Insurrection: An Interview with Rachel Kushner


At Work


I filled up half a notebook preparing for my interview with Rachel Kushner, whose second novel, The Flamethrowers, arrives this week. [It was excerpted and served as the inspiration for the portfolio in our last issue.] The notes are wide-ranging and imprecise, a record of the experience of reading this intellectually voracious book and trying to keep up with it. There are descriptions of American land art, scraps of World War I history, digressions on Italian counterculture in the late seventies. There are facts about those same years in New York, sometimes appreciating a particularly lovely observation, sometimes just noting what has changed (“on the Manhattan side, the Williamsburg Bridge had steps”). There are names, so many names: Aldo Moro, Virginia Tusi, Grifi and Sarchielli, Robert Smithson, and a hundred more. There are isolated flashes of pop-culture ephemera, like an otherwise blank page with “Jane Fonda wins an Oscar” written in the middle. That these elements, incoherent in my notebook, not only connect in Flamethrowers but create a dense and beautiful and polyphonic Bolaño-esque harmony meant that Ms. Kushner, by the time our interview rolled around, had started to seem somewhat miraculous.

Perhaps appropriately for an author concerned with the self-conscious production of ideas and images, Ms. Kushner spoke to me on Skype from LA, where she lives, as she put it, “incognito.” Her disguise on this particular day consisted of a black sweater and a few auburn highlights in her brown hair. When she answers questions, she has a habit of looking down past the camera, and her elaborate, delicate responses—complete with qualifications and footnotes—make it seem that she must be consulting a notebook propped open in the corner of the room. She isn’t.

The Flamethrowers spans a hundred years and follows multiple sets of characters across two countries, but I think it can be separated into three strands. Reno moves from Nevada to New York in the late seventies to be an artist, Italy is upended during the Years of Lead, Italian motorcyclists form a gang in World War I. Did you start out looking for a large and polyphonic book?

I like the way you divide up the three strands.

Is that not how you would divide them?

Well, at first there were two spheres—New York in the seventies and Italy in the seventies. And I knew they may have had some kind of en-tissuing or overlap, but I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t want to reduce it by linking them in forced or artificial ways. The only viable manner of figuring out how they were connected—and weren’t—was to write the novel.

All of these interesting things happened in the US in 1977 and ’78, and that time marked the apotheosis of the leftist Autonomist movement in Italy. But it seemed a little crude to just say these two spheres have the commonality of being contemporaneous. I sensed something else, something deeper. I had started with this image of a person riding a motorcycle for reasons that have to do with land art and the West, and also with my personal interests in both art and in motorcycles, and things I felt I could write about because I know a little bit about them from experience. And then I saw that there was this link, right there, back to Italy. World War I is at the root of motorcycles and machines, and at the root of machines there’s also futurism. Later, after World War II, Italy was making the fastest motorcycles in the world. Futurism eventually got marred by its link to Fascism, but early on, it was totally avant-garde, and I wanted to dream a phantom link from the early futurists to the politically radical Italy of the 1970s, a time of fun, play, subversion, if also violence and mayhem. As I wrote, these different things just kind of interacted—machines, speed, velocity …

Did you also happen naturally on the theme of the shift from an industrial to a postindustrial America? The 1970s in New York were also when the World Trade Center was being constructed. Industrial Lower Manhattan was being demolished. I feel that in your book too. In the lofts.

It’s very astute. The loft in my novel is a former industrial site, as all of these lofts were in Soho, factories and manufacturing warehouses. In Yvonne Rainer’s great memoir, Feelings Are Facts, she talks about moving into a loft that had been a textile factory and there were dress pins crammed into every crevice of the place. I took that detail. The World Trade Center project had knocked out a massive area of manufacturing and warehouses in Lower Manhattan, replacing all that with finance. The photographer Danny Lyon systematically catalogued it in his project “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan.” Meanwhile, artists were moving into these sites of former manufacturing in Soho.

The late seventies was the death of the manufacturing age in the United States. It was also a time when the Pictures Generation artists were getting started. They co-opted the language of advertising. The factory disappeared, and weirdly, so did the art object—it was the age of making gestures, not objects. Suddenly, you could be an artist almost through attitude alone, which has some shadowy logical connection, perhaps, to the rise of the service economy. So that was on my mind, if not any kind of schematic way. Also, I knew people from the world of car culture and motorcycle racing who’d worked on auto-assembly lines, or whose fathers had, and I had heard amazing stories, and I put some of that in the book, as a swan song to the American factory.

