Interview – Lisa talks to Kris Saknussemm about life, love and Reverend America
I’m a good friend of Kris Saknussemm. In fact, to come completely clean, I consider him one of my best friends.
Kris Saknussemm is the internationally acclaimed author of Zanesville, Private Midnight, Enigmatic Pilot and the short story collection Sinister Miniatures. His work has appeared in Playboy, Nerve, The Boston Review, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters and elsewhere. He is a 2011-2012 recipient of the Black Mountain Institute’s Tom and Mary Gallagher Fellowship at the University of Las Vegas. More information is available at www.krissaknussemm.com.
His latest novel Reverend America, was recently reviewed by my good self here. After I read (in one sitting) this brilliant novel, I asked Kris if we could have a (now on-line) friendly chat that I could transpose to my blog.
Here is the result of his resounding YES!
Hey Kris – thanks for joining me here for a brief chat, and mostly thank you for writing Reverend America.
I’ve waxed characteristically lyrical about the novel – going so far as to call you the love child of Faulkner, Steinbeck and Lee if they ever actually got around to organizing that blo-induced orgy. Unfortunately, I didn’t call you that to flatter – I meant it, so what I wanted to ask you, was how a comparison like that made you feel?
Is it a plus or a minus to be compared with Steinbeck, and how does one deal with the ego-writer thing anyway, when we writers need that massive ego to get past the first ten years worth of rejection (slips, lovers etc).
It’s flattering of course to be compared with a major American writer like Steinbeck. I actually worked in the lettuce fields he made famous, moving irrigation pipe–and I wrecked a Dodge Challenger at a bend in the Salinas-Monterey Road that he wrote about.
But I think with writers of the calibre you mention, what distinguishes them first is an inherent sense of age in their voices. In part that comes out of rich life experience, which I believe I’ve also had. But it also derives from a uniquely American trait of incorporating many stories they’ve actually heard from real people. The upshot is that they saw themselves as working in a tradition, however luminous and unique we as readers have come to see them since. To me, I was working within a defined tradition with Reverend America. The storytelling comes out of a lifelong habit of listening.
For better or worse, I’m the kind of person dogs come up to–and strange people. Or “normal” people in the midst of some crisis, some crossroads moment in their lives. I’ve leaned a little less on my imagination and dream life in Reverend, and more on memory and my eye and ear. Steinbeck said, “Although my name’s on the cover, there are many authors of this story.” I feel the same way. I believe the solution to the problem of ego for artists lies with letting more people into your work. It makes for inevitably better work and also less isolation. One of my mottoes of sorts, which I’ve repeated in various forms in my books is, “No one goes far who travels alone.”
It’s interesting that you say what you do about not acknowledging those you travel with, that you have to be inclusive in all relationships so to speak, because I wanted to ask you about one of the main themes of Reverend America, which is religion. One of the things that impressed me most about the novel was the way you revealed the great southern psyche to your readers and their relationship to phenomena like celebrity preachers and tabloid headlines.
Writers get to play god, in that they create a world they want the way they want it. You have drawn heavily on those around you in your life to build such substantive characters, but what about your relationship with god? Are you god in the novel? Does god only exist in the hearts and minds of those who need him to exist?
Long ago, I studied with the witch lords in the jungle in Papau New Guinea to learn the secret of how to summon back the dead. They hung me up in a big spiderweb of vines and made me bleed from the scrotum, making me pass out from thirst and hunger–just keeping me on the edge of life. In the semi-conscious state, my main teacher would come and tell me the Stories. Sometimes the Stories would be a strange melody played on a bamboo flute.
That’s my real notion of God. That and memories of my father in the pulpit. Sometimes he’d give up on his sermon half-way through and just start singing. When my mother and father were good, she’d come in on the organ whenever the mood took him. She knew his emotions had created a new message, and rather than that seeming like a breakdown, she helped make it music.
