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Oct/Nov 2005 Book Reviews

An Interview with Author, Teacher, And Zelda Lover Kirk Curnutt

by Elizabeth Glixman


There is surprise and range in this debut collection. Kirk Curnutt is not only talented, he is bold and resourceful. The pain which surfaces in these eleven stories is tempered by the  kind of playfulness and wry acceptance that most of us have come to trust in the face of life's hard knocks. Curnutt is a writer to watch. —Donald Anderson, author of Fire Road, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award.

Bellybuttons, for instance. I take credit, you know, for making the  midriff the accessory that no female between twelve and twenty leaves home unexposed. Bosoms are not good, though—they're dirty. They bring dirty things to mind. What I decided when I invented  Bethany was that I'd dress her in  a tight, collared T because a V-neck leads to décolletage, and plunging décolletage plunges you nowhere but into the dirty lowdown. (Wrinkles eyebrows, takes a deep breath) Those are the issues I had to grapple with, mind  you. Everyone thinks being the puppet master is easy. But it's not—not at all. Being the idolmaker's much  harder than  being the idol. —Tyson, Bethany Bardot's Manager, "The Story Behind the Story (Teenage Symphonies to  God)" from Baby, Let's Make A Baby.

Buy now from Amazon! Kirk Curnutt was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and moved to Midland, Michigan, where he lived until age sixteen when he left home to become an exchange student in the rural city of Jales, some five hundred miles northwest of Sao Paulo in Brazil. He received his undergraduate degrees in English and journalism from the University of Missouri in 1987 and a PhD in American literature from Louisiana State in 1993. His first story collection, Baby, Let's Make A Baby, was published by River City Publishing, Montgomery, Alabama, in 2003.

Curnutt chairs the English Department at Troy University in Montgomery, Alabama ("The birthplace of Zelda Fitzgerald, coincidentally," he said).  He teaches mainly 19th and 20th-century American literature.  He has an 18-year-old son named Kip who took the photograph for the cover of Baby, Let's Make A Baby as part of a high-school photography project.  Although not a Montgomery native, Curnutt says he remains fascinated by the city's conflicted historical legacy. (It claims to be the birthplace of both the Civil War and of the Civil Rights Movement). A single father since the age of 25, he now spends most of his time writing and teaching, volunteering as a church youth counselor, serving as a board member at the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, and trying desperately to learn his bass guitar lines in his newly formed band, the Shouting Stones ("Our motto: 'We're not as good as the Rolling Stones, but at least we're not as painful as kidney stones.'")

 

EG      The stories in Baby, Let's Make A Baby cover a wide range of  experiences. There are stories about a former teen pop star, a man on probation for DUI, a sniper in eastern Europe, a younger women married to an older man who wants a baby (in the title story), a doctor trying to contain a possible epidemic in Brazil, an estranged father on a camping trip with his son, and an EMT who finds bodies in the water and in trees after floods in low lying southern U.S. areas. Do you "write what you know"?

KC     In a very perverse way, I made it a point when I started compiling the collection to focus on people and experiences that lay outside the orbit of my knowledge.  Part of the reason was that it seemed more challenging to try to imagine experiences other than my own. I didn't think the experiences I had to write about were all that special. Whatever I've been through in life-professional setbacks, divorce, depression, etc.—there are many, many other people who've had it much worse, and it would just feel too self-absorbed for me to only use autobiographical material. It's perverse, however, because it's an absolutely un-commercial thing to do. Publishers currently view personal experience as more marketable than imagination.

"Write what you know" is also problematic to me for this reason. It invites too much narcissism and perhaps even solipsism because it says that all one needs to write is a uniquely personal story and a modicum of self-awareness to mine it. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, I prefer to think of literature as an escape from personality rather than a discovery of it, which is why I don't like fiction that presents its own autobiographical inspiration to an audience as the key criterion for its evaluation; it seems to diminish the aesthetic importance of technique and imagination.

EG     Don't you think there are books that use "autobiographical inspiration" and also succeed with technique and imagination?

KC      There are definitely autobiographical books that succeed—no doubt. And there is no fiction that's purely invented from imagination and technique; even in stories where I tried to imagine situations and people as different from myself as possible, there are still elements of me in them. What I'm talking about is when writers and audiences regard autobiography as the primary interpretive context. That to me is what seems limiting.

