Here’s a secret about writers: we know that stories are collaborations. Writers envision and invoke places, actions, and characters; but readers ultimately build those worlds in their imaginations. For some writers, setting is a backdrop where the plot unfolds and characters evolve, and that’s enough. Then there are those writers who create dynamic worlds that engulf their readers and feel as real as a cherished memory, full of details and emotional connections that vibrate with their own energy: James Joyce’s Dublin, Flannery O’Connor’s American South, China Miéville’s London.
King of Shards
(Arche Press, 2015)
It takes skill to cultivate places where the imagination can thrive—both in stories and in life. From Sybil’s Garage, the literary zine he founded and ran for ten years, to the long-running KGB reading series that he runs in Manhattan with Ellen Datlow, to the lush landscapes of his own fractured fictional worlds, Matthew Kressel is a writer gifted at constructing those kinds of unforgettable and creative spaces.
In her handbook On Writing, Eudora Welty explains, “Carried off we might be in spirit, and should be, when we are reading or writing something good; but it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home.”
In Kressel’s short fiction and his novel, King of Shards, he introduces us to places that exist on the threshold of destruction and creation, populated with characters clinging desperately to the fragments of their shattered lives. But Kressel also weaves us through his worlds with Welty’s “golden thread.” As we encounter his characters struggling to create meaning and beauty amidst the chaos, Kressel never fails to keep us grounded in the experience of what it means to be human. His characters and their lives may be fantastic in all senses of the word—demons and angels and monsters—but their longing is not unlike our longing: for freedom, for connection, for home.
I first encountered Kressel through Sybil’s Garage when I was doing research for my own literary magazine, Conclave: A Journal of Character. I loved the interstitial quality of his zine, the way he thoughtfully combined music and prose, photography and poetry. The first of Kressel’s stories that I read was “The Bricks of Gelecek” in Ellen Datlow’s Naked City anthology, and his characters and their vanishing places haunted me long afterward. As my circle of writer and editor friends in New York City grew, eventually our paths crossed in person. I was not disappointed; Kressel’s creativity may only be surpassed by his generosity of spirit. I was excited to hear that his début novel was being published by Arche Press. It was a pleasure to dwell in one of his worlds for the duration of a book, and a joy to talk with him about his writing and his inspiration.
Valya Dudycz Lupescu (Rail): I loved your short story “The Bricks of Gelecek.” It feels like a sister story to King of Shards, sharing mythic elements (the Goddess Molloi, the Jeen, Gelecek) and even featuring another singing woman builder who enchants demonkind with her songs (who is alluded to in the novel as well). “The Suffering Gallery” is another related work; King of Shards mentions Mielbok and his servant, Atleiu. Clearly the seeds of this story have been around for a while. We also witness the before and after of a world that looks a lot like ours being destroyed in “The Great Game at the End of the World.” A ghoul in that story says, “Yours wasn’t the first world created. And it won’t be the last.” Would you talk a little about the relationship between those stories and your novel?
Matthew Kressel: Thank you! When I wrote “The Bricks of Gelecek” for Ellen’s urban fantasy anthology, the guidelines said a city had to play a central role in the story. So I began to think about the nature of cities and realized that even the earliest human civilizations built rudimentary cities as hedges against annihilation to protect the tribe from other tribes and the dangers lurking in the wilderness. With this in mind, I envisioned a creature whose nature is to destroy these creations. To him, cities are the ultimate act of hubris in a universe that cares nothing for permanence. All is transient and fleeting. You might say he is a demon, but I didn’t envision him as such back then. Eventually he discovers a young woman whose music moves him to want to save her, but he finds it very hard to change his nature as a destroyer.
I really loved what I had accomplished in “The Bricks of Gelecek,” and it was well reviewed, so I continued to explore the world in “The Suffering Gallery” and much later in “Pheth’s Aviary.” Eventually I had started writing King of Shards and realized I was already playing with these mythic elements of creation and dissolution, very primal notions, and they fit perfectly into the themes I wanted to explore in the novel. When I wrote “The Great Game at the End of the World,” I was deep into research for King of Shards, and I had become fascinated with the Lurianic notion of the primordial shattering of worlds. I wanted to tell a tale from the point of view of a boy and his sister whose world is literally blown apart, and yet they still survive on remnant husks. It shares a similar theme with King of Shards, but it exists in an independent universe.
