Interview with J. Edward Kruft
Your short story “My Father’s Underwear” is cynical. The reader tries to empathize with a father’s death, but the way of dying is so funny. But after facing the father’s racism, one may think that kind of death is a poetical justice. What do you think?
That’s interesting, as I don’t know that I’ve thought of the overall story as cynical. There are cynical elements, and the son/narrator certainly has cynical moments – in fact, the one you reference in the second part of your question – the son addresses his dead father lying naked on the floor: “OK, you got what you deserved. A ridiculous death. A pitifully funny death. A death polite people will say was tragic, only to then turn their backs and snicker.” And yet the very next line, he turns to a time when his father was “at the summit in my eyes.” These are the layers and complexities of life: to attempt to hold two (or more) seemingly contraditory things simultaneously. It’s a juggling act and sometimes we’re better at keeping the various balls in the air than we are at other times. So yes, on the one hand the narrator sees the poetic justice of his father dying such a ridiculous death, and perhaps deserving so for being a bigot, or a not-good-enough father, or a loathesome husband, or a whole slew of real or preceived injustices, big or small, societal or intimate. But the son also reminds himself that his father wasn’t all bad all the time. To varying degrees, we all fit that description.
In the preface of “Stop” you are saying, “what if we began where something was ending, and worked backward? I could think of nothing more unequivocal in that regard than Stop!” This thought reminded me of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button but of course, the plot is different from it. The story has its dynamics inside. How was the writing process of “Stop?”
First, I want to thank you for comparing anything of mine, even remotely, to something by Fitzgerald! He was one of my earliest writing inspirations.
“Stop” was written in one fluid gesture. I think there are stories that require that: that they be written in long brush strokes or they will we never really come together as they need to. I got the idea for “Stop” in the shower. I envisioned two lovers in the car, driving and arguing, so caught up in their petty disagreement that they are blind to a larger context. I think as a species, we are remarkably skilled at this, and not entirely for not, as we cannot always be walking around with our denial and avoidance defenses switched to the off position. So “Stop” attempts to take us from just before the brink and rewind, to the scenes that did matter: first meetings, friends dying, first kisses, the memory of your now-husband getting too drunk and crashing the wedding singer. It asks that we consider the temporary nature of life in this world and understand that the shared experiences of loving together, sharing together, touching, singing, dancing, being silly, sad, staying up all night listening to The Counting Crows – these are the sums that matter. And they are all fleeting. These are not earthshattering ideas and have been explored with much more aplomb by others. But what I think is earthshattering is how very easily we can forget, or lose through the fog, that which really has value. Like children, we still must be constantly reminded; we don’t always learn our lessons well.
In your works, the most dominant theme is family issues. Do you agree?
Yes, I would agree with that, with one caveat: I would say my dominant theme is family. I’d leave off “issues,” as it seems vague to me. All families have issues, but when I set out to write about the characters churning around in my head, I’m less interested in their issues as I am interested in their dynamics with one another, their motivations, their ways of coming together and coming apart: the dance that they have come to choreograph over time, perhaps entirely unaware they are engaged in a ballet or a tango, or a slow funeral march. Surely, issues arise as we dance, but it is the dance itself that I aim to make front-and-center.
And of course, when I say family and families, it is in all the varied and gradient forms.
In your short “Ventura Highway” we find these fantastic lines: “He thought: I can’t believe I let this guy stick his dick in my mouth.” Do you think that you represent queer literature?
That depends. Queer Literature in capital letters? Certainly not. No one does. Queer literature, lower-case? Maybe. Just my miniscule corner of what that means, from my experiences, from my understanding of my own queerness and the people who have surrounded me. I realized something the other day. I am almost 50 years old. And yet, rarely have I written of a 50 year-old’s life. It’s not that I have an aversion to do so – I don’t think – it’s just those aren’t the characters that most readily come into my head. The boys from Venture Highway are in their early teens, set in a time when I myself was just a little younger than that. The men in “Stop” are in their twenties or thirties. So perhaps that is what I look to represent, from a slightly distanced and therefore perhaps more objective perspective: my younger queer self, and the perceived experiences of the queer and non-queer people I came up with. Perhaps at heart, I’m really a quasi-historian. Or maybe just a nostalgist.
Linked to the fifth question, does the new era of queer literature start, or are we living the golden age of it?
It seems to me the “Golden Age” can only be seen from a distance. For my mother, “Father Knows Best” and “I Love Lucy” was the golden age of American television (and she’s certainly not alone there). For me, it was the gritty (and hyper-masculine – perhaps a tip-of-the hat to my internalized queer-phobia –) detective shows of the 70’s and early 80’s: Kojak, Rockford, Starsky & Hutch. So perhaps it’s up to every generation to decide what’s the golden age for them.
