Interviewed by Gavin Pate
Over the past decade Robert Kloss has steadily produced a haunting body of work. From his early chapbook How the Days of Love and Diphtheria, through his novels like The Alligators of Abraham and The Women Who Lived Amongst The Cannibals, Kloss has explored the dark corners of American history and the struggles of individuals against fanaticism and so-called progress. His books are at times anachronistic, at times poetic, and at times surreal, yet in each the reader encounters a singular voice seemingly of another time and detached from the fads of the present.
This fall sees the publication of his hybrid novel, A Light No More, a book that seems to push Kloss even further into his own literary territory. Blurring the lines between poetry and prose, A Light No More puts Kloss’s inventiveness on full display. While the book shares a loose affinity with horror, it transcends genre, and like the many images and photographs contained within it, it slowly infects the reader with its own harrowing vision of the world.
Gavin Pate: William Styron once remarked that “The business of the progression of time seems to me one of the most difficult problems a novelist has to cope with.” Since the progress of time is central to both the thematic and character arcs of your novels, I was wondering, what it is about history, and especially the changes that took place between the 19th and 20th centuries, that has such a hold on your work?
Robert Kloss: I absolutely agree that the progress of time is central, but it’s interesting to me, looking back now, how much that idea has changed for me. With Alligators in particular I was writing less about people than I was about large events, “history,” and that progression. I was really interested in all the little anachronistic qualities of history, or what seem like anachronisms, and how when you look back at the 19th century so much is recognizable in an unexpected way. There’s a dream quality to something as common as a mowing machine or pornography when it’s in this different context.
But the last two books in particular—Cannibals and A Light No More—have become more interior. There is some exterior progression of time and history in Cannibals, but it’s really tightly connected to character. The new book is almost set outside of history. There are a couple markers that let you know that it’s still the late 19th century, but it’s very interior, and very dreamlike.
I wrote Alligators and Revelator over two years and since then the books have come along at a different pace. And I think that’s partly due to how my understanding of time and what that means has developed—it’s forced me to slow down and relearn a lot of how I think. Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams came out while I was writing Cannibals and some of the ways time is discussed in that film really struck me—there’s this idea that cave painters were in conversation with each other, across thousands of years—so I began looking at how different cultures, and physicists, and dementia sufferers, all perceive time. You see some of that in Cannibals, and it’s heavily influenced the new book.
GP: While your stories are rooted in history, they also contain these bizarre fabulist elements, be it alligators, black mountains, giant walls, or all types of “creatures.” In these historical settings, there always seems to be another world creeping in. How do you see these historical events and almost mythical elements in conversation with each other?
RK: I really idealize the way a child looks at the world—there’s a mystery and a strangeness to things. There’s that glow to everything. And there is less of a line between dream and imagination and reality—they bleed into each other constantly. I had a hard time as a child understanding that dinosaurs and humans did not coexist, probably because it’s just much more interesting to think otherwise.
There’s one memory in particular that I think explains things—Reagan’s re-election happened while I was in kindergarten. And I remember the teacher gathered us around to explain how this election was going to happen and who was up for election and all this stuff. Somehow in this wonderful way I came out thinking that the current president was a kind of timeless machine, a computer. And I remember picturing this computer filling a room. I have no idea how that misunderstanding happened—I do however wish I could go back to seeing the world that way.
The older I get, and the deeper I get into my writing and where I want to go with it, the more frustrated I am by my education. I’ve had to spend so many years unlearning how a book works, how a narrative works, and all this other garbage that I was indoctrinated with. There’s this misunderstanding that you need to be more educated or intellectual or whatever to understand or appreciate experimental writing or art films or modern art or whatever the terms are. I think it’s the opposite—or it should be the opposite—the less you know about technique or theory the better. I was really reluctant to allow my publishers to call Alligators a Civil War novel and Revelator a book about Joseph Smith, partly for those reasons. People get hung up on that stuff too much.
GP: I will resist where my brain wants to go here—namely, the horror show of a computerized Reagan running the world for eternity—and instead address your point about narrative indoctrination. You have this great line in Cannibals that I think sums up many of your characters’ struggles, as well as perhaps your larger vision: “the immortal soul not yet subdued by the mortal malaise.” There is something strikingly romantic here, as well as strikingly desperate. How do you take this line?
RK: I don’t remember that line at all! But you’re right, it does sum a lot up. Again, I think it goes back to childhood, and then the tedium of existence sets in. I sometimes say that I’m addicted to inspiration—and for me inspiration is that deeper something that makes this all meaningful and worthwhile, and it’s the thing that life seems designed to murder.
