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A Brief Talk with Kirby Gann (2002)

—with the editors at Hill Street Press.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Um, yes and no. I was a voracious reader as a kid, and have always loved books. Even when not reading, I remember looking at all the books on the shelves of the local library and wanting to write my own book; but I'd no idea how one went about such things. Growing up in Kentucky in the 1970s and playing sports year-round did not make the most encouraging environment for aspiring aesthetes. Although in first grade I did win a county-wide poetry contest, the text of which still exists but will not be recited here. I was an English major in college. The faculty was pretty indifferent. It wasn’t until my junior year that one professor kind of took me under his wing and allowed me to believe I had unique, worthwhile thoughts in my head. I took to writing with a casual fervor that has only grown over the past fourteen years.

Could you name a few writers (and which books) whose work interests you at the moment, or who have influenced your work?

It’s difficult to identify influences. Many of the writers I loved years ago are anathema to me now. I was reading them when I was just getting started, and learning how sentences could make scenes, reveal characters and so on, so surely my style has been permanently tainted by them. Style is more important to me than "ideas" or sociopolitical relevance or that kind of hogwash. Therefore, most of the writers whose work continually interests me are the great stylists: Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, Bellow, Nabokov--although his novel-as-game books are too tight for me. She doesn’t need me to announce this, but Lorrie Moore is the best short-story writer out there today. I’m very intrigued by the playful structure of Milan Kundera’s best works, of which there are four, but his ideas are not so very illuminating if one tries to consider them outside the scope of each particular narrative. The same with Beckett: his writing is superb, yet his philosophy of life was fairly off the mark. Even if there is no God--which it's impossible to know one way or the other--and humankind is alone, I disagree that this necessarily translates that we are wallowing face-down in the muck. But Beckett's musicality and brief flights of lyricism appeal to me, and he is also
laugh-out-loud funny.

Have any of your books ever been turned down by a publisher? What that like and in what ways did it affect your writing?

My work has been turned down any number of times, often at alarming frequency, and it never stops being discouraging. Thank you for reminding me of this fact.... I wrote one novel several years ago called Out in the World about young Americans being swept up in some social unrest in the south of France, when Algerians were kidnapping people and setting off bombs everywhere. It was taken up by an agent, who later decided, after several months, that "the market" wasn’t ready for it. So she dropped me. Then another agent took it on, and she worked very hard and the book received a number of polite rejections. Which was frustrating enough, but adding to that was the fact that none of the letters had a criticism in common; what one editor disliked, the next editor praised. It was an eye-opening experience; many of the letters were downright haughty and personally insulting, rife with fighting words. It broke my heart to finally put the manuscript away in a box--where it still sits, gathering dust.

I’m not sure how this affected my writing, other than I found it difficult to get started on another work while my first novel was being sent around. There may have been an upside to this period of frustration, though: the rejections World received firmed my resolve, and educated me in the fallibility of editors. That I am a professional editor myself only assures me of the profession’s fallibility. The basic tenet of the book was that Americans have very little idea of how we are perceived by other cultures; that we’re actually considered rather clueless, and are generally disliked; that the way the world is constructed now means that "minor" problems between foreign countries can affect the life of someone living in Ohio. Ironic to think that many of the editors mentioned that acts of terror overseas was too obscure a subject for American readers. I wonder if it would be perceived that way nowadays?

Parade was also rejected by a few of the big conglomerate houses; enough that my agent at the time stopped returning phone calls from me. I ended up sending the manuscript to Hill Street Press on my own, and negotiated the contract alone, too. The reality is that rejection is part of the burden of being a writer seeking publication. It happens, and you move on. You hope that those editors who said no were wrong, and that they’ll be sorry to have passed on your work, someday.

Have you also written nonfiction and, if so, explain how the process is different for you?

I haven’t written any nonfiction, aside from the chance review and the introduction to A Fine Excess: Contemporary Literature at Play, the anthology I co-edited with Kristin Herbert. I do read a lot of it, however, and think some of our best literature is written in this medium. Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Hardwick, Cynthia Ozick, James Wood and William Gass are energizing writers. Biographies are a passion of mine too. It’s always a pleasure to see how some other writer or artist made it through the difficulties.

What was the moment that led you to begin writing fiction?

