AN INTERVIEW WITH ANDREW KAUFMAN
People are strange. People are not only strange when you’re a stranger but they are also strange when they see fit to put their name – their actual given name, the only thing which holds any weight in the outside world – against something they have been smarmed into believing is magical and wise.
I’m not sure ‘smarmed’ is a real word, but roll with it.
During the run up to the second interview in my life that actually means something to me personally, my friend Mike shows me a link to a book he – and there is no other word for it – got smarmed into buying for his Kindle. There are more than a hundred reviews saying how great it is and maybe three of them are honest. Mike declares it to be the worst book he’s ever read in his life. As do three other honest people. I check out the author’s blog – his wife runs a book club in some ghost town in Texas which has almost a trillion members. Maybe there’s nothing else to do in town that day because the gun club is closed for redecorating. Or something.
We like to illustrate our points around these parts, thus, completely independent of each other (this conversation is taking place over our favourite chat client while we are both supposed to be doing something else) Mike looks at how many reviews there are for Andrew Kaufman’s The Tiny Wife while I drill into All My Friends Are Superheroes.
Neither of us is seeing many reviews for Kaufman’s books and yet Mike declares the first of these incredible beyond belief, I declare the second to be so. We decide that ‘people’ are indeed strange and sometimes, incredibly stupid as well, but that’s OK. It’s good to be the keeper of a great secret. It’s not our fault that people don’t read books that are good for the soul.
Anyway, there’s magic happening in the world right now. Read any Andrew Kaufman – he will immediately and completely become your favourite author of all time and that comes with a cast iron guarantee. Over the course of the next few years, you will tell smart, sexy folk whom you respect, all about him and share thoughts you have generated yourself from reading his books in dimly lit passageways around the world. Sometimes – as I have four times so far – you will give his books to people you meet and insist they read them. To tell them about the book (and you can pick any of them) is not enough. You must physicallyhand it over to ensure the job is done properly.
I digress. A lot. Mr Kaufman picks up the phone. He is either running or putting out the trash.
“I’m outside right now. Could you call me back in like, 30 seconds?”
On a particularly childish level, that’s enough for me. Or maybe it’s spectacularly grown up. It’s not for me to decide. There is a train of thought that says you should never meet your heroes in case they turn out to be dicks. I call Mr K back anyway because, frankly, this one is safe. Andrew Kaufman may be a lot of things but a dick isn’t one of them.
“Hey, where’s your accent from?” This is he to me… thus follows a story from me to Mr K which feels odd to say the least. I tell him some stories of my own travels and a small part of me hopes the wind that blew the seeds into his head will blow them out again but nevertheless, this leads us to a place that I hoped we would reach very quickly. I give full disclosure that I am not about to the cover the same ground that was dug up on his recent UK tour in support of Born Weird, but instead will take it for granted that those interested will find these places for themselves.
The place I wanted to get to quickly was the common ground of both of us having children. It makes a difference.
“Once you have kids, you realise that you’re no longer indestructible. Until I had kids, I never had to risk,” he says. “It’s easy to take huge risks and leave things to chance when you don’t have them but once you do, there’s just so much more on the line. Everything is so much bigger.” You see. Wise is seeping through pores.
I offer Mr Kaufman my twin towers of a question – and that is, Michael Chabon once said that when his wife became pregnant, he found that he suffered from ‘provider syndrome’. That is: ‘Holy shit, how am I going to provide for my family?’ and the other – possibly Neil Gaiman (but I may be mistaken, so don’t quote me on that) – once admitted he suffered from ‘imposter syndrome’ – are these identifiable demons?
“One hundred per cent. The good part about having kids is that you no longer have to wallow or over-think things. Once the kids arrived, my productivity went way up because I didn’t have time to second guess myself. I didn’t have time to ponder decisions. I found with my writing that I had like, 45 minutes to work on a piece. So it’s not about being precious and agonising over decisions, it’s about making them and moving on. That was really effective for my writing because I can really over-edit. I enjoy the editing process, I really want to get everything super-tight and I don’t want there to be an extra or unnecessary word anywhere and sometimes that process is achieved and you don’t even notice. You keep going on and on and on and on – until you stop because you’ve simply run out of time. But when you have kids, you don’t have any time so… I would say that was a huge deal for me.”
“The other thing – imposter syndrome – it’s er.. yeah, I’m feeling that right now. Somewhere in my head, a voice is asking me why you’re wasting your time speaking to me. Aren’t there real writers out there who you could be talking to at this point?”
Touché. That same person is in my head wondering if there isn’t a real interviewer out there that he should be talking to? We are the same age, so this is excellent common ground to occupy.
Falling between genres
I have always been curious as to how an author finds a way to slip himself between the cracks of something I thought rarely possible. In this crazy place we call the 21st century, everything has a genre – a pigeon hole in order for lazy people to find things – thus, my train of thought is, how has he escaped this? Using Clive Barker as an example of a ‘fantasy’ writer, when he is evidently so much more than that, how does the genre thing sit with him?