Rail: Continuing along this theme, I’m struck by the ways in which decay and beauty exist simultaneously in so much of your work. In King of Shards, you draw from Kabbalist Isaac Luria’s idea of the Shattered Vessels of Creation. Then there’s the dismantling of the Old Earth in “The Sounds of Old Earth,” the dissolution of realms in “In The Garden Beyond Her Infinite Skies,” the destruction of deserts in “The Bricks of Gelecek,” the shattering of the world in “The Great Game at the End of the World,” the fracturing of a soul and the demolition of a universe in “The Many Faces of Lisa Adorn.” What is it about this idea of finding meaning and beauty in crumbling places that has captured your imagination so strongly?
Kressel: It’s a central tenet of Buddhism, this concept of impermanence. Everything you love will die. Buddhism teaches that the only freedom from suffering is letting go of attachment. I think I’m very bad at that. I get attached to people and things very quickly, and my wife can tell you I have a very hard time throwing things away, even strips of paper on which she’s written a short note to me. I want to hold onto it all, but I know I can’t.
I think this comes from my childhood, which for various reasons I won’t get into wasn’t an ideal, stable environment. I found that what was safe and comfortable one moment could be dangerous and horrific the next.
Life can be unbelievably cruel and unfair, and it’s easy to succumb to despair in the face of that and become a nihilist. But to me a true hero is one who recognizes the inherent cruelty in the world and seeks to make, however small, something beautiful anyway. This, to me, is the defining feature of humanity’s heroism. Our defiance, as in “The Bricks of Gelecek,” against the forces of entropy and dissolution. Here we are, on this little speck of a planet in an unimaginably huge and mostly empty universe, and so far it seems we are completely alone. And yet knowing this we still make music and paint and write video games and build spaceships. Some say we do these things to avoid the truth, that life is ultimately meaningless. But I believe that by refusing to succumb to that overwhelming silence we craft our own meaning, and to me that is beautiful.
Rail: In “The Sounds of Old Earth,” your elderly character Abner says, “People are only interested in making new life, not preserving the old.” This statement makes me think of New York City, where so often the old stores and buildings are being ripped apart and new shining things are going up in its place. Living in and around New York, you’ve seen this process again and again. I wonder how the city has influenced you as a writer?
Kressel: It’s funny you ask that, because the inspiration for “The Sounds of Old Earth” came partly from a documentary I was watching on the dismantling of the original Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Here was this place with so much history, where millions had visited and would remember their entire lives, which was torn down to make a new, supposedly “better” stadium. I discovered that not even as revered a place as Yankee Stadium is immune from change.
When I used to work in downtown Manhattan I would look up at the World Trade Center towers on my way to work and think, “Those are our pyramids. They’ll be here in a thousand years.” A few weeks later, from that same street, I watched them crumble and was running with a thousand screaming people away from a debris cloud rapidly chasing us. If ever there was a message on the impermanence of things.
On a smaller scale, you see this every day in New York. There is no such thing as a changeless street here. Over and over I’m shown that nothing lasts forever, and it forces me to recognize that I have a limited time on this planet. I have to make the most of it, and for me that means writing as often as I can, as honestly as I can.
Rail: One of the things I really loved about King of Shards, and about your short fiction, is the way you create setting, how you evoke a sense of place and your rich sensory details. The places in your stories are characters, they come alive even as so many of them are being destroyed. I want to ask you a little about your process. How do you go about creating the worlds of your stories?
Kressel: It usually starts with a vision. The worlds I create aren’t always rational, but they have to be internally consistent. As I find inconsistencies, I imagine little bits of “glue” to connect the disparate parts, until the world becomes a tangible object in my mind. There is usually much more to these worlds in my head than I put on the page, and that might account for what makes them seem so real, because in a sense, to me, they are.
Rail: Are there any real-world places that you drew inspiration from for King of Shards?
