The New Barbarians: An Interview with Kirby Gann by Curtis Smith

Kirby Gann is the author of three novels: Ghosting (2012), which was included in the Best of Year lists from Publishers Weekly, Shelf Awareness, and, and was a finalist for the Kentucky Book of the Year; The Barbarian Parade (2002); and Our Napoleon in Rags (2005), which was also a finalist for the KY Book of the Year. He has received support from the Kentucky Arts Council via an Individual Artist Fellowship and two Professional Assistance Awards. Most recently his short stories have appeared in The Southeast Review, Ploughshares, and Post Road. He is Series Editor of Bookmarked—a line of books in which authors wrestle with a work of literature that has been fundamental to their writing—and contributed the first volume in the series, on John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. He is a freelance editor, book designer, and writing mentor, and is a faculty member in the brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University. Gann lives in Louisville, KY, with his wife Stephanie and three wild dogs.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on this reissue of The Barbarian Parade. I enjoyed this book when it first came out—I’m glad it’s getting some new life. Can you take us on the journey of how it came to be with Dzanc as part of their rEprint series?

Kirby Gann: Thanks. Yeah, the publication history of this novel is fraught. It appeared just as the press was dealing with its distributor’s bankruptcy; I’m not positive but I think Parade may have been the last title Hill Street managed to publish before they closed their doors, which is a real shame—they’d started off with some great books and published them with care. Because of their difficulties, though, my novel essentially appeared in the world and that was that. Setting the tone of my career, we might say.

Fortunately, though, the novel still found its way to a few readers. One of them was Dan Wickett, who was running the website/blog Emerging Writers Network, producing reviews for several books a week, just an inhuman pace. He was and remains a force of nature in his love of books. Dan helped found Dzanc Books, and he has since taken over their rEprint series, making out-of-print books available in digital format. They’ve been doing it for a couple of years now.

He contacted me a few months ago, asking about the rights. I think he was unpacking books at home and came across his copy of Parade and thought to look into whether it was available or not. He contacted me with a really nice note, and here we are.

CS: This was your first published novel. In the intervening years, have there been any great shifts in your work—in your style or process or the way you approach your subjects? What influences/life changes do you owe those shifts to?

KG: Oh, certainly there are differences in style and thinking—no writer would want to be writing the same way, with the same mind or view as they were 15 years ago! Our perceptions change over that long of a time period. Life brings its challenges and disappointments and moments of joy. I’ve focused so much of my life on reading and writing fiction, and feel my understanding of the medium is much more capacious than it was then. My frame of reference is much larger, and I think about narrative differently. I wouldn’t say there has been any great change in my process, though; I start with little idea of where I’m going and feel my way forward, fumbling about in the dark. The Barbarian Parade was the second novel I ever wrote—the first was a learning experience, and it was actually typed, and the pages sit in a box—and to me it presents a much more earnest vision than what I’d likely come up with today. Yet I wouldn’t say there has been any great shift in the way I work. More like a gradual deepening, and maybe a maturity—which is kind of ironic to note, as one of the novel’s central themes is immaturity: how young men in the athletic world are encouraged to remain so.

CS: It’s interesting that you say you think differently about narrative now. Can you explain that a bit? Where did this shift come from?

KG: I’m not sure I could pinpoint anything aside from a gradual process that occurred over time, inspired by reading novels that impressed me greatly and that didn’t work along the usual lines of a forward-rolling plot that builds momentum and tension and then reaches its climax, etc. That flurry of works by W.G. Sebald, for one; then stumbling into Krasnahorkai, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Rachel Cusk, Enrique Vila-Matas, Clarice Lispector—mostly non-American writers, with different ideas of how to keep a narrative coherent and engaging. Closer to home would be Lance Olsen and, most recently, Ben Lerner. Actually, I’d been mulling over writing a short study of these different ways of designing narrative outside of ye olde Freytag Triangle and Aristotelian poetics, but recently learned I don’t have to; there’s a wonderful recent book by Jane Alison called Meander, Spiral, Explode that explores exactly these ideas and possibilities.

Yet I’m still drawn to at least some of the satisfactions of plot, too—I’m not much of a fan of the old “New Novel” where nothing much happens but words. I still want there to be story (or stories), and to be seduced by vivid characters. I want to be fascinated and mesmerized, however the author makes that happen, or else why bother?

And I’m only talking about this really in relation to The Barbarian Parade, which was written over twenty years ago when my frame of reference for what makes a novel was much smaller. Milan Kundera’s works were pretty much all I knew of that didn’t hew to conventional novel poetics and yet were still accessible. I came of age when the so-called “Dirty Realism” style was still in vogue. I knew I didn’t want to go that route in my own fiction but also didn’t have a clear idea of where to go, aside from avoiding that dry minimalist style. I wanted it wilder.

CS: What about this particular book—how do you view it now? Are there parts of it that surprised you—for better or worse?

KG: Forgive me for admitting this: I was surprised by how much I still liked it. Without question there are many things I would do differently were I to write it today. We’re always counseled to try to get some distance on our writing in order to evaluate it objectively, right? Fifteen, twenty years later, the book’s composition is so distant that, honestly, it often felt like someone else’s novel. There are scenes I vividly remember working on, and others that seemed totally new to me. But I was surprised to find how much of the book still holds up (to me, at least): the energy of the sentences and depiction of characters especially. There’s energy and life in it.