Both your novels contain beautifully rendered sections that depict actual, functioning industry—the sugar plantations in Telex from Cuba and the Brazilian rubber plantations in Flamethrowers. Can you talk about how this kind of labor fits into your larger project?

Well, thanks. I begin a book with imagery, more than I do with an idea or a character. Some kind of poetic image. Rubber was one of the first things that I began with, in writing The Flamethrowers. I was reading articles about artists in the seventies who used a lot of rubber. Richard Serra and Robert Morris did pieces with rubber, and I saw this as a repurposing of remnants and debris from the manufacturing age. Then I was interested in following the image of rubber back to a source. Suddenly there I was, rubber workers and slavery and Brazil. Which can be dangerous—neither author nor reader wants an info-dumpy novel about the history of rubber, so I tried to keep it to a minimum—a quick and brutal but hopefully effective scene on a rubber plantation.

One of the generative anxieties in the book comes from the tension between recording history and playing a role in history. I feel it when Reno visits a factory in Italy while a protest is going on, and she thinks, Do I film this? Meaning, Is my role here merely to document? Is that an anxiety you experience as a novelist when you’re dealing with historical material?

I didn’t witness that time as an adult, of course. It’s something I only have read about and imagined. Italy in the seventies seems like a fascinating place. To an outsider, as I imagined, it would be both immediate and emotional and also impenetrably complex. Difficult to grasp without knowing the history of that country and the factory politics of that era there. Reno doesn’t have any real handle on factory politics. Yet when you go to a factory and see that people are preparing for a strike, you know that something is going on. I was thinking about the role of the artist generally and what it means to be a voyeur.

Can you talk about the dedication page of your book? One of the people has no last name.

My novel is dedicated to two people—Cynthia Mitchell, a dear friend, who is a filmmaker and artist, and Anna, who indeed has no last name, or rather, it was never known. Anna is the protagonist, subject, and title of an Italian film from 1975 made by Alberto Griffi and Massimo Sarchielli. Anna is homeless and eight months pregnant and sixteen, beautiful and depressed, suicidal and with a heroin habit, and the filmmakers become obsessed with her, not so much in saving her as in tracking her existence. They start filming her all the time. It’s an early example of direct cinema, where everything is filmed in real time. They show her crying and complaining and being fed dinner by them and just hanging out, being bored, calling the same telephone number over and over, because she keeps getting a busy signal. I too became obsessed with her, but unlike the filmmakers, I didn’t get lice from her. And unlike the film’s electrician, I didn’t fall in love with her and then get burned. Anna is almost four hours long. It didn’t have subtitles at that time, and a lot of it is in this pretty rough-going Roman dialect. I watched it repeatedly while I was writing this novel. It was just unbelievable to me the way it captured all of the strands and seeds of revolt of Italy in the 1970s, which I was trying to capture in my novel.

At the end, Anna disappears. She has the baby off-camera, refuses to let the filmmakers have access to her. It ends with an interview with the electrician who’s fallen in love with her, and he’s talking about her nihilism: she said no, and refused everything good in life, and left him. I later learned that this poor guy was murdered two years after the film was made, in the square where a lot of that filming took place, the Campo de’ Fiori.

The film has these exhaustive credits—even the lice are listed in the credits—but Anna is given no last name. No one knows what happened to her. The filmmakers would never say. There’s something very clean and strange and mysterious about total disappearance. I put her in the book as a walk-on, my small gesture at bringing her “back.”

That’s one of the things I love about your work—the way it can assimilate extremely intricate histories and historical figures. De La Mazière in Telex is another example. I don’t have a question here, really. I just admire that your books devour all these complex lives. History is never scenery for you.

Oh, thanks. When I see things in the world that leap out at me I want to make use of them in fiction. Maybe every writer does that. It just depends on what you claim or appropriate as yours. I guess I’ll say my taste is a big factor in what I integrate.

You mean that you decide what elements to incorporate based on aesthetic taste?

I guess I mean tone, sensibility. What I choose I choose because it’s going to enrich the soil for me. If you don’t write about the domestic scene, if you write about something a little bit broader, when you come across real life figures who have a certain dynamic potential, you import them. The smaller scale of interpersonal tensions also often involves persons a writer might encounter from real life, but they are neutralized through the process of psychologization. Whereas in this case, I’m not that interested in neutralizing real-life characters, such as the French Fascist de La Mazière, whom you mention—what is most salient and interesting about these kinds of people, to me, is their historical specificity.

