An Interview with Kyle Beachy
by Zach Dodson
Kyle Beachy's debut novel The Slide was recently published by Dial Press and voted Readers' Choice for "Best Book by a Chicago Author in the Past Year" by the Chicago Reader. He lives in Chicago and teaches in the writing program at the School of the Art Institute.
1. When did you first know you wanted to write this book?
I didn't write my first piece of fiction until after I finished college. Like a lot of undergrads I would save essays until the last minute and then try and bullshit my way through, like some really quite dumb form of recreation. Junior year I began writing for my school paper, which basically gave me permission to write whatever: essays on bowling and frisbee golf and competitive urination. And I think the step from these semi-creative things to fiction was a natural one. But the short stories I wrote didn't ever really work in the way people expect a short piece of fiction to work. Iowa wasn't beating down my door. Iowa didn't give a shit about my door. So I guess I pursued a novel initially because it required that I produce a mass of material that I then revised and shaped into what today is The Slide.
1.2. While you were writing the novel, did you think a lot about what you were going to do with the manuscript when it was complete?
I never viewed writing a novel as some kind of private exercise, if that's an option. My goal from the beginning was to write a book that people would enjoy reading. That sounds really stupidly basic but it's important. I never imagined writing a book without imagining someone buying the book and publishing it. I don't believe I've ever tried to hide the fact that I want readers.
1.3. Have you ever, in fact, competitively urinated?
The way I see it all peeing is somehow competitive, even if only with yourself. You can always pee better. You just have to want it badly enough to work on it and try sometimes unconventional techniques. It takes experimenting with angles. Leaning in new ways. Doesn't it?
1.3.1. At the risk of this interview taking a weird masculine turn, I just have to say, that when a bar or a restaurant dumps ice in their urinals, it's amazing. I'll try and get back on track: Do you ever experience the literary or academic worlds as competitive? (i.e. When was the last time you were in a pissing contest?)
I love peeing onto ice! And I'd really like to know more about where and when the ice dump began. It's a mark of class and prevents the reflection of urine back onto hands. I'm glad to know we share a love for this.
Do I ever experience the literary world as competitive? In Chicago, yes. Often. And I think it's dumb as hell.
2. St. Louis is in a way one of the main characters in the story. Was this a conscious decision?
I decided a long time ago there was something unique, or at the very least interesting, going on in my home town. The sprawl and consequent deterioration of downtown, the rebuilding efforts, trying to convince the populace that it was okay to live downtown...and it seemed to me like all of these regional issues had a real familial tenor to them. People leaving for the west then slowly migrating back, but with apprehension and a small bit of distrust. So yes, I guess I was fascinated by the changes the city has undergone in my life there, and stepping away for a few years, coming back, leaving and returning again...all of these gave me a chance to look at the place with differing levels of objectivity. Plus the city itself, the region as a whole, shaped me, basically made me into who I am today, so I didn't even really have a choice in the matter. At some point I was going to try and capture my feelings for St. Louis, and now I feel like I have.
2.2. I think a perfect match with the suburban sprawl is the purified water delivery job. Typical slacker jobs like 'video clerk' seem to have been assimilated. Were you looking for the perfectly (clearly) pointless job for your protagonist? And how did you come to such a brilliant choice?
When I worked very briefly as a delivery driver it didn't feel anything like a slacker job. It was in fact damn hard and damn satisfying labor. Around this time I was also beginning to think seriously about writing. So, I don't know that I ever thought of the water delivery job in terms of cool or pointless as much as I approached it as a matter of practicality, a tool to move my protagonist through a sprawling city and into homes in a way that other people don't get to move. I see it more as a validation of [fellow SAIC faculty member] Jesse Ball's approach to writing fiction, which as I understand it basically says: pursue your thought to its fullest extent. Line up your private images and tell the story as it naturally emerges from your consciousness. Don't worry about connections and symbols and image threads because if you fully embrace your own consciousness, these issues will take care of themselves.
