If you care about who doesn’t like your stuff, you are fucked: ghost ocean talks with Kyle Beachy
Since Kyle Beachy's acclaimed debut novel, The Slide, was published in 2009 by The Dial Press, the novelist has only gained momentum in placing himself as an active, engaged writer. He's a community-building supporter of the Chicago literary scene and invigorates discussions on the art of writing, and the future of fiction.
Beachy has taught writing and literature at The School of the Art Institute, the Graham School at The University of Chicago, and the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival. He is Roosevelt University's first writer-in-residence, where he also teaches. His most recent work can be found in fall issues of Wigleaf and Black Boot.
Ghost Ocean: In your novel, there is such a careful description of place, in every detail of, say, the poolside, or attic, or the additions on a house. Was The Slide a character study of St. Louis, or did it approach place through a micro study of these more localized places?
Kyle Beachy: When an author has done a particular amount of work about place, there’s always the reading that place functions like a character—you could say that. Maybe my own place-work is a result of the fact that the authors I admire most are those who make place into a key for the way that their stories work. There were readings of the novel that spoke of it as a defense of the American city; speaking of ideas of the decline of the middle-sized city, how it is being pushed away—but for me it was more that, in order for the story to reach narrative cohesion, it had to work in a way that the settings could somehow reflect each other. So there is the parents' house, which is constantly being added onto and updated; you’ve got the sprawl of St Louis; you’ve got the pool house which, if you want to extend the metaphor, is the equivalent of sprawl from the central mansion of Stuart’s parents.
In order for this narrative to achieve any sort of meaning, it needed that. It was more a case of allowing the story to find itself along the way, to establish what it’s going to be based on through these levels of interactions.
GO: Did you find that you needed to inhabit or create a place in the abstract world of writing in order to set a stage for that?
KB: Maybe? I have a hard time processing language without having a visual aid. It’s hard for me to listen to someone read out loud without having the words in front of me. A lot of it is just me writing up to my own ineffectiveness of visualizing. So I figure that if I can’t see a place, then what’s the point of writing? It takes me a while to really believe and see and feel a place; I’m always writing to my own sensibilities.
GO: In one of your interviews, you mentioned that your artistic process is one of simplicity and trust…
KB: It’s odd to hear that I was ever in a place where I considered any of my process about simplicity. It’s interesting to be talking about it now, as opposed to when the book first came out. When the initial wave of these interviews happened I was just so deeply invested in the story and now that, the distance that I have from it, and how deeply I am into another project, I’m realizing that..
GO: Complexity, then? Rather than simplicity?
KB: Well I think it was never simplicity. You have to realize that any time you’re going to ask someone to speak about their book, a fair amount of what you’ll get is either posturing or some level of waxing over the truth. I could say that it was simplicity… I think that the late levels of my revision process were about simplifying. What I end up doing a lot is throwing twists and characters and descriptions and tensions into a pot and weeding out those that don’t serve the central narrative.
GO: So perhaps you have to trust that visualization enough to..?
KB: Yeah, you do. I mean otherwise, you’re just inflating, and inflating… and pushing on the crank.
GO: There were parts of The Slide that seemed to have been delivered from the gut. In these spots there would be a rapid changing up of sentence structure (between short and long); consciousness of emotion and an urge to understand and name it—a building of momentum where description almost gets too emotionally close and personal.
Do these moments emerge as you write—or is this honesty understood beforehand?
KB: I think that I believe in—as I understand it—the process that Don DeLillo has written with his whole career, a process to address and treat the paragraph as the choice measurement of conveying meaning. He’ll write a paragraph, and pull a page out of the typewriter. Each paragraph gets its own page. One of the things I have to stress about this book is that there was a huge amount of revision and polishing. I think that on a certain level I co-opted that paragraph approach so that when I had a goal to revise a 50-page section, I went paragraph by paragraph, working to make each paragraph interesting on its own. What that meant was moving in between longer sentences that kind of wound composite clauses, wrapped around themselves, and short, declarative sentences.
