Photo: Gabby Laurent.
One morning last week, while sitting at my desk attempting to make headway on various writing assignments, I went on Craigslist and bought a motorcycle—a banana-yellow 1969 Honda CT90 Trail. It was something I had been thinking about doing for a while. I’ve been interested in motorcycles since I was a kid, and a few years ago, I took a course and got my license. But if I’m being honest, the decision to finally bite the bullet and get a bike was at least partially influenced by the opening essay of Rachel Kushner’s new collection, The Hard Crowd.
Kushner, the author of the novels Telex from Cuba (2008), The Flamethrowers (2013), and The Mars Room (2018), wrote the essay in question, “Girl on a Motorcycle,” in 2001 for an anthology titled She’s a Bad Motorcycle: Writers on Riding. Describing her first bike, a 500cc Moto Guzzi, Kushner’s voice has all the confidence, wisdom, and cool of her later work. “Motorcycles didn’t enter my own life as gifts from men or ways to travel to men,” Kushner asserts, “but as machines to be ridden.” The piece goes on to describe something called the Cabo 1000, an illegal and dangerous thousand-mile motorcycle race on the Baja California peninsula, much of which takes place on dirt roads that weave precipitously through desert mountains. Kushner participated in the race when she was twenty-four, the age I am now.
The parallels between Kushner and me end here. Next to the bikes she and her friends rode, my motorcycle would look like a tricycle. At one point during the Cabo 1000, Kushner clocked 142 miles an hour. At its very fastest, my bike won’t go much over 50. Still, something about the self-possession and sheer high-octane energy of Kushner’s writing—and her descriptions of the pleasures of the road, where she feels “kinetic and unfettered and alone”—took hold of my imagination and propelled me to pursue my own, albeit more modest, thrills.
Not all the essays in The Hard Crowd are automotive in nature. Kushner also writes elegantly about Italian film, prison reform, sea captains, and Marguerite Duras. There is a remarkable and heartbreaking piece about a crowded refugee camp for Palestinians inside Jerusalem. There are sensitive and expansive considerations of Denis Johnson, Clarice Lispector, Cormac McCarthy, and Jeff Koons, among others. The critic James Wood uses the term “serious noticing” to describe the kind of looking that great novelists do, the revelatory and incisive attention to detail that “rescues the life of things.” Kushner does a lot of serious noticing in this book, of people, places, images, and texts. She also reflects on the various “hard crowds” she has been a part of, conjuring the San Francisco of her youth—a grungy haven populated by bikers, skaters, punk rockers, poets, and dropouts—with vivid, transporting detail. She recalls the friends she had in those years, when she was waitressing and hanging around in bars in the Tenderloin, as some of “the most brightly alive people” she ever knew. Many parts of this book read like a love letter to them, as well as to her younger self and to the places and experiences that shaped her.
This interview was conducted via email in late March. Throughout our exchange, Kushner was funny, thoughtful, and generous with her responses. And while I will not, of course, divulge the author’s email address, I can report that it is among the cleverest I have encountered.
The Hard Crowd is a collection of essays from 2000 through 2020. What was it like to revisit your past work? Have any of the essays taken on new meaning for you as they’ve aged?
For years I’ve toyed with the idea of putting together a collection of essays, as they’ve piled up—I’ve been writing them since before I published any fiction—but I wasn’t in a hurry. I needed to find the right through line, an organizing principle that would seem appealing and deliberate. It was only when this phrase “the hard crowd” came to me as a title that I sat down and looked at everything and started pulling out pieces I thought could sit next to one another in a sequence. I excluded most of my writing on contemporary art, because the discourse of visual art is somewhat specialized—maybe someday I’ll make a book of those pieces. For The Hard Crowd, I was looking for a certain kind of resonance. The idea was to make a proper book that is meant to be read in order, from beginning to end, each essay “passing the torch.” When I got to the end, I wrote the title essay and realized this book was some kind of statement about who I am and what I value. This took me by surprise. I thought this was a side project, but the book has as much to do with who I am as my novels do.
Did you significantly rewrite or expand any of the pieces from their original forms? If so, which ones, and in what ways?