That said, I do think queer literature is much broader than it has ever been, and that can only be a good thing. Think about it: it was not all that long ago that all queer writing had to be disguised. And even more recently, when writers were able to be more explicit, we were still limited by the very broad categories or boxes queer writers were put in. It was Gay Writing or it was Lesbian Writing -- very little, if anything, betwixt. Today, such a binary seems almost quaint, and quite certainly laughable. Still, it’s also our history.
When did you first realize your affinity for fiction? What is your “origin” story?
I grew up small town America, Catholic. I was taught from an early age that lying was not only wrong from a moral perspective, but it was a sin. And back then, sin was important to me. So I found a loophole. If you are a storyteller, you’re not a liar, you’re an entertainer. I’ve been trying to do that – entertain – in one form or another ever since.
Which is your favorite genre to read? Which is your favorite to write?
I only write fiction, and in the last few years, almost exclusively flash. I love the challenge of the necessity of economy in flash. I enjoy finishing a draft that comes to 1,200 words and then saying to myself: “OK, now you get to cut at least 200 of your little darlings.” It has always made the story stronger, in my view. In person, I am rather verbose. So this taps into another side of me, the side that says: “remember, what’s not said can be just as important as what is said. Choose wisely.”
As for reading: most of the fiction I read today is contemporary. A book like A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara can keep my reading for hours on end. But at my core, I’m a modern classics guy. I adore Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse is the perfect novel, I believe). Lover of McCullers, Cather, Isherwood, Baldwin, John Williams, Capote, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, etc. But I probably spend more time reading non-fiction these days. Especially books with subjects about which I know practically nothing. Some of this can and has inspired my fiction.
Do you feel like your writing falls under a certain category, such as experimental, contemporary, etc.? If you could have your work associated with another writer, who would it be and why?
I would describe it as pretty straight-forward, realistic narrative fiction. I know, boring, but it’s what speaks to me. My favorite short stories are John Cheever’s. There’s someone who wrote about what’s not being said! Of course, family was a dominant theme for him, too. Our styles are not so similar, but I think many of our themes are.
What is your ‘process’ for writing?
I am an embarrassingly sporadic writer. I can go great periods without writing. But then, when inspiration hits, it usually comes as a whole and I can write pretty quickly. If I find myself working too hard, that usually means the piece isn’t ready in my mind – hasn’t coalesced – and so after a few days, I’ll put it aside. Maybe I’ll pick it up again at some point, maybe I won’t.
Perhaps that just makes me lazy, but it works for me. That’s what I’ve found to be most important: find what works for you, even if every other writer does it differently. That’s maybe the number one take-away from my MFA. Fuck whatever the others are doing. Concerning yourself with that will only bog you down.
When writing, do you write from emotion? What usually inspires you?
I get inspired by many things, and sometimes surprisingly: an afternoon fire station alarm test; a decorative sprig of Alpine spruce on a restaurant table; hearing Ventura Highway on the car radio. For me, titles often come first. If something about it resonates, a frame will come into view. From there, it’s often written very free-associatively. And as many of my titles will suggest, I find a lot of inspiration from song titles: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Into the Mystic, Me and Mrs. Jones, Norwegian Wood, I’m Not in Love by 10cc – these are all titles of published stories.
What are your methods for overcoming ‘writer’s block’? What do you do when you can’t seem to find inspiration?
For some reason the shower is often where I get my best ideas. Or rather, it’s where a seed of an idea will suddenly burst through the soil. More than once I’ve had to cut the shower short to run to my computer, dripping, so I didn’t forget what had just come to me.
And if I’m truly not feeling it, I let it go. Maybe tomorrow.
What do you want the readers to know about you?
The reader who has gotten this far in the interview has probably already guessed: I can be a bit of an over-sharer – another reason the discipline of flash is a good exercise for me.
Where do you expect to see yourself (as a writer) in the next five years? The next ten years?
Still writing. Where, how, why, what? Not sure. Just want to be still doing it.
Are there any immediate events or publications that you have coming up that you want the readers to know about?
Yes. In fact, one is something of a companion piece to Ventura Highway with similar themes and use of 70’s television shows as a backdrop, but with a different trajectory and covering a much longer period of time. It’s called L.A. in Pieces and should be out late June. I also have a story called Two Boys Downtown at Play, likely out in July.
Thank you so much for this experience! I really enjoyed it.
Interview conducted by Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu, who is the Interview Editor for Marías at Sampaguitas. She is an author from Turkey, enthusiastic traveler, Feminist activist, and Mother of four cats and countless animals all over the world. Full-time resident in Georgia, escaped from the oppression in Turkey. Has 5 published books in Turkish. For further information: www.nazlikarabiyikoglu.com.