EG      It seems you have given yourself a specific challenge.

KC      Yes.  I wanted every story to be as different as possible not only in terms of plot and character, but setting, style, and tone, too. It was a very un-commercial thing to do, of course, because the market for short-story collections insists that stories have some obvious link to give books coherence. Baby still does have a certain thematic consistency, but I'm asking readers to infer it through the array rather than the repetition.

EG      Is this linking of short stories a new trend in the commercial market, in your opinion?

KC      It's been a trend for the past twenty-five years or so. Previously what was known as the "short-story cycle" or "short-story sequence" was kind of a mongrel genre, somewhere between the novel and the story collection. With the consolidation that the major publishers have undergone over the past quarter century, however, the story collection in its purest form—a miscellany—has begun to evaporate, simply because there's no hook for marketing. I couldn't have written this book without the freedom that comes from an independent publisher; an acquisitions editor would have said, "The stories don't congeal."

EG      "I wanted every story to be as different as possible not only in terms of plot and character, but setting, style, and tone, too." I think you succeeded.  Yet there are some unifying elements or themes.

Your character Oscar in "Etude and the Bell Tower" knows technically how a piano is constructed and maintained and about the music of Prokofiev. He is passionate about music.

Bethany Bardot the teen  pop singer, the protagonist in "The Story Behind the Story," could be in the The National Enquirer or Entertainment Tonight.  Her rise and fall is the stuff gossip columnists and paparazzi love.  And you are knowledgeable about the methods managers use to create and promote a pop star's image. Are you a music lover?

KC      I'm a failed musician, actually, although I've recently tried to redeem myself by playing bass guitar in a church band. Part of the reason so much of my writing involves music is that I like the challenge of trying to describe one medium of art through another. It's not easy to convey the sound of a Prokofiev sonata in words, but it's fun and, when you feel as if you've somewhat succeed, it's gratifying. I've recently tried to move away from music because I fear becoming repetitious; my next goal is to attempt a story about modern dance.

EG      What instruments do you play? Why do you consider yourself a failed musician?

KC      I've played guitar for about thirty years now, but never very well; I'm self-taught on the piano, but only remedially. I say "failed" musician simply because I was never confident enough until recently to play in public—I could do it well in my head, but not in reality.

EG      What is your involvement with modern  dance?

KC      As for dance, I've begun attending the ballet whenever I can and reading about the history of modern dance. I want to write a story that would explore that William Butler Yeats line, "How do we know the dancer from the dance?" I'm not sure what the plot will be yet, though.

EG      What made you want to write fiction?

KC     Writing was the only thing I was ever good at, honestly.

EG      I don't believe that. There must be something else you are good at.

KC     Well, okay. Anything with language I'm pretty good at. I think I'm a good teacher.

EG     How long have you been teaching?

KC     I started teaching in 1987 when I started grad school.

EG      Do you do research to make your characters believable?

KC      Research is a very important part of the writer's trade; it's something that many writers do, but it's not talked about much. Few creative-writing programs teach MFAs how to do it, again because of the presumption that insight into one's own experience is all you need to concoct a narrative. Can you imagine what would happen in a creative-writing class if the instructor assigned some actual library work?

EG      Something not very pretty?

KC     He'd be ridden to the guillotine in a tumbrel! To me, research is part of the learning process for the writer. It's part of the challenge, and I think it gives stories a textural substance as well as a firmer footing in history and culture. The research might take different forms: for "Etude and Bell Tower," I read several books about the history of the piano and interviewed a piano tuner. For "Sleeping Bear," which is set at a dune I used to hike when I was a teenager, learning about the flora and fauna and the eroding landscape was very important for the thematic sense of dissolution I wanted to explore. "The Story Behind the Story" came from reading about bubblegum music—who writes and produces it, what becomes of its performers, etc. You'd be surprised at how many books have been written about the history of disposable pop.

There is another benefit of research: it expands your vocabulary. You fall in love with words that would never tumble out of your own mouth: wrest plank, for instance. You have to know the anatomy of a piano to understand its importance, but there's a sonic quality to it that gives a sentence substance. Sometimes the words aren't even poetic outside of the context of the story; a lot of the technical language in "Story" came from Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism—words like alazon and anagnorisis, which are classical terms for a character type and a plot device, respectively.  Of course, the story itself is parodying that sort of terminology, but that doesn't make them any less evocative.

