Kenneth Calhoun: ‘Stories are little tension machines’

Kenneth Calhoun has one of those resumes that’s so wide-ranging it’s hard to summarize – graphic designer, professor, writer, interactive storyteller, filmmaker. His short stories are how I came to him, most recently the story “Then” in the new Tin House, which is a spooky, elliptical tale about parenting anxiety and sleeplessness.

Kenneth Calhoun

His story “Nightblooming,” which was originally published in The Paris Review, was selected for the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2011. He has created an interactive online story, “Big Swing,” based on one of his short-shorts. And he’s an assistant professor of graphic design at Lasell College in Newton, Mass.

Calhoun graciously agreed to answer these questions by e-mail.

Your story, “Then,” draws me back, in part, because I’m trying to sort it out, and can’t fully or exactly do that. How do you find a balance between maintaining mystery and telling the story? How do you suggest or signal what lies behind what’s on the page?

The design of the story, which was inspired by the insomnia theme, is meant to suggest that it was a whole, linear thing that has been cut up and re-arranged out of sequence, with parts left out. This is the impression it hopes to give, though it’s an illusion. That is, it never was a whole thing that was cut up and re-arranged. Instead, I just wrote flashes and glimpses—sometimes in chronological order, sometimes not—knowing that the gaps and all the connective tissue would be added by the reader’s mind. The reader’s mind would also try to organize the story and struggle to make sense of it, if the reader cared enough about the situation and the characters.

In addition to the challenge of creating characters that feel alive, I think the art part—the thing that is finessed during the act of writing—is determining whether you’ve given the reader enough pieces of the puzzle to fit together, and reason enough to do the fitting. To get there, I read the story repeatedly as I wrote it and added in sections here and there to help along the connections, keeping in mind the Kuleshov Effect.

I also shuffled the order around until it seemed to flow right—in terms of building tension. Then I cut away anything that felt unnecessary or obvious. In the end, I thought maybe it wasn’t adding up, but I showed it to a few trusted readers and they seemed to not only perceive the full shape of it, but they filled in the blanks in ways that added to the story.

You have a multimedia story, “Big Swing,” that’s available online. It has a similar mystery and mood to it – it leaves a lot of space for the viewer to enter. Can you describe that project a bit – how it came to be and what you’re trying to accomplish?

“Big Swing” is based on a short short story that was published in Quick Fiction. In the print version, the main character is attacked by a coyote while videotaping himself as he practices his golf swing. Of course I wanted the coyote attack in the interactive version, but determined it would take too long to capture and train a coyote. So I made the storytelling apparatus itself—the digital interface—the fantastical element that juts into the story. That introduced some new themes that really interested me.

On a structural level, the piece was an attempt to explore semi-nonlinear storytelling. I’m intrigued by hypertext and experiments with database-driven narratives, but I am inevitably disappointed by the loss of narrative shape and the emptiness, not to mention imprecision, of totally random juxtapositions. I’m sort of Old School. I still want authorship. I want the author’s hand to build shapely tension. Big Swing was an attempt to give the reader some control and a sense of authorship at runtime while retaining fairly traditional narrative shape that has, in fact, been pre-configured by the author behind the scenes.

I built “Big Swing” with Flash and a talented friend of mine, J. McMerty, shot stills while I simultaneously shot all the video. As I put all the pieces together I got pretty high on the idea that this was a new, grand form of authorship, since it combined programming, video editing, image manipulation, graphic design and, of course, writing. I was feeling pretty damn good about myself. As exciting as all that was for me, I think the final product leaves a lot of people cold. That space you mentioned is unwelcomed by some who would prefer not to have to fill it themselves.

You taught a class at Duke called digital storytelling. I wonder if you can just talk about digital storytelling – perhaps explain just what that is, to an analog storyteller like me – and how it’s different from other kinds of storytelling.

