Books In Conversation
with Michael Natalie
(Knopf Doubleday, 2018)
The year is 1946. A woman murders her army veteran husband in a domestic dispute, then assumes his identity. With this new identity comes a chance at self-determination she’s never had before. She ventures out into the bleak industrial landscape of Trenton, New Jersey, on a quest to become—and remain—Abe Kunstler.
The newly-made man carves a distinctly American life for himself: a factory job, a wife, and—the crown jewel—a son. With this child comes a claim to fatherhood and a sense of security. But this hard-fought masculinity comes at a price. There’s the blood-tax of the original Abe Kunstler, the dead man. And, related, the growing strain of constant performance.
Fast-forward to 1971. The Vietnam War is underway. America is, in some sense, falling apart—as is Abe Kunstler’s already-fragile identity. His son, Art, has proven a disappointment. Worse, Abe’s carefully crafted deceptions have come under fire.
Abe and Art—separately, for different reasons—venture out into Trenton in search of a nebulous identity; a quest which escalates into an inevitable conflict between father and son.
Trenton Makes is an intimate and paranoid novel which situates readers deeply in the mind of a person trying to make sense of trauma, self-determination, and the related problem of the American Dream. I was fortunate enough to have a chance to discuss this thematically complicated work with author Tadzio Koelb.
Michael Natalie (Rail): How did you get to this point in your career?
Tadzio Koelb: I was born in the United States, but my family moved to Europe when I was 12. I left Brooklyn for Belgium. I studied painting originally, first in France and then in Spain. I came to the writing profession late; I had been painting and feeling uncomfortable with the results. My wife and I had been traveling because of her job—she worked with Doctors Without Borders, and then other similar organizations. I was often alone in these places. This was in the days before good internet. Sometimes even the days before internet.
I started as a writer by writing reviews of art exhibitions. This was my way of being engaged with the art world where I lived, which at the time was Belgium. I wound up writing a very long piece about a friend who had passed away. This eventually turned into a sort of attempt at fiction.
I felt so much more comfortable with writing than I had with painting that I decided to pursue it further. For a while, I tried to both paint and write at once, but I felt too thinly spread. It doesn’t always go well if you try and use your creativity for too many things—at least, it didn’t go well for me.
But I decided, based on my experiences as a painting student, that my experience as a writing student was going to be very different. I only applied to one program, and that program was the University of East Anglia, whose first graduate was Ian McEwan. It’s perhaps best known today as the place where Kazuo Ishiguro got his master’s degree. It’s the oldest and probably best-known writing program in the UK. Like Iowa’s program in the United States, it’s got this great reputation and it’s in a boring place full of cows.
I was lucky enough to get in there, and since then I’ve been trying to write the work that is publishable and readable yet satisfies my own artistic desires, which are unfortunately complex.
Rail: Trenton Makes is complex. How did you come up with the idea for this novel, at the heart of which is the figure of Abe Kunstler?
Koelb: I was in the last months of my master’s program and spending time at home in Belgium. I was at the library sorting through jazz music CDs. I picked up something interesting from a musician named Billy Tipton and read the back. It turns out Billy Tipton had been born a woman, but lived his entire professional life as a man. I started to think about how difficult it would be, especially as the world becomes more and more regulated, to hide the portion of yourself that is your physical being—however you feel about it. I thought about the circumstances that would lead somebody to hide, and the ways in which a person might react to that.
Then, in the novelist’s way, I followed this concept to its extremes, because those are the places where we find the ripest stories. And I looked at other stories like Billy’s. There are many of them; despite that, we are shocked and surprised every time we hear about people like Billy Tipton. There’s a very strange ellipsis in our understanding of the way the world works.
Dr. James Barry, for instance, became a very important figure in the British medical establishment, serving as inspector-general of the British military’s hospitals in Canada. Dr. Barry never shied away from the limelight; he had a very public fight with Florence Nightingale, and is rumored to have had a duel—with guns. He performed one of the first successful Caesarian sections in which both mother and child survived. His name was then carried on through a very important family, which eventually provided one of the prime ministers of South Africa.
There are precedents even further back. I became very interested in how people like Billy Tipton and James Barry could be used to reflect our society today and what their continued presence in America until very recently meant for us as a country.
Rail: You just mentioned that a person such as Abe Kunstler could exist in any time and place.
In Trenton Makes you gave a lot of primacy to the setting—Trenton—and these two specific time periods, post-WWII and the Vietnam War. So why this place? Why these times?
