There are images from Kyle Minor’s stories that will stick with me to the grave: a man laying hands on a dying man’s tumor, a preacher baking biscuits at a boy’s funeral. These images sear because they get at the gruesome failures of life. The preacher bakes biscuits in a gimmicky bid for consolation. There seems no true feeling in his action, and so it falls far short of the gravity of the moment. The man with the tumor thinks the narrator of “Seven Stories about Sebastian of Koulev-Ville” is the healer come to pray over him. The narrator has no illusions about his lack of power, but obliges the pleading man. “When I was done,” he tells us, “nothing happened. Everyone was as blind or cataracted or tumored or lying or despicable as we had been before we prayed, and my hands were wet with white and yellow pus.” Another failure.
But, as story matter, neither of these images fail. Instead, they challenge us. They ask us, what would you have done? Would you have been brave enough to touch the tumor? To shove away the preacher and say honest words—that there is no consolation for a young boy’s death? Throughout Praying Drunk (Sarabande Books), Minor strips away the false comforts we give ourselves and, once these are gone, makes us consider what it really means to be human. The answers we find aren’t necessarily heartwarming, but they are true.
Kyle Minor is the author of a previous collection of stories, In the Devil’s Territory (Dzanc, 2008). His work has appeared online at Esquire and Tin House, and in print in such places as The Southern Review and The Iowa Review, as well as anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, Forty Stories: New Voices from Harper Perennial, andBest American Nonrequired Reading 2013. He is the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction and the Tara M. Kroger Prize for Short Fiction, a three-time honoree in the Atlantic Monthly contest, and was named one of Random House’s Best New Voices of 2006. He also writes a biweekly audiobooks column for Salon.
Ben Stroud: Let’s start off talking about truth. This is a question of genre: some of these stories were published as essays, and some as fiction. And it’s a question of intent. That is, there’s a feel to these stories of the writer facing something, working it out. Certain specific memories recur—family deaths, an episode of bullying. You talk about the issue of truth in these stories in the book’s “Q & A” sections, but I wonder if you could speak to it here—what it means to you as a writer, and what it means to you for this collection.
Kyle Minor: William Faulkner once wrote a letter to Malcolm Cowley in which he said: “I don’t care much for facts, am not much interested in them, you can’t stand a fact up, you’ve got to prop it up, and when you move to one side a little and look at it from that angle, it’s not thick enough to cast a shadow in that direction.”
The problem with facts is that they don’t tell a story. The story happens when you start to arrange the facts, choose which to offer and in what order, decide what goes first and makes the big promises, and what goes last and pronounces upon and inflects all that came before.
“Truth” gets slippery. Politicians and religious leaders like to talk as though facts and truth are the same thing, that the facts add up to some kind of objective truth. But there’s no such thing as objective truth. Truth isn’t an object, it is an abstraction, a thing arrived upon after all the objects have been observed and maybe acted upon. Like all abstractions, truth is a subjective thing. Maybe we won’t agree about it. But we sure will know when we’re far from it, or we’ll think we’re sure.
Praying Drunk began to take shape when I realized that so many of the stories and essays I was writing were attempts at sorting out certain obsessions. The same obsessions, the same events, the same facts, kept recurring. I was circling around them, story by story, essay by essay, but nothing satisfied. There was more to say, I didn’t say enough, I said too much about one part, I forgot to remember X or Y or Z.
I was thinking about these traveling preachers who used to come to the Baptist church when I was a kid. They’d talk about a Great White Throne Judgment, after life was over, in which everyone who had ever lived would gather in a big throng, and, one by one, Big G would project 16mm films of all the things they had ever done wrong in their lives, for all to see. Then those who were washed in the Blood of the Lamb would go to heaven, where their sins would be cast away, and they’d spend the rest of their lives singing worship songs to He who sits on the throne. They’d get crowns for their good deeds, but they’d have to take them off and throw them toward the throne.
What I think of that now is: How boring. That music’s no good, and the interesting people are gone, and all you have left is your memories of the good bad times, when things could still happen. If it was me, I’d be grinding on those memories forever, circling around and around them, trying to figure out what all that was. And then I thought: That’s really what I’m doing now, with these stories and essays. And that’s what this book is: The Baptists were right, I’m dead, I’m up in boring heaven, and I have to throw my crowns to Big G and listen to that terrible music. Well, there’s nothing but time now. Might as well try to figure out these memories, no matter how many failures it takes. That’s what passes for truth for me.
