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A Polar Wind: Robert Kloss and Matt Kish in Conversation

September 29, 2015 | by

A detail from Matt Kish‘s illustration for the cover of The Revelator, by Robert Kloss.

A detail from Matt Kish’s illustration for the cover of The Revelator, by Robert Kloss.

On the relatively short list of authors and artists who have collaborated on multiple books, there are few who so perfectly mirror one another’s sensibilities that it becomes difficult to imagine art and word as separate entities. I’d place Aleksei Kruchenykh and Olga Rozanova, A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake in that select group. And now I’d add author Robert Kloss and artist Matt Kish. The pair have, to date, worked together on two novels (Alligators of Abraham and The Revelator), a hybrid novel written with Amber Sparks (The Desert Places), and an ongoing project they call the “Bestiary.”

The two have published work independently—Kish, notably, has illustrated every page of Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness—but their joint efforts are of a different order, primarily because, being of like minds, one’s work influences the other’s in the course of making. The Revelator, which was just published this month, is a psychologically brutal tale about an itinerant zealot in nineteenth-century America. In the opening paragraphs, a group of forlorn sailors, “their faces blistered and their minds bleached and weary,” espies a mountain: “some named it the ‘Finger of the Evil One,’ and some called it a tower of soot, dreamed it an ancient citadel misshapen by flame, the horror of all trapped within.” Kish’s illustrations, sprinkled throughout, are correspondingly prophetic, alien, and apocalyptic.   

Kloss recently moved from Boston to Boulder, Colorado; Kish lives in Ohio. The two have never met. Earlier this month, they conducted a conversation via online chat about the nature of collaboration and working in the shadow of Melville.  

—Nicole Rudick

Kish: I’ve been thinking about this conversation for some time, alternately veering between excitement and intimidation. Aside from our numerous e-mails, this will probably be the most in-depth communication we’ve shared, at least on a sustained level.

Kloss: Let’s start with Melville then, since I don’t think we would be having this conversation without his work.

Kish: That’s an intriguing way of looking at this relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever viewed it through that lens before. 

Kloss: I think about it that way constantly. Melville’s shadow is always there. Have you read Moby-Dick since you finished your illustrations?

Kish: I’ve been working around the edges of the book. There were a number of things I was not able to address as an artist that have been nagging at me like a broken tooth. My current project, illuminating the eighty Extracts from the novel’s front matter, is a big part of that. And I’m revisiting the Cetology chapter as well, including the “uncertain, fugitive, half-fabulous” whales Melville appends to the end, since that appeals to the mythic in me. As for rereading the great book—what will be my tenth trip through—I still need some distance.

I do find myself drawn to his lesser-known work. Or, at least, the work that is less well-known to me. I’ve got something in mind for Benito Cereno, and I’d love to work my way through Bartleby with ink and brush. His poetry is a great unknown to me. Have you read his verse?

"Aye, aye, men!" cried Ahab. "Look up at it; mark it well; the white flame but lights the way to the White Whale!"

From Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page.

Kloss: I read through everything of his last year. I’d read some of the poems before—a chunk of them in Penguin’s Selected Poems—but I tracked down everything and worked my way through them. It was an intense period for me. Clarel is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. I think you’d love the sea poems—“Maldive Shark,” if you haven’t read it yet, is a strong place to start.

Kish: I was recently on a panel with Dr. Elizabeth Renker of Ohio State University, who is a Melville scholar and wrote the introduction to the Signet Classics paperback edition I used as the map for my illustrations. She considers his poetry the last, great unexplored territory in his body of work and believes that his centennial, in 2019, will usher in a vigorous exploration of the poems from scholars, artists, and other creatives. It will be interesting to see if that occurs. I’ve heard a bit about Clarel, but the size alone is daunting. I’m quite impressed you were able to master it. Or, at the very least, grapple with it.

Kloss: Grapple is the word. Maybe struggle is better.

Kish: Melville, to me, seems, especially in Moby-Dick, to be a profoundly humanist writer. Has that influenced your work? I am a great admirer of your writing, but it has always struck me as savage, which is partly why I find it horrifically magnetic. Reading your books requires a great deal of courage, and if a reader does not feel that way, they’re not reading it properly.

Kloss: I see Moby-Dick as being a novel about humans colliding with and trying to master forces greater than themselves—the mystery of the ocean, the brute horror of the whale—and I may respond to those mysterious forces more than to the human element, but I do think my novels are mostly about people trying to understand the mysterious and brute forces they are subject to. And while there’s a warmth and exuberance to Moby-Dick’s early pages in particular that I’d love to capture, I’m drawn to it as a savage book. There’s that quote of Melville’s that I think is an ideal description—“It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.” Yes, it’s a deadly book, and I appreciate that you read my work that way. I think a work of literature should require a little courage to confront it. A polar wind should blow through it.

