“I’ve just never seen a mermaid in Montana.”

10/21/2009 4:00 AM |

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.