A Conversation with Robert Kloss — John Trefry

ROBERT KLOSS is the author of the novels The Woman Who Lived amongst the Cannibals, The Revelator, and The Alligators of Abraham, and co-author of The Desert Places (with Amber Sparks and illustrated by Matt Kish). He lives in Colorado.

John Trefry: Thank you for agreeing to chat with me, Robert! Can I start out on a really shitty note? So, your two most recent books, which are both self-published, are the only two of your books I’ve read. I was certainly aware of your work before but I think the fact that the books were published by relatively large independent presses made me wary, dunno why. That is the shitty part… and I plan to rectify it hard. But I think what has drawn me to you now is what appears to be your disdain for that world, and that is kind of what I want to talk about in a really multifaceted way. Could you kind of give us a satellite image of your location in literature right now, and then we can zoom in a bit?

Robert Kloss: Thanks for asking to chat. I honestly don’t know where I am in literature right now. Outside of it, hopefully. It probably depends on what you mean by literature—there’s literature and there’s the literary world, or the book industry, and I don’t think those things have much to do with each other. They might accidentally slap up against each other, and when that happens you just hope the writer is strong enough to survive it.

JT: I actually changed my initial draft from “your location in the publishing world.” 😬 I’m not especially interested in anything personal or gossipy, but can you talk about why that divide or distinction is so important to you? I think it might give a preface to the things I want to discuss about your most recent work.

RK: Well, I should add that the small, small press world is something entirely different. And a lot of my frustration with these things evaporates when I discover presses like yours. And a lot of where I’m at now as a writer is because I discovered small press literature and online writing in ‘08, ‘09. For a while it felt like I’d found a home in that world. It’s all different now. And for whatever reason I end up feeling really separate from it now, even when I find presses like yours. Even when I do want to connect.

The publishing world —the book world— is a business. Which, whatever, my wife works in publishing, and I have friends who make money from books and this industry, so it keeps a roof over my head. But for me literature is a way toward something almost inexpressible. It’s very sacred. When I visited Melville’s house, and stood in the spot where Melville wrote Moby-Dick and The Confidence Man and Bartleby—and looked out the window that he looked out—it felt like I was standing on the holiest spot on earth.

And then a few months later I’m in Brooklyn for their book fest. And I’m in a room with all these industry people, and all these big name writers, and they’re wearing gowns and tuxedos and drinking champagne and handing out awards and accepting awards. And I was horrified and disgusted with myself for being in that room.

I don’t think I’m expressing myself very clearly, but those were two moments that stick with me. And I’m always trying to find myself back in that moment in Melville’s house, these holy moments that open what seem like very truthful and real glimpses into something inexpressible. And I just don’t know how I can do that when one side of my brain is thinking “Yes, but can I sell this?” or “What will they think about this?” “Will my agent disapprove?” or whatever.

JT: This struggle seems pretty palpable in your work and in your statements about your work. I’m sure it’s not unilaterally true (I guess it can’t be since you were there), but when I see someone in a tuxedo at something like that I have the feeling it’s something they’ve been actively working toward. Not pursuing recognition that their work has merit, per se, but recognition in general. Just a striving to be on the other side of that wall. It just so happens that they’ve gotten there by writing, but it’s perhaps no different of an achievement than getting there by any other means. It’s hard to imagine you just accidentally end up fabulous like that. Quite the opposite, one of the touchstones for my creative practice is when Darkthrone was nominated for an Alarm Award, basically the Norwegian Grammys and Fenriz said “We play real and honest black metal, and we have no interest in being part of the glitter and showbiz side of the music industry.” He ultimately got them removed altogether from the list of nominees. I really love that.

I think NOT striving for success and just doing basic work is one thing. You could write a full-on-Franzen pap cavalcade and just self-publish it for your friends. But intentionally making something that will NOT succeed is a very conscious and challenging, and primarily personal act. That’s what Darkthrone has built their whole practice on. I get the sense that is what you are doing. I wonder how you reconcile that “holy” practice, that solitary thing that lacks any sense of salivating striving outside of itself, with making a book at all, the very Vatican II act of bringing the mystery of the work before the eyes of the congregation… like, it seems like you—Robert Kloss—might be on a journey towards writing things and then burning them, or simply deleting them…

RK: For the record, I didn’t have a tuxedo on—I think I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. It’s all a long story.

I love stories about artists refusing awards. I was just reading how Cioran was always borrowing money from Beckett and Beckett was upset because Cioran would have had more money if he’d just accepted some of the awards he’d won. I’m sure Beckett only had any money because of the Nobel.

