An Interview with Kris Saknussemm, Author of Zanesville
Kris Saknussemm is the author of Zanesville, the first in a series of books called The Lodemania Testament. Described as a “techno-theological post-American monster vaudeville,” Zanesville opens in a futuristic Central Park, where the protagonist awakens with no idea of who he is or how he got there. Taken in by freedom fighters and given the name, Elijah Clearfather, he embarks on a journey to discover his identity and his role in this America-gone-wrong: Messiah, reincarnated ex-porn star, futuristic bioweapon, or revolutionary.
Due out from Random House in October 2005, the book has already received rave reviews: “Exuberantly weird,” from Kirkus and “one of the most creative, edgy, and entertaining novels sf has spawned in a decade,” from Booklist. However, positive reviews come as no surprise given the fact that Saknussemm’s fiction and poetry had already been widely published in a number of prestigious journals including The Hudson Review, The Boston Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters, and ZYZZYVA. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but emailed me from Australia, where he has lived for many years.
Us: I read in your Random House bio that you divide your time between Australia and the West Coast of the U.S. Where are you currently living? How much time do you spend in both places?
Kris Saknussemm: I’m currently in Australia and preparing to go to Borneo at the end of next week. I have a property called The Chimneys an hour and a half north of Melbourne. It’s set on the ruins of one of the old quartz crushing mines from back in the gold rush days, with fruit trees from a farm of the 1930s growing over the graves of the Chinese miners from 1857 and a giant pine that was supposedly planted by an American in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s death, in which two wedge-tailed eagles are right now perched, reviewing the rabbit situation below.
This year I spent less time in the U.S. than I would like: six weeks at the MacDowell Colony, time in New York and Boston, and then a month or so in LA and about the same in the Pacific Northwest. A long-time friend and business associate here is fighting pancreatic cancer so I’ve had to postpone my American visit and author tour for Zanesville to assist his family and wind up some affairs in Malaysia. I am likely to locate permanently back in the States later this year. It depends on my girlfriend and how my 13-year-old dingo fares. I’m reluctant to take her away from The Chimneys. (The dingo, not the girlfriend.)
AC: Zanesville can be read as a critique of contemporary U.S. culture and politics. Has living abroad given you a sharper perspective on the political and cultural situation here?
KS: Living abroad, and particularly coming to maturity abroad, has very definitely shaped my thinking and my relationship to America. I’ve experienced the “expat” phenomenon of becoming simultaneously more identified with America and more critical of its impact on other cultures. This precarious balance between homesickness and sickness about home has had a crucial influence on the writing of Zanesville. It has certainly inspired me to want to tell a bigger story than I would have otherwise. A secondary effect has been the emergence of a political point of view and a reawakening of my interest in American history. I think my writing would’ve taken a much more individualistic direction had I remained in the States.
AC: I liked what you said about the balance between homesickness and sickness about home. I think many of us have experienced a heightening of the latter feeling in the years since September 11, and “Zanesville” was satisfying in that it gave expression to this feeling. In this way, it seems to belong very much to a post-September 11 era of American literature, whereas other themes, such as religion (which I understand played a role in your study of anthropology) seem to have been percolating longer.
How much of “Zanesville” was written or conceived of before September 11, and how much of it was a response to political decisions made since then? Did these various threads emerge as you wrote the novel, or were you conscious of wanting to express certain themes and points of view when you began work on it?
KS: Thanks Ginny. I appreciate the line of your questions. Here’s my response regarding the impact of 9/11:
The main thematic elements and the general plot structure of the story were clearly established by the summer of 2001, but the resulting manuscript was overlong, technically dense, willfully avant-garde and more or less unpublishable. I was at the point of abandoning the book altogether or breaking through in some new way when 9/11 hit. Whether it was the effect of the attacks — or more importantly, the media presentation of them — I was inspired to make the world of the book more extreme while simultaneously making the story simpler and more accessible. It was the combination of these opposing strategies that ultimately led to publication: pulling out the stops in one sphere, while drastically streamlining in another.
In this, I was fortunate to have a draft read by Paul Witcover, a writer I admire who was working as a Time Warner editor at the time. His comments gave me confidence while challenging me to mature and become more disciplined.
Now when I look back, 9/11 seems less directly influential than Paul’s criticism, some of the books I was reading at the time, the beginnings of my marriage breakdown — or my conscious decision to seek to entertain rather than to merely impress. But there is no question that the change in cultural mood brought about by the “War on Terror” and its aftermath has made “Zanesville” seem more relevant and connected to the world. Then again, maybe this is what happens whenever we move both deeper into a story and out of our own heads.
