Reading A Book Is Being In Someone Else's Mind
An interview and 42 book recommendations from Praying Drunk author Kyle Minor.
Kyle Minor makes words come alive on the page. Each word is a gift. Each word is a revelation. Whether he's writing about life or death or religion or any other topic, he opens up a whole new way of looking at the world. His sentences give meaning to the complicated and chaotic world that we live in.
His latest book, Praying Drunk, is a collection of stories and questions and essays. It's a book to read slowly, to underline and write in the margins of and quote from.
We spoke via email about the transformative power of literature, writing about robots, subjective truth and fiction, and so much more.
Praying Drunk is fiction with autobiographical elements. How much of the autobiography is true? One of the stories was originally published as an essay, right?
Kyle Minor: Before this book was a book, it was a salvage project. For 10 years I was circling around a series of preoccupations in different modes and genres — the story, the essay, the letter, the lyric, the memoir, the vignette, even science fiction. There was a time I thought I was writing a book-length memoir, and for a while, I thought maybe I was writing a novel. I was failing at everything, and one day I hauled out all the wreckage and arranged it on the floor. I started moving the parts around, trying to see what they were saying one to another, and at first I was dismayed to see that so much of what I had was a retelling of something else I had. There was a darkly obsessive quality to all of it, and at a time like that you have to face the horrible truth: This is the most honest possible document of 10 years of my interior life, and if these things are united — and it was clear they were — what unites them is that they are cumulatively a portrait of the teller. A composite story-in-obsessions, a less rare thing than you might think, because anytime we try to tell the story of anyone else, or describe anything outside ourselves, we are telling other people as much about ourselves as we are about our subject. So the play with the autobiographical element — especially the dropping of the nonfictional pieces into the fictional frame, which, of course, immediately causes them to become part of the fiction — came about that way, organically. The material dictated the form.
At the same time, I was thinking about the traveling preachers of my childhood, with all their talk of hidden backmasked demonic messages in Beatles records and how when the sky turned red, look to the East for the return of Christ on the white horse, with the sword and the hordes of angels and the graves ripped open and the zombie army come to take the righteous away, and if you're left behind, watch out, because the evil Man of Peace from Romania or Bulgaria will start his reign of terror, and soon the United Nations helicopters will be chasing you through the mountains, and if they catch you, it's the guillotine for sure. After that, the Great White Throne Judgment, in a stadium the size of the world, and everyone's evil thoughts and evil deeds projected in 16 mm on the largest canvas ever draped, and the sheep are divided from the goats — that one part is a metaphor, people aren't actually turned into animals — and, as the trumpet band Cake prescribed, sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell. If you're lucky enough to be deemed sheep, you spend time without end singing church songs in the direction of the throne. You get crowns as rewards for your good deeds, but you don't get to keep them. You have to throw them back to the throne, because the only being worthy of the crowns is the one you're singing the church songs about.
Don't you think it would get boring after not very long? Everything interesting in the world comes with trouble attached. You've got skin in the game. And I figured, pretty soon, I'd sneak off and find a little study carrel somewhere in heaven, probably right next to Joyce Carol Oates, and the two of us would sit there forever grinding away at the old stories, from the good bad old days when things were still possible, and for sure it would be those same old preoccupations, circling them again and again, trying different forms, trying to get it right but never quite getting it right, because there never does seem to be an entirely satisfactory answer to the question: What was all that?
And then I realized: That's what this book is. That's its form, that sorry unlucky citizen of heaven, typing the stories now only for himself, because all the interesting people, all the ones who would enjoy them — who would enjoy anything, really — are burning away forever in the lake of fire, while the being who put them there sits on a throne and makes everybody else sing him third-rate songs of praise and glory.
You say, "Everything interesting in the world comes with trouble attached." I couldn't agree with you more. Do you find as a writer and a human being that you're more attracted to situations and scenarios that could potentially be bad for you, just because of the excitement attached? Do writers need to live chaotic lives in order to find inspiration?