Koelb: Trenton is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, the wire-rope factories there had women working in them during the war, and I wanted to create this Rosie the Riveter type figure.
Second, Trenton is an excellent microcosm for the American century; it’s home to one of the great immigrant business successes, the Roebling family. Trenton saw the Roeblings’ growth into great American industry captains, and then their demise. By the 1970s, I believe, Roebling was finished.
So, the city of Trenton represented something I wanted to say about this country: that there was a falsity to the optimism of mid-century America. It had been built on certain assumptions that couldn’t sustain themselves once the government asked people to pitch in, take part, fight for freedom—and then people found themselves without freedom at home. Or, if they worked at home, they then lost their jobs—like a lot of women did.
This disappointment kickstarted a lot of the civil rights movements that came to a head in the Vietnam War, when people were being asked, once again, to sacrifice for freedom. They asked why they should do so when they weren’t necessarily attaining that kind of freedom themselves.
Rail: As you speak, it becomes clear to me that we have this larger-than-life character with lots of grand ambitions; Kunstler has this mad fantasy taking root in his own mind, right when the nation itself might be going mad in a comparable way.
Koelb: Well, he is a very clearly self-made man.
Rail: Very literally.
Koelb: In some ways, Kunstler is almost the ultimate American; except, at the same time he’s contrary to all the things Americans thought of as appropriate and natural.
Rail: Right. I’d like to concentrate a little more on Kunstler for a moment. Now, I could understand why this figure wanted to assume the mantle of manhood. It’s the surest way to power, especially in the fifties; you can understand why Kunstler would find that attractive.
But it’s not just that Kunstler wants to be a man. He wants to be a very specific man—he wants to become Abe Kunstler, the deceased husband of the woman-he-once-was. And that’s intriguing, because as the story unfolds it becomes obvious that our Kunstler resented the original Kunstler. For valid reasons, given what their marriage was like. Why become Abe Kunstler, of all the things you can become?
Koelb: I wanted the driving forces inside Abe to be irrepressible and inescapable. Irrepressible in that they were derived, in many ways, from trauma. Inescapable in that the murder is a threshold over which he cannot turn back.
So, in a way, it’s a novelistic choice, it allows me to pursue the rest of my goals. But I also wanted to show that we are created by the people we know, we follow the examples that we’re shown, we are all the copies—in some sense—of our parents. I’m not just speaking genetically; we learn how to deal with life situations by watching our parents deal with them. We always inherit, from other people, a way to behave.
Now, for Abe, her own father had not served as a role model because he died too early. So, this other character, the original Abe Kunstler, is the model for “a man” in the absolute sense: This is what a man should be. It’s the closest representation she found.
Rail: How valid is our Kunstler’s claim to the identity of his late husband?
Koelb: How do you mean?
Rail: Reading this book, I never second-guessed the main character’s claim to masculinity. But in the back of my mind, there was always this thought—“he’s a man, but he’s not that man. That man already died.”
Koelb: I see your point. It’s an interesting one, because it brings up a lot of questions about identity, which is obviously central to the novel. It also brings up questions of privilege, which is another interesting avenue to explore. “Does he have the right to take this person’s identity?” is a difficult question.
Rail: Right. Obviously, Kunstler’s own answer is yes. His major argument is that the dead Abe Kunstler had, in some sense, failed to “be himself” after the war.
Koelb: And that the first Kunstler had specifically chosen to pass along his “entity.”
Rail: I almost imagined it as a coat or “mantle” that’s taken from the one Kunstler and given to the next. Then, of course, our Kunstler attempts to pass it on to the junior Kunstler, Art.
Koelb: Yes. And Kunstler sees it as exactly that kind of thing. That it was a gift he received that he must pass along. He is not the ultimate possessor of it, but a temporary carrier. The important thing for him is that the thing itself continues, even when he’s gone. He thinks of “Abe-ness” as being a valuable that he carries and which he must eventually give away.
Rail: That makes sense. “Abe-ness” is essentially his model of male-ness. As you said, the only one he has. Does he have a right to this identity? Well, it’s the one he’s got.
Koelb: Yes. I had a series of very interesting conversations with somebody who studied trauma. I tried, in the writing, to be true to how people react to trauma in the case of each character. Every character has trauma, as does every person.
