Spanish publisher Empúries has recently published “Tot” (Everything) by Kevin Canty, an interesting novel and a great catalog of feelings and emotions. We have approached the writer to talk about his work, the process of writing and upcoming projects.
The characters in Everything live in a hard territory they love but they’d rather leave. Sometimes they also wonder “”How did it come to this?”. Is the perpetual dissatisfaction of men one of the main topics you wanted to reflect in the novel? What do you think about the inability of some of your characters to understand the reasons that have led them to the point they are in their lives?
I think this comes out of my own experience of life at the time I was writing the novel. When I was younger, I thought that you would just hit the middle part of your life and everything would stay the same for a while — get a job, settle into a marriage and so on. Then in my early fifties all hell broke loose. My father died, my marriage broke up, I got involved in a very passionate and slightly doomed new relationship, and through all this my relationship to my family and my kids shifted around. It was definitely an interesting time but puzzling in many ways too. I think my attempts to understand my own life are reflected in the concerns of the book.
Love is a major theme in the novel, but it’s a rash, sad love that does not make the characters happy. Why have you decided to portray this bitter, painful image of love?
I hope it doesn’t sound so completely negative — I actually believe that love can be a powerful force for happiness. But I also think it can make you crazy. I actually have a newfound respect for the power of love to change lives, but not the puppy-dogs-and-pink-hearts kind of love you find on greeting cards. It’s true that there’s a lot of pain for these characters but moments of bliss as well, I hope.
At the end of the novel, the main stories reach some level of closing. Do you think about the future of your characters after you finish writing? Do you consider going back to those lives and write again about them?
I actually have one character from my first story collection, Kenny Kolodny, who came back to be the main character in my first novel, Into the Great Wide Open. Since then, I’ve written him into a couple of other stories, just to see what he’s up to. I never know what I might be working on in the future but it would be unusual for me to bring these characters back. Apart from Kenny, it’s not something I’ve done much. I do think about them, though.
Would you like to talk about the structure of the novel? No chapters, separate threads for each character, very short installments… How do you decide the structure of your books? Is it a conscious process before you start writing?
It’s much more instinctive / intuitive in my case. All of my writing begins as improvisation, usually from a point that doesn’t make it into the final draft of a book. All I need is an idea that feels like it’s got some life to it. Then I start to write, and as I do, the image of the characters slowly starts to take shape, and then an idea of what might be important to them, of what they are trying for, which becomes the plot of the book. All of this happens in a kind of conversation with form. Should it be in first person? Third? The things you’re noticing — the interweaving of the narrative threads — came about in response to a feeling I had that I didn’t want to narrative to come to a stop when we sifted to another character.
Descriptions are a powerful element in your novel. How important is the landscape to the story? And how important is the landscape for you, for your daily work? Do you have any special place to write?
Ha! I write in my bedroom, with a view of the neighbor’s dog. But I am writing here about people who love the place, who take solace and pride in the natural beauty around them. I think it’s part of why some people are attracted to the American West: that daily dose of beauty. These are the people I’m trying to express.
The novel has a tone I found very cinematic. Have you thought about adapting your work to other media? Do you consider film or television a source of inspiration?
I try to stay away from stories that could be better told in film. Writing is such a powerful tool for developing the human reality, which is to say the world as filtered through the individual consciousness with its history, its ideas, its desires and established thoughts. I really want to stay in this internal world, to have the story happen there, and to leave the car chases and gunshots to the professionals.
(Not a knock against film, by the way, which I adore. But it takes a great genius (I’m thinking of the Fellini of 81/2) to depict the internal life. Film seems better suited to external action.)
Reading reviews and comments on your work, I have found continuous references to Raymond Carver. What do you think about these comparisons? Is Carver one of you favorite writers?
I loved Carver for a long time as I was developing as a writer, and still have enormous respect for him. I’m flattered by the comparison, but really I don’t feel like I write that much like him. Certainly I love his concision, exactness, restraint. But I’ve always needed more to happen in my stories, always relied more on event and consequence. He can really make a story out of what feels like thin air.
I believe that you are or have been teaching writing seminars. Can you tell us the first advice you give to new writers?
I’m such a fundamentalist on this — I always tell them to write more. I’m also a guitar player, and I know that if I practice an hour a day I get better, and if I don’t, I get worse. It’s really no different in writing. You need to keep in touch with your instrument, have all the tools right there by your hand so when and idea comes up, you’ll know what to do with it. It’s a tricky business, writing, and it takes most people a long time to learn. But you can chip away at it through practice.
Can you recommend us a book that you are currently reading? What are your current projects?
A two-for-one answer: I’m currently on sabbatical in Tucson, Arizona, and I’m working on a new group of short stories. I’m writing every day, several hours a day, and the rule I’ve set for myself is that every time I find myself bored or frustrated with my work, I’ll put it aside and read a genius short story for inspiration. Right now on the genius shelf I have “The Moons of Jupiter” by Alice Munro, William Trevor’s selected stories, “Escapes” by Joy Williams, Isaac Babel’s stories and, yes, “What We talk About When We Talk About Love” by Carver. Some Katherine Mansfield, Eudora Welty and Tolstoy to round out the group. Quite a cocktail party