KM: Flannery O'Connor said that everybody had all they needed for a lifetime of story-making by the end of childhood. I think that's right in its way, but I resist it. After a while, you write through those childhood preoccupations — or at least I have — and you want to stretch out into things you don't know but want to know about the world. I've admired writers like Richard Price, who turned himself into a different writer before he reached mid-career by hanging out with cops and drug dealers and learning their lives. Like so many great writers, he continued to pursue his personal fixations, but he found a way to look at them through a public lens. That's a vision of literature I admire. It's not the only one I admire, but it's one I hope to chase harder.
As to the other question, I think that writers, by time they're into the writing, are well served to live lives as orderly as possible, because this stuff is hard work. It takes a lot of time, and it asks your brain to do extremely complex tasks every working day, for months and years and maybe the rest of your life if you're lucky. It's good to go out into the world and gather, but it's also good to protect your body and your mind and to cultivate a space for reading and thinking and silence and reflection and the hard work of making those sentences one by one every day. When I think of my friends who are writers, this is what I wish them most of all: enough food, enough money, enough time, enough space, enough courage to keep stretching out into a dream no one else could dream until you're done dreaming it for them.
So much of this book is about stories and what we tell ourselves. There's a bittersweet realistic look at the narratives we try to make out of our own lives. But it's also about religion. What do you feel more optimistic about?
KM: The preoccupation with religion is really a preoccupation with the circumstances into which I was born. In that sense, it's the same preoccupation you see in almost every book you ever read. It's those same questions writers always seem to be asking: What was that world I came from? Who were my people? Can I get enough distance on all of that to try to come to some sort of understanding of what it all was?
I grew up thinking it was normal to believe that dinosaurs and men once walked the Earth side-by-side, or that the theory, the more or less established fact of plate tectonics, was a pseudoscientific conspiracy by scientists to cover up the obvious truth that our planet was once encircled by a canopy of water, which was foreordained by god as a means for the near-destruction of the Earth in the time of Noah, and when it all came roaring down out of the sky, it moved the continents around out of the water's mighty force.
When you get a little distance on that kind of thing, when you get some geographical distance, some time, some experience, some education, you gradually develop the wherewithal to look at it through the eyes of almost anyone who didn't grow up that way, and you realize: That was batshit crazy.
I feel optimistic about clear sight, about rationality, about the hard-earned ability to look at something and to declare: This is batshit crazy.
As someone who was raised Catholic and doesn't believe in organized religion, I can relate to thinking that the theories and stories we're given as kids are kind of batshit crazy. Why do some people want to continue to believe in these stories even when they've lost faith?
KM: Well, they're good stories, for one thing. Not many people go to the source and read them anymore, so it's easy to forget. Giants in the land of plenty, and a man whose strength can conquer nations unless a woman cuts his hair, and if your brother dies, it's your duty to have sex with his widow, but you must remember that the baby won't be yours, it will be your brother's. Sometimes I hear churchgoing people talk about the Bible as though it were a self-help book written by Stephen Covey or Tony Robbins, some kind of positivity-productivity thing. Plus, as Jeff Sharlet — who is our best writer on these matters — might say: Sweet heaven when I die.
But that's not how that book is at all. It's considerably darker. Right from the beginning, there's an all-powerful being who sets up a vacuum of information and all but dares the initially deathless creatures he's made and claims to love to eat from the tree that will give them the information, and then condemns them to struggle and pestilence and mortality when they do the thing anybody would do, which is exercise their curiosity and eat from the tree. They have two sons, and the older kills the younger, so the first serious act committed under the new regime is murder. Soon it's the aforementioned destruction of everybody except one family by water, and not long after, when the people try to build a tower to reach the creator — a thing that would seem to me to be an act of love or at least devotion — the creator destroys the tower and causes everyone to speak in different languages so they'll be at war if they don't disperse to the four corners of the Earth.
