Relenting: Sebastian Matthews Interviews Kevin McIlvoy
Kevin McIlvoy’s novel One Kind Favor (WTAW Press) will be published in May 2021. He has published four other novels, A Waltz (Lynx House Press), The Fifth Station (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; paperback, Collier/Macmillan), Little Peg(Atheneum/Macmillan; paperback, Harper Perennial), Hyssop (TriQuarterly Books; paperback, Avon), At the Gate of All Wonder (Tupelo Press); and a short story collection, The Complete History of New Mexico (Graywolf Press). His short fiction has appeared in Harper’s, Southern Review, Ploughshares, Missouri Review, and other literary magazines. A collection of his prose poems and short-short stories, 57 Octaves Below Middle C, has been published by Four Way Books (October 2017). For twenty-seven years he was fiction editor and editor in chief of Puerto del Sol. He taught in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program in Creative Writing from 1987 to 2019; he taught as a Regents Professor of Creative Writing in the New Mexico State University MFA Program from 1981 to 2008. He has lived in Asheville, North Carolina since 2008.
Sebastian Matthews is the author of a memoir, In My Father’s Footsteps and two books of poetry, We Generous and Miracle Day. His collection of poetry and prose, Beginner’s Guide to a Head-on Collision, was awarded the Independent Publishers Book Award’s silver medal. Matthews’ most recent books include Beyond Repair: Living in a Fractured State and The Life & Times of American Crow. His work has appeared in, among other places, American Poetry Review, The Atlantic, Blackbird, The Common, Georgia Review, Poets & Writers, The Sun, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Writer’s Almanac.
How did you come to the story – the violent act – at the center of One Kind Favor?
In August 2014, I read an article in The Guardian reporting the violent death of a young Black man, Lennon Lacy, in North Carolina: a so-called “suicide” that the investigative reporter felt was, in fact, a modern-day lynching only superficially investigated by local and state officials who gave the story a passing moment of attention, only a passing moment since such hate crimes have become dizzyingly more commonplace following the U.S. Supreme Court 2013 decision to gut the Voting Rights Act. Here in North Carolina where Republican legislators, led by the racist Senator Philip E. Berger, took this court decision as a clear signal to attack all the rights of citizens who were not white. In retrospect, I think Lennon Lacy’s death could be seen as a warning of the intensified degeneration of our democracy that would come as a backlash at the end of the Obama era and at the beginning of the Trump era. This kind of racially motivated murder leaves in its aftermath ghosts that join the thousands upon thousands of ghosts remaining present in the hateful world that tried to erase them.
As a novelist, I’m always trying to allow the stories large in scope and span to find me, the ones that I’m most terrified of exploring because they will test the outer limits of my flawed conscience, of my limited attentiveness and responsiveness. The art that makes the artist most vulnerable is always the one clear choice. I feel that the story – the American story – of the world of old and new ghosts will not let me be. I don’t, in fact, think of the violence in One Kind Favor as its consummate center but as one characteristic of the complex, ongoing tragedy of a haunted world.
A haunted world indeed! One Kind Favor opens with the narrator informing the reader of the ways and means of a prominent business, “a combined bar and consignment shop,” in a small North Carolina town. Right away, we are told: “We understand that White Presences and Black Presences were regulars, that they stayed, returned, were never gone long. We have known about the Presences since the race murders here, one hundred and fifty years of them…” The narrator goes on to list Civil War Confederates, the first slaves, “free citizens” from the Reconstruction era, and “the Klan dead,” all the way to the present, bringing us through the Obama era up to these Trumpian times. Can you talk a little about this opening and how it prepares the reader for the story to come?
As I compose and revise the opening pages of a novel, I’m always asking that the work’s full wildness provoke and invite the reader whom I imagine as a reader wishing to be lost, not found, wishing to be vulnerable, not in control. After all, a reader can always find in life the paths into being tamed. Why shouldn’t a novelist, who has been led by the work into inescapable wildness, share the journey?
In literary novels that play fair with the reader, the opening pages establish three extraordinary expectations: that the reader will welcome a visceral response to language, in particular to the kinds of novelistic sentences that disrupt the push-and-glide transactional nature of ordinary language in which concision and direction are valued above moment-by-moment expansiveness and redirection; that the reader will enter paradoxes leading in the self-same moment to and away from the assumptions central to the reader’s belief systems; and that the reader will give the benefit of the doubt to the impulsive movements of a work large enough in scale and span that its design is in constant flux, skidding easily from purpose to play, from thematic clarity to thematic uncertainty, from many modes of tragedy and many modes of comedy to the modes existing in the gray area between comedy and tragedy.