Is that how you think of literature in your work, too? As historical specificity? There’s a young boy in Flamethrowers obsessed with Flaubert’s diaries, Flaubert slutting around Egypt.

Slutting! I love those letters. They’re hilariously dirty and raunchy.

And all to his mother.

I made Valera, the character you mentioned, be from Alexandria, Egypt, which is where F. T. Marinetti spent his childhood. I was thinking about an Italian boy living in a colonial enclave in Alexandria, and then I started thinking about the Nile, and Flaubert, and it seemed like a boy coming of age who has a very Francophone existence, which Marinetti did, would possibly be reading those letters, and drawing some comparison between what Flaubert got to do and his own more repressed existence. I don’t think it’s easy to be a fourteen-year-old boy. I thought Flaubert’s documented excess would torture and tantalize him.

The teenage boy is rejected by a girl who prefers an older guy with a motorcycle, and in a certain way this is the generative event of the novel. It sets up major plot elements—the motorcycle company and the question of mechanization, the inheritance that supports the artists later on. Do you consciously set up these long vectors? Is that how your mind works?

I wasn’t thinking deliberately, Okay, primal scene—although I agree, it is the primal scene of the novel. I was amused at intersecting young, erotic desire and a boy seeing a motorcycle for the first time in his life. I was in the middle of writing it and I got to the point where he says, Don’t despair, get yourself a bike, and it just sort of went from that to a young American woman on a bike in Nevada in the 1970s. I could claim to you retroactively that yes, I think in these long lines, everything is connected, tell you I constructed this whole thing with pure intention and control, because I have the proof of the end result. But a lot happens along the way.

There’s so much in the book about sex and machines, and—not to sound dumb—but the sexiness of women on motorcycles. Are you making an argument about women, sex, and power?

I don’t think a woman riding a motorcycle thinks of herself as doing something that has sex appeal. I think she’s trying to replicate for herself an experience that she sees men having. I was not consciously making an argument about gender and sex and machines. People keep saying that it’s a “sexy” novel, and I didn’t intentionally make it that way.  

How can you say that? Sexual attraction is the energizing force behind most of the major relationships. Ronnie and Reno, Sandro and Reno. And there’s Behind the Green Door—there’s porn. Sex is a big part of the novel!

Well, it’s a big part of life. And a big part of what motivates people. You want something from other people. If you misread them, you can get burned. Or you can burn somebody else, sometimes by accident. Sexuality is real dynamism to my mind. How people deal with their desire, and deal with other people’s desire. About Behind the Green Door, when I was a child I had a paper route and was always putting inserts in the newspapers for that movie, starring Marilyn Chambers. It was a mythic visual trope.

What image was it? Her on the white operating table being prepared for the stage? The poster?

Her covering her bare chest against a void. It seemed curious to me, a little sinister. I wanted to reintroduce it but from the perspective of a young woman. I might add that the sex scenes in the book are almost exclusively of men servicing women. It was maybe a formal precept on my part—the book is told from the perspective of a woman. She chooses to narrate those parts that are interesting to her.

Your first novel was written from multiple points of view, but Flamethrowers is first person, with a few relatively minor deviations. Was it easy to make that decision?

No. I deliberated in a tortured and endless way over what the voice was going to be, whether it was going to be first or third person. The first year I was writing this book I hadn’t decided. I would go to friends’ readings and raise my hand at the end and ask, Why did you choose to tell the story in third person? And people would look at me like, Why would you ask such a basic question? But to me these basic questions must be asked and answered for every single book.

At this point in my life, I’m not that interested in third person. There’s a certain falsity when a character is given a full name and a set of characteristics and can be seen from outside. To me it speaks of a kind of realism whose artifice I have a hard time shaking, as a writer, in order to get inside what I am doing and imagine it fully. The first-person narrator of Bolaño’s Savage Detectives is almost like water. He doesn’t have much of a “voice.” And he doesn’t always matter in a scene. He’ll just be background—someone else has taken over. There is often a skid in the narration from one character to the next, even as it’s being told by the first-person narrator, and this influenced me. I had been looking to find a first person who came across like thought, who could be drowned out and overrun in the way that we as people can be overrun by others. Having a point of view doesn’t mean you’re always in control or couching everything in running commentary. That’s fiction.

Proust gets away with these impossible formal propositions in his use of first person. He’s telling you about, say, a private conversation between two people where Marcel cannot possibly be in the room. It’s a real invention inside literary modernism. For me, an uninflected voice is something I’m drawn to. Partly because the reader is not always characterizing my protagonist as she’s characterizing those around her. If she is more immediate, less seen by an intervening authorial narrator, than to me, as the writer, she feels less overdetermined.

