I was first introduced to Stefan Kiesbye’s work in a seminar on the novella at UMass Amherst’s MFA program. While we were reading Next Door Lived a Girl, my house burned down, and because I had that book with me, for a while it was the only book I owned. If you’re only going to own one book, it’s an excellent one. Jeff Parker, who was teaching the class, marveled that he’d almost assigned Kiesbye’s other novella, Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone, which would have been an even less comforting title to have in my bag as my house caught fire. I see why Parker had a hard time choosing—both books have what I like so much about Kiesbye’s writing, this way of presenting extreme tenderness and cruelty with such objective clarity, the reader perceives almost no difference between the two. I’ve since read Kiesbye’s other work and had the pleasure of working with him at the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon. I was excited to interview him about his newest book, Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames, a gothic novel about a new marriage and a village with a recent murder and a long history of superstitions. KFSF will be out in October 2016.
Jane Dykema: Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames, like some of your other books, is set in a small, rural community, and we get a sense of a village mentality that could be a tick or two away from a mob mentality. These kinds of group-sanctioned secrets or shamings or violence recur in your work (and our nightmares). What are you telling or not telling us about ourselves?
Stefan Kiesbye: Families are the most powerful frames in which to generate meaning. Growing up, everyone in a family has a distinct place. Even though everyone’s family might be a tad different, we all have a lot of affection, longing, or trauma associated with the first people we meet on this planet. Even in the absence of family, we are still influenced by the common narrative of what family should feel like and should provide.
The next best thing is the village. People know each other, look out for one another, ostracize certain people, take revenge on some, threaten others, bring food to people who can’t take care of themselves. Again, everyone has their role to play, even the outsider.
I think that’s why I’m drawn to them (apart from the fact that I grew up in a small town surrounded by small villages, and recently lived in a very small town). Any push or misstep by one character in a tight community must have consequences. If Farmer Smith poisons Farmer Jones’s dog, there’ll be blood. If Farmer Smith’s son marries the daughter of a poor outsider instead of Farmer Jones’s eldest, his family will disavow him, or worse. In a village, everyone is connected with everyone else, and it makes for great drama. Everyone has secrets and they’re all open.
JD: KFSF is told from one point of view, Benno, a young husband and stepfather who has recently moved with his family from Berlin to the small town of Strathleven, quickly becoming entangled in some mysterious events there. In an earlier book, Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, you write from multiple points of view, also slowly revealing some village secrets. Is it the story itself or the mood you’re in that dictates how you’ll tell it? In KFSF, were you ever antsy sticking with one point of view, or in YHIOFYCAG, were you ever drawn to one narrator and reluctant to switch?
SK: In YHIOFYCAG, it was always clear to me that it’s the story of the village, not of any one character. I loved how none of the narrators is able to give the complete account of what happened in the roughly fifteen years of their childhood and adolescence. Only the reader can make the connections between individual tales.
In KFSF the story is truly Benno’s. While the book is very much a Gothic novel, it focuses on Benno’s transition into adulthood, and the many difficulties he’s having with the task of growing older, meeting expectations, taking care of his family, earning a living, making compromises. In my eyes, it’s an exploration of what happens when everything seems to have fallen into place. What do you make of relative happiness and how do you sustain it?
JD: Your work is very heavily steeped in place and you’ve written about places where you’ve spent time, the German Baltic coast, the American Southwest, etc. How do you like living in Northern California? Do you foresee setting a future piece there?
SK: Despite it’s generally sunny nature, Northern California has many strange towns and villages. There’s lots to explore. Some of that was beautifully captured in the second season of True Detective. On a more private level, the local and organic food movement has worked miracles here. And you can get a mean cocktail with locally sourced spirits, juices or bitters everywhere. And the wine!
JD: When you’re translating your own work, are you tempted to revise? Has it happened that you revised the German version and had to go back to the English version or vice versa to make it match?
SK: I’m never tempted, but at times it becomes necessary that I do revise. I write my books in English, and if a German publisher is interested, translate the texts myself. When I translated Next Door Lived a Girl into German, I found I had given two different names to a single character. There was nothing I could do to change that in the already published English edition.
