Books In Conversation
LEE KLEIN with Matthew Vollmer
The Shimmering Go-Between: A Novel
Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejections Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox
Full disclosure: Lee Klein is one of my favorite people, one of my favorite writers, and one of my very good friends. I met him at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where, despite both being fiction writers, we took a total of zero classes together. I remember us hanging out on the front porch before workshop, though, with all the smokers. Lee seemed a little weird, a little shifty-eyed, but also nice and smart and innovative and self-deprecating. And very tall. We played basketball together. We ate cheeseburgers and drank bourbon in the light of an animated Scene-O-Rama sign advertising Hamm’s beer. We gabbed about literature and sports and writers and rock bands. And we’ve kept in touch since, mostly via sporadic Gchats, in which we discuss the merits of Thomas Bernhard or The War on Drugs (the band, not the campaign). On several occasions, with little to no warning, Lee has sent me really long manuscripts. Every time, I think oh boy, not because I don’t admire Lee’s work (I do) but because I generally have enough to read as it is, but then curiosity gets the best of me and I open the document and start scrolling and find it difficult to stop. His latest book, which also seemed to come out of nowhere, arrived in the mail a couple months ago; I devoured it in nearly one sitting. Relentlessly and effortlessly strange—not to mention laugh-out-loud funny—it was exactly the kind of thing one hopes a writer will deliver. But so rarely does.
Matthew Vollmer (Rail): What factors contributed to you wanting to become a writer? And when did you know that you were—or wanted to be—such a thing?
Lee Klein: I’m a serial wannabe. I watched sports and wanted to play them. I listened to music and wanted to play it. I read novels and wanted to write them. I played sports for a while. I’ve played music off and on. It took some time before I unselfconsciously identified myself as a writer but it accurately describes how, in the best sense, I spend time and energy. Or better yet: it’s how I make my living (not to be confused with how I make my money).
Rail: Your name is the one of those that appears most often in green on my Gchat during the day. I imagine you toiling away in a cubicle, sneaking peeks at Twitter and reading Proust at lunch. Tell us about your day job, as well as your reading and writing schedule.
Klein: The psychological and physical separation of writing and work seems like it’s key for me, one of the reasons I no longer teach creative writing or lit. Ideally, I get up before dawn, drink a pot of coffee in two large mugs, and write/edit as much as I can before I head to work, usually reading as I walk. I also walk and read at lunch and again on the way home. Sometimes at night I edit whatever I wrote in the morning. On weekends and days off reserved for writing work I’ll get in a few more uninterrupted hours. I’m at a computer all day, sitting in front of a slick keyboard and two large, beautiful monitors. I work with physicians around the world to publish clinical books that often feature gruesome images. Over the years I’ve learned a good deal about urogynecological surgery. It’s challenging enough work on an overall editorial basis, but like any job I sometimes worry about calcification of the pineal gland (soul death).
Rail: In what ways (if any) do you see your occupational work influencing your writing and imagination?
Klein: My job doesn’t impinge on my imagination. It restricts the number of hours during which I might explore the world in text, but it doesn’t really insinuate itself into what I write. I’ve only written two stories loosely based on work events, and I have a secret, special long-term plan for a novel structured like publications I develop and edit. More importantly maybe, not having to read student stories or stories I assign leaves me free to read whatever I’d like, whenever I’d like, which synchs with what I write. For the most part I’d say a regular steady job allows my imagination room to roam, despite the threat of soul death.
Rail: Your newest book is titled The Shimmering Go-Between. What can you tell us about the title—and the book?
Klein: The title comes from a Nabokov quotation: “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall tale, there is a shimmering go-between, a prism, which is the art of literature.” As a good-natured, inventive, tall tale, the novel suggests the presence of a wolf in the tall grass. Unlike in “Little Red Riding Hood,” the wolf in my tall tale obscures its fearsomeness in the madcap consequences of amorous activities between an autofellator and a woman with immaculate conception syndrome. At best, the bright white light of fact and fiction captures readers’ hearts and minds once it refracts into a rainbow tractor beam.
