Interview by Nathan Leslie
Kevin Moffett’s stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Tin House, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere, as well as in three editions of The Best American Short Stories. He is the winner of the Nelson Algren Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the 2010 National Magazine Award. He is the author of Permanent Visitors (winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award), Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events: Stories, and co-author (with Eli Horowitz and Matthew Derby) of The Silent History: A Novel.
Prick of the Spindle Interviews Editor Nathan Leslie talks with author Kevin Moffett about Florida, obsession, and oddities, among other things.
Nathan Leslie: Thank you for agreeing to chat with me, Kevin. I’m a longtime fan of your work, so this is a personal honor. I remember reading and loving “Tattooizm” in Best American Short Stories and feeling as if I somehow “discovered” your work, if that makes any sense (even though I totally didn’t). But it is such a terrific story. Many of your early stories are set in Florida. Do you find yourself missing Florida now that you live and work in California?
Kevin Moffett: Thanks for the good words, Nathan. I’ve been away from Florida for so long (almost twenty years now) that I can miss it while knowing that the place I miss doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe it never did. Inevitably when you write about where you grew up you’re writing about childhood, using setting as a crucible to think about it. Whenever I’m nostalgic for childhood, which is pretty common, I’m also nostalgic for Florida. Luckily I get to return twice a year, not to Daytona Beach, where I grew up, but to Tampa, where I teach in a low-res MFA program. Plus Florida’s sort of hard to ignore—the news is full of it. Drugs, sinkholes, ritual murders.
NL: Do you think of your early work as particularly Floridian slash regional or am I just projecting Flannery O’Connor here?
KM: No, you’re not projecting. O’Connor was my first literary hero and her words about regional writing really struck a cord. But it took a while. When I lived in Florida I rarely set my stories there—I wanted to leave so bad, but I couldn’t, and writing was about the only escape hatch. I finally moved and started pining for it almost immediately. So, again, I returned through writing, more as a thought exercise, a puzzle, than anything else. I had the hardest difficulty writing anything autobiographical but Florida made a nice nest for what I wanted to do. It was a known variable.
NL: Your stories include a lot of humor, but lots of loss also—parents especially don’t do so well in your stories. There’s a fascinating mix of tragedy and comedy (to be reductive) in your work. Is this blend something you strive for in your work or is it just an inevitable result of good writing?
KM: It took so long for me to figure out what I wanted to be writing. You can’t run away from your obsessions so the real mystery is packaging. The humor, especially early on, probably arose from a twin insecurity about and impatience toward sentimentality. Impatience, especially. It’s a tough balance, though. Some of those early stories read like aborted sketch comedy bits.
NL: Tell me a bit about the backstory behind The Silent History. How did it come to be and, now that it’s been a few years, do you think you will do something like it again in the future?
KM: Eli Horowitz, whom I had worked with at McSweeney’s, approached Matt Derby and me about a digital project about children without the ability to produce or process language. I was vaguely interested in the digital part but the specifics of the story, and the chance to collaborate, were what really intrigued me. I also loved having other writers mapping out the storyline and filling other parts of it in. I would definitely like to collaborate again down the road, especially with those guys. (They both Google me constantly so I’m sure they’ll read this.)
NL: I love the depiction of the father-son rivalry as well as the portrayal of the gnomic Prof. Hodgett in “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events.” What inspired you to write this particular short story?
KM: Two things: an apocryphal story of a father with the same name as his son, who was a contributor to Harper’s, sending stories under the same name. I was thinking about this story while seeing a reading from someone who wrote a fictionalized version of his time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. To put it delicately: I found the story off-putting in the extreme. I couldn’t figure out why I was so put off by the story and it made me want to see if I could do any better. I realized early on that there was no way I could do it in a straight autobiographical way. It is the most autobiographical of any story I’ve written but, at the same time, the narrator embodies some of my worst qualities. Vanity, pettiness, cluelessness. And so on. I couldn’t write the story as an exercise in personality furthering. So a lot of the details of the story have very close sisters in the actual world, but tweaking the narrator a few degrees off-center gave me that angle on the material I needed. A much more oblique one.
NL: What was the genesis behind “The Gardener of Eden”? It’s such a wonderful and wonderfully odd story (one of my personal favorites).
KM: Thanks. That one started with a tree, the manchineel, which produces poison sap and poison apples. Ponce DeLeon was killed by an arrow tipped with manchineel poison. The tree itself is a pretty loud symbol and I spent the better part of my writing trying to work around the tree, thinking of all the different possible transactions. I was living in Arizona at the time, staring at saguaros and thinking a lot about hostile flora.
