I wrote in second person, but there was something immediately very warm about it. It’s weird to admit, but I think for many years I was only half the writer I wanted to be, until I started writing in second person, and that’s when I started to grow into my actual self. There’s a spoken quality to the POV—so in my mind it becomes immediately something spoken, I can hear the cadences, I can hear the voice itself, and the voice guides me. And sometimes the voice is a whisper so I write in a whisper and sometimes the voice is the sound of something mightier, so I try to go to those places. With Alligators, because it was the first time I tried second person out in the long form, I did initially feel like I had to develop the speaker, that I had to reveal the speaker at some point. For a while I wanted the book to be in the form of a dialogue between the character and the speaker. There was a scene late in the book where we pulled back and there they were, talking to each other. But eventually I was cured of those impulses. Now I don’t think about who is talking, I just let them talk.
To answer the second part of your question—I think the range of time and narrative partly came out of How the Days of Love & Diphtheria. That’s a more focused narrative, partly because I tasked myself with writing it in a very small space of time. But the parts of it that I most enjoyed writing were the parts about the diphtheria epidemics and the collapse of societies. So Alligators was a reaction to that. I was also pretty influenced by Scorch Atlas and The Age of Wire and String at the time—and how sections of those books are just the thing that is happening. Now a pile of rocks falls from the sky, and that is more than interesting enough to keep my attention. I don’t understand why so many stories are about things like war or plagues, but feel the need to background the thing and foreground a very conventional and plain story about people interacting and learning about themselves. So I wanted to write the war itself, the alligator plague itself, the breakdown of society itself, and the more I got into the tide of history the further I extended it.
JI: I can definitely see how you arrived at your notion of “a broader sense of story” from reading Melville (Moby-Dick, The Confidence-Man, Pierre, “The Encantadas”), and of course Faulkner and McCarthy are working with broad human and/or universal themes. But these latter two are pretty character-driven writers. How else, or who else, along with Blake Butler and Ben Marcus, helped bring about this idea of “get[ting] … outside of character entire”?
RK: I’m not sure. I think partly I’ve always just been less interested in the everyday, the common experience, compared to the epic. And I haven’t yet figured out how to write the book I want to write, either. In fact, the book I wrote after Alligators follows fairly closely the life of a single character, and the book I’m writing now is also (mostly) focused on a single character, although I’m in the process of trying to blur that focus. I don’t know how far I’m capable of taking the idea at this point. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how Melville turned to poetry after The Confidence-Man and I understand more and more why that was appealing to him. Biographers sometimes call his turn to poetry a defeat, but I think it was a triumph. Some writers get progressively more focused on appealing clearly and plainly to a wide audience as they age, but Melville became purer and truer to his vision.
JI: I agree. I think Melville’s underrated as a poet. But clearly his prose has had a large effect on you and your writing. Those sentences! “From the shrugged shoulders, titters, whispers, wonderings of the crowd, it was plain that he was, in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger.” In this sentence from The Confidence-Man, I love the alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance, consonance, and rising rhythm that closes abruptly on the stopping, falling trochee of “stranger.” I hear quite similar effects in your prose. For example, this sentence from “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead”: “In the days to follow these men were found slouched against trees, their jugulars sliced with spear tips, their wrists gouged and brutalized, the life drained to the soil.” Did you spend a lot of time on Melville’s language, absorbing it? How much time do you spend crafting your own sentences?
RK: It’s very humbling to read him and it can seem a little like waving at the sun. And at times I have allowed that to discourage me from seriously studying his sentences and from moving more consciously in the direction of some of the aspects of his writing I most admire. The sounds and the rhythms you mention, the way the sentences build, more so than some of the other qualities, the ornate metaphors and puns and the more playful elements.
Eventually I spend more time on the prose than other elements of a work, I think. I’m still learning, always learning, how to spend more and more time on the prose. I think I was always a little afraid of pushing myself as a prose writer, so I’m still a little new to the idea of style. Also, I tend to think in terms of the paragraph rather than the sentence—I’m not so sure what a sentence should always sound like, but I know when a paragraph is right. And sometimes that feels like a limitation, and a limitation of the form, as well. That I’m always thinking in larger terms, the bigger units of sound and information. So I try to spend more time learning about sentences, being more precise with the language and the effects. I don’t think I’ll ever have the kind of control a writer like Gary Lutz has—I’ve read essays about how he builds sentences and I have a hard time understanding how he does it—but I try.
