INTERVIEW WITH Christian Kiefer
Christian Kiefer is the director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Ashland University and is the author of The Infinite Tides (Bloomsbury), The Animals (W.W. Norton), One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide (Nouvella Books), and Phantoms (Liveright/W.W. Norton). Photo by Christophe Chammartin.
FWR: Let’s start with your pieces for Literary Hub, where you focus on grammar as craft. Of Lauren Groff’s writing, you say, “The style of her sentences … are the gears and wheels of her genius.” Often, when we talk about craft, we’re looking at aspects of the form—point of view, exposition, characterization. I found it interesting how you articulated conditioning these components with the shape of prose itself. How does a writer go about using language and grammar to achieve a desired composite effect?
Christian Kiefer: I think the easy answer here is by consciously reading with language and musicality in mind. For me, the sentence length is effectively the length of breath that any piece of writing asks for. That length of breath can fluctuate depending on the scene or situation, but the exhale/inhale of a line of text is mostly dictated by its rhythm and its use of pauses and end stops (commas, periods—but also textual interruptions and so on). With someone like Faulkner, you’ve got an increasingly ostentatious use of clauses and phrases meant to contribute to the flow of the text so that the length of breath becomes almost laughable. For someone like Groff, you’ve got shorter, impactful clauses often fraught with a staccato rhythm that, even when rendered by soft syllabic information, is nonetheless possessive of a kind of wave-like feeling. One doesn’t even notice the periods, the commas, because the unit of rhythm is rendered so expertly.
There’s a whole list of “grammar rules” out there on the internet, of course, and once you have those under your belt, it’s pretty easy to see when people consciously break them. James Baldwin, for example, has a deep love of comma splices, which many college professors would mark as incorrect. Or Garth Greenwell’s idiosyncratic but deeply meaningful use of semicolons. Look at the rhythm of Jesmyn Ward’s prose, or ZZ Packer’s, or Michael Ondaatje’s. These are masters in how they employ grammar as a tool of meaning-making.
FWR: You’ve mentioned in interviews that when you’re writing poetry, you don’t think about narrative, yet the sentences in your novels are so poetic, such as this passage from The Animals:
Above him, above them all, the sky had gone full dark and stars seemed all at once to rise from the tops of the trees, their pinpoints wheeling for a moment across that black expanse only to return once again to those needled shapes, as if each light had come up through the soil, through the epidermis of root hairs and into the cortex and the endodermis and up at last through open xylem, the sapwood, through the vessels and tracheids, rising in the end to the thin sharp needles and releasing, finally, a single dim point of light into the thin dark air only to pull one back from that scattering of stars, the cambium pressing down the trunk, pressing back to black earth. Time circling in the soil and the silver tipped needles. Time circling in the big sage and cheatgrass of everything to come before.
The first sentence is a kind of blazon of a conifer, used less for exposition and more as movement. You’ve mentioned considering velocity as a specific approach to writing. How do you see poetic language as capable of creating certain motion? And in that way, how can lyricism serve narrative?
Kiefer: You’ve happened upon a great peeve of mine: style guides dictate prose should strive for clarity, as if poetry is the only form of writing that gets to be poetic. On one hand, that passage you quoted is perfectly clear to a plant biologist, although of course I’ve taken some license here and there, but its point and purpose is to sink the reader into the language of the natural world, a significant and meaningful (I hope!) theme of the novel.
The motion of the above passage is paused-for-breath by the commas, allowing for a lilting rhythm. I hone this by reading passages aloud over and over and tinkering with the rhythm and the language until it feels representative of whatever effect I’m trying to work toward. Sometimes it’s very, very conscious and sometimes it’s more intuitive, but most often somewhere in between the two.
Those last two sentences above are summatory of the long sentence that precedes them. It’s a way to nail down what might be to an average reader just a bunch of nonsense. I’m offering a way to anchor the reader to something a bit more grounded, though still representative of what the passage is “about”.
This is all to say that in terms of velocity something needs to be moving forward in the text. I’m a pretty patient reader but if there’s no apparent motion, I will eventually get bored. The writer has to put pressure on something—maybe it’s on the sentences themselves, but often it’s the characters, the situation, the scene. Hemingway is known for these short(ish), punchy sentences, but when in action scenes like the end of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” he moves into a completely different rhythm, a completely different velocity
FWR: Your fiction heavily employs atmosphere. In your essay on Garth Greenwell, you call one of his passages a “stuttering delay on the details of the protagonist’s recollection and remembrance.” This relationship between the information released in each clause and what is concealed, to be released later, is a playful manipulation that lends itself to building the haunting atmospheric elements in The Animals, too. How do your terms “re-grammaring” and “re-informing” apply to your approach toward writing and establishing atmosphere?
