Interview with Ken Foster Whit Coppedge One on One

portrait Interview with Ken Foster

interviewed by Whit Coppedge

Published in Issue No. 42 ~ November, 2000

In 1994, having just moved from New Orleans to attend Columbia’s MFA program, Ken Foster noticed a flyer from the KGB bar in Manhattan, looking for a volunteer to help run a reading series. By the time he left his position in 1998, the series had gone from monthly to crowded weekly events. In his Harper’s essay, “Unlikely Stories: The Quiet Renaissance of American Short Fiction” (October 1999), Vince Passaro pronounced the anthology Foster edited, The KGB Bar Reader, “one of the strongest collections of new writing available.”

In 1999, Ken Foster published his first collection of stories, The Kind I’m Likely To Get, a New York Times notable book. He has received an MFA from Columbia, a residency from Yaddo, and a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and, for a time, ran the NightLight readings at the Drawing Center in Soho. His fiction has appeared in Bomb, McSweeney’s, and the anthology The Ex-Files: New Stories About Old Flames. His reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Village Voice Literary Supplement. Currently in residency at The Julia and David White Artists Colony in Cuidad Colon, Costa Rica, he spoke, in September, via email from Iowa City.

Whit Coppedge: Many of the stories in The Kind I’m Likely to Get involve a former couple, John and Mary, after their breakup. Were these stories originally part of a longer piece or did these characters just appear at your door, uninvited, whenever you sat down to work on a story?

Ken Foster: The John and Mary stories were sort of an accident. I had first written, many years ago, a version of “A Story About Someone Else,” which at the time was called something like “The Truth About Lying.” No one in the story really says, directly, what they are thinking, and certainly not to the person to whom they should be telling. It was the first story I’d ever written that actually had a sequence of events in it, and I worked it over and over and over to get it right. Then Mary Gaitskill published a story called “Kiss and Tell” in which very similar events take place: a writer chooses to write about a relationship gone wrong and gets punched in the face for not revealing any of his own liabilities in what transpired.

WC: How did you respond to this coincidence of creation?

KF: In her story, the sexes were switched and, in mine, because the man does the hitting, he more or less confirms that he is a jerk. The Gaitskill story was weirdly closer to the actual events that had inspired my own story; hers was a better version of something that had actually happened to me. I put the story aside, and after living in NYC for about a year, began to feel restless about not being mobile; I’d been moving around a lot in the previous years. I was getting more done by staying in one place but had this falsely romantic idea that I should go out and conquer some new city. I found myself splitting these aspects between two characters in the story “Indelible” and at some point realized that it was John and Mary again. The third story, “Progress,” began as a story called “My Latest Accident,” and again Mary quickly announced that she would be the lead. (The mobility question continues in that one as well.) Much, much later, when I was revising the book for publication, I realized that a final story, “Crush,” might easily be about Mary after John, and I liked the idea of showing that she does move on, even if it is with a degree of uncertainty.

WC: So, you never were tempted to extend their story into a novel?

KF: Some people suggested I write a novel about the two of them, but I felt they had really run their course. They work better in fragments because their connection and their story together are fragmented. To do a novel would have been overkill, and frankly, even though I created them, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to spend the length of a novel in their company.

WC: About this romantic urge to conquer a new city – your work seems to have a strong sense of place, yet the featured cities do not overpower the individual stories. Do you ever feel your cities of residence trying to bully their way into a larger role?

KF: New York can be pretty bullying, in every way, but rather than it seeming to want to take over, it is more that I want to keep it at bay, and make sure that I don’t become a New York writer. There are only four “New York” stories in the collection, but for some reason many of the critics insisted on calling me a “New York” writer of stories with a “downtown” sensibility. And nothing could mortify me more. I kept thinking, “What do these people think ‘downtown’ means?” In most cities, it means the business district, which is not what I’m writing about at all. And more than any other city, the way people live in New York has little to do with the rest of the world, so even if some of the stories take place there, I wanted to make sure that they were about something more universal.

Another aspect of writing about all of these various places was trying to find the right balance, so that if people didn’t know the place, they would have a sense of it, and if they did know it already, they wouldn’t think I was wrong in some way. I didn’t want the stories to become travelogues in which the details of place overwhelmed the subject, so I made lists of details that would work to advance both the sense of place and the mood and the story itself, and then I forced myself to not stray from those elements.

WC: You started running the KGB Bar reading series about the same time you started study in the graduate writing program at Columbia. Do you think your work is at a different point than if grad school had been the primary influence on your work?

KF: Although I had no idea what I was doing at the time (and I probably emphasize that point too much), I think running the readings at KGB was a huge influence on my work, but not in the way that some people might think. Curating the series (or, for other people, just being in the audience) gave me exposure to a huge range of writing, different styles, topics, as well as different level of proficiency, all of which helped me to shape what it was I was doing, and to help me realize what I wasn’t doing, what I couldn’t do, what I hadn’t thought of doing. I had classmates at Columbia who felt that they were fully formed already and would boldly claim that they had no interest in the work of other new writers; that kind of thinking always makes me suspicious because I think we need to be curious as writers, about the world and about the work that our fellow writers are doing. For my electives at Columbia I took non-fiction and poetry classes, which some people thought was odd, but I really wanted to know how to use words, how to research something, how to explore different narrative techniques.

