… also in The Staked Plains. What you say about how you can read society by the way it treats its dogs. It’s a massacre. By the way, what are goatheads?
Goatheads are small stickers that look exactly like small goat heads. They are so common in New Mexico that many people avoid walking barefoot across their lawns. Every summer and fall they seem to multiply. To me, they signify how unwelcoming the New Mexico landscape can seem at times.
It feels as though you have very strong grudges. In your novels, most people commit a multitude of sins, and nobody is ever, in traditional terms, likeable.
But they are such lovely characters.
The boy who murders his dad? The woman who kills her rival’s baby? The father who seduces his son’s wife? The boy who kills his sister and sells her soul?
They have their reasons.
So you’re not trying to take revenge on the places where you lived and the people you encountered there? It seems as though you’re burning down the towns you lived in.
It might seem that way occasionally, but really, my books are love letters to the places I know. Strange love letters, love letters that might be misunderstood, but love letters nevertheless. And I’m not writing memoirs.
Talk a bit about redemption. Why can’t anyone turn around his or her life? Why do your characters have no redeeming qualities?
There’s no redemption.
Maybe just a little?
No. I am the sum of my good and bad deeds. And “good” and “bad” are very relative anyway. I can never undo what I did. It’s impossible. We all live with the consequences of every little thing we ever did.
I feel that our culture is using the concept of redemption like a credit card. Sin now, pay later. No one’s even trying to live a responsible life, because, hey, do one good thing near the end of your life, and you are okay. You could also say we’re like an overweight, under-trained boxer who is just hoping to land a knockout punch. But we’ve already lost.
Reading your new book, The Staked Plains, I felt as though you might be called a romantic.
Yes, the book is, in a strange way, nostalgic. It’s still individuals doing evil things, not corporations, not mid-level bureaucracies. Evil still has a face and is never absolute. We have arranged our world in such a way that we can work for an arms manufacturer during the week and sing in the church choir on Sundays. We have removed the connections between what we do on a daily basis and the effect it has on others. The Staked Plains feels nostalgic because the violence is immediate. People take responsibility for what they’re doing.
Jenny, the novel’s protagonist is a psychic who reads her clients’ feet. Why feet?
We take care of our hands; we mask them with manicures and creams. Like our faces, we try to make them represent ourselves. Hands are masked. Feet are much more naked, often neglected, and you get a much better picture of who a person is by looking at his or her feet.
Many of your books deal with crime and horror. Are you a genre writer?
When you look at subject matter, yes. In terms of treatment, not so much. But I love the violent formulas — the Western, the Crime novel, the Gothic novel. To reinterpret them is great fun.
You often write about superstition and the supernatural.
For people who don’t have any power, it’s a way to believe that they can influence their lives in meaningful ways. I grew up in a very superstitious household. My grandmother told us the story of seeing her dead husband’s ghost outside of their house. Those stories had a lasting impact on me; they taught me that words and sentences are spells. I distrust language. I often talk with lengthy pauses, just to locate the right word. Once you speak a word, you can’t take it back.
STEFAN KIESBYE’S stories, poems and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. His first book, Next Door Lived a Girl, won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award. It has been translated into Dutch, Spanish and Japanese. Kiesbye’s second novel, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, was published by Penguin in 2012. It was a Top Ten pick of Oprah Magazine, made Entertainment Weekly’s Must List, and Slate editor Dan Kois named it one of the best books of the year. It was translated into German and Spanish, and is forthcoming from East Press, Japan. In Spring 2014, the literary thriller Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht (Knife, Fork, Scissors, Flames) was published by Tropen Verlag/Klett-Cotta, Germany. Die Welt wrote that “Stefan Kiesbye…is the inventor of the modern German Gothic novel.” His LA Noir Fluchtpunkt Los Angeles (Vanishing Point) was released by ars vivendi verlag in January 2015. Kiesbye teaches creative writing at Sonoma State University.