OK, I want to go in several directions now. But I guess we better stick to one and try to catch the others up as we go. Your first book, In the Devil’s Territory, hewed to a more traditional story collection format—a sequence of stories all more or less realist. This collection works differently. We circle back to certain subjects. We have the Q and As. We have sections. I wonder how you see Praying Drunk as fitting into your arc as a writer. Maybe this isn’t a fair question—maybe this is up for the critics to figure out once we’re all gone back to the great wherever. But as this second book is coming out, and you’re on the threshold of finishing a third, how do you see it fitting in? What work do you see yourself doing here that’s distinct from past projects and possible future ones? And is that something a writer can think about?
When I finished In the Devil’s Territory, one dissatisfaction I had with it was that it was so much more aesthetically narrow than my reading interests are. I was writing in other registers in poetry and the essay, but somehow I got the wrongheaded idea—in my writing, as I never had in my reading—that literary fiction lived in a plainspoken realist register, and that the writer couldn’t bring the full range of his intelligence to bear upon the work as he might in the essay. That was a thing that was somehow in the air when I was a graduate student, and it was wrong, and I was wrong to give it any time, but I did. I found, because of it, that I preferred my essays to my stories.
Some of the work in Praying Drunk was started around the same time—the last story in the second book predates anything in the first book—but it didn’t fit with the other stories in the first book. It wasn’t ready to be part of a book yet, and I’m glad I held it back.
I think that if you look at the development of a lot of writers of an earlier generation I admire, you see a similar pattern. The first book or two are overly beholden to an idea of literature, or to a teacher, or to, god forbid, Henry James, and then somehow the writer finds a new freedom, and then spends the rest of his or her career chasing that freedom, exploring it, succeeding and failing, but, one hopes, becoming singular—less like other writers, more like the version of yourself you are inventing and discovering, book by book. That’s one thing people mean when they talk about “voice,” I think.
For the future, then, no restrictions, no obligations to any ideas anybody else might have, no deference to fear. Literature can be anything, and there is no one to tell you no.
So, speaking of restrictions, and of the shaping of this book, at the beginning of the book, we’re told to read the stories in order, no skipping around. I’m interested, yes, in why you give readers this proscription. But I’m also interested in the craft here. Where did the determination of order come in for you? Was it there in the conception of each story? Or did you find this particular pattern only when you put the stories together?
The order of the stories—and the order to the reader—came last. I wanted to start with “The Question of Where We Begin,” which raises the questions about what stories are and how they are made and what that means for their makers, and I wanted to end with that moment of futile echo in “Lay Me Down in the Blue Grass.” I knew that the story where so many of the threads converged should be in the middle, and I wanted the Haiti stories to be equidistant. Everything in Part One wants to be in symmetry with everything in Part Two, but it’s impossible, and the Q&A’s arrive later, after the reader has entered into some intuitive understanding of what the book is doing. When I figured out that structure, I realized that these pieces, which represent failures to write other books, were, together, a book that held together better than the more conventionally elegant books I had hoped they might be building toward, when I wrote them. The Q&A’s were the last things I wrote, and then the book was done.
Let’s get down to the gruesome. A number of these stories turn on physical taboos: the touching of a giant tumor on a man’s groin in “Seven Stories about Sebastian of Koulev-Ville,” the touching of the grandfather’s teeth in “First, the Teeth,” and getting in bed with the sick friend in “You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace.” As a reader, when I came to these moments, I felt a definite charge—of lines of comfort being crossed. Why do you think these moments are important? And how difficult were they to write?
In all of those cases, the fiction proceeds from things that actually happened in the nonfictional world. Although the protagonist of “Seven Stories” is a character who is not me—in this case, a foreign aid worker—I did have the experience of walking into an unfinished cinderblock house in the mountains in Haiti, being mistaken for a minister, being shown a scrotal tumor the size of a grapefruit, and being asked to lay hands on the diseased genitals and pray over them, a thing I reluctantly did, and about which I’ve felt conflicted ever since. Certainly that man died, and certainly I had enough money in my pocket to pay for a surgery which wouldn’t have saved his life, but which would have bought him some time, maybe. Likewise the story of the grandmother who steals the grandfather’s dentures while he’s dying so he won’t use them to flirt with the pretty nurse, or the getting in the shit-stained bed with the friend who will die the next day of leukemia, these are things that I saw, and once they were seen they couldn’t be unseen, and then they became preoccupations of the sort that so often come out not only in nonfiction, but in fiction as well. The discomfort of them is central to the experience, and in many ways these hard things come to stand in for the experiences, the way, say, the glass of mucus comes to stand in for the father in Sharon Olds’s greatest poem “The Glass.” Everything attaches, in memory, and the reckoning follows incompletely from there.
