NOT INFREQUENTLY — indeed, one might shudder to think how often — an exceptional novel falls through the cracks. Whether lackadaisically published, indifferently (or incompetently) reviewed, or simply because the novel itself doesn’t quite conform to contemporary convention, the book manages to vanish almost before it arrives.
Katherine Taylor’s Valley Fever, published in 2015, felt almost immediately imperiled when I read it on the eve of its publication. Too acerbic to fly as “comedy,” too effervescent to wash as somber drama, too compressed — too spare and too elegant — to establish itself as any kind of family saga, Taylor’s novel is instead all three. As such, it partakes in a lineage (or, perhaps, invents one) that includes books as disparate as Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, and Eve Babitz’s Slow Days, Fast Company.
The novel’s Fresno setting, its distinctly Western sensibility and intelligence, and above all its robust and never-ending doubleness — from moment to moment the book’s tone twists back on itself, so one is not quite sure whether to laugh or beg for morphine — isolate it a bit on the contemporary scene, and remind me, too, of the great Don Carpenter. Taylor and I sat down recently to discuss it.
MATTHEW SPECKTOR: You happen to have written a very funny novel that isn’t, in any meaningful sense, a “comedy.” In certain ways, Valley Fever struck me as existentially dark in the vein of something like Leaving Las Vegas [John O’Brien, 1990]. As relentlessly quick as its surfaces are, its shadows and depths are … unrelenting. Tell me a little bit about that? How do you manage the balance, if it is a balance, between comic energy and despair?
KATHERINE TAYLOR: There is an almost imperceptible line — we all know — between comedy and despair.
I’m not sure I managed anything too purposefully. You write the book you’re going to write at a certain moment in your life. You write the book you’d want to read, during the time you’d like to read it. How are you going to navigate the world for the period you’re writing this book? How are you going to manage the constant underlying despair of taking nine years to write a book? I managed it (to the extent that I managed it) by laughing, or trying to make myself laugh, which is somewhere between complete denial and being totally consumed. As much of a fan as I am of “Death of the Author,” when an author talks about the work she’s created, she’s talking about a moment in her life. I never set out to be funny. I just set out to survive.
This book is incredibly evocative of its locale. Not just “wine country” in general — although the descriptions of grapes and peaches alone are reason enough to read the book — but Fresno in particular: its geography, its style and moods. Of course there’s a great tradition of writers who originate off Highway 99, so to speak: William Saroyan, Joan Didion, et al. Were you conscious of writing within — or against — a tradition?
Definitely conscious of writing within a tradition. In fact, I wrote the book with a copy of Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley on my desk for the full nine years. I also reread a lot of the Saroyan I have loved since I was a child, and read a lot of Phil Levine, who didn’t write so much about the Central Valley, but wrote from within the Central Valley, and his poetry has a feel and a rhythm I identify with. Same with David St. John, who was my undergraduate advisor and whose work I identify with on some level beneath or beyond the content of the poems. The desolation and the humor, the desperate loneliness; this seems inborn in the Central Valley. The poet and novelist Gary Soto talks, and writes, about Fresno as a place with onions buried beneath it. Something vital, or native, that’s delicious but making you cry. Something that looks simple but must be peeled back, layer by layer. It’s a true and perfect metaphor.
There’s a school of poets called the Fresno Poets, beginning with Phil Levine and his students and the poets drawn to the landscape and weather and fundamental solitude and hardship of that area: Peter Everwine, Corrinne Hales, Larry Levis, Suzanne Lummis. The most famous, of course, at the moment, is Juan Felipe Herrera. While writing the book, I read a lot of these poets (there are so many — Charles Hanzlicek, Sherley Anne Williams, William Everson …) because I tend to gravitate toward poetry. I read as much Central Valley fiction as I could get my hands on, but I couldn’t find much fiction aside from the Saroyan, Didion’s one Central Valley novel, and Gary Soto. There’s a writer called Aris Janigian who writes evocatively about central California farm life, and David Mas Masumoto’s Epitaph for a Peach is just one of the most brilliant farm memoirs there is. What people usually think of when they think of literature connected with this area is Steinbeck-Didion-Saroyan-Kerouac. So I like the idea of “a great tradition.” I think it is a great tradition.
This is sort of a tactless question, or at least it precedes a tactless question, but I’ll try. The protagonist of your first — also excellent — novel, Rules for Saying Goodbye, was named Katherine Taylor. The protagonist of this novel is named Ingrid Palamede, but she seems to share some of your background and family history. My question I guess isn’t “to what degree is this novel autobiographical,” but rather, what do you imagine the freedoms — and constraints — of writing autobiographically might be?
Not only is that not tactless, but it’s kind of the best incarnation of that question I have ever heard, and I have heard a lot of incarnations of that question. There’s no escaping the incorporation of the artist into the work — no matter how some writers insist their work bears no resemblance to themselves. You’re the sum of your experience, right? It’s impossible to create anything worthwhile unless you write from a place of emotional truth, something that’s grown into you.
