“A Profanation of the Facts”: An Interview with Kyle Coma-Thompson

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I recently read The Lucky Body, the debut collection of short fiction by Kyle Coma-Thompson. It begins with the title story, in which a horrific episode of violence is described in increasingly detached terms; from there, it moves through musings on history and ominous political strains, essay-like observations on culture, and some images that delve deeply into the surreal. I reached out to Coma-Thompson via email to learn more about the collection’s origins and organization, and to see what’s in store for the future.

Eastern Europe plays a large part in several of these stories. What attracts you to it as a setting? Given that more than one blurb on the back of the book alludes to writers from that part of the world, I’m also curious about whether the literary legacy of a setting affects the shape of a story that you’ve set there.

I’d say Eastern Europe was on my mind while I was writing these stories because three of my closest friends, whom I see regularly, emigrated from there, two from Bosnia, one from Romania. One of the Bosnians and the Romanian are professors of history, the other Bosnian is a poet. The poet was, in fact, the person who first suggested to me that I try writing stories. The reason? He hates my poems. If you’re ever wanting for a direct assessment of your talents, ask a Bosnian. They’ll put a swift end to any illusions you might be having.

So when these friends and I get together, we drink. When we drink, we tell stories. The benefit of telling stories with a historian in the room is that you can often count on getting the long view of certain events and details.

That said, I’ve gravitated towards the literature of Eastern Europe long before I fell into writing fiction. Miroslav Holub, Zbigniew Herbert, and Celan were some of the first poets whose writing was consistently engaging to me; the same for Bruno Schulz, Ivo Andrić, and Danilo Kiš, with fiction. Something about the formalist approach to socio-political subject matter had a solid, resonant appeal to me; and this, I think, is a general trait of Eastern European literature, or at least a trait common among those writers who have been translated into English and perhaps packaged that way, to feed into an aura of presumed cultural relevance during the Cold War period.

No bullshit in a sharp, exacting style, with flair. I supposed that’s what appealed to me.

“Spring in Zurveyta” has its roots in recent history. What are the challenges when borrowing from life, especially in a work as politically charged as this one?

A profanation of the facts from which a certain kind of story is built. Of course, that’s required to a certain degree so that the story can claim its own autonomy and momentum. But when the origins of a story are based on accounts of actual events, and those events entail the systematic erasure of other, actual people’s lives and well-being, it’s incumbent upon the writer, I think, to record the bite of that profanation in the work itself. To write the failure and the cruelty of his/her voyeurism into the work, at the very point where it’s inseparable from empathetic concern for those people and events depicted.

Where, for you, does the line between a story and an essay sit? I feel like “One for the Short Tooth” or “Snows From the Deep” could just as easily have been presented as nonfiction, though they certainly doesn’t feel out of place beside the rest of the collection. 

The line between the two is drawn wherever you choose to draw it. More interesting, though, if you abstain from drawing a line and let fiction and nonfiction blend, as they almost naturally do, according to the whims and needs of any given piece of writing.

Genres are mostly beneficial as framing devices, don’t you think, for whatever you choose to place in their frame of reference. So nonfiction represents and presents certain expectations and conventions. Place a mostly fictional piece of writing in that frame, call it a personal essay, and suddenly those fictional elements become subversions and distortions of some promised measure of truthfulness or facticity.

Presenting non-fiction pieces within a fictional frame might be an even subtler subversion. That was my thinking at least, when I included those pieces as stories.

“A Thing About Mouths” has a deeply unsettling image at its center. Where did the idea for this come from?

I’d tell you if I knew. It came from the first sentence. And where that first sentence came from, I can’t recall. I wrote it in a cubicle at my office job at the time. The company had been in a state of rapidly evolving necrosis over the period of a few years; people were getting let go on a regular basis. The people they did keep were overworked and under-compensated. Eventually everyone in that branch office was laid off. You could say the story is an allegorical representation of how that kind of environment can shape a person: a day-to-day proximity to one’s own diminishing prospects.

How did the structure of The Lucky Body come about? How did you settle on the title story becoming the title story?

Since many of the stories are either directly or tangentially concerned with embodiment, the title seemed a natural choice. As for the structure, it came together quickly enough. There were a number of shorter, denser, non-linear pieces I wanted to incorporate, so the longer stories fit nicely before and after them–to set a tripartite balance to the thing.

Your novel Qua is due out next year; do you feel as though any of the stories in The Lucky Body anticipate it?

All of them do, really, since I had to write the stories in order to make my way towards writing the novel. I could riff here on specific stories and how they set me off in the direction of something longer, but honestly, this would be something a reviewer would be able to articulate with more precision that I would. Once I’m done with a book, it’s pretty much out of sight and mind for me; but there’s this dispensation and loose array of approaches that are left behind, or retained, and from those the next thing I write tends to triangulate its way to the surface, sentence by sentence. So I suppose that’s just a long way of saying: I don’t know, next year the book comes out, you’ll have to tell me.

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