Kiefer: This is probably something I learned from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner gives the reader so much information right from the first couple pages, yet the reader is totally flummoxed as to what is happening. Even at a basic level, the reader can hardly situate herself in the text. An elderly woman is sitting in a room telling a disjointed story to a college-aged Quentin Compson (from The Sound and the Fury). It seems like it would be straightforward, but part of Faulkner’s interest is the assumptions made by survivors of the Old South, such that most everyone knows the same characters and situations, and so Rosa Coldfield’s narrative—a narrative later assumed by Quentin’s father and by Quentin himself—is therefore fraught with assumptions about the knowledge of the listener/reader.
What this all amounts to is a text of accretion, the meaning of which deepens in spite of (or perhaps even because of) the reader’s confusion. It’s a miraculous thing and an almost impossible book to read, let alone write. I think I’ve probably read it ten times or so.
Having said that, I do think it can be very problematic to willfully withhold information from the reader, especially basic information. For those of us who are not Faulkner—and even Faulkner is not always in full possession of his talent—it’s important to set the reader into a situation or scene that is apprehensible. It can be terribly frustrating to read something and have to struggle to locate basic information. Absalom, Absalom! works counter to this because it’s very much about the act of storytelling over the gigantic canvas of history.
And thank you for your note on my use of atmosphere in my writing. It’s the part of the work that I most enjoy, which mostly comes late in the revision process. I’m doing 30 – 40 drafts of my writing, generally speaking, and a lot of that is dialing in specific textual effects and making sure that the setting is solid enough to be imagined but gauzy enough that the reader can also imagine her own version of it. In this sense, concealment can allow the reader into the text. In The Animals, I want readers to be able to envision the Nevada desert, but I also want to make sure it’s their own Nevada desert, not necessarily mine.
FWR: In Phantoms, characters and events parallel each other throughout, whether John Frazier and Ray Takahashi’s experiences in their respective wars, or John’s attempt to unravel the story of Ray against the backdrop of the town’s desire to deny it. Your syntax often mirrors this parallelism, as John views himself in opposition to or in league with different characters. Can you talk about how prose can embody what it is in fact describing, and how the goings on of a story might be inspired by its prose? How would you advise writers to play around with the tension and congruence between prose and content?
Kiefer: I would advise writers to play around with everything. In terms of the specific question, there’s a balance needed that is embodied in the syntax itself. Whenever you veer from the arrow of the narrative, you’ve got to remember that the reader is likely waiting for the text to reconnect with that (perceived) forward motion. As a microcosm, consider an individual sentence. “Once he awoke from his nap, Bob, still hung over from the night before—that last flight of whiskeys had clearly been a terrible mistake—returned to the office.” So what’s happening there is you’ve delayed the subject’s sentence by 7 syllables, then provided the subject, Bob, which immediately sets up the reader’s expectation that the verb is coming, which you’ve then delayed again by 25 syllables. You’ve got to make sure you’re deferring the reader’s grammatical satisfaction for a good reason. Too much of that will come off as an affectation. (Late Henry James is really, really good at this kind of thing.)
On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a scene where the protagonist is trying to avoid talking (or even thinking) about something, then the syntax—even in exposition—might start wrapping itself in circles in order to display something regarding that state of mind, delaying and interrupting, and so on, so that the reader can feel the reticence and avoidance without you having to state it. That’s a fine line to walk because it’s so easy to overdo.
FWR: You play around often with point of view, too. In The Animals, Nat’s perspective is in second person, and you write from the perspective of Majer, who’s a bear. Both Phantoms and One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide feature first-person plural, which in the former creates tension between community and individual and in the latter calls attention to the (inter)viewer and the nature of an artistic lens. What is point of view’s role in situating a reader closer to or farther from the text or characters?
Kiefer: This is something I’ve thought about a great deal. Pam Houston is the master of the second-person narrative, so I’m certain I learned everything I know about that from reading her work. Going back to Faulkner: he employs first-person plural often (look at “A Rose for Emily,” for example). Point of view is, for me, a decision of where to place what John Dos Passos famously called the “camera eye.” That placement can be very idiosyncratic and can even be off-putting (I remember Tin House-editor Rob Spillman commenting that he generally finds second person difficult to pull off).
