Kyle Minor is a ferocious story writer with a superior understanding of structure and a canny exploration of the lives of the marginalized. His story collection, In the Devil’s Territory, should be on everyone’s “to read” list. Additionally, Kyle contributes some of the most interesting postings to the HTML Giant blog. I asked him a few questions about his stories and his upcoming working, and he graciously answered them.
CW: Your stories frequently chart the quiet spaces of the characters’ background, the private experiences. There also seems to be a regularly repeated theme of secrets kept and the way this fidelity to self can actually limit one’s ability to seek…what, happiness, fulfillment? How do you consider perception as a dynamic in your stories? Is this the entry point for your work, or is this something that seems to manifest of its own accord? Talk as much as you would like about these qualities. I think it’s one of the most fascinating things about your work.
KM: Those characters come from a culture — Southern fundamentalism — in which people talk about unconditional love, but in which, in practice, there are huge conditions not only on love but also on anything resembling relationship. If you want to be part of the community, if you want to be in right fellowship with even your own family, you have to at least outwardly conform.
One thing I noticed, growing up in communities like these, is that it is always forgivable to do the “wrong” thing, repent, say all the right things, do the wrong thing, repent, say all the right things, etc. And you can get away with doing the wrong thing, but hiding it, saying all the right things, acting in the community-sanctioned ways, talking the right talk, not saying the things you know will make people angry, and nothing makes people angrier than saying that the received story of how the world works isn’t working, so you continue to recycle the same language, the same common wisdom, the same pieties and truisms, and in so doing, people know you’re a part of the tribe in more or less good standing. What’s not forgivable, whether you’re doing “wrong” or not, is to stand up and say: A lot of this talk is bullshit. It doesn’t make any sense. We’re all walking around, operating out of guilt, granting authority to undereducated people whose reasoning is invariably circular: (How do I know it’s true? Because the Bible tells me so. How do I know the Bible is a reliable authority? Because the Bible tells me so. How can I trust the Bible when it tells me so? Because the Bible tells me so.)
I don’t mean to imply, either, that all of these things are religious in origin. They’re cultural in origin. The Bible is to be received literally, but yet there are all these intellectual contortions which allow the disallowal of all the unpleasantness of the Old Testament when it’s convenient — the genocides, the endorsements of slavery, the sending women out of town whenever they have their period, and so on. Those belong to another time, the time of law. But when somebody discovers they are attracted to the same sex, suddenly Leviticus is for today. Or when Jesus and Paul talk about slavery, and they’re not talking abolition of slavery, they’re wise as serpents, harmless as doves. Or when things are in literal disagreement, who can know the mysteries of God? And what it boils down to is this: What’s ultimately privileged is the tradition of the community. And it’s a tradition largely rooted in 19th century rural America, particularly the South. Which means even in the 21st century, you see these weirdly anachronistic responses. In the 2000 elections, it becomes a major issue when George W. Bush gives a speech at Bob Jones University, where it’s policy that interracial dating is against God’s plan and therefore forbidden to students on pain of dismissal from college. And when political pressure is brought to bear upon the university, the policy is adjusted so that it’s no longer an explicit ban on interracial dating, but it’s made so difficult for students (there is a counseling process, parents are involved, etc.), that it remains de facto a ban. Where does that come from? Clearly, it comes from the fact that the roots of American fundamentalism are in a society that allowed slavery. Times changed, and the community adjusted to the changes in outward ways, but the inward attitudes and traditions were enforced in quieter ways, through the mechanism of community.
There is a tyranny, I think, to community, especially when the community is all you have and all you know and all your relationships are bound up in it. Of course, then, you keep secrets. You must, if you are going to be an individual and not an automaton, and yet continue to keep your relationships and the things they make possible in your life, which, for people intertwined enough with the community, might include continuing to live with your spouse and children, keeping your job, continuing to communicate with your parents. That’s steep stuff.
But at what price? Over time, I have watched people devolve into misery upon misery because of how closely they believe they must hold their secrets. Their secrets undo them, relationally and otherwise, because I think that fundamentally we all really do want to know others and be known by others. That’s what real relationship is. So, in a sense, these characters belong to communities where the price of relationship is a series of relationships that aren’t relationships at all, but rather actings-out of some kind of lifelong morality play. That’s the kind of life I escaped, and I hurt for all I’ve lost and left behind, but I can’t imagine how miserable I would be if I had continued to live that way, as many of the characters in this book do.
CW: You demonstrate a particularly deft hand with long short stories. I’m thinking specifically of “A Day Meant to Do Less” and “In the Devil’s Territory”. Both of these stories/novelettes span a great deal of time and effectively use the lapsing of that time as a seismic force in the ongoing buffets to the characters. What are the advantages you see in this form?
KM: Unlike Katherine Anne Porter, I like the word novella. It describes a thing that is neither short story nor novel, but has some of the strengths and virtues of both.