Now, I wrote about some of the larger traumas and the reason for that is partly aesthetic. You can get closer to the big issues when you create big stakes. It’s a magnifying glass. It magnifies their issues, which are our issues, to the point that we recognize their importance. They’re important for us, even if they’re bigger for the characters. The questions of “how do you form your identity in society?” and “who controls who you are?” are relevant to everybody, even if it’s not something you think about every day.
Rail: These issues add another layer of tragedy, because Kunstler is someone who wants very badly to be self-determining. And, in a way, Kunstler is trapped. There’s all this history and legacy to contend with, and a crime from which there’s no turning aside.
Koelb: Yes, right—the title Trenton Makes is chosen in part because it’s a slogan of industry, and I wanted to imply all the time this question: Are we ourselves, inherently? Or are we manufactured?
Or more importantly: to what extent are we ourselves, inherently, and therefore in control of who we are, and to what extent are we manufactured and therefore controlled by our personal, national and local history? What kind of impression do they leave on us? And how are we able to overcome that, if we can overcome it at all?
Rail: I am not sensing Trenton Makes has optimistic answers to the questions you’ve just posed.
Koelb: Well, one of the reasons Abe’s situation isn’t optimistic is because Abe has no community. I chose this era—for what’s in part a historical novel—because I wanted Abe to be utterly isolated. No chatrooms, no support groups, no helplines. He had to be entirely alone. He doesn’t know if this is a thing that’s ever happened before. He doesn’t know what’s possible. He is embarking on what seems like the last frontier and can’t turn to anybody for help.
The 1950s is an excellent place to put that character. It’s a time of hope and optimism, but only if you’re straight, white, male, and preferably Protestant, etcetera.
Rail: A lot of caveats to all that hope. So, how does the situation for a person like Kunstler look different in 2018? For starters, they would have more support. Can we expand on that a little more?
Koelb: An important thing to bear in mind is that this is not a case of gender dysphoria. This is an investigation of the extent to which masculinity as a gender is synonymous with self-determination, power, and so on.
One hopes that, today, a woman with ambition who wishes for self-determination will be able to have it without any form of imposture. She won’t have to be anything other than herself.
Although, I think we know that’s not the case. In a sense, it’s not the case for anybody. We all put on a mask. Let’s say you work for a soap company; you’ve got to pretend you’re excited about the soap they sell.
I tried to discuss some of that in the novel as well, through the character of the security guard. The security guard represents a more modest attempt to escape the system. A system defined by a patriotism of corporation: We are Colgate men, and we smell like Colgate men because we use Colgate shaving soap, which comes out like a worm and lies flat on the brush, as the song says.
We are always, above and beyond everything else, invested in that identity. And so even today the character of Abe Kunstler would be someone fighting to be himself or herself in a culture that still demands conformity and other kinds of submission—for want of a better word.
Rail: Right. I construed it that way; I did not read Kunstler as having gender dysphoria so much as a strong desire for something his biologically assigned gender would ordinarily preclude him from—power. Now, this is someone who has been abused, and his goal is essentially to bury the woman-that-was under the mantle of this husband-that-died in the hopes of charting a new way forward.
Koelb: Yes. And that relates to the choice of the second era. Obviously, I wanted to connect those two wars [World War II and Vietnam]; I’m trying to demonstrate a century of America as a country at war.
But the second reason is that Abe suddenly finds himself outdated in the seventies. Here is a person who has made every kind of sacrifice in service of self-determination through masculinity, and now he’s faced with a society that’s trying to give self-determination to whoever would have it.
And here lies a huge cognitive dissonance. Abe has invested everything in the idea of manhood—an idea that is now crumbling. The cultural idea of manhood is changing. When the structure by which you’ve formed your identity changes, alters, or is removed, then how do you know who you are?
Rail: That dissonance goes some way to explaining Kunstler’s relationship to the other characters. It occurred to me often as I read Trenton Makes that we have this outsider, Abe Kunstler. He runs into other outsiders over the course of the novel, but when he does, the feeling tends not to be kinship, but contempt. I believe your last answer speaks a lot to why that’s the case.
Koelb: Yes, Abe must invest in the system. If he doesn’t, the ruse won’t work. He must be the most masculine, the most American. He must be all those things to ensure that he is passing. He’s taken enormous risks, made huge sacrifices. He needs to know those sacrifices are worthwhile.
And when it starts to appear that they’re not, when his Apolline vision of the world is challenged by Dion’s Dionysian vision of the world, you come to a real clash of cultures. There’s a conflict between the father and the son who are otherwise extremely similar. Both are marked by a dislike of their physical bodies.