What I’m interested in is using point of view to shift the position of the reader vis-à-vis the narrative. If we move from standard third-person past to second-person present, that does something significant to the flow of the text and the reader’s position to that text. The reader has to recalibrate where he thinks he is in relation to the story, which I find wonderfully invigorating (as a reader). Ondaatje does this kind of thing with scene, situation, character, and time when he shifts us into some other point in the timeline or shifting the entire narrative as in Divisadero. It’s a way to force readers to reapply themselves to the text while questioning what narrative is and what it can be.
FWR: I want to talk more about the filmic nature of your writing. One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide is described as a kinoroman, or a cinematic novel, and within it the narration functions at once as camera, us as collective readers and viewers, and words, as this is, of course, a book:
When she moves away we do not follow but watch her, receding, pulling out of focus as she reaches the glass doors of the casino, the reflection of the parking lot shifting momentarily across her disappearing shape. In that reflection is all of Nevada. In that reflection is you, reading these words.
Soon after, we read “We have not seen her smoke before, but she is smoking now.” This conflation of a literary feature like backstory with a note I’d expect to read in a screenplay functions as a sort of formal synesthesia. How do you draw from other creative formats in your work? And in your mind, what even is the role of form when it comes to writing?
Kiefer: I think it’s important to occupy “the arts” in a deep and meaningful way and to make sure you’re exploring how the effect of one work might be achieved in another. Like how might one create the textural quality of Anselm Kiefer’s (no relation) The Orders of the Night with words? Or the hauntingly floating opening of Hans Abrahamsen’s opera Let Me Tell You. Or Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of President Barack Obama. That portrait makes me tear up. How could I as a writer accomplish the way it does that?
Obviously these are shifty questions. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait is wonderful because it can’t really be accomplished any other way, but I do think it’s useful to consider artistic borrowing in this capacity. After all, one isn’t trying to replicate the actual painting or music or text or film or whatever it is, but rather the feeling of that form.
FWR: John states early in Phantoms that “much of which [has written about Vietnam] helped [him] understand what happened over there and how the heavy stone of that experience continues to ripple out over a life that has been, at times, troubled by its own hidden currents.” This understanding of the Vietnam War helps the reader understand the domestic violence between the white and Japanese-American families of Newcastle as “a legacy of sanctioned violence both subtle and overt.” The formal can be of course akin to the traditional. So how can writers use formal conventions in a way that allows us to also re-understand and re-experience them?
Kiefer: At heart, I’m a traditional narrative novelist. The formal conventions are there because they work, but their existence also allows us to push against them, sometimes pretty hard, which is to say one can break herself upon the rocks of formal conventions. Despite the violence of that metaphor, I actually mean it to be positive: breaking in the sense of breaking open.
One of the things that formal conventions made possible in Phantoms was the direct critique of whiteness. A certain kind of America loves its nostalgia, but nostalgia for, say, the 1950s, a nostalgia that is also pre-civil rights, which is to say nostalgia (and especially nostalgia) can become a tool of white supremacy. So I’m writing about the Japanese internment and the American war in Vietnam, all of which is held in a traditional structure strong enough to push against—both in terms of the structure (which does shift and turn from time to time) and the themes.
FWR: Kirkus Reviews describes One Day Soon as an ars poetica, and your reflections on the creative process are refracted in the many ways in which you participate as a writer, musician, educator, and editor. Similarly, your writing encapsulates your interests, from being an ardent nature lover to having studied film at USC. Does writing have a requirement to in some way reflect on itself as a form of expression? And what then is the role of the author to do the same?
Kiefer: I’m not entirely certain how useful it is for writing to comment on writing. I don’t, for example, find traditional “craft” books to be very useful, nor do I much enjoy books that swing toward self-reference or meta-textuality. I already know I’m reading a book, so pointing out that I’m reading a book isn’t of much value to me. On the other hand, I love Italo Calvino so maybe I’m full of shit on this.
I think more important is being open to the truth that there may be no requirements in writing at all. Blake Butler, Katherine Standefer, Tasmyn Muir, Sally Rooney, Rebecca Makkai, Matthew Salesses, Emily Nemens: these are all wonderful writers who are doing very, very different things with words all while fulfilling whatever “requirements” we might place on them (or that they might place on themselves). What I want, what I long for, is a full immersion of my heart in the deep red-hot center of the text. I’m in the business of breaking hearts. We all are. And to be broken in turn.