So a lot of that comes from reading DeLillo and working on the paragraph level, reading William Gass and aesthetic theory, and Gary Lutz and the aesthetic theory of a sentence. It's weird how this happens—you start to realize that the people you admire are the people that you’re stealing from. And that’s not really a secret. But I guess I was about two drafts in before I realized how I had actually stolen from people—not just language, image clusters and sentence structures, but also in terms of the way that my energy would go to the sentences and paragraphs.
When you have conversations that operate on different levels—like conversations with my editor about macro issues—I found that, to me, they could all be answered by looking at the sentence-level. My focus is always small and hoping that it might trickle up to some sort of whole.
GO: Do you write to a certain kind of audience? Do you hope that they can catch those smaller things? Or do you not think about that as much?
KB: No, I don’t think that you can about that. I know that I write to a very critical, aesthetically minded, appreciator of the sentence. But that person is me. And I also know that there a lot of stories that I hear that are extremely interesting stories, captivating, that show a tense relationship, that I go through and afterword... I just feel completely empty, no matter how complete the story was, because it didn’t appeal to me on a sentence level at all. So—I write for myself.
There is a risk to that. The more you read yourself the more familiar you are with your rhythms. And so it’s very hard for me to go back and read this book now because I can see what I’m doing. And that’s a problem—when you can see through the work you’ve done? Zadie Smith is always talking about her early works and how she can’t read them. She can’t read White Teeth.
Maybe a good analog to this... Last night I watched Following, Christopher Nolan’s movie from 1998. Nolan did Momento, Dark Knight, and Inception. And seeing it—it’s all there already; Inception is contained within this 1998 sixty minute short. At a certain level, Nolan had to give himself permission to continue doing it, over and over again. One of the things that I’m having a hard time now regarding my current relationship with writing is that I see myself repeating the kinds of rhythms and sentence structures that I spent a long time putting into The Slide—and I’m resisting.
GO: How do you keep things fresh?
KB: I don’t know. Maybe you can’t keep things fresh; maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s not about keeping things fresh. Maybe it’s about writing the way that you write, and having enough faith that you’re going to do something new, and giving yourself enough time to actually do that. Even if it’s with the same language, even if it’s with the same rhythms and the same motifs and these sorts of things—getting enough into it, and getting enough through it so that something new emerges.
This is not, in any way, to put myself in the same league of, but if you can imagine what it must have been like for Marilyn Robinson to write Housekeeping, and then attempt to write another novel, in any way? It would have been paralyzing. I don’t know what her situation was, I don’t know why there was such a big gap between Housekeeping and Gilead, but I imagine, if I know anything about writers, that some of that was based on the fact that she got so much right. This isn’t at all to say that I think I got things “right” in The Slide, but I got that book to where it could possibly go.
So now, to do something else, it echoes. You can hear yourself echoing yourself, and that can be hard.
GO: For writers today, how consuming and necessary should a web presence be?
KB: I’m at a stage at my career where I don’t have the luxury to the level of quietness that I would like to have. I think that now we’re in a situation where you have to earn some sort of quiet, where the old James Joyce tools—the only arms he'll allow himself are silence, exile, and cunning, which is also a big theme in a lot of DeLillo—seem like a totally antiquated idea. There is no possibility now of using these as a defense unless you have earned it.
As far as emerging writers or writers that want to gain attention... There is just so much noise. We've got so many young writers who are screaming at the top of their lungs that if you’re going to be the quiet one in the corner, no one’s going to notice. So how do you get noticed? A lot of it now seems like branding. A way for a writer to get a name for him/herself is to create an interesting or compelling or even terrible brand. Is that right? Is that how the artistic meritocracy should work out? I don’t think so, but it’s true, it’s how the world is right now.
The only way really I'm able to understand and parse the current literary world is to speak in the language of branding and marketing. One of the freelance jobs I did once was work on a website for a company that builds websites for nonprofits. I had to learn the language of branding. It's amazing—the terminology alone, the sheer evolution of this idea of defining yourself, and defining your identity. All of that stuff you can see bleeding into artistic practices, less for you and your organization and more for its market success. How it fares in the noise. I don't know if that's all that new, but what is new is that now everyone can do it. The noise gets smarter, and more focused. I can create a website with a brand that is the Kyle Beachy brand. And it can use this font and this graphic and this photo of, like, me shooting a gun. And if I wear a lot of flannel in all my images, then I'm going to be the rugged author with this much facial hair, and this much...