EG      Do you think reading tastes come into play for both writer and readers? I know people who do not want to be challenged by a book to the point where they have to look up words frequently. I also know people who do not appreciate loads of factual information in a story.

KC      It's a matter of balance, I think. The rare occasions I've tried to read Tom Clancy-esque espionage thrillers or McBain-style police procedurals, I've found myself overwhelmed by jargon and acronyms even when the plot raced along lickety-split. I think most readers are also aware when writers slip into expository mode and begin to supply facts for the sake of veracity instead of making them central to the story. It's usually pretty clear when the structure or flow no longer feels organic.

As for word choice, you have to employ a vocabulary that readers might not use in their own conversations but which will still strike them as familiar and evocative. One of the early simple commitments I made, for example, was to avoid general language like "trees" and say "sweetgums" or a specific name instead. A lot of choices depend upon the rhythm of the syllables and/or the sound that consonants and vowels make in a particular context. I've always wanted to use the adjective "glottal" because it has such a distinct resonance—it sounds like the name of a low-level Nazi or something—but I've never been able to stick it in a paragraph without it feeling out of place. One of the reasons I think Faulkner faltered as a stylist is that he always went for the big polysyllabic words (circumambulate) that sound too technical.

EG      Glottal does sound different than circumambulate. I wouldn't be afraid of a circumambulate in boots during a world war. In "The Baby Orchard," your love of sound is evident in this excerpt where a father talks to his daughter:

"This dress is a month's overtime," he told her. "I don't want you ruining it. No wrinkles in my periwinkle, alrighty, Aphrodite?"

And in another passage:

"What's your name again?' Ronnie asked.
"Kiki."
"kinky?"
"ki-ki."
"Why'd they name you Kiwi?"
"That's not what I said."

KC     I'd forgotten that passage, to be honest. It's funny because I just finished a novel called Raising Aphrodite, so I obviously suffer from some undiagnosed Aphrodite fixation. I used the name Kiki because I've always loved that Mann Ray photograph "The Violin of Ingres," in which the body of his lover, the notorious model Kiki of Montparnasse, is depicted as a viola. It's the photo described in the story. The wordplay in that passage came about because at one point I was imagining what name I would give a daughter, and since I am very susceptible to alliteration (I named my son Kip so his name would have the same recurring sounds as mine), I thought, "Kiki!" Can you imagine a woman having to go through life as "Kiki Curnutt?" Somewhere among the spirits of the unborn there is a child who is very happy she didn't have to enter the world bearing that one...

EG     The structure of several of your stories played out like a successful juggling act. You were able to tell the story of many characters at once. It is no easy feat to have three stories with separate characters connect at the end and not confuse the story line. It is not easy to bring many different voices in the mix as in "The Story Behind the Story."  In this story you had Brittany, her former agent, a rock critic, her mother, her father, the songwriter, and a voice over.

KC      I like stories with multiple perspectives—again, partly out of perversity, because the contemporary market tends to prefer single points of view. In "Overpass," I wanted to explore—to use a rather obvious metaphor—the intersection of several different lives, and I wanted each to have his/her own voice and style. I think what prevents readers from feeling confused at the end is that, hopefully anyway, they can empathize with each of those characters. The form of "Story" is like an oral history or a script. I tend to watch a lot of TV (usually deep in the night; I'm an insomniac), and one thing I noticed about TV biographies is that people speak in aphorisms; there's something about the interview format that compels people to reach for the grandiose profession, so the form was really a way of satirizing in some sense the self-importance that people exhibit when a camera is turned upon them.

EG      The comments were  funny and so like a talk show or fm radio interview in "Story." Can you  think of any aphorism speak you've seen on late night TV that you thought were extremely funny?

KC      The show that  influenced "Story" was Vh-1's Behind the Music, which had an obvious formula regardless of who was being profiled. I remember watching it Sunday after Sunday and realizing the show really was constructed along the five-act Freytagian pyramid model.

EG      Freytagian Pyramid model? You are a college professor, aren't you? I say this with amazement that you can keep all this information in your mind. Do you consider yourself an academic?