That sounds glib: sounds like I have mastered the methods for realizing in the opening pages of my novels the characteristics I’ve described above. At the risk of making excuses for my wreckages, I’ll just say that the choice to press perfect leaves between pages is different than the choice to grow trees that are, by their natures, distorted more often than comported in root, trunk, branch, stem, and leaf. Respecting that I am trying to grow inhabitable and inhospitable trees, good editors like Peg Alford Pursell, Sally Ball, and Lee Goerner have been vital to my processes of replanting, pruning, reshaping, and, on the whole, reckoning with the book I live inside.
You have been an activist all your adult life, and that comes through in your work, especially in Hyssop and At the Gate of All Wonder, but this book feels like a new – or deeper – direction into matters of race and racial violence. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, can you talk about how – and maybe why – you’ve taken this path?
I hold in the highest regard the poet Basho’s concept of wabi, “the state of impoverishment in which what is before you is enough.” (I’m loosely restating Stephen Mitchell’s definition in translation.) I believe the practice of writing novels is – simply – impossibly – the practice of presence. And I’ve never separated in my thoughts the artist’s practice of being fully present while in a state of absolute vulnerability from the activist’s practice of the same nature. I attempt to write fiction from the inside out; that is, I try to find the ground of the characters’ ways of being and ways of becoming as I discover the terms of engagement that are transformative for the reader.
I don’t wish to save or cure the reader with terms of engagement that are transactional. As I’ve remarked in answer to your last question, I wish for the reader’s body to come alive inside the body of language that is paradoxically familiar and unfamiliar, desired and feared. As I write, I wish for a composing and revising condition in which I can be in the service of the characters as they are; in service to the world of the characters as it is. In my novels, and especially in Little Peg and Hyssop and At the Gate of All Wonder and One Kind Favor, the characters’ ethical anxieties are essential traits in their personalities. Note how unforgettably these traits mark Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and all of Grace Paley’s fiction and poetry and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. They are my heroes.
If I’m in an asylum or community center or a political group, I make a conscious attempt to patiently be brought from a condition of “reaction” to a condition of “response”: that is, from a condition of controlled, generalized, centering and self-centering thought and felt experience to a rapidly shifting and developing condition of multiple, decentering somatic experiences. I’ve never felt more helpless – and, so, more fully human – than when I’ve been in the Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing care facility or in a prison setting or in the teeth of a political monster: what I feel in my skin and flesh holds me in the moment, pushes aside the impulse to have power and invites the directive to relent power. Relenting: how will I be better at this elemental process as I make the next turns in my life as an artist?
I keep emphasizing the word “attempt” because I am, after all, an attempter. Perhaps the novel and the poem are the art forms best suited to making splendid wreckages: the shattered mirrors that embody our human multiplicity and human brokenness. My fifty years as an artist/activist – fifty years is a brief apprenticeship for an activist, briefer yet for an artist – have continually reminded me of Emerson’s statement, “A light shines through us upon things, and shows us we are nothing.” I’m determined to keep attempting to be a good lens through which light can pass.
I know you as a studier of voices, maybe even an expert in sound and the texture of voice. You have done many interviews over the years—of elders, of inmates, of strangers, of friends and fellow writers. Can you talk about this study? And how did (if it did) come to play in the new novel?
I’ve made myself an honest student of the human voice. I’ve devised methods (rooted in classical rhetoric, speech disorders, music/voice, anthropology, social psychology, philosophy, etc.) for collecting voices, and have put my methods into practice. I began this process of study when I was seventeen and first dedicating my life to my art. (Sounds very ‘priesty’ in a kind of Catholic way. Well, there it is: I grew up inside Catholicism’s sonic gowns and followed Thomas Merton’s example to mature inside Buddhism’s waking bells.) I recognized that voice had precedence above all other aspects of my storytelling.
I had grown up in a family (my father’s side) of wonderful oral storytellers and had become convinced that what I wished for most was to be invisible and unheard behind the song and call of sound that conveyed the story of the unheard and the invisible. A touchstone for me as an artist is Pablo Neruda’s “El hombre invisible,” a poem that is a long, humble, ecstatic singing vow made to all mankind, including these lines: “everything calls out / for me to speak, / everything asks me / to sing and sing forever, / everything brims / with dreams and sounds, / life is a box / full of songs, when it opens / out flies a flock of birds / who wish to tell me something/ … Give me / all joys, / even the most intimate, / otherwise / how shall they be known? / I have to speak of them, / give me / the struggles of / each day / because they are my song, / and so we will walk together / elbow to elbow, / all mankind, / my song reunites them: / song of the invisible man / who sings with all mankind” (from Sublime Blue: Selected Early Odes by Pablo Neruda; translator, William Pitt Root).
