Haunted Histories and Mysterious Islands: Kirsten Bakis on the Origin of “King Nyx”

Kirsten Bakis

I’ve long been on record as an admirer of Kirsten Bakis’s first novel, the haunting Lives of the Monster Dogs. I’ve also long wondered what Bakis would do for an encore, and this year brings an answer with the release of her second novel King Nyx. In this tale, set a century ago, Bakis draws on the lives of Anna and Charles Fort, as Anna recounts a time when the couple was summoned to a mysterious estate in upstate New York. What does this have to do with the bespoke deity of Anna’s youth? Well, you’ll have to read that to find out — but rest assured that the resulting novel is a fascinating story abounding with mysteries, class conflict, and more than a little literary history. I caught up with Bakis to learn more about the book’s genesis.

There are so many fascinating details in King Nyx, from the secret history of Anna and Charles Fort to the mysticism surrounding the title character to the mysteries of its isolated setting. Were any one of these things the starting point for the book?

I had been interested in the island setting for years. I actually have a few drafts of other novels set on that island, some of which I hope to revisit at some point. 

I think it was partly influenced by a short novel I read when I was a teenager called Flying to Nowhere by John Fuller, although my fascination with that novel might have grown from something deeper that I can’t identify. 

Anyway, it’s a mystery set on an island, where the questions never really get answered, and everything sort of falls apart at the end, and I feel that in some way, everything I’ve ever written is an attempt to recapture the feeling reading that book gave me at fifteen. 

I’ve actually been afraid to reread it as an adult in case I don’t like it as much as I did. There’s a line in King Nyx about Anna, the main character, not wanting to show her friend the toy bird she calls King Nyx because it has a mystical power for her, and she’s afraid that to anyone else it will just look like a dented second-hand toy, and that will cause her to see it that way, too. That’s kind of how I feel about Flying to Nowhere

Although I actually looked it up just now and saw that it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1983, so it probably holds up better than a dented wind-up toy.

The real starting point for the book, though, was when I was reading a biography of Charles Fort by Jim Steinmeyer, and found a remark made by Theodore Dreiser—who was a great friend and supporter of Charles—about Charles’s wife, Anna. 

Dreiser described having dinner with the couple in 1909, a meal for which Anna did all the work in terms of cleaning, preparation, serving, and even carrying the dinner conversation when Charles was tongue-tied. And the impression Dreiser somehow came away with was that Anna was just a chatterbox, incapable of thought, unlike her silent, thoughtful genius of a  husband. That’s what made me want to write about her specifically. 

Where did your interest in Charles Fort come from? (I’ll confess that, before reading your book, I’d always assumed that he was British for some reason…)

He did live in London for a while in the 1920s and did a lot of research at the British Library, so that makes sense. I think he might have been a bit of an Anglophile. 

I’m not sure where my interest in him came from originally. I first heard about him years ago, and was fascinated by his habit of collecting reports of unexplained events throughout history—particularly weather anomalies—and trying to make an unconventional kind of sense of them. 

His writing has an appealing, almost poetic quality at times. But to me his work doesn’t really add up to anything in the end. There’s a jokey quality to it, as if he’s holding something back, not quite confessing what he really believes or cares about, that ultimately makes it kind of unsatisfying. 

So that’s another reason I was interested in writing about Anna—about what it might have felt like for her to give up her own dreams and her own agency in order to love and support someone who was known as a kind of a crackpot. 

Both Charles Fort and Theodore Dreiser are characters in King Nyx, though I’d say that one fares somewhat better than the other. Did you revisit either of their work in preparation for writing this?

I did revisit both, but spent more time with their biographies than with their writing. (The best one of Dreiser, I think, is still Swanberg’s from 1965). I am sorry to confess that I just hate Dreiser’s writing. I find him almost unreadable. I don’t think either he or Fort are satisfying writers when you get down to it. 

I do feel affection for Charles on a personal level. He had a difficult childhood—his father was really physically abusive—and he was a neurodivergent (I suspect) kid who just really wanted to be a writer. I think he and Anna genuinely loved each other. 

But there’s no getting around the fact that as a writer, Charles basically was a crackpot. Yet Anna had less of a chance of ever succeeding in a career of her own than she did by hitching her fortunes to his. That is a tragedy. That was what interested me.

Dreiser being proclaimed as a truth-teller in his time, and particularly a truth-teller about women, when he had basically no regard for, for instance, the mind of the protagonist of Sister Carrie, is also a tragedy. 