All I know of God is the soft sound of my own blood dripping on an elephant ear leaf, my mother’s soprano, my father’s baritone–the squeal of a baby I delivered in the ER one night when all the doctors were on call–and the noise a guy made when I throated him for messing with my girlfriend in North Boston. I think God is music. I’m always in search of music and never fully in its presence.
Best. Answer. Ever.
So it’s taking EVERYTHING inside of me NOT to ask more about bleeding scrotums, elephant ear leaves and summoning up the dead, but I do need to know – will there be a book about that at some point?
I know you well enough to know that your experiences are “real”, in that you are committed to a faithful retelling of them. In other words, you’re not bullshitting when you tell a story like that. Given that you have lived one of the most extraordinary lives I’ve ever heard of (I said to you – very drunk over too many / not quite enough margaritas, you are one of the few people I have ever met who have better stories than me) I have to ask you, why write? Is writing just a great way to get women with glasses into bed, or is there more to the motivation than that? or less?
Glad you like. It’s the book I’m working on now.
They made me this stick and twine thing–about the size of your hand, It’s a glyph of me trying to learn their ways. You can’t show it to anyone or its power dies. Karen almost saw it and asked a lot of questions.
Writing, for me, is about trying to bring that power into the light. The son I’ve never really known is still a powerful sorcerer in that world, although he’s retreated to his mother’s homeland on Makira in the Solomons.
Only very interesting women come to bed because of good writing. Mostly those who are very good writers themselves.
I have to be careful! Last time I spoke intimately with you I developed an addiction to Mexican food that took months (and three kilos) to get over.
Did you decide to write once the power talisman had become physically manifest?
I’m aware of your powerful connection to music – it’s another thing we have in common.
Do you change the music to reflect what you are writing, or is that a banal use of the art? I also wanted to ask you about the impact of location, and i guess that is tied in with the music question. When I spent (one of the best weekends of my life) in your home, you were writing Reverend America. Your home was a beautiful country cottage just out of Melbourne, Australia then – and now you live (as far as I can tell) pool-side in Las Vegas. How are you able to write about locations so very different from the one you find yourself situated in?
And for the record, very interesting women might also be seduced by twine things they can’t see and scrotum scars – I’m just sayin’.
Haha! Wait till you come to Vegas. Margaritas taste REALLY good here! You don’t know you’re drinking them. Panties on the doorknob stuff. And there’s always a clear sky to see the mountains by.
The one thing I really took away from my exploration of Melanesian sorcery was the Trance State. This is a very old idea that can be found in most cultures. Drugs, pain, isolation, meditation, music…there are many disciplines that are practiced to achieve the effect. For me, music is the most powerful. I have a friend who’s a big time psychologist, and she has demonstrated now pretty conclusively that women who are more vocal during sex actually end up having a great deal more sex in their lives than women who are quieter. I explain that in terms of music, which to me translates as s kind of generosity and collaboration. It’s part of the urge to give, to make people food, to laugh, to express connection. (Melanesians are huge on connection. Men exchange arrows. In a society white Westerners erroneously think is very chauvinistic, husbands and wives share their dreams every morning.)
The price paid though is that music has to be listened to very deeply. That’s always put me at a remove from my immediate physical surrounds–which is kind of the point of Trance. It’s somehow easier to write about the jungle here in Vegas, just as it was easier to write about Oklahoma back roads when I was in Australia.
For the book SEA MONKEYS coming out from Soft Skull Press, which is about my growing up years in the Bay Area, I listened to a lot of bubble gum and acid rock, which was popular then–but the real music I took myself into is the story records my sister and I worshipped, my father’s old cowboy songs, and my mother’s arias. She had lovely smooth shoulders and would often pick me up (probably instinctively) when she was practicing some especially moving piece.
The resulting music that Eric Wyatt and I are making to support various reads from the book has another flavor yet again–the classic movie themes of that era, like “The Shadow of Your Smile.”
The bottom line is that I think we’re always in all the places we have ever been at every moment. It’s just a question of whether or not we’re big enough to stretch across our own journey.