As wild and possibly crazy as all of that is: Isn't it interesting? Isn't it full of mystery? Isn't it outside the battleground where logic and science usually do their tamer fighting? Isn't it close in spirit to all the still culturally relevant thrills of myth and magic, the stuff of Harry Potter and Star Wars? And doesn't it appeal to a desire as base as all the others, the desire to belong, the desire to be on the side of right, the desire to be forgiven, the desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, the desire to be part of something lasting, the desire to have the special knowledge, to be among the chosen, to expect ultimate justice, to receive a due reward, to transcend the tyranny of death? It's a rich subject.
There's a lot of violence in Praying Drunk. Particularly in the futuristic story about a father and son. Is the violence a metaphor for the ferocity of a parent's love?
KM: I think that metaphor isn't something you impose on a story from the outside. We can read something, and see the relationship between what is going on at the surface level of the story, and make associations with the other things in the story, and between the language or the image and something bigger that's going on underneath. That's one thing a skilled reader will always be doing, reading at both of those levels, the literal and the figurative. But that's a kind of reverse engineering, and it's probably not how the writer got to the metaphor. Usually, you discover them as you go, and they rise naturally, from an image you just put into the story for a functional reason, like you had to describe a bridge or a person or a tree, or they rise from something in the story's structure, like you suddenly realize that you need a repetition here to show how a thing has come around, so you reach backward toward the thing that started out as a functional thing, but now it stands in for the whole story, and to the writer it seems like a little miracle, so if it also seems like a little miracle to the reader, then to the writer it starts to seem like a big miracle.
But you asked about violence. A lot of readers ask about violence, and sometimes it's a welcome question, and sometimes it's really not a question at all, but instead it's a complaint from somebody who has been privileged enough to lead a life that hasn't had a lot of first-hand intersection with violence. Well, I grew up in a world in which violence was always near at hand, and you didn't have to go looking for it. It would come to you, and the best you could do was try to avoid it for as long as you could. I think that's actually true for more people in the world than it is not true, but our American writing situation maybe doesn't hold to those proportions, because in order to get the time and help you need to get good at making sentences, you need money or education or access or something, and all of those things are easier to find if you had them to begin with. But if you had them to begin with, your life was maybe a little more abstracted from the world of trouble, which is, it turns out, so violent. So you have the luxury of being squeamish, or of saying you don't want to look at that, or even telling other people that something is wrong with them because they aim to actually represent the world as it is, in its wholeness, which includes such violence. I wish it weren't so.
During your recent event at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, you mentioned wanting to write another robot story. Do you think you will? If so, why are you drawn to the science fictional component?
KM: I like what Zadie Smith said. Literature is a big tent. There's room under there for all kinds of circus acts, and not just the ones in the three rings beneath the trapeze, but also all the ones in the dark corners, in the bleachers, under the bleachers, in the dressing area, in the animal cages, in the Port-O-Lets with the good time phone numbers scrawled in Sharpie marker on the blue plastic.
I think that American literature is still in the long process of crawling out from a dark hole that was dug by the pronouncements of the so-called minimalists, whose influence is still felt strongly in some writing classrooms which are full of unhelpful, restrictive proscriptions such as "show, don't tell" and "write what you know" and "Hemingway's iceberg" or whatever. (Show and tell and do a tap dance, I say. Write what you want to know and go find a way to know it. Send a team of divers under the water and bring the report to the surface.)
The antidote for all of that is reading, and all the great writers are readers first. If you decide good and early that you're going to read profligately, you're going to read without aesthetic prejudices until the reading justifies and calcifies your prejudice, you're going to read without ceasing until you've burned through all the books from all the continents, all the styles, ultimately all the pleasures, then you're going to realize that literature isn't any one particular thing. Literature is all kinds of things, and ultimately literature can be almost any kind of thing.