In a very specific usage of the term, digital storytelling uses still photography and sound (narration, background music, ambient sound) to tell a story. These pieces are usually put together as video files, with the photography being scaled and panned a la Ken Burns. This approach, which has been fairly formalized by the Center for Digital Storytelling (http://www.storycenter.org) in Berkeley, is a great way to give voice to communities and individuals who aren’t usually part of the mainstream media mix. It’s an opportunity, enabled by new media, for people to be seen and heard in a format that can be easily disseminated (posted on YouTube, for example).

The course at Duke was meant to explore this specific approach to digital storytelling, but also included interactive storytelling (created in Flash or HTML/CSS), or multimedia storytelling (like audio slideshows) and video. So, my broader use of the term digital storytelling basically means storytelling that is authored on a computer and uses a variety of media formats. Another approach could be transmedia storytelling, which is telling a story via a number of channels, both digital and analog—for example, weaving threads of a story into a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, a blog, a journal, songs, a film, phone calls, text messages, etc. I was watching the film Catfish the other day and it occurred to me that the main guy was the audience for (or victim of) an elaborate transmedia production.

I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m always on the lookout for an idea that might benefit from this approach.

You have a hand in a variety of creative pursuits – design, fiction, music, film. Do you consider yourself more one kind of artist than another – do you see yourself as a writer or designer first, for example? How does your work in different genres and fields interact and relate to each other?

I think the banal answer is that I consider myself a storyteller and that sometimes I tell stories with words and sometimes I use other media. But I’d have to say that, regardless of format, it all starts with writing. I think like a writer. That is, writing is thinking for me. I love design and video editing. Doing both is actually more enjoyable to me than writing. And I can get deeply absorbed by my attempts to write code. But writing always presents itself as a fullest opportunity for articulation. It’s where I’m the least clumsy.

I do think the different forms of authoring inform each other. For example, “Then” was approached more like a film than a story. There’s even a reference to “jump cuts” in the piece. “Big Swing” is strung together with short lines of text, but fleshed out with images, sound design and animation. Other projects, even corporate pieces I have worked on, orchestrate different modes of expression in an attempt to convey very specific messages. But all of these projects start with scripts and stories.

In the context of your other creative work, why do you write fiction? What about that art form, in particular, draws you?

Fiction is my obsession (and probably fatal attraction), especially short fiction. When I’m looking out at the world, or inward, for that matter, I’m pretty much always looking for stories. This compulsion started when I was a teenager. At their core, stories are little tension machines: wind them up and watch them break your heart. I’m compelled to create these little machines the way some people are compelled to make whimsical birdhouses.

On second thought, at their core, stories are whimsical birdhouses.

Who are your favorite writers and why?

I like a wide range of writers. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Hemingway, but before that I was a fan of Ray Bradbury and even met him twice—once at the US Festival when I took a break from the concert to hear him read in an air-conditioned circus tent. At UCSD, I was introduced to a lot of Latin Americans and came away from the experience clutching Borges and, even more so, Cortazar. These days I’m into Barthelme, Aimee Bender, Sam Lipsyte, J.G. Ballard, A.M. Homes, Murakami, Diane Williams, Matthew Sharpe. Who else? Delillo. Kafka. I tend to read Cormac McCarthy every summer. There’s a wacky Russian surrealist named Daniil Kharms that I’ve been reading in stolen moments at the bookstore. I should probably buy that book.

Who are your favorite artists/designers in other fields?

Lately, I’ve been researching the Bauhaus, enjoying the work of Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky and the color experiments of Josef Albers. But what really interests me, as the chair for a graphic design department, is the learning model they created, and those of other experimental institutions like Black Mountain College. Other visual people that I’ve been into lately: Terrence Mallick, Magritte, Stephan Sagmeister, Nara, David O’Reilly, Francis Bacon, David Carson, MK12, Mary Ellen Mark, David Baeumler, Michel Gondry, and Chip Kidd. I’m doing a short animation collaboration with the mad genius Claudio Orso and, on an everyday basis, I’m astonished by work of the artist Anya Belkina, who happens to be my significant other. And then there’s this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxRT60-kw78

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To read past interviews in this series, here’s the portal.

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