I didn’t set out to not succeed. I’m not opposed to succeeding—I’ve just never done it before. I wouldn’t mind making more money—I’m terrible at making money, I have no idea how to do it—to be able to devote more time to writing and art. For a while I wasn’t even opposed to recognition—I’m not sure I am now, if it happens, how would I actually react? Maybe it’d feel good—maybe it’d take my mind off everything else. Of course, I’d just end up hating myself even more than I already do—after a certain point I realized failure is a gift—it’s freedom. It pushes me away from these other impulses.

Melville wanted to succeed too—very badly—and he was also a failure at everything. He had no idea how to not fail. He was even a terrible farmer, I guess. The beautiful thing is what he did within that failure. I’m thankful that Melville did not have those final writings—the poems and Billy Budd—burned. I’m grateful that somebody finally discovered Billy Budd and understood its merits and published it.

This is a long way to saying that I’ve thought about just burning my work. Because the act of publishing does just seem like vanity—why else am I doing this? Selling this thing? I’ve been reading so much Bernhard lately, and in a couple of his books the narrator thinks, I’ll just destroy this thing. There’s nothing worse than publishing a book.I assume that sentiment was both ironic and deadly serious—I assume Bernhard thought about destroying his writing—and I’m also glad that he published his books rather than destroying them.

But the act of burning the thing would be meaningless. As meaningless as actually publishing the thing. You burn things as a ritual because you think the ritual has meaning, but I’d know it’s all a show. And I can’t image the show of burning a book would be less disgusting than the show of publishing a book. I think it’d somehow be worse. I’d certainly record the act, publish it on the internet. That’s worse, right—creating a book to document the destruction on Twitter? I mean, it makes me sick to even think about it.

I always say that I’d be a nihilist if not for cats. And I can safely say add I’d be a nihilist if not for art. You realize there’s nothing, there’s this emptiness and terror but for whatever reason you’re compelled to make this thing, and you want it to be beautiful. There’s this meaning—this futile, empty gesture that you hope against rationality actually means something. Who am I to say that Melville’s life—or Kafka’s, another near burner—did not contain meaning? I feel somehow at the same time they did not and yet they somehow did. As the days go by it all seems to have less and less meaning, it’s true. The old joy is rarely there anymore, although occasionally it is.

I think what I’m getting at is I have no idea. But if the impulse is there, and if the audience, dwindling as it is, still wants my books, I’ll keep publishing them. But once that is gone—I don’t know. Whatever I do, I just want to do it for the right reasons.

JT: Is it fair to suggest that what you are burning is the armature that commodifies literature—that armature I think being the syntax of accessibility that positions a book as “being for others” rather than “being in itself”? And a significant aspect of that syntax is genre, where even things that are marketed as “genreless” or “hybrid” or what have you, are syntactical positions in and of themselves. They provide a comfort level for a reader taking that first step.

I think I mentioned to you that I ended up reading The Woman Who Lived Amongst the Cannibals as a Western. But that was my decision I think. And I read A Light No Moreas a Victorian ghost tale. Again that was my decision. I don’t think that those were positions that the books put themselves in necessarily, at least not actively. Do you think there is any relationship to those echoes of genre I might perceive and your project of making work that is predicated on being separate from genre as a pat access-point?

RK: I’m not sure.

I have argued that Moby-Dick is a western, which is obviously not a position most people could accept. But I do see a relationship between Melville’s novels and my idea of a western. This was something I wrote about a year after I finished the initial writing of Cannibals, with Cannibals in mind. I see Cannibals as my Melville novel, or I saw it that way, before I edited it down into the book I published.

Thinking in those ways—at some points in the writing process—is necessary for me at this point, because I’m still tied to the books and films—narrative and non-narrative—I’ve ingested. I don’t know how to fully remove myself from them.

It’s a long process, unlearning what makes a book. In the end I’ll fail, because that syntax is set in my mind. There’s no way around it. And it is set in the reader’s. So somebody is going to impose a set of interpretations on the text, because we’ve all read so many books and watched so many films and these languages and patterns are embedded. I don’t know how to escape that.

These limitations are endlessly frustrating. But there’s nothing to be done. I don’t like the idea of A Light No More as a ghost story or horror—I’ve seen it called both—because for me it’s something entirely else. But then it’s true that the emotion I wanted to express in that book is horrific—it’s a terrible thing—but horror in the way that Persona is a horror film. You see, I can’t explain the thing without relying on comparisons.

JT: Ach… I am such a bad reader, seriously. But yeah, I definitely wouldn’t see A Light No Moreas horror necessarily, not in the way that horror is supposed to grip something reptilian in you. It is far more lucid. I think I characterized it as Victorian because it seems to be a strange coming to grips with materialism and beyondness. Maybe something more in the ethos of Poe’s poetry, like “The City in the Sea.”