Rail: I love the story about how your new novel was discovered at Atticus Books. Can you tell it?
Klein: Fourteen months after I submitted the novel manuscript, the publisher Dan Cafaro searched for a message from “Steve Himmer,” a writer Atticus Books had published a few years ago. Gmail dredged up the Word doc for The Shimmering Go-Between, which Mr. Cafaro opened and started reading until he stopped halfway to ask me about its availability. For this book, in which a widower sends his deceased wife hundreds of e-mails and one day receives a response, coincidental electronic salvation seems right.
Rail: If you had to map the literary DNA of this new book, what would that look like?
Klein: Genetic markers apparent upon its helices might have been passed down by unwitting literary predecessors such as George Saunders and Philip Pullman, cinematic sources like the screenplays of Charlie Kaufmann and Todd Solondz, not to mention maybe Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle crossed with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!
Rail: When you hear the phrase “literary fabulism” what do you think of? Is such a thing applicable to The Shimmering Go-Between? If so, how so?
Klein: The term “fabulous fiction” better conveys the forward-flowing, enthusiastic gurgling of an imagination unleashed yet careful not to veer into the woods of whimsy wherein lurk temptations involving metaphorically explicit metamorphosis. Fabulism, fantastic fiction, whatever it is, my novel applies.
Rail: You read a lot of really long and really old books. Tell us why.
Klein: Visual artists visit the Met. Heavy metal shredders memorize Bach fugues. I like literary history. There’s also less player-hater static when you read writers dead for over 50 years. Plus, I find the writing patient, dense, heftier, and likely to demonstrate exceptions to guidelines discussed in writing classes. But, for the most part, the old great books preserve worlds that are gone, thoughts, emotions, and interactions that endure, and usually they do so in ways that seem wholly their own.
Rail: Your Goodreads reviews often talk about how often (sometimes you even supply an average) a book makes you “LOL.” Your newest novel is beyond zany and, in parts, hilarious. I also laughed out loud myself reading Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck. Can you think of any reason why a book shouldn’t make someone laugh?
Klein: In Too Loud A Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal offers this bit of insight: “If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.” I read somewhere about a youngish unconventional writer essentially asserting that his avoidance of humor was political, which seemed pretentious, but also so untrustworthy it burned with a quiet laugh, or at least I found the statement funny. But my sense of humor sometimes uncomfortably approximates seriousness. A friend once yelled at me: “If you’re joking, don’t be so serious about it.” My wife once described my sense of humor as lurking under a metal staircase for someone to walk down it so I can grab their ankles and yank. Lately, I’ve been trying to transition to dad jokes, such as “Q: What do cheap hotels and tight jeans have in common? A: No ballroom.”
Rail: You’re into music. What role does music have for you as someone who makes literary art?
Klein: Writing is a visual art but there’s a sonic element to it too, the phrasing, and I suppose there’s an overall orchestral correspondence with instruments subbed for narrative elements (exposition = woodwinds; dramatization = brass?). A story and a score require someone to bring them to life and both require time to introduce and vary themes. When I was younger I structured stories like jazz essays, starting with a head and then improvising until I restated the head. In college and grad school I played improvisational music with friends. Muscle memory of plugging in and letting rip, introducing a series of notes and then expanding based on what’s been introduced, might make writers’ block rare for me. I’m willing to make it up on the spot and figure out what I did later.
Rail: We were the last class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to be chosen by Frank Conroy, who died our first year there. I never even met him. But you took a workshop with him. Can you talk about him and your time at Iowa? (Lessons, stories, people, and/or Jedi mind tricks?) Also, how did Iowa make you what you are today—or not?
Klein: For all his orneriness, I loved the old lug. The most memorable moment was when he pounded the table and said something like “We don’t read for ideas or situations, we read for worlds. I’m not just saying this, this is coming from a lifetime of reading and writing: we read for worlds!” He said it with urgency. The message was conveyed. WE READ FOR WORLDS! Which worked for me since I was working on The Shimmering Go-Between at the time, a novel featuring a succession of worlds within the stomach of an autofellator.