KC     Guilty as charged, I suppose! Actually, I like having a critical vocabulary for techniques and devices; it helps me keep potential tools straight. The story "Baby," for example, is written in what's called the iterative present tense, which is the tense for telling events cyclically or with some regularity. I borrowed it from Bobbie Ann Mason's "Shiloh" because it's a great way of creating a sense of stifling repetition.

I bet you remember Freytag's pyramid; it's what we were taught in junior high English. You know, exposition, rising action, climax, declining action, denouement... At the same time I like to invoke these things, I enjoy parodying them, too. Thus, the writer's commentary throughout my story. The aphorism that inspired me to parody a lot of the portentousness of interviews was broadcast in a Behind the Music episode dealing with the heavy-metal band Poison. The lead guitarist was talking about how he'd holed up in his mansion during his descent into groupie-abetted drug abuse—a narrative requirement, of course—and he said, "It started out as a house of whores, but it quickly became a house of horrors." It was such a silly line, but I found myself quoting it to friends for months afterward. It captured the sense of self-dramatization I wanted to rib.

My favorite moments in "Story" are when the songwriter attempts to explain his ambitions behind a song. Most pop music is dashed off in less than a half-hour, with very little thought, because it's an intuitive medium, but because we live in what I call "explanatory culture," where no artifact can be enjoyed any more without coming wrapped in paratextual layers of explication, even the flimsiest of guilty pleasures tend to be analyzed with all the gravity once reserved for high art and literature.

EG     Explanatory culture. Can you say more?

KC      Explanatory culture is my term for the explication that seems to accompany all art forms these days. It seems like the old modernist notion of the self-contained artifact has given way to the self-interpreted one—that is, more and more art seems to be explaining itself to the audience. You see it in everything from museum catalogues to theater programs: we tell the audience what the work is about either as or even before they experience it. The best example is a trend in liner notes I've noticed. I bought a Paul McCartney CD a few years back, and the entire booklet was a song-by-song description of how each number was inspired, where it was written, what the lyrics referred to. That didn't happen years ago with The White Album or Abbey Road; if there had been notes like that, those "Paul is Dead" rumors would never have started, because nobody would have been mislead by the ambiguity.

KC     Do you think your stories reflect a certain philosophy of life?

If I have a philosophy, it centers upon guilt, sorrow, humility, and empathy. I get quite impatient with any contemporary fiction that strikes me as self-affirming. Leave that to the self-help books.

EG      What I liked most about these stories is their emotional intelligence. Several stories stood out. One was "Apologies." I liked seeing what a drunk driver goes through in community service as part of his probation.  I also liked "Down in the River."

KC      Thank you—I like the notion of fiction having "emotional intelligence." Maybe that's a better term for what I referred to as "guilt." Again, it's about living with the aftermath of your failings. The drama of a catastrophe isn't the event itself but how one copes with it—how one accommodates the drastic within the day-to-day. I conceived "All Apologies" as a sort of Edgar Allan Poe-story in which the man's guilt was personified by the people whom he'd hurt—in this case, the family whose father he'd killed while driving drunk. Then I realized there was a more interesting drama in the narrating of his guilt—in being ordered to tell his story to community groups, he begins to question his own sincerity and has to ask himself whether the remorse is real or whether he's become guilty of performing it.

"Down" is the story, for whatever reason, people who read the book latch on to the most. Again, I think it has to do with the character's sensitivity to his remorse—he realizes he's guilty of a certain callousness in life that could have prevented. That's why I call "Down" my "Bartleby, the Scrivener" story. In fact, if you read it closely at the end, you can catch a couple of not-so-subtle phrases pinched straight from Melville. The story also gets a good response because of the historical context—there are allusions to the Civil Rights era that aren't directly related to the theme but rather parallel it. That was done very intentionally; I was reacting against way too many historical novels about the beneficence of Southern white people during the Montgomery-Selma era. It seemed to me that in those narratives whites are either angelic, Scout Finch-types or pure hood-and-robe villains. The reality is that many whites were plain ambivalent about race relations at the time, and that's the historical legacy that men like the narrator of "Down" have to live with.

EG     Let's back-track. Why do you link self-affirming fiction and self help?

