It’s funny: that’s what everyone says when they hear my book is out. “That must be exciting.” I suppose it is exciting, though I think people forget what “excitement” actually involves, which includes a high proportion of dread.
Have you come up with a short snappy synopsis of the collection yet?
Ugh. [clutching forehead] I really need to do that. I was very lucky in that I didn’t have to go on the Franz Kafka Diet for a year or anything gimmicky like that — I just got to write essays about whatever I wanted. Which is incredible carte blanche for a writer but makes it hard to come up with an elevator pitch for the finished book. I didn’t even know what this book was going to be about before I started writing it. It ended up being surprisingly melancholic in tone—elegiac, even. A lot of the essays turned out to be about people I’ve lost, in one way or another—through death, defriending, political differences, or just the attrition of time. And it ended in a way I could not possibly have anticipated when I started it, with an essay about something that hadn’t happened yet—meeting my two half-sisters for the first time in midlife. It brought the book’s arc to a nice close; after all those essays about losing male friends, there’s one about unexpectedly getting these women back whom I hadn’t even known I’d been living without.
More than one person has called your book “brave.” How do you feel about that?
It alarms me. If people are calling you “brave” it probably means you are doing something stupid without realizing it. I suppose this will sound self-deprecating and bullshitty, but I honestly don’t get what is supposed to be so “brave” about my writing. My writing is predicated on the assumption that I Am Not Special–that my experiences and feelings and perception of the world are pretty much the same as everyone else’s. I just try to be scrupulous about owning up to them. I’m not an especially brilliant thinker or keen observer of the human condition or a great prose stylist; my only meager strength as a writer is to be as honest as I can. And yet propriety or fear keeps most people from saying all sorts of perfectly obvious and true things out loud. It’s hard to admit, even to yourself, that your own experience diverges in some inappropriate way from the officially sanctioned narrative, or that you don’t feel the way you’re “supposed” to. Like all artists, I’m banking on the hope that It’s Not Just Me.
I will tell you what did feel brave about writing this book: not its content, but the voice. I’ll tell you a little story: a friend of mine who’s in a band decided that since she sings in public she ought to get serious about it and take some voice lessons. On her second lesson her voice coach told her: “The voice you’ve been singing in onstage for years—that’s a falsetto. That big silly mock-operatic voce you use sometimes? That’s your real voice. You have to learn to sing in your real voice.” This story resonated with me as a metaphor throughout the writing of this book because I felt like this was what I was learning to do. I’d spent a decade as a humorist and a political polemicist, working in the tradition of H.L. Mencken and Hunter S. Thompson and Matt Taibbi. I was not in the same league as these writers but I had gotten practiced at being funny and mean. But I’d also started feeling intellectually dishonest, as if I were being meaner and more simple-minded than I really was. In this book I was trying to drop that persona and be as smart and truthful as I knew how and sound something more like my true self. Which is, of course, terrifying. As a humorist you can say any cruel unfair absurd thing from behind the cover of Just Kidding—there are layers of irony and satire to hide behind. It’s scary to come out from behind your Comedy mask and just stand up there nakedly saying what you think. Most people are mortified at the thought of telling a joke that falls flat; I’ve gotten pretty good at being funny, but in this book, although I was still trying to be funny, I was also trying to do things I didn’t know whether I was any good at–being thoughtful, or moving, or sad. I was learning to sing in my own voice. That felt brave.
You wrote very candidly about a lot of your friends and former friends in this book. Was that awkward, either for you or for them? Is anybody mad at you?
First of all, these essays are probably less revealing than they may seem to the reader. You don’t know what I kept out of the book, because, of course, it’s not in there. Believe me, I had to omit all the best material in the interest of basic human decency. I would doubtless be a better writer if I were a[n even] bigger asshole. One of the hazards of hanging around with writers is that they may write about you. I’ve been written about myself, and even though the portrayal was not unkind or dishonest it wasn’t especially flattering, either. It turns out it’s just not pleasant to be depicted accurately.
I don’t know whether anybody’s mad at me. The short answer is I hope not but probably so. But everyone I wrote about in this book I wrote about because I loved them. (The only exception to this is my uncle, whom I was protected from knowing very well.) I hope this would be obvious to any reader, but I worry that the people I wrote about won’t be able to see that. In some cases it’s a very complicated love, alloyed with hurt or resentment or sorrow. Nietzsche wrote a whole book trashing Richard Wagner, but this was because he had loved and idolized Wagner, had been his friend and a guest in his home and was heavily crushed out on his wife. And Nietzsche was just not cut out to be anybody’s acolyte, so he wrote this entire book repudiating Wagner’s work. But it was also an homage, an apologia for him, and a farewell.
So would you call this book a sort of memoir in essay-collection form?
