On March 11th, Jason Diamond and Kyle Minor spoke at Community Bookstore. Topics ranged from Minor’s new book Praying Drunk to religion to the internet’s effect on the writing community. What follows is the first part of their conversation; the second part will follow tomorrow.
When I talk with a lot of authors, I hear a lot of them say, “There are true stories in my fiction.” When I was reading some of the stories in Praying Drunk, I felt that there were a lot of stories from your life.
A couple of stories from the book were originally published as essays. I’ve come to think of the book as a kind of salvage project. It’s like a junkyard filled with a bunch of other failed books: there are failed memoirs in there, failed essays; there’s a robot story. I never thought of them as a book. But I was talking with another writer, Matt Bell, who’s a friend of mine–he said that when he was putting together his novella Cataclysm Baby, he put together all of the pages that he had, and he filled the floor with them and started to figure out how they were talking to one another.
I thought, I should try that with these things and see. It was amazing, what I saw. It was a map of all my sadnesses and preoccupations over about a ten-year period. I started to see that the stories and the essays and the memoirs–whatever those things were–they were all versions of one another. At the same time, I was thinking about these traveling preachers who used to come to the Baptist church, when I was a little kid. They would scare you to death. They would play Beatles records backwards. They played “Tomorrow Never Knows” backwards, and it said, “He is the nasty one; Christ, you’re infernal.” And that’s because there were demons living in it. And they said that if you went to see the movie Gremlins, you’d wake up in the middle of the night and the demons might be clawing your skin out. There were all sorts of children throughout the South, reportedly, who had claw marks on their arms. I was worried about my arms. And then they said that if the sky turned red just before dusk, that Christ would be arriving on a white horse, this time on a sword, and the graves would pop open and corpses would come out. And it would take a while for them to turn into beautiful resurrected people, so at first they’d just be corpses with swords.
Then they showed us these movies. They said, “If you have unconfessed, unforgiven sin in your heart, you won’t get to join the corpses in the sky; you have to be left behind for seven years.” And then they’d show movies about it. They always had kind of a hippie soundtrack, these movies. There’d always be, at the end, a woman running from the local sheriff and a U.N. helicopter through the mountains. She was running because she knew that, if she was captured, they’d put her under the guillotine. I remember this one movie, we saw it on New Year’s Eve… I’m not making this up!
I don’t want to laugh at you, but: as a Jew, “The messiah’s coming and you’re all going to be able to study Torah.” That sounds…boring.
I’m with you! We’ll have something to talk about with that, too. But anyway: I remember this one movie ended like this. The U.N. helicopters, and the Antichrist, who was invariably from Romania or Bulgaria, and the false prophet… There was some Jewish stuff, too.
Yeah, of course.
Because that’s how it is.
Well, Eastern Europe…
But also, the Book of Revelations… Well, if you want to talk about this–we were told that we, the true Christians, were the real Jews, because we were the completed Jews. There was a man called Rabbi Ira who would come to our school with a felt board and a picture of a tree, and he would show us how the Jews that we knew had fallen off, as a branch, and we the previously Gentile Christians were the new branch grafted onto the Jewish tree. It makes me mad, when I think about it.
It doesn’t make me mad, but there are some guys on Flatbush Avenue who would definitely disagree with you on that.
I’m not going to say it wasn’t crazy. But I want to tell you about the end of this movie: this fifteen-year-old girl ended up under the guillotine. And the blade fell. And it freeze-framed about this far from her neck. And she was screaming, and they didn’t stop the screaming. And the screaming went on for ninety seconds. And the lights went black for another ninety seconds, and the preacher stood up and said, “If you walked out the front door today, and a dump truck hit you, would you spend eternity with the Lord, or in the pit of hell?” Sometimes it was “the lake of fire.” It kind of depended on the preacher. I was scared, man. I was scared of that stuff.
After that came the Great White Throne Judgement. And this was in a facility that was the size of the world, but probably larger. Well, I don’t know about the oceans. All of the people who had ever been alive… My agent is sitting in the front row. I don’t think she’s going to work with me anymore!… All of the people who had ever lived in the history of the world would come to this thing, and they would have the biggest film projector ever made. Although it was a 16mm film projector. And they had 70mm anamorphic technology at the time, like for Apocalypse Now, but… I guess it was a low-rent church. And they’d show everything that you ever did; even all your thoughts would be projected somehow. And everyone would see it, and God would judge it, and he would divide the sheep from the goats. Up until now all the talk was literal. This was the first metaphor. You wouldn’t actually turn into a sheep or a goat. The sheep were the good people, and the goats were the people that were going to Hell. Like in the Cake song. And if you went to Heaven after that, you’d have to spend all your life singing the same shitty songs that you used to sing all the time in church. Forever. And you’d get a crown for every one of your good deeds, but you had to immediately throw it back at the throne; you didn’t even get to keep them.
So I got to thinking about that, when I was doing my Matt Bell project, laying out all of the papers on the ground. And I thought, Well, that’d be terrible, because I don’t like any of the people I’d be with in eternity, first of all. And second of all, everything good in life is attached to trouble. So I figured I would just end up in some back alley of Heaven next to Joyce Carol Oates, and we’d just be grinding away at the same preoccupations forever, story after story, essay after essay, failing and failing to answer the question “What was all that?” to our satisfaction… And that’s when I knew I had a book. It’s that.
