After working as a boilermaker in the steel mills in Ohio, KEVIN P. KEATING became a professor of English and began teaching at Baldwin Wallace University, Cleveland State University, and Lorain County Community College. His essays and stories have appeared in more than fifty literary journals, and his first novel, The Natural Order of Things, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. His second novel, The Captive Condition, will be released by Pantheon Books in July of 2015. He lives in Cleveland.For this segment of our Author Interview Series, we asked Kevin what inspired his writing, what challenges he faced, as well as a host of other questions. Here’s what he said:
Tell us about The Captive Condition.
As my demented and delusional narrator describes it, The Captive Condition is “an enigmatic, ruthlessly apocalyptic, elegantly filthy dirigible of a novel” that takes place somewhere in that part of the post-industrial Midwest often described as the Rust Belt. Specifically, the setting is the small town of Normandy Falls, “a place of dark and draggling horrors” and one where its impoverished citizens seem either to be drunk on grain alcohol or high from a cocktail made from an hallucinogenic carrot called the jazar. There Emily Ryan, a proud and unapologetic “townie” and mother of two, embarks upon a disastrous extramarital affair with a monomaniacal professor at Normandy College, “a third-rate intellectual backwater…that had succumbed long ago to the pressures of the marketplace and its unscrupulous administrators.” Things don’t turn out so well for Emily. One night a student finds her drowned in the family swimming pool. Was it an accident, suicide, murder? The student, who learns about the affair, is determined to find the answer and begins to play detective.
Who is your favorite character from the book?
The question might better be put this way: “Who is your favorite character to hate in the book?” A few critics have commented that, like Flannery O’Connor, I seem to have a great deal of disdain and contempt for the poor souls who populate the forlorn town of Normandy Falls. In fact, I find them all very interesting. It’s just that I wouldn’t want to invite them into my home or ask them to babysit my children. When someone like the Gonk is walking down your neighborhood street, you should probably be prepared to call 9-1-1. The Gonk is the supervisor at the college’s Department of Plant Services, known to locals as The Bloated Tick, where he attempts—but often fails—to manage a ragtag crew of drug-addled drifters. The Gonk is also a solitary figure who purchases a cottage and the adjacent cemetery in a lonely valley several miles from the college. There he begins to dig a new grave and devises a plan to rid the world of his nemesis, Xavier D’Avignon, the owner of a French bistro on the town square.
What inspired you to write the book?
The Captive Condition started off as a couple of short stories that were inspired by some of my epic bicycle rides across the rolling landscapes of Ohio. From time to time I pedaled through these blighted small towns that consisted of ten square blocks of abandoned factories, boarded-up warehouses, crumbling train depots. The towns seemed totally isolated and hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. Imagine Sherwood Anderson’s already grotesque inhabitants of Winesburg, Ohio after every business has fled town and jobs are scarce. Just as an aside, I lived in Chicago for many years where I occasionally visited my landlord who lived in a house on Dearborn Street once occupied by Sherwood Anderson (and his protégé Ernest Hemingway).
Q: What were your biggest challenges when writing the book?
A: Learning, in a very short amount of time, how to construct a novel! My first book The Natural Order of Things (Vintage 2014) is a collection of interconnected—or “linked”—short stories. It received a great deal of critical praise and became a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes for First Fiction. The publisher marketed the book as a novel, and it does bare some resemblance, I think, to that form, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it. The Captive Condition was my first truly serious effort—aside from a few aborted juvenile attempts in my twenties—to write a novel. People always ask, now that I’ve managed to complete the damn thing and see it in print, if the writing process has gotten any easier. I can now tell them unequivocally that it hasn’t. But I’ve been encouraged by the words of Martin Amis who said that every book is a learning experience for the writer. You’re trying to create something new, something that has yet to be written. How do you start? How do you know when it’s complete? The experience can be a daunting one.
The book contains an amazing balance of dark comedy and horror. Was this difficult?
I think the lines demarcating one genre from the next are unnecessarily artificial. Life is both horrifying and funny, and sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the two things. What is comedy but horror gone wrong? And what is horror but comedy gone wrong? I have always been deeply inspired by the films of Stanley Kubrick, and I think you can view each of his films as simultaneously comedic and horrifying. A great example is A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s depiction of Alex, the protagonist as played by Malcolm McDowell, is laugh-out-loud funny and, at the same time, incredibly disturbing. For me this tension between comedy/horror has always been sort of natural and intuitive.
Who are you reading now?
I’m not reading a lot of fiction these days. I think I did all of my heavy-duty reading in my thirties—Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—these were some of my favorites. But I seem to have lost the habit of reading novels. In a recent interview, Will Self said that when a writer sits at his desk his eight or ten hours a day, working tirelessly on his own stuff, the last thing he wants to do is read another writer’s book. I also read an essay by a retired editor who said, “As one gets older, one finds fiction somehow less and less interesting.” I sometimes wonder—and worry—if this is happening to me. As a result, I find myself reading a lot of non-fiction. I just finished The Silence of Animals by British philosopher John Gray who argues that the reason most people are so unhappy is because they believe they must be happy all of the time. This insight ties into many of my other interests—mythology as discussed by Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade; eastern mysticism as described by Alan Watts; the Abrahamic religions as translated by Robert Alter. You know, light reading!
What advice can you provide to aspiring authors?
Well, this is going to sound pessimistic, but really it’s meant to be positive. I always tell aspiring writers to be prepared to suffer. What I mean is by this is that a writer must embark upon a project that he or she understands will take years to complete with no guarantee of publication or financial success. A writer must also revise, revise, revise, revise. It’s a serious discipline and requires absolute focus and dedication. Having said that, isn’t it true that we are willing to suffer for those things we hold most dear—spouses, children, family, friends, cherished beliefs, etc.? The same thing is true for fiction. When writing a book, no matter how horribly frustrating it can sometimes be, a dedicated writer will battle on and see the thing to completion. But in my experience many students enroll in creative classes because they regard writing as a kind of hobby. Mainly, they want to tell a story, but they don’t want to write a story. That is to say, they have a tale they want to put quickly on the page but they don’t want to learn the craft of writing. Also, a huge percentage of the so-called stories I see in class are either thinly disguised autobiographical anecdotes (“my girlfriend left me one rainy day in October”) or fan fiction (the zombie apocalypse story is a perennial favorite followed by something called “steam punk”). Writing is just a lot of plain, old-fashioned hard work. But hard work, with limited rewards, is a kind of hard sell, isn’t it?