Roy Kesey, author of Nothing in the World, All Over, and Pacazo, was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions for KGB Bar Lit.
KGB: Prior to publishing your novel, Pacazo, you’d established yourself as a skilled and celebrated writer of the short story and novella. Was your approach to writing Pacazo different than how you write shorter pieces?
Roy Kesey: It started precisely the same: Pacazo began life as “Pacazo,” a short story, and not even a particularly long one. That first draft was only maybe 2500 words.
By that point, though, two things were already clear to me. One was that the ending of “Pacazo” was an open one, of the failure-but-only-thus-far variety. The other was that I had a voice that I very much wanted to keep working with, or in. It felt new to me—an American English that was overeducated, slightly warped by extensive mind-time spent in a foreign language, exhausted with the effort it took to suppress both rage and shame.
It took me a long time to figure out all of the causes and consequences of that suppression. Even before I’d finished the first draft of the story, I was already writing in the margins, ideas and bits of phrasing for further episodes. And that process continued on and on for months, each scene ending open like a balcony, until I finally had it all in hand, the 350 pages or so of the first draft of the novel.
KGB: One theme that seems to often reoccur in your work is isolation. Do you establish a theme prior to starting a piece, or is it something that reveals itself as you write?
RK: For me, the starting point has always been voice. It’s the diction of the piece—the unique mapping-in-language of the brain and body of the main character/narrator/narrative stance—that shows me the possibilities, hints at certain pasts, and thus also at the forces that will try to force the action toward certain futures. I can remember only a single story that I started with a theme held consciously in mind. That story was never published. It was never published because it sucked. And it was a very specific kind of suckage: the didactic kind. Lesson learned.
Of course, let no one take that as any kind of advice. I’m against advice-giving in general, precisely because this is such a weird, individuated business. I’m sure there are countless writers who always start from theme and succeed brilliantly. That’s just not how I’m geared.
Does that make it weird, then, that certain themes do crop up more or less regularly in my work? Maybe. Anyway, yes, I’m interested in certain kinds of aloneness, in the effects they create, the intensities, and in why a given character might seek or shun them, successfully or not as the case may be.
KGB: In Pacazo, you blend the historical with the immediate, creating the engaging and intriguing story of John Segovia in Peru. Do you plot your work prior to writing, or does the structure reveal itself as you work?
RK: Again, everything starts with voice. I spent the first few months just following it wherever it wanted to go, trying to pre-edit as little as possible.
That said, one of the struggles involved in writing my first book a few years before—the novel that (once all the crap had been rinsed away) finally became the novella Nothing in the World—had been that the plotting kept getting away from me. I spent a huge amount of time following blind leads, and ending up in these preposterous cul-de-sacs. The longer the first draft of Pacazo got, the more conscious I was of the fact that the same thing was constantly on the verge of happening. I wanted to write smarter this time, to spend less energy hacking my way out the rough. So I shut down the creation for a time and built a terrifically detailed outline, both for what I’d already written and for what I planned to write. The ideas was that the explosions would be better controlled this way, better directed—more of the bullets, less of the TNT.
I think it worked to a certain extent. It got me through the first draft, anyway. But I wonder if it didn’t also incline me to be less flexible than I needed to be at certain later points. I spent eight years working and reworking the same scenes in the same order. All that work got the language to the place where I wanted it, but it took me all that time just to realize that I needed to add an entirely new layer to the text—the history you mentioned, as a matter of fact—and that I needed to reorder or cut a number of scenes that were sabotaging the plot’s momentum without contributing anything worthwhile to any other aspect of the book.
KGB: Your writing has been awarded numerous prizes, including an NEA Grant, the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize, and inclusion in the Best American Short Stories anthology. What role do you feel awards play in establishing a writer’s career?
RK: A cool but weird and complicating one, to be sure. Some writers win huge prizes for early work and then disappear forever, and I wonder if the pressure of living up to it in the future kind of broke them a little somehow. Because in some ways we tend to treat awards as stepping stones or signposts, don’t we—the bigger the accolade, the closer you are to success however defined, each one getting you into the mix for the next, as long as you keep doing the work.
Psychologically, winning or placing gives you a boost, of course. Sometimes a big one. But at least in my case, I’ve found that they don’t last very long—hours, usually—and then some moment in life (you drop your keys down that little gap at the elevator door, say, or a seagull shits on your sandwich) brings you right back to where you were before.
The material difference depends, I guess, on what your life looked like before you won. Sometimes it might be almost no difference at all, and sometimes it can be genuinely life-altering. In my case they’ve always been somewhere in the middle, with the exception of the NEA grant, which basically allowed me to leave a job I really didn’t want to be doing and dedicate myself to new writing.
KGB: Were there any specific inspirations--novels, music, art, even food or drink--that fueled your writing of Pacazo?
RK: It might be odd, but I don’t often think about inspiration in those terms any more. I get the voice coming to/through me (and could we call that itself inspiration? Sure, I guess, but it’s not coming as the result of anything in the world I could name, so I wouldn’t quibble with “inspired” but I wouldn’t know what to do with “inspired by”), and build a character with/around it. Then I push that character into complicated situations in a variety of settings, and try to figure out what the consequences allow me to see newly.
Of course, anyone I’ve ever met or heard of might contribute a characteristic to a given character; anywhere I’ve ever been or read of might contribute a characteristic to a given setting. And because I was living in the same city and country where most of the novel is set, I was also constantly dredging my life and times for moments that could enrich or usefully complicate the lives of my characters.
I hope I made good use of the lúcuma and maracuyá in the market stalls, of the songs of Chabuca Granda and Arturo Cavero, of the pisco and rum in the bars, of the seco de chavelo and majado de yuca at the picanterías in Catacaos, and so on. And it gave me a lot of pleasure to quote or wink at some of my favorite books by Peruvian authors—say, Oquendo de Amat’s 5 metros de poemas in the former case, or Vargas Llosa’s La casa verde in the latter. But none of those things were driving the process; John’s voice was, ever and always.
KGB: Your publisher, Dzanc Book, has come out with your story collection, All Over, reprinted your novella, Nothing in the World, as well as published your novel Pacazo. In their short history, they’ve swiftly established themselves as a preeminent publisher of literary fiction. How did this relationship come about?
RK: I absolutely agree. They’ve put together an amazing list, and it just keeps getting better, surely due mainly to the fact that they’ve put together such a terrific team. Steven Seighman did the design on all three of my books, Mary Gillis did all of the copy editing, and for Pacazo the amazing Matt Bell handled all the initial editing.
The way Dzanc and I ended up partnering in the first place was, they were searching for the manuscript that would be their first book, and as part of that process they were asking the editors of literary magazines they loved to suggest names of writers whose work they liked who didn’t yet have a book out. This was back in 2005, I think. My name was one of many that came up, and so I got an email from Dan Wickett asking if I had a manuscript free. At the time I had enough stories for two collections, plus a novel that, many years and a few hundred new pages later, would turn into the version of Pacazo that came out this February.
The other factor involved was that Nothing in the World had been orphaned when its original publisher closed up shop, and it was really important to me that it become available again. Fortunately Dzanc was amenable to the idea of redesigning it and bringing out a second edition, which pleased me no end.
KGB: And of course, the mandatory question: What are you working on now?
RK: A couple of things, as always. I just finished an op/ed on the recent presidential elections in Peru, and I’m translating a terrific novel by a young Argentine writer. I’m also prepping for the next book, mostly just reading, but also interviewing archaeologists and glacierologists and paleolimnologists. That, and waiting for the voice—always waiting for the voice.