Sunday, August 22, 2010

Kevin Canty talks about everything and Everything

Kevin Canty is smart, funny, generous to other writers, and brilliant. There, I said it. You want to buy him a beer and have pizza with him and then watch the conversation happen. Everything, his new novel, is a sublime study of love and yearning, loss and need. He's also the award-winning author of the novels Into the Great Wide Open, Nine Below Zero, and Winslow in Love, as well as the short story collections Honeymoon and Other Stories, A Stranger in This World and Where the Money Went. His work has been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Details, Story, the New York Times Magazine,Tin House and Glimmer Train. He currently teaches fiction writing at the University of Montana. You have no idea how thrilled I am to have him here. Thanks, thanks, Kevin.

"Everything" seems to be a Valentine to Montana, where you live, and it seems appropriate to me that such an expansive, everything kind of environment would form the backdrop to a novel about people who want (and keep failing to have) the same majesty they see around them in their lives. Can you talk a bit about how place impacts your writing, both in your daily life as a writer (could you be a writer in Chicago?) and in the world of your novels?

It’s one of the ironies of writing that you get to the big stuff only through the small stuff. I mean, you do get to talk about Time and Life and Fate and Truth but only by a kind of close observation of the lives around you, and a reenacting of those lives in language. I’ve been living in Montana for many years now and these are more and more the lives I know, and thus the lives I write about. Are they much different from lives elsewhere? Probably not. But they are people who have an emotional attachment to this kind of landscape. It’s a hard place to make a living and a long winter; you really have to love it here to stay. And these mountains, these rivers are what we have instead of restaurants and museums. Right now, in late summer, hot days and cool nights and caddis hatches in the evening, it’s hard to want to be anywhere else.

I think I could be a writer anywhere, though. It’s just a matter of paying attention. The big-ticket items don’t change from place to place: parents get sick, children grow up, people fall in and out of love. Somebody in Ohio is getting kissed for the very first time even as we speak!

Everything is filled with the messy sorrows of growing older and the desperate yearning for love and new lives, that don’t go as planned, yet there’s this divine optimism in the novel, too. Was that planned or was it a discovery as you wrote?

I’m not big on planning novels. I feel like they go dead on me if I have too clear of an idea what might be in front of me; I like to know a little but still retain a sense of curiosity about the way forward. This seems to keep the writing alive for me.

Everything was written out of a really chaotic time in my life, a moment when so much that had been stable for so long began to fall apart. My father died. A thirty-year marriage ended. My friend Buck Crain, to whom the book is dedicated, was losing a fight with cancer. I fell head-over-heels in love with a woman, then broke up with her. So trying to make sense out of this moment is both the subject and the action of the book. The search was genuine. I was trying to figure out a way to respond to these upheavals and writing this book was a part of that attempt. In some sense I finally got that optimism beat into me—I wasn’t about to give up, right? had to find a way forward—and so do these characters, I think.

I read in an earlier interview where you said that teaching writing was bad for you. Why? Do you still feel that way?

Well, just to disagree with myself for a moment, teaching has been very good for my writing, in the sense that it’s given me the security and time to pursue it. Certainly it takes time and intelligence and emotional energy to teach, especially if you want to do a good job of it, which I (mostly) do. But the tradeoff is that I get to have a mortgage and my kids get dentistry and college educations and so on. I’ve tried to write and hold down a job in the “real world” and I found it difficult and worrisome and draining. So in that sense I’m grateful for the alleged ivory tower. It’s the only job I know where there’s time for writing and reward for writing built in.

I think what I was talking about before was a kind of moral hazard in being the authority, in having answers to questions and solutions to problems. The real work of writing is dark and mysterious and sometimes dangerous, I think. Sometimes the thing that gets described in a writing workshop is not quite the real thing. You see a lot of the same problems, especially with undergraduate work, and you prescribe the same solutions, and if you’re not careful you can falsify the whole business with easy answers.

Would you talk about the structure of this novel? There are no chapters, which made the reading seamless for me, and the lives are separate threads of the whole, and the whole novel takes place in a year. Was this a conscious decision from the get go?