In other words, Abe has placed himself in a position where he’s incapable of having that kind of emotional sympathy for others, because he can’t have it for himself.
Rail: Well said. That opens a lot of good questions about Kunstler’s relationship to his son, Art. And Dion, who emerges as a major character in the second half.
Dion is a part of the story that initially struck me as rather mysterious. To elaborate: In part two, Art becomes a major perspective character, taking up some of the narrative ground that was once reserved for Abe. Art spends a lot of his chapters with Dion, a young black man who is about to be sent to fight in Vietnam. We learn a lot about Dion and his problems.
So, who is Dion, exactly? To Abe, to Art, and to society?
Koelb: To Art, Dion is the “found father” figure. The spiritual father figure. Art is attracted to him in both a physical way but also in this kind of filial way.
Dion is, in a sense, Dionysus. Like Dionysus, he comes from someplace foreign—a different culture—and brings with him a new way of looking at things. In the Greek tragedies, Dionysus arrives and is rejected by the king, who is then ripped apart by the women of the city, including his own mother.
You can see, a little bit, how Dion and Abe reenact that. Now, it’s at a remove; Dion is simply a representation of a movement in society which Abe can’t abide. Abe understands this movement as being the end of his ability to hold onto power. Abe is someone for whom power is everything, and if men—specifically white men—lose their power, Abe, who has already given up one life for power, loses power again. How will he become a new person again at this late stage in his life to reclaim it?
Rail: To oversimplify, Dion does to Abe what Dionysus does to the king in the original myth.
Koelb: Right. I’ve tried to link Dion rather strongly with the descriptions you find of Dionysus, down to the way he smells. I did this to highlight, for those who want to read that closely, the connection.
Rail: Now, we just spent some time talking about the significance of Dion’s name. Circling back to the relationship between Abe and Art—you chose some very specific names there. Kunstler is a German word, and we’re initially coming off the heels of World War II. Kunstler also means artist. And, as we know, he names his son Art.
Can you speak to the synchronicity between Kunstler’s relationship to his son, Art, and the artistic process?
Koelb: Abe’s artistry lies in many things: there’s his recurring dream sequence where he finds the dead husband dismembered and tries to put him back together. Abe is, in a sense, Doctor Frankenstein, but he’s his own monster. He tries to assemble a new living figure from the body of the dead. Abe’s also related to Isis, who tries to reassemble her husband, but never finds his sexual organs; so that when she does reassemble him, he is incomplete.
Abe’s art is first in creating himself, and then in attempting to create a child—Art. There’s no character in the story whose name isn’t chosen for a lot of reasons. Obviously, Abraham is the name of the father who is willing to sacrifice his son in the name of his religion. And Inez Clay [Abe’s wife, Art’s mother] is the material from which he hopes to build, or model, his future in Art—and so on.
Rail: Right. Now, speaking to the idea of Abe as Abraham for a second—there’s a sense he’s offering Art up as a sacrifice to something. Could we call that thing masculinity?
Koelb: Yes. He wants Art to be masculine, and when Art is not masculine, he’s willing to sacrifice him to safeguard his own sense of masculinity. He doesn’t want to associate with this emasculated young man.
Rail: To put it callously, he sees Art as a failed experiment.
Rail: I believe the word he uses is “changeling.” Abe justifies himself by saying “I took care of Art, even though he’s nothing like I originally wanted.”
Koelb: Yes, that’s right. And if you look closely he speaks about himself in words very close to the original Frankenstein in relation to his own fatherhood of the monster. We all know how well that turned out.
Rail: So, neither Abe Kunstler—not the deceased husband, nor the woman who takes his identity—is a nice person. Neither iteration of Abe has the qualities we’d expect in a good father. And yet, our Abe, the one we follow, has a very strong desire to be a father, despite his personal shortcomings.
Koelb: Right. And that’s a standard part of machismo the world over. The people who want to have the most children are often the ones who don’t want to deal with them once they’re born. It’s the old story—there’s a houseful of squealing kids and the father wants to be left alone after he gets home from work. America, Europe, Africa, Asia, everywhere. There are people who grade their masculinity by their ability to reproduce. And not, necessarily, by their ability to raise good children. Raising them is somebody else’s problem.
Rail: And, in keeping with that, Abe sees creating Art as his problem. But once he’s born, he becomes Inez’s problem.
Koelb: Yes, particularly because Art is a disappointment to him. Perhaps if Art had seemed strapping and strong to him in the beginning, then Abe would’ve taken a real interest in his upbringing. But it didn’t happen that way. He found that he had a child he didn’t think of as appropriate to his goals, so he disregarded him.
