Interview by Bob Williams
Bob: Montreux, the scene of Our Napoleon in Rags is not on the map. What were the reasons and advantages of using an imaginary city?
Kirby: The biggest advantage is freedom — freedom to invent, mostly. Montreux is essentially a smaller version of Louisville, or you could say it’s about like Louisville was in the seventies. I was living overseas when writing my first novel, THE BARBARIAN PARADE, which for the most part is the typical bildungsroman that authors start with; I grew up in Louisville and so most of the boyhood action took place there; yet I found it confounding and restrictive to stick to locations and landscapes as they are in reality — I wanted to compress locales, expand others, in order for various stories in that novel to cohere. So it occurred to me that Faulkner invented his county, so I could, too.
“Louisville” is of course named after King Louis XVI, and as I was living in France at the time, I went with a French name. Even if the real Montreux is in Switzerland.
Once I started writing OUR NAPOLEON IN RAGS, I stuck with the Montreux conceit for the same reasons, merging several of Louisville’s older neighborhoods together.
Bob: If you are willing to discuss your personal past, what are the details? (Parents, family background, siblings, work and educational experience.)
Kirby: My wife says I’m remarkably well-adjusted in comparison to the common notion of what a writer “should be like.” Not sure how detailed you want me to be here…. I was born in Louisville in 1968 in a hospital that was subsequently torn down, the second of two boys. Unlike most families, we never moved; my parents still live in the house they bought after getting married. My father was something of a jack-of-all-trades small businessman, my mother a schoolteacher; she retired to raise my brother and me for a few years, then returned to the work place when finances required it.
Growing up I had two main interests: sports and reading. Most of my time was spent either swimming/diving, riding BMX bikes, or playing soccer, and consuming books. Also music. There was no middle ground, really, and I wasn’t much good at anything else (Math, the sciences, etc). I started my first job at thirteen, helping an older boy in his lawn care business; since that time I’ve held a number of jobs: the pizza world and all it requires (various posts!), lifeguard and swim instructor, soccer coach, grunt on a horse farm, mover, bicycle messenger, Greenpeace canvasser, soccer player, bartender, traveling salesman, subway busker and bookstore clerk in a foreign country, and, finally, editor and teacher of creative writing. Most recently I’ve undertaken freelance book composition, typesetting and sometimes designing books for other publishers. It’s time consuming, but I really enjoy making books and find this to be a noble art.
My educational experience: I attended ten different schools before graduating, despite the fact that our family never moved and all the schools were public — they kept changing the districts on us. Therefore it seems I have several dark holes in my education, giving me vague ideas about a wide breadth of knowledge, ultimately adding up to nothing. I did manage to go on to college, where I was a “just enough to get by” student (to the chagrin of the parents), and graduated with a BA in English Literature from Transylvania University — a small university in Lexington KY. Later I went back to get my MFA from Vermont College.
Bob: You are managing editor of Sarabande Books. What kind of publisher is Sarabande and what does a managing editor do?
Kirby: Sarabande Books is an independent nonprofit press committed to publishing genres that the larger commercial houses don’t support much anymore: poetry and short fiction, originally, and now we’re doing the odd collection of creative nonfiction. We’re very small, publishing about nine or ten titles a year, with three full-time employees and two part-time, and an intern.
It’s a great place in that literary writers can find a home there; a few have started with us and jumped to the larger houses — Kate Walbert, who was a finalist for the National Book Award recently, is one; Joan Silber, another finalist, is another; others are writers who published with the larger commercial houses earlier in their careers but never earned out their advances and so have trouble publishing their work now, regardless of the high quality of their writing.
Typically a managing editor oversees the day-to-day running of the office and also moves a book through the varied steps of production, from the time of a manuscript’s acceptance to its appearance as an actual book. My position at Sarabande is the same, but also includes aspects of design (ads, catalogs, newsletters, etc.), and a good deal of editing on the fiction titles. When a press is small like ours, there is a lot of cross-over between job titles and actual duties.
Bob: The publisher of Our Napoleon is not Sarabande but IG Publishing. Why?
Kirby: Well, the most obvious answer here would be because IG offered to publish it. But I think what you’re asking is why didn’t Sarabande publish the book. Which is a common question, though it surprises me.
It’s a question of professional ethics, really; to be published by the house one works for smacks of a type of nepotism; it suggests that the work might not stand on its own and that the author has to have personal connections in order to get it published. Besides that, everyone involved in the press is either a poet or fiction writer, and thus we could all eat up a lot of our title space just publishing our own works. We all find this idea distasteful, believing our writing should stand on its own.