I revised most of the essays. First, one by one. Later, I made changes based on how the pieces talked to one another, page 1 to page 250. The first essay, about the Cabo 1000, I hadn’t looked at since I’d published it twenty years back. It’s full of details I have no memory of. If I hadn’t written them down, they’d be erased, gone. At first I wasn’t sure how or whether to revise such a thing, given that it’s an archive of a version of me that no longer exists. But the more I opened up the essay to examine it as mine, as something to scrutinize and improve, the more alive it became, receptive and amenable to new interventions. I’d written the essay on Marguerite Duras for an Everyman’s Library edition of her work, and it had also appeared on The New Yorker’s website. But regardless, I wrote a new opening and restructured the essay. I’m always learning more about Duras and thinking more about her work, and I wanted to bring in some elements that would have been less relevant to the Everyman’s collection, like her script for Hiroshima mon amour, whose more unsettling thematics—like that Duras is basically equating the trauma of a French girl’s affair with a German soldier with the annihilation of Hiroshima—get kind of swept under the rug. I totally revised the Jeff Koons essay, “Happy Hour,” to think more vigorously about his version of populism, and it has a new ending that’s a bit mean to one of his collectors, but also seemed warranted.
The opening essay is about your experiences riding motorcycles in California in your early twenties and the biker community you were a part of. It centers around the story of your participation in a harrowing and illegal thousand-mile motorcycle race down the Baja California peninsula. Why did you choose that to be the opening piece?
I knew right away it would be the opening piece. It was the first thing I ever published, but more importantly, it gives an account of who I was before I was a writer. At least one version of who I was. It’s a granular glimpse into a certain world—gearhead San Francisco in the nineties, which I lived—and so it pertains somehow to who I am still. That experience of the Cabo 1000, it would feel harrowing if I had to do that now, but I don’t think it seemed harrowing then, although there were some dicey moments, which I detail in the piece. I remember being really disappointed that I’d crashed because I’d spent so much time prepping my 600 Ninja. I don’t remember thinking, I could have died. I was preoccupied with my motorcycle. Especially after the ambulance drove over and crushed all the expensive fiberglass bodywork that had come off my bike in the crash. When you’re involved in something, you see it up close. But also, I’ve never been someone who thinks about the what-might-have-been—I go with the what-was. I was fine, relatively. And as I say in the essay, even despite crashing at 130 miles an hour, having my motorcycle stolen, having all my possessions bounced out of the truck bed, et cetera, my attitude was intact. I remember a feeling of genuine happiness.
I’m curious about whether you see any relationship between riding motorcycles and writing. Do you think a writer needs to be fearless?
I don’t think a writer needs to be fearless. I don’t look at things quite that way. If one were to divide writers into two crude categories, I believe that some face inward and some face outward. To know themselves, some writers look inward. Others, in order to have a sense of themselves as bounded entities, need to be immersed in the unknown world. I believe this is a basic orientation that you’re probably born with—which way you face. I face outward. Even when I was very young, I gravitated toward worlds of knowledge and people, subcultures, that had to be learned directly, through experience, as if this process of immersion in the unknown would help me to understand myself. This orientation might seem brave to some, but it isn’t required to become a writer. You can live a sheltered life and still be a great writer, although perhaps making something unique and startling and innovative in both cases requires not caring what other people think. But I’m not sure if that’s bravery or something else—purpose and vision, maybe.
You have written three novels and a small collection of stories. Do you think of yourself primarily as a fiction writer? What do you see as the unique challenges and possibilities of nonfiction?
Yes, a fiction writer—without proof or elaboration. That’s the thing, what I’m after. I’ve always interspersed novels with these assignments, which are sometimes desirable breaks, and they expose me to knowledge and ideas that might prove useful later. Those longer pieces for The New York Times Magazine, which I included in the book—on Palestine and on Ruth Wilson Gilmore and prison abolition—are unique in that they allowed me to fully commit myself to some other world and to try to understand it. If novels are always some charged engagement with one’s own unconscious, those pieces—in which, respectively, I went to a refugee camp where 85,000 people live in one square kilometer, and I spent a week talking to Gilmore, who basically invented her own category of geography scholarship and possesses bodies of knowledge of which I’m woefully ignorant—those pursuits required me to submit and listen and learn. They each posed specific challenges. The Palestine piece was me as an on-the-ground observer, hoping to communicate for the reader what anyone might have felt had they been in my shoes the weekend I spent in the camp. The prison abolition piece was making an argument, and needed to humbly present its case in a convincing manner to even the most defensive and reactionary reader. Both benefited greatly from my collaboration with my editor at the Times Magazine, Claire Gutierrez.
Can you describe your writing process a little bit? Do you write every day? Do you have any specific habits or rituals around how you work?
I try to work every weekday. Sometimes, more with fiction than with essays, I find that I’m combing over what I already wrote, which I now consider wasted time. I used to think procrastination was part of the process and not to be fretted over. Recently I read this interview with Roni Horn—an amazing artist—and she said procrastination is escapism or laziness. That shook me awake. I don’t have rituals except the computer I write fiction on isn’t connected to the internet. The office I write in is a poor man’s version of Freud’s office, with globes, tchotchkes, rugs, and ancient artifacts—but instead of plundered Egyptian tombs, most of this stuff comes from the thrift stores of Bakersfield, California.
