By Paul Adams, Contributing Editor
Awst is glad to feature author Gene Kwak, and we'd like our readers to know a little more about him. We sat down to get his thoughts on reading and writing, his own work, his life, literary magazines and the future of publication.
Let's dive right in; what are you reading?
I normally balance a few different types of books at one go: essays, criticism, stories, poems, etc. But right now I'm working on a bigger thing and I'm also trying to be aware of what is feeding that work. So, I'm really only touching back on this short novel, Saguaro, by Carson Mell. It's a weird, little, hard to find gem that was recently re-released digitally by Electric Literature. But the physical copy is rarer than a bald eagle since Mell apparently released it himself. Amazon’s got it for the price only a bullion-swimming duck could afford.
So you try to read things that will inform or influence your own writing?
Years ago my buddy Blake Butler would post his reading list for a year on HTMLG. Mike Young used to do it too. And Blake and I had conversations about how he would consciously curate his intake (books, films, TV, etc.) to help revitalize or hone or inspire his particular project at the time.
Can we go back to Saguaro; what makes it so compelling?
Saguaro is about this character, Bobby Bird, who's basically the top of the totem pole musician of his era. Only it's a little bit past his era and he's sort of recollecting all these wild adventures over the course of his lifetime. It’s a drug-addled, knuckle-bumping yarn full of lost loves and cults and befriending babies. Honest though, it’s not really about the plot. None of my go-to’s have ever been about the what, but rather the how. The song. The squawk. The yap.
You said you were re-reading it partly to inform your own work. What is it you're trying to learn or borrow from Mell's work?
Mell's biggest strength is that he's so good at hitting weird particular details of characters that make them feel like “living tissue”—to borrow a Barry Hannah line. He has done a lot of TV writing for shows like Eastbound & Down, Silicon Valley, and also written and illustrated some incredible short, animated films that are available on YouTube. The novel doesn't make any grand proclamations about life or anything, but it's akin to saddling up next to a tatted-up, weirdo grandpa at your shithole bar and hearing him riff. If that grandpa was Bob Dylan. Or a Bob Dylan type. But maybe meaner. Or more honest at least.
And you're writing something with similar themes?
I'm not writing about music or a man in a pink polo who's past his prime (Bobby Bird). But Mell is one of the best when it comes to walking that line between vivid characterization and one-liners. That's really helping my current project. Also Bobby Bird is a bit of an egotist and a blowhard and so is my character. But hopefully the narrator in my novel isn’t such a big asshole who's off putting.
What is your new project?
It's a short burst of a novel centered around amateur wrestling, Native American culture, race, the Midwestern sky, and parenthood.
Are those themes you've worked with before? Do you have any recurring themes or preoccupations that appear in all your work?
Some of them have been recurring. I'm not sure there are many big themes that continue to show their faces. Religion (I am born and raised in Nebraska) and assholery seem to find purchase in my writing. Basically I like to try and write characters