So KGB was great at letting me hear/read the work of a couple of authors each week, several hundred over the time I was there, and think about their choices, their use of language, their themes, and to see, frequently, works-in-progress. This is always reassuring because you can see the promise in the work but also that even the most accomplished writers really have to work at getting a piece finished.

WC: Has curating the series led to any unexpected critical responses?

KF: Too often, I hear certain writers criticizing those of us who they see as having come from the “spoken word movement.” In fact, Joanna Scott recently reviewed the new Sherman Alexie collection in the New York Times Book Review and she spent at least a third of the review talking about his reputation as a performer and how the stories didn’t stand up on the page without his voice there to direct the reader’s interpretation. And it infuriated me. Because it was dismissive, and suggested that writers who choose their words carefully, for pace and sound and meaning, are somehow something less than a writer. And in his case I really found the stories to be brilliant, and very clear, so it puzzled me that she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to think of the characters: as Mary Gaitskill once said regarding reader responses, “You aren’t supposed to think anything, you think what you think.” I would think someone as smart as Joanna Scott doesn’t need to be lead by the hand to find the significance of a story.

WC: Please talk a bit about the genesis of The KGB Bar Reader. Do you think it’s representative of the majority of the readings? Were the writers generally less conservative in what they chose to read, compared to more traditional reading venues?

KF: Yes, they definitely were. People knew that it was a “self-selected” crowd that wanted to hear things and was willing to walk the plank with them, which doesn’t mean just being willing to listen to self-consciously shocking or explicit material, but also being willing to hear people experiment, or read something that wasn’t quite there yet. And particularly earlier on, the crowd was very regular and had many writers in it, so there was a sense of support in the crowd, even if you didn’t really know them as people. But that wore off as the series got more attention. At a certain point, it became a little more self-conscious and the crowds became more critical or even somewhat resentful of the readers.

WC: You could detect a change in the readings’ atmosphere?

KF: I felt a growing sense of people needing to “prove it.” And the series had built up this reputation of being for a certain kind of reader, a certain kind of audience, for being a launching pad of some kind. I don’t know that it was until it got the reputation, but it made good press for certain people. Once it was in the press, people chose to believe it and then question it, and as an entity it began to live up to its public reputations, both good and bad.

WC: When was the idea for an anthology suggested?

KF: Part of the self-consciousness of the New York scene meant that people were suggesting an anthology after only a few readings. I thought it was a terrible idea because what interested me was the live aspect, the intimacy of it, the hearing of new and unfinished work. But after a few years, someone suggested it again and I thought back on all of the pieces I’d heard that hadn’t been published or collected and thought that now it might make sense to put some of these things in print and to commemorate this particular time and place in literature.

WC: How difficult was it to compile?

KF: I got a deal together for very little money and was given only two months to assemble it. I ended up with more things than I had planned though because, initially, I had thought that the bigger names were unlikely to accept the tiny payment I was offering. Instead, they were the ones who agreed immediately; it was the unpublished writers who had a hard time with it. Several of them refused. I tried to get a range of work, to suggest a spectrum rather than a “best of,” and I was limited to things that hadn’t appeared in books because the publishers who owned the rights, I learned quickly, refused to cooperate. Also, I only had time to contact people I knew how to find immediately and who would answer yes or no quickly because there was no time to negotiate or write letters. I didn’t realize that turning in a larger book would be a problem for the publisher, so a few pieces ended up being cut for space by my editor. But I learned a lot through the whole process about editing and production. I wish I could do another anthology of some kind now, with all that I know.

WC: What are you working on now?

KF: Good question. I’m asking myself that every day. For a long time, I’ve been trying to write a novel. I kept trying to write something completely different from the stories because, for a while, no one would publish them. I thought, “I need to do something else.” But I was trying so hard to be the opposite of what I had been that the work came out very self-conscious and static. Then the books happened, and I was focused on them and on the revision of the stories and then touring for the book. And then I began reviewing, which I discovered I really enjoy – and frankly, the money comes in immediately for reviews, which can’t be said for fiction. So I reviewed a lot of books this spring, and it really helped me to focus on what I wanted to do in the novel, and what I wanted to avoid. I just received a grant that is giving me a few months to focus on writing.

WC: So you’re working on the novel again?

KF: The novel is coming together now. It’s interesting because it contains some of the same characters and setting that I started with, but otherwise has taken on a life of its own. It’s heavily inspired by music because I am, and the desire to communicate (which is sometimes seen as presumptuous), and the ways in which big business corrupts our integrity. Essentially it comes down to: “Who is more selfish: the person who thinks he or she has something to say or the one who refuses to listen.” There are four characters and the telling of the story shifts to each point of view. But I’m afraid to say anything more than that.

I also just finished a new short-story, called “Pushmi-pullyu,” which is more complex and plot-driven than anything I’ve done before. It made me realize why I love writing.

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Whit Coppedge lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His story "Taqueria" appeared in Pif's October, 1999 Issue.