One thing I noticed was that you almost never end a piece where I might have expected you to—and you don’t seem interested in landing anywhere definitive. It feels almost as though you are actively resisting drawing conclusions, preferring instead to linger on a question or an image or a moral paradox. You do a beautiful job of crafting endings that are satisfying while still leaving room for ambivalence and uncertainty. How do you know when a piece is finished?
If a writer presents themselves as the one with moral clarity, I’m suspicious. Even when the writer offers themselves up as the fall guy, I’m suspicious, because the effect is still, ultimately, to establish a moral clarity. I like to make a true-feeling statement and then look for things that challenge it and tear it down. In terms of endings, I changed some of them as I was revising these essays. Suddenly a new end that was clever but not pat, or made a new swerve I hadn’t previously seen as possible, announced itself. The ending can reframe the whole essay, even for the person who wrote it. I didn’t rewrite this ending, but the essay about “bad captains” ending with professional basketball players disembarking the boat first, before everyone else, just seemed exactly right. A new world hierarchy I could get behind.
In your essay on Koons, there’s a wonderful line that appears almost as an aside, buried in em dashes, where you say “abstraction, after all, is the language of the rich.” That made me laugh and got me thinking about abstraction more generally. Abstraction can be used, as it is in this instance, to mask or soften violent politics—or, in the example of Koons’s advertisements, to communicate a kind of class fantasy—but abstraction is also a fundamental element of language. All writers must traffic in abstraction to some extent, right? How do you think about abstraction in your own work?
You say it perhaps better than I could—that abstraction can be used to mask or soften the violence of property relations, and to communicate fantasies of class identification for the purposes of advertising. I got this originally from Koons’s claim about liquor ads going from explicit tableaux you can unpack quickly in looking at them—usually men and women about to hook up—to the monochrome of a Frangelico ad, as he moved from poor to wealthy neighborhoods. I was thinking of the discourse of advertising and the eighties, when Koons made these liquor ad paintings. And when I was revising this piece for the book, I thought, Wait a minute. Truly rich people don’t buy Frangelico. They buy Jeff Koons paintings.
All culture traffics in abstraction, and probably one could make an argument that education, property, and social class correlate with abstraction in visual art, but there would be exceptions. About my own work, I’m really not sure. I go by instinct, which isn’t exactly abstract but suggests that one has to approach things from some unexpected angle. You have to sneak up on yourself. If you know too explicitly what you want to say, the whole process feels dead. In that sense, I guess I court abstraction, if not the explicit investment in abstraction I was making fun of in that essay, an aesthetic that reassures rich people they are safely distant from the realm of kitsch.
I imagine there aren’t many people in the world who have both attended dinner parties with trustees of the Whitney Museum and spent time in a Palestinian refugee camp. These feel like distant universes—worlds that are hard to reconcile—and yet they are united here by your voice and perspective. Can you talk a little bit about how your ability to occupy those different spaces informs your work? Are you a different person, a different writer, in each context? Is it ever disorienting?
I’m the same person whether in Shuafat—where I felt humbled and awed by a world that was foreign to me—or at some art-world thing where I am not awed or humbled but still watching things from a remove. I don’t think of my life as divergent or broad, really. Some of the lucky opportunities I’ve had come with the territory of being a writer. I didn’t seek out going to Palestine and instead was invited there and said yes, because it seemed like I could learn a lot. But I guess I did choose to go to Shuafat refugee camp. I can’t recall feeling disorientation, except when I found out my host, Baha Nababta, had been murdered. That threw me for a loop. But I think that’s not the kind of thing you meant. I’m often willing to meet people on their turf, their reality, but that’s because I have range and not because I’m shape-shifting. I just pull from the part of me that is applicable to the situation.
In your essay on Denis Johnson, a writer I deeply admire, you write, “[His] stories are about death and immortality, art and its reach, and they ask elemental questions about fiction, not as a literary genre but as a human tendency.” That is a wonderful way to frame the stakes of his work. What do you mean by “fiction as a human tendency”?