IG is wonderful, by the way. With this book, I didn’t try the usual route of searching for an agent in hopes of landing a contract with one of the big New York houses, having lived through years of frustrations doing that with my first novel (with no results; that novel remains in a box at home) and then with PARADE. Once I finished RAGS I contacted three independents that I thought might be open to this particular novel, and two offered to take it on. I went with IG because they answered first, and because Robert Lasner and Elizabeth Clementson struck me as being energetic and committed people.
Bob: IG Publishing is in Brooklyn and your book was printed in Canada. Is this unusual?
Kirby: Nope, not unusual at all in today’s publishing world. Printing is the most expensive aspect of publishing a book (unless you’re throwing a huge marketing budget behind it, of course), and publishers take bids for a project to see who can do it for the best price. At Sarabande we often use the same printer that IG used; other times we go with printers in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Nowadays I hear of publishers going as far away as Iceland and China to print their books.
Bob: In addition to your work for Sarabande and your writing, you have taught at Spalding University. Some writers find teaching pleasant: others loath it. What was your experience?
Kirby: Actually I still teach there. It’s a brief-residency MFA program, and a pretty excellent one; it stress the connections between all the arts rather than pigeonholing each genre — the only MFA program I’m aware of to do this — and the faculty is quite good. I feel like I’m learning from them all the time, and, perhaps most importantly, there’s that sense of community that comes from being around people who are as weirdly passionate about writing as you are.
As for what I think about teaching, I’m kind of ambivalent. It’s very draining, emotionally and imaginatively as well as physically, and this can have a negative influence on one’s own writing — it’s hard to get anything done. Still, there’s a great thrill when you see a student making a breakthrough, or great strides. It can be very surprising to see how good they can be, too; a good reality check.
Bob: Have there been any authors that you regard as influences?
Kirby: Only about a thousand or so. Everything you read is going to have some sort of influence on your writing, in the sense of how you think about what you hope to do (often convincing you of what you don’t want to do). Often I’ve struggled with the possibility that I’m more a reader than a writer, to be honest. But as far as conscious influences go, I’m very fond of the Russians, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Isaac Babel in particular; also Nabokov. More contemporary writers would be Martin Amis and Cormac McCarthy (his earlier southern novels specifically), just because of their linguistic powers and derring-do more than anything else.
As for how these writers might influence me, it would be difficult to pin down exactly — Dostoyevsky because of his rabid weirdness and psychological insights and maximalist sensibility, and his commitment to try to write as wildly as possible within a given structure; Gogol for powers of characterization and sense of the dark absurdity; Babel for the opposite reasons of Dostoyevsky, in that his work is so compressed and acute. His stark juxtapositions of images and scenes create novelistic power even if his stories tend to be so short.
Form is very important to me, as is language, and thus Nabokov and Martin Amis are naturally at the heights of what I’d like to achieve in my own writing.
Bob: Apart from questions of influence, who are your favorite writers and why?
Kirby: Oddly enough, many of my contemporary favorites are short-story writers (odd to me because I don’t write many short stories): David Means, Mavis Gallant, Lorrie Moore, Mark Richard. My god I just love Mark Richard and everybody else who reads should, too. James Salter. Simply because each of these writers consistently surprises me when I read them; they entertain and inform and energize me and couldn’t be farther apart from one another in terms of style and content — they’re always bringing me news I haven’t heard before, seems like. They are writers who make me want to go off and write; each of them spur me on. Not to imply these are the only writers who do so; they’re just the ones that come to mind at this moment.
Bob: In Our Napoleon you question the direction of our society. Do you respond to your concern over this in ways other than your writing?
Kirby: I complain. A lot.
Seriously, though: at this point in my life, writing is the only form of “expressing concern” available to me, because of limits on my time and energy. I’ve spent time in the past working with literacy concerns, serving food in homeless shelters, and trying to alert others to environmental problems. Much of this experience forms the sensibility behind ONIR, although it’s not addressed directly. And there’s no specific “message” the novel is trying to put across to the reader; what I intended was to raise questions about what sort of commitments should we make to our community, what is within our power to change — on a personal level; the primary thematic question in my mind during the writing of the book was what do we owe one another?
The novel isn’t intended to answer any of these questions; novels that claim to have answers tend to be bad ones. Finding worthwhile questions that one can put forth dramatically, in a narrative, is very hard and time-consuming work (for me at least). So my limited activism has dwindled to nothing but the writing.
Bob: What can you tell us about your current writing projects?
Kirby: Very little. Unfortunately (for me). I just started working on a new novel that deals with arson, string theory, and suburban sprawl. Perhaps also the meth problem in Kentucky and the culture that has been organized around it. A love story, obviously.
About the Interviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places