APRIL 10, 2015
I FIRST MET Christian Kiefer at a 2013 reading we did together in San Francisco. His first novel, The Infinite Tides, had recently been published. An old man wandered into the middle of the event, searching for a book on dream interpretation, and like magic, we’ve been great friends ever since. We talked via email recently about his new novel, The Animals, as well as gender biases in literature, the art of the grizzly bear POV, and the inscrutable appeal of supermarkets.
PANIO GIANOPOULOS: Hard to believe I’ve never asked you this, but where did the idea for The Animals come from?
CHRISTIAN KIEFER: I wrote a draft of a novel called Out of Iron about 10 or 15 years ago. It was a failed experiment, but one that stuck with me, especially the ending scene. I couldn’t quite shake it. Maybe five years ago, I started a new novel that takes place in Napoleonic-era Europe, and at some point during that process I needed to step out of that world and into something else. I tried to do a rewrite of Out of Iron at first, but it didn’t really come together. And yet there was that ending scene again. It haunted me and wouldn’t keep quiet.
A good part of what drove me toward the actual book are experiences I’ve had teaching at American River College in Sacramento. I sometimes have students who have been in the prison system, and I became fascinated by their stories. These are young people who made whole strings of truly terrible decisions, one after another, so that they find themselves, at some point, having duct-taped a family to their dining room chairs to rob them in broad daylight — an action you or I probably wouldn’t consider, but for them it’s often just the next logical step in a life of crime. My characters in The Animals come from that world, in a way, making one bad decision after another until they end up in an untenable situation.
I’ve got two intertwined timelines in the book — three, if you consider the characters’ backstories in Battle Mountain, Nevada. For me, the whole book is about trying to change the core self, the thing deep inside that is who we are. So there’s a vein of The Mayor of Casterbridge and Lord Jim in this book. North Idaho is where that big change happens or where Bill, the protagonist, tries to make it happen. And it almost works. Almost.
At the risk of sounding like Esme in Salinger’s titular story, what I love about The Animals is that everybody is dead broke. While crime novels and mysteries readily involve down-and-out characters, literary fiction seems to pay little attention to it. Some notable exceptions come to mind — Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a lot of Bukowski, Henry Miller, and Raymond Carver — but take something like Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets: the fact that he’s dealing with people who are struggling to make ends meet is significant enough that it works its way into the title. (I love Jess’s book, incidentally.) Why do you think “literary” writers — and please forgive the quotation marks — shy away from protagonists who live in trailer parks and face real economic hardship?
Maybe literary fiction is too genteel. Part of the tradition comes from court poetry and courtly narrative (The Tale of Genji, The Faerie Queene, etc.), so it could be that this is the strand that has solidified into this thing we call the “literary novel.” There are those writers you mention, and there are also relative newcomers like Jodi Angel and Donald Ray Pollack and Tupelo Hassman — writers who are mining the rich vein of abject poverty in the context of literary fiction.
There has to be something significant at stake in any piece of narrative. It doesn’t have to be worn-torn Russia or anything quite so dire, but whatever it is, the characters and the reader both need to feel that it’s important. This is why something like Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger both work for me — because in the context of those two books, the protagonist’s very sense of self is at stake.
Speaking of things being at stake, can we talk for a moment about your wonderful novella A Familiar Beast? When I first read that book, I felt a visceral reaction, like I had found a brother from another mother. I don’t know that we write all that similarly, but there’s a sense of men-at-the-end-of-their-rope that we’ve both worked with. Again: things have to be at stake. I wondered if you think specifically about the expectations of men (and women, too) in your writing or if that just comes out naturally and organically from your own experience as a son, husband, and father.
I’ve always loved the man-in-a-crisis storyline. Saul Bellow’s and Philip Roth’s books resonated with me when I was a kid for their articulate struggle with imminent personal catastrophe. I think it comes from remaining a pretty measured and conflict-avoidant person, and so I go to my fiction (or to others’ fiction) to dig into whatever suppressed frustration, rebellion, and upheaval that’s threatening to blow up the whole thing. Play it out and see what happens.
I do think often about the expectations of men. It’s one of those issues I’m always examining. What does it mean to be a man, how are we supposed to act, why, and what happens when we deviate from the script? Brenee Brown tells an anecdote about a man coming up to her after a lecture about vulnerability and saying, “My wife and daughters … they’d rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off. You say you want us to be vulnerable and real, but c’mon. You can’t stand it. It makes you sick to see us like that.” I was listening to her while driving the car and literally had to pull over and just sit with that idea. It struck me like Kafka’s axe.
One thing that called out to me was that in both The Animals and The Infinite Tides you follow terribly isolated men. One’s a reclusive animal caretaker in the woods, and the other is an astronaut struggling to adapt upon his return. Do you think isolation is a fundamental aspect of the male experience? Or is it just human and not a male issue at all?
That’s a difficult question. We certainly have a category for “loner men” in our culture, a category that, with women, we call “crazy cat lady.” Men, though, can be socially apart and while they’re not thought as well-adjusted, at least they are still part of the narrative. These are men damaged by war, often, and we just don’t have a category for emotionally damaged women that works in the same way. (Which is all to say: This shit is not fair.)
On my own use of these tropes: it’s probably personal more than gender-based, with the obvious acknowledgment of the above gender-bias. I used to have a fantasy of just walking away into the woods somewhere and living my life. That’s totally gone away now — at least from my waking thoughts — but obviously there’s some residual sunset glow of it that appears in my writing.
