Roy Kesey was born in California, and currently lives in Beijing with his wife and children. His fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in more than forty magazines, including The Georgia Review, Other Voices, Quarterly West and Maisonneuve. His short story "Scroll," first published in Prism International, will be appearing in the upcoming New Sudden Fiction anthology. His novella "Nothing in the World" won the 2005 Bullfight Press Little Book Prize, and will be published this month, May 2006. His dispatches from China appear regularly on the McSweeney's website, and his "Little-known Corners" meta-column appears monthly in That's Beijing.
Satori Kick: So, Mr. Kesey, we've heard "Nothing in the World" has been happening to you lately--would you care to explain?
Roy Kesey: Oh yeah, it’s happening everywhere these days. Just this morning I tripped over a small stack of it on the way to the coffee-maker. Broken ankle, forehead lesion, the works. Dangerous stuff, this Nothing.
Satori Kick: Is the switch from writing short stories to writing novellas a difficult transition?
Roy Kesey: Not in this case, because it was completely accidental. “Nothing in the World” started as a short story, or rather, as four story fragments jammed together for no apparent reason. But all four fragments shared a common character (albeit observed from different points of view) who eventually morphed into the character of Joško Banović, the main character in the book. Then the not-quite-story became a novel, alternating chapters between Joško’s story and that of an American photographer who was trying to track him down. This took several years. Unfortunately, the photographer story-line wasn’t very good. So I let the novel sit for a while, and finally went back to it, stripped out the photographer altogether, and the thing gradually took on the shape it should have had all along.
In general, though, for me writing novellas now is mostly an exercise in anxiousness. I mean, I’m working on this thing, and it’s already too long to be a short story, and I have no idea if it’s going to be worth running to three or four hundred pages, no clear sense of any light at the end of this particular tunnel. But once I come to terms with what it is--the arc’s complete and the characters are full and the whole thing just happens to happen in a hundred pages or whatever--it’s a form I really enjoy.
There’s also the question of trying to sell them, of course. Not an easy thing. Which could lead one to wonder why I’ve spent the past several months writing another one. But hey, maybe I could become Novella Guy. Is that position still open?
Satori Kick: Regarding your work habits, when do you find time to write between raising two children and attending diplomatic diversions in Beijing?
Roy Kesey: I’m very fortunate in that my two toddlers are actually spirit-beings who never spill their juice, never hit each other with tennis rackets, never put toast in the DVD player, and never, ever make noise while Daddy is trying to work… The diplomatic stuff, sure, there’s a time investment there, but it’s what pays most of the bills, so I can’t really complain.
Satori Kick: How do you feel about the effectiveness of online writers' workshops (such as Zoetrope.com) during your process? Is it difficult to find readers for your drafts? When is a piece actually ready for submission? Do editors really "edit" these days?
Roy Kesey: In order, then:
a. Zoetrope was a godsend for me. I was living in Peru when I first heard about it, and at the time I had no opportunities for feedback of any kind--I had a couple of local poet- and writer-friends, but none of them read much in English. It was also an important time for me, learning-wise, because I’d figured out a little about voice and character on my own, but still didn’t have a good feel for arc, among other things--I was always taking the first available exit, and my stories were just kind of stopping instead of coming to an end. So then I found Zoetrope, and like any other on-line (or off-line, for that matter) community, there are a fair amount of loonies, but I’ve been fortunate to find a group of very dedicated, very talented writers, and they’ve been of great help. All of which is to say, I owe Francis Ford Coppola a huge debt for setting up Zoetrope and running it on his own dime, and here’s hoping that he just happens to be Googling himself when this interview goes up, and sees this, and knows that I am grateful, and decides to email me to ask if I have any stories he can turn into a movie.
b. A story’s ready for submission when it’s at once full and agile. For me, this often takes five or six months, and eight or ten drafts. But then, I’m kind of slow.
c. Sure, I think most magazine editors really do edit these days--and most of them do so very, very well, and for little or no money. I’ve had editing sessions on some stories that have lasted weeks, back and forth over phrasing and tone, and for me that’s one of the richest, most interesting parts of the process. I’m always grateful to see that they care so much about a story that they’re willing to put that kind of time into it. Other stories have gotten less work, or even none at all, but I think that’s usually because the story in question simply needed less work--some come out cleaner than others, after all. I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories about editors mucking stories up to the point that they were unrecognizable, but that’s never been my experience.
Satori Kick: I was pleased to see your marvelous story, "Instituto," in the Iowa Review (Winter 2004/05). The editor, David Hamilton (my former undergraduate professor at Iowa) once let me re-take a final exam essay question when a jack-hammer outside the EPB classroom pulverized my Wordsworth concentration. I don't suppose David Hamilton cut you any slack?
Roy Kesey: Thanks. David was great, as was Lynne Nugent, the managing editor there. They even let me make one relatively major last-minute change, clearing up a harmful ambiguity that I noticed very late in the game. I was really pleased with how that story ended up looking.
Satori Kick: In "Probably Somewhere" (Zoetrope All-Story Extra, Issue 28), you created lonely and suffering characters in dire need of human contact. Then, in "How It Happens That Our Senses Do Not Perceive Certain Bodies" (Night Train, Issue IV) there's a line about giving "color and form to all the lives we could have lived ourselves." And in "The Holidays Here" (The Mississippi Review, April 2005), the story is set in the midst of Halloween, All Saints' Day, and the Day of the Dead, which seems to imply the inexorable intertwining of suffering and celebration. Is your work particularly informed by a consciousness of the human condition?
Roy Kesey: Well, maybe, but only to the extent that everyone’s work and lives are informed by it, I think. I am interested in how people deal with the consequences of bad decisions or bad luck, and I do think that suffering and celebration tend to go together more often than we think--the universe’s idea of a practical joke, I guess.
Satori Kick: I've been reading your dispatches on McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and in Dispatch 24 you wrote about finding yourself dangling fifty feet in the air on a broken ladder--which is how how I imagine some people feel when encountering experimental or somewhat difficult literary fiction. How should a reader (or a writer, for that matter) get safely to the ground?
Roy Kesey: Good question. For me as a writer, it’s usually a matter of reminding myself again and again that the gimmick can’t be the only thing. I mean, I like gimmicks, I like tricks, I like word-games and lateral leaps and circles within circles within Matryoshka dolls within Himitsu-Bako boxes--that’s just my idea of fun. But I try to keep in mind that there has to be something fundamentally human threaded through all that--fear and pain and love and worry and jealousy and generosity and spilled juice, say--for it to be worth writing or reading.
For me as a reader, well, same deal: if the gimmick is the only thing, I feel titillated but empty when I'm done reading. And if the work is truly inaccessible to me for whatever reason, well, no harm done--I'll go read something else. But I think that if you truly give yourself to a piece, and bring all your attention to bear, that just doesn't happen too often--which is what I keep telling my students. Most days they believe me. Those days are the best of days, when you see the light go on, when they finally suss the relationship between (to take one example from the Wallace Stevens poem we worked on last week) empire and ice-cream. Just magnificent.
In terms of the bigger issues--the questions, say, that were at the heart of the tremendously entertaining Jonathan Franzen v. Ben Marcus spat--I tend to trust that things will sort themselves out in the long run, though I do get frustrated with people on either side demeaning the work of the other for no reason other than form. Sure, there's plenty of experimental work that fails on its own terms, but there's just as much realist work that does so, and it seems churlish to me to spend much time pointing out either of those facts. Fiction is a huge house, with room for all of us, both as readers and as writers.
--For a list of Roy Kesey's upcoming tour events while he's stateside, see http://nothingintheworld.com