Interview with Blake Kimzey
Interview by Jack Hill
Matt Bell wrote of your new chapbook, Families Among Us, (Black Lawrence Press—Winner of the 2013 Black River Chapbook Competition) that “these imagined worlds conjure not some other space but the forgotten weirdness of the world we know, revealed here in all its wondrous everyday magic.” Can you elaborate on this notion—this weirdness?
Growing up in Texas I wasn't taught to think everyone should be the same, but that's the way the world appeared to me. Nothing mean about it, just small town to the core. I took the world at face value, or at least understood the world to be what my town of 1,200 people was: white, Christian, in love with the city limits. After graduating from a homogeneous university I lived and worked for 15 months in Paris, France, as a bicycle tour guide. The world opened up to me day one. Sounds too simple to be true, but that's what happened. Abroad, I was helplessly drawn to the differences in people. I lived near Sacré-Cœur in the mostly Muslim, mostly North African part of the city. Could not have been more different than Prosper, TX. Living in France gave me the opportunity for intellectual metamorphosis, both as an individual and as a writer. Gave me the opportunity for relationship and interaction with new and interesting people every day. When I got back to Texas my eye was drawn to the differences hiding in plain sight, all the things I had missed before, the things, it turned out, I was starved for. The everyday oddities that often go unnoticed, the people and places on the fringes. And so I think Matt is right when he generously describes these stories as inhabiting some 'forgotten weirdness', and though I didn't set out to write weird stories, I was certainly trying to write into the weirdness of everyday life, to see it transformed in new and interesting ways to me. I'm very interested in loss, but maybe equally so I'm interested in the reasons people are accepted or rejected (they're weird, they're different, etc.). "The Skylight" certainly gets at this, as, I guess, do all the stories in Families Among Us. My great teacher Michelle Latiolais told me early on to write into the weirdness after reading my first round of stories in grad school. She identified the things in my stories that were working and nudged me in that direction. I can't thank her enough for that. She also told me to read Russell Edson, Angela Carter, and Lars Gustafsson. And I returned to Borges and Roald Dahl and Kafka and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Barthelme and Aimee Bender. I'm a slow reader, and more than anything I wanted to understand how these writers made their stories work. Was like studying a magic trick over and over and missing the sleight of hand every time. I'm not sure I know how these authors constructed their stories, but I certainly benefited from immersing myself in their work. So the six stories in Families Among Us are very much a product of reading work I strongly admire, work that is weird, work that showed me how beautiful otherness can be, in whatever form it comes. I hope my stories earn the internal connection I have as a student of these authors.
Your story, “And Finally the Tragedy,” in Tin House reads very layered—almost like a lasagna in the sense where you can taste each individual ingredient while appreciating how they work together to achieve a complete overall flavor. Can you tell us about the process of writing this story?
Wow, thanks, Jack. This story is actually a product of re-reading Donald Barthelme’s “The School” a summer ago. You can read “The School” over and over and find something new each time. Layered stories have that effect. The title of my story comes from the final line of a paragraph near the end of “The School.” I was so taken with that line. And finally the tragedy. It was so suggestive, so charged, especially in regard to everything that had happened in “The School” leading up to that point in the story. That line stops me every time I read “The School.” And I wanted to steal that line, wanted to start with it in my story. A few months after “And Finally the Tragedy” was published I was still thinking about “The School” and happened upon this great piece in the Fiction Writers Review that Michael Byers wrote. Byers articulated a lot of the things I had been thinking, but in a much clearer way. I'm so happy I found his piece. Of "The School," Byers wrote, "Who else could write a story about an unrelenting march of death and produce a feeling of such joy and lightness? Barthelme was the master of the gently surreal, the optimistically pitiless, the playfully serious—and this is a moving, serious, optimistic, surreal, hopeful story. It is at once very plain in its structure and, I think, pleasingly subtle in its message." I couldn't say it any better than Byers. And I didn't know I was going to write a story that also dealt with the unrelenting march of death, as can be implied by the ending of "And Finally the Tragedy." But I can see now how I was influenced by Barthelme. I started with an image, a boy swinging satellite to satellite in the heavens, and wondered what if he fell? Who would find him, what would they think, and what would the consequences be? That was a story I wanted to write. And so I started writing very specifically into those concerns while thinking about that boy. His family, the townsfolk, the preacher, and even the town in the distance, emerged. They had to. In a shorter story like "And Finally the Tragedy" each line has to build to something quickly. As in all short stories, the economy of words comes into play. They have to gather into something substantial by the time you get to the end. I think because I was trying to contain so much in such a small short story I tried to give the sentences as much heft as possible while maintaining a plain narrative structure. I think writing like that, the way Barthelme does and so many of my heroes do, results in beautifully layered fiction, a byproduct of fidelity to specific story elements. The who, what, where, when, and why. Getting the basics on the page and building from there. Or, as Ron Carlson teaches, getting the outer story clearly on the page so there is room for the inner story to emerge and affect the reader. Byers finished his analysis of "The School" by writing, "Everywhere around us, at every moment, we are learning how to conduct ourselves in the face of our inevitable personal doom. Barthelme, that comforting surrealist, shows us what we will find most useful: wonder, affection, and the embrace of mystery." Wonder, affection, and the embrace of mystery are the layers I was going for as well, but I don't guess I knew that until just now.