I might add here that writing tends to be a solitary affair. I’ve spent years being in bands, and that’s so much more social than working on a book. You live for months and years in your own head and eventually (one hopes) the book comes out and other people get to see into that space, but it’s often so long after you’re done with it that its seems a strange return. You’re working on the next book at that point.
We both have families with young kids at home, and you have the added pressures of living at least partly under the lens of Hollywood since your wife is a well-known figure. My own wife, not famous, is the one who handles the day-to-day so that I can do my creative work. She’s the only reason I’m able to do anything at all. But I wonder what it’s like trying to make a life with another creative who needs time to do her own creative work. How do you balance that? Are there rules? (X pays the bills and picks up the dry cleaning; Y does the school drop offs; etc.)
That reminds me of a Franzen essay when he visits a prison and thinks to himself something along the lines of, “I’d get so much writing done here!” Yes, the fantasy of escape is an enduring one for me too, even now. It’s tempting to pop-psych it, swaddle it in gender bullshit, the geo-physical articulation of masculine emotional detachment, but I think it’s just an instinctive craving for simplicity. Solitude can seem like the easiest solution to the dilemma, which is that life is full of things that you don’t control. So flee everything, be the only variable, and look how easy it is. But — and forgive the metaphor switch — it’s like cooking with one ingredient instead of ten. However good that tomato is, it’s just a tomato. You left the garlic, the basil, the olive oil, the cheese, the pasta — all of it at home.
As for two creatives in one family, there are no specific rules. It’s just repeated negotiation and discussion. Part of it is who needs it more. Who’s got a deadline. And then there is who’s most excited about what they’re writing. If one of us is riled up about a story or novel or script, the other tries to make room, to help them find the time … I usually buy the groceries though. I’ve always loved supermarkets. Supermarkets and post offices. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
A question about animals. At a point in your novel, you switch to the POV of Majer, the bear. I’ve always shied away from the technique because it seems so easy to sound ridiculous. One wrong move and you’re writing the literary equivalent of Air Bud. Yet you totally pulled it off. When Majer thinks about the rope tied around his neck and being pulled into the cage that stank of dogs, I felt his fear, his confusion; it was awful and troubling, as if it were happening to a human character. What made you want to get inside the bear’s head? Why was that important to you? And what was the key to not messing it up?
Oh man that little chapter from Majer’s POV caused me a lot of research anguish for exactly the reasons you suggest. I didn’t want it to be Air Bud, but I also didn’t want it to be Watership Down. Another writer friend, Jason Sinclair Long, suggested I look at John Brandon’s novel A Million Heavens, which has a sentient (or more sentient than normal) wolf. That book offered another way into the consciousness of the bear.
During all the prep up to actually writing it — and likely even during the process of writing it — I was reading everything I could get my hands on about animal consciousness and, more specifically, about bears. Because it’s a novel, you’ve got to use human language, else you enter Michael McClure territory and start writing GARRRROOHHHAHHH. (McClure’s Ghost Tantras are cool in their own way but, again, not what I wanted to do here.) The trick was understanding how to deal with an animal whose primary sense is smell rather than sight, so when the bear is “looking” at you, he’s really smelling you (especially my bear in the book, who is blind).
At some point during the research process I came upon the work of Jacob von Uexküll, an Estonian-born German philosopher. Uexküll has a particular notion of the Umwelt, literally “environment,” but for Uexküll it means a kind of bubble around an animal or around a being, the physicality of the world and how the animal or being (or self) understands that world. For each animal (and for each person) the Umwelt is different. So that gave me a way to really conceptualize not just the section with Majer, but the whole of the novel. Bill’s trying to change his core being, his self, and he does that in part by constructing a new bubble around himself, a completely new Umwelt. Majer’s bubble too can, and should, be totally different, not only from humans but from other bears. He thinks of Bill as a bear because he’s the most bear-like creature he comes into contact with. But of course Bill will never really know this, because his Umwelt is different.
This reminds me that you use animals as part of the fabric of A Familiar Beast. Guys trying to get their shit together and then the killing of an animal somehow uncorks meaning for your protagonist in a weird and interesting way. Where did that come from?
One fall during a visit with my brother-in-law, who’s an avid hunter, I saw some deer wander onto his lawn. He carried out a big pallet of corn to feed them. He’d been doing it for weeks. I mentioned it seemed a little unsporting, luring them toward the house, and he told me, almost insulted, “I don’t hunt these deer.” It reminded me of the old (and very tired) Madonna/whore complex, which got me to thinking about sexual pursuit as predation. All pursuit is a kind of hunting — even the pursuit of redemption, which is what my protagonist wants more than anything. So he projects onto this animal a kind of moral salvation. And even though I torment him a little for it, the animal is maybe the oldest metaphor human storytellers have. He’s in good company.
The animals in your novel are all wounded. And yet your protagonist does everything he can to keep them alive. The question naturally arises: is this caged existence better than letting them live out a few remaining days in the wild? Is he doing them a favor or carelessly intervening? What do you think?
I’m conflicted on the issue, honestly. There’s a good argument that says that wild animals should remain wild, even if they are injured, but we human beings have the capability of compassion and empathy, even for non-human species. If I can help an animal live the rest of its life in safety and comfort, shouldn’t I?
On the other hand, a wild animal is wild, and caging something is unlikely to be the best option. Bill’s belief is that the animals he cares for will die if freed. I don’t know if that’s true, and I don’t even know if he really believes it’s true either. An aged, blind grizzly might not make it, but a three-legged wolf probably would. The other animals … maybe it’s better to be free for a few days and die as nature intended. (Not that nature has intent, but you get my meaning.)
My family and I visit zoos whenever we can, but we’re also made morally uncomfortable by them. No one likes to see something in a cage.