Mythbusting: An Interview with Jim Krusoe
By Marco KayeSeptember 14, 2012
IT WOULD BE A LIE to suggest that a story’s premise is paramount to longtime Los Angeles-based writer Jim Krusoe, that his stories pivot around mere ideas or narrative hooks. Evidence gathered in this interview rejects such an idea. That said, Krusoe’s novels lend themselves well to capsule summation. In Iceland, a typewriter repairman picks out a new organ from a nutrient-rich swimming pool and falls in love with the attendant working there. In Girl Factory, a frozen yogurt vendor discovers, in the basement below his store, tanks of women floating in acidophilus-enhanced dormancy, one of whom may be his ex-girlfriend. In Erased, a garden-tool salesman receives a series of postcards from his deceased mother and journeys to Cleveland to find her. In Toward You, an upholsterer labors to build a machine that will communicate with the dead.
These last three novels, dubbed “The Resurrection Trilogy,” concern the space between this life and the next. Like pills, they are deceivingly pastel-colored, things whose ulterior interactions prove to be more complicated.
Krusoe’s latest, Parsifal, resurrects an Arthurian legend that has taken on many forms, including an opera by Richard Wagner. In this novel, a fountain-pen repairman searches to find his own Holy Grail, while the earth and the sky wage war around him. The novel is both a departure and a return for Krusoe. The manic humor of his previous books is more subdued, and it’s his first written in the third-person. However, Krusoe was a poet for decades before turning to fiction. Parsifal is sparse, fragmented, and leaves open spaces between short narrative episodes that flow forward and backward in time.
“After a lifetime, what fragments remain?”
MARCO KAYE: Several years ago, in an interview with Michael Silverblatt, you mentioned writing a novel about “the war between the earth and the sky,” an idea inspired by your son. After finishing it, you realized it didn’t work and shelved it as an “interesting experiment.” Can you talk about returning to this material, and how the Parsifal legend saved it?
JIM KRUSOE: I may have called it “interesting” back then, but what I really meant was terrible. It was a draft that had airships and submarines at perpetual war, and the crewmembers on both factions were nearly identical — why, I was never sure. I have seldom sighed a sigh of relief so deep as when I got to the end, took a step back, and realized it was completely impossible; I would never have to look at it again.
Then, about a month later, I was plunked down on my living room couch, itching to write something, as the prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal came on the radio. So I sat, looking out the front window at the cars passing by and at the guy across the street watering his lawn, and somehow it came to me that the war between the earth and sky wasn’t meant to be foreground, but the backdrop to the Parsifal story. And the core story, after all, was nothing more than that of a child raised in innocence who moves to experience.
MK: This is your first novel written in the third person. What were some of the challenges and freedoms associated with that?
JK: The original versions of this manuscript were first person. Then a writer friend, Janice Shapiro, read it and told me something was missing. Switching to third person allowed more resonance of the myth to come through. More importantly, it also made possible the floating point of view the novel has. In the past I favored first because I suspected readers might have trouble believing the story if they weren’t being told these things by an actual narrator. But with this book, when the first sentence says: There is a war between the earth and sky, I figure if a reader will buy that, they are halfway to believing.
MK: Are all narratives quest narratives?
JK: I’m pretty sure they aren’t. There can be survival narratives, obsessive narratives, biographical narratives, narratives of loss, and so on. For example, I don’t call War and Peace a quest, though it contains quests. But clearly, I’m drawn to the idea of searching, and one advantage of having a strong direction is that it gives me the opportunity to digress. Digressions make me really happy, because they are like extra minutes on the meter.
MK: Erased was based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Girl Factory was rooted in the Bluebeard legend. What draws you to mythology?
JK: I don’t think anything draws me to mythology. If I am writing at any serious level at all, I’m asking the same questions that people have asked for generations and these questions are encased in myth. I’m coming late to a very old conversation, because I don’t believe the number of tropes the human brain can produce is infinite.
MK: Did you have any other books or poems on your mind while writing this one?
JK: None at all, other than the obvious: The Verlaine poem that starts it and appears throughout, and then the Hank Williams song, which, as the book went on, became a sort of touchstone. Maybe Pound’s Cantos also, which themselves are fragmented, and contain a line that has always been a favorite, “Where there is love there is sight.” A line that works reversed as well, by the way.
MK: You’ve said that your writing typically begins with an “image that bothers you.” What was this image for Parsifal?
JK: This one didn’t begin with an image except, I guess, those falling objects. What happened as I listened to the spacious opening of the Parsifal opera was that I got a sense that I also could build a space, one sacred in a way, in which a story could take place. So instead of a clear image, I began with a large, light-filled empty stage that was safe and large enough to contain both the past and present, my characters and my life. Once that was constructed, I could lower all sorts of other images and moments down onto it, and then examine them as they stood in relation to one another.
MK: Parsifal also moves forward and backward in time, though I found the effect appropriately subtle. What was the decision behind this?
JK: It was less thought-out than you might guess. It was simply that as I wrote I learned about my character’s past and what needed to happen to him in equal parts, so whenever I found out information I hadn’t known about him, that’s where I put it in.
But it’s also true that we live in all three tenses every minute, and elide between them seamlessly. I am writing this, and thinking about the end of this sentence, and also answering your question about what went on in the past when I wrote the book. I’m the same person I was at four, and 17, and 50, all layered on top of one another, and though I’ve learned stuff, I certainly can’t separate any part of my life from any other — a point of sorrow, I hasten to add, not of pride.
MK: The book is composed of fragments, the form Donald Barthelme infamously stated in a story as “the only form I trust.” Sometimes they are as short as one word, and I read them as whispers. Did you thread these through the book on subsequent drafts, or would one fragment lead to the next?
JK: Mostly each fragment led to one that followed, though at the end I would repeat themes when I wanted to underscore a mood. It’s interesting because I began to write fiction (after poetry) in part because someone told me once they liked the spaces between my poems better than the poems. So in learning to write narrative fiction, I had to provide connections between each image, and scene. Now, having figured out a few narrative principles, with each successive novel I appear to be dismantling that through-line, and, in Parsifal at least, practically reverting to the stanza form.
MK: I learned much about fountain pens in this book. Can we safely assume you composed it with one?
JK: I love fountain pens. They are responsive to pressure and their ink smears and gets on my fingers and when I’m writing a good part I have to get up and fill mine. So yes — this book was written with a Pelikan pen, using black ink and a medium nib, but I have several kinds, because each has a different feel. Weirdly, the pleasure of using a pen makes me want to write, and switching pens around keeps things fresh, in a way. I think Chekhov said something like: I write for my pen.
MK: Parsifal is a man who believes all good things come to those who wait. Does the same hold true for a writer?
JK: I want to say that all things come to those who wait, but if you wait, then something will come. And if you make the most of what comes, it will be no more or less than any other thing. In the end, Parsifal realizes that good and bad are irrelevant terms.
MK: You started as a poet. Is there one book of poetry you would recommend to every prose writer?
JK: Emily Dickinson’s poems, because each one of those dashes of hers contains an entire novel full of pain and of wonder.
Marco Kaye's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Rumpus, and The Morning News. He is currently a fiction student in the Creative Writing Program at NYU, and is at work on a novel.
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