GO: You're wearing flannel right now.
KB: I happen to be wearing flannel right now.
So, it's tough—should it have to be that way? No. Is it that way? I think so. I don't mind all of it.
GO: What do you think success is for a writer?
KB: I don't know. I think you have to define it yourself. There are all these gradients of celebrity today; I could be on Dancing With the Stars and Desperate Housewives so I would be this famous. Or I had this child, and this scandal, so now I'm this famous. In the same way that we have a more analog idea of what celebrity is—you're not just famous or you're not do to all these middle grounds—the same is true for writers and success.
More and more, you have to define success yourself. Which puts it on your shoulders. It used to be a lot easier—you were either a famous writer or you weren't.
GO: In that aspect it helps if you enjoy your own writing..
KB: We have to... Here’s the other thing, and I speak about this now in a better way than I could when the book first came out; Jess Ball, a wonderful Chicago author, if we can call him a Chicago author, said once, he came to one of my classes, and he said something, very frankly and very straightforwardly, just opened up and said: you’re not doing this to get a complementary review. You’re not doing it for the bad reviews, we all know that, but you’re also not doing it for the good reviews, because when you get good reviews, it just doesn’t register, it doesn’t mean anything.
So at a certain point, again it’s the sort of rote, kind of trite thing that all authors say, but I think, what you realize is how fundamentally true it is—you cannot care about your reviews. You cannot care about people who don’t like your writing. They are just not going to read it. It’s very simple. If you care about who doesn’t like your stuff, you are fucked. It becomes the sort of thing where, all right, why actually am I doing this? And I think why I am doing it nowadays at age 32 as opposed to why I was doing it as age 22 has changed 180 degrees.
GO: Also within your website and reviews. I’ve read that you’ve enjoyed skateboarding.
KB: I do.
GO: From what I know about skateboarding, it’s all about persistence, and failing, and failing, and failing, and finally maybe getting it. Does any of that (endurance) ever carry over into your life as a writer?
Maybe not just your writing but how you deal with rejections or within writing and that whole lifestyle?
KB: I would say that there are two different ways of skateboarding. You’re either skateboarding or filming. If you’re filming, you’re creating evidence that this was done, you succeeded, so that someone somewhere can watch it. If you’re skateboarding, just skateboarding, and you’re just with your friends, or you’re alone... When you’re landing tricks it’s not about any sort of permanence, any sort of official record. But what you do have in there is the feeling. There still is nothing better than landing a trick.
Now, landing a trick is better if there are people there who you respect who see you land a trick. But in terms of failure—yeah, it is—you fail twenty times for every success. At least. It might also be the same reason I like baseball—you’re going to get out 7 times, at least, out of 10.
But whether that somehow conditioned me to stomach the failures that come with writing? I’m not sure. It’s more just that I really, really like the feeling of landing a trick in skateboarding. There’s nothing—I can’t even explain to you what it’s like to do a trick that you’ve been trying for a while. It’s the best feeling in the world. Of rolling away and feeling your knees absorb it and you can feel it in your whole body. It’s wonderful. The equivalent of that? Yeah, I would say that getting this book out was sort of the equivalent of that—it took a very long time.
GO: Maybe the turn around time is a little better for skating?
KB: Yeah, one would hope so. At least, relatively.
I’m sure they’re related. But the difference is that when you fall in skateboarding, often, it's very satisfying. I’ve had a broken toe for about four weeks—I just went skating and it was really fun to get back on my board; it was kind of frustrating, but the real joy came when I fell. I scraped up my elbow, and I got up, and I remembered, that was a big part of it. I don’t know if that’s gently masochistic or sado masochistic, I’m not sure. I don’t know if it’s an old Calvinist notion that those who suffer and feel pain are somehow destined for something good to happen—but I do know that I value the amount of pain that comes with skateboarding.