2.2.1. So, if you approached the images and themes of your story unconsciously, looking back now which are the ones that you would say naturally emerged?
I don't mean to say that achieving "unconsciousness" or "emptying my vessel" or any of these was ever a deliberate part of my writing process. I'm simply not very Eastern. It's just that when you spend enough time with a single character in a single place, moving that character through the world, I think it happens that image threads and themes sort of bubble naturally to the surface. Consider all the cases of orange juice in Underworld, for instance. Part of me likes to think those came about naturally as he waded through his version of the 20th century, that they came about with a certain kind of necessity. I suppose motherhood was a theme that became more important the longer I spent writing this book. Teaching, notions of what knowledge can do, how it can be shared, what even is its worth once all is said and done. And hands. The book is full of hands that I didn't specifically plan for.
3. You've been working on this book for a long time. Can you give us an idea of the time line of its creation?
Since I'd written only a couple short things before I began work on this book, the long process was essentially how I learned to write fiction. So it was trial by fire, and I made a whole lot of wrong turns along the way. I started fiddling in the winter of 2001, while living in Vail, CO. I finished the first draft back in August of 2004, midway through my time as an MFA student at SAIC. From that point until my agent sold the book in January of 2007, it was an ongoing process of revision. I went from third to first-person POV and cut out entire narrators and plotlines, including this great bit about an evil group of mustachioed men bearing down on a particular bridge, swarming to the river with fishing poles and malicious intentions. I owe a lot of gratitude to the friends and teachers who read the book along the way and helped me realize what it was actually supposed to be: a love story, as it turns out.
3.2. The love story, set in post-college torpor, is not an unfamiliar scenario. Were you at all nervous about writing the "college novel"? Were there any clichés you sought to avoid?
I love that DeLillo quote about White Noise, where he explains that he "never set out to write an apocalyptic novel." I can say I never set out to write a coming-of-age story, and even less did I set out explicitly to contribute to the cliché of failed love in a post-college torpor (well fucking put, by the way). I wrote the story as I saw the story, I read to see what I had written, then I made changes accordingly. And I'll add that I never explicitly tried to avoid cliché, primarily because I sort of love cliché, or at least the component of cliché that grows from history. Homecoming stories are powerful because they touch on something innate in ourselves. Same for stories of failed or challenged love. Readers react and feel based on this innate thing. cliché is the realm of the mind, the analytical and critical brain. So I think avoidance of cliché for the sake of avoidance is kind of stupidly fearful. Whatever intellectual or formal success a story might have, it still has to move the heart if it's to be remembered.
3.3. This long editing process sounds like it really molded the book into a shape you're happy with. Even so, would you do it this way again? Any lessons learned for starting the next draft?
I understand pacing and scale and structure better, and I have no shortage of memories of corners I backed myself into along the way. It's like anything else, I suppose. We learn these things naturally in a really simply beautiful kind of way. Oh, a frying pan on the stove is hot? Better not touch the pan. Check. Filed. This doesn't always happen on the conscious level. So the lessons I can speak of having learned are probably nothing compared to that which I've picked up without knowing. And I'm sure the same will happen between books two and three, and so on down the road. Which is frankly awesome to think of: that I can do this again, and do it better, and then do it again even better. If all goes well.
3.3.1. A writer friend of mine claims that he's just going to write one perfect novel when he's in his 50s, which is a nice, romantic idea. I'm more with you in that I view it as a learning process, where someone gets better over time, even if some early stumbling is in the public eye. If you had to guess what kind of novel you would write in your 50s, what would it be?