But your mentioning Moby Dick as a western (or Personaas horror) begs the question of whether genre is archetypal or tropic. Is there just something ineffable about it? I mean conventionally it would be far more elemental or archetypal, like comedy, tragedy, drama, etc. But our contemporary understanding has a lot more to do with context and trope than it does with the underlying mechanism. I am obviously pretty polluted by that. Westerns didn’t exist before there was a “west.” And it is hard for me to see the genre of western as the same elemental thing as a tragedy. But, perhaps in the tropic sense the Bible is kind of a western because it’s dusty and arid. I guess it begs the question of whether genre—in either of those senses—is even of any value as a way of understanding contemporary literature.

RK: I can’t really answer that question. I suppose my instant reaction, as a writer, not as a critic or an academic, is should we want to understand contemporary literature? I personally don’t want to. You can’t help understand much of it, instantly, because it’s all constructed from the same materials—but for me the goal is to create something that you can’t understand. It’s just mysterious. It’s a thing beyond. Don’t even attempt to analyze it or articulate what it is—just experience it. This is why I like experiencing art forms that I don’t have a background in—the technical language does not exist in my mind. I listen to a piece of music and I don’t understand it. I see a painting or whatever and I have no idea. I regret—to some extent—taking all these classes in writing and literature throughout high school and college and graduate school. You become sophisticated in a dangerous way. People say, well there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. That is absolutely so, and how sad that is. Knowing how to do things, in the ways other people have done things, having those devices burned into your thinking, just kills creativity. Or maybe I’m making excuses for my failings, I don’t know.

JT: I certainly don’t read your work and say, “ah yes, here he is doing thisor that…” As a reader, I am almost never in the mindset of the “intellectual.” After the fact I certainly look critically at work, when I am outside of it, categorizing its mechanics and such in relation to other things, although not necessarily to other literature. But as a maker it is almost impossible for me to understand or be in the mindset of someone working completely intuitively. Maybe in the moment of composition yes, but the larger understanding of a work’s context is a pretty constant source of consternation and retooling to me. I feel like the ability to slough off those bigger, more general tethers might be more akin to the mindset of a musician. I don’t really know. I don’t make music. Do you? If not, do you find yourself informed by any sort of music-making practice, or like at least the mindset of music-making?

RK: I don’t think anyone sloughs off those tethers. There’s just no way. But I do think that looking at other art forms, and the methods of artists working in those forms, is one way of thinking beyond how we’ve been taught to write. Musicians—I’m not a musician at all, but I listen to it constantly. I’m always listening to something. And the way I listen to music is often to train my writing mind. And I find watching musicians work fascinating—and reading about their habits and methods incredibly beneficial. When I listen to a record that I really love I try to read about how it was created. And if possible I want to get a sense of how it fits within that musician’s oeuvre. It teaches me a lot about development and process and creativity.

To be a little more specific, a musician like PJ Harvey will pick up a new instrument to complicate the writing process. Think about how limiting it must be to go from writing music on a guitar, which you’ve done for a decade or longer and are incredibly proficient at, to writing and recording at a piano, which you’ve never played in your life? There are many similar examples of musicians who did similar things—and for a while this really fairly easily, because you’ve taught yourself this style and this process and you more or less are accomplishing what you want to accomplish, how do you break from that pattern? How do you grow? For a while I was like, well, I’ll become a virtuoso prose stylist. I’ll just take what I do now and I’ll get incredibly good at it. So I really took that seriously for a while. But there’s a limit to virtuosity. And virtuosity isn’t anything without style. You can be a very uninteresting virtuoso. And it can get in the way of the deeper thing you’re going for—that thing that’s driving you. So I thought about Beckett for a while as well—switching languages, writing in French, changed how he wrote, as did moving to drama. To me that seemed like the logical comparison to PJ Harvey switching to piano or whatever. Melville of course eventually reached the point where he more or less abandoned prose for poetry, so I’ve always wondered if I would ever do something similar. So I thought about writing poetry. And you know eventually you figure it out. You just keep looking for new ways to do things. It’s never as elegant as what someone working in a different form was able to do, because you’re using different tools and different languages, but that’s what makes it so effective. If I was a musician it would be absolutely foolish for me to switch from the guitar to the piano because another musician did it.

JT: To me those sound somewhat like methodological conceits. Do you see those as being distinct from the inevitable evolution of a writer’s work? I think, for instance, of the tremendous difference between the Nabokov of Invitation to a Beheading and the Nabokov of Ada. There is a lifetime of difference between them, the world was changing around him, as it is for us, the books were written in vastly different sociopolitical contexts, as well as geographic contexts for him, there were beneficial changes in his personal finances(!)… and there is an accretion of a personal stock of impressions and concerns that is different between a 36 year old and a 66 year old, and there is evidence of a development of sensibility and craft that occurs over those 30 years, a confidence that is only possible when eschewing expectations of yourself as part of greater community of your tradespeople, a comfort-level in being your own animal.