The narrative voice in One Kind Favor conveys a form of tribal omniscience in which “we” speak for our whole community from a perspective paradoxically involved enough and distant enough to care deeply, intimately, and to judge objectively, distantly, critically. In all instances in American literature, including Washington Irving and Toni Morrison and Charles Johnson, when this kind of omniscience is given its due, an irreal voice results: the reader recognizes the chord of many real (as in “realistic”) voices and the root note of one voice (as in the “central intelligence” shaping the story for the community); the reader also feels distant from the “we” who exclusively speaks for and speaks to that one community with little or no regard for whether the story can be easily interpreted by outsiders. Authentic tribal omniscience is inherently mystical since its source is profoundly insular and, to a certain degree, indecipherable.
Three paragraphs into your first book, A Waltz, a husband urges his wife, “Listen! Listen!” He wants her to listen carefully to the apartment life surround-sounding them. (The Hotel Emit!) I’d have to say “Listen! Listen!” could be one of the main themes of that book—listening as curiosity, as paranoia, as an attempt to connect in an isolating world. And, having read your novel At the Gate of All Wonder, listening just might be one of the overarching themes in your work. Am I barking up the wrong tree here?
Now that I can look back at the twelve books of fiction (eight published) that I’ve written, I recognize that every book is marked by direct and indirect attention to the sonic dimension. As I’ve mentioned above, that is why I’ve obsessively studied the qualities of the human voice. My own love of orality is a love of musicality, and the stories I feel drawn to write always focus on the dilemmas created by unspoken (hidden but emergent) and unspeakable (immured) experiences in which the processes of joy and loss are fully absorbed. A story that says more than it sings is well-suited to conventional story plots that move forward and themes that crystallize. I admire this kind of story, but I’ve never had the opportunity to write it. What has found me as source material is a story that sings more than it says, and is well-suited to the story of absorption that intensifies and to themes that multiply and do not centralize. I admire the Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Bellow and Roth models of the novel of action. I more personally relate to the Woolf and Cather and Porter and Hurston models of the novel of being. Both models, at their best, give attention to ways of becoming and ways of being, though they very differently prioritize that attention.
How we hear each other and incompletely hear and altogether fail to hear and recover hearing: I’m drawn to this particular drama that embodies mystical experience. In studying human discourse, I’ve been guided by certain key concepts. I’ll try to describe what I mean briefly.
I try to allow the novel’s narration and dialogue to acknowledge that silence is every human’s first language. How a person’s silence “speaks” characterizes in thousands of ways, including characterizing the person’s sense of autonomy; including the person’s sense of relationship to others who are relatively silent; including the person’s place in a world that is rarely silent.
I try to allow the novel’s structure to acknowledge the variable force of silence in story; including the use of white space to configure forms of the inexpressible; including the use of unconventional paragraphing to accommodate associative consciousness in which dramatic form (orderly, shapely) is present but does not dominate.
I try to characterize setting according to sonic properties of directionality and surroundability. In any given setting, we experience sound and noise (two separate sonic phenomena) that announce their direction: we can know the slamming of a car door comes from that part of the church parking lot; we can know the crow’s cawing comes from branches high up in that particular white pine leaning over the church roof; we can know the person’s speech is directed specifically toward us from that third booth in the church restroom we’ve entered. Every setting is also marked by sound and noise that surrounds us and eludes our sense of direction: in the church parking lot an otherworldly sound (of engines cooling? of complaining pets entrapped in cars?) pervades as if from every direction and as if from none; a hymn (breathing? brooding?) comes from the bodies of the whole community of crows or cats (or lost children? or homeless families begging?) in an area unmarkable, and a sweeping sound comes from, well, maybe some creature mining the roots of that pine, and maybe from a sweeper at the church entrance out of our sight and maybe from the plumbing of the restroom or from the plumbing of the person in that third booth. In our lives we tend to lose sensitivity to or consciously and unconsciously block sensitivity to sound and noise we cannot “find.” Our brains seek orientation. In its expansive manner of orienting, disorienting, reorienting, the novel can give back to the reader the mysterious fullness of the sonic world, by which I mean the novel can alter the consciousness of the reader’s brain so that it welcomes the mystical that arises from no identifiable direction in every so-called “real” moment we face.
