Ken Kalfus is the author of Thirst, a collection of short stories. Ranging from the Calvino-inspired “Invisible Malls” to a story of small-town cruelty, “Cats in Space,” Kalfus’ stories are stylistically and thematically all over the map, and with good reason. Kalfus has spent much time abroad, most recently in Russia. I conversed with him via email over the course of several weeks in August and September 1998.
Ryan Boudinot: Italo Calvino once said that whenever he wrote something fantastical he found himself yearning for realism, and whenever he wrote something realistically, he felt himself yearning to write something fantastic. There seems to be a similar dynamic at work in Thirst. Am I correct?
Ken Kalfus: When I was writing the stories in Thirst, I was trying out different literary voices and styles, unsure about the kind of writer I was going to be. When I finished one story, I tended to look for something entirely different to write, to see if that style better suited me. After writing a fantasy story like the baseball story, I wanted to sink my teeth into the meat of real life, in a story like “No Grace on the Road” (though I’m not sure how real-life it is: the country in which it takes place is imaginary, ditto the cosmogony). I think when you read my next book, you’ll see that I’ve developed my conventional story-telling skills, while keeping an element of the fantastic in everything I write. Alternating impulses exist in my reading choices too. I read my 25-year-old, waterlogged paperback of Cosmicomics on the plane from Moscow, and I’m following it up now with Cold Mountain.
RB: What kinds of strategies have you employed with this next book (novel? short stories?) to meld traditional narrative with more experimental material?
KK: For me, every story demands its own form of storytelling, and that’s always the hardest thing to get right. It sometimes seems that there’s a million ways to tell a story, but only a single way that’s going to work. I consider all my fiction experimental fiction, because I never know how it’s going to turn out. The stories in my next book, which Milkweed is publishing next fall, are also variously told – one story’s a revised Russian folk tale, about the Russian economy.
RB: You are obviously comfortable setting your stories in foreign locales. On the other side of the coin, the stories set in the US felt to me as though they came from an outsider’s perspective. What kinds of literary questions have you dealt with as a writer abroad?
KK: Every writer considers himself an outsider, to some degree at least. Even when he’s writing about his own life, he must acquire some kind of narrative distance in order for his memoir to be successful. For the writer abroad, the narrative distance is built in, whether he’s writing about a foreign society that he can never be wholly a part of, or whether writing about the home he’s left. A friend (in Yugoslavia, it turns out) once told me that when you’re abroad, nothing is provincial. That’s a great condition for a writer.
RB: Some writers do anything to hide their influences. I enjoyed how you flaunted yours in Thirst. How have writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Calvino shaped your work? I’d be interested to hear about the circumstances under which you read some of the books that are most important to you.
KK: If I played third base for the Yankees, I think I would have to talk about how much Greg Nettles means to me. The writers I admire have created the imaginative Ballpark in which I play; I write because I want to Be Like Them. More conventional writers concern themselves with human character. In Borges and Calvino, the other aspects of the universe are proper subjects of literary inquiry: the idea of reality, the idea of time, fate, scholarship, the perception of color… At the moment, I’m very much enjoying Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata, having sloughed off the mournful and occasionally pedantic realism of Cold Mountain. I bought my copy of Calvino’s Cosimicomics in high school, when it was stacked in the science fiction section of the bookstore, a section that I was tearing through with a typically adolescent lack of discrimination. A good deal of my later reading taste was set in my early twenties, when I was living in Paris and then Dublin. My used copy of [Borges’] Labyrinths was bought in the Dandelion Book Fair on, I think, Lower Richmond Street. The store was quite well-known in those days, but is now gone, gone.
RB: I take it you’re a Yankees fan. If there ever was a season to be one, this has to be it. Who are you rooting for to break the home run record?
KK: I grew up on Long Island, so I’m constitutionally a Mets fan, but I have a very warm spot in my heart for the Munson-Guidry-Gossage-Jackson-Chambliss-Randolph Yankees of the ’70s. Oh yes, and that Mickey Rivers. But I’ve been abroad too much lately to follow the game, and too pissed off at the way the major leagues have been cheapened by expansion, interdivisional play and wild card-ism – I would be hard pressed to name five active players on either team. It’s still a great game though. Haven’t quite acquired any partisan stake in the home run race. Pretty amazing though.
RB: I wonder how your internal fictional world appears to you, as something that is unified, or something composed of many different parts. Is your experimentation a way to approach a singular problem from many different angles, or is it a fracturing?
KK: No, I don’t have a single big idea. If there is something common to most of the stories in Thirst, it’s uncertainty. I’m very unsure about the world and about the veracity of the ways in which I perceive it. If that’s a big idea, it’s a big idea about not having a clue.
RB: Not having a clue seems to be a good place to be. Any clues about the kinds of projects you’d like to engage next?
KK: With my next book of short stories set for publication next fall, I’ve been doing early work on a novel. It’s set in Russia in the early part of the century, but is contemporary in its themes and issues, and that’s about all I can say now, so as not to further divulge my cluelessness.
Boy, howsabout that Sosa?
RB: My allegiance to Ken Griffey Jr. prevents me from completely reveling in this home run race, but it’s nice to see everybody so excited about baseball.
It must be an exciting time to write about Russia. What kind of fiction is coming out of that country these days, and do you feel that your novel will share any sort of kinship with these works? Is your novel in any way “Russian” besides in subject matter?
KK: I try to avoid categorizing literature by nation or group, as either Russian or American or Jewish-American, etc. Every kind of conceivable fiction can be found in every vigorous national literature. The one contemporary Russian writer with whom I feel a real literary kinship is Viktor Pelevin. His work beautifully captures this disconnection between reality and the way we describe it. I hope that when people read my Russia stories, they will not find them to be distinctly Russian or American, but distinctly my own. Well, we’ll see. Russia was a great place for me to work, because of all the drama laid bare by its history and current situation. In Soviet times, Soviet society was disconnected from reality by propaganda and ideology. Nowadays, the disjunction arises from the way Western advertising, mores and political values have been abruptly superimposed on the society. For a writer interested in the limits to human awareness of reality, as I am, Russia is a rich area for exploration.