But then there is someone like Queneau, where I feel like there is not a significant difference between Witchgrassand Zazie in the Metro—two novels separated by about 30 years—but a tremendous difference between those two works and his Hundred Thousand Billion Poems or Exercises in Style, which both are indebted to those kinds of methodological conceits.

Do you see methodological conceits—at least in the context of what you might want from your own practice—as something like an accelerant that loops into the main body of work or do you think they are wholly distinct from a separate, more natural evolution?

RK: I could never get into writers like Perec or Queneau—books like Exercises or A Void never interested me. The same with Eno’s oblique strategies. I admire those artists, but I can’t create that way.

So I think the answer has to be that that conceits feel outside of a natural evolution to me. Beckett writing in French to me isn’t a methodological conceit—it’s more organic than that. But it’s something that allows him to get more directly at what he’s trying to express. The same with the dramatic works. It opens a door to a room he couldn’t enter otherwise.

I don’t know much about Nabokov’s approach—I’d be curious to know what effect writing in different languages had on his approach. I don’t feel like he was limited in English the same way Beckett felt he was limited in French, however.

To me it’s all part of an organic whole. I can’t impose conceits on my creativity—my brain doesn’t work that way. I could maybe write a page without using the letter “e” and then I’d just write the thing I want to write. From what I’ve read Trent Reznor is like that—he’ll enter the studio with these conceits—I’m just going to write songs on the piano—and then discard them as soon as it’s not helping him get at this deeper thing. Maybe I can reduce it to this—I need something to keep pushing me to create. I need to be inspired to wake up in the morning and dig into these projects. And so it might be a particular artist’s work or the artist’s approach or philosophy of creating that inspires me to create—and it inspires me to keep searching and keep true to whatever I’m doing this for. But that’s the extent of it.

JT: Not to belabor it, but do you think that Beckett actually couldn’t write more floridly in French, or he just used it like a clean break, like going into the literary witness protection program?

Maybe in an effort to start wrapping it up, and even though it seems like you and I don’t actually know much about Nabokov’s methodology—all I really know is that he wrote on index cards—I want to return to a personal sentiment I have about his work. At least in his later writings, especially Ada, I have this sense of his writing creating a vast and complete universe (not ours, but containing all of the detail and fullness of ours) but only putting the few people in it that exist in the book, and that somehow they are aware, as much as something that doesn’t exist can be aware, that they are alone in all of that space. I refer to it for my own purposes as “vast intimacy” and I bring it up and brought him up because I feel that in your writing, although in quite a different way. What do you see as the “world” or “universe” of your text constructions?

RK: I might be misremembering what Beckett said on the matter. I have always assumed he was exaggerating his limitations, but I also don’t know anything about writing in different languages. I’ve heard that you can be fluent but the language needs to be thought out and translated mentally first—it still isn’t natural. I suppose as he went along he could have written in English the way he did in French—but the method was right for him by then, so there was no need.

Honestly, I’m not sure. It opens slowly. I grope around in the darkness, little snatches of voices and description appear. Sometimes a voice whispers. Sometimes a person is doing something and I see that vividly. Sometimes there’s an emotion—an anxiety or fear or something else—that I need to capture or fail to capture. I try to make the text in a way that it is real. And by real I mean an impossible thing—that whatever emotion or effect being described is somehow tangible for the reader.

My one urge with art that I love—is to somehow command it into myself and make it a living part of me. I’m not sure what I even mean by that. It’s almost like when I see a beautiful painting I want to merge it with myself. But I can only stand there or sit there staring at it until for whatever reason I have to move on. It’s the same with film and it’s the same with music and it’s even worse with books. There’s that separation between the work and the artist and the audience that torments me. How can I merge those lines? I can’t, but I try to.

So this probably isn’t answering your question at all, but it’s the only way to answer it that I can think of. Because of my limitations characters and situations and stories emerge rather than the emotions and noises and sensations themselves. A false thing rather than the true thing, the thing itself, but I try.

John Trefry is an architect and writer of the novel Plats (2014) and the caprice Thy Decay Thou Seest By Thy Desire (2016), and the forthcoming Apparitions of the Living. His work has appeared on Entropy Magazine, the Fanzine, Minor Literature[s], the Quarterly Conversation, Full-Stop, and others. He is editor of the small press Inside the Castle and lives in Lawrence, Kansas.