Rail: Right. That brings me to my next question: Whenever I have a book in front of me, and there’s a character who wants to transgress a limitation that’s been imposed on them—be it biological, or social, or something else—when we have a “rebel” character, my temptation is always to sympathize. But as the narrative unfolds, we see he’s no rebel. He wants to uphold a toxic power structure and get on the right side of it.
Craft-wise, that’s a wonderful presentational trick. And somehow, Abe remains a sympathetic character even after it becomes evident to the reader that they’ve been conned; that is, made to believe he’s a sort of hero when he’s in many ways the villain.
Koelb: That’s our human duality—or, rather, our multiplicity: we’re far more complicated than the number two allows us to be. Abe Kunstler is both victim and victimizer, and many victimizers start their careers as victims.
To watch him become the victimizer is very painful for us. Early readers of this book, friends of mine, were very upset when they saw what he became. However, I always knew that this would be Abe’s fate. When it came to it, they were shocked and in some sense disappointed because they were really rooting for him. But by rooting for Abe, you are rooting for the system. And I want us to question the system. The goal isn’t to find the one person who is able to exist within the system, but to create a system in which we can all exist.
That’s why Abe can’t remain a sympathetic or ultimately a heroic character, he must change. Because otherwise we’re saying “listen, the system’s fine, because we can have one success in it.” People talk that way: “There’s no race problem in America because Obama was president, and Jay-Z is rich.”
And those things don’t mean that the system isn’t corrupt and biased and unfair. I don’t want us, through this novel, to have that kind of complacency about the system. I want us to see that anybody who joins the system is compromised.
Rail: Compromised is a very good word for Abe, particularly in the latter half of the novel. Now, you just drew attention to the distinction between the “sympathetic” and the “heroic” which I construe in this context to mean “moral.” Now, Abe, once we cross the time horizon, isn’t moral anymore. But I don’t think sympathy ever deserts the character. I don’t think he becomes so loathsome that we can’t stand to read about him. From a craft standpoint, how do you do that?
Koelb: For one thing, we’re very well acquainted with him, and we’re always inclined to forgive those we know well. Because we had sympathy for him early on, we’re not willing to let go of it.
We also understand that his circumstances make him a victim even when he is trying to be the victimizer. And that never disappears.
One person read this and said afterwards, “If I met him, I would hate him. But I can’t help but feel sorry for him.” We pity him through this novel because we see his background and his struggles.
Rail: Now that you mention it, most of the people who meet Abe in the novel do hate him. The other men at the factory, for instance. They don’t see through him, exactly, but they sense he’s different—outside, on the margins, etcetera. Only a few characters “buy into” Abe. One of them is Jacks, his simpleminded coworker. The other is Inez, his eventual wife.
What draws those people in? Because, you’re right, most people don’t like him.
Koelb: Jacks is the easier specimen to explain. Jacks is someone whose simplicity, as Dion describes it, makes him very natural. He is true to his natural instincts all the time, and his instinct is to be sympathetic. Someone, at one point, says something about Abe pulling a thorn out of Jack’s paw; in a sense, that’s true, in that Abe is the one who came and relieved him of some pain. That is always going to be something between them. Also, Jacks isn’t smart enough to understand when he’s being mocked by Abe, who is a very intelligent person, but not a nice one.
Inez is a different story. Inez’ character was inspired in part by an aspect of Billy Tipton’s story, and that’s that Billy was married a couple of times—once, to a stripper. I thought, “how does that happen?” We know, for example, that Eugene Falleni—who was arrested in Australia for having possibly murdered his first wife—was found to be a woman and apparently had sex with both of his wives. Apparently, neither of Eugene’s wives knew he wasn’t biologically male.
It was a different time. People didn’t talk about sex. Nobody went to the coffee shop and talked to their girlfriends about sex. It was a private world and those things were taboo. People were very unaware of their own bodies. They had sex in the dark and that was it.
Now, Inez is two things: first, she’s an alcoholic, and she’s also the survivor of sexual violence. This makes her an outsider, and her outsider status makes her more willing to join Abe. Further, Abe sees her alcoholism as a bonus, not a problem. It is an excellent smokescreen behind which he can hide. Later, it’s a tool that he can use in his attempt to father a son. Where other people would reject Inez, Abe embraces her.
