Kevin Canty's new collection, Where the Money Went, was published this summer. The collection includes "The Birthday Girl," which was featured in this year's Summer Fiction Issue of the L. Canty, who teaches writing at the University of Montana, answered some questions for us earlier this year.
The L: What do you think of the recurring assessment of your work as occupied with the underbelly of things? Do you think it's a fair description? Is it something you consider while writing?
Kevin Canty: It depends on what you mean. I do love the dark sides and gray areas—the sunny surfaces of life I find pretty much uninteresting. I'm often working to bring to the page and make visible a feeling or thought that lies buried but present, just out of sight.
When I first started writing, I also felt a need to bring more working-class (and drinking class) characters into my stories; I'd spent a lot of time out of the middle classes and felt like there were a lot of stories that weren't getting told. Lately, though—after all this time in the University—I feel like I've lost touch with those lives a little, and so more of my characters in this new collection have money, jobs, nice shoes.
L: So, as the places you're looking to find and expose those buried thoughts and feelings change, is what you're finding different?
KC: Well, obviously, the threads that make us all human are pretty much the same: love, death, fear of death, fear of love, embrace of death, the need for sandwiches, all these things are spread across everybody's lives. I was going to say that perhaps these more privileged lives are less constrained by circumstance, but that's probably not true. It's just different manners and morals, different ways these primal dramas get acted out.
L: The stories in Where the Money Went seem as interested in physical landscape as they are in, say, alcoholism and troubled relationships. Your descriptions of the locations your characters inhabit are reverent, in a way, and beautifully wrought. Do you think there's a balancing act in your writing between personal despair and external beauty?
KC: Interesting question. There's always this kind of fake-ironic relationship between landscape and weather and inner feeling; the morning of September 11 was a beautiful day, which in the end really means nothing. But a lot of these stories are set in the West, and the West does attract people like me who feel a stirring at the sight of a mountain range or a trout stream, riffle and pool. The landscape does sometimes have the power to console, for those of us who look to nature for consolation.
L: After living in the West for so long, do you still feel moved by the landscape? Do you ever get the urge to run away to a big city?
KC: Well, I do run away to the big city, fairly often; we flew into LaGuardia on the evening of July Fourth this year, just as all the fireworks were going off. I love big noisy cities, rock shows, restaurants. I am moved by visual art, which is in short supply here in the Intermountain West. But I also love these trout streams and mountain ranges. It's quiet here, and very convenient, and good for writing. An ideal life would have both in it.
L: I loved your descriptions of summertime suburban Ohio in "Burning Bridges, Breaking Glass" and also your accounts of backcountry Montana wilderness in "The Boreal Forest." Do you think there's such a thing as suburban wilderness? In other words, do you find any parallels between the side of an interstate and the side of a mountain?
KC: I had an idea for a while—probably not a true idea but a useful one to me—that every working story was an act of praise, that you couldn't put anything into a story without loving it, celebrating it. So in that sense, it's a lot harder and therefore more surprising and rewarding to praise roadside Ohio than it is to praise the alpine high country of Montana. I mean, mountains are pretty, right? End of story. But suburban Ohio is not pretty, you have to work a little harder, dig a little deeper to find something to love.
L: Have you ever come across something you couldn't find a way to love?
KC: Oh yeah. Endlessly. But I can't write stories about those things unless I can find a way in, a place to stand to avoid the easy judgment.
L: There seems to be a real man-versus-nature element to these stories, in that the main characters often to look to the outside world for personal answers and get feral animals, the woods, and weather in response. To what extent do you think the external world becomes a character in its own right in your stories? Was that something you were interested in exploring or did it come about on its own?
KC: Yeah, I don't know–I don't think it's man-against-nature in the Jack London sense. But there is a kind of buried argument here about the natural world and how we can relate to it. People seem to feel that there's some kind of information in the natural world that can help us, save us, make things right if only we will learn to listen. This is sentimental, false and dangerous. We need to save ourselves. The natural world has only one thing to say and it says it constantly: that it is completely indifferent to us.
L: That makes a lot of sense, and I think it definitely comes through in your stories. Any ideas on why nature seems like such an appealing place to look for answers?
KC: I have about a book's worth of answers to that question, not a very interesting book, though, and probably destined to remain unwritten, at least by me. The short version, I think, is that people look at the mess we've made of this lovely world and feel that the same minds that created all these problems are not capable of solving them; that it's a lot easier to take the wristwatch apart than it is put it together again. But there doesn't seem to be anywhere else to turn, and so they imagine a lucid link with nature, a set of instructions.
L: Another theme that bridged the stories was father-son relationships. Do you see any correlation between father-son relationships and man-nature relationships? Do children, maybe, fall into the feral-external category?
KC: Well, I'm both a father and a son, as well as being a brother many times over, and I have to say the whole business seems mysterious to me. Not subject to definition, at least not by me. These things seem multiple and complex and completely grounded in what Sherlock Holmes used to call "the psychology of the individual." There's at least one feral child in the book, sure, but there's also a childish dad or two. So much of this book is tied up in the problem of how to be a man, what such a thing might mean, that I feel like there are many half-complete attempts at definition here. What does a son do? What does a husband do? Mysterious.
L: It seems like your stories, particularly in Where the Money Went, are concerned with second chances for characters who have screwed up in some way–whether or not those chances actually materialize (and if they do, whether or not the characters accept them) is another thing. What do you think about second chances?
KC: I'm 100% in favor of them, speaking as a person who tends to screw things up a lot the first time through. Most of these stories arose out of a time in my life when I was making enormous changes in my personal life, and I had to believe that change was possible, that I wasn't stuck with the person I had been. So yeah, a lot of thinking on this subject, a lot of hope.
L: Your story "Birthday Girl" takes place at the O'Haire Motor Inn in Great Falls, Montana, home of the Sip-N-Dip Lounge–a bar with windows into a pool that features mermaid performances for patrons. And which sounds completely excellent. How did you hear about the place, and did you know right away you wanted to use it in a story?
KC: Ha! I've lived in Montana for many years and I couldn't say when I first heard of the Sip-N-Dip, but it was a long time ago. I had been to the bar before, a few times. But a couple of years ago we stayed there on the night described in the story, a night of deep furious snow and Christmas decorations, and I started to wonder what kind of story I could set there. The strange part–especially given the cover of the book–is that I have never once made it to the bar on a night when they had mermaids. I've heard about them. Every grad student who comes through the programs seems to write a story about them. But I have never seen a mermaid.
L: Any plans to go and try to see them? Or are they better as a kind of publicized mystery?
KC: Oh, I'm sure I'll see them one of these days. There's not much else to do in Great Falls, and I do seem to get over there once in a while. I should clarify, maybe, and say that I have seen mermaids at Weeki Watchee and also at the late, lamented Aquarena Springs in San Marcos, Texas, home of the diving pig. I've just never seen a mermaid in Montana.
L: This is now your sixth published book. When you look back across your professional trajectory, do you see any shifts in your writing, thematically or otherwise? What do you think about what you see?
KC: Funny, I just had a colleague ask me to present a story to her class and she asked for one from the first collection. I read it aloud, read it carefully for the first time in twelve or fourteen years, and it just seemed completely foreign to me. I'm just a different writer now, quieter, more precise but less adventurous. Nothing wrong with either version of myself but I just felt like that story was the work of somebody else entirely, right down to the sentence rhythms. Which of course it was.
L: Did you talk about that at all with the students after you read it to them?
KC: Actually, no, they wanted to talk about the content in a kind of high-school-English-class way. Meaning, you know. I hate meaning!