Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Kevin Moffett: Embracing the Absurd

BY ASHLEIGH PEDERSEN

To put it simply, Kevin Moffett’s fiction moves me. I have laughed aloud while reading his stories (“Ursa, On Zoo Property and Off”) and, at other times, felt myself so pained by a character’s struggle (“The Medicine Man”) that afterward I went out for a beer. But ultimately, I returned to these stories, and then returned to them again. The worlds depicted in last year’s debut collection, Permanent Visitors, are bizarre ones, filled with fortune tellers, drifters, and humans dressed as animals. In spite of that absurdity — or perhaps because of it — there is something sharply recognizable in these worlds, something true.

Hot Metal Bridge: The stories in Permanent Visitors are primarily set in Florida, where I know you also went to undergrad. Can you speak a little bit about your writing education?

Kevin Moffett: I got my BA from the University of Florida in Gainesville, and then took a year off. I moved to Oxford, Mississippi for a year to study with Barry Hannah and work and write, and then I went back to Gainesville. I followed a woman there, and for various reasons realized that wasn’t a good idea. [As an undergraduate] I studied with Padgett Powell, who is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. I just never tired of hearing him talk about writing — my writing, other people’s writing, the published writing we were reading. I just wanted to keep that. It was familiar, it was comfortable. I went back and it was just not a good situation, so I dropped out. At the time I was writing articles for The Believer I was still technically a drop out.

HMB: How did you get a job writing for The Believer?

KM: I wrote that article for Harper’s, originally. I had a friend who knew an editor there and he knew that I was living in DC, and that I [was writing for Funworld] and was traveling around to the amusement parks and talking to the management there. I was commissioned to go to these four parks and ended up writing this article. Once I turned it into Harper’s, the Iraq War had started and Harper’s had turned into a very politically-centric publication, where they were publishing not the first person reportage. They were publishing much more polemical sorts of things. They weren’t interested in it at all, so I was desperately scrambling around for someone to publish it, and The Believer was good enough to run it.

HMB: Have you written other nonfiction pieces, in The Believer or elsewhere?

KM: Yeah, the first article I wrote for The Believer was about a reading list that Padgett Powel had given me. It was a list of eighty-one books from Donald Barthelme. Then I wrote another one, just some silly article about Dr. Leonard’s Discount Health Magazine. And it’s funny because I wrote these two nonfiction pieces kind of as afterthoughts, and meanwhile I had maybe eight stories that I was trying to get published at the time. Nobody would publish them, I was getting the usual rejection notes back in droves. The first two nonfiction pieces I wrote, you know, ended up getting immediately published. I was excited and happy about it because it was such a great magazine, and I knew a lot of people read it, but at the same time, it really was disconcerting that nothing fiction I wrote would see the light of day.

HMB: Everybody seems to have an opinion about what MFA programs do for writers, as far as stunting or encouraging their creativity and craft. Having been through an MFA program yourself, what are your thoughts?

KM: Well, I can give both sides of it. When I went for a year at Florida I was twenty-four I had been out of undergraduate for a year. I vaguely knew that I would like to write stories for a living, but had I no idea of the commitment involved — the commitment to write, the commitment to kind of plot your life in a way that would make that writing possible. Just the hard work, the disappointment, all that stuff that’s involved in making that sort of leap. When I went to Iowa I was older; I was thirty. I had a family, a wife and a child, and I was going there with the direct intention of getting some work done. One of the reasons it was so appealing was because it’s a program in which you can take as many classes — as many lit classes, as many craft workshops — as you want. You can just take workshops, and get your book done. There are no grades. And there are aesthetics there. Other students are pushing their aesthetic on whatever story they read in a workshop. But I think when you’re a little bit older, when you’re a little bit more confidant in what you’re doing, it’s not as torturous, it’s not as difficult to listen to. It was a really good experience for me the second go-round — I had a lot of time, I had health insurance.

HMB: Were “torturous” workshops something you experienced in Florida?

KM: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think everywhere it’s that way. It’s a really complicated dynamic, you know, because half of it is already knowing what’s flawed in a story and kind of sitting there like a ghost at your own funeral and hearing it but not being able to say, “I know, I know!” The best stories resist summary, synopsis, somebody summing them up, and they resist summary conclusions about them, I think, or someone saying, “Well, this, this, and this need to be fixed, this, this, and this is right.” So, it is sort of torturous. To hear anybody talk about your work out loud is sick in a lot of ways [laughs]. Even if [a criticism] is glowing, it’s still nauseating in a lot of ways.

HMB: Is outside criticism something you seek now that you’re not in a workshop anymore?

KM: I have the luxury of having a wife who also writes short fiction, so I have my first and best reader here at the house. I show her everything. Even before I’ve made an assessment of it, I show it to her. Not very far past her. I usually show it to her and then to an editor.

HMB: Writers are sort of famous for having some weird habits or addictions, like taking two shots of whiskey before writing….