Kressel: Yes, there’s the Great Lawn of Central Park, the Delacorte Theater, where they perform Shakespeare, and the streets of Manhattan, all of which which appear in the book. The scenes of Gram’s house in Babylon were mostly drawn from my childhood on Long Island. Azru was inspired partly by Aït Benhaddou, the ancient city in Morocco, and partly by the old city of Jerusalem. The rest came from many places real and imagined.
Rail: Are there other writers or books with cities/places as characters that have influenced you?
Kressel: I love the world-building in Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. In that book, New Crobuzon is the protagonist and all other characters are secondary. One of my favorite books is Dune, and Arrakis was definitely an inspiration for the desert world in King of Shards. The houses in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are forever carved into my brain. And Lovecraft’s haunted Providence and his eerie Massachusetts’s towns have likely crept into my subconscious in numerous ways.
I’ve also been reading translated Yiddish fiction, and in a lot of these stories, the shtetls, these small Eastern-European towns, are always exuberantly full of life. The holy and the debased live side by side in begrudging harmony. Those towns were destroyed by World War II and the Holocaust, so there’s a kind of false nostalgia I feel for these places that I’ve never visited and never will.
Rail: Some spaces feel sacred, they may be natural or manmade, but they give visitors reason to pause and consider something outside of themselves. Can you tell me about a place where you have been moved […] be it by the beauty, the age, the magnitude, or otherworldliness of that place?
Kressel: Recently I was in Italy, hiking the mountain cliffs beside Cinque Terra, which is on the Ligurian coast. The steep cliffs, overlooking the bright blue Mediterranean, are covered in ancient vineyards and olive groves, some of which have been abandoned for centuries. The mountain slopes are terraced to prevent erosion, and the ancient stone walls cut ribbons across the landscape. Someone calculated there is more stone in the walls above Cinque Terre than in the Great Wall of China. It was a hot summer’s day, and I was hiking the trail from Vernazza to Corniglia. As I walked through the ancient, abandoned olive groves, citrus orchards, and vineyards that had been growing on the cliffs since Roman times, the air smelled of sea salt, dry earth and blackberries. The locusts were buzzing loudly, and the sun beat mercilessly down on my head. It was at least ninety-five degrees when I came upon a crumbled opening in the stone wall topped with an arch. The door was barely wide enough for a person to pass. Beyond the door lay an overgrown thicket of trees and brambles. There was no way someone could traverse the passage now. Whoever had owned the space beyond the door had long since vanished. Nature had now reclaimed the land. As I stood before the door, I was overcome with an urge to see what lay beyond. I wanted to squeeze through the thicket and explore the dark magic on the other side. But prudence and a dwindling water supply prevented me from trying. Instead, I snapped a photo, and walked on.
I have a sense that whatever lay on the other side of that door was as strange, mysterious, and beautiful as anything I’ve ever encountered. (I’ve actually begun writing a story about this.)
Rail: In King of Shards, the character Caleb says, “We are all broken, in one way or another.” The idea of being broken is, of course, a theme throughout the book because it’s not just the worlds that are shattered, it’s their inhabitants as well. Much like the brother and sister in “The Great Game,” or Lisa in “The Many Faces of Lisa Adorn,” your characters are often looking for ways to save themselves amidst the ruins. Is there someone in your life who serves as an inspiration for this, someone who has been able to rebuild themselves after great tragedy or sacrifice?
Kressel: Tragedy is at first overwhelming and all-consuming, but with time, wounds slowly heal. No one escapes this life unscathed. Everyone around me, including myself, has at one time or another dealt with tragedies large and small. I don’t think it’s one person who has inspired me as much as all the people I have known to suffer, which is everyone. We pick ourselves up and go on, because that’s all we can do. History itself is a series of tragedies and rebirths.
Rail: Your writing is full of sensory details, especially sounds—rich with the power of songs and music. For each of the stories you published in Sybil’s Garage, the zine you edited and published for seven years, you would suggest a music accompaniment. What musical accompaniment would you suggest for King of Shards? Did you listen to any music in particular while writing this?