A writer I admire used to say — I'm paraphrasing here — if we take away the crime novel, we lose Richard Price and Elmore Leonard and Joyce Carol Oates, and if we take away the novel that's like an essay, we lose Milan Kundera and V. S. Naipaul and David Foster Wallace, and if we take away the horror novel, we lose Shirley Jackson and Edgar Allen Poe, and if we take away the Western, we lose half of Cormac McCarthy, and if we take away the fairy tale, we lose the Brothers Grimm and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and if we take away magic we lose Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Angela Carter. Well, if we take away the science fiction story, we lose Octavia Butler and Kurt Vonnegut, and that's not a world I want to live in.
I like the idea that a writer pursues his or her craft in absolute freedom. Maybe one story finds its truest home in the family kitchen, among the plates and the silverware and the water pitchers — and I'm not saying that to denigrate those things. I remember what an Italian judge serving on the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal taught Lawrence Weschler when they were standing in a museum in the Hague, in front of similar scenes painted by Vermeer during the Thirty Years' War, a time when in the fields just outside the window from where the famous Vermeer light shone upon the girl with the pearl earring, the armies were doing their marching and killing. In the time of Vermeer, all Europe was Bosnia. "The pressure of that violence," Weschler writes, "is what those paintings are all about." It's the same project shared by so many of the poems of Wislawa Szymborska, who lived her entire life in Poland during the terrible upheavals of the 20th century, and Poland was the fulcrum of so many of those struggles, so much bloodshed. The Soviets, the Nazis, the camps. You want to tell the story of the world, and you have a choice the way you always have a choice when you're telling the story of the world. You must decide: Is the story located alongside the march of the armies across continents, the great men, the castles, the knights, and the kings, or is the story with the little girl drawing water for her family from the river, the vegetables they are growing in the garden, the fire that keeps them warm at night, the struggle to find the firewood?
There's no one right answer to these questions. Sometimes you want to write about the rise of a great empire, and the best path from here to there is a love story in a hovel. Sometimes you want to write about the dissolution of a family in a time of domestic tragedy, and the best path from here to there is a story about a defective replicant robot in the Kentucky of the near future.
In your story titled "Q&A," you say "Q: On the cover of this book, it says 'fiction.' A. That's what people write when they want to get away with telling the truth. When they want to convince you of a lie, they dress up some facts and call it 'nonfiction.'" Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tinkers, often talks about truth and fiction. Do you believe you can be more emotionally truthful in an imaginative narrative?
KM: Another question for which there isn't any one answer. There are books in every genre that are searing with truth that is almost too hot to touch. And there are many more books in every genre that are as false as any State of the Union speech you'll ever hear. The advantage fiction confers, I think, is the good freedom to invent, and the great freedom to enter into the points of view of other characters, and the even greater freedom to avoid the libel lawsuit.
What are some books, both nonfiction and fiction, that are "searing with truth"?
KM: The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat. Beloved, by Toni Morrison. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner. Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich. Nightwork, by Christine Schutt. The Shawl, by Cynthia Ozick. Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee. All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, by Lan Samantha Chang. House of Sand and Fog, by Andre Dubus III. Stoner, by John Williams. Girl Trouble, by Holly Goddard Jones. Pitch Black, by Renata Adler. Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Going to Meet the Man, by James Baldwin. East of the West, by Miroslav Penkov. Bats Out of Hell, by Barry Hannah. Seventeen and J, by Kenzaburo Oe. Lust, by Susan Minot. I Am a Japanese Writer, by Dany Laferriere. We're in Trouble, by Christopher Coake. The Great Man, by Kate Christensen. Erasure, by Percival Everett. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, by Nathan Englander. Open Secrets, by Alice Munro. All Aunt Hagar's Children, by Edward P. Jones. Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy. Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson. The novels of Jose Saramago. Vermeer in Bosnia, by Lawrence Weschler. Bluets, by Maggie Nelson. I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman. Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate, by Johannes Goransson. Mystery and Manners, by Flannery O'Connor. Madness Rack and Honey, by Mary Ruefle. The Necropastoral, by Joyelle McSweeney. The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard. The essays of John Berger and Joan Didion and Eula Biss, and this great uncollected essay by Yiyun Li titled "What Has That to Do With Me?"