KC     Perhaps I overstate here, but a lot of "journey" narratives in which characters grow from their experiences strike me as bearing the same message as self-help: there's a tendency to valorize the individual narrative over collective experience, and an even odder habit of extracting "life lessons" from the plot. Think of how Catcher in the Rye or The Bell Jar end. There's a lack of resolution there that strikes me as truer to the rhythm of life than, say, Wonder Boys, a book I love, but one which ends, I think, with a too-thorough redemption for its wayward protagonist.

The great characters in literature are flawed, fallen people who don't necessarily deserve to feel good about themselves in the way that overly resolved narratives goad dramatis personae into. We all have things we regret in our past, people we wish we hadn't been, ghosts we can't exorcise, and that's what interests me. That's why the main thematic link in the book is the "story of life" metaphor. I wanted to explore the various ways people go about constructing their histories, their growth, their development, along with not only the media through which they do it, but also what they leave out, what they have a hard time admitting to themselves. At the same that I wanted to write about imperfect people, I wanted readers to feel for their failings, to recognize them in their own lives.

EG      You are not a proponent of the happy ending story?

KC     No, it's not so much the happy ending as the decisive ending. "The Story Behind the Story" has what I would consider a happy ending; the character is content, but there's no life-quaking act (marriage, childbirth) that seems to tie up the characters' issues in order to imply a perfect afterworld. Have you noticed how many novels now end with characters getting married? And please note, this is not a gender commentary—it happens as often in books by men as by women. In many novels nowadays, a concluding marriage is meant to signal the protagonist's hard-fought maturity. And yet after I read those books I keep wondering what happens next. Don't the characters ever argue? Don't they go through periods of disenchantment? Maybe I protest too much, but I just don't like narratives that wrap things up too neatly.

EG     I think you really captured the conflict between men and women in stories like "Baby, Let's Make a Baby," and the "Baby Orchard," and "Complicity." The men in these stories are sensitive to their women, a little bit passive.  Not always happy but not abusively confrontive. There are also stories where the men are out of control with their girlfriends. The guy in "Overpass" was off the record.

KC     The three stories you mention—the "baby stories"—are really the core of the book, and, again, the challenge was to depict that gender gap from three different perspectives: from a woman's ("Complicity"), from a man's ("Baby"), and from a child's ("Orchard"). I really believe that most misunderstandings between men and women arise from conflicting communication styles. In "Complicity," the husband's sensitivity is really a way of foreclosing any talk about the marital past, which includes an abortion. In his mind, it's not a problem if he and his wife don't talk about it, and that's what angers her. In "Baby," the narrator is torn, I think, between the recognition that his wife's expectations of a marriage are too romantic to accommodate the drudgeries of reality, and her adultery leaves him wondering, "How did I become the guy who has to be escaped?"

If there's one male character I really don't like, it's the boyfriend in "Overpass" that you mention, Ray Dean. He abducts his girlfriend and her son. Sometimes when I reread the story, I think he's a bit of a cliché, sort of like a cartoon Lifetime villain or a bad Carver character. Then again, there are, unfortunately, men out there like that who will go to violent extremes to control a woman, and in that sense, he's absolutely realistic. Not everybody in real life, it turns out, is fully drawn.

EG     I think women readers will like these stories.

KC     I really hope women who read the book think I was able to capture women. I wanted to write in women's voices precisely because there's this notion out that there male authors can't accurately capture their thinking—and vice versa. It's a destructive notion and very restrictive, and a lot of it has more to do with readers' attitudes than authors'. I've had one or two women readers respond negatively to the men in "Sleeping Bear" and "Baby," and when I talk about it with them, it's because they're reading the story to decipher some larger authorial attitude toward women rather than those of the characters. I hate to call that kind of response knee-jerk, but it is. If we read fiction only to have our own ideologies confirmed, then we fail art, because art should confront us with things we don't want to understand. Many, many men have issues with women, and those issues make for compelling fiction; we shouldn't avoid them because we don't like their attitude. On the other hand, the compliments I've cherished the most are two women who admitted to me that they identified with the adulterous wife in "Baby." "That was my first marriage," they both said. So then I feel like I've done my job, and that impulses we wouldn't approve of have been rendered with empathy.

EG     What is your favorite story in the collection and why?