JI: I was going to ask if you were a Gary Lutz fan, or at least if you’d read his essay “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place.” But instead, maybe you could talk about the way that Melville writes stories—in particular novels such as Moby-Dick—that rely very little on the strength of “character,” or “traditional narrative,” and how that has informed the way you think about storytelling?
RK: Moby-Dick is the template on how to achieve a plotless, characterless novel while also having the most famous plot and characters in all of literature. Obviously he admired Sterne and Rabelais, the plotlessness and digressions in their books, but I think he was also much more of the natural storyteller than those writers. His plots are so simple and natural. There’s something about the slow unfolding of action that I enjoy, and pausing along the way to order chowder or to observe the crowd or listen to a sermon, or to meditate on the natural attraction all people feel toward the oceans. You get the sense that Melville was a natural storyteller who didn’t much care for telling stories, so much as gathering up all the little moments in life and [letting] them bustle out in his pages. And I think that’s very much to my sensibility. Even early on Ishmael fades in and out of the action. And I like that as well. As the narrator we expect him to be a major actor in the drama, but very early on Melville essentially announces that Ishmael will kind of dissolve into the textures of daily life. Later on of course Ishmael is almost entirely forgotten and scenes and thoughts are narrated to us that Ishmael couldn’t possibly observe. Even Ahab and the White Whale are tossed aside for lengthy digressions and essays on the nature of the whale. So it’s a novel about life made out of the texture of life. And it feels very real to me for those reasons, much more real than the other novels of the time and certainly more real than the novels of our time.
And I think what allows him to do this is the simplicity of his plots. Very little happens. It isn’t like Dickens where he has a thousand subplots and backstories and all this artificial narrative complication. In Melville the plot is the narrow line of the spine and everything else is what makes up the body. But that spine is very, very strong. And while I can try to relate much of what I described above to what I’ve tried to do in my own work, I don’t think I have the same strong backbone in most of my work. I tend to think more episodically without a strong central plot.
JI: You mentioned that you haven’t read some of the earlier of Melville’s novels, but the excerpt from “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead” reminded me quite a bit of Typee. Were you going for that there? Or is this what they call a “happy accident”?
RK: That’s interesting—a complete coincidence, sadly—I read Typee for the first time a couple weeks back, and that excerpt is over a year old. I was impressed with that book, though. It has the reputation of being an adventure novel, but it seemed clearly something more than that. Even in that book you see his eye wandering from the story.
JI: You said earlier that the novel you’re currently working on focuses around a single character, which is a departure from your already-published work. In general, where do you see things going for yourself with fiction in the future, and how do you think fiction is faring, and will fare, in the English-speaking world’s future?
RK: I’m not sure where I see my work going. I’m at a bit of a crossroads, I think. There are times when I’ve thought this could be my last novel—I seem to be writing myself into silence. The other issue, a real burden, is that there is something inside of me that wants to reach an audience. It’s always been there. Even as a school kid I wrote for enjoyment and I wrote to entertain my classmates. Now I’m at the point where I dread doing the things that I’m told I would need to do to reach a bigger audience, and yet I have a difficult time not wanting to reach out. I try to suppress it, like a monk, but there is an aspect of writing novels that almost requires some kind of audience—they take a long time to write and a lot of work and a lot of concentration, and without some kind of return, it gets difficult even justifying the amount of time. There were moments over the summer when I was up at five or six in the morning writing and I’d think “What am I doing?” Not that long ago the act itself was justification, but now it’s more difficult to always see the goal. So there’s some element that might be dying—I’m not sure.
There isn’t a lot in contemporary fiction that I appreciate. To be honest, I think most writers and books and publishers and audiences are trying to kill off the kind of writing I believe in. But then I don’t know where I’d be now without the indie lit movement I discovered four years ago. And it makes me very glad to walk into any bookstore and find the new Matt Bell novel or a book by Blake Butler. So in the end I think we’re doing pretty well. And I think fiction will always last. There will always be some deranged person scribbling somewhere.
Photo By Judy van der Velden