It’s very different from the cliché of a first-person novel having to earn the right to its first person by formal invention. By “voiceyness.” We hear it all the time—“I fell in love with the voice.”

People have always said, Don’t write in the first person unless you have a very particular voice you want to use. I came in with the exact opposite proposition. I wanted to find a voice that was not performed. And I think that a lot of times the first person—quite powerfully—is a confessional form. It’s testimonial. And I didn’t want Reno’s voice to be either one. I wanted the book to be an experience for the reader of being very tightly bound to her attempts to perceive other people.

It’s interesting to have a nonvoicey voice. It’s very beautifully wrought, and it’s unusual.

Gee, thanks. One of the strategies for doing first-person is to make the narrator very knowing, so that the reader is with somebody who has a take on everything they observe. The narrator is always telling you what things mean, they can see the humor in every situation, or the cruelty, the absurdity, and it’s all about being reassured by this narrator that they have a handle on what’s going on around them. I’m interested in something else. Maybe there’s nothing new or revolutionary about it, but I think that so much of experience is knowingness and total unknowingness in alternation. Being wry and sly and seeing what’s funny about a situation—and then again, at other times, missing the point entirely. Not being able to read other people. Naiveté and ignorance are valid narrative modes. I don’t mean to say that I would take a character and manipulate them and make them seem stupid. It’s more that I’m trying to replicate an experience that seems true to me, which is to understand some things and be bewildered by others.

Were you worried about the risk that comes with this kind of narration? The risk of your main character becoming eyes and ears, becoming passive?

To some degree, yes. There’s a fundamental problem with a passive narrator, right? But because she’s young, there are other people who have more boisterous presences than she does. I think that’s partly the experience of being young, being drawn to people who seem to have something you don’t, and that you could potentially annex. You want to annex experience from other people. There are personalities and characters in the novel who overwhelm the narrator. It was important to try to be mindful of keeping her as a presence in the book. If she has the ability to have a private interior response, or a filter, for reporting on what she sees or observes, that’s a way of keeping her right there. She has a personality even if she’s not arguing loudly at the dinner table with the other characters in the book. And she does act, but she is not heroic.

Was that your own experience of being in your twenties? Being drawn to people who seemed to have something you didn’t have, and wanting to annex that experience?

Sure. When I was in my twenties I was always drawn to worlds where I felt a little lost to the codes and references, to me that was … fun. Like when I moved to New York in the late 1990s, I met some artists and a world kind of opened up, but I was somewhat clueless to the conversations around me. These people were hypersmart and knew an incredible amount about culture and art and music. They were older. It was a great education to hang around with them.

I guess I’m not really fond of just chit-chatting. I want to learn something and have an experience.

One of the things that Reno observes about being a young artist of the West is that you have to move to New York first. You grew up in California but spent eight years in New York. Do you and Reno have this in common?

Well, I came from San Francisco, which is very provincial, but not to the degree that Reno, Nevada, is. Also, the writing world is different from the art world. You move to New York City and it’s the center of the publishing world and it’s useful to live there for a little while. Now I prefer a low-key lifestyle, far away from New York. But I think that’s separate from what I was getting at in the book, which has to do with the world of contemporary art and visual art in the seventies. There was this fetishizing of the West by artists like Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria. These are artists who had a great deal of conceptual rigor to what they were doing. And in order to develop that, you need to be in New York City. You need to be showing at a particular gallery and hanging out at a certain bar and having a certain kind of conversation with other artists. You need to be invited to participate in that. But then they all go to the West and in a way it’s all about real estate—Donald Judd buying up an entire town and making it into his play space and a preserved part of an old West. I thought it would be a little ironic if my character were from Nevada but realizes that in order to do anything with that history, she has to find her part in a conversation that only takes place in New York City.

Did you go for research to The Lightning Field and the other land art? Was there some initial reaction that you had to it? Or is it more interesting to you conceptually and theoretically?

All three. I did go to Spiral Jetty. But I had a terrifying experience there.

What happened?