KC     At different points almost all of them have been my favorite. They each represent a different personal achievement to me because the goals for each were so different. I'd have to say right now the Brazil triptych, "Call Her Iemanja, But Not in Church," is probably my favorite. I just like the different styles and the way the stories interlock, especially at the end. A lot of my friends vote either for "Etude and Bell Tower" or "Down in the Flood." Interestingly, my ex-wife, a good friend, likes "Baby, Let's Make a Baby" the best.

EG     There was so much information about Macumba, African Spirit worship in "Call Her Iemanja"? How did you research this?

KC      When I was 16 or 17, I was a Rotary Club exchange student to Brazil. It was perhaps the defining experience of my life; it awakened in me a desire to learn, to travel, and, most important, it made me want to write. Macumba is most concentrated along the coast from Rio north, but there are remnants of it throughout the country, including the deep interior where I lived. I bought a lot of Macumba paraphernalia at the time as souvenirs, but I didn't really know the legend of Iemanja and other gods until years later when I wrote a novel called River of January, which I could never get published.

EG     Although the stories deal with serious conflicts between people and within them, you do add humor to the plights and to the characters' interior reflections. I liked Mr. Oxley's reactions in "The Fall of the House of Oxley." Oxley is a first time homeowner who has no idea what he gets himself into when he buys a house.  This is a favorite story of mine. It combines humor, emotional intelligence, suspense, nosy neighbors and the darkness and compassion that exist in grief.

Excerpts pg 51-52:

Two weeks after signing his first home mortgage, Oxley discovered a crack in the top of his kitchen doorframe. He was cleaning the walls, scrubbing away the fingerprints of the previous owners, when he spotted the thin shoot-like zigzag. Running his fingers over the little barbells of wallboard whiskering out of the slit, he told himself they were just cobwebs, or maybe pencil smears left by the carpenters when they'd squared the trim.

And later,

Over the next weeks, the pops and cracks caught him off guard as he read the paper, sat on the pot, daydreamed in his recliner. They always occurred just after he'd convinced himself he was paranoid.

And when he talks to his realtor she says,

"It's the prairie soil," his realtor said when he called to question her about the cracks. Her name was Henrietta. She'd turned to selling houses when her retired husband, a lieutenant colonel formerly stationed at nearby air base, ran off with a master sergeant. "I'll tell you, it's the curse  of this county. There's not a house around here without some settling. You ever been out to Grenadier Lane? Those are $400,000 homes, and they've got cracks in their walls that look like vaginas.

KC      Back to creating a range of tone and mood. If it were all tragedy the book would be too depressing to slog through. Plus I like to think I have a sense of humor that deserves a place on the printed page. "Oxley," as the title suggests, is my true attempt at plagiarizing Poe. It's one of the few stories that have autobiographical roots: the same week I bought my first home in 1994, a missing child's body was unearthed in the crawlspace of a house in nearby Uniontown, Alabama.

EG     Ouch!

KC      I  suffered nightmares from the timing, when I could sleep at all. "Oxley" is the story that took the longest to write. It was unfinished for several years because I simply didn't know how to end it. I needed to write "Down in the Flood" and "Overpass" first to hone in on my theme of empathy to figure out where it to take it. I wanted the story to twist its way into something more than comedy—namely, the compassion that you mention.

EG      Many readers who don't write may be surprised to hear about all  the rewrites and incomplete stories  left to languor for years, some to be resurrected. Others not.

KC      Every writer has notebooks and fragments of pieces that don't work or don't get started. These are the skeletons you're supposed to keep in your closet. Plus there's a tendency of reviewers to unfairly judge works that have been pulled out off the canning shelf. There's a notion that if it lay unfinished for a while or if parts of it were hard to come by it must be inorganic and/or unduly labored over.

EG     When do you know if a story is going to go anywhere and then decide to let it go? Do you grieve an unfinished story?

KC      I definitely grieve unfinished pieces. I think writers judge themselves according to what they can't finish; each piece is like a challenge—can I pull it off?—and when you can't, you question yourself rather than revel in the ones you were able to complete. Usually, you know a story can be finished by the degree of urgency you feel when you start writing. If you know what you want to do, you'll be in a rush to get it done and polished. If not, you find you keep revising your opening paragraph.