I would not, and I beseech you not to call it that either. With respect to all the good writers who happen to be memoirists out there, I have a gut-level aversion to writing anything along the lines of Me and My Fucked-Up Childhood or Me and My Hilarious Friends. I consciously refrained from writing about anything that was just a good story. What makes for a good barroom anecdote does not necessarily make an essay. The first lines of the book, in which I mention that I was stabbed in the throat fifteen years ago but it’s kind of a long story and not that interesting anyway, are a way of announcing those artistic intentions. I didn’t want to write about anything unless I could find a way to make it universal; not just about me, but about you too. The essay about getting stabbed is not about that incident but about the year after that during which I wasn’t unhappy at all, and why it’s so hard to hold on to that existential euphoria; my essay about my friend Jenny, who had a sex change, is not about being transgendered but about what gender is, and why we relate to men and women so differently; my essay about meeting my half-sisters is not about being adopted but about family, and what it means to be related to someone.
This criterion also meant not writing about some of the strangest and most interesting things that have ever happened to me. It’s taken me fifteen years to figure out how to turn riding the circus train to Mexico City while pretending to be someone’s husband into a good essay. You might wonder how that could possibly not be a good essay. Suffice it to say, it turns out the ways in which it could not be a good essay are legion. Basically, getting stabbed in the throat makes for a cool story about me but it doesn’t especially help you to hear it. And that is, after all, what I am doing: trying to help.
“Trying to Help.” That could be the title of your next book.
Ha ha, yes. It won’t be though.
You changed the names of most of the people you write about. How did you come up with their fictitious names?
Ooh what a good question. There is no time-wasting strategy more fun than picking out names. You can blow an entire day on this. I do have a private cryptic system for adapting real-life names into fictitious equivalents, but mostly I want the pseudonyms to have the same feel as their real-life analogues; I’m trying to transpose the sound and sense of the name. In some cases I got all literary and pretentious and came up with names with secret meanings, like “Ken,” which means “to know,” or “Skelly,” an old Celtic name meaning “storyteller.” One day I was looking for names for my father and his crazy brother and found two archaic Welsh names, something like Gaerwn and Cardew, that meant, roughly, “Prince of the white fortress” and “Prince of the black fortress” and just about swooned with the serendipity of it but unfortunately I could not possibly use them since no one in the last five hundred years has actually been given those names.
As we’re approaching the end of this interview I’ll mention that you seem to like writing endings. You tend to wind up with a pretty metaphor or some other rhetorical flourish.
Hm. I’m kind of embarrassed you’ve noticed. It probably means they’re too conspicuously literary. It’s true–I like a good ending. I’ve memorized the last pages of The Great Gatsby and Beyond Good and Evil and Dispatches. Endings are the virtuosi passages where you get to bust out your good prose and show off. Aaron Copland, in talking about his Third Symphony, called it “reaching for the grand gesture.” Sometimes I’ll realize I’ve written two or three last paragraphs in a row and have to pick one and cut the rest. I enjoy euphony—I like reading Yeats for the music of the language. I read Aristophanes (in translation) and Beowulf for the alliteration and assonance. I’ve memorized speeches from Shakespeare, mostly to show off to girls but also just for the pleasure of reciting the words aloud. I pay a lot of attention to cadence; sometimes I’ll hear what rhythm a sentence has to have before I know what words I’m going to fill it in with. There’s a line in iambic heptameter in my book.
Wait–what’s in iambic heptameter in your book?
[sighs] It’s a line in the last paragraph of the essay “Sister World,” likening the sight of my half-sister’s face to some astronomical photos we’d just seen at the National Air and Space Museum. It ends: “…those filigreed blue shadows fall over Saturn’s lambent clouds.” It’s a sentimental essay and I permitted myself to wax a little mawkish.
[counting syllables] Is that iambic heptameter?
You have to sort of elide the “over” into an “o’er.”
Are those iambs or trochees?
Okay you know what, let’s not get all hung up on that. What I was going to say was that when I was in a writing program, back in the era of Raymond Carver minimalism, this sort of fancy baroque language was unfashionable—I think it would’ve been seen as kind of naive and pretentious and tacky. So I loved it when a classmate of mine, who later became a novelist, wrote in a gorgeous, flowing prose style. It was like being raised by strict vegan parents and going over to a friend’s house whose parents let you have Ho-Hos®. Of course she was a Southerner, for whom exceptions are made. But in the 20th century the American literary mainstream went the way of Hemingway, not Faulkner or Fitzgerald. About the only major modern writer who was allowed to get away with grand Faulknerian eloquence was Cormac McCarthy, who’s pretty much sui generis. But two recent books I just read—Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder—ended with crescendos of euphony that gave me goosebumps. So it is still fair game, if you can pull it off. The risk of course is of failing and sounding pompous and stupid. But I figure, when you sit down to write a book, no matter how modest your subject or mediocre your talent, you’re still stepping out onto the same field as Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, so you might as well swing for the fucking fences. Why would you not?
Can you address the rumors that you are some sort of a little bunny rabbit?
This interview is now over. Good day to you sir.
Tim Kreider’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Film Quarterly, The Comics Journal, and Nerve.com. His popular comic strip The Pain—When Will It End?ran in alternative weeklies and has been collected in three books by Fantagraphics. He divides his time between New York City and the Chesapeake Bay area.