Kressel: If I listen to music while I write, it has to be without lyrics, otherwise I start to sing along in my head and it disrupts my flow. For much of King of Shards, I listened to baroque classical, but for the editing phase, I primarily listened to various kinds of ambient electronica. But I do have particular songs in mind for each character, actually. Caleb’s song is “Burn My Shadow” by UNKLE. Rana’s is “Simple Feeling” by Heartless Bastards. Marul’s is “Finding Solutions,” also by The Heartless Bastards. And Daniel’s is “The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. II and III” by Neutral Milk Hotel. This is mainly because, while at the gym, I was thinking about these characters and these songs came on repeatedly in my MP3 player.
Rail: As a fan of Neutral Milk Hotel, you drew upon the connection between Jeff Mangum’s visit to Amsterdam and subsequent reading of the Diary of Anne Frank, when you created fictional correspondence from Anne to Jeff on the pages of Issue 7 of Sybil’s Garage. In that issue, you imagined Anne writing to Jeff, and on the last page Anne writes, “You heard my screams, Jeff, and turned them into music.” (Again we see an awareness of making something beautiful out of something horrific.)
I love the idea that as writers and artists, we are in constant communication with those who have come before us. Our work is in response to theirs, and we build upon, or rebel against, all that has come before. It’s a creative continuum. Who is on your creative continuum? Who are the writers, artists, or musicians or thinkers who directly feed into the work you have created and are working to create?
Kressel: I feel as if Anne Frank’s letters to Jeff Mangum in Sybil’s Garage 7 is one of the most poignant things I’ve ever written, but since it’s not a typical short story and found in the marginalia of an out-of-print small press magazine, few people have encountered it. I’m glad you brought it up.
Most directly, it’s the members of the writers group I belong to, Altered Fluid, who feed into my creativity. They’re a bunch of incredibly talented and dedicated writers from a variety of backgrounds, and all of them are bursting with creative energy. I credit most of my ability to craft an interesting story from the skills I’ve learned while in this group. Outside Altered Fluid, there’s Jeffrey Ford, one of the finest short story writers out there. And Laird Barron, who always triggers my sense of awe. Genevieve Valentine, who continually astounds me with how she can write the most beautiful, succinct stories. Kelly Link and Ted Chiang. Daryl Gregory and Paul Tremblay. So many more. Often it’s whoever I’m reading at the time who inspires me.
Alice Miller’s books on child abuse have been a huge influence on me, as is Johnny Lydon, former front-man of the Sex Pistols and singer for Public Image Ltd. His intelligent and biting social critique remains unsurpassed.
As for music, I’ll listen to almost anything, but I have my favorites. There’s Heartless Bastards and Maximo Park. The Slits and LiLiPUT. Public Image Ltd and Radiohead. PJ Harvey and Gary Numan. And, of course, Neutral Milk Hotel (NMH). The amount of emotion in one NMH song is greater than the emotion in a thousand pop hits. I strive to write stories like Jeff Mangum writes songs.
But if there is one living person who exemplifies my feelings about the world, it’s Elon Musk. Here’s a self-made billionaire who could have retired to his own tropical island and live comfortably for the rest of his life. But instead he’s devoted himself to bettering the world, because he recognizes he is one of the few people who has the power to really effect positive change on a grand scale. The man wants to colonize Mars. He wants to bring the Internet to under-served parts of the world. He wants to introduce mass solar power and electric cars to all. He wants to get us all off toxic oil. He’s inventing a new transport rail system, and has warned us against the danger of artificial intelligence. The man simply wants to craft a better world, and is not subject to the cynicism and nihilism that is the default stance in our generation. That to me is heroic.
Rail: Longing is another one of those themes that lies at the heart of King of Shards—especially the desire to repair, rebuild, or revision “home.” The idea of being displaced and searching for, or missing, home also weaves through so many of your stories. Can you speak a little bit about where that comes from, the drive to tell those kinds of stories? Relatedly, where do you feel most at home and why?
Kressel: Because my childhood wasn’t as stable as I would have desired, my home wasn’t always a place of safety or comfort. As I grew older and more independent, I craved that safe place I never quite had, and much of my adult life has been spent trying to build that ideal space for myself. You can run into trouble, always looking back and trying to “fix” everything that has gone wrong in your past. But I think I’ve come to a good place.
Right now I live with my wife in a small Queens apartment, and we’ve been happy and comfortable here for a while, and for the first time in my life I feel I’m truly home.