The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense, Tim Kinsella‘s 2012 debut novel, impressed for a number of reasons. Its evocation of daily rhythms and of lives grappling with trauma and flawed histories made it a thoroughly compelling read. And for those who largely know Kinsella through the music he’s made since the 1990s, it was also a declaration that his talents weren’t solely confined to one artistic discipline. Let Go and Go On and On, his followup, takes a very different approach. It’s inspired by the all-too-short life of the actress and photographer Laurie Bird; in it, Kinsella tells a story in which Bird’s life blurs together with the roles she played in films like Two-Lane Blacktop and Annie Hall. It’s a haunting work, one in which connections from life and connections suggested by life create a kind of countercultural mythology. I reached out to Kinsella via email in advance of his reading next month at WORD to learn more about the process of writing the novel, his inspiration, and more.
Where did you first encounter Laurie Bird’s films? When did you first realize that you wanted to write about her life?
I used to work at an underground / weirdo / art film / specialty video store in the late-90’s and we all flipped out over Two-Lane Blacktop then. I’d re-watch it every year and see new things in it every time. Then in 2005 I was watching it and suddenly Laurie Bird was incredibly mysterious to me and when I googled her and realized there was basically nothing known about her, my curiosity only increased. I remember making the joke – ‘well we know that she ends up traveling around with Warren Oates before she marries Harry Dean Stanton and then somehow ends up with Paul Simon.’ And from that joke the book was born. This was before I ever tried making any films in collaboration with my ex-wife and the first draft of this was the first version of a screen play that we wanted to shoot. Of course it would be impossibly expensive to produce with all the different eras and settings, so we set it aside and I began tilting it into a novel years later – after it had even had a brief life as a libretto!
Your novel incorporates elements from Two-Lane Blacktop, and there’s also a very different riff on the same film in Matthew Specktor’s recent American Dream Machine. What do you think makes this film so compelling for novelists?
I know for myself, the film is so powerful because of how quiet and slow it is. Every little gesture has the space to really sink in and seem heavy. That’s why it’s a frustrating experience for some viewers and totally absorbing to others – the viewer has to fill in and piece together all these implications. It’s almost like a rorschach or an existential questionnaire of some kind and I guess Mr. Specktor and myself took the bait. But it also represents the introduction of a specific cultural moment–the lingering of the hippy lifestyle after the death of the hippy optimism. Personally I’m still a little bit working through that myself.
Given that Two-Lane Blacktop was written by Rudolph Wurlitzer, and Cockfighter is an adaptation of a Charles Willeford novel. Did you find that that added an extra layer to what you were doing with Let Go and Go On and On?
Yeah for sure and I definitely incorporated phrases directly and twisted them around sometimes. But I wanted to be sure that someone could become absorbed in the book without having to catch all these references. And I even cut back on the references quite a bit. That stuff was fun, but could become overbearing if not applied with restraint. I also liked paying tribute to all these people, their work and struggles through heavy themes – not necessarily attempting to expand or update as much as acknowledge that under all the layers of new shit that’s fucked, a lot of the same old shit is still fucked. I really could’ve used the Old Testament for that.
After writing a more realistic novel in The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense, what led you to the more experimental structure that you use here?
You know I am just not good or interested in Plot. I love plot in things I engage with, but as a creator of things, I feel like a phony anytime I try to make some Plot. Karaoke was very much a puzzle in terms of plot and the challenge was to string the suspense across the puzzle-structure so that the plot became background. I wanted more freedom this time to just observe and wonder and I didn’t have it in me to set up that whole complex of a device again, so this structure freed me from having to think about plot. Points A and B were determined and all I had to do was trek from one to the other. That said, I’m stuck for a year now on draft 3 of my third book–it’s 160,000 mess that I can’t carve my way through and it just plot-plot-plot-plots ahead and now I have to undo all of it to make it readable or human.
In your introduction, you talk about ignoring “proper sampling etiquette.” Was that something you knew you had to ignore from the outset?
No my approach to sampling shifted over and over as did the narrative tense. It went through a zillion versions before I struck what I thought was the appropriate angle. Eventually I had to make choices on a sentence-by-sentence context – no hard standards applied.
In terms of how Let Go… evolved, how does the final version differ from the first draft?
I guess the whole revision process was a constant back and forth re: how strict I would have to be with how I applied the formal constraints. It was really like I had to shake everything into place, but given the size of the thing – not that it’s big compared to a big book, but it’s a lot to hold in your head all at once compared to a song or a poem – so the shaking was so big and slow that it took about 8 years for everything to settle.
Have you been doing any more screenwriting in addition to your writing and music?
Nah. Zero. It’s not particularly satisfying for me as a creative thing in itself and I wouldn’t know how to go about doing it for money. I mean I’d be happy to do it if someone ever asked, but it’s not worth it to me to pursue in any way.
I don’t know if it’s too early to talk about it, but: how would you say the novel that’s currently in progress compares with the two before it?
I started off with the idea that I wanted to write the kind of novel that I loved as a 19-year-old. I wanted to write like a Kurt Vonnegut or Richard Brautigan style novel, one in which the narrator is a funny mope. The book itself is a history of the CIA and Oil and the Saudi-Texas connection told from the perspective of one of the sons of a political dynasty on the eve in 1989 of his father’s election. The family is never named and the narrator is basically The Dude from The Big Lebowski. I finished my last draft of it a whole year ago now and haven’t been able to crack it. Two times this year I’ve had weeks set aside to deal with it and both times I just couldn’t access it. So I dunno. I’m not fretting yet but it’s 160,000 words and a mess and I need to carve it into shape but I lost the original vision so I’m just not pressing it at the moment.