Louisville, Kentucky writer Kyle Coma-Thompson’s second short story collection, A Night in the Sun is an assemblage of wildly diverse stories that range from the minimalist surrealism of “Story for Fire” to the angular, meditative historical narratives of “Spite & Malice.” Throughout, Coma-Thompson demonstrates a sensitivity to the economic and societal pressures that affect the characters in his stories. His latest is intended as a companion collection to his first, The Lucky Body. The title story of that first book was selected by Ben Marcus for inclusion in New American Stories. Of this newest collection, Marcus wrote: “In Night in the Sun, Kyle Coma-Thompson tears up the map of what’s possible, refining the tradition of the short story while reaching deep into its unknown future, showing the way forward.”
We spoke via e-mail about his artistic influences and their lingering presence, the strange collective fixation on a writer’s biographical history, and how a Susan Sontag essay on a notable filmmaker captured aspects of his approach to writing. Other topics were discussed.
Tell me about some early influences on your writing–other writers, filmmakers, musicians, visual artists.
I don’t know if I’d trust myself talking about influences. When asked these kinds of questions, it’s assumed that the person answering them can answer accurately, with a measure of certainty. But more often than not, when the question of influences come up, it seems more like an invitation to fabricate and decorate one’s own window, and I’m as much a natural-born window decorator as anyone. I think it’s the case with me as it is with most people; I’ve been influenced by the sum of my experience with art in an array of mediums–literature, film, music, visual art. And that certain experiences in my life have provided the context for my internalization of these.
Marcel Duchamp and Krzysztof Kieślowski and, say, Andy Kaufman or the Australian post- punk group The Birthday Party, have made as strong of an impression on me as Virginia Woolf or Nabokov or Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, Laura Riding, or Zbigniew Herbert. What I may have picked up from them is all in a vague mash now, which for convenience’s sake gets labeled The Unconscious. When I was in my late teens, I read everything I could by Faulkner and that was a big turn for me; the people he wrote about were people I recognized– but the way he wrote about them pushed my sense of things far beyond any previously definable categories. Go Down, Moses in particular.
What did some of these examples provide for you specifically, what was the process like shifting away from those influences–or have they remained with you?
Hands down the most liberating example for me had to be Duchamp, his whole attitude and approach to things. And how his influence played out in the work of American artists like John Cage and Jasper Johns, and, because of that, as a secondary influence on someone like John Ashbery.
He wasn’t precious about things. He didn’t worry so much about following suit with himself.
A couple of years ago I was in Philadelphia and visited the little room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art where the Arensberg collection is kept, and it felt like the punchline of a joke Duchamp had developed throughout his life and even after his death; until there, for me, standing in that room, it finally clicked into place.
“The Large Glass”, the Readymades, “Étant donnés“–everything that artists and art historians obsess over, it all looked so chintzy and cheaply put together, I had to smile about that. Of course his stuff would have this built-in knack for spoiling any aura I might try to foist on it. But maybe that spoilage served a specific purpose. Maybe the quaintness of his stuff might serve as some kind of ironic mortification of my own bad habits. Don’t focus on the art, focus on the chain of ideas that come to mind while looking at the art. Until the beauty and mystery of the ideas perform their sleight-of-hand and magic, and animate the shoddiness of what’s before me.
I’ve always thought of Duchamp and Borges as a pair. Their bodies of work were small, but bold in conception; they created an entirely new creative vocabulary, revised the whole general approach towards their mediums; and most importantly, did it with a sense of humor, of the deadpan variety. Both became widely known as personalities, and in a certain way, their personas were fictions as well, through which they contextualized their work, or lack of it.
They both favored this dispassionate playfulness, a cod-philosophical stance which at times could perform the actual work of inverting habits and assumptions. And this last part I especially like: all without any fuss or heat to their iconoclasm.
Both Duchamp and Borges still have this strange effect on me. As if they were standing behind me, looking over my shoulder, so they can appreciate just how many steps ahead of me they are. And though I’m looking in the same direction, I still don’t manage to see what they’re seeing.
As for shifting away from certain influences, I don’t know if you shift away from anything so much as you internalize it through practice. You write and you keep writing and what you need you retain and what you don’t, you shed without much awareness or comment. And more often than not, you’re not even entirely sure what it is you’ve retained and what you’ve needed.
Reading “Night in the Sun”, I felt there was some motivation towards “risk” and/or fearlessness in your writing. I see you having little regard for readers’ expectations; your stories seem to have their own inherent logic.
In her interview with The Paris Review, Elena Ferrante put it well: “My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones.” I’m not sure a motivation towards risk or fearlessness has to do with a disregard for a reader’s expectations; rather, it might be about opening up one’s sense of things, and hopefully, about doing the same for whoever is willing to engage with the work on its own terms.
Much of this has to do with the general sense that people don’t really have a single, center- oriented self; each person is a living plurality; they experience a range of states and emotions and dispensations; and so the stories vary in emotional coloration and in formal approach because I’m trying to honor that diversity within the singular. Basically, I’m hoping to present models of freedom, in hopes it might encourage a kind of thoughtful curiosity in the reader. I received these values from many artists who meant something to me; I’m just putting those principles to practice in my own way, and passing them along.
