The Salon Interview – Ken Kalfus

For 44-year-old Ken Kalfus, who has just published his first book, "Thirst," success was worth waiting for.

Topics: Author Interviews, Books,

“It’s always a bit of a shock coming back from Moscow,” Bronx-born writer — and inveterate world traveler — Ken Kalfus says. “My wife said to me, ‘America’s like one big amusement park.’ And indeed it is.”

For Kalfus, who has also lived in Dublin, Paris and Yugoslavia during the past decade, the most recent homecoming was by far the sweetest: He was back to publicize his first book, a masterful collection of short stories titled “Thirst.” Kalfus, who’s 44, spoke with Salon not just about his fiction, but about such topics as the allure of baseball, why you shouldn’t drink the milk in Moscow, why writing good journalism is harder than writing fiction — and why success can be sweeter when it arrives later in life.

It seems you’ve lived almost everywhere in the last decade — what’s the impetus to keep moving?

I’ve lived a year in Paris, two years in Dublin, a year in Yugoslavia and now four years in Moscow. Adventure, the idea of adventure, is what keeps me moving. When you live abroad, even your ordinary daily life is very stimulating. I have a Yugoslav friend who says that when you’re abroad, nothing’s provincial. Just the idea of going out to get your milk and coffee is an adventure. You see everything fresh. It gives you a chance as an adult to see things in a more childlike way. Now that I have a child who is seeing things for the first time and remarking on them, I realize how much a child’s point of view is similar to an artist’s. If you’re trying to be an artist, it helps to see things in the fresh light of living abroad.

Your wife’s a journalist. Is some of this travel for her work?

We went to Yugoslavia and Russia in connection with her journalism. And in Ireland I worked on a current affairs magazine. I don’t think of myself as a journalist, but I do try my hand at it occasionally. I see myself as a bit of a journalist manqué. I have never been great at it. I discovered after a while that the key thing about a journalist’s craft is calling up people you don’t know and asking them questions. And I found I didn’t like it so much. I much preferred calling up people — I discovered this when I was working for a science newspaper — and telling them my opinions. That’s really absurd, because they were scientists and I wasn’t.

Is journalism how you stayed alive as a fiction writer?

Yeah. And like everyone else, I’ve done my stint in the taxicab, limousine and livery business here in Manhattan. I’m 44 years old. I drove a cab in 1976; I remember the Bicentennial was here, so it was 22 years ago. I did all those kind of silly things. Not silly things — they were fun. I’ve done a certain amount of freelance, and written a lot of book reviews.

Have you always known that writing fiction was what you wanted to do?

Oh yes. I’ve been writing fiction since I was a little kid. At one point I thought that being a journalist was a way of getting into fiction. But I actually think now that to do good journalism is harder. I’ve always been writing fiction, and all these stories go back quite a number of years.

What’s the oldest story in “Thirst”?

I can’t tell you for sure. I’m always rewriting them. Even after they were published in magazines, I’ve rewritten them. Even when I’m reading them at some of these readings, I have a little urge to make a couple of changes here and there. Some of them go back more than 10 years.

You’re publishing your first book at a moderately late age; was it frustrating to have to wait so long?

It weighed on me. We live in a society that celebrates success at an early age; the 25-year-olds have the field. Writers get discouraged these days if they’re not famous by 25, which is absurd. It’s this culture of success we’re living in. I feel lucky to have had the chance to learn some skills. My first piece of fiction was published — it isn’t in “Thirst” — in 1981, when I was in my late 20s.

What’s it like raising a 5-year-old in Moscow?

It’s great, I have a nanny. [Laughs] I wouldn’t have a nanny here. But it’s great. It’s pretty much like raising a 5-year-old anywhere. She goes to a nursery school, she speaks Russian much better than I do. She likes her life there. A good deal of our effort is made to protect her from the environment — we don’t trust the milk or the meat products, and we spend a lot of time buying imported food.

Why don’t you trust the milk or the meat?

Because the environment there is so poor. And I am being a little paranoid. I actually have a story — it isn’t in this book, it was in Harper’s a few years ago — about plutonium theft. Read it and you’ll see how paranoid I really am. It’ll be in my next book, which I just finished, a second collection of stories entirely set in Russia. You can spend a lot of time worrying about the environment there. We live in the city, and it’s clogged with traffic and there aren’t emissions controls like you have in New York. And there’s a lot of dust. We have a little dacha, a small country house. We go out there every weekend just for the fresh air.

Several of the stories in “Thirst” are suburban reveries. Did you grow up in the suburbs?

I grew up in Long Island, in Plainview, which is near Syosset. I was born in the Bronx — it’s quite obvious from my accent. My parents moved out to Long Island, and I grew up there.

Some of the other stories in your book have a very intense political element — I’m thinking in particular about “No Grace on the Road,” in which an American-educated officer returns to his Asian country and is stunned by the poverty and ignorance. Where did this story come from?