Now that you’ve spent some time with so many Melville scholars and fanatics, I wonder if you have a sense of why Moby-Dick and Melville are so popular, or at least why the novel inspires such devotion.

Illustrations by Matt Kish for Heart of Darkness.

Illustrations by Matt Kish for Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.

Kish: I’ve occasionally used the word magical, which is rather silly perhaps and a bit too light, but Moby-Dick seems to show me something new and something familiar on every reading. There is an almost-impossible-to-believe richness and complexity to the book, and our own slightly differing takes on it are a good indicator of that. The scholar comment is also an interesting one. I’ve now rubbed shoulders with more Melville scholars, and literary academics in general, than I ever imagined possible. Those experiences have run the gamut from deeply enriching to absolutely infuriating. With the best of them, at least the ones I trust, I think they, like me, appreciate the richness of the book. Reading Moby-Dick even once is an education in what it means to be alive. Even now, more than 160 years later, that calls to readers. The book gives back what is put into it by the reader in equal measure.

Which is also a reason illustrating it, and illustrating Conrad and illustrating your work and Amber Sparks’s work as well, has been a terrifying endeavor every step of the way. Honestly, it was a bit easier with Melville and Conrad and Calvino. They’re dead. In a sense, I can do what I want with the writing. But you and Amber are alive. I’ve been impressed with the way in which you seem to have little problem relinquishing some control over your words to an artist. In recently rereading the final revision of The Revelator, I was struck by how much had changed from the first version I read and how those revisions were subtle but significant. As the architect of story, do you have any misgivings about seeing your work interpreted visually by someone who was not a part of the bloody and brutal business of its creation?

Kloss: I think it’s necessary to relinquish control. The text is the text and the story is the story, and I do obsess over every word, but I would rather look at your illustrations than at my text. I’m not even sure how to put this into words, but there’s something thrilling and terrifying about your illustrations of my novel. I’ll say this—when J. A. Tyler [publisher of Mud Luscious Press] mentioned he’d contacted you to illustrate the cover for The Alligators of Abraham, I was thrilled. I had admired your Melville blog from afar, so I couldn’t wait to see what you’d do with the text. I don’t want to say that I thought you’d improve on my words, but I think I had a sense that you could take what I had in my head and realize it in a way that I simply cannot—partly because we work with different languages and partly because your imagination goes places mine doesn’t and partly because a novel has restrictions that an illustration does not.

But for the last two books, Desert Places and Revelator, I was concerned that you wouldn’t approve or wouldn’t find the material inspiring. Revelator in particular, since it is more realistic than Alligators and Desert Places. And with our “Bestiary” project as well—Did I go far enough? Am I close enough to meeting Matt’s vision? It pushes me, more than anything.

Matt Kish’s cover and an interior illustration for Alligators of Abraham, by Robert Kloss.

Matt Kish’s cover and an interior illustration for Alligators of Abraham, by Robert Kloss.

Kish: I have to admit that of our three and a half collaborations—I count the “Bestiary” as a half, since we are only halfway through—The Revelator was by far the most challenging, intimidating, and terrifying. And that was largely due to the more realistic nature of the book. Yet that connection with reality, that hard and specific connection with real individuals and real beliefs, was the rocket fuel I needed to push me into the spaces I needed to inhabit in order to create the illustrations. My art is, in so many ways, how I “read” and make sense of your work. I see what I do as a kind of translation of Kloss into Kish. I tend to read your work, and, really, all authors I respect, very jealously and selfishly. I rarely look into what others think or have written about them. I read for myself and myself alone, and these images are the reflection of what I read. Your writing pushes me as hard and as far as my art seems to push you—which is the very essence of the best kind of creative collaboration.

Kloss: I was curious if you saw your illustrations as an interpretation of my writing or if you use my work as inspiration—or is it something else? Because, to me, your covers and interior illustrations are as much a fabric of the books as the words are. I wouldn’t accept a version of The Alligators of Abraham without your work, for instance. And that goes for The Revelator now, too. I don’t know if the reader receives my text through your illustrations or your illustrations through my text or if there’s something else going on there.

Speaking of our relationship, when people think of Hunter S. Thompson they often also think of Ralph Steadman’s art. It’s very exciting to think that people will think of your illustrations before my words.

Matt Kish’s illustrations for The Desert Places, by Amber Sparks and Robert Kloss.

Illustrations by Matt Kish for The Desert Places, by Amber Sparks and Robert Kloss.