One trend that seems common in literary and art culture is this fixation on an artist’s life as a narrative. There’s a general preference for the documentation of an artist’s development, to the point that the works themselves are merely supplementary to that narrative. What’re your thoughts on this, and in your view, has a version of this always existed or is it a more recent phenomenon?
You’re a Chilean-born author living in a coastal town in Spain. You’ve written poems but you want to write stories and novels; you spend a full decade–all of the 1980s–making the switch.
You become a published fiction writer in your forties and suddenly people want to interview you, but interviews are boring. So you begin to exaggerate by reduction, leaving out certain details, replacing them with others.
A character in some of your books seems modeled after you, so readers and critics make certain assumptions. Maybe you’d been a heroin addict, maybe you hadn’t. Maybe you’d been detained by the junta in Chile, maybe you hadn’t. You often write about failed poets, and the record shows that in your youth you’d been a poet, and this hadn’t gone too well for you. A list of the bottom-feeder jobs you’ve had to work never fails to show up in your bios. You may have had some decent jobs along the way, here and there, but those will definitely go unmentioned.
And then you die. You’d been sick for a decade. You didn’t begin writing fiction until you had your first child, you’re fond of saying. Then you had to quit poetry and get serious. There was responsible money to be made in writing fiction.
It’s this last claim that hints much of what you’ve said and what people have been eager to assume about you might largely be bullshit.
But still, your books are famous now because they carry your name. Should anyone be disappointed, really? You’re a writer of fictions. If they’re going to go looking for you in the narrative arc of your life, you’re going to give them fiction. They title it “Roberto Bolaño.” But you wrote it. Here and there with the help of a few ghostwriters and critics.
It’d be easy to grab a soap box here and stand on it. But it’d be hypocritical of me, because I’m as guilty of this fascination as anyone. Mostly for practical reasons.
If you’re just starting out as a writer and don’t personally know many writers, you don’t have much of a choice but to learn from writers you read about. You study their lives to get a sense of how you might need to organize your own life; you cherry-pick their biographies for descriptions of their technique and development. I never took any fiction writing workshops and hardly knew many fiction writers, so I had to learn by trial and error and by picking up ideas here and here by reading other writers but also by reading about them.
That said, I have to admit, the mixing of literary fiction and memoir isn’t something I can muster much interest in. Main characters with the same name as the author. Main characters who are novelists. Books that are basically dictated from the daily lives of the people who wrote them. The justification for a lot of this, as I’ve heard it, is: why invent people that don’t exist, why not engage with the real and encourage one’s writing to get involved with it? But unless you’re Nadezhda Mandelstam, I have to wonder–is this just simple laziness; is it all due to a failure of imagination; or worse, does it offer shortcuts through the complexities of empathy, to a safe and simplifying, single channel narcissism?
Some would jump all over this and say that literary reputations have probably always been the product of self-marketing in one form or another. It’s not enough to have written the book; the book is written so that the person who wrote it won’t have disappeared from public record. No one wants to be superfluous; but superfluous to what and to whom? Capitalism breeds authors so authors can breed books; so those books can impress upon the young and old alike the values which underwrote them.
But as I’ve gotten older myself, I think that–while some of that’s true–it’s also only natural that people would want to shape narratives out of their own lives; it can be a form of self- empowerment. Because if a person doesn’t purposely shape and edit their own narrative, someone else would always be more than happy to come along and do that for them.
You wrote this to me in an email recently: “This specific approach–of disciplining the emotions while arousing them. That’s an element I’m strongly drawn to, and most of the artists and writers who move me the most work this way: say, Woolf and Kieślowski and Proust. I’m trying to make an art which encourages reflection; and the challenges of this reminds me of [Zbigniew] Herbert’s comment that we are increasingly living in an age where collectively and individually we have a dwindling capacity for contemplation.” Could you elaborate on this?
Well, first off, I guess I should acknowledge my sources. “…disciplining the emotions while arousing them”– that’s lifted straight from Susan Sontag’s essay on Robert Bresson (“Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson”).
When I first read that essay a couple of years ago, I ended up underlining about half of it. I felt she was describing a way of working and a tone I always responded strongly to, and aspired to have in my stories:
“Great reflective art is not frigid. It can exalt the spectator, it can present images that appall, it can make him weep. But its emotional power is mediated. The pull towards emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness, impartiality. Emotional involvement is always, to a greater or lesser degree, postponed.”
From there she goes on to make the main point, which is something I think is close to the point I was trying to make to you, in that earlier email:
“…surely Brecht knew, as must Bresson, that such distancing is a source of great emotional power. It is precisely the defeat of the naturalistic theater and cinema that, giving itself too readily, it easily consumes and exhausts its effects. Ultimately the greatest source of emotional power in art lies not in any particular subject matter, however passionate, however universal. It lies in form. The detachment and retarding of the emotions; through the consciousness of form, makes them far stronger and more intense in the end.”
There’s a general approach that I identify with here. A style which tries to engage the range of shared human experience with a measure of empathetic neutrality, temperate thoughtfulness; to encourage that as a value. And which represents the full range of that experience–ugliness,
vulnerability, cruelty, connection–without judgement. Because as a person, in my life, I am always judging and I know that this is insufficient and unkind and immature; and art allows me to metabolize experience with greater care and fairness.
Ray Barker is an Archivist in the Special Collections department at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the central library in Washington, DC. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Music & Literature, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Full Stop, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Washington, DC.