On March 11th, Kyle Minor and Jason Diamond spoke about a host of topics at Community Bookstore. You can read the first part, in which they discussed religion, the structure of Minor’s collection Praying Drunk, and literary communities here. This half of the conversation focuses more on Praying Drunk, along with looks at Minor’s novel-in-progress and first collection, In the Devil’s Territory. Plus: Barry Hannah.
So in 2008, In the Devil’s Territory came out. What do you see as the biggest difference between these two collections?
Some of these stories were written before that book. The oldest story in here came out in 2004, in Mid-American Review. It’s one of my oldest published stories. And I was excited, because David Foster Wallace had published one of his earliest stories in there. I’m sure it meant nothing to him, but I thought about it all the time. Like we were going to sit down to dinner every night, and–
–put on bandannas.
Yeah. That first collection, it’s like a middle-aged man wrote it, when I read it. The stories are in a really mature, middling register. I always felt weird about that. I think I wanted to please certain teachers; I think I had a wrong idea about literature. Though I’m proud of some of the stories in the book. But what I really wanted to be guided by was what I loved when I was reading. What I loved was people who blew shit up, you know? Barry Hannah’s my favorite writer. He would never write a book like In the Devil’s Territory. I wish he was alive, so that I could send him this one. And if he told me it was terrible, I’d still feel okay, because he had read it, at least.
And he’d still be alive.
Yeah. I wanted to take the constraints off. We talked a little bit about the internet thing. Another thing that helped me was reading writers straight through. I read Saul Bellow and Philip Roth straight through, John Updike… Everybody I’m not supposed to like.
The old dudes.
And I didn’t like all of what I read. But I did see a pattern. And then the pattern started to be validated as their biographies started coming out, which was writers often start out beholden to a certain idea of literature. For writers of a certain generation, it was Henry James. Which would make me want to kill myself, if I had to read Henry James all the time. Apologies to any of Henry James’s great-grandchildren who might be in the room.
But then they start to seek a freedom, and find it, and I wanted that. And I think that’s the difference between the two books. I think I found a freedom here, and I want to keep chasing it.
Can we talk about the novel?
Yeah, we can talk about it. Is anyone here from the publishing houses? We can talk about it for forty-five minutes.
Do I remember you saying that it had something to do with Haiti?
Yeah; it’s called The Sexual Lives of Missionaries.
Because a lot of this book takes place in the South, and then there are some sections in Haiti. So I was curious…
Actually, there’s a novella in this book; there’s one novella, and it’s about sixty pages. It’s the same characters from my novel, writing letters home. I started going down to Haiti because a film director of my acquaintance wanted me to write a screenplay adaptation of a book about restavec, which is a form of indentured servitude for children in Haiti, a kind of traditional system. I was already interested, because I’d been reading Edwidge Danticat, and was really excited about her project, which is, book by book, taking on Haitian history and showing them through the lens of the person by the river doing the wash or something. So I got really excited about that. I started studying Haitian history and reading Haitian literature, as much of it as I could find, in translation.
It turns out there’s quite a lot. In addition to being quite fascinating on its own terms, it turns out it’s also a shadow history of my own country. This is the only slave rebellion in the history of the world that turned into a country. It was self-governed, except when foreign interventions came. It’s a country that was built on a literary foundation. The constitution was written, according to one legend, out of an inkwell made from the skull filled with the blood of the colonial oppressors, into which the quill is dipped.
You don’t want to be the colonial oppressor in that situation.
Fuck them, anyway.
They are the worst. So I was thinking about that, and studying that. One thing more: the Louisiana Purchase is Haiti’s gift to us. They repelled Napoleon’s navy at Cape Haitien, at the fort that King Henri Christophe built. He hired an Italian architect to build it. I’ve been to that fort; there’s gold buried, but they won’t let you dig around. After the architect got on his ship and sailed away, they turned the cannons on him and sunk the boat, so that no one would ever have a fort as good as King Henri Christophe’s fort. He wasn’t a nice guy, either.
I was all geared up to do it. I spent months and months getting ready; almost a year. And then I found out that the director had never secured the option, and everything fell apart. And I had my plane tickets booked to Port-Au-Prince. I was going to go down with the director. I went down anyway. I found somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody, and a week later, I was in the back of a truck with a bunch of people I didn’t know, going up the mountain. We ended up into this rural agricultural village in Ouest Province, and I kept going back. I spent the better part of five summers there. I was teaching at the time, so every time I had a break, I’d fly in. I had made friends; I had gotten to know people. Sometimes, I’d be the only American there, and people would trust me with their stories, and I’d trust people with my stories.