Your story, “A Family Among Us,” was adapted for broadcast on NPR. Can you tell us about this? How did this come about?
"A Family Among Us" was originally published online by Gabe Durham in the now-sadly-defunct-and-forever-great Dark Sky Magazine. Luckily, before the magazine folded, public radio reporter, news director, and on-air host Brian Bahouth found the story. For me it was just a stroke of good luck. Brian reached out to me via e-mail and asked if he could adapt the story for the radio. I replied in the affirmative the minute I got his e-mail. Brian and his staff created a beautiful, atmospheric production, which you can listen to here. After it aired on NPR stations in California and Nevada it was made available on PRX (Public Radio Exchange) for national distribution, which was so cool. I can't thank Brian enough for giving "A Family Among Us" this great audio afterlife.
Your story, “Helicopter Wounds,” recently published in Fiction Southeast, I imagine will hit close to home for many readers. Can you tell us about writing this story, and, possibly, about some of the connections between grief and coping mechanisms that the story is working with?
Seven years ago my best friend, Army 2nd Lieutenant Peter H. Burks, was killed by an IED just outside the Green Zone in Baghdad. As a writer, I’ve spent the last seven years trying to make sense of what happened to Pete using language, and often failing. Writing never captures to my satisfaction who Pete was or what he meant to so many people, especially to his family—his mom and dad, his three sisters, his younger brother, his fiancé. They love him beyond measure, and so do so many people. Writing is inadequate, but my story “Helicopter Wounds” is a small attempt to understand how I felt the day I received the call telling me Pete was gone. I was throw-up sad, nauseously angry. Sorrow and anger that has not softened or subsided. I remember everything about that night and those terrible first few weeks after Pete was killed. I was lucky in that I got to talk to Pete on the phone once, sometimes twice a week when he was in Baghdad. I had lived with Pete for five years and he was a brother to me, so much so his father let me see inside the casket for my own selfish closure. This story represents the first piece of fiction I have completed that deals with Pete's death, and, more accurately, what to do, how to respond to crippling grief. Often the body takes over as the mind statics to cruise control. This is the heart of the story. Our Veterans are so very meaningful in all the ways that I (or we as a country) can never quite seem to articulate in ways that transcend bumper-sticker patriotism. What gets lost in ra-ra, knee-jerk patriotism is celebrating the way our Veterans are individuals, lives lived as one of ones. In spite of all its shortcomings, that is where creative writing, fiction and non-fiction, can be so valuable, can illuminate the truth in ways bandwagon sloganeering never will. Reading Dalton Trumbo's great novel Johnny Got His Gun and Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and David Finkel's two great non-fiction books (The Good Soldiers and Thank You For Your Service) compelled me to write a story of my own. Maybe out of sheer desperation to work through some of my own thoughts and emotions. The work coming out of and about the Iraq War (or any war, for that matter) written by veterans and civilians is raw and charged and upset and grief-stricken. It's all underscored with a deep sense of confusion about what it all means, individual and country sacrifice alike. I still can't make sense of why Pete was killed, why he went over there, and what, if anything, his sacrifice means. To Pete's family and friends, to me, it will never mean enough to justify his death. And in this way I was trying to write a story about two brothers and their mother who have to deal with neon grief while figuring out how to cope in real time, things that are often at odds with each other because the instinct is to keep going, regardless of if that means leaving the past behind or wallowing in a kind of permanent present. That is what I was hoping to write about, anyway.
What are you currently working on?
I'm revising my first novel (and MFA thesis), a dark comedy called Don't Ask set in the frozen Midwest, heavily influenced by The Cohen Brothers, Barry Hannah, Patrick deWitt, Denis Johnson, and George V. Higgins. I wrote it last year, my final year of graduate school after writing nothing but short stories. If I had to describe the novel, I'd say it is the movie Fargo meets deWitt's The Sisters Brothers. I also have a full-length story collection called Talking Past the Close that is finished. Once the novel is ready to go I hope to secure an agent and see these two books into the world.
Anything you'd like to share in closing?
Thank you for reading my work, Jack. And for these great questions!
Blake Kimzey is a 2014 graduate of the MFA Programs In Writing at UC Irvine and the recipient of a generous 2013 Emerging Writer Grant from The Elizabeth George Foundation. Blake is the author of the award-winning chapbook Families Among Us (Black Lawrence Press, 2014). His work has been broadcast on NPR, performed on stage in Los Angeles, and published by Tin House, FiveChapters, McSweeney's, Puerto del Sol, The Los Angeles Review, Day One, Short Fiction, Mid-American Review, The Lifted Brow, PANK,Fiction Southeast, Juked, Monkeybicycle, and anthologized inSurreal South ’13. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Dallas and recently finished writing his first novel.