Good grief! How can a writer answer that with a straight face! "Let’s see, it would have to be May 18, 1980, the last day of seventh grade, when Ellen Beilefeld gave me my first french kiss and then stepped out of my life forever...." The closest answer I’d have to this would be that when I was fifteen years old, my English class was assigned to read A Separate Peace by John Knowles, and it was the first time the thought occurred to me that one could write about one’s own world, that is just might be possible to at least strive to write something as great as that book. I would love to go back and read Knowles, but I’m afraid I’ll hate it, and the beautiful memory of that novel would be lost to me forever.

How did you arrive at the idea for The Barbarian Parade?

It started as a short story--Witness (a GREAT literary journal if you don't already know it) took it for their "American Families" issue. But not long after the story was finished came the impression that I could do a whole lot more with it. I’m a firm believer that books are influenced by other books much more than real life. I’d read Bellow’s Augie March, and Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and Exley’s A Fan’s Notes and I had some vague notes of my own about certain themes that I wanted to explore dramatically, some memories that could be expanded upon in fiction.

Yep, the book started as a short story about the father jumping from airplanes and I was casting about at the time for something to strike me as being novel- worthy. The narrator of the story struck me as a voice you could stick to for the long haul of a novel, as did the dynamic between the narrator--who goes unnamed in the story-version--and his father. The character of Ray, the father, seemed to want a larger stage to romp around on.

When you wrote the book, was there a specific plan for how the story would progress or did you let the story direct itself?

When writing the first draft, there was no specific plan to follow. In fact, I had no clue where it was all going (the first draft ran to almost 500 rambling pages). The main thought was to keep writing until the voice ran out. Once the story seemed to end naturally, I had to go back and make sense of it. Then you could say a plan began to emerge: there is no conventional plot to the novel in the sense of gradually rising tension leading to a major conflict, but there is a rhyme-scheme of images, a circular shape to the narrative, and scenes that occur in the first third are mirrored. It required about four years of work for this novel to find its present form.

The funny thing about writing novels is that you have no idea how much work is going to be involved. In fact, I often wonder if I had known beforehand the degree of difficulty and effort required in creating a novel, would I have bothered to start the thing? It would seem too intimidating, better to grope in the dark through vague ideas and notions, contenting myself with one day’s work toward an unseen goal, than to think, "Okay, there’s a draft of scene #1. Only forty more scenes to go...."

Is there something of an autobiographical element in your work?

Typically no, but in the case of Parade, yes. One could start high-talking and argue, of course, that nearly all fiction is autobiographical in some way because you can’t avoid things seen and/or experienced. Still, Parade is more autobiographical than that. Many situations in the book come directly from real experience. Here are some facts that found their way into the book: I did take my new bike out for a ride in the midst of Louisville’s worst tornado storm, and saw a lot of awful things; my father did jump out of airplanes, and my mother did force him to quit once my brother and I were born. But my real parents are not very much like Ray and Olive. Also, I did play soccer at a fairly high level. Many of the events of what you might call "the soccer years" in the book are unfortunately based on fact: either things directly witnessed, or recounted by teammates. However, autobiographical elements in the story were transformed by the demands of the story, Gabriel Toure is much different than I was at the same age, he is less social and less empathic to others, and it takes him much longer to develop a conscience. His life is much more fraught than mine has been, at least as I remember it. He’s not really of the brightest mind, and has to learn compassion. Until he encounters Emily late in the book, and then further on, when he returns home to meet his parents again, he is almost a voyeur to his own life, studying everyone but himself.

Despite that this is written in the first person, the narrative reports on others more than Gabriel’s own thoughts and feelings at the time of action. Still, one could argue that the main theme of the novel is Gabriel’s quest for his specific form of authentic, personal freedom, and I would say that that has been my own quest, too.

What do you want readers to come away understanding from your book?

The book doesn’t state, or attempt to state, any kind of message. I think the only thing to ask of a novel like Parade is to have the chance to live in Gabriel’s skin for as long as it takes to read the book, and to consider his experiences and what they might imply, perhaps, on what we expect from boys and how we turn them into so-called "men". It’s a story of a boy’s move away from grace, and his efforts to find his way back to grace again. There’s no revelatory truth discovered here. Our narrator finds that it is easy to be ugly, cruel, and selfish, but that, for the most part, everyone is just trying to get by as best they can.