In Inez, we have someone desperate to be loved, but not necessarily sexually loved. In that way, she and Abe fit very well together.
Rail: It seems like she’s the perfect answer to him, in that her outsider status lends her to being more sympathetic toward fellow outsiders, while Kunstler’s makes him less so. In that regard she’s almost his perfect opposite.
Koelb: Yes, and we know that if opposites attract, it’s usually going to lead to divorce. Because the things that you find charmingly different at first are the things that you find horribly unbearable later.
Now, a lot of people have asked me, “Did Inez know?” And I wanted to leave that open-ended, because lots of women have been in this situation, and apparently not known. And I don’t want to call them liars, or imply that they should have known—society didn’t allow them to believe the other possibility. I leave it open because it’s good and healthy for a reader to have to fill in some blanks.
Rail: I agree. Personally, I assumed Inez didn’t know about Abe. My sense is that Abe gave her just enough lies, and society subtracted just enough context, that she could fill in the blanks incorrectly. Inez can convince herself that Abe is as he says he is.
Koelb: We have a constant need to find this phenomenon shocking: women dressing as men, acting as men, performing as men. This was always part of our world and always hidden. At least nine women fought in the battle of Antietam in the Civil War. And those are the ones we know about, either because they were wounded or because they chose to come forward later. One wrote a book that sold 200,000 copies.
And yet people are still shocked when they hear about it. These things do happen, and have throughout history. Some instances are probably apocryphal, like Pope Joan. But a lot of them are true.
Rail: Right. Now, there’s one issue we’ve been circling for a while that I wanted to address more directly: When I started reading the book, I encountered a certain temptation to read it as an allegory. But as I continued reading, I became less sure of that; by the time I put down the book, I was left thinking “Abe Kunstler isn’t a proxy for something else. Abe Kunstler is just Abe Kunstler, and this is his story.” At some point I stopped thinking of Abe as a symbol, in the way we might read other characters as symbols.
I was wondering how you felt about that. Do you share my prejudice against the more allegorical reading? Or do you think there is something in the allegorical reading of the text that is valid and should be explored further?
Koelb: Well, I do hope Abe is more complex than a symbol. A symbol, I think, is the lazy writer’s way of working; a symbol is a lot easier to present than a fully rounded character. I would like Abe to be hard to see in only one way. The fact that you found him both sympathetic and unlikable perfectly exemplifies how I’d love him to come across. He’s supposed to be human. He suffers from what Lawrence Durrell calls “original innocence.” He is more than just an idea about society. He’s supposed to be someone who, like any of us, is forced to react to society. He makes his choices just like we make ours. But his choices have certain implications, say certain things about our social constructions, that another character’s might not.
Rail: If we’re going to read him as a figure of anything—which I don’t think is the only way to read him—the word I’d use is “persona.” Something we put on to get out into the world and have success in it; we sacrifice to this image of what we should be. If Kunstler embodies anything, it’s that sacrifice.
Koelb: And we all do it all the time. If you showed up to your job as a house painter wearing a suit, you would be inappropriate, just as if you showed up to your job as an executive wearing short shorts, you’d probably be inappropriate, too.
Rail: Right. That second thing could probably get you into a lot of trouble.
Koelb: Unless you’re a short-shorts manufacturer, I suppose, but the fact is we’re all playing roles all the time. The way I speak to my wife, or to my mother, or to my grandmother, is different in each case. And all of those are different from the way I speak to a student, or an employer. We are always conscious of our relative position to others. Sometimes we’re in a position of power, sometimes we’re not. Sometimes we have a lot of it, sometimes we have only a little. Sometimes we have so little that we are trapped. And that’s true of everybody all the time.
Rail: It occurs to me that part of the reason Abe Kunstler has so few relationships in this novel is to bring that out a little more. We see how this chronic actor is forced to perform all the time, through these couple of channels.
Koelb: Abe’s situation automatically limits him in some ways. Although, I will say, Billy Tipton was a very social man. He ran a successful business for a while. But he specifically avoided taking a job in Vegas because he was worried about being recognized by a former colleague. Billy always performed in men’s clothing, but originally presented himself as a woman in man’s clothes. It wasn’t until later that Billy presented himself as fully male. He didn’t want to return to Vegas because someone could’ve recognized him from this earlier phase of his career.
Rail: It’s rather remarkable that you’ve written a character that I have an easier time believing than the historical figure of Billy Tipton. The genuine article was much more audacious than the character you wrote. Kunstler is so, so careful. Paranoid, even.