KM: And some habits not so weird. Like the two shots of Jack Daniels. That seems less weird than it should. I know Kafka imagined there were stakes were getting ready to drive into his knees when he was sitting down at his desk to prevent him from getting up from his desk — that to me seems both weird and possibly very effective.

HMB: Any weird habits or evil compulsions of your own?

KM: I think I’m an extreme timekeeper, where if I say I’m going to sit down for three hours I usually don’t write a second past that, for some strange reason. If I say, “Okay, I’m sitting down until twelve o’clock noon and I’m writing,” it’s really difficult for me to sit past twelve o’clock noon. Even if it’s not painful or even if it’s actually going pretty joyful and easily, I’ll very often get up at twelve o’clock. It seems unlucky to write past that. And there are a lot of lucky and unlucky things both in the prose and the writing of the prose that I do. There are certain words that I won’t use. I don’t know why.

HMB: One of the things that struck me about your story “Ursa, on Zoo Property and Off” is just that it is so funny. I’ve read it several times, and it always makes me laugh.

KM: To me the whole process or difficulty in trying to grasp the craft of the short story, trying to doggy paddle towards some sort of proficiency, was closing the gap between the stories that I liked, the stories that I loved, and the stories that I was writing. And I knew I’d written maybe twenty stories before I wrote “Ursa” and I was just writing stories nothing like the stories that I inherently, intuitively liked. Stories by Joy Williams, George Saunders, Flannery O’Connor. Stories that had a sharpness and a wit to them at the same time, that had moments of poignancy, and surrealism or absurdity.

HMB: That is really difficult. I find myself reading stories I absolutely love, and then unable to write anything like them. But I don’t want them to come across too forced…

KM: Right. The ten feet of lip sync. I did that too. I lip synced. I wrote some stories that were really karaoke. George Saunders, Barry Hannah — they’re all very singular writers, and if you write a story that’s just in their voice, that’s what is going to come across. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with it. I think it’s a learning process. You can’t help but be affected and infected by what you’re reading at any given time.

HMB: Have you ever found some trick for breaking out of that lip syncing mode?

KM: I think the editing process is a big help in that way. I’ve written a lot of first drafts that seem infected by what I’m reading, or that are of a certain mold. Like, I’m writing a story that I would write, you know? Writing a story like the last three I’ve written. So I think the editing process, and the revision process, is a big help in breaking up the story, in complicating it for yourself. Breaking out of rhetorical patterns, too.

HMB: Is the humor in your stories something that you strive for, or does it come out more naturally?

KM: That’s one of the things I am drawn to as a reader — the way certain writers are able to have this sort of uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassing, but in some ways funny moments, combined with natural elements of suspense and all those things. Plus I was writing about Florida most of the time for the stories in the collection, and to deny the grotesque and the absurd and the funny would be to deny a huge part of the kind of Florida that I felt I was writing about. Humor didn’t come naturally to me necessarily in the writing, because I think writing funny and being funny are often much farther apart than people think. But once I was able to start doing it, it felt right. Nothing came naturally to me as a writer. Nothing. Describing characters, setting scenes, making people walk in and out of rooms, having things happen — nothing came naturally. I was a really slow learner. And if I’d have any idea when I first started writing stories fifteen or so years ago, that is was going to be such a slow, glacial process, I would have joined the army or something. I would have become an architect or a nurse or a cowboy or something. Anything!

HMB: In your contributor’s note [in Best American Short Stories 2006] for “Tattooizm,” you said that the character Andrea came along and “hijacked” the story from Dixon, who was your original main character. Is that unusual, or do your characters often come to mind fully fleshed and ready to hijack a story?

KM: It is unusual. I started the story with a character in mind based loosely on an actual acquaintance of mine long ago, who did in fact tattoo his own legs, his own arms, just because nobody would let him tattoo them. He was a really good artist but didn’t really know what he was doing with a tattoo gun. I had that in mind and started with him, and I was going to write this tattoo artist story, and it was just going nowhere. He would go out, come home, tattoo his legs, go out again, come home, tattoo his legs. It was a case of one character not sufficing to drive the story wherever it wanted and needed to go. I started to write a scene where he goes into an art store, and what better way to move the story forward than to have somebody of the opposite sex show up? So Andrea came there, and something she said seemed really familiar to me. I don’t want to be too mystical about that, because characters don’t just appear fully formed with [the writer] just the vessel through which they are speaking, I don’t think. But I felt strangely acquainted with her after a line of dialogue, or maybe a way in which she responded to Dixon. But the story became easy after that point. It had a focus, and something was going to happen between the two of them. She didn’t arrive quite fully formed — she had to make herself known a little bit.

HMB: When you’re writing a story, at what point do you decide it is finished?

KM: Well, to speak specifically about “Tattooizm,” I knew there was going to be some sort of reckoning between Dixon and Andrea and the tattoo gun. But I didn’t know exactly what. Once that came about and revealed itself and it ended the way it did, I pretty much knew I was done. I don’t revise very much. I used to revise more than I do, but at this point I tinker very little. It’s usually sentence to sentence stuff I work on. That said, I also throw away a lot of stories. I get to page four or five or six, put it away, maybe come back to it, and move forward really slowly on it.