It’s a weird thing. A lot of the experiences I write about happen to me after I write about them. It’s a little strange. That story came out of a 15-minute conversation with the son of a Burmese diplomat at a cocktail party once. He expressed in about 15 minutes this whole ambivalence about his country and about helping his people. And I never saw him again. I had traveled a bit. I even had made my first trip to Yugoslavia at that time. I had never been to Asia and still have not been in that part of the world. That’s imagined. But that experience of being frustrated by the poverty around you, or the ignorance, or whatever, I think that’s something that has come partly out of my travel and partly out of looking at the world from [my wife's] perspective. But that story sprung from that little conversation I had. This happens to a lot of writers. There’s one little thing and they blow it way out of proportion.

Do you want to write a novel?

I’m working on a novel now — it’s set in Russia. I’m still in the early stages of it, but I’m pretty confident about it going forth. The stories in my second collection include a short novel of about 105 pages. It’s taking me a while to learn how to put all it all together. People say it’s easier to write a novel than a short story, but in fact it isn’t. The short story first of all is shorter, so you’re done quicker and you can see it all when you sit down to write it. The stories in my second book are much longer — so long, in fact, that some of them can’t be published in literary magazines. There’s this one story that feels like a novel, it’s 105 pages, and now I’m working on what I feel will be a full-length novel. It’s a little bit like, you live in the dark when you’re writing these things, you just sort of see the part that you’re working on, you don’t see the rest of it. It’s set in Russia in the early part of this century, sort of before the Revolution and after the Revolution. I think it’s going to be OK.

You haven’t gotten a ton of reviews yet, but already your work’s been compared to everyone from Calvino to Hemingway to George Saunders. Do those kind of references make you feel good — do you feel like they’re apt?

I think those kinds of comparisons are handy for reviewers because it gives the reader an idea of where this guy’s coming from, but obviously I don’t consider myself in the same league as these guys. I understand the references, I understand where the reviewer gets that from, and I find it interesting. Some of it’s true. I mean, Italo Calvino is obviously a writer I very much admire, and one of the stories, “Invisible Malls,” is obviously a take-off on his “Invisible Cities.” Clearly I’m inspired by him. I also like Jorge Luis Borges a lot. One of my stories that they didn’t include — my first published story, in fact — was titled “In Borges’ Library.” And it was about a Borgesian-type library and things that go on in there. Very much derived and inspired by reading Borges.

Who are some of the other writers you admire?

I also think John Updike’s a great writer, and I read a lot of his stuff. For similar reasons Vladimir Nabokov is also one of the writers I go back to time and time again. Sometimes just when I feel I’ve forgotten how to write, I open up one of his books at random just to see the language on the page and say: “Oh yeah, that’s what writing is like.” And Philip Roth I very much admire. I was very, very much moved by “American Pastoral,” Roth’s last book. I was really knocked down. It may be the only contemporary American book I’ve read in the past four years. Mostly I read Russian books, and I’ve got so much to catch up on when I’m in Russia and so much of Russian literature to catch up on that I really have not seen too much that’s been published here in the past couple of years. But that really knocked me out. I can’t say that reading him has influenced me, but I can say that Updike and Nabokov’s language certainly influenced me and Calvino’s otherworldly worldview has influenced me. And I also like Graham Greene; I feel that he’s a great writer.

Your writing seems Hemingwayesque to the extent that, in some of the stories here, you really seem to rely on simple ingredients — there isn’t a lot of rhetorical showing off.

I read a lot of Hemingway, just like anyone else, but I can’t say I fully understand everything about what he did with language. But I certainly felt that when I was writing those stories that aiming for spareness in my work was a way of avoiding screwing it up with things that weren’t relevant. I think my style has become a bit more lush. I think I’m more confident.

Another story I love is “The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz,” in which you spin out stories about a made-up baseball league.

I miss baseball an awful lot. I went to a Cubs game last week — I felt like I’d been to Lourdes. It’s such a beautiful place, a great place, even the neighborhood is great. I’ve got to say that now that they have like 80 teams and 17 leagues, and they run from like February to December and all the teams get in the playoffs, I don’t find it as interesting. The Braves were playing Chicago and I hardly knew any of the players. I like the idea of the game, I like writing about the game. Now that I can’t go to the ballpark, I’ve stopped following the actual day-to-day battles. Professional sports in this country is so meshuggah that I don’t have the brain cells that are capable of following it all. But the game itself is still great, as is reading about the game and writing about the game. I mentioned Philip Roth earlier, and he wrote a book called “The Great American Novel,” a book I very much admire. The idea of these made-up teams and everything is in that novel and it’s in my story as well. Plenty of writers beside myself have written on the subject of the metaphysics of baseball. My story is about baseball but it’s also about a lot of difficult concepts about human existence that are sort of hard to get to there — what constitutes memory, the idea of losing control of one’s life. The first story’s about a pitcher who loses the idea of the strike, not just the strike zone itself, it’s the whole idea of the strike zone.

Any plans to move back to the States?

Yeah, we’ll be going back end of the summer. My wife’s tour ends and we’ll be going back to Philadelphia. But I love living abroad. I hope I’ll be back there someday.

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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