History as Phantasmagoria as Now: An Interview With Robert Kloss


The last time I talked with Robert Kloss, his novel The Revelator had just been released. A hallucinatory story of American history, religious fanaticism, and violence, this novel unsettled on a host of levels. This year brings with it a new edition of his earlier novel The Alligators of Abraham, along with an election that seemed to tap into many of Kloss’s preferred themes. With both in mind, I reached out for a couple of question on the new edition, Kloss’s thoughts on the current political moment, and more.

How did the new edition of The Alligators of Abraham come about? Had you been talking with Civil Coping Mechanisms for a while about it? And did you end up updating the text at all for this new edition?

It was a long, frustrating process, and honestly, it really put me off of publishing, small press publishing. Nothing seemed to go right, and every time it seemed like something was in place to bring it back, silence would follow. So I’m very grateful for Michael Seidlinger and CCM. Michael contacted me, let me know whenever I had the print rights back he would do the book, and he made it happen. He was open to whatever changes I wanted to make—to the cover, to the interior, the text, whatever—but in the end, I decided against touching the text. I’m such a different writer than I was then—I think I’m a better writer, and I’m certainly a much better editor, but even passages that clearly could be better or punctuation that doesn’t work was well as I probably thought it did, do feed into what the book is. And I worried that if I went back text, even tweaking the commas would break something that makes the book whatever it is. So I’m a better writer now, but I could never write a book like The Alligators of Abraham again. It was the right mixture of so many elements that I either no longer have or am no longer interested in, and so I’m happy to the book I wrote five years ago be the book that I promote today.

Both this novel and The Revelator deal with questions of intolerance, political influence, obsession, and violence — all of which are also present in our more modern discourse. Could you see yourself writing something more contemporary?

If something feels right, I could definitely see myself doing something more contemporary. In some ways my favorite parts of Alligators and The Woman Who Lived Amongst the Cannibals, my unpublished third novel, are the moments when the narrative enters the early parts of the 20th century and the characters are confronted with the future. And I love writing about aspects of the past that in some way foretell the future, our present, or our past—I love the strangeness of it and the confusion that it creates in time and place. And I think those moments are the moments most likely to reveal something like a Truth, if Truth exists. So if I ever wrote a more “contemporary” novel, it would have to retain those aspects of strangeness and confusion. Actually, I recently saw Lo and Behold, the Werner Herzog documentary about the Internet, and I’d love to write a book someday similar to that documentary. In general, I love Herzog’s documentaries, but there was something about how he approached the Internet, in that way he does, and made it feel so strange and new, that I would like to play with. So I’ve thought about writing something about technology in the 1960s, or whenever, when we were verging on what we now consider the modern. I would probably want to write it like Kubrick’s 2001 looks.

When you’re dealing with a historical period, do you generally go into that setting looking for aspects that will resonate with the present day, or is that something that usually emerges in the writing?

Everything emerges in the writing. The time period emerges in the writing. I never set out to write something in a particular time or place. And in a way I always think I’m writing about contemporary America, or contemporary people. I’m not a historian, or an anthropologist. I don’t think any amount of research or investigation could allow me to understand 19th century America from the perspective of 19th century Americans. I doubt I could even understand 1960s America from the perspective of 1960s Americans, you know? But I’m also concerned with Truths, if those exist, and timeless qualities. So when I wrote about the Civil War and Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, I wasn’t necessarily selecting aspects that resonated with our time, as much as they seemed to indicate timeless qualities of human nature, human concerns, human relationships. That those aspects continue to resonate suggests to me that they will continue to resonate.

Since revisiting The Alligators of Abraham, what have you found to be the most relevant aspects to our current political moment?

I probably would’ve had a totally different answer two weeks ago, but since Trump won, I think the most relevant aspects are found in the final parts of the book, the post-apocalyptic version of the present. I don’t know how much Trump was on my mind when I wrote the book—it was 2011, so I assume he was tweeting about President Obama at the time. But looking back, it is a little funny that the maniac who presides over the wasteland is a builder, someone who attempts to find immortality in building pyramids of dead alligators devoted to himself and his family. I don’t know why Trump builds—if there is anything deeper than vanity and greed and near-mindless repetition in what he does—but the parallel amused me.

There are a lot of little things, though. There are multiple characters who talk about “international bankers” directing world events, which is the kind of anti-Semitic language adopted by the Trump campaign, for instance, and soon I suppose it will be the kind of language adopted by the office of the President of the United States. I don’t know. The book is partly about what I feel are the worst impulses and aspects of our national identity, the places we came from as a country, and it’s frustrating to understand we are probably permanently tied to that identity.

On social media, you mentioned that you’d been thinking about self-publishing a new novel; is there any news on this?

Right now I’m waiting to hear back from one publisher in particular—if they don’t want to do the book then I’ll probably just do it myself. Life is short. I finished the The Woman Who Lived Amongst the Cannibals manuscript almost three years ago and I’d love to get it out there before the world ends. I’ve accepted that I’ll never work with a big publisher, and while there are a few medium sized publishers who put out great work, as someone now without an agent I’m probably never going to publish with them, either. So there’s this one publisher that does really cool books that I’m waiting on, and then I’ll see. No matter what, I need to find myself in a place where I’m free to write what I need to write, how I want to write it, without pressure to conform to the market or audience expectations. I refuse to find myself in a business relationship where the other side tries pressuring me to write differently. And I don’t know how many business relationships a writer should be in, anyway.

Plus, I’m really interested in working with my hands, in being involved with something real. I miss the old days when writing was also about making a little book, stapled together or tied with yarn or whatever, and getting it into my friends’ hands the next day. Part of me does like the idea of working on almost every aspect of publishing my own book. Part of me does like the challenge of learning about things like design. And part of me does think that a writer should get most of the money from the book they’ve written, not a 10 or 15 percent chunk. So there are these aspects of control, and what “authorship” really means, that I find very appealing about self-publishing.

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