I'd like to do something large at some point, something spanning decades or more, the whole globe. Maybe a science-fiction novel. Or a teddy-bear-snuff-porn novel? Christ, I have no idea. Maybe a typographical novel in which each character is given his or her own font? I sort of doubt I could pull that one off. I really have no idea but I'd hope to have several books finished in the twenty years I have before I hit 50. I'd like someday to look back on a nice healthy trail of novels and other projects, revisit them as evidence of where I was, what I believed, what fascinated me. Except this is getting a little self-serving, here. The point is: I can't imagine saving material until I was wise and developed and polished enough to write that material properly. Because there's beauty in imperfection. Some of my favorite novels are the imperfect ones, like Denis Johnson's weird semi-failures, or Faulkner's Sanctuary. The kind of ugly novels in the corner.
3.3.2. Some of my favorites are also novels I consider "failed." Sometimes, for an author, I'll even have two categories: what I think their "best" novel is, and what my favorite novel is. The Slide touches on some of this theme of failure. What would you say Potter's shortcomings are? Further—what do you think the shortcomings of the book are?
There's a line in there when Potter's brother accuses him of having shark eyes, and I think this is at the root of a lot of his problems. He's been trained to break things apart, to analyze, and he's good at it, so he thinks he should continue. But there's a danger in this: it can paralyze, especially in our era of unbridled self-awareness. Regarding the book itself, I went through a period during revisions when I worried that its concerns weren't global enough or didn't resonate enough with the pressing issues of the twenty-first century. That feeling evaporated, though, the day it was published, because now there's no changing it. It is what it is, and I can rest at night knowing I made it complete. There's a strange distance when I hear criticism of the book, because there's nothing more to do. Some people will like it and others won't. No book appeals to everyone. I can say honestly that I love this book. Is that bad to say? Who cares. I love it.
3.3.3. I don't think it's bad to say at all. You had quite a fight for it, that's for sure. And I agree, there is some great relief in publication. Do you want to talk a bit about its journey to publication?
I heard from a lot of agents who almost wanted to represent my book, enough that even though it was a long process, I never really felt hopeless. I cried like a tiny little girl, though, once my agent called to tell me she wanted the book. Or a tiny little boy, I suppose. Suffice it to say I was relieved, and more relieved once she sold it to Dial, and uproariously relieved when the book became a real thing recently.
3.3.4. What was the editing process like with your agent?
My agent and I made a few changes, but the real edits came after it was purchased by Dial. My editor is a very smart young man who was pretty deeply invested in the book, which I can't tell you how it feels to have someone like this on your side. The first thing he did was write me a ten-page memo, single spaced. Sometimes we fought, I would resist and rail against his notes, but most times I would cool off and embrace changes because the book was always getting better. Or I was forced to explain why a thing had to stay a certain way. It all helped. He pushed me and prodded me and said no, said try harder, said this isn't good enough, do it again. They make some tough sonsabitches at Dartmouth, I'll say that.
3.4. How about the cover? I always pay close attention to covers and this one is really great. Will you tell us a bit about how this got to be the cover for your book?
I met [cartoonist] Anders Nilsen a few years ago through skateboarding. Almost as soon as the book was acquired by Dial I began lobbying for him to do my cover, and my editor was into it, everyone was on board. Then things got derailed when the buyer from a certain major retail chain decided she didn't like the cover, something about the colors? Who knows. Anyway, we rushed through all these other covers, and one was okay, if a bit generic. But then the economy went down the shitter and the major retail chain slashed orders across the board—which meant we no longer had to worry too hard about their order. I'm deeply honored to have Anders' work on my front and back covers.
4. Let's talk about the story just a bit. The protagonists' parents are particularly well drawn. Hanging over all of their lives is the tragic death of their oldest son when he was a small child. Why did you choose to embody this incident as a ghost in the book?