In the case of YHIOFYCAG, however, the book was scheduled to come out first in Germany, so after I edited and expanded the text in conversation with my editor, I did have to go back and translate added chapters and re-translate changed passages.
JD: Have you noticed any interesting differences between American audiences and German audiences? Do your American and German agents have different priorities, different predictions for what will do well?
SK: Yes, audience expectations are very different. German readers, for example, hate repetition as a stylistic device. For them it’s bad writing. But the differences go beyond that. Short stories are less established than they are here, and my agent pulls out his hair when I send him another Gothic tale, because there’s no contemporary template for it. So in terms of marketing, there’s no available pigeon hole. For him, it’s also problematic that my most recent texts are set in the Southwest and Los Angeles. An American text by a German author is hard to market, it seems.
But I’ve always written with an American audience in mind, since I’m writing in this country. Even the books set in Germany take into account that many Americans might not be familiar with the intricacies of German culture.
JD: Do you find your interests changing, as time goes on, in what you want to write about, what you want to say?
SK: Yes, very much so. After using the most stable of frames – families and villages – and push them into mayhem, I really love looking at what’s beyond. The families we ourselves create and which seem so rickety and frail because we see every seam and every danger and are fully responsible for what happens; the places that are too big to create instantly meaningful connections; the problem of what to do with the time we are given on this planet and who to spend it with. Connected to this is my growing dislike of a well-oiled plot. Plot can be fantastic, and for certain genres, even the literary one, it can take the reader on a wild and satisfying ride. And yet this is no longer how I experience life. Much, I believe, happens in simple accumulation. On any given day, life accumulates but rarely comes to a boil. Meaning is created in spurts and sputters, and what we mostly end up with are loose ends. To make that kind of accumulation poignant and interesting to read is the challenge.
JD: You have a lovely piece in A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors about your mentor, Irving Feldman. Do you ever think of things you’d want to ask him now? What do you think his answer(s) would be?
SK: I’d love to hear more about his life and the poets and writers he met and worked with. Irving has a very dry sense of humor, and I could listen to him for hours. I think I would be still too mortified to ask him directly for advice.
JD: Have you received advice, from a mentor or not, that you still keep in mind as you write?
SK: When I was still living in Berlin, I stumbled upon Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. It was the first book I read that addressed the writing life directly, the discipline and routine, the networking and drinking and fighting. Community and life have changed since then, but I love the seriousness with which Hemingway approaches his task, this absolute belief in his mission.
Then there’s Yoichi Takabayashi’s movie Irezumi -Spirit of Tattoo. It’s stayed with me even though I saw it the first and only time as a teenager. The film is about a young secretary who spends two years having her back tattooed by an elderly Kyoto tattoo artist. The final scene, as I remember it, shows the artist admitting to himself that his very elaborate, and somewhat kinky, method of tattooing has been a failure (even though the secretary and her middle-aged lover are very satisfied with the outcome). Again, the seriousness and unforgiving judgment of the artist made a huge impression on my teenage self (and if the film ends differently, please don’t tell me).
JD: Do you give your students advice that you don’t take?
SK: No. No, I really don’t think so. There’s not too much advice I offer. There are basic instructions, tried and true and worn, but for me it’s mostly about going out and making a fool of yourself whenever you get the chance. If what you’re attempting to do works out, great. You’ll have a good story to tell. If it doesn’t, even better. You’ll have a better story to tell.
JD: If you weren’t writing and teaching, what would you be doing?
SK: I’d probably live with my dog Kurt under a highway bridge in Southern California.
Stefan Kiesbye is the author of four novels, Next Door Lived a Girl; Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone; Fluchtpunkt Los Angeles; and The Staked Plains. He lives with his wife Sanaz and three dogs in the North Bay Area, and teaches creative writing at Sonoma State University.
Jane Dykema recently earned an MFA from UMass Amherst and is a 2016 Massachusetts Cultural Council fellow. Her stories have appeared in Big Big Wednesday, Volt, and Route Nine. She teaches writing at Clark University and Grub Street.