ND: The stories in Mr. Agreeable are considerably shorter than the stories in your first collection, Paradise Road. The two books demonstrate your control of narrative. You can hold a reader’s attention for thirty pages and/or rip their hearts out in two. How did you decide on the short-short form for Mr. Agreeable? What advantages are there in writing for brevity?
KN: You can risk more, I think, working in miniature. You can experiment. You can do outlandish things with structure and point of view, and with language. You can do just about anything, as long as the piece finally feels focused and whole, and as long as there’s impact. Which is wonderfully liberating, if you’re used to working in longer forms, where we tend to respect laws of verisimilitude. In flash mode, you kind of throw character out the window. Premise and theme predominate, as does voice, and omission—what you don’t say in a story, that is, but imply. You can’t possibly develop a character in two or three pages. But you can represent a universe in the head of pin, and shatter the reader quickly, the way one hopes to do in a poem.
The best thing about flash fiction, though, is that it’s less daunting to write. Or seems to be, initially. You sit down with your sketchpad or keyboard and the feeling is, Well, this won’t be so bad. Five hundred words can’t be that daunting. And it isn’t. Except that sometimes you write twelve or fifteen pages to find that one paragraph, or one sentence, that glows, and build your tiny tale around that. Or you realize, after drafting a while, that the piece you’re writing isn’t flash fiction at all. I finished a story lately I thought would be flash, or at least sudden. I wrestled with the thing for a year. It needed to manifest on its own terms, as fictions often do. It turned out to be eight thousand words, or just over.
I didn’t set out to write a book of short shorts, I should say, by the way. I’d imagined sprinkling the miniscule fictions in with longer stories, and had been configuring differently. But an editor at Mammoth wrote to ask if I had a book’s worth of shorts, saying he’d seen the shorter short fictions, and liked them. Lucky me, I guess. Books of short stories are horrendously hard to sell, as you know. Books of flash fiction are harder yet. As in impossible. Unless you’re Lydia Davis or Etgar Keret. Or Barry Yourgrau!
ND: I’m looking forward to reading your book of poems, Saint X, due out in 2010. What can you tell us about this collection?
KN: Like the short fictions, the poems examine persona, and they deconstruct self. They unravel the psychic fabric we layer over ourselves and each other, for whatever reasons. They puzzle over romantic failures, and sniff up what’s sacred in human endeavor, or try to. It’s a zany collection of poems, I think, solemn as few of them are. They don’t pretend to appeal to the reader on the rational level. A number of them began as exercises in verbal collage. They’re at the farther end, you could say, of the “risk”Â continuum. Writing poetry is a more tenuous enterprise than writing flash fiction, obviously. Writing a poem is like stepping along in the dark on ice in a wilderness. The poem insists that you not know where you’re going, then says, Okay, step over the edge. It invites you to fall, to say something unsayable. To stop making sense, as David Byrne said in the 80s.
ND: If you were stranded on the cliche desert island—and doomed to die alone—without an audience for your work—would you continue to write?
KN: Yes. Absolutely. The kinds of inner transformation writing offers, in all its guises and forms, would make it worthwhile. Would make it necessary. Don’t you think? Besides, the writing habit would be hard to break. And ridiculous as it sounds, the writer-zealot in me who lives to communicate thinks that some poem or short fiction I write, and seal up in a coconut shell, will survive. Will be read. And maybe matter to someone.
ND: While doing research for this interview I came across some great photos of you playing guitar like a rock star. It turns out you play and sing in a band—a Grateful Dead cover act, right? How do you think music informs your writing?
KN: I started playing guitar in a disciplined way long before I began writing, or began writing seriously. So your question is hard to address. The writing I do wouldn’t look or sound the way it does, I’m pretty sure, if music hadn’t come first. Musicians tend to think in sounds, and express and emote in nonverbal ways. I do, anyway. To a degree, writers share in this, too. Language is rhythmic and sonic, and if your ear is trained writing can be music as well. I’m as interested in the way something sounds on the page when I write, or revise, as I am in what the thing says, or conveys. But it’s hard to say how exactly I know what I know, or how influence works, or what might come out in the wash in the end. I’d like to say that the way I structure my stories or poems arises from music, and that my modulations in voice, or in rhythm, or my awareness of such, arise likewise. But I can’t. It’s a thing you can’t pin down, since what we absorb is internalized. And what’s internal is mysterious, finally.