Spiral Jetty is incredibly remote. There’s no cell-phone service, no maintained roads. By the time you get there, you’ve walked the last half-mile of it because there are these giant boulders in the road. As a woman by myself, I felt weirdly vulnerable. I walked out onto the jetty and I kept expecting the alarm to go off on my rental car, which would tell me that somebody was there and had broken into it, and was waiting for me to return to it. I thought somebody was going to, like, murder me under the sun. I was almost surprised I made it out of there alive. I can’t explain it. Except I had seen this film James Benning made called Casting A Glance where he filmed the Spiral Jetty over the course of different seasons and edited it together. It’s a beautiful film. He told this story at the screening about going out there when he was younger, on his motorcycle. He realized that if his bike hadn’t started he could have just died there, and he said that when he was filming there was this harrowing situation of speed freaks shooting guns out there. Perhaps his stories planted the seed of what could happen in that remoteness.

Film seems to be an important medium for you, and one that you know well. Are you ever conscious of using formal techniques from film?

There’s a scene where a real film that I love very much is explained almost scene for scene, but in terms of replicating formal techniques, not really. If I did, I guess I would try to do something Eisensteinian. Were you thinking of something specific when you asked the question?

I was thinking of something I loved from the book, which is your strategy of interrupting scenes with long dashes in the middle of lines of dialogue. It’s like crosscutting.

That’s true. I did do that. I want to do that more.

It works well. Did you steal it from somewhere?

No, I made it up. And when my book went through the copyediting phase they kept replacing them with ellipses, which to me is very different, because it’s more of a fadeout, a soft echo. I wanted the cut.

Maybe it does relate to films, though. In one of the Godard films—I think it’s Made in USA, but sometimes I mix them up—every time somebody tries to reveal something important, an alarm goes off, or there’s some other noise that blots out the speaker. I think that’s really funny, and I have thought about trying to do that in a book.

Some writers say that their ideas of their books change as they write them—they start out thinking they’ll write about one thing and at the end they’ve written about something entirely different. Is Flamethrowers the book you meant to write?

Yes and no. The journey is the thing—it can’t just be an execution. All kinds of things happen, thank god, that one doesn’t anticipate, and that’s the beauty of the process, the surprises. Then again, on another level, I always want to make things that turn out how I intended them to be. It’s a tough thing to talk about. It’s about integrity, I guess, and not making compromises for reasons of plot, convenience, fear, laziness. There are pressures while writing, in terms of what one has read, internalized, to make things coalesce or cohere. For me it’s important to stick with some kind of original energy that has to do with who I am and my sensibility, and maintaining a hold on that.

There’s a tension. Because we are storytelling animals—the narrative paradigm and all that. We are telling stories constantly.

We tell ourselves stories—

In order to live. We want closure, we want new beginnings. I’m going to end this chapter. I’m going to turn the page. Is there a danger that a writer can go too far out of her way to thwart narrative?

Depending on whose hands it’s in, sure. And of course it depends on the taste of the reader. I can’t read Robert Coover novels all day long. For me, that kind of formal experimentation is an important part of twentieth-century American literature, but it has certain limitations. I like narrative to some degree as a reader, but it too can really close things off, if it’s overemphasized. If I have some kind of armature of story, that buys me a lot of space to play. The fundamental proposition is not to thwart story but to make a story so that I have these other spaces to diverge. To diverge from it more than thwart it.

I think about the way that plots come together, or don’t. There’s sometimes a pressure in fiction to transcendence. To completion, a sense of wholeness, things working out or really not working out. Toward something happening. Utterly off-the-cuff example, and it’s not even fiction, but take the ending of the movie Downhill Racer, with Robert Redford—he’s a ski racer, and at the end of the movie he wins the big ski race, and he’s at the bottom of the run, and he doesn’t care at all. The movie just kind of trails off. It’s a moment of profound alienation and silence, and then the credits roll. To me, it’s an interesting example of a way that you can remain in control of story but also arrive at something unexpected and truthful, which is that there is sometimes no payoff or point to victory.

What about the epigraph, “Fac ut ardeat”? It comes from a thirteenth-century lamentation about Mary watching Christ on the cross, but you cut it from the original. You imported it and changed its meaning.

I love that you brought that up. It’s from the Stabat Mater, about the sorrows of Mary. Fac ut ardeat cor meum in amando Christum Deum—“Make my heart burn with love for Christ.” I saw the phrase Fac ut ardeat—“made to burn”—over a fireplace in the childhood home of an Italian friend who came out of a Fascist background. This friend always assumed it was d’Annunzian—about war, and being an Arditi. But it’s also a joke, of course—it’s above the fireplace.

My book is partly about insurrection. Fire is a powerful form of transformation and change. The epigraph seemed fitting in multiple ways—what is made to burn? Fire can be a destructive change or a purifying one, but sometimes, when you strike the match, you don’t know which it’s going to be.