There are three of them in In the Devil’s Territory, and each one is formally very different from the others. “A Day Meant to Do Less” is a three-part structure in two points of view, in which the beginning and end is a scene (a son bathing his invalid mother) seen first from the point of view of the son, and then, at the end, from the point of view of the mother. Because her consciousness has been altered by illness (dementia, really), they aren’t seeing the same thing. What she’s seeing, really, is a terrible vision from early in her life, which is what the story’s middle delivers. The novella’s power comes from this great dissonance, dramatic irony is what it’s technically called. And also this matter of secrets — her son can’t know her at the end of her life because she’s kept from him the things that most motivate her and animate her interior life.
“A Love Story” is a chronologically linear story which takes the form of, I guess, an autobiography. It’s not a memoir — it’s not about the past. It’s about the now the story takes us into by story’s end, this moment where a closeted gay preacher must decide whether or not to leave his wife, and he decides, out of what seems to him like love for her, and out of what must seem to us like the workings of self-interest and inertia, to put off that decision one more day. So in a sense, it’s a single-movement story, more akin to the old epiphanic short story than to the other novellas, even though there’s no epiphany.
“In the Devil’s Territory” is a story in six parts that spans five decades and two continents, with two dominant story lines that converge in the end upon a first person account of the person for whom the two story lines are the preoccupation of his life as he reaches something near middle-age and realizes that the story he has been told about the world doesn’t bear up against his experience, and that try as he might, he’s not going to be able to make the narratives of his life cohere. Life resists narrative, even as we try to impose it, is what I hope the form achieves, or one thing I hope it achieves, and also: The short story sometimes tells us a lie about life, that we can wrap a narrative around a moment and learn something. The novella is better able to say: Maybe that’s true, but then another moment arrives and its lesson undoes or complicates the one that came before, until, by the end of life, you realize you thought you knew so many things, but the things you thought you knew you don’t know the way you knew them, not anymore, and the people under whose power you came to know them are dead or dying, and now you’ve got to know that, too, and it changes what you know, but what do you do with all of this in light of the knowledge that soon you will be dead, too, that this is the condition of life, and when you are gone, who will remember?, and how long will the remembering last?, and will it have come to mean anything at all to anyone but you?, and now you have to either make your choices and reckonings in light of all this, or else you choose to act as though these things aren’t, in which case you’ve made a reduction of yourself, and you ride off that way into the long tunnel.
CW: I know you have some ties to Haiti and are currently working on a novel about it. Can you give us some indication of what type of story it is and what drew you to that country?
KM: I’m working on two books set there, but every time I say something about them publicly, I feel later like I want to unsay it and say something different or better or more complicated, and that in describing a work that isn’t finished, I’m making a liar of myself when that work changes into something I didn’t describe. I think, like Andre Dubus said, the best self is in the work, and I don’t want to take this lesser self, this being-interviewed self, and cause it to cost something to the better self who has time to stretch out and measure and do better by material that it is difficult and important to do right by.
CW: You’re a frequent contributor to HTML Giant. Talk a little about the way new media affects your understanding of what the duty of the writer is. How does this discourse frame your own work? I read your stories as being more conservative in aesthetic approach than many other Giant bloggers; do you ever feel a tension between these differing (non) narrative philosophies and how might your participation with these disparate voices influence your development as an artist?
KM: I don’t know what will come of that in terms of my work. I’m seeking some freedom, although I think that one freedom among many freedoms is the freedom to do a thing that can be described as conservative, which is something I’m willing to do because sometimes that is the mode of discourse best able to do the radically not-conservative thing I hope that some of these stories are doing.
I think that my nonfiction generally has been more experimentative at the level of language (and, sometimes, at the level of form) than my fiction. Why is that? I don’t know. There are some readers who prefer one or the other, and they have their reasons.
I’ve enjoyed being part of that conversation at HTMLGiant. I read broadly, and that website is a place where you can find other people who read broadly. Smart people, some of them. Iron sharpens iron, the old preachers said.
CW: We’ve had a few discussions wherein you’ve slowly won me over to the work of William Gay. Can you tell me what it is about Gay’s work that resonates so strongly with you?
KM: What I admire most about William Gay is his short stories. He’s a wild, untrained, self-made writer, same as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, the two writers to whom he owes the most. His stories are fierce, and the way he uses language invests his modest people with the grandeur he makes it possible for you to imagine for them and their place and their lives. Don Pollock told me a story one time about William Goyen. His first book was this beautiful novel, House of Breath, which is about this postage-stamp of a town in Texas where he grew up. You read that book and by god you want to go there and see everything. So Goyen married the woman who later became the mother on Everybody Loves Raymond, and she loved the book too, and he took her to Texas to see the place, and her response was: This is it? It was nothing, and it couldn’t be anything to anyone except the novelist whose entire life was an outgrowth of what happened inside him when he was small and that place was so big it was the whole world and the world’s every manifestation.
That’s what William Gay is, for me, like McCarthy before him and Faulkner before both of them. They do the poem-like thing: You look at anything long and hard enough, and it yields up the whole world, and, of course, what it’s really yielding up is you, the sum of your experiences, your memories, your aspirations, your needs and wants and desires, everything.