Kirby Gann is the author of the novels Ghosting (2012), The Barbarian Parade (2004), and Our Napoleon in Rags (2005). He is also co-editor (with poet Kristin Herbert) of the anthology A Fine Excess: Contemporary Literature at Play, which was a finalist for the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award (Anthologies). His work has appeared most recently in The Lumberyard and The Oxford American, among other journals. He is the recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship and two Professional Assistance Awards from the Kentucky Arts Council, and an Honorable Mention in The Pushcart Prize Anthology. Gann is Managing Editor at Sarabande Books, and teaches in the brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife and three dogs.
WHAT INSPIRES AND INFLUENCES YOUR WRITING THE MOST?
The short answer would be: other books. I’ve wasted a lot of my creative life waiting for so-called “inspiration,” when what really matters are honest work habits. In my experience, ideas only come while I’m working on something, worrying over it, starting and stalling—it’s only then that what might be termed “inspiration” comes to me.
Like any writer, I have a small pantheon of books and authors that set a standard that I hope to reach, novelists from Dostoevsky to Denis Johnson whose work I return to often and get excited about all over again—for the stories and for the examples of what the sentences that create them can do. One thing I do before starting work in the morning is to sit with a book of poetry (usually) to get my mind tuned and readied to begin my own writing.
I’m not sure if any of that answers to the question of influence, though. I don’t consciously try to pattern my work after anyone else’s, but I’m a perpetual reader and certainly some of that filters through into my own moves on the page. Music is a big part of my life as well, and I’d speculate that a perfectly constructed song, or even a guitar solo, has as important an influence on my writing as well as other books.
DO YOU HAVE AN AGENT? IF SO, HOW DID YOU FIND HIM/HER?
Kind of. By which I mean I haven’t signed with this person, but we’ve agreed she has the right to look first at my next project whenever it’s ready and then we’ll see what’s what. She queried me not long after my last novel, Ghosting, appeared; I was hesitant at first because I’ve had a couple of not-great experiences with agents, and there was no reason to rush into something new. So all I need to do is write another novel, which unfortunately is coming along rather slow these days. But I’m a slow writer in general: one step forward, three steps back being my working method, evidently.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT THE PUBLISHING PROCESS?
I’m in a somewhat unique position in that my first book came out not long after I’d started working in publishing myself; I’m managing editor at a small press. So I knew what to expect in terms of my first novel’s production, the limited marketing (it was with another small press that has since disappeared), the editing process, etc. One thing that surprised me was that page length was a consideration: I’d believed a novel was whatever length the story required in order for the writer to write it. However, paper cost is a big expense in publishing a book, and I was asked to trim the word count significantly. It ended up being a pretty invigorating process, because even though the word-count limit they gave me was kind of arbitrary, reworking my manuscript to meet it forced me into paring down to absolute essentials—which is how one should go about writing a book anyway, but it’s easy to convince yourself that something or other is necessary. The novel ended up being better, in my eyes, than it had been before.
DO YOU MARKET YOURSELF? WHAT (SPECIFICALLY) DO YOU DO TO BUILD/MAINTAIN YOUR READERSHIP?
I suppose I market myself but I don’t claim to be particularly good at it. Most of us working the genre called “literary fiction” are forced to market themselves, and most of us aren’t very good at it…. But I do what I can: there’s a website—kirbygann.net—and I do readings pretty much for anybody who asks, and take part in conferences, and teach in an MFA program, and “grant” interviews. I’ve helped chip in on touring expenses in order to promote each book as it appears, and helped organize publicity. But I don’t have a platform (a concept that strikes me as loathsome when applied to novels) or some such from which to push my existence onto strangers or anything like that.
BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCES IN THE INDUSTRY, WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER WRITERS?
I’ve always liked what Grace Paley said: Keep a low overhead. And Faulkner said something about never never being satisfied with what you’ve written—understand no project is ever perfectly finished, and the best you can do is reach a point where the project has exhausted your capabilities and must be abandoned (meaning: sent out into the world).
Write because you want to, and remember that nobody asked you to do this. This stance will help you with the general indifference you’re likely to experience, and also enhance those instances when a person not related to you by family or marriage responds positively to something you’ve written. Don’t occupy yourself with notions like “the market” or trends; write what you believe only you can write. Be yourself. Understand that writing is hard work, and like any other art, it requires discipline. Thinking about the book you’d like to write is not the same as being a writer.