Koelb: Life is stranger than fiction. Billy Tipton got away with telling people that he had sanitary napkins in his car because he used them when fixing the engine. He got away with many things of that sort that I couldn’t put in a novel because people would simply question it. And credibility is important in this kind of book. If you lose the credibility, you lose the reader. Because it’s not a metaphorical book, not a book about the symbolism—it’s a book about the characters.
Rail: Well said. I had a question for you that’s a bit beside Trenton Makes itself: Do you have any advice for other artists in getting your work off the ground?
Koelb: You’re talking about process. Process is very personal. I’ve met writers who write an entire novel from beginning to end, then throw it away and start again. I’m not like that. I can’t move on to the second until the first is quite polished. As you make new discoveries about how your stories should go, you go back and adjust the earlier parts to work as a scaffold for the later material.
That said, one of the important things for me is that I’ve been a critic. I’ve written a lot of literary criticism and art criticism. And, of course, read a lot of criticism. This made me very aware of the possibilities of the art, beyond being engaging or fun or sad. I had this understanding, through critical reading and writing, that in fact a novel can be immensely complex and act on so many levels that it’s impossible to pull them part. I desperately wanted my novel to be like that.
My advice would be this: don’t be one of those artists who says, “the critics know nothing.” They know what the reader knows, and if you think your readers know nothing, you’re in a very bad position as a writer. Your reader won’t have any clearer understanding than most critics do. And if the critic’s good, then they’re there to give everyone a better understanding of what’s been written.
A lot of writers overlook the critical. They just want to be natural. But as I’ve tried to expose through Trenton Makes, it’s hard to be natural in any way, ever. So, why not accept that?
The other advice I would give people: You should floss. Because you don’t make a lot of money as a writer and nobody gives you dental care. So, an electric toothbrush is a good investment.
Rail: Good answer. Are there any forthcoming projects that you’d like to speak a little bit about?
Koelb: Not yet. Things have gone in a big rush for me. I finished the novel in August of last year; I got an agent on the 24th of January and we sold the novel within a month of that. Revisions, editor’s revisions—all these things. We’re bringing it to market within a year of signing the contract at Doubleday. I’m working with a translator on the French edition.
I have been trying very hard to think of what it might be that I want to write next and I don’t know yet. I don’t want to be one of those writers who writes about “something.” I need to work to find the characters that say the things I want to say. I’ve lived a lot of my life as an expatriate and I wanted to explore the idea of “American antinomianism.” The idea that, by the grace of being an American, we can set aside many of the moral imperatives we would impose on others—often by force of arms. But I don’t know how to do that yet.
It’s frustrating—I’d like to be writing but I don’t feel like I can rush it. I’m hoping I get more comfortable with the idea that part of my job is letting things marinate. I found Trenton Makes through a series of serendipitous events and maybe serendipity is going to bring me the next project. It’s impossible to say. I hope that I’ll just stumble onto something that just sparks a wonderful idea.
Rail: It happened once.
Koelb: And these things change a lot from the moment of inception. I remember talking to my thesis advisor at the University of East Anglia, Trezza Azzopardi, whose first novel The Hiding Place should be a lot better known in America. I told her about this idea—about a woman who kills her husband and takes his identity.
And that was all I had. That, and a few very specific scenes in mind, in which the character that would become Abe Kunstler did certain very specific things. And I needed to get to those points and away from them. I had a vision of this act that he performed, and I had to fight to find that moment in a story arc.
That brings me to one aspect of the story that we haven’t talked about yet, and that’s the strange structure of the novel. I’d like to bring up a writer named Margaret Anne Doody, who wrote The True Story of the Novel which gave me a lot of ideas about other novel forms than the one that originated in Protestant mercantile England.
I wanted a novel that was as transgressive as the character it’s written about. I used some of her ideas to find a different way to structure the novel. And I really appreciated that book, especially the first half, which is about the novel “pre-novel” for showing me other options.
Rail: Right—now, to describe Trenton Makes’ structure a bit: We have one time, one narration, and then a different time and a different narration. The governing viewpoint character is Abe Kunstler, but we have other perspectives. The single biggest owner of the narrative besides Abe is his son Art, but even that’s only in part two. Sometimes, we hear from bit players who don’t feel like bit players; these characters occasional windows into Kunstler from outside Kunstler himself. And, to be honest, none of that struck me as strange. I accepted it completely. But now I’m wondering: Is there any aspect of the novel’s structure that I did not just mention that you’d like to draw attention to?