Maybe I’ve been doing the wrong religion all these years. When you’re writing about religion–which, for most of the book, you are; there are a lot of Jesus people in this book. I don’t want to say that there’s a lot of Jesus in this book. Were you sort of exorcising something from your past, any experiences…
Yeah. I don’t think I was a good enough writer, or far enough along, to be operating out of anything other than the preoccupations that I’ve had. I always wished that I had other, different preoccupations. I wish that the preoccupation I had were really lucrative ones, like I was preoccupied with stockbrokers on Wall Street who commuted over from Greenpoint and had really attractive girlfriends, or something. And then Martin Scorsese could make a movie about it.
But I was stuck with what I had. And i hadn’t learned yet how to make a bridge from the personal preoccupations to a more public project. That was a very difficult thing. The other problem was that I came from a people that had pretty much zero literary and intellectual tradition, other than what was borrowed from the Jews or the King James Bible, that five-century-old thing. My way out was writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, and Cynthia Ozick, because there was enough of a shared common ground, because of my religious education, but they were doing something with it.
What fundamentalist Christianity does is it teaches you to reduce everything to a pre-approved answer. And what literature does is, it asks you to complicate and abstract everything as much as possible. To not be satisfied with the story that you’ve received or that you’re supposed to be telling yourself about how the world is, but to replace that with a story that’s more true, and probably more difficult, that experience has revealed. And so, it was like that.
You mentioned Matt Bell, and and I think of you guys–with 120% due respect–as writers who have a tendency to talk about things you’re reading and process and things you’re experiencing as a writer on social media. Since you brought up Matt, I was wondering: how does that impact you as a writer?
Well, Matt’s a good friend. In fact, a little while ago, we got in trouble for being friends on the internet.
I remember that.
I took it as a badge of honor, because I admire him a lot. I think, when I went to graduate school, the internet wasn’t really an ascendant thing at all. (The first time I went to graduate school.) And so you’re kind of in a situation where you’re in a tunnel or something, and the voices that mean the most are your teachers. But your teachers are of a certain generation, and they’re limited by their predispositions towards…whatever. And so, when I graduated and started to be involved with other writers on the internet, it was sort of a first step towards something I had always wanted, which was chasing the kind of freedom I had sought in literature.
If you read broadly, you see that literature’s about almost anything. I really appreciate what Zadie Smith said about this. Literature is a big tent; there’s a lot of room under the big top for all kinds of circus acts. And things under the bleachers, too, or whatever. That conversation helped me to forge my own identity as a writer that was singular and separate from whatever had been given to me in school. I only saw it as a positive, always.
One other thing, too. At that time as well, it seemed like New York was the center of the world when it came to everything. What the internet did was, it gave writers like me, who were doing something a little bit different, the ability to engage with readers and to build an audience outside of any sort of support structure that had to externally validate me. That was also a very good thing. Probably some people in the room today are here because of that conversation.
I’m always asked about Brooklyn writers, or New York writers, and I have to say, “I think writers outside of New York are the most fascinating. They want to share, and they want to talk about these things.” You’re usually the first example that pops into my head.
Well, I’d love to move here, so…
You say that now, but then, when you spend twenty dollars every time you walk outside… One of the things that strikes you the moment you open the book–well, it’s two pages in. You break the fourth wall by prompting the reader not to skip around. And you talk about how the stories were–I forget the terminology–a graveyard, or a used auto parts… Whatever it was–
I like the used auto parts.
It’s the Midwesterner in me, always going back to cars. Was it a big, elaborate plan? These stories and essays were placed in places, but you have–
Do you mean, was it a plan on the front end, like I schemed ten years ago…
I wish I was that smart.
Did the stories come first, and then the idea to bring them together, or…
Yeah; the book came last. It came through the rite of spreading the stuff out. Also, I’ve had this novel I’ve been working on for seven years, and I just can’t let it go. Everybody’s angry with me about it. But I didn’t want to let it go until it was right. And I was also aware that the best writing that I’ve ever done, outside of that, was sitting uncollected. It had been a while since my first book, and people were asking me about it, and I wanted people to read those stories. So, it was an organic process.
Now, after it happened, I got real picky about it. I’ll show you the page that Jason is talking about. I put in this note to the reader: “These stories are meant to be read in order. This is a book, not just a collection. Don’t skip around.” Of course, every mean reviewer, that’s the first thing they complain about. Which is fine, because it is a provocation. But the reason is because, as the stories started to be in conversation, they started to fall into a structure. The stories in the second part are kind of sequels to stories in the first part. There’s a story in the middle that’s kind of a hinge that all of the other stories fall into. The last words of the book, in the last story, stand in not only for that story, but for the whole book. The story begins with a piece called, “The Question of Where We Begin” that’s an interrogation of beginnings. And there’s a design that’s built into it where some of the book’s secrets begin to unfold, at a regulated rate.
I did want to say to the reader, “Read it like that.” But I also felt that, if a reader didn’t want to, maybe it would produce a little of that white heat: “I’ll show you! I’m going to read it out of order!” And they’ll read it anyway, and I felt good about that, too. Ben Marcus has apparently been going to readings saying, “I’m reading this book, but I’m reading it out of order.” I’m glad he’s reading it at all.
I had to re-read it for note-taking purposes, and I totally skipped around, like, “I’m mocking you, Kyle Minor!”
The last vestige of my fundamentalism has manifested itself in my author’s note.
(The second part of this interview can be read here.)