It's a very incomplete list. It's too larded with contemporary Americans, and we haven't even got to poetry section, which is where so many of the best books are shelved. And already I'm uncomfortable with having said "searing with truth," because too often that gets interpreted as Big Bad Truth, truth absolute and unyielding. I'm more interested in subjective truth, as is any fiction writer worth his or her salt. Not what happened, but what does a specific person make of what happened, and what do we collectively make of what happened?
In "First, the Teeth" you write about a grandson dealing with his grandfather's decline as he lies on his hospital bed. The grandson lies to his elder and says he's writing a book about him, "...any ugliness that will nourish him." Do we need lies and stories in order to survive?
KM: I think what we need most in order to survive is food and water and shelter. The bigger questions are: What are we going to do with the lives we have? Are we going to serve what authority tells us to serve? Are we going to be interested in pleasure? Are we going to have any stake in the systems that form the baseline for our culture? Are we going to have much of a culture at all? Are we going to learn to think for ourselves? Are we going to address the troubles that keep us up at night? Are we going to accept what others have told us to believe without questioning?
It turns out that the battleground upon which these wars are fought is almost always the story, the narrative, not just the assembling of facts and events, but their selection and ordering toward the end of deciding what all that was. The consequence is the future, which will be sorted out in large part based upon which story, which subjective arrangement, wins the day. And maybe that's where the story becomes a mechanism of survival or extinction. We see this play out every day in the news. For a long time, a bunch of people said that the scientists were wrong, there was no such thing as climate change, we can burn all the oil we want, it's the best thing in the world. And now the consequences may or may not be reversible, but they're certainly weighty. The story that won the day was terribly destructive, and time will tell how destructive it was. I'm hoping there's still hope.
I hope story leads to survival instead of extinction. Stories are what some of us leave behind once we've passed away. Even if you're not a writer. Some families have stories they continue to tell of ancestors; stories that have changed and been embellished over the years. But I think stories are where we end up finding our true selves, or aspects of our true selves. Can you imagine a world without words?
I think it's hard enough to imagine the world without us, and that's a powerful engine for a story. You see those same questions and concerns in the old myths from every culture. Survival is always a temporary condition. So many stories are futile cries against death, as though we could do anything to forestall it. And all of our little melodrama plays out against the backdrop of time and space and everything. Eventually human beings will be extinct. Eventually our planet will no longer be habitable. Eventually the sun will swell and overtake the earth and roast it. Eventually our solar system will succumb to supernova. Eventually our galaxy will collapse into other galaxies. We hardly know anything about the universe, but we've done enough astronomy and physics and math to figure out all this sad knowledge about the deep future. One of the questions the characters in Praying Drunk want to ask, in the tradition of the Book of Ecclesiastes, is: "Isn't all this meaningless? Isn't all this vanity?" And the answer I want to give on their behalf, with everything that's in me is: "If this is all we have, this is everything. It means everything. It means so much. It means and means."
Here is a line from "The Sweet Life": "Back at the farmhouse and the ramshackle house, everyone says the same empty words they always say about heaven and God and the way all things work together for good. I have heard them so many times, but now what they mean to me is that life is empty of meaning so people must tell themselves stories about how and in what ways everything means." Is this how you feel about religion?
KM: It's hard to talk about religion, and not only the big abstraction of capital R "Religion," but even the local varieties. Everyone is having a different experience, a different relationship to whatever it is they think they're doing. So what you're left with is the local experience, the subjective experience, and that's what I'm writing out of when I make the fiction.
