Dhaka, Bangladesh
A novel is not a rant

A novel is not a rant

Rachel Kushner is the author of two acclaimed novels - Telex From Cuba, which explores the lives of American expatriates in the last days of the United Fruit Company in Oriente, and The Flamethrowers, which brings together the 70s art world of New York, motorcycle racing and Red Brigades militancy in Italy. Kushner lives in Los Angeles, where we met to talk about the art of reading, how writing can be a genderless space, and why a novel is not a rant. Excerpts from an interview: I read The Flamethrowers a year ago and what I remember is the surprise of it, the energy, the dialogue. As a reader, what do you look for or remember about a book? I ask myself two questions when I'm reading. The first is 'Is this sustaining my attention?' And the second: 'Am I learning something from this?' It's different every time, but the quality of language is important to me. If something feels lax or is full of infelicities, it's hard to sustain faith in the idea that the writer is going to hold you authoritatively or with the assurance that they know their material and their terrain. More important is to have a kind of aesthetic unity. I think I'm looking for work that has some kind of sheen to it, that the writer is giving herself/ himself a kind of pleasure - a pleasure that comes through really sustained concentration and work. In my own experience of writing what I'm looking for is somehow to work day in and day out until I have inspired moments, and for the accretion of those moments to achieve something that is more intelligent than I am on any given day. And I'm also just looking for what is going to help me with my own cause quite frankly, so that changes depending on what the cause is - what I'm trying to write or think about. So you're not one of those writers who avoid reading books while writing? Assimilation is part of my process. If I read something and there's something in it for me inspiration-wise, as it gets metabolised through my sensibility, it will come out differently as my own. Certain people I go back to and read again, and those writers who I love remind me to have a high standard and think the thought all the way through; so reading for me is this conversation that you get to have as a writer with other writers and that's part of the writing. Can you name three of those writers? Oh, sure. I love Proust. His writing is a complete world of different facilities that literature has and it's totally original and formed. I don't know how he did it. Bolaño, of more recent writers. I think he's been generative for a lot of writers, so I don't claim any originality in loving Bolaño, but 2666 for me seemed like one grand tapestry of approaching the question of evil. It's existence or lack thereof, and the way he skittered from story to story within the frame of the story was very freeing for me, and it seemed true. And Marguerite Duras is also a writer I care about a lot. It would be hard to assimilate anything from her tone or sensibility because it's so purely her own and it's about her life and this mystic disposition that she took on, and her obsessive recounting of her own stories over and over again; there's something in her sensibility that I really like. You deal with big issues in your book - the 70s art world and the Red Brigades in Italy, but you also have these wonderful small details, like the Italian signora checking that the servants haven't stolen pieces of ham, or Brancusi not allowing Peggy Guggenheim to touch his beard while they were having sex. How do you balance the small versus the big? If I had an answer to that I'd be having an easier time writing my novel. When I read things, sometimes a detail will strike me and I'll write it down, but a book is not made from a pile of notebooks that have great little descriptions in them. I mean that's just a mess and a headache for the writer, and heartbreak because it leads to failure. A lot of the fun for me with this particular novel was that it didn't require research. I was hoping to activate bodies of knowledge that I'd picked up along the way, and I thought if I wrote a book, I could actually put that knowledge to work for me in another realm. Something about the art world in the 70s was compelling to me, and Italy too, as a country was compelling for me. I lived there when I was 18 and I love Italian film. The education of what aesthetics are for me was Antonioni. Once in a while one very small detail can do a lot of work, and then you don't need to put in any of the others. But I don't really have a system for it. Do you think about representing men and women specifically when you write? Your narrator, Reno, seems in parts to be viewed through a very male gaze, but is also incredibly empowered. I don't think about it in a polemical way where I'd want to express certain ideas of gender bias or inequality. Specifically in terms of the narrator's character, I wrote her the way that seemed true to me, having been a young woman at the time. The art world was still a very macho world in the 70s. A lot of the artwork that women were making then was about their beauty, about their bodies, about nudity, and I still find that confusing. I don't totally understand it, but it was part of feminism at the time. The narrator's not part of that. I wanted her to be interested in making a type of work and feel that she related with the kind of sensibility that was probably more male in that era, and not for any particular argument that I was trying to make. It's a cliché but it's true to me. People possess an interior range, and sometimes what's called a masculine sensibility or a feminine sensibility gives short shrift to the way that people feel inside themselves - just as a person - there's a layer inside of us that's a little less gendered. Gender is really learned over a lifetime. You get good at being a girl after a while, some people are good at it early and some people are good at it later, but when you're writing, there's a free space, when you really are just a person. Could you talk about the place of politics in your work? I'd say it's okay to be political and to be a writer. Those streams can be separate and they can be connected; for me they're both. Life is political and I'm interested in my community and in a lot of issues - some of them American, some global. Some writers think that fiction is the space of great neutrality where all humans share the same concerns, and we are all alike. I don't think so. I'm interested in class warfare because I think it's real. I also think it would be a recipe for failure for me to write a novel that had a polemical push to it, to prove this or that. Art is something special because it can come up with a way of approaching the truth that is a little to the side. Or the end result of it, that synthesis needs to have not been anticipated by the writer herself, or it's a paint by numbers kind of thing and it feels more dead. A novel is not a rant.

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