My first novel was superficially autobiographical; that is, the fictional Katherine Taylor did and experienced many of the same things I had done and experienced. The narrator for novel number two, Ingrid Palamede, feels much closer to me on an emotional level. With the fictional Katherine Taylor, I wrote from a purposeful distance. Ingrid Palamede gave me a kind of cover I needed to be a bit more raw, a bit emotionally closer to home.
This book seemed to come to you rather slowly.
I feel free to say that because we were in regular conversation while you wrote it, but when I read it I was therefore astonished to find it so effortless. It reads like something you pulled out of your pocket in a state of near-perfection. The sentences themselves have such an energy and quickness. Nothing about the prose itself feels forced or labored or overworked in the slightest. What can you say about your process? Are you what they call a “taker-outer,” or a “putter-inner”? Did you write like crazy and then cut, or did you build this book out more gradually?
I’m a minimalist. I expect a lot from the reader, sometimes maybe too much. I’m loathe to explain anything on the page. The events, the dialogue, the gestures are laid out for the reader, and the reader must take from them what he will. So, to answer part one of the question, I’m by nature and necessity more of a putter-inner than a taker-outer. Both my editors, first Courtney Hodell and then Emily Bell, had me expand, expand, expand. I’m fortunate in that I have (and had) total faith in each of these geniuses.
It’s difficult for any writer to see her work from a distance, and so I took Courtney’s and then Emily’s word for it when they told me something wasn’t making sense, that relationships or events weren’t quite clear enough. I expect every gesture and every line of dialogue to carry a formidable weight, but that’s not how readers always experience a book. Maybe especially a book like mine, which has a veneer of lightheartedness.
I hate to ask you this particular, perhaps superstitiously bothersome, question, but … what are you working on now? I assume that you are not, like Ingrid [Palamede], at work on a comedy about genocide (though I wouldn’t put it past you).
I should write a comedy about genocide! Actually I stole that detail from my brother’s real life. For years he worked on a screenplay, a comedy about genocide based on the true story of my grandparents, for which he’d been given a grant from a human rights organization. It’s called It’s My Mountain, about an Armenian grandson determined to reclaim his family’s property from the Turkish government. It’s tragically funny, but you know, strangely, no one wants to make a genocide comedy. It’s too sad that all my brother’s brilliant hard work will continue to sit in a drawer, so I tried to make a little use of it by giving it to Ingrid.
That’s a long-winded way around talking about what I’m writing. I’m at work on another book, a novel I’m very excited about but at the moment exists only in fragments. I wonder if it won’t continue to exist as fragments that eventually cohere.
Simply because you recently wrote an excellent essay for [LARB] on Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and The City, and because you never did write the essay on Nora Ephron’s Heartburn that we long ago discussed — because you’re one of the sharpest readers I know in any capacity — this seems a good time to ask … what are you reading, at the moment?
On my dining table just next to me are two books I’m rereading: Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock, which is the book I’ve been talking about all summer (I’m rereading to try to figure out what about it I identified with so deeply — our lives are very different) and Eve Babitz’s Eve’s Hollywood, which I am supposed to write about for [LARB], but don’t quite know how to come at it. Eve’s Hollywood is not my favorite Babitz — that’s Slow Days, Fast Company — but it’s an astonishingly sophisticated and nuanced book for a 20-something-year-old to have written, so I’ve been ruminating just how to approach what is an imperfect — if worthwhile — novel/memoir/collection of essays. Eve’s Hollywood could be any of those three things; although it’s classified as fiction, it’s commonly referred to as memoir. Anyway, the label doesn’t mean anything to me.
I wish I had written that Ephron essay. Heartburn is grossly under-recognized and underappreciated for the groundbreaking book it was, and for the classic novel it is. Maybe I can find a way to work that into the Babitz piece.
Today I’m also reading Thomas Bernhard’s Concrete. I’m trying to catch up on all the things I already should have read. What are you reading? I get my best book recommendations from you. Including, originally, Slow Days, Fast Company.
At the moment (as at every moment) I’m reading several things: A wonderful, lacerating novel from the 1950s called In Love, by the English writer Alfred Hayes, who might be slightly better known for his work as a screenwriter; Ken Kalfus’s really funny and sharp A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, which might be the only comic novel I’ve ever read about 9/11; Paul Beatty’s book The Sellout is really kicking my ass at the moment; and you and I have talked elsewhere about Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock. I’ve also been digging into the Zimbabwean novelist Dambudzo Marechera. There’s so much, really. There are always so many books that reward our close attention, although of course there always seem to be so many many more that don’t. I couldn’t be more thankful for a book like yours, which seems to clear away whole fields of manure and leave me with just the reward, so to speak. The pure fruit of the vine.