EG     Do you still write literary criticism?

KC      Yes. It's a different kind of writing, but it's still a necessary thing for me. I'm currently writing an introduction to Fitzgerald for Cambridge University Press that will be out in 2007.

EG     I know you have had books published about the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Are they favorite authors?

KC      I would say they are definitely my greatest influences, along with Gertrude Stein. Usually when I write a story, I have an analogue in my mind—I have a model whose emotion or whose technique I want to emulate for my own purposes. (Thus, "Down" is my "Bartleby" story). "Sleeping Bear" is an obvious homage to Hemingway; I was trying to convey the relationship between individual and landscape á la "Big Two-Hearted River," and I even cribbed a few phrases here and there from "Soldier's Home." I felt justified doing it, however, because I grew up in Michigan, and to be a young literary male there was to inevitably confront your inner Hemingway. Thus, when I was a teenager, I very self-consciously set out to conquer nature and Sleeping Bear dune was my swampy river. The first section of "Call Her Iemanja, But Not in Church," which is called "She Sells Seashells," was an attempt to convey a plot through the use of stylistic repetition as Stein does in "Melanctha." There's a sort of sing-songness to the rhythms there meant to convey the lulling nature of the washerwoman's existence. As for Fitzgerald—well, what can I say, other than I'm such a fan that I once married a woman because she was born on Zelda's birthday...

EG      I  hope she didn't know that.

KC      She did, and for a short time, she actually enjoyed the fact. But seriously, I consider myself first and foremost a stylist, and what I love about Fitzgerald is the lyricism. If you notice, most of Fitzgerald's stories like "Winter Dreams" and even The Great Gatsby end with very intense, very affective ruminations, usually of a melancholy nature, and that's a device I often find myself using. "Overpass" has it, as does "Etude," "Sleeping Bear," "Down in the Flood"—most stories in my collection, in fact, end that way. The only difference is that, unlike Fitzgerald, I can't use the exclamation point, because it resonates differently today than it did eighty years ago.

EG      What is a stylist?

KC      A stylist is a writer known for developing and experimenting with language as much as the content of his/her work. I would consider Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner all stylists, as is Toni Morrison. As great a writer as he is, Philip Roth isn't really a stylist, however.

EG      What contemporary writers do you like?

KC      I love Philip Roth for the scope of his interests. In a weird way, I think his was the last generation that was allowed to look at literature as an important tool of social commentary. We don't have too many authors born after 1950 or so who really seem willing to attempt the grandiose statement, which is unfortunate. John Updike was the first writer whose works I read straight through. I also like a somewhat more obscure author, Thomas Sanchez, who does very wild and lyrical books in exotic settings.

EG     What are your future writing plans?

I have a novel manuscript that my agent is sending out next month. As I mentioned, it's called Raising Aphrodite, and it's about a single father who fears his sixteen-year-old daughter has become sexually active. I'm outlining a novel I'll start this fall called Monkeytown, which will be about the race for the first African-American mayor of Montgomery. Obviously, Zelda will figure prominently in the plot. I started an earlier version of it, but I stalled out after about 200 pages, so now I need to start over from scratch.

EG      Where can people buy your short story collection?

KC      The best place is on amazon.com, I suppose. Because I want readers to support independent presses, I always encourage folks to check out my publisher's website at www.rivercitypublishing.com. They do really interesting books, often the kind of serious fiction that the New York majors won't touch because they don't know how to sell them.

EG     Any other places to read your fiction, the internet, anthologies, etc.?

KC     I have a new story, "The History Lesson," in an anthology of Alabama writers called Climbing Mt. Cheaha. It's the first chapter of Monkeytown. You can read the introduction to Cheaha at http://livingstonpress.westal.edu/Climbing%20Mt.%20Cheaha.htm.

Three of the Baby stories are online:

"Down in the Flood" (http://www.storysouth.com/spring2003/flood.html), "The Fall of the House of Oxley" (http://www.athicket.com/2005/curnutt.html) and "Etude and Bell Tower" (http://www.wlajournal.com/14_1-2/214-229curnutt.pdf).

 

Kirk Curnutt.
Baby, Let's Make A Baby

River City Publishing (2003)
ISBN 1-57966-036-3

 

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