West Coast Interviews – Roy Kesey


Roy Kesey is one of our best contemporary writers. His stories and novels are set all over the globe, so we’re able to gain insight into how different peoples think, what their values are, and how they live their lives, and the tales themselves are full of original and poetic language, not to mention extraordinary character development. While Roy was a generation ahead of me in the writers’ hangout and community Zoetrope Virtual Studio, I was still fortunate enough to overlap with him some, and got to hear his ideas and advice about writing technique, publishing, and what’s going on in the world. I finally had the pleasure of meeting him a few times at AWP.

Roy, who is both a writer and a translator, currently lives in Maryland. His books include Any Deadly ThingPacazoAll OverNothing in the World and an historical guide to the city of Nanjing, China. Pacazo, set in Peru, is superbly written and brilliant in its structure, moving smoothly back and forth between scenarios to portray an utterly human narrator who’s not very good at expressing his feelings directly. Any Deadly Thing is equally brilliant but a whole different animal, which speaks volumes about Kesey’s range. The brutal story lines in this new collection, set in a multitude of countries, hit you where it hurts—in the soul, the heart. If you haven’t read his work yet, you’re missing something wonderful.

Bonnie ZoBell:  Thanks for the interview, Roy. Pacazo enthralled me because of the somewhat unusual structure and the Peruvian setting, not to mention the very genuine human emotions so well captured, while Any Deadly Thing captivated me because of the danger and cruelty (often within families), the human frailties, and the diverse settings.

Did you write Pacazo or Any Deadly Thing first? I notice that the title story in Any Deadly Thing has some similarities to the story being told in Pacazo: single father with daughter, deceased mother, obsessive dad, some serious drinking going on, and so forth. Of course the father in Pacazo is much kinder and more patient. Do you see similarities? What made you decide to switch forms?

RK:  My pleasure, Bonnie, and thanks right back.Roy_Kesey

I worked on Pacazo for so long—I think the oldest surviving draft of the short story that eventually became the first chapter of the novel is dated March 1999, and Pacazo itself was published in 2011, so more than a decade all told—that lots of other things got written in between drafts. Among those other things are most of the stories that made up both my first collection, All Over, and this second collection, Any Deadly Thing.

That’s less than half the story, though. Most of the other half of the story has to do with what happened during the process of choosing and sequencing the stories for All Over, a process that ended in late 2006, I think. I had way more stories than I needed for a single collection, and once I’d decided to divide the lot according to their relative distance from realism, and picked the most distant ones for All Over, the rest were moved to the folder that would eventually become the core of Any Deadly Thing.

Of course, lots of things shifted between the moment when All Over was published in 2007 and the moment when Any Deadly Thing appeared early last year. For one, I wrote some new stories that I felt earned their spots in any new project into which they happened to fit. For another, a few of the oldest stories in the folder came to feel less engaging than they had when I first wrote them, so they fell away.

All of which is to say, it wasn’t so much a question of choosing to change forms as a question of working in whatever form each bit of material seemed to like best (a seeming that itself often changed over time, as both Pacazo and my earlier novella Nothing in the World started as short stories, and the story “How Things End” started as a chapter in the novel that Nothing in the World was before it was a novella and after it was a short story.) (Um. Should I maybe throw some sort of diagram or blueprint or flowchart in here somewhere?) So, long story long, Any Deadly Thing contains a few stories that were written not too long before the collection went to press, and at least one story—“Today/Tomorrow”—that showed up for me even earlier than the first draft of the story “Pacazo.”

All of which gets me finally back to your actual question: the title story of Any Deadly Thing came years later than the first complete draft of Pacazo. But I’d be the last person to argue with you or anyone else who happened to notice certain lines of enquiry showing up in more than one piece of my work. As writers, we get to pick our material to a certain extent, but when it comes to our obsessions and manias and battle scars, I think we mainly have to work with what we’re given.

BZ:  Your stories have such wonderful real-life details, events that happen to real humans that we often don’t see in fiction. In “Cochlear,” the husband and wife have suspended sentences for lopping off the tops of regular trees and sticking them in five-dollar pots and selling them as bonsai trees for two hundred dollars each. They get caught when one of the regular tree businesses finally buys a Doberman. The husband says, “We… really don’t mind picking up litter along the highway, or rather we wouldn’t mind except our only daycare option is Mrs. Przybysz across the street, who on bad days has trouble keeping her clothes on.” Love Mrs. Przybysz’s name. Where did you find that? Do you get the ideas for these very flawed human beings from the newspaper, neighbors, your imagination, or?

RK:  How I wish I could remember where I first read or heard the surname Przybysz, but I just spent ten minutes staring out the window, and I’ve still got nothing for you. But to this day I love saying it out loud, especially in the possessive: Przybysz’s Przybysz’s Przybysz’s.