For me, it was like this: The week before my 4th birthday, my parents enrolled me in a school in the path of the airplanes at Palm Beach International Airport, on a campus that seems magical even now, which had been purchased from a Chevrolet dealer who had a taste for exotic trees, so he had filled it up with rows of 50-foot-tall Australian pines, with massive Banyan trees you could climb and hide inside, with paper trees whose bark you could strip and draw a treasure map, with orange trees and lemon trees and lime trees and trees bearing a bittersweet fruit shaped like a star, which, as it turns out, contains a trace amount of neurotoxin, a metaphor if there ever were one. The curriculum required weekly memorization of portions of the King James Version, the only Bible that was allowed on campus, a book that begins in creation stories and the near-destruction of the world by flood and all manner of god-sanctioned genocides as a means of acquiring a land that had once belonged to somebody else, and which ends in the destruction of the world in a final holocaust accompanied by trumpets and bowls and angels and the resurrected dead and the man who once commanded everyone to turn the other cheek now arrived with a sword. Most of my teachers were educated at places like Bob Jones University or Pensacola Christian College, places where white people were forbidden from dating black people, and where courting adults had to be accompanied by a chaperone in broad daylight as late as 1990. And every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, every Wednesday night, we worshipped with the Southern Baptists, a denomination that was founded in a split with the Northern Baptists over the issue of slavery, or, to be more direct: The Southern Baptists thought slavery was ordained by god. That wasn't the official line anymore by time I was a child, but that doesn't mean people didn't occasionally say as much anyway.
I came to believe that I didn't anymore want to be a person who let other people dictate the terms of my life and my thoughts and the baseline circumstances of what I could or couldn't do in my life because they had acquired, somehow, the power to speak in the name of god, which meant whatever they said or did or commanded was righteous, no matter how awful it seemed while it was happening. And when I became an adult, I realized: The only person, now, who can grant this power, is me. So I stopped granting it. I walked away, and what I lost was a community, but what I gained was a life.
And while you lost that religious community, haven't you found a better role as a dear member of the literary community?
KM: It depends upon whom you ask. The more good things that happen to you, the more people will throw rocks. I've been lucky so far in my career not to have too much material success, so it hasn't been hard going in the community way. Most of my best friends are writers or storytellers of some stripe, and some of them are dear friends. But I'm not under any delusion that writers are inherently any more noble or trustworthy than anybody else, or that any community doesn't have latent within it all sorts of darkness, and incitements to conformity, and arm-twisting, and pettiness and jealousy and big fights over little things.
When you think about what it is that writers do, it's not that justifiable, at least at the ground level. We appropriate from everyone around us. We don't spare the feelings of the examined. We tell the secrets. We tell the version of the story that isn't sanctioned by the keepers of comfort. We hoard time away from our real live loved ones to cultivate imaginary loved ones in an imaginary world made up of arrangements of twenty-some arbitrarily chosen symbols, and then we expect people to give up their time to read it.
But to me, there is one great thing about people who spend their lives in good books. They're walking around carrying with them all these other lives that they've lived through the books. They've done the one thing you can do to destroy solipsism, which is to spend all those hours in somebody's else's shoes, in somebody else's consciousness. That's the only thing, really, that books can do that TV and stage plays and all those other forms can't do. It's a really efficient technology. It multiplies the experience of living in the world. You open to the first page, and then you're inside somebody else's mind, thinking somebody else's thoughts, seeing things the way somebody else sees them.
I think that's why people who read good books are the most interesting people, that's why people who read good books make the best company. There's a dozen or more people in there, and they haven't stopped talking in the white space after the last sentence. It's just that now they're talking to one another, and no matter that their individual stories were set in Senegal or South Africa or South Carolina, those stories are now no less a part of the story of the life of the serious reader than the stories from childhood or high school or college or the cubicle. Everything in life comes to be seen through a broadening filter, and it grows and grows.
You get a taste of that, and you want it more and more. And maybe you feel a real gratitude toward the people who made the books that made you feel so much, that challenged your too-small idea of things, that rewired your brain or set your hair on fire. Eventually, I think, it's natural for a reader to want to join that parade, to be one of those people lucky enough to have made something that made someone they'll never meet, in someplace they'll never visit, feel something as strongly as that one book made you feel, right there in the beginning, when you didn't know anything but everything was still possible.