Kish: That cuts to the central dilemma of illustration. Being an illustrator is essentially a process of making choices. Are you choosing to depict the text or to interpret the text? Are you trying to elevate the text or do you want to transform the text? As an illustrator, do you have that right? If so, who determines that? There are choices to be made, too, about how the illustrations relate to and communicate with the text. What details must be shown, which details can be left out? With your work, I’ve seen my role as creating a parallel visual narrative that shows the writing but in ways that make the ideas real.

When I was asked to do the cover of The Alligators of Abraham, I printed the entire manuscript out and put it in a huge binder so that I could read it in the car during commutes and at work on breaks. And from the first page, I was overwhelmed by the urge to draw what I was reading. That experience has repeated itself with The Desert Places and now The Revelator. There is something about your writing, your language, your ideas that resonates very deeply with me. That doesn’t make the process of illustrating any easier, but it does make it more necessary.

Kloss: I’ve mentioned this to you before, but creatively I started out as an “illustrator.” Before I could write, I drew—little picture books and little comic books. I had my mother fill in the speech balloons. And even after I could write—and once I could write, that’s really all I did with my time, other than read comic books—I always illustrated my stories, until I reached a point when I knew my illustrations were not sophisticated enough. I didn’t have the ability to create the images I saw, so I stopped. But even now I would say that I write visually, and I would say that I’m more drawn to films than I am to novels. So the foundation of my writing is the image—the attempt to create image out of word and rhythm.

Illustrations by Matt Kish from The Revelator.

Illustrations by Matt Kish for The Revelator, by Robert Kloss.

Kish: I am absolutely certain that the visual nature of your writing is a huge part of why I respond so strongly to it. And why I find my way into it, and out of it, through images.

How has your new home in Colorado affected your writing? You recently posted something about “droning blue skies,” which I thought was simply perfect.

Kloss: The other day, my wife and I and some friends hiked up a mountain. This was a completely new experience for me. Our friend pointed out another mountain nearby and said that it wasn’t a very nice hike because it’s been scorched and charred by forest fires—and I can’t wait to check that out. And I can’t wait to go to the desert—I’ve never been to a desert before. I have to assume that those experiences will shape my perspective in a way. I know Cormac McCarthy’s writing changed after he moved West. But I’m drawn now to write more about the East, in particular Boston and New England and the ocean. But before I moved out here from Boston, I wrote frequently about the West. There was a freedom to writing about it because I could rely more on imagination. And now that I’ve been on a mountain and I’m starting to do these things, I wonder if writing about the West will become too close for me to build on imaginatively.

Kish: That’s another fascinating parallel between you and me. When I was a child, we visited my grandparents in Florida frequently, so I have seen the ocean many times. But by 2009, when I began the Moby-Dick illustrations, it had been more than twenty years since I had seen the ocean in anything other than films, photos, or my mind. And I didn’t see anything larger than an Ohio pond or river for the entire 542 days that I worked on Moby-Dick. But that sense of being disconnected from the sea made it more mythic and freed me to illustrate Moby-Dick in ways that proximity to the sea or to New England would not have.

Kloss: Have you ever been to Melville’s home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts? I found standing in his writing room very moving, particularly the view of Mount Greylock he insisted on having from his writing desk. At the time, I didn’t really understand how staring at the mountain would help him write about a whale, but I understand it more now.

...the White Whale churning himself into furious speed, almost in an instant as it were, rushing among the boats with open jaws, and a lashing tail, offered appalling battle on every side; and heedless of the irons darted at him from every boat, seemed only intent on annihilating each separate plank of which those boats were made.

From Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page.

Kish: I’ve had, unfortunately, almost no direct connection with Melville beyond his books. But I think that worked for me in the same way that, for you, writing about the West while living in the East did. There is a very solid and defined Melville that exists in my mind, and I am sure there is enough of the real Melville, the facts and stories that are known and documented, in my own Melville to make him close to the real thing. But the rest of the details have been filled in by my imagination and are based on my own life. In a strange way, my Melville is probably a synthesis of him and me, which probably seems idolatrous to some but may also seem perfectly iconoclastic to others. While working on the Moby-Dick illustrations, my studio was a closet that measured about four feet by seven feet. Pinned to the wall in front of the drawing table was a xeroxed photo of Melville, and I used to stare at it incessantly while working on the art. That black-and-white image became my Mount Greylock in a sense. I am sure there is an imaginary Matt Kloss in my mind as well. I have no photo pinned up anywhere, but we have had many conversations and I’d bet there is much of me in my conception of you as there is you. It will be interesting to see how this evolves and ultimately resolves as our collaborations continue.

Kloss: I agree. And I do want to meet, but I’m also reluctant, more or less for the reasons you mention. But I think it’s probably certain that we will meet at some point in the future, and I’m looking forward to that time.

Kish: Same here. Now back to work for me, and presumably you. Melville beckons.