An autobiography of one of the many women Dreiser had affairs with, Clara Jaeger, who worked as his secretary/editor in the early 1930s, tells how she worked to streamline and clarify his sentences. But when she wrote a novel of her own, and it was quickly accepted for publication, Dreiser discouraged her from taking the offer, telling her it wasn’t good enough and that she should work harder on it and send it out again. She wrote in her autobiography that she was disappointed but that she was sure he knew what he was talking about. She never wound up publishing it. This story is heartbreaking to me because it’s so familiar. What if she was a better writer than he was—or could have been, if she’d had the same shot at the “genius” label that he did?

To me, King Nyx is very much not about Theodore Dreiser or Charles Fort. They’ve already had years in the spotlight. This time, in this book, the story is not about them.

In this story, for once, they’re incidental. 

What it’s about instead is what happens in a world where people like Dreiser and Fort are encouraged and supported, and the women around them do a lot of the encouraging and supporting, but are themselves often discouraged—even considered incapable of actual thought, as Dreiser wrote about Anna Fort. 

What options do women have in a world like that, and what do they choose to do with those options? What does living in this context do to their relationship with their own inner sense of truth, of themselves as reliable witnesses or reliable narrators of their own life? 

What do they wind up not seeing—the way Anna, for years, is not able to see the real source of the blood that fell on her? 

King Nyx is not a story about women always making perfect, or saintly, or even forgivable choices in those circumstances. It’s just about what they have to work with, and the different things that different people choose to do. That’s what I was interested in.

How much of Anna Fort’s life has been documented?

So little! Almost nothing is known about her. She did seem to have once worked for Charles’s extended family as a domestic, and later in life she had a couple of pet parrots, but not the excessive number of monk parakeets she has in the novel. Since there wasn’t much to work with, I freely imagined a life and a set of adventures for her.

Quarantine plays a big role in the story of King Nyx, which brought the pandemic to mind. Did you begin this during the pandemic, or did you start work on it beforehand?

I did start it during the pandemic! Living through that made me think back to stories my grandmother told about the influenza pandemic of 1918. For example, how one of her high school classmates was fine in the morning, started coughing in the afternoon, and was dead by night. It must have been terrifying. 

Anna’s belief system around the deity who gives the book its title suffuses the narrative in fascinating ways. What led you to introduce this element of syncretism into the plot?

I’ve always been interested in people’s personal religious beliefs and experiences. I suspect most people actually have fascinating patchworks of belief that don’t fall into neat categories. We all have personal experiences we identify as mystical or related to God or to the spirit—or we don’t, and we draw conclusions from the fact that we don’t. Or we do, but we discount that experience and that shapes our beliefs. But it’s all very personal. 

I was trying to explore the fictional Anna’s personal belief system, and how it centered on her vision of this toy bird, King Nyx, who she vividly imagined speaking in the voice of an adult, standing in for her mother who wasn’t there for her anymore. 

I was interested in how she channeled and cultivated that inner voice when she was a child and it helped her, but when she got older and went to work in the Fort household, she began to discount it, because it started telling her things she didn’t want to hear. Things that were at odds with her need to stay in that household, to remain part of that system, where the elder Mr. Fort’s word was law. 

To her, the Fort household was a place of order and predictability that she craved, but it was also an abusive system, headed by a tyrant, where anyone who contradicted Mr. Fort suffered grave consequences. As a young woman, she chose the perceived security of remaining in that system over listening to her inner voice, represented by King Nyx, which was trying to warn her that something was wrong. 

To me, there’s something deeply fascinating about the relationship between our own individual perception of truth, of the divine, and what trying to live among other people encourages us to believe. Those things are often at odds. How do you stay true to your own belief system and also manage to live in the world? 

Horace Liveright is mentioned several times in this book, and it’s now being released on the press named for him. Is that serendipity, or something more?

When I was writing the book, I didn’t know there was a Liveright Publishing Company still in existence! I was floored when I heard they wanted to buy it. It was one of those things that definitely felt like serendipity. They’re fantastic and I feel very fortunate to be with them.

Do you see this novel as having any themes in common with Lives of the Monster Dogs? (Besides the obvious choice of “strange things afoot in upstate New York.”)

That’s a good question! I wrote Monster Dogs so long ago that it feels like another lifetime, but of course it must have a lot in common with King Nyx. I would say there’s a gothic feel to both of them, and an exploration of how we find or make meaning. In Monster Dogs, Augustus Rank had a relationship with a mystical personification of Fate, the dogs had a relationship with the dead Augustus,  and in the end they all suffered from some kind of spiritual sickness that caused their human-like personalities to disintegrate. I think in those ways, it explores themes similar to King Nyx—the strange ways in which we cobble together relationships with the divine and try to make sense of our lives.


Photo: Charlotte Van Fossen

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