NL: Another one of my favorite stories from Permanent Visitors is “The Volunteer’s Friend,” which I find so beautiful and devastating. Can you talk about the story behind the story here?
KM: This is the rare case in which I dreamed a story, beginning, middle, and end, and I set aside what I had been working on and wrote “The Volunteer’s Friend” just as I remembered the dream. This had never happened, and at the time I thought, Okay, guess I’m gonna start dreaming my stories from here on out. It never happened again. Recently I had a dream where I was kissing a television set and I thought it might make for a good story. But it did not. My dream dictionary interprets this as the dream of someone who has been watching too much television.
NL: Dreams also play a supporting role in “Further Interpretations.” Do you find that dreams somehow find their way into your stories?
KM: Too much, probably. Dreams are a crutch for a fiction writer, but so so alluring. Lately I’ve made a point to ration dreams, to be very stingy with them because I am in the minority of people who not only find their own dreams fascinating but who never tires of hearing about what other people dream. Express too much interest in a casual acquaintance’s dream and people will begin to deem you aberrant.
NL: What is your take on readings and promotion in general (including interviews)? Do you like putting yourself out there? (Some writers really don’t.)
KM: I like giving readings. I like interviews and talking to people about writing. I even like writers’ conferences. But, no, I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, which is where publishers want their writers to be. I haven’t figured out how to use them in a way that doesn’t make me feel like my soul’s leaving my body. And just paddling around there is like being in a psychiatric ward, all this disembodied chatter, and I come away liking human beings less, which is no good. The goal is to like humans more, right?
NL: The blurb by George Saunders in which he says that “Kevin Moffett is a writer who has the very rare gift of true kindheartedness” really struck me. You show a lot of connection and empathy toward your characters, even if they don’t always act in their best interests. Is empathy something you strive for in your writing? To my mind, this blurb is a high compliment.
KM: It’s funny, a friend from grad school had some choice things to say about that blurb—he had high notions about Dostoyevsky and Gogol and to him, calling a writer kindhearted was like complimenting a fighting dog on his shiny coat. It felt to him like an admission of softness, or unseriousness or something. But isn’t writing an exercise in controlled empathy? Inhabiting different skins to figure out why people do what they do? I don’t strive for empathy so much as see it as impossible to operate without.
NL: I always find it interesting in readings when a member of the audience has a very personal but perhaps very different take on a story than what I intended. Do you think your audience gets the “right” read on your work, or do you feel as if your work is sometimes misinterpreted, or something in between?
KM: That’s a tough one. It’s dangerous to be too sure of what you’re intending with a piece of writing, so just about any interpretation feels valid to me. A while ago my son went to one of my readings—the character was talking about someone who died and afterward my son asked how they’d died. I said cancer and he paused and then told me they should have been killed by pirates. That’s as good a reading on my work as any. More people should have been killed by pirates.
NL: A good number of your stories, especially in Permanent Visitors, but also in Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events, revolve around odd jobs. What role does research play in crafting your stories?
KM: I spent my most of my twenties doing research. That is, working one odd job after another. Slicing meat at a deli counter, delivering pizza, selling flags for Vietnam veterans door to door, ferrying mail on a moped, landscaping. Lots of restaurant work. This was the closest I got to military service, being in tight quarters with people from all walks of life. You can’t go anywhere so you have to talk. There are people I’ve worked with twenty years ago whose voices are still in my head. As far as conventional research, I putter around. It usually follows something I’m already obsessed with, cults, dogs, birds, cooking. I’ll stumble over something and use it in a story.
NL: You are teaching now at Claremont McKenna College. What is your approach to teaching fiction workshops? Do you find yourself diverting from those who taught you (Powell, for instance)
KM: As a student, I needed to sharpen my vision on other writers’ books, my teachers included. I needed to study the language closely and in Padgett Powell I had a teacher who helped me do that. He was exactly what I needed, a genius guide who didn’t give a lot in the way of substantive criticism. He gave just enough for me to keep banging my head against the wall. I aim my workshops toward the would-be writers in the group, but more and more I’m realizing that my students have other aspirations. This is okay—actually it’s kind of liberating. It’s like yoga: we meet weekly and try to stretch ourselves a little.
NL: What are you working on these days (if I may be so bold to ask)? Your audience eagerly awaits more work, of course.
KM: I am writing stories, again, still. A book of shorter pieces meant to be read aloud.