“I do feel like I’m in a little bit of a lack of genre – let me answer that in two ways. I think that literary fiction is a genre. I say this to people and those same people say that I’m wrong but to say the phrase ‘literary fiction’ is to denote and suggest some sort of quality worthy of attention and that may be, but I don’t think Clive Barker is saying that he doesn’t pour his heart out when he’s writing his stuff, so I think that genres are really based on conventions. One of the conventions of the literary genre is that it’s realistic, it’s certainly 300-plus pages, it’s usually a coming of age story or a couple in crisis story. I mean, there are really hardcore conventions within the literary genre even though people don’t necessarily think of it as a genre, so that’s my first answer.
“My second answer is that I feel like I fall between genres. One of those being literary and the other being fantasy or perhaps science fiction. So, I’m not against genre, I’m not against structure. Genre is just a way of structuring a story right? People really enjoy structure and people really enjoy having a story told to them in a way they can easily comprehend and consume. People tend to like one certain kind of story – they most often like the same story being told to them over and over again, like detective fiction or horror stories. There are innovations inside each of the genres but it’s like a sonnet – there’s a structure that denotes what you’re going to get and then the talent of the author is to breathe life into that.
“So, that being said, I think because I incorporate aspects of two different genres, sometimes people don’t know exactly what to do with me!”
For my part, I think people simply don’t get Mr Kaufman yet. Born Weird (his new novel and available at all good book shops now – so when you’re done here, go find it immediately) is likely to be the most successful stab at people understanding what it is he’s trying to do, but then, each of his books is like being parachuted blindfolded into a new city every time you pick one up. I recount the tale of how I have so far been through four copies of The Tiny Wife (as previously discussed) to give to others. Born Weird however seems to have picked up momentum off its own back. A step forward in his mind?
“Well, some people might say it’s a step backwards too! Even though it has strange things happening within it and magical realism and all that stuff that is ‘me’, Born Weird is a much more conventional book than The Tiny Wife or Superheroes – and certainly a lot more so than The Waterproof Bible, so… it’s a three generational family saga, which is a convention…”
I am far too good at interrupting for which I apologise, stating that All My Friends Are Superheroes is beyond convention – it doesn’t fit in anywhere, it’s a simple work of genius that looks like it came fully formed, with utter clarity and ready to roll. It may have taken five years to write or ten minutes. It stands alone…
“That was so not the process. That was my first book, right, so if you’re writing your first book, you’ve got two things going for you…”
That you’ve got nothing to lose?
“OK – you’ve got three things going for you! First of all, you’ve got a bunch of material that you’ve had hanging around for a long time. You have this war chest of stories but the important thing is that – well, the metaphor I always use is that I was simply a guy who had a TransAm in his garage and every night after work, I’d go out and tinker around with it. I’d spray paint something on the side or try to get the transmission going and I was totally just doing it for fun because I wanted to see if I could get it on the road.
“When I got it on the road, it operated way better than I anticipated and people seemed to like it. And then it was time to write the second book and all of a sudden, I’m walking around calling myself a mechanic! There’s now an expectation that I know how to fix cars, so the professional aspect of it… well, it’s a weird loop when… well anytime you get what you want, it comes with some weird sort of kickback. It’s a monkey’s ball.”
A monkey’s ball? That phrase hasn’t made it into my sphere of influence yet though I think I know what he means.
“That’s why that story is so resonant. Any time you get what you want, there’s always something that’s going to come along and present itself as the shadow of that deal.”
Was Superheroes tough to take from birth to toddlerhood or did it wander out into the world relatively easily?
“I lucked out with that really well. I finished it, I looked around and I found a company here in Canada called Coach House who had published a couple of books that seemed to be similar in tone from that pop culture side of things. I sent it in and my editor picked it out of the slush pile and they went for it. So I got super lucky with that, but then Telegram picked it up in the UK and from there it started spreading all over the place. That came out in 2003 in Canada – in fact Coach House is pushing a 10th anniversary edition right now which is cool. I don’t think it hit the UK until like 2005, something like that.
“But anyway, it’s been out for a long time. When I wrote that book I was single and I lived in a one bedroom bachelor apartment and now I have a house, I’m married and my kids are six and four. The arc of the last 10 years has been crazy – but then everybody experiences that as they go along in life – don’t they?”
“You know what I’m talking about with us both being the same age, right? From 34 to 44 were crazy years, but when I think back to 14 to 24, those were pretty crazy too. Twenty-four to 34 though… not quite so crazy actually. Not a lot changed in those ones, just discovering a lot of dead ends really.”
Figuring out life
For my money, I like getting older. I like having money, being dignified, being able to stay win a hotel without wanting to throw shit out of the window, having a car that starts in the morning…
“Knowing how to cook, wearing clean clothes – I hear you! It’s all about responsibility right? The more you’re willing to accept, as you get through your responsibilities successfully, that gives you the confidence to do more, it’s a vicious circle. But you’ve just got to keep climbing because the view gets better.”
“I’ve already started on writing something new. I have to. It’s what I do. I can’t stop – for me writing is just… well, there’s that theory that your dreams are your brain’s way of processing everything that happened to you in a day. To me, it feels like that’s what I’m doing with my writing. I really don’t know how to keep everything together and keep my brain clean and running well without writing a story – because when I’m writing a story, I’m trying to figure out something that I’m trying to figure out about myself. Every single book that I’ve written is… well, I can track all of them.
