“I Just Write What I Want to Read”

An Interview with Novelist Michael Kardos

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This interview is the second in the Crooked Letter Interview Series hosted by Prairie Schooner’s Southern Correspondent, James Madison Redd. On September 12th 2012, he met with novelist Michael Kardos in Starkville, Mississippi. The following is an excerpt from their meeting.

A past contributor to Prairie Schooner, Michael Kardos is the author of the novel The Three-Day Affair and the story collection One Last Good Time, winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award for fiction. He co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.

Redd: Your first book was hailed as a literary work, and your most recent was dubbed a thriller. In an article in the Huffington Post, you question the distinctions between literary and genre writing.

Kardos: On the first day of my MFA program, everyone was asked to bring in a piece of good writing. Just a page, but not to bring in the book, because no one was supposed to see the piece beforehand. I brought in the first page of Richard Price’s novel Clockers. Which in essence is a detective novel, but, man, the first page is good, and the writing is fantastic. A lot of people brought in what was called genre fiction, and a number of people brought in what was thought of as literary fiction, and it was really fun not knowing what the pieces were. We talked about them out of context to see which was a literary writer, and which was a genre writer. Ever since then I’ve been thinking about it. The Huffington Post article was a tongue-in-cheek look at the topic, but I think there was a point there, too: when you start looking at what makes a piece genre and what makes it literary, it’s very hard to know sometimes.

R: So how can a piece of writing that follows many genre conventions earn literary status?

K: I think part of it is how the book itself is positioned. Part of it is what the writer has done before, and part of it has to do with the degree of difficulty. Think of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. There’s lots of supernatural-magical-realist stuff, and that’s certainly not an easy work by any stretch. It’s obviously a work of literary fiction; whereas someone like Kevin Brockmeier, a writer I love who is writing fable-esque types of works, presents sort of the real world with a twist. His novel The Brief History of the Dead is a post-apocalyptic work. It’s obviously character intensive; certainly the plot doesn’t run the show. The work is relatively easy to read, so the difficulty isn’t so much in the construction of the sentences but rather in the ideas themselves and the depth of meaning.

R: I’m sure you knew going into writing The Three-Day Affair that there might be this controversy about whether it’s literary or not. What inspired you to take on this challenge?

K: I just wrote the novel I wanted to read. It was an idea that I’d played with a bit in the story collection. I read a story in the paper a number of years ago, an article about a bus driver in D.C. who, because he had lots of things going on in his head, accidentally skips one of his bus stops. Meanwhile, the kids are all in the back. He misses the next stop, and before he knows it, he’s hijacked his own school bus. I thought that idea was fantastic. I didn’t want to read any more about the article. So I wrote a story about that idea, and that became the title story in the collection One Last Good Time. But I didn’t feel like I was done yet playing with this idea of someone who’s basically a good guy, and in ordinary circumstances, he’d make good decisions, but because he’s driving the vehicle, and the longer he’s driving the more into the trouble he gets, he doesn’t have the time to make the good decisions he would have made. That’s what happens in the novel. In the first chapter the narrator has accidentally kidnapped somebody. He thinks she’s injured; he’s rushing to the hospital with her; then he learns: no, she’s not injured; his buddy has thrown her in the car and actually kidnapped her. Because they’re already on the road, Will isn’t able to take the time he wants to make good decisions. Exactly how literary that idea is never entered my head. I thought it was an interesting premise. I wanted to explore that and see how far I could take it.

R: The Kirkus Review calls the novel an “agonizing moral nightmare.” Speaking of Will’s decision process, in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, you talk about how the characters rationalize their actions. How do you come to find empathy with these characters and their moral situations?

K: I think the “nightmare” word is the key. One of the things I wanted to capture in this novel was this feeling…have you ever had this feeling that you wake up in the morning, and you feel like you’ve done something horrible, but you can’t remember what it is? It’s this nightmare logic of “What if I’ve done this thing, and I don’t know what it is.” That feeling behind it was something I wanted to get into the novel. With this nightmare logic, it’s easy to empathize or sympathize with somebody who is guilty, but wishes he wasn’t, or who wants desperately to undo a transgression. So it wasn’t that hard for me to find sympathy for these guys, which may say something terrible about me.

R: One of the most interesting parts of the novel to me was the ending. Once the kidnapping is resolved, the novel keeps going. Could you talk about your choices in the structure?

K: Yeah, without giving away any spoilers. I think you’re exactly right. I originally had a brief outline of the novel as I was working, just a couple of pages to keep me on track. I thought I knew where I was going. Where the outline ended, the novel didn’t end. As I was working on the novel I realized, “Oh, wait a minute. That really isn’t the ending.” Because the ending I’d sketched out wasn’t the answer to the question. As I was writing, the more interesting questions were coming up. I needed to write more chapters. This happened more than once. I’d have a realization about the story, and I had to keep going.

R: I wonder if that may be one of the differences between literary and genre writing. Some of these genre writers, like James Patterson for instance, will write thirty or forty pages, then give the outline to his ghost writers, and they will follow the outline. It seems like you didn’t do that. You had an outline, but you made choices along the way, and the outline changed.

K: You know, you’re writing a novel of say 80,000 words, and that’s a lot of words. It can be disheartening to sit down and know you’ve got to write so many words. So an outline helped, but I never felt it was an outline I had to stick to. And I think part of what you describe, as far as a writer who spends a lot of time in the outline and sticks to it, is that some writers work that way. I don’t even know how I work, because this is a first novel. Maybe in the next novel I’ll write differently. For this novel, anyway, I didn’t stick to the outline too closely. Maybe those who stick to an outline more closely, maybe they’re under a deadline, and that process works best for them. But it’s hard to second-guess how anybody else works, because novel writing is so mysterious.

A winner of the Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Prize for the short story, James Madison Redd’s fiction was nominated for Best New American Voices. His fiction, poetry, and reviews have or will appear in Fifth Wednesday, Parting Gifts, Thumbnail Magazine and Prairie Schooner’s “Briefly Noted”.