This month sees the release of The Pain Eater, the new novel from Kyle Muntz. It’s a book about the ways in which two brothers deal with their shared grief. It’s also a novel in which a bizarre creature emerges from the corpse of a deceased cat. Muntz’s writing has ventured into other disciplines as well, including a video game titled The Pale City. What led to the creation of the pain eater and The Pain Eater? Read on and find out.
You published several books before getting your MFA at Notre Dame. This new book, The Pain Eater, is your first since. How did your MFA change you and your writing?
It was a complete 180, though at the time I never imagined how big the change would be! Before applying to Notre Dame, I was mainly writing stylized “experimental” fiction, and I’d picked Notre Dame because I knew the program was receptive to that kind of work. But actually, two years of reading all those beautiful, polished sentences and shadowy, fragmented narratives also kind of numbed me towards them forever. After all that, the simple act of just telling a story about real human beings seemed miraculous, and it’s what I’ve been interested in ever since. During the program, I had already gone all-in on my love of genres like fantasy, science fiction, and horror, where you’ve got the writer just hurling all this fun stuff at the reader (which ended up causing difficulty with the faculty member I’d hoped to work with). But afterwards, I also gained a huge appreciation for character-driven realism, particularly writers like Anne Tyler, Larry McMurtry, and Alice Munro. The Pain Eater was my attempt to combine both of these strains into one book… though it took me a while to get around to it, since I’d somehow gotten the crazy idea to make a video game!
Tell me more about your work on the game, The Pale City. Developing a game and writing a novel are both involved undertakings. Though they might seem similar to the uninitiated, I’m sure they aren’t. But tell us how they’re different and how they’re similar.
Mostly, I had no idea how much work it would be! I’d meant The Pale City to be a kind of interactive, full-length dark fantasy novel where you’re also walking around and exploring this brutal, extremely alien fantasy world. The script is about 80,000 words long, and it went through all the same writing/revision process as a novel… except that was about 5, maybe 10 percent the work—and it was the only part I had any experience with. The rest just stretched on for years and years: designing environments, a combat and item system, hunting through the public domain for music, learning how to use photoshop, and then endlessly checking bugs. Even stuff like making menus and text boxes work required me to learn skills I’d never considered before.
You mentioned the game was influenced by your background in writing novels. Did it end up changing your writing at all?
Definitely. Before, writing was always very formless for me. So much of it was just words and images and associations; I’d frequently been told I approached storytelling more like I was writing poetry. Scary People, my previous novel, was kind of a mid-point, because despite being written in a very clear, minimalistic style, it definitely held together with its own logic rather than traditional narrative. But with the game, I constantly had to consider: do I know exactly what all of these characters want? What specific environment is this scene happening in it, and how is that important? How can I connect this moment of storytelling to gameplay? And then—most importantly—if I want to make something happen, do I have the programming or art skills to build it? These were very concrete questions, and I think they really helped me a lot as a writer… though I’m not likely to make another game any time soon, unless I found a team to work with me.
You teach fiction writing at a university in China, and you’ve been based there for several years at this point, right? What has that been like?
Living abroad continues to chip away at any simple conclusions I might have made about life, including a lot of popular ideas that seemed like common sense in the US. But it’s also made my ideas about storytelling more tangible. I’m constantly asking: what skills are most teachable? How can I explain what these sentences are really doing? A single short story can be an immense challenge even to an advanced second-language student, and a lot of things that are obvious to native speakers just… aren’t. But I was shocked, when I really began to look, how much is packed in even a single page of good writing. In grad school we would blow through whole books in two hours of discussion, but I honestly feel we’re better spending all that time just on just a few pages, and that you learn more from looking at specific examples in the text rather than making impressive-sounding generalizations and comparisons afterwards. Conveying all this is a constant challenge to speak clearly and precisely—which, I’ve realized, is also a lesson in thinking precisely. It helped me realize how formless and foggy much of the talk about writing had been in university, and the challenge of articulating all this in straightforward language is probably still teaching me more than the MFA did.