GP: Your books can definitely traffic in murderous urges—and yet, while there seems to be many ways the people in your novels have designed to destroy themselves, there is a kind of transformation of these urges, such as with the Player King’s Rabelaisian troupe, into something artful, if not still brutal. Do you think this destruction of childhood, which you reference, can actually be remedied through such artistic transformations, or is such thinking just a last-gasp effort against the inevitable? And can you say more about inspiration as both victim to and life-line from the tedium of meaninglessness?
RK: I think it depends on the person—some people are built for tedium and thrive in it. Society functions as well as it does because we don’t all malfunction. Capitalism works partly because something about humanity allows itself to be brutalized into a cog, and partly because it allows certain classes extravagant playtime. I tend to think the ability to believe in a god or in supernatural, magical occurrences, is probably a manifestation of the urge to creativity. You need something like that to keep you going.
I love the documentary about David Lynch, The Art Life, and I think that guy has set himself up pretty well. Some people will say well that’s privilege—a rich white man gets to hire people to address all of his real world concerns so that he can spend every moment of his life smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and creating art—and that’s absolutely so. He also had to sacrifice a lot, I think—you have to be an asshole to people to live the art life. Some people don’t have that in them. And some people don’t have the talent or vision to make it pay off. It’s a rare fucking thing. Now maybe David Lynch would say meditation is what saves him, or maybe he would say the tedium of meaningless is a constant opponent for him as well, but from the outside it looks pretty wonderful.
And Cannibals was obviously partly about that—what happens when we remove ourselves from the machine, from society, and just allow ourselves to dream and become the thing we are at our core? I think there’s a terror to that. Some people can’t give themselves fully over. Some people give themselves over to it and become monstrous. Freedom would be terrifying, I think. I feel like animals in the wild have a terrifying existence. Squirrels must live in constant fear of being murdered, but a domesticated squirrel gets bored and lethargic, so who knows.
GP: Images are a crucial part of your books. The artist Matt Kish did the covers and interior artwork on three of your books, and I believe your next book, A Light No More, will be filled with even more images of your own choosing and perhaps creation. How do these visual representations affect your writing, and would you dare say how you might hope they affect your reader?
RK: I have a few different ways of answering this, but I should begin by saying that A Light No More has maybe 100 images—either photographs from the 19th century that I heavily edited or images that I created and edited on my own.
Creatively, working with Matt changed my thinking a lot. He was brought in by J.A. Tyler to do the cover for Alligators after the manuscript was edited, so his art didn’t affect my writing at all—I had no idea there would be art. But it brought me back—again—to childhood. And I think most writers start out trying to draw. Before we have words and language we’re drawing little stories and binding little books with yarn. Most of the stories I wrote until I was 11 were heavily illustrated. So many times I’d just draw the cover, come up with a title, and that would satisfy the urge. But then, you know, something kills that inclination. I decided I wanted to be Stephen King somewhere in the fifth grade so I started writing a novel. You don’t illustrate novels.
But there’s something pure about an illustration. There’s something immediate. It’s closer to the thing than language can get. You understand that as a child. The word “dinosaur” is far less compelling than a drawing of a dinosaur. The word “dinosaur” I think begins killing the beauty of the image.
So working with Kish—on Revelator, Desert Places, and Cannibals—and some other projects—was partly about getting back to that original purpose. And that original way of looking at a project. When you’re a 4-year-old kid you’re just making a book because you love to do it. You don’t give a shit about anything else. There are no rules, no guidelines, no critics, no editors, no sales people, none of the bullshit.
I think that’s where I’m at now. I’m trying to make books, in a very private way, and a very rudimentary way. Other than the writing part, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not an artist, I’m not a designer, I’m totally lost—it’s great. A professional would laugh at me, but there’s something pure about it, I think.
This is not answering your question at all, but it might eventually relate to it—I’ve made a point of telling people that this is not a novel. I always come back to Frost’s thing about free verse being akin to playing tennis without a net. I always found that a really dumb thing to say as an argument against free verse.; if you want to play tennis, then yes, absolutely, you need a net, but once you remove the net it becomes a different game, and maybe a more beautiful game. And for a while you’re essentially playing a netless variation of tennis but slowly over time, as you dig deeper into the game, it becomes something entirely different. Maybe that scares some people but that’s where I want to go—something entirely different.
GP: So is this the urge that has led you to self-publish? Did you have frustrations working with presses that go beyond this labeling, or were you just striving for a different kind of artistic experience and control?
RK: It was partly that, and it was partly that I wasn’t wanted. I was willing to make concessions, and I made several, as long as the text itself wasn’t affected. Cannibals was not meant to be self-published—I was very determined to find a publisher and a large audience for that book. The manuscript was more than twice as long as what I published—it was much closer in style and scope to Revelator than what I ended up with—and I thought it would be the one that broke through. I can’t tell you how confident I was in the quality of that manuscript, and I thought—I had such faith in the idea that if a book was good enough it didn’t matter how strange it was, that somebody in publishing would see the merits and take the risk. That was very naive.