So, focusing in a little on craft—was there any difficulty in the actual writing down of these things, of getting them on the page so that they radiated in the way (to my mind) they do? That is, it seems there’s a great risk of melodrama, or simple shock. But these moments don’t fall into either of those pitfalls, and to me that represents some masterful work on the page. Yes, there was difficulty, and almost always there is difficulty.
Sometimes it seems like there is a clear path to the story, and then you sit down and try to chase it and it yields nothing except the buzzing of your internal bullshit detector. Sometimes you sit down to try something unpromising, on a lark, and you hit the vein unexpectedly, and it hurts. The story that sits at the fulcrum of the book, for example, arrived when I was playing with a story that worked like John Cheever’s “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear.” I was screwing around, making a list, but so quickly it got real. The reason, I think, is that I was full up with the pain that is represented in that story, and when I wasn’t trying to make it come out, it came pouring out. When you realize that is happening, the thing to do is to not stop until you’re done with the draft.
Also—and this isn’t a craft thing—I think sometimes writing so close to the bone is the least psychologically healthy thing there is. I spent a lot of the years I was writing this book in great distress because of all that the stories were stirring up. Life had already stirred it up, but writing about it, you really have to face it, and keep looking at it, and it’s impossible to be dispassionate, because it’s the stuff that hurts the worst. Well, like another writer once told me: No pain in the writer, no pain in the reader.
Maybe that’s the secret to wading out into such deep waters: It works if it’s real. Certainly, if anything, it was too real, and right now, thinking about it, I’m glad to be done with all of it.
This suggests a departure—a leaving of the “real” for the “imagined.” Do you think its possible for the “imagined” to carry as much power as the lived real?
I think that once you start committing it to paper, you’re making the departure, no matter what genre you think you’re working. Because words aren’t experience. They are collections of symbols to which we’ve ascribed meaning. They are, by their nature, abstractions. And stories aren’t concrete reality. They are story reality. They are, structurally, choices assembled from memory, which is itself selective in a narrative way. By the time you’re writing a story, you’re not dealing with the concrete world anymore. You’re making use of a facsimile of the concrete world, maybe, sort of, in order to conduct a meaning-making or meaning-disassembling exercise, whether you know it or not. The power is all in the telling. In life, the power was in the living.
By which I mean, I guess, psychological realism is no more analogous to lived life than any other mode of telling. It just seems that way to a certain kind of reader. Although I work largely in a “realist” mode, I’m not under the illusion that it is any more “real” than, say, the fable or the fairy tale or the zombie story. Every way of storymaking, every variety of narrative, has crossed the threshold to metaphor by time the first letter hits the page.
One obvious thing we haven’t talked about yet is faith—which is there in the title, and in every one of these stories. I want to lob that in here as a bomb and see what happens, but I’ll resist. Though one particular thing I am interested in, which comes up especially in “Glossolalia,” is the connection (if any) you see between faith and intimacy.
I think that religious faith can be a great destroyer of intimacy. It either drives apart people who can’t get on board with the same narrow idea of “faith,” or it creates a false sense of intimacy—you and me and Big G—which is just another kind of tribalism. We’re together in this because we know who is in and who is out, and look at us here, in together. If persecution comes, we know the bad guys from whom it’s been sent, and we’ll fight back-to-back, together, against the awful persecutors, and even if we lose, we know we’re on the side of right. That kind of thing binds armies of war together, too, but that doesn’t mean they don’t go around killing and burning villages, nor does it mean that the lives the members of the unit are living together are inherently good or noble lives.
It’s not just religious faith that causes problems like these. All kinds of abstractions do—political or economic ideologies, fidelities to nations or corporations, certain philosophies of childrearing. All of them, in one way or another, are capitulations of the individual to power, and if the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that power is rarely in the service of the individual, and power is rarely, really, in the service of society to the extent it ought to be. Power is in service of power, and sometimes it’s deployed humanely, and often it’s not. You think you’re serving Jesus, and you elect George W. Bush; or you think you’re serving the proletariat, and then you empower the author of the starvation of the Ukraine; or you follow Ayn Rand and think she was the smartest rightest nasty human being who ever lived, but then you lose your job and feel lucky there’s a social safety net so you don’t starve to death. Meanwhile, whatever happens, relationships are driven apart over these abstractions, and fortunes rise and fall over these abstractions, and people go to war or disown their children over these abstractions, and everyone who thinks facts are equated with Capital-T Truth feels justified. Well, nobody is justified. There’s no one to justify us.
But the author of the story labors under a weak, indefensible variety of faith, too: Maybe the story will save us. Maybe the reckoning will justify us. Maybe it’s all meaningless, but I refuse to believe that it is all meaningless. It’s all we’ve had. It means and means. Here, look what I made for you.