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. Read More