That’s all it is. People will throw all sorts of hyperbole into a rejection—how great you are, how great your book is, and how many awards you will win—but what it comes down to is — Listen, clearly the system works for some people. I have friends who have been successful within it; they’ve written and published wonderful books and made nice careers for themselves. My wife works in publishing. But for me it just felt like it was destroying the creative act. So I think the best thing that happened to my writing is that my writing career failed so miserably that I was able to generate enough courage to kill the last of it and make the jump.
And of course the moment I decided that I was just going to do it myself I felt incredibly good. I was terrified that I wouldn’t get enough preorders to print Cannibals, but all the limitations that I’d felt—and a lot of unconscious ones—were gone. Or I was free to throw them off. So now I’d never do otherwise than do this on my own. The freedom is too much. The control. No, it’s everything now.
But I also think the model I’ve been using is too limiting. I’ve been scrounging for enough preorders to pay for publication—my feeling is, foremost, if I can’t generate enough interest to pay for publication then I’m not going to force the issue. From now I’m going to do things a little differently, I think.
GP: Can I ask you a little more about your process and stylistic choices? Can you describe how you come to things like your use of dashes and white space and images? I wonder how much of this occurs in inception, drafting, revising, etc. And when you decide on using, say, the dashes in Cannibals or the images in A Light No More, how might that shape the story as you create it?
RK: My process changes all the time. Partly out of necessity—I’m an adjunct at three different colleges and my schedule is always changing and I’m always commuting or in some different place—and partly out of search for a key that unlocks whatever inspires me. It’s a constant fight, like I’ve said, and it’s so easy to get ground down teaching six courses a semester, shuffling from bus to bus, four hours a day—you fall into the motions, you end up sleepwalking. What worked on one book suddenly is drudgery, but you don’t realize it yet. There’s just this inkling that you were happier, or the act felt more alive, at an earlier time. So I have a million little devices, and when those fail, I have to invent new ones. And what works, works, and I trust it until it doesn’t work anymore.
So the dashes came out of that process. I was writing A Light No More while I edited Revelator for publication—and it looked a lot like that book for a while—dialogue, scenes, indentation, second person. For maybe a year and a half, two years, I was just generating language. I would feel enthusiastic for a day or a week and then it’d just feel dead. Things started feeling different about the time I realized that even if Cannibals were published, A Light No More would need to be self-published. I’d found that I couldn’t work at my laptop anymore—I was writing notes in longhand and then typing the notes into paragraphs, and expanding the paragraphs into pages, and all the things that one does when writing a novel. After a certain point I realized the notes I was writing—fragments, poetic phrases, glimpses of things, dashes—opened all these other possibilities, ways of looking at time and character and language.
So I’m not sure any of this is clear or interesting, but what I’m getting at is everything is the writing process—and in my mind it’s all about searching for the thing and shaping it until the moment comes when it feels like it’s close enough to wrap up. For this particular book that process was partly about generating ideas and content, and partly about devouring and destroying that content. I probably wrote 100,000 words for A Light No More and what I’m publishing is around 7,000 words. What ends up being the book is completely different from a manuscript I had less than a year ago.
Who knows how the next book will happen. Or what it will look like. It all has to emerge organically.
GP: So I can assume your use of the second person “you” in your work also emerged organically? It sure seems to fly in the face of that indoctrinated wisdom of MFA programs and listicle rules for writers.
RK: It really just felt like the thing to do at one point. It feels right. A Light No More uses second and first person pretty interchangeably, because that felt natural. The second person—like the dashes—don’t have any single purpose or meaning or intention. My understanding of the second person has changed and deepened a lot over the seven years I’ve been using it, as my understanding of these dashes has developed.
Now what I want to explore is my tendency to switch tenses, which is another rule that most everyone follows. I switch tenses constantly as I write—within paragraphs, sentences—and maybe there’s something there. I know I let a few go in A Light No More because keeping them in seemed meaningful.
GP: Thanks so much for your time, Robert. As a final question, can you talk about how film has informed your writing? You mentioned Herzog and Lynch earlier, and there are places in your work, especially some of the impressionistic parts or the way you handle transitions, where I detect a debt to film. What better way to end an interview with a novelist than by asking about cinema?
RK: Film is pretty much the ideal medium, I think. I’ve felt that way for most of my life. Most movies are absolutely terrible, and the film industry is even more corrupt and bankrupt than the book industry, but the art form itself is ideal. So I’m always trying to figure out how to achieve what this or that filmmaker achieves, or to affect the reader the way a film affects the audience. And it’s doomed to fail, of course, because the mediums are different, the languages are totally different. A beautiful film is usually the thing that inspires me most and also leaves me the most despondent. The best inspiration is usually completely devastating.