Some people are full of it, but lies can be kind of interesting. The lie is sometimes a pretty honest portrait of who someone is. I think in the line you quote I was referring specifically to the stories in his final book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, which is full of tales that people are telling others and themselves, like the narrator who tells the story about this guy who has a prosthetic leg and the woman he marries. “You and I know what goes on,” the narrator tells us, and, like, no—we do not know what goes on. We know only what goes on in the mind of the person telling this story, which is that he’s picturing these two people screw. Maybe I meant fiction as a tendency not quite in the by now hackneyed “tell ourselves stories in order to blah blah” manner but as a less dignified and more blunt kind of chatter, either internal or spoken out loud, fired, or misfired in some direction. There are lots of scenes in his books of people bullshitting other people and making grand declarations to upholster some debased or delusional moment with meaning. “We killed the mother and saved the children,” Georgie says famously in “Emergency,” of these baby rabbits that he has carved from their mother’s belly and that they definitely do not save.
I think beyond his work, Denis Johnson probably had great sympathy for tall tales, not as maliciousness, but just because they’re how people get by. My friend James Benning met Johnson years ago in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They were both supposed to attend this boring function where they were each being honored. They immediately hit it off, decided not to attend the function, and spent the evening drinking in various bars together instead.
That sounds like fun. Now, I was curious about the epigraph of the book, which is a quote from Clarice Lispector that comes up again in the penultimate essay—“What others get from me is then reflected back onto me, and forms the atmosphere called: ‘I.’ ” Why did you choose that?
When I chose it, I knew my editor, Nan Graham, wanted to use the photograph of me with my car for the cover of this book. Partly, I was thinking of that. The immodesty of putting my own image on my book, an image that might be functioning to steer the reader toward some idea, some fantasy, of who I am. And from there, I’m calculating the reader’s idea of who I am into who I think I am. But it’s about much more than a photograph. It suggests flow from me to others and back to me, a vulnerability and receptivity that I cherish. Maybe we are all doing this all the time, but it requires a mystic like Lispector to spell it out.
Reflecting on old friends and people you knew in San Francisco, you write, “I was the weak link, the mind always at some remove: watching myself and other people, absorbing the events of their lives and mine. To be hard is to let things roll off you, to live in the present, to not dwell or worry. And even though I stayed out late, committed to the end, some part of me had left early. To become a writer is to have left early no matter what time you got home.” Are you suggesting here that to be a writer is to be something of an outsider, observing the people and things that inspire you without fully participating in life? It’s interesting to me because your essays seem to suggest just the opposite—that you are someone who has lived voraciously.
If to be a writer is “to have left early,” the key subordinate is “no matter what time you got home.” I’m trying to get at a form of distance that isn’t an outsider’s purview. You can be immersed, an insider, but if you’re the one who later turned out to have been the writer, then by virtue of what you noticed and thought about, and through the act of recording what you noticed and thought about, you install distance. I wasn’t an outsider among the people I describe in the title essay. I probably hid certain parts of myself. But every thoughtful person does that to survive their youth, and the people I admired as living in the present and letting things roll off their back, maybe they were hiding something also, but from my perspective they were, as the expression goes, “about that life.”
In delving into autobiographical territory, I had to think about what the act of writing about my own life is, and means. And I decided that it’s something of a conversion. You’re made different in the very act of putting your memories into a concrete form. My sense is that by the time you’re able to write the experience down, you aren’t the same person who lived it, and whoever you were, or thought you were, is recast by the odd confidence, the dubious bravado, of putting pen to paper.
In the same essay, you describe yourself as “soft” compared to the people around you—and you say you understood that softness to be a kind of moral failing. What has being “the soft one” meant to you in your life?
I was thinking out loud about this idea of a hard crowd and who is hard, and I would never romanticize myself as such. But my emphasis there wasn’t so much on me, nor softness generally, and more on what I admired in other people growing up, how people are stars and have star quality. The people who impress you, they live in your head forever. And maybe what I mean by softness is the ability to notice that star quality, to take it in. The people I have known have shaped my life more than Proust or Dostoyevsky has.
Lastly, what have you read recently that you particularly enjoyed?
All spring I’ve been reading Adorno’s Minima Moralia. I’m auditing a graduate class that is entirely that book. I find it difficult. The style isn’t even quite “dialectical” to my layperson’s mind. It’s what perhaps gets left out of the dialectic, the shards and debris that refuse synthesis. Even the title—“little ethics”—is a mystery. Latin, but why? It’s an attempt to echo ancient philosophy, but more through contrast than emulation. Much or even all of the book is about the loss of the possibility of ethics. No good life, Adorno says, in a wrong world. Now totally accustomed to that wrong world, a contemporary reader has to grasp the material, social, and historical conditions whose loss Adorno mourns, and also one has to grasp Adorno’s sentences, which scroll out, then undercut themselves, so that one cannot be quite sure what he’s saying, but you can at least gather that all is subordinated to the economy, and that everything is ruined.
Cornelia Channing is a writer from Bridgehampton, New York. She is a copy editor at New York Magazine.
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