I spent most of my time just walking the mountain with people and shopping at stores, which were usually made from a shipping container or something. Eating at people’s houses. Once in a while, someone would give me the honor of letting me kill the rabbit that we were going to eat, so I had to learn how to do that. If I hadn’t had children, I probably would have moved there, because I was so happy in that place. But of course, the difficulty is that there’s no functional government. It’s the most functional anarchy in the world. People are running things out of their own decency in villages in Haiti, mostly. The only government’s really in the cities. And then the earthquake came. The lack of infrastructure–you see the consequences. I was never really thankful for having a road and a Wal-Mart, but suddenly I realized that we have all of this infrastructure, and it forms the baseline structure of our life.
It was like that: I fell in love with the people and the place, and I came back with some stories; they started to go in, and they were thematically of a piece with the other stories I had already written. The history is colonial, and my people are the colonizers. And, certainly, fundamentalists and evangelicals were used in this country, the United States, in this century, in the worst possible way, to empower the Bush administration and all the atrocities that followed, for which we’re all as complicit as our ancestors were in the tangled interconnected history of Haiti and the European powers and the rising American empire. So I came to realize that if I wrote a novel about Haiti, I’d also simultaneously be writing a novel about America. And that’s what I’m doing.
The book is subtitled “Stories, Questions”; what prompted that?
Well, the first story is called “The Question of Where We Begin,” which is a problem that writers… Some of you guys are writers, right? Do you have trouble with this? There are all these things that you hear about beginnings, mostly useful things: start with the trouble; start on the day that something different happened, you know?
I was thinking about my uncle who had committed suicide. I was at the funeral, and I realized that the debate people were having at the funeral was about where the trouble actually began. Because some people said, well, it was when his ex-wife left him and took a lot of money. No, it was when that city dump truck hit him and he had that brain damage. No, it was when his mother and father made him sleep in the bathtub for all these years. No; the problem is the problem of our raising. If they hadn’t met in that roadhouse in Kentucky in 1930, none of this would have happened. Well, no–the problem is that he came from those coal-mining people, those rough people, right? Well, what if that Irish potato famine hadn’t happened?
If you start thinking this way, the next question is, what if the winds had been different in 1588 and the Spanish Armada had won the naval battle against the British because the weather was different. We’d all be speaking Spanish, not English. And if you push that back as far as it goes, you find that everybody’s story is a study in cosmology. For my uncle, the question particular to him was, either there was this big bang, when everything in the universe began to expand outward, or in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. All that stuff, the Genesis stuff.
The good stuff.
It is good stuff. And then it gets dark as the genocides start, the marching around the city walls, the blowing of the trumpet, the slaughter. Have you guys ever read the Bible? It is the darkest fucking book I’ve ever read.
It’s all bad news.
That’s what makes it a good story. So–questions like that. Questions that fire all of us. What was all of that, and who am I now, because of all that. What does it mean? I was writing essays then, too, and the essays were better than the stories. And then I thought, I’m never going to write another short story. For the rest of my life, all of the short stories that I write, they’re going to be essays. I am going to bring the full force of my intelligence to bear upon the question that this story raises from now on. I am not going to withhold anything; I’m not going to moderate my language. I am going to bring everything, because that’s what human beings do.
I had a really great teacher who said a thing that a lot of people interpreted in a reductive way: “I write for the lady on the bus.” I started to realize it meant something different than I thought it meant at first. I started thinking: The lady on the bus is really smart. The lady on the bus is preoccupied with serious trouble, and whatever it is, it’s the most important thing in the world to her, and when she lays in bed at night, she thinks about it, and she thinks about it all through the next day, and she brings the full force of her intelligence to bear upon it. Every resource she has, she’s grinding away at it. And a story writer shouldn’t dumb things down and be less than the lady on the bus. It became an ambition: I’m going to be as good as her. So it’s like that.
What’s next? The novel’s there.
I just figured that I should ask that.
I want my subject to become more public. I don’t think I ever want it to not be personal. But I want to take the things that I learned by scraping out my own insides and start scraping out other people’s insides, with as much passion as I can offer. I don’t know what forms that will take. I know that the book I’m working on now has required me to do many things that I’ve never done before, on those grounds.
And one other thing. I go to readings all the time. Sometimes readings that I’m in, and other people read; sometimes I go to them just to listen. And I read a lot of books. I don’t care about books that don’t think that the thing that they’re talking about is the most important thing in the world, and it matters so much, and it means so much. I think that that’s the thing. I think that we live in a kind of hipstery age right now, of keeping a distance from things, viewing things with some detachment, making fun of them, appropriating them for ironic purposes. All it’s doing is pushing us far from everything in the world that matters. I want to make things that bring it all in, that say, “If this is all that is, and this is all we have, it’s everything.” That’s what I think literature should be.