One thing I can say with certainty is that writers work words and sentences the way musicians work measures and notes. We improvise a lot, of course, as we go, unless we’re working in poetic forms. When I play a riff of lead on the guitar with my band I’m playing notes, yes. Notes that are measured. But what makes music music isn’t just notes, or the beat or arrangement. What makes the riff the riff is the way you inflect. The way you pack notes in a phrase, or bend a note, or sustain it, or tweak it, or nurse it, whatever. It comes down to voice, really. Language and writing work the same way. Voice guides articulation. It informs rhythm and timing.
ND: Next time I sit down to write, what CD should I be listening to?
KN: In an ideal world you’d be sitting in silence. Or listening to the sound of the spheres, as they said in days before Galileo. Recorded music can get in the way of writing, I think. Not necessarily, not always, but often. It can add to the clutter of motion and noise, this media onslaught we suffer so much of the time. Silence, though, I admit, is intimidating, or can be, especially when you sit down to compose. Some albums or stations, I notice—if I’m conscientious about what I put on—can draw me deeply into the writing. Ambient music works best for me. And now and then, this droning downbeat electro-lounge stuff I find on the internet. Renaissance dances are helpful, I find. Motet and madrigals. Gregorian chants. The two best single albums I’ve found to compose to are David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Ab Ovo’s Le Temps Suspendu. And if I’m going great guns on a draft, Seventeen Seconds, by The Cure. These work for me, anyway. We’ve all got our own triggers.
ND: One of the narrators in Mr. Agreeable says, “The inner dark might be dark but the dark doesn’t lie. It brings into relief what’s beneath the facade, the useless colossus of what one is and does and believes.”Â All of your stories incorporate “dark”Â elements to expose the person behind the mask. What drove you to write a book that takes the facades off the Mr. So-and-Sos of the world?
If I was driven at all, what drove me were names, dumb as it sounds. In each case I began with a title. “Mr. Agreeable.”Â “Mr. Destitute.”Â “Mr. Ironic.”Â “Mr. Transcendent.”Â I was on a “Mr.”Â kick for eight or ten years. A number of these pieces turned out not to be stories but poems. I’d land on a title, basically, and dive in to explore the persona. I’d find a situation and a figure to dramatize something, a condition or quality—agreeability, transcendence, ecstasy, irony. Then I’d weigh the condition in light of a particular life, a particular way of seeing, a particular constellation of images. “Mr. Excitement”Â came first. I’d seen a man in fact in a supermarket, a bizarre, joyful guy, with those very words on his tee shirt. So I came up with a voice. An observer, a narrator. A wistful, crestfallen man. And a young daughter. At some point in the process I hit on the pivotal sentence, the one we look for moving into our drafts. It came as a question, from daughter to father: “Why is that man so happy?”Â she asks.
I didn’t set out to knock down facades, to answer your question. If that’s what happens in the stories, I’m happy to hear it. On some level, that’s what any good story should do, I suppose. It should see behind or beneath the facade. It should expose common myths, or distortions, truisms, public or private—the myth of the stable self, above all. Fiction examines the masks we wear, among other things. It wonders why it’s this mask and not that, and how the thing got there, and what it replaced. It describes, if and when possible, what the mask seems to want to protect. “[T]he essence of man is derived from the chaos of fakes,”Â Nabokov observes, discussing Gogol. “We did not expect that, amid the whirling masks, one mask would turn out to be a real face, or at least the place where that face ought to be.”Â
You’re right, though, we’re certainly driven as writers, like it or not—driven by questions we don’t often know how to frame. What drove me, in this case? Curiosity, on one hand. What’s in a name? I must have been thinking. How far can it pull a particular character? What are the contradictions this odd creature suffers? How did he get here? How is she not only fractured or tortured, but nuanced, complex? What is he dreading, or hiding? How does this story need to be told? Why does this sentence seem to need to be worded exactly like this, to quickly crescendo, or stagger, or rise and fall like a wave?
On the other hand, we’re driven I think by a need to understand. To understand on a personal level, on the cellular level, on the level of soul. Our characters, each and all, of course, are ourselves. They’re the various facets of the writer mutually at war with each other. All this scratching and digging we’re doing is finally about seeing why we’re the peculiar beings we are. Which is daunting, I know. But worth the risk, if we take the chance and let the thing happen, let the story unfold. If we get quiet enough to hear the voice on the page, and be guided, understanding will come, I believe. Or something at least in our knowing and not-knowing will change. Transformation happens in minute, subtle ways. In us, and our characters. The facades crack, the masks begin slipping. We might not end up with answers, but the pertinent questions, the stories, remain.