“We’re always in the places we have ever been at every moment.” I like that.
Given you stated the above, and you spoke about carrying the people you’ve encountered in your life with you, one gets the impression of a kind of universe pulsating within you at any given moment. It (for me) is a great explanation about why you need to write.
You’ve told me about God, friendship, family location and music. What of love? Do you love well or not, in your opinion?
One of my favorite quotes recently is by Jonathan Franzen who said “you have to love before you can be relentless.” He said that in response to coming up with ten rules for writers. I love that quote because It resonates with me, I feel its value unfolding in my life right now. I’m talking about that real love – the one that transcends circumstances. How do you cope with that? Does it inform, feed and soak your writing, or is it something you put to the side to pick up once the novel is done?
I’ve loved badly. For the wrong reasons, and ultimately the wrong women. The best woman is dead. I held her hand when she went over. I was very glad I was there. The best thing I’ve ever done short of saving a little black boy from getting run over on Seventh Avenue in New York. Mother wept into my shoulder for 20 minutes. The boy is in college now.
My love life has always been fucked up–ever since I caved in the head of my first real girlfriend’s father in his own driveway. That confrontation, which he brought about, so upset me, I blasted through a billboard into an asparagus field and killed my white 1970 Dodge Challenger (this is a boy thing, that’s a very precious kind of car, if you don’t know). I rolled it six times before it caught on fire. It was terrible full moon night. She and I went to different schools, and I met her every day on Pine Street and we fogged up the windows. I was 16 and wanted to marry her. Her father came at me with a lug wrench.
Now I’m good with hookers and showgirls, and all dogs come to me like I’m one of their own. I don’t do love well.
I can understand an experience like that having a tendency to scar you for life. And, there is a lot to be said for a life filled with hookers and showgirls – nothing wrong there. At least you know the fuck is honest.
After having made my inappropriate ‘light’ quip above, I would like to add that you are remarkably un-scarred for someone with such a deep life experience. At least you appear to be – but I am hardly a stranger, so I feel at least semi-qualified to judge. Life may have made love a challenge for you but it has made a very fine writer, a deeply connected loyal friend, and a wise warm man. Not to mention killer sex appeal and a subversive wit. I’m sure you’ve struggled with your own dark night of the soul (Private Midnight to mention another of your wonderful books) but you have come out with more than strength of experience. Do you deliberately intend to make the most of your life in this way, or is this just who you are?
I think I’ve always been torn between a voracious hunger for extreme experience and a desire for conventional happiness–love of a woman, maybe a child, some kind of basic, honest job. I don’t know whether I’ve subconsciously sabotaged those dreams, or if I was just never cut out for them. I remember once long ago looking around at the other handful of white people in this bar in the jungle–and I realized I was one of them.
I fit in places like Vegas and New Orleans. I think I’d be unhappy in London. Melbourne ended up wearing me down. Whereas Bangkok wouldn’t. Hong Kong is often filthy and polluted–and yet I find myself incredibly happy there.
I could talk to Kris all day! Indeed – I have talked with Kris all day. When we get together it is a total chat-fest. Kris is off now, touring and taking about books, life and love. My little thanks to him is a post-thanks, but one I’m sure everyone who reads this will share with me: To Kris – Thanks for sharing a piece of your life with us – thanks especially for being so candid and frank. And thank you (again) for writing Reverend America!
Get your copy of Reverend America at any of the links here. Make sure you do – its a marvelous ‘can’t-put-down’ of a read.
Kris is a ‘quotster’ – here are some classics:
“Make a mistake with the sacred and you get scared.”
“Because you can’t fool all the people all the time, you need to be very clear on which people you are trying to fool at any given time.”
“Sex is a special kind of violence.”
“There is nothing so quaint as a future beyond your wildest imagination.”
“God is a question.”
“The best place to hide an elephant is in a herd of elephants.”
“Camouflage is the most interesting of all the arts.”
“I favor the eternal conflicts: the individual vs. society…cowboys vs. dinosaurs.”