I love this idea and believe it to be true. It reminds me of one of my favorite moments in At the Gate of All Wonder, which I will include here:
“Reversing our movement, we walked around and toward the shallow pond. The bed of it was a dense collection of leaves and twigs, of saturated berries and acorns and shagbark hickory nuts, of blight buds and shrub scale and animal underfur. It affected the drum of the pond surface responding to the wind. Together we subtracted from the soundscape the wind luffing our clothing. We subtracted the sounds of our mouths and nasal cavities. As much as possible, we each subtracted from our singular hearing our accurate and inaccurate perceptions of what the other heard. We subtracted October and November sonic memories of this pond, and subtracted the educing fantasies that cause a sensitive hearer to hear what is there, inside, but not there, outside. This sound subtraction is one of many procedures I taught them for refreshing their hearing.”
In a way, you are a guide—your novels are guides—assisting the reader in finding his or her (or their) way into the wider world, and in waking us in our bodies and quietly requiring us to “Pay attention!” Do you see One Kind Favor as a wake-up call?
I’ve spent about thirty-five years of my life as a learner-teacher, someone who presumes to be a “guide” for people who are, like me, eager learners. In just the past two years, I’ve retired from all academic appointments; and sometimes the deepest kind of soul-collapsing laughter overcomes me when I remember my harrowing and life-giving hours in the classroom and as a mentor out of the classroom. Since I was teaching writing – everything from basic composition to beginning/intermediate/advanced undergraduate creative writing classes to graduate-level creative writing workshops – I conscientiously reminded myself that my right to be among writers came from my lifelong daily immersion in the writer’s effort to become fully human. I could model for writers the always-pleasurable practices of an artist trying to work and live in such a way as to be fully alive. I believe that my fellow learners – my so-called “students” – could recognize in me that I gave my all in trying to meet its challenges: that sometimes I was almost equal to the inward journeys in a given writing project; sometimes, almost equal to the outward journeys.
The order-seeking and chaos-seeking language in literature provocatively asks the reader: Are you the one making this language?
For the period of time, you’re reading a certain novel or book of poems, I believe you are actively causing yourself to be more attentive to your body and mind shifting from balance into dynamic balance (that is, body and mind falling into and out of balance in the self-same moment). As if choosing a drug, you have chosen something that alters you physically and mentally, and the chemistry of what you have chosen was already present in your very cells: the healthy and the cancer cells of language; the animal and human DNA of your history as a creature that makes expressive language; the resistant and relenting strains of the “self” your language invites you to discover with horror and with wonder.
The contended ownership of the book depends on the book, right? Some books are eternally only their authors’ properties. Some books totally lose themselves in the reader. I, for one, am certain that I created Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy and Francis Ponge’s Unfinished Ode to Mud, Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H., Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Sand, John Berryman’s Dream Songs, Julio Cortazar’s Cronopios and Famas, and Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, and all of the works of Basho and of Pablo Neruda. If you say to me, “Mc, you’re dreaming,” I’ll say to you, “But I was waking-dreaming inside these books! They are my twilight experiences of being fully human! I birthed them, I bear them into the world! I relive them, and will until the end of my life!
I’ve occasionally had encounters with someone who has read my fiction or is reading it and who is resentful of meeting me, since I’m an interference that is all but intolerable. I’ve had this humbling encounter after I’ve given a public reading from my own fiction: audience members who weirdly seem to have become characters in my work, who feel obliged at the after-reading reception to tell me that they weren’t paying attention to any single part of my reading, but they thought I might like to know that during the entire reading they were thinking of what they themselves would write.
I guess I’m trying to say that I hope One Kind Favor is a dreaming-awake experience for its reader, who is more the guide than the guided.
I have a few more questions. First, you talk about wanting to master the art of “relenting” in a time--these last four years, for starters--that has felt “unrelenting.” Is there a clear moment, or time, of relenting in the novel?
I trust my composing process when it’s not focused on controlling the work but is relenting to the voice or voices that are the essence of the work as those voices create music and, secondarily, invite counter-intuitive interweaving of very different musical paths. One Kind Favor sounds sometimes like a crash of country bluegrass fiddle music, of delta blues, of carnival-ride music, of the music of contemporary spellbinding American poets like Rose McLarney and Keith Flynn.
I trust my composing process when it constructs meaning and dissolves meaning (i.e., in OKF, Dot’s dialogue, the omniscient narrator’s comments on the power of poetry). My most satisfying composing days in the four years of writing One Kind Favor occurred when the juxtaposed narrative sensibilities (of tribal omniscience, of Jadia’s viewpoint, of Woolman’s and Jacob’s viewpoints, of Acker’s and Mr. Panther’s and Alice’s viewpoints) clashed instead of merely joining.