Usually I have no idea on the way into a piece of writing whether it’ll be a novel or a story or a failure or whatever. I just have a few shiny objects and I try to connect them up and see what happens. This one was a little different, though. I’d been reading a lot of 19th century novels and kind of fell in love with the inclusiveness of the form, the layers of incident, the moral and psychological complexity, the big casts of characters and the multiple points of view. So I had an idea on the way into this book that I wanted to use some of that ambition and some of that furniture. But I didn’t want to write the whole 900-page enchilada. What I was trying for was to write the individual bright moments and then let the reader make the connections between them for him or herself. I feel like this novel was driven in part by trying to find a form that combined the things I’d learned from reading Tolstoy and Dickens with the things I’d learned from Raymond Carver and Joy Williams.

You never finished high school and your bio says it took you 20 years to get your degree. Now that’s interesting enough to make you a character in a novel yourself. How did that come about? Did you know early on you wanted to write or did it just happen when you finally got to college? Why didn’t you finish high school?

I quit high school mainly because I was really, really bored. It wasn’t much more complicated than that. I just felt like there were a lot of things that were a lot more interesting than high school, and I was right about that. I ended up working as the white hippie kid on an all-black construction laborer’s crew and then hitch-hiking to California and going backpacking through Rocky Mountain National Park and so on. It was fun.

The rest of the resumé is a bit misleading. After a year of high-quality screwing around I got my GED and came to college here in Missoula. I was lucky enough to get a really good education here, drifted into writing after a while, first poetry—which I studied with Richard Hugo, among others—then fiction. Bill Kittredge was a great teacher, Missoula in the 1970s was a great scene, wild and wooly. I was also interested in music, though—if I was a better guitar player, I might not be a writer at all—and I didn’t have the discipline to finish anything. So I sort of drifted out of the writing world and into the music world for a decade or so, about 15 credits shy of a degree. I think I always had a weird certainty that I would end up as a writer, though. When I decided to go to grad school I was living in Portland, Oregon, running a sound company. I came back to Missoula, camped out in my sister’s basement for a semester, finished up my 15 credits and we were off to the races.

You’ve said, “I’m only really writing when I don’t know what I’m doing,” which, I think, is one of the most reassuring assessments of the writing process I’ve ever read. At what point do things start to coalesce for you and make you believe that your pages are indeed a novel?

I don’t usually have very good ideas about things until I start to write them. Every story needs to have its own shape and its own music but that only comes into focus for me in a kind of negotiation between what’s already on the page and what might happen in the future of the story. That sounds horribly abstract, I know. What actually happens is that I sit around Googling my friends and writing bad sentences and trying titles out and playing bridge with my computer and then once in a while something comes along that feels like it’s alive. Then you just cut out all the dead stuff and try to write other sentences that seem alive that go with the alive sentence you just wrote.

At some point you do need to decide how big of a thing it is and how interested in it you are. If it looks like a novel-sized idea, you’re going to be spending a big chunk of your life with it, so you’d better be interested. And at another point farther down the road, I usually find myself in a contest of wills, trying to enforce notions of shape and order and drama on the thing. Which resists. So it’s not all just innocent play of the imagination. But, as I said earlier, I do find that the writing can go dead on me if I know too much, if I lose that sense of exploration. No mystery for the writer means no mystery for the reader. (That’s a quote from somebody but I can’t remember who.)

What’s obsessing you right now?

Not really obsessing about anything these days, playing guitar, walking the dog, spending a lot of time at the river, trying to catch a few fish and working on my sandal tan. I want to go back to teaching in the fall with tan feet. It’s the mark of a sincerely misspent summer. I’ll get back to work in the fall, I’m sure—I have several projects in various stages of dereliction—but for now I’m keeping them in the closet and trying to enjoy life. So far so good.

What question should I be mortified that I forgot to ask?

Beats me. I’m around, though, if it comes to you. Hope all is well, and thanks again for your kind words on the book. It’s been a fun ride! KC

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