That said, it’s still a work far back in my personal learning curve of how to put together a long-form narrative. Evidently I believed you couldn’t let the reader rest for long or else they’d lose interest. I’d look for more opportunities for quiet development and subtle tensions now, rather than the dramatic thrill ride I was pushing through then. And I don’t think the ending quite hits the right note. It doesn’t sound the proper resonance you hope to get from an ending. It makes narrative sense given all that has come before, and I understand why the twenty-seven-year-old me chose to end it there, but a more satisfying ending could be found—one that doesn’t frame the novel so heavily as a coming-of-age tale only. The novel presents a pretty fair portrait of how what we’d now call “toxic masculinity” takes root, for example. The narrator, Gabriel, has a good deal of self-work ahead of him at the end, but my take is he’s aware.

CS: I also enjoy the quiet development route—and I think I first learned I liked it not from books but from movies—and then realizing I could do the same thing in my writing. Can you be more specific about this aspect? Do you find yourself drawn to the exploration of thought? To the lingering in a moment, its setting and vibe? In these terms, who are some writers you admire in terms of quiet development?

KG: “Setting a vibe” is key. By which I mean the mood and overall tone of a work as a whole and of certain scenes within it. I think of Sebald’s use of images—always somber images, which sets that melancholic tone that permeates his writing (along with an impish playfulness behind it)—and how a certain image will unlock a kind of narrative rabbit hole that turns into a travelogue through history and landscape and the people/characters who inhabit, or have inhabited, that landscape. Or yeah, the exploration of thought within a moment of a scene—usually that tends to work only with first-person narrators, don’t you think? Other modes of narration don’t lend themselves as well to the practice. Ben Lerner’s and Rachel Cusk’s self-conscious narrators come to mind. Krasnahorkai’s ranting speakers. I think the challenge is in finding the balance, to not get too far into quiet thought so that we lose sight of the dramatic purpose at hand.

CS: As you look back, what lessons did you—the writer—take from this book? Both in terms of the work itself and in terms of understanding the whole scene?

KG: I learned that the picaresque form is more difficult than it appears—that it allows and even encourages invention but that it also presents a tough challenge to not allow your narrative to end up being simply one damn thing happening after another, all held together merely by being about the same character. The novel holds up best on the local level, in terms of sentences, scenes, chapters, etc., but stepping back to consider it on the whole I can’t help but feel it’s less than the sum of its parts. The big picture isn’t as artfully composed as I would prefer. Dzanc might not be happy with me for saying this! But that’s likely the biggest lesson I learned from the writing: that a novel should be more than its page-by-page performance. The form in its entirety should have its own coherence and, again, resonance. That’s what amazes me about masterpieces like Roberto Bolaño’s immense 2666: it’s made of so many parts, and works line-by-line and section by section, and for long periods you can’t quite see what’s supposed to hold it all together—what’s making the novel its own coherent thing despite the sprawl—until you get to the end. Then, suddenly you can see this huge edifice the author has just coaxed you into climbing. It’s like looking at Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights up close, going to each little scene depicted there in detail, and gradually stepping back until you can take it all in at once.

I didn’t possess that kind of vision when writing Barbarian Parade. I can’t claim to have it now, either, though in my subsequent novels I can see the work getting closer. It’s an aspiration. Though it did leave me with that peculiar sense that the book is smarter than I am—have you ever noticed that about your own novels?

By “scene” I take it you mean the whole publishing industry? It’s harder than ever. We’re in this weird moment where we have an extraordinary number of excellent artists publishing, but fewer readers available to enjoy their work. That’s just my impression. And it’s as hard as ever for good books to get noticed—of course it has always been thus, but it seems more so these days—within the sheer mass of work appearing every week and the distracted nature of everyday living in today’s culture. I’d like to think that, still and even so, good books can survive and eventually find an audience. It might take years, but . . . well, this is why a project like Dzanc’s rEprint series is invaluable for books that appeared before the digital platform was a ready option.

CS: Let me step back and ask about this moment in a larger sense. I think it’s safe to say we, in terms of politics and social divisions, live in strange times. Do you feel any obligation to address these tides, either in a micro or macro sense, in your work?

KG: This question is directly responsible for me being in a fallow period, creatively. Yes, we’re in strange times. I don’t think we’re obliged to address the tides, as you put it, so much as we can’t help but to—the question lies in to what degree; how direct to be about it—because this is the reality we’re living in and it infiltrates everything. I’ve never thought of myself as a political writer. Engagé fiction dates very quickly and, most often, poorly. I’ve always been drawn more to the “eternal difficulties” of being human rather than those of the moment—the irresolvable stuff. Yet the stakes have been raised so enormously in recent years that it feels immoral not to confront them in some fashion, or else what are we good for? As writers, I mean. Unfortunately for me, I haven’t figured out how to do so in fiction that feels alive on the page. Look at Dostoevsky: his novels that tackle sociopolitical issues directly, such as Poor Folk and The Insulted & Injured, are pretty dead to us; they’re overly sentimental and boring; fiction written to make an argument and illustrate a point. It’s when he starts exploring the psyche and the moral influence of ideas upon us—all the gray areas that can’t be answered permanently—we get the big masterpieces. The contemporary social and political issues give context but aren’t the main driver of the narrative.

CS: What’s next?

KG: Life is chaotic and making a living freelancing only makes it more so. I’m a slow writer at best, and am not in any hurry to add to all that’s already out there unless it feels like I have something worthwhile and unique to express. That said, I’ve been focusing on stories the last few years and have a collection nearly ready, with a working title of Them’s Got Ears, Let Them Hear—a line from a Woody Guthrie song. And there’s another novel, one that has been written in fits and starts, that I began in 2013 and had to set aside to meet some contractual obligations. I’ve been dipping into it recently and feel encouraged by what’s there so far.

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American Mystery StoriesThe Best American Spiritual WritingThe Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

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