Roy Kesey: I drill wherever I’m emplaced

I first became a reader of Roy Kesey’s one story at a time. The stories in his 2007 collection, All Over, had been appearing in journals for a few years, and his name became a kind of brand to me: Read this story – clean, direct prose; imaginative, sometimes insane, scenarios; and the emotional truth to keep them firmly in the realm of the human.

Kesey in Beijing (Photo by Adam Pillsbury)

Kesey has since written a novella, Nothing in the World, set in the disintegrating Yugoslavia, and his new novel, Pacazo, published by Dzanc. The novel is set in Peru and concerns an expatriate American investigating the mystery of his wife’s brutal death, while negotiating the intrusions of memory and history. The novelist John Domini wrote: “It’s a shaggy-dog tale, one that eventually — boldly — invites comparison to its great progenitor, Don Quixote. In cutting a classic wide swath, Pacazo exposes itself to risk, a tricky balance between hilarity and horror. By and large, though, this rangy novel earns its claim to the old knight’s inheritance.”

Kesey, who lives in Peru, graciously agreed to answer these questions by e-mail.

Your new novel, Pacazo, is your longest and most complicated work. Did it change much from the way you initially envisioned it? How did it begin and grow, and how did you manage the complexity of it – the different time frames, the interweaving of present and past?

It changed plenty, actually. Like most of what I do or try, Pacazo started with a weird little bit of phrasing that just kind of showed up in my head. In this case it was a sentence with a sort of stilted, exhausted, estranged, overly formal diction, and violent undertones, about a lizard in a tree. That original sentence still exists, albeit in altered form, in the first chapter of the novel. But first it had to become a character’s voice, and that character had to have his own short story to live in, a story which McSweeney’s was kind enough to publish back in 2002, I think.

I’d already finished the first two or three drafts of the novel at that point—I’d realized pretty quickly that I had a voice I wanted to spend more time with. It ended up taking me another nine years, and another nine drafts, to get the novel where it needed to be.

The messing about in time seems complex in places from the outside, I think, but it was actually fairly straightforward from my perspective, if only because it’s a pretty direct function of how my narrator is geared. He’s just not very good at keeping his mind in a single frame. And that was the case even in the earliest drafts, i.e. before I ever realized that he needed to be a historian. That realization/discovery/decision—that history was what the book wanted to be “about”; that history could serve not just as content but also as conceit and structure—put a ton a lot of national/regional/tribal past at my narrator’s disposal. He also (as in the earlier drafts) has a lot of personal history to work through, and as a result of all this, it’s no big deal for him to switch from one century to another mid-sentence.

As for how I kept track of it all, (I [did {it “like ‘this’”}]).

A fairly common reaction I’ve read from some readers – notably at The Rumpus Book Club — is that it took them a while, 90 or 100 pages even, to fully adapt to the novel’s abrupt shifts, and then they love it. How much of a stylistic risk do you think you took, and how do you feel about that – about challenging the reader in that way?

I guess I’ve always been interested in books that are in some sense “about” their own structure—Cortázar’s Hopscotch, say, or West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. Of course, this kind of thing can be taken to absurd extremes, can lead to unreadable books—but then, that’s true of every conceit. And even when it’s done right, one consequence of this approach is a sort of light vertigo for the reader—it just takes a little longer to figure out the rules of the world of which the book consists. My fair-play pledge to the reader is that I did my utmost to make sure that every temporal shudder is, in the end, intelligible and interest-bearing. I may have failed, certainly, but that was my goal.

Your work and your life have a global feel – something that distinguishes you from a lot of American writers. How do you think living outside the U.S. has affected you and your work?

In the hope that I’m not parroting myself too badly, I’ll just say that that’s a really hard question to answer without looking back (across a fair amount of both time and space, ideally) at a given instantiation of expatriate-ness and the given body of work that followed it. More generally, I tend to work on questions that expats, I guess, might ask themselves slightly (very slightly) more often than do others. And like everyone else who works with words, I drill wherever I’m emplaced. Everybody’s sentences smell of local spices, and if you switch locales often enough, and pay attention, I guess you’ll end up with a crowded spice rack. But spices rot too, given enough time, like any and everything else.

When you come back to the U.S. after living in Peru, what strikes you about life here? What do you notice that is hard to see when you’re living here?

Sometimes it’s something new, and sometimes it’s something that gets me every time. This last time, in February, I got gobsmacked by physical beauty, specifically that of the Allegheny Plateau as I headed west from Maryland into West Virginia, and that of certain bits of northern California. And I also got gobsmacked by price structures. Specifically price structures related to clothes. Children’s clothes. Because I have these children, see, and they need clothes. But how is it possible for good clothing to be so cheap?

And of course it isn’t just clothing. Amazon, Wal-Mart, Costco… There is just nowhere on earth that is better for many kinds of common consumption. And that thought makes my stomach hurt a little—the knowledge that said value didn’t just appear magically in the world, that it was extracted, elsewhere, from others, and gifted to me, blessed child of empire, in the form of Everyday Low Prices!

Not to be facile about it, of course. In certain circumstances, certain types of extraction benefit everyone involved. But in others—lots of others—not so much.

In a “self-interview” you did at The Nervous Breakdown, you asked yourself this: “Getting back to the topic at hand, what would you say are the main themes of your oeuvre? For example, in all three of your books, from Nothing in the World through many of the stories in All Over and now especially in your new novel Pacazo, you seem to be concerned—almost obsessed, one might say—with attempts at both retribution and reconciliation, as well as with the deep tissue damage that our histories, our national and regional and personal histories, combine to—”

But then you dodged your own question. I wonder if you’d comment on retribution, reconciliation, and whatever else you would like to say about the main themes of your oeuvre?

I think I’ll stick with the answer I gave there , if that’s all right.

What books by Peruvian writers would you recommend to the insular American reader?

A few weeks ago I put up a list over here. That still seems like a pretty good starter set. If said reader happens to read Spanish, of course, there’s tons more—more Ribeyro and more Bryce and lots more Rostworowski, plus Juan Morillo and Teresa Ruíz Rosas, Alejandro Neyra and Alonso Cueto and Rocío Silva—but then, said reader probably already knows about them.

What American books do you recommend to your Peruvian friends?

They’re a pretty well-read bunch already, truth be told. Every so often I’ll run into someone who hasn’t read West or Barthelme or Paley, in which case I start a list. But for the most part my only real service is in terms of contemporary fiction, in which case I’m pushing Brian Evenson and Amelia Gray, Elizabeth Crane and Kyle Minor, Michael Martone and Pinckney Benedict, Lucy Corin and Lorrie Moore and Anthony Doerr and George Saunders and at least a few dozen more.

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Visit Roy’s web site here.

To see past interviews with Ben Stroud, Reese Okyong Kwon, Ander Monson, Matt Furie, Seth Fried, Dan Chaon and Shann Ray, here’s the doorway.

2 Comments

  • Shira Richman says:

    I’m really enjoying your interview series, Shawn. This one is giving me lots to go in search of in terms of summer reading.

    • Shawn Vestal says:

      thanks, Shira — I’m really enjoying doing them. I’m liking your posts, too, though I’m incredibly erratic about commenting, and I like the energy and attention you’re bringing to conversations that grow from the posts.

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