by Joshua Idaszak
Something that struck me in the first story in In the Devil’s Territory (and others in Praying Drunk) was how immediately unlikeable the protagonist is, yet also how his voice compels us to continue reading, even as we squirm at how he phrases things, what he objects to, or how he views his family. Is the concept of needing a likeable protagonist a myth?
I don’t ever think about likeability or unlikeability. I think about want, need, desire, grievance, and preoccupation. Sometimes I think that one result is that the stories can become something of a Rorschach inkblot test – different readers respond differently to different narrators, and it might say as much about the reader as it does about the narrator.
When I think about the narrators in the stories I’ve most enjoyed as a reader, I don’t see much uniformity with regard to likeability. Some are, some aren’t. I’m put off, almost always, by Flannery O’Connor’s cold omniscient judgmental narrators, but the stories reward the reading anyway. And I’m a little too in love with the narrator of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, but I know I shouldn’t be. The narrator of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is intensely likeable, but how could he be otherwise? He is a man of decency chasing his wayward brother out of love.
That said, I don’t really care for the first story in my first book. I don’t think it’s very good, and I wish I could take it back.
Zadie Smith has broken down novelists into two camps: micro-novelists and macro-novelists. Micro-novelists approach writing on a sentence by sentence level, not moving forward until the sentence is and macro-novelists move faster and may write an entire scene or a story before going back and revising. Which camp do you think you fit in?
I wrote those first two books sentence by sentence, but now that I’m working on novels and screenplays instead of short stories, I’m learning to work from a structural scaffolding, and then improvise within it, sentence by sentence. I don’t think I’ve ever written a story the same way twice, although I feel that formal restlessness easing now.
But I don’t think there’s any one right way to write a story. There are a lot of self-defeating ways, though, and I’ve tried most of those, I think. That’s why I only have two books in print.
In another interview you mentioned Richard Price, saying that you admired how as he approached mid-career he started getting to know cops and drug dealers more, and was able to shift his writing somehow. That he “continued to pursue his personal fixations, but he found a way to look at them through a public lens.” You went on to say that this is a vision of literature that you “hope to chase harder.” What does chasing this vision look like for you?
I think you just burn up what William Styron called “the unfinished business of childhood,” and you get tired of scraping out your insides with a sharpened knife, and you want to be interested in lives not your own, so you go out into the world and get learning, or at least that’s what I’ve spent the last seven years or so trying to do.
The two Haiti stories in Praying Drunk are the first outgrowth of that plan. We’ll see if anyone thinks it was a good one.
I think Philip Roth is a good example of a writer who made this kind of move, although he made it pretty late in his career. I don’t much care for books like Portnoy’s Complaint, but he really wrote some masterpieces in mid-late-career, in books such as American Pastoral, where history became the subject. I admire that kind of move.
As for all the high-flying talk about literature, I used to do that I guess, but I don’t know if I will anymore. I don’t know if I really believe in literature anymore. I do believe in a good sentence, and I do believe in an inspired structural container, and I do believe in a good story, well-told.
Something else I’ve seen you touch on is the reaction of certain communities you probe in your writing—namely Christian communities. How do you come to terms with these kinds of critical/negative reactions? Do you read your reviews?
Sure, I read all my reviews, and my friends who say they don’t read their reviews must be lying, because they call me on the phone to complain about them.
I think I must have thought somewhere inside my broken self that if I made something good the people I always wanted to approve of me would approve of me, but of course that wasn’t going to happen, even if I had made something that they would have liked, which I perversely did not, on purpose, because that’s what writers usually do if they mean to tell the truth about their experience rather than telling everyone the version that’s sanctioned by whomever has the power to say what’s good or not.
I don’t think most of the writers I know, especially the good ones, are very healthy people. Writers are narcissists, mostly, and they’re dangerous even when they don’t mean to be. It’s one of those situations where the strength and the weakness are one and the same, I think, and it troubles me, and probably I’m the same.
I stand by the second book and the one good story in the first book (“A Day Meant to Do Less.”) I think they’re good and I’m proud of them. But they did hurt other people by showing them things they didn’t want to see, and I don’t feel great about that. I don’t think I want to work that way anymore – to write so close to the bone, to risk so much interpersonally for the sake of art or whatever you want to call it. But also, I’m not sorry I did it. These things are contradictory and irreconcilable, and yet here we are.
Finally, what would you be doing if you weren’t writing and teaching (and what’s next after Praying Drunk)?
I want to write and direct movies and TV shows. I also want to write Broadway musicals. Actually, I’m already doing some of these things, but I may never make enough money doing them to feel secure stepping away from the job I have now, which is the first good job I’ve ever had, in a good place, surrounded by good people – an almost impossibly rare situation in academia. It’s golden handcuffs, I guess, and I don’t know if I’ll ever take them off. I make enough money to support my family, I don’t worry about my ability to continue to do so, and I don’t have people lording over me. It’s a dream of a situation, but still I want for something different and more.
You don’t often hear, say, nurses talking this way, or plumbers, or engineers. It’s pathological talk, sure, but here we are, all of us, trying to make a life out of stories and art and things dreamed up out of our own personal concerns, and these are things no one would rightly advise anyone else to chase against the long odds and the many rejections. So why do we still do it? What kind of people are we? How do we soldier on, anyway, in light of this kind of knowledge?
I guess we do the best we can.
Kyle Minor is the author of Praying Drunk, winner of the 2015 Story Prize Spotlight Award. Other recent stories appear in The Normal School, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Best American Mystery Stories.