AC: A lot of what you said in your last answer supports the advice you give in your essay: I see now how much you drew on your experience with “Zanesville” in that piece. In your essay, you advise writers to be aware of publishing demands (for instance, write a novel that can be summarized in 3 sentences or less) and to also be unreasonable. Both excellent pieces of advice, but there’s also some friction there: being unreasonable does not necessarily lead to writing something publishable. How have you balanced these two concerns, pushing yourself, being true to an artistic vision, however strange or disturbing, and writing something that can be published?
Along the same lines, I understand that you had refused to make certain changes re Dooley Duck that would have sealed a movie deal. Obviously this shows integrity on your part, and it led me to wonder, again, how we judge as artists when it’s OK to compromise and when it is not. What standards have you developed for making these kinds of judgments?
KS: The friction that you infer in my advice is completely valid and I think stems from two sources. The first is my sincere desire to offer actionable guidance to younger writers of the kind I didn’t receive or couldn’t accept because of the way it was presented or because of the presenter. (I come from a family of ministers and teachers.) This concern is also informed by my many years of business experience and my conviction that art is not above matters such as professionalism, pragmatism, delivery, ethics, and the like.
On the other hand, and I am a big one for the other hand, I would argue that all great works of art are great because of their flaws, not in spite of them. If forced to choose, I would always support the wild, deviant, and visionary work over the quiet, accomplished, and methodical. The world does not need competent writers. It needs ambitious writers. My greatest anger and frustration with the publishing industry is with the enshrinement of mediocrity and middlebrow credentialism. So, I am torn, and both my work and my personal life reflect this conflict. The price for me has been one I would not wish others to pay. Happily, I feel I was finally able to resolve this conflict in a way that makes “Zanesville” and the larger mythology it fits into both more radical and more readable than where I started or thought I had finished. Time and readers will tell if I am right.
In the end, I think all we can do is to try to emulate our heroes to the best of our abilities. If we are lucky and a little bit wise, we don’t fall prey to their shortcomings. Or if we do, then we honor them and mess up in style.
As to artistic integrity, I make no claims. I am as hungry for recognition and reward as the next person and probably keener than most. But what no one can ever criticize me for is a lack of devotion to the writers who have given me hope, enjoyment and a glimpse of the larger possibilities in life.
There will always be a perversity inherent in the pursuit of art. Why else confront such loneliness, rejection, and misinterpretation? Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and so many others were not contented people. Yet their achievements live on. That’s the contradiction that all of us who want to write must face, whether our talents are but a shadow or a reflection of theirs.
AC: Who are some of the writers to whom you are devoted, who represent this wild, more visionary approach, or who gave you that sense of the possibilities in life?
KS: In terms of the gods, I continue to return to Cervantes, Sterne, and Swift. Melville heads my American list. The single most important writer of the last century I rate as Kafka. The single most enjoyable, Arthur Conan Doyle.
Moving from gods to authors, for distinctness of vision and “pushing the envelope,” I think of Celine, Mishima, Djuna Barnes, Borges, Günter Grass, Henry Miller, Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Angela Carter.
There are a host of writers I value who came to prominence in the wake of the ‘60s. Gaddis, Nabokov, Vonnegut, DeLillo, Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Tom Robbins, Hunter S. Thompson and Ursula K. Le Guin, to name just a few. I think they would find it very tough going getting started today.
In my view some of the best creative work in America in the last twenty years has been in television, comic books, and graphic novels — and this has influenced my move toward more popular formats.
AC: Do you think that other countries or literary traditions are more open to this kind of ambitious literature than the U.S. is right now?
KS: There is no doubt in my mind that Europe and South America remain cultural crossroads where experimentation informs fiction without the burden of pretension often found in America and the UK. This may be changing now, but the rewards have been great. I can’t imagine writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet or Julio Cortázar originating from Brooklyn or the Iowa MFA program. And if they did, I can’t believe that they would have been given the level of immediate recognition and widespread discussion they enjoyed.
The greatest satisfaction and the greatest hope for American fiction that I see lies in the direction of “speculative” fiction — works that tend toward science fiction and fantasy. Or said another way, works that both respect and subvert genre conventions to create mutant, hybrid forms.
AC: You’ve received some heat from feminists about “Zanesville” and defended your choices, saying that you are addressing through your novel the fact that America is at once one of the most morally corrupt countries and the most Puritanical. There are a number of women figures in the novel that disturbed me: Wilton’s mom and Kokomo, for instance, are both portrayed as at once extremely out-of-it and incredibly horny. The Nourisher is disturbing on another level, as she’s clearly meant to be. How do these images serve to critique American culture? What alternative does the novel suggest, particularly for your women readers?
KS: Regarding any feminist criticism of Zanesville, so far it’s only come from a very extreme point of view that I don’t believe is at all representative of feminist perspectives generally — in the same way the flak I’ve received from some fanatical “Christians” doesn’t reflect the views of Christians at large. Independent thinking women like Annie Sprinkle, Poppy Z. Brite and Erica Jong I class as inspirations and I believe will be supportive of the book. I think the same will be true on the religious front.