“All My Friends Are Superheroes is about me being afraid to commit to get married. The Waterproof Bible was a really sad story about loss and that came from dealing with the reality of when my wife and I had a bunch of miscarriages. The Tiny Wife was about getting out of the tunnel of having two kids and dealing with all the diaper stuff and trying to find the love for your wife again. Actually, Born Weird is really the only one I don’t really know exactly what the hell I was working on.”
So – here we are at the crux of why Mr Kaufman is the greatest writer on earth. Within The Tiny Wife (which is my favourite of his books and it may be for this reason) there’s a paragraph that looks exactly like this:
“Perhaps one of the hardest things about having kids is realizing that you love someone more than your wife. That it’s possible to love someone more than you love your wife. What’s even worse is that it’s a love you don’t have to work at. It’s just there. It just sits there, indestructible, getting stronger and stronger. While the love for your wife, the one you do have to work at, and work so very hard at, gets nothing. Gets neglected, left to fend for itself. Like a houseplant forgotten on a windowsill.”
If that isn’t the most eloquent and honest paragraph in the history of literature, I don’t want to read what is. Maybe you also have to be male and have kids for it to really ring true. I put The Tiny Wife down at that point and went outside to look at the sky and think about it. It’s officially the biggest paragraph ever created. I reveal that I have quoted it numerous times to many male friends but it is never something that I will show to any females I know because to know this will be both devastating and heartbreaking.
“Ah dude – that’s beautiful. It’s really nice to hear that… I feel like I really accomplished something with that book. When you have those kids, it’s hard proof, man. You don’t anticipate how different a dynamic it’s going to put into your relationship. It’s so much work. You can’t believe your partner is doing as much as you are because God knows you seem to be doing so much of it – it’s a recipe for resentment and you don’t have the time to do the passionate, loving thing. It’s a hard time.”
With one eye on the introduction to this piece regarding what shall hereafter be known as the Crappy Book of Many Reviews, I wonder if any of the dirt that the media is kicking up about the publishing world ever concerns him. Is going it alone something he would ever consider?
“Well, we’ll see how well Born Weird sells! But no – I don’t think I could do it on my own. I’m a writer that needs an editor. I need an editor to read my stuff and say what’s working and what’s not. I need to work with someone who can make me focus the story, make it sharp and show me where it’s not working. My stuff wouldn’t be nearly as good without my editors. These people made me a better writer. Fact.
“So, that’s point A. Point B is that I suck at promotion. I can barely get my invoices in. I already feel like I don’t have enough time to write just by being alive and having kids – so what, now I’m going to run a publishing company? Design the covers, get people to spell check? There’s just so much maintenance and from where I’m standing that looks like… well, why the hell would I want to do that? They do that for me. They take a cut, but that’s fair man. Distribution? I mean come on – does anybody know how hard that really is?”
“I remember in the mid-90s, when I lived in a town called Halifax, for a while there it was the ‘new’ Seattle. There were all these bands who were popular and were getting a lot of attention and they all decided to form independent labels but it didn’t work for any of them. Even though they got an 80 per cent cut on the royalty, instead of 15 or 20, they still didn’t end up making any money… you know what I’m saying here. The people in publishing are professionals, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it and I totally trust them. I’m really happy with my deal – the Friday Project in the UK particularly. They understand that the nature of the kind of books I write depends on word of mouth.”
“I was just over in the UK for a week and it was so much fun to work it. When I’m in Canada, the fact that my books are actually in stores is so abstract to me, so to come over there and see them on shelves was a real blast! I have to say it’s been fun.”
I need to wrap up here, otherwise we could be at it all night. Seriously. Hmm…how to wrap up something like this? Unintentionally and out loud, I wonder if he’s able to dump his previous ‘children’ having given birth to a new one, and I ask this specifically because I have heard Mr K say, on more than one occasion, that you ‘have to keep moving forward’. As we’ve seen, there is no small amount of personal trial in those previous works. I’m not sure every writer could keep from pointing that out to interested parties.
“Totally. I can totally let it go. Absolutely. As soon as they’re published… well here’s the deal. I hand in my book, my editor will say I need to do one more draft and inevitably they are right. By the time I have done that and handed it back, I am so through with it, hate it so much and never want to see it again. That’s when I know that it’s really finished and we are done.
“When I finish a book, it then takes me some time to recoup from the process because it’s so emotionally draining – I get a little depressed and my emotions are a little out of whack but I am definitely not mourning the book itself. That sliver is out and it’s not emotionally causing me any problems any more.
“That’s healthy right? That’s how writing should be?”
We are done here. Andrew Kaufman: Not a dick. Official. I knew that before I started but it looks good written down all the same. What I do know is this and you must remember it well: Andrew Kaufman writes extraordinary books – for those who take the time to read and listen to what he has to say, the world will seem a better place by the time you get to the end of any one of them.
And when you’re Andrew Kaufman, that’s about as good as it gets.