I wish I was better versed in Gothic horror or magical realism so I could answer with a grand arching theory about the fantastic and its role in drama. Instead I'll say that I was fortunate enough to study in Cambridge as an undergraduate, and my Shakespeare teacher was this beautiful old man named Charles who lived about a twenty-minute walk outside of town in a small, brick English cottage. Once a week another student and I would traipse out there and sit and drink tea and listen to Charles drop straight wisdom onto us, the sort of education that physically wore us out for its sheer insight and scope. He made "Hamlet" into something very important in my life, speaking at length on ghosts and memory and history. The ghost as history manifest, the notion of apparitions symbolizing evidence of some flaw in the natural order of things, some imbalance in the world. I was also reading a lot of the early Haruki Murakami novels. And speaking totally plainly, sometimes I just prefer when shit gets a little strange.
5. I know it's just come out, but what has your favorite reaction to the book been so far?
Joe Meno calling it "refreshingly sincere" was nice, and I've had some interviews with writers who seemed to be on top of some of the slightly more nuanced things I was trying to do. It's gratifying. But the most entertaining reaction so far comes from a former philosophy professor of mine who really loved the first two-thirds of the book and couldn't have been less happy with the developments toward the end. Today he wrote me an email railing on me for the decisions I made, saying "had you been Nabokov you would have" done this or that. Caps everywhere, exclamation points, just flat-out disappointment screaming from the email. It was amazing. I've never even considered having to apologize for not being Nabokov.
5.2. That's funny. Sometimes the negative reactions can be the most fun, or the most interesting. But if you can't apologize for not being Nabokov, can you tell us some writers that you wish you were? Or ones you feel directly influenced this book? Besides Shakespeare.
I read and teach a lot of DeLillo. His sense of timing, his dialogue, the meaning he can find inside a single moment, he's a wizard. I've already mentioned Murakami. I tried for a long time to emulate David Foster Wallace only to realize that was like trying to emulate the clouds, or the moon. His essay on television and U.S. culture remains a major influence on how I approach writing, especially with respect to sincerity versus irony. I read Didion for guidance in paring my sentences down, and Marilynne Robinson for her sense of the past and wonder for the world. Denis Johnson, of course. Faulkner, of course. Cormac McCarthy. Annie Dillard. John Barth. Anne Carson. And I'm influenced quite a bit by my friends that are writers, too—Chris Bower, Margaret Chapman, Dave Snyder, Odie Lindsay, Jill Summers, the rapper Serengeti—people whose work strikes me as so totally different than my own, and therefore invaluable.
6. There are a lot of great people doing great things in Chicago. What do you make of the literary community here?
Deep, wide, varied, great. Inspiring, in that if I'm not working all I have to do is look out my window and see this entire city whirring along, publishing their journals and hosting their readings and whatever other events. I have no choice but to keep up, it's that wonderful hint of competition, or at least participation. Chicago invites you in then demands that you keep up. You look around and see Featherproof and Orange Alert and the Quickies! women, the Rhino Festival, all these people working hard to make and promote their work and you don't really have much of a choice. You've got to work, always. I'm honored to be a small part of what's going on here. That said, competition can also motivate some pretty childish, unprofessional behavior, and I've seen some of that, too. It's the same thing that happens with music and visual art scenes in Chicago, like the spotlight here is only so big, so fuck you if you're trying to take away from my shine—horror stories are to be expected in any community, I suppose.
7. Seems like a lot of interviews end on something like, "So... what's next for Kyle Beachy?" I'm going to take the opposite tack. Now that you're a published author, and writing teacher, what are you glad you'll never have to do again?
That's tough. It's presumptuous and likely wrong to think I won't deal with rejection again on the scale I have, plus there's always something to learn from being told no. I could say I'm happy I'll never have to workshop pieces of my novel again in a classroom setting, but then I lead workshops from time to time, and I know they're valuable even when frustrating. I suppose I'm happy to never have to get this material out of myself again. That it's been expunged and set permanently onto the page. That whatever I do next (this is me finding the backdoor of your question), whatever the subject matter and whatever the form, it will never again be my first novel.
Zach Dodson is the author of the novel Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring (Featherproof Books, 2008). He also serves as co-host of The Show 'n Tell Show, a bi-monthly event focusing on designers and visual artists.