Rail: Did you workshop any of The Shimmering Go-Between while you were at Iowa? (I don’t remember seeing any of this on the shelves in the Dey House, where students often snagged copies of stories from other workshops.) If so, what do you remember about the workshop? If not, why not, and what do you think ol’ Conroy would have said about it?
Klein: It’s difficult to guess Frank’s reaction. He was a wild card. He loved a story Nam Le put up—the only one he workshopped not in his collection The Boat—about lesbian vampires. I workshopped two excerpts from The Shimmering Go-Between with Marilynne Robinson during the second semester of my first year, which coincided with her Pulitzer win for Gilead. Marilynne confronted the scene in which a widower exercises and stretches after he showers, which leads to his discovery of the palliative marvels of autofellatio. From what I remember, she mused that autofellatio seemed like an exaggeration of solipsism but then more or less refused to talk about it. She threw her hands in the air and said something like we’re coming up against sensationalism again, the idea that prose that goes where no prose has gone before justifies the endeavor. She also said I was too good of a writer to be working at this level, which encouraged and crushed me in equal amounts, but her reaction in general slapped me upside the head for a few years, which is probably exactly what a good grad school program should do. I assimilated her reaction and discounted the novel for a few years after graduation until I reread it and revived it. It took a while but once I rediscovered my enthusiasm for its insane convoluted cartoonishness, I pretty much very belatedly decided to silently defend my weird little literary preferences and peculiarities against Marilynne’s conservative predilections. The word “sensationalism” doesn’t have to be derogatory. It can be emphasized, capitalized, codified into a new school of lit. “Long live Sensationalism,” I now say. Sensationalism über alles!
Rail: You know a lot about writing rejections—your book Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck collects the personalized and often hilariously digressive rejections you’ve sent during your reign as editor at Eyeshot—but also a little about receiving them. You wrote a book about the Jersey Devil as well as a novel about a guy who moves from New York to Philadelphia as well as a novel about a guy who falls in love with a younger woman. What happened to these books (all of which I’ve read, and wish other people could, too)? What’s it like to write an entire book that you know is worth publishing but nobody bites?
Klein: I haven’t been relentless in attempts to publish these manuscripts: three novels, two story collections, a novel of sorts made up of three novellas, and a translation of a Horacio Castellanos Moya novella. Not publishing them lets me improve them as I make new work. Writing is a life sport and the work is its own reward. I expect they’ll all be published in the next 20 – 60 years, but there’s something virtuous about it if they prove unpublishable. I mean, instead of writing these novels I could have devoted time and energy to increasing my “reach” on social media so if/when I finally wrote a novel I’d get it published more easily.
Rail: Am I wrong in remembering that you spent a summer at Iowa writing longhand at a stand up desk in a sweltering attic? Why did you do that?
Klein: It was an arch-roofed attic above a freestanding barn/garage behind my girlfriend’s house. The attic may have been half-converted into a woodshop at one point. At a yard sale I bought a simple 45-degree skateboard ramp for five bucks and installed it up there to serve as a standing-desk lectern. I stood and wrote in the morning until it got too hot around noon. I’d wear sweatbands around my head and wrists to keep from staining the pages. I’d take off my shirt after about 30 minutes, and then my shorts, and then my boxers. Eventually I’d be up there wearing only sweatbands and flip-flops, standing and writing by hand in this sauna-like attic. Natural light came through a second-level doorway and maybe one other small window. The pen flowed well in the excessive heat but the sweatbands couldn’t keep my sweat from smearing ink across the page. Once sweat made my flip-flops squishy and I felt a little light-headed, I’d head inside to spend the day deciphering/transcribing what I’d written. Transforming sedentary reading and writing activities into endurance events never hurt anyone. Plus it’s rare to break a sweat while you write.