As to the female characters in the story, I didn’t set out with an allegorical framework whereby any of the characters explicitly serve to personify a particular ideological or sociological point. I accept that this is how some of them may be interpreted — but the whole allegorical aspect emerged, at least in my mind, as a side effect of the exaggerated cartoon style of the story. I let the journey unfold and the characters came forth just like people you meet on a journey — and I accepted them on their own terms. To paraphrase the poet James Merrill, “we don’t know what we think until we write it.” The result may say something about my deeper psychological orientation, but not about my political and sociological view.
What I will admit to is a frustration with the current trend in our society to pander to the presumed tastes of women in ways that tend toward the sanitized and politically correct. Female writers such as the late Kathy Acker, Emily Carter, and Susie Bright share this frustration. The long and very favorable review on the CultureDose.net site was written by a woman. Some women readers have been incredibly enthusiastic — some just the opposite. But the same is true of the male readers! In the end my goal was to entertain and disturb. The fact that the book can make some people laugh out loud and other people very angry makes me feel like I’ve done my job.
AC: Which women comic book writers did you have in mind? And what are some examples of the way that you see our culture pandering to the supposed tastes of women?
KS: To me, the hottest female comic book artist is Sandra Chang of “Sin Metal Sirens” fame. Her art is a turn-on and then there is a perverse/subversive sense of feminist fun. I enjoyed the DC Anima comics for the same reason. Sue Coe and Judith Brody have sharp political wits and are also terrific. I also love Dame Darcy’s and Jessica Abel’s stuff — and if you haven’t already, you must check out Penny Van Horn’s “Recipe for Disaster.” She’s sensational.
I see the issue of compromising to meet women’s tastes in a couple of different ways. Before signing with Random House for instance — before I had my agent — I got my manuscript read by a senior editor with another NY publishing house who advised me that I would be much more likely to sell my novel if I rewrote it with a female protagonist. In the movie(s) based on “The Lord of the Rings,” one of the most loved and commercially successful works of fiction in history, the prominence of female characters was significantly enhanced.
I have on the floor of my office a pile of books released in the last two years by female authors. Let me quote from the blurbs of three right off the top: “Meet X, the fiercely independent spirited heroine…” “Y is a chick with attitude…” “An endearing story of warmth and the redemptive power of love…” The spectrum runs from feisty to flowery, but my point is that the female characters are presented not as artistic creations but as role models and social statements, because the presumption is that that’s what women want and will buy. Would the female equivalent of an essentially disagreeable character like the protagonist in Charles Chadwick’s current “It’s All Right Now” be tolerated?
The comic book and graphic novel artists I mentioned also have strong female characters, but there is a sense of playful self-awareness to their presentation. Complex, funny, erotically open and intellectually confident women writers (straight or lesbian) do what every writer of consequence does — they surprise you.
AC: Many of my readers are balancing working and writing. What method of supporting yourself has worked out best for you? Any final advice in this department?
KS: My advice is again conflicted. Practically I would say move to Brooklyn and get a job in publishing and network your ass off. Or plod through an MFA program, hunt for teaching gigs, apply for residencies, and play the soul and genital shriveling game of credentialism. Sadly, so many have taken these routes we now have a glut of well-qualified well-connected people without an individual thought in their heads!
So, my less cynical suggestion is to find a vocation that pays in accordance to your lifestyle and to be self-supporting and maybe even a contributor — to a family or your community, your customers or clients. BUT in your private time, writing when you can — write what you really want to. The happiest people I know are either scientists and musicians or those with a solid skill base, whether it’s carpentry, financial planning, or computer programming.
In my adult years I have had mixed success with advertising. I have earned good money but I have never been a high-flying international copywriter and I have seen many younger fiction writers establish successful careers while I piled up rejections and aborted projects. If I had it to do over again, I think I would’ve pursued journalism. I turned my back on a journalism scholarship to Northwestern because in my drug years I didn’t think it was “cool.” There are great disciplines to be learned in journalism, interesting people to meet at every level, and a larger perspective that is invaluable.
For young people who don’t yet have family responsibilities, I’d recommend the “surfer” lifestyle. Move somewhere you can live cheaply, live to write the way surfies live to surf, and work for money as much as you need to.
For maturer age people with families, I recommend treating your writing career like a small business. If you can afford it, make a contract with your partner for total support for a period like two years — and then evaluate the results. Many successful writers like Karen Joy Fowler have followed this basic business model. Not everyone will succeed, but 75% of all small businesses fail, too. It’s at least a working model.
In the end, the best writers will always be people who know things and who have lived through things. So, lots of sex, lots of reading, lots of listening, lots of flailing around. Art is supposed to be messy.
And as a final comment, whether it’s depressing or encouraging, let me make this assertion: there is not one writer you will ever even hear about who did not have simple brute Luck to thank.