HMB: Are you somebody who writes every single day?

KM: I used to be. A lot of the stories in the collection were written when I was writing every single day. I don’t have that luxury anymore. I’m teaching now, and during the semester I write about four days a week. Which doesn’t mean I don’t feel insanely guilty and awful on the days I’m not able to write. I wish I could write every single day. I used to have this thought that I should just keep myself in the chair, even if it’s like squeezing blood from a stone. I thought I should just stay in the chair. But another part of me thinks if it’s not working, it’s not working. I admire that work ethic, but it’s not always tenable. Sometimes it’s like, “Would I rather be hanging out with my four year old son and making hand puppets, or writing for two hours?” Squeeze in three hours here, four hours there, or whenever you can, but there’s life too.

HMB: Once a story is published, do you find yourself at all self-conscious about it, or concerned that there is something in it that you don’t want everyone to see?

KM: There’s one story in the collection that just shouldn’t be there. I don’t want to tell you which story it is, but I tried to bury it in the upper middle of the collection so people would maybe forget to read it or not get to it or something. But pretty much once I’ve sent a story out, I’m okay with it. I think every writer looks at a story and see where they might not have executed it to its conception, but whole stories I’m usually okay with putting out there.

HMB: I have to admit that I am quite a romantic when it comes to my notion of what being a published writer might be like….

KM: Oh man, it is glorious. Let me tell you, it is glorious! I’m sitting in a hot tub right now.

HMB: [laughs]

KM: I’m actually peeling dead leaves off a tree right now. They’re actually seed pods. I’m peeling dead seed pods off a sycamore tree. No, I know what you mean. Publishing is kind of a little reward for your labor, if you think about it in a strictly utilitarian way. For me it was about six years before I got something published. And I’m talking six years of pretty consistent submissions to places big and small, and all of them came to the consensus that I wasn’t ready to be published. It was despairing, but at the same time there were nice notes and handwritten critiques from editors and to me that was enough. Somebody put their eyes on it, read it, and at least made an intelligent decision not to print it. It’s a lot of work and you’ve got to a develop a sort of alligator-like hide to stomach all those little notes coming back in those same little envelopes with your handwriting on them. The horrible part is you’re getting a rejection but it’s in your handwriting. A writer doesn’t need any more self-loathing in their life but you get it and think, “Oh, here’s some bad news, and it’s sent to me by me!”

HMB: Is there anything about short stories, as opposed to a novel, that is especially appealing to you?

KM: Anything, or everything? The answer is yes! I’m really comfortable in the form. The time frame of writing a short story as opposed to a novel is so much more appealing, and sanity-maintaining. Once you start writing a short story, you’re already making gestures toward the end of that story. You’re already looking outward, moving toward the end. Whereas in a novel — and I say this as somebody who has no finished novel to base this one — it’s like operating in darkness. After the collection was finished I worked on the novel for a little more than a year. And I found that I was writing sentences differently. Everything that I wrote I would expand upon. Every detail had to have a background and a history — so I would describe a house and then the last tenants who lived in the house, which absolutely didn’t need to be described. I was just kind of gathering up this big ball of yarn, and it wasn’t doing much at all. I’ve talked to people who have written three or four novels and asked them if it gets any easier, and they say no. Every book requires its own set of instructions. Maybe this is what I say to myself to keep the hope alive that one day, a novel will just sort of occur, but maybe I just wasn’t writing the right book. It didn’t feel like a novel. It felt like I was writing this story and I was putting all these additions on it. It was like a trailer home with, you know, a thirteenth floor on it or something [laughs]. After I put it down and started writing a story again, it was like the lights turned on, the angels started singing, and there was harp music playing in the background. It was just lovely, and I felt sane again. So I’m working on stories almost exclusively.

HMB: When you write a short story, how much do you adhere to the traditional short story structure of rising action, climax, falling action, etc.?

KM: It’s something that I think after a while you just have to embed. You can’t be aware of it as you’re writing the story. You can’t say, “Okay, I’m on page eleven. Time for some rising action, here we go!” I think that if you put characters together for long enough, characters begin to exert pressure on one another. After a while, there is nothing that can happen except for some sort of rising action.

HMB: Do you have any all time favorite writers or short stories?

KM: I’m teaching an intro to fiction workshop and I always read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” along with the students. Saying that is one of your favorite stories is like saying “Hey Jude” is your favorite song, though. There isn’t much risk in saying that. But really, I must have read that story about two dozen times. It’s so tight — there’s not a wasted description, not a wasted bit of dialogue. It’s just motoring toward the end. It’s the first story I’ve read that actually scared me. It seems unerringly human and real, but yet not. That was one of the first stories I read that just jarred me. It’s really a disconcerting story. I’m a huge Donald Barthelme fan. William Trevor. Leonard Michaels is someone I like a lot. And of course Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner and Isaac Babel. It’s really interesting, I think, and instructive to get a writer’s stories all in one volume, just to see the evolution over time.