Koelb: Well, some readers are struck by the fact that the beginning is several years long, but the second half happens in one day. Now, I named the second half after the year, but maybe I should have named it after the day—because it is a very specific day in which Kunstler makes his Bloom-like Odyssey through Trenton looking for Inez, while his son makes a similar trek around the city for different reasons.
Rail: It’s also the day when this identity which he’s so carefully constructed comes under threat.
Koelb: Right. And, in between the two arcs, a lot of stuff has happened; we see how Abe’s physical degradation has matched his emotional and moral degradation. He is somebody whose body shows the difficulty of his life. And the change in tempo is one that put some people off; some agents weren’t willing to represent the novel because they found that choice strange.
Rail: Some readers expect that, if a novel is organized into two discrete halves, there will be symmetry between those halves. An artificial expectation, perhaps.
Koelb: Right. And, the thing is, all fiction is artificial, so why not be artificial in this way? I remember being told in my graduate program, “you can’t do this” or “you can’t do that” or “you can’t have a first-person omniscient narrator.” But I found that in Proust. I found that in Faulkner. Or there are passages where the narrative voice, which is theoretically omniscient, fails to know things: “He might have done this, he might have done that” and so on. This idea that you can’t do anything is false, with regards to something that’s this constructed. You can do anything if you do it well enough and if you carry the reader with you. I hope that I’ve carried the reader with me into this strange duality because I wanted to point out, again, the multiplicity of views and the impossibility of knowing things in just way. I wanted to give the first half one feeling, one atmosphere. It’s slower, more deliberate.
Rail: And Kunstler himself is more methodical in that part.
Koelb: Yes, and things move much more slowly for him. He slowly builds up to getting a job at the factory. He slowly builds up to taking Inez home. He slowly builds up to having a child. And in the second half, he can’t afford to do anything slowly anymore. For him, things have really come to a head. It changes the way we understand his story, because we see his story moving much faster. I hope that carries on into the subconscious of the reader in some way and says, “Even though you may plan very deliberately, you are still at the mercy of your society and you should remember that.”
Rail: Right. It’s strange; his plan required him to have another set of eyes in this very intimate space. That is, his son’s eyes. He needs to let someone else in. And, looking back, that was always a danger.
Koelb: Right. To ultimately succeed, he needs to have this final proof, which is that he pulls off the most masculine thing possible: He has a son. More importantly, he has a son by another woman, not by his own biological ability to serve as mother.
Rail: It sounds to me like the artistic imperative is to suspend your prejudices when it comes to structure and come up with the form that fits the content.
Rail: And Abe Kunstler, like everyone else, doesn’t have the luxury of experiencing time symmetrically. There are years of his life which pass slowly, and one day in his life which feels like it’s taking an eternity—because that day is awful.
Koelb: That’s exactly right. It’s a representation of his subjective world. The two most important days in his life are probably the day that he killed the former Abe Kunstler and the day when he ceases to be Abe Kunstler.
Rail: That’s the other formal element of this that’s interesting in relation to time: The day that he killed the former Abe Kunstler never goes anywhere. It’s almost like that day is still happening, just because we keep revisiting it.
Koelb: Absolutely. The terms that he applies to that day in the flashbacks, which are very subjective, are terms he returns to all the time. They are the terms that define his life. So, he uses them always and over and over.
Rail: Those dreamlike scenes are so subjective that, by the time I put the book down, I almost took for granted that those memories are not how the killing took place. That that’s just through the gloss of memory after a lot of revision. I suppose we can’t ever know for sure.
Koelb: And it’s important that we have those open spaces that readers can walk around in. I hate novels that spell everything out for the reader, so I didn’t want to do that. My problem as a writer is that, because I worry about being overly controlling, I probably don’t signpost as much as I ought to. I’ve tried to be better about that.
Rail: I don’t think I was ever lost reading Trenton Makes; I always felt well-oriented, even in this disorienting mind.
Koelb: Well, that’s great to know. Glad you liked it.
Rail: Was there anything else you wanted to share with us?
Koelb: No, that’s everything in my mind right now, at least. If I could go back over every day I spent writing it, I’d likely find I’d made a bunch of decisions which seemed incredibly important at the time, that I’ve forgotten now.
Rail: I suppose this process isn’t entirely rational and predictable.
Koelb: No, and that’s one of the wonderful things about being an artist. You don’t have to be a theoretician. You do what seems right based on the story you’re telling, and what your goals are for the telling.