I trust my revising process when it’s not focused on polishing and neatening the novel’s materials but is obsessed with honoring what I call “vergence” in the novel’s organic nature: the possibilities for introducing expansive moments that are arguably extraneous to the reader’s needs but cause surprise by responding to the reader’s desires. (In most of us, desire overrides need.) I try to welcome the invitations to cut certain kinds of reader-accommodating well-written but inert materials in order for there to be a sense of “gaps” that challenge the reader to “leap” instead of to smoothly “transit” through certain large and small developments in the story. As I revise, I try to recognize that disproportionality (loyal, first, to description) is more mysteriously compelling than proportionality (loyal, first, to depiction).
Can you talk a little about Acker, one of the novel’s main characters and one of its narrators? How did she come to you?
I know that I welcomed Acker, an echo of the real, quite famous Kathy Acker, into the novel from the very beginning. I didn’t think much about it; I intuited that she could haunt this novel as her novel has haunted me. I intuited that she would grant me, as a ghost actively haunting me, permission to live in my novel.
Kathy Acker was a writer who dared to assert the importance of the raw and fearsome and tender and destroying cyclones that were her hybrid fictions that some people categorized as “punk fiction.” From my first experience of reading The Childlike Life of The Black Tarantula – by The Black Tarantula (1973) to reading – and really closely studying – Blood and Guts in High School (1984), to cursorily reading Empire of the Senseless (1988) and then rereading its most marvelous, impossible passages, to reading in a state of mourning her (Kathy Acker died in 1997 at the age of fifty) novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996), I was marked by the blended obscenity and innocence of every page.
I’ve read widely about Kathy Acker. I never met her. At the time she was alive and publishing and intentionally and accidentally causing literary disruptions of various kinds, she was a figure like Gertrude Stein, not larger than life but more-alive than life and, frankly, than most art. She seems to me like a playfully subversive and potentially dangerous party crasher in post-modern American literature.
Do you know – in person – many truly engaging and terrifyingly volatile party crashers that you have continued to encounter despite your efforts at avoidance? I think many of us who avoid such people in our daily lives welcome them in our reading experiences of works by writers like Nathanael West and Anais Nin and Gayl Jones and Angela Carter and Steven Millhauser and the contemporary master storyteller as good as any of them, Karen Brennan. (Please, please read her fiction and poetry if you wish for a devastating crasher in your reading life. Her newest is Monsters; refer to karenbrennan.org for more information.)
My own work has had party crashers present all along: The Attempt in The Fifth Station, The Bishop in The Complete History of New Mexico, Drummer in At the Gate of All Wonder, and Acker in One Kind Favor. They are destabilizing figures, and their presence reminds the reader that arriving at stabilizing developments or resolutions is not what this particular book offers. They are the kind of figures existing within the work that remind the writer of his vows of wildness.
Lastly, there’s a swamp that plays a central role in the novel. Your writing about it reminds me of some of the scenes, or moments, in At the Gate of All Wonder. It feels like the swamp is a counter place to the town, and the Soldier’s Joy Festival, almost like another realm for the ghosts to haunt, another set of myths to arise. As you revised this novel, did Ephesus Swamp—and the character Jadia’s time in it—become more important to the narrative? Is the swamp based on a real swamp? It sure feels like it.
For me, this question is related to the “relenting” question you’ve asked me. In a novel set during the Trump Reich, the swampiest in American history, the swamp has its logical place. In composing, I felt that Ephesus Swamp served more or less as a symbolic setting: the disturbingly nearby place that the dispossessed must inhabit and that the deceased (like Eddie and Eeedie and Lisbet and, importantly, Mr. Panther’s nieces Joan and Karen) must haunt. In revising, I discovered that Ephesus Swamp is a representation of Jadia’s soul. During my composing process, I felt that Ephesus Swamp was a realistic representation of our horrific American burial ground. During my revising process, I felt invited by Jadia’s particular sensibility to allow Ephesus Swamp to be a mystical place, one of The Passages awaiting all Americans – identifying themselves at the left and the right on the political spectrum – who have abstracted the human drama to reductive symbology and have resisted the soul-and-blood-and-flesh truth embodied in a complex human-like Jadia.
By the way, I did have the luck of visiting a Piedmont swamp, something like Ephesus Swamp, and the luck of visiting a Piedmont town something like Cord. I found that with each new draft of my novel more of my memory of these actual places was erased; in other words, erased by a factor of twelve. I am now an old guy out to sea with a leaky, unreliable memory, and that is an advantage to me as a storyteller wishing to create without relying on remembering. I recommend that all storytellers live to the age of forgetting the boat, the shore, the drowning wave.