Let’s talk about your new book. The Pain Eater starts in a realistic vein, and it goes into a lot of detail about life in a small town in the 2000s. But you were in China when you wrote it?
China influenced The Pain Eater in a bunch of small, funny ways, though most of them are invisible from inside the book. It starts as a deep-dive into some very mundane, completely unglamorous family drama. It’s even set in my home town, which I have a very complicated relationship with, and spent most of my young life wanting to escape. (At Notre Dame, it was often a conversation-ender to admit I was a “local”.) But when I was writing the book, I hadn’t eaten a hamburger in years, was speaking mainly Chinese outside work, and—for various personal reasons—had completely stopped using my social media accounts. I’d lost contact with nearly everyone back home, both friends and family, and that distance seemed to have swallowed my upbringing and the person I used to be. Essentially, America felt like a foreign country. But at the same time, I was shocked how cathartic, almost revelatory it felt to “go back home” in my imagination.
The story definitely isn’t autobiographical, particularly as it doesn’t draw from the Korean American side of my family. But it also includes a lot of the once-familiar things (some tangible, others not) that I used art to escape when I was an angry teenager. After this book, I’ve become a bit fixated on how the actual texture of real life is just missing from most novels—dumb things like getting mad at a family member because they’ve failed, yet again, to take out the trash, or because they keep reminding you of something you already planned to do. Even over the last few months, I’ve really enjoyed how Karl Ove Knausgaard builds a whole epic out of this stuff in My Struggle. The Pain Eater definitely doesn’t go that far, but I do think it’s cool to include some of this everyday texture in a horror novel—even if it takes a bit longer for the monster to pop out.
Would you say living in China actually influenced the content of the novel?
There was definitely a lot of influence, though I didn’t realize most of it until recently. Family life is a huge topic in China, especially relationships between parents and children. For six years now, it’s been the thing my students write about most often—plus it’s one of the safest, most politically neutral topics to discuss publicly. So I think living here has made me think constantly about family, whereas I feel a lot American writers (especially ones my age) completely erase family from their fiction, or portray these basic human bonds we grow up only in very negative, simplified ways, usually as something to be transcended or escaped. A lot of stories don’t even start until a character has completely cut themselves off from their everyday routine or their background—often in unconvincing ways—but this turned into a book where the characters barely even leave their house, which I suspect is pretty unusual in stories but fairly common in real life.
The slice of life you depict early in the novel is very relatable, though not without conflict. But the core conceit of the book, the pain eater, is supernatural. What are you going for here? Trying to center the reader realistically, to make the unreal seem more real?
That sounds about right! I had Murakami in mind when I started, since I’ve always been obsessed with his blend of mundaneness and surrealism, though (for better or worse) rather than the isolated, subdued calm in Murakami, the characters in this book spend most of their time getting quietly frustrated with each other or feeling dumb about something they’ve said. Nathan Ballingrud was a more specific influence, since I was fixated on the very delicate balance between realism and horror he hit in North American Lake Monsters. The stories in that collection don’t even need the supernatural stuff, but then the unreal just breaks through. And whether it’s a variation on a trope or some kind of weird, David Lynch moment, for me, the genre elements seem more powerful—almost new again—when they shatter that strong foundation of realism.
On the other hand, I often find myself a little let down by the end of realist novels, since so many are just hundreds of pages building up to an argument or an affair or somebody quitting their job, and the nerd in me misses something actually cool happening. So I enjoyed making this subdued, realistic novel while also layering supernatural elements, and then letting them explode. That’s maybe a weird combination, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response so far. I’m really grateful to Clash for believing in the book, and I hope people enjoy it when it comes out!
Kyle Muntz is the author of “The Pain Eater” (Clash Books, 2022) and “Scary People” (Eraserhead Press, 2015). In 2016, he received an MFA in fiction from the University of Notre Dame, as well as the Sparks Prize for short fiction.