As for characters in general, I’ll take them anywhere I can get them. This particular set… I know that at some point I was reading about, I don’t know, the nature of sound, I guess—I don’t remember why. I came across the word “cochlear,” and loved the mouth-feel of it. And then however many months later I got those first few sentences of the story incoming, and waited, and listened to them, and bit by bit I built the narrator out of/based on that riff. I ended up, in those opening paragraphs, with a damaged guy talking about another damaged guy, which interested me, especially if the two very different kinds of damage had the same source.

Most of the scams that drive the backstory and plot grew out of a multiple-email conversation I had with Seth Shafer, and I’m glad for this opportunity to finally give him the shout-out he deserves. We were talking about get-rich-quick schemes and other ways, none of them legal, to buy time to write. For most of them the chance of a decent payout was so low that you’d have to be pretty messed up to think they were worth the risk—and here now in “Cochlear” I had a character who was exactly that messed up.

BZ: “Nipparpoq,” which you linked to Inuit throat singing at http://largeheartedboy.com, is told as a fabulist story and set 200 years ago in Greenland. The narrator, an Inuit, is the last survivor of his tribe. Did you do massive research for this story? What made you interested in this culture?

RK:  Is it a fabulist story? Partly, I guess, in the sense that the human brain will seek symbol-thick narrative when under certain kinds of duress, including the kind my narrator has gotten himself into—and the fabulist tradition definitely informs some of the story’s subsections.

Anyway, to answer your question, yes, massive massive research. I’m a little obsessive about that kind of thing. I ended up with hundreds of pages of notes, including a generously thick stack of generously long emails from experts at places like the Greenland Research Center at the National Museum of Denmark, and the Eskimology and Arctic Studies program within the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen.

I’ve always been interested in extreme situations and how humans deal with them. My interest in this particular story started when I was asked to review Jared Diamond’s Collapse for a magazine in China while we were living there.

BZ:  If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live, and why?

RK:  I’ve never found anywhere to be unfruitful. I guess my only real stipulations would be that it be new to me, and aesthetically engaging. Somewhere in Turkey, maybe, or northern Thailand. Tunisia fascinates me, especially with their recent governmental shift. I’ve heard that Tanzania is spectacularly beautiful. Tajikstan? Timor-Leste! Togo or Tonga? And we’re not even out of the T’s…

BZ:  Back to “Nipparpoq,” I’m always curious about people’s feelings about writing from the perspective of a culture not their own. In many of your stories set in other countries and cultures, the narrator is a white person visiting the place. I’m from San Diego on the Mexican border, and according to some statistics, we are now almost half Latino, making it a part of my culture, too. I’ve written from the perspective of someone who is Latina and sometimes I feel I shouldn’t, or that it might not be taken as seriously since I have such a gringa name, but on the other hand, I think fiction writers should be able to write about anything they want. What’s your take on this issue?

RK:   This seems like a particularly volatile and essential question to me this morning, since like many Americans I spent last night transfixed by the latest awful news from Ferguson, Missouri. My Twitter feed is currently pocked with white Americans telling black Americans how to feel and think and act in response to the fact that a white county prosecutor and the majority-white grand jury he directed have just declined to indict a white police officer for shooting an unarmed black teenager to death in a predominantly black city.

The whole mess was and is a master class in privilege and power and venality and injustice and blindness, and has me and countless others in despair. The morass frightens me, on many levels. But you asked. So, okay.

There are only two requirements: that the work be vital, and that it be true in some powerful sense.

By which I mean, of course, yes, we can all write absolutely anything we want. Think of all the amazing literature the world would have had to do without if authors were required to create only characters that shared their race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or religion, or socio-economic background, or age, or historical period, or what have you. We would have no Othello! No Wife of Bath! No Orlando, no Tom Ripley, no Lady Chatterley, no Jim. To say nothing of Milton’s Satan, or for that matter White’s Charlotte. What a thin, sad world that would be.


But know that I typed that last paragraph from a place of much fear and much trembling, and not just because of Ferguson. I mean, not even my examples above are unproblematic. There are just so many ways the whole enterprise can go wrong. Sometimes horribly, dangerously so. Especially if one writes the Other from a position of privilege. And the further one writes from one’s own experience, the more likely something is to go wrong.

The consequences vary, of course. Sometimes the only thing that suffers is the author’s own ego, when the material is challenged and found wanting. But sometimes stereotypes are created or reinforced, stereotypes that cause genuine, tangible harm to a given group of people, harm that can last years, or decades, or centuries. Who on earth would be crazy enough to risk that?

Authors, I guess. But. So. How do we gird ourselves for the effort, and how can we hope to succeed? Empathy and massive massive research are our only hopes, I think. Which seems to me now like pretty feeble armor—now at this moment, as I prep myself to write from the brain of a twelve-year old Aymara boy with neurocysticercosis—but they’re all we’ve got. Guide my steps, St. Orlando. Guide my steps, St. Charlotte.

BZ:  What are you working on now?

RK:  A new novel, a new translation, a new story, a new essay, a new poem, forever and ever, amen.

By | 2016-11-20T17:35:24+00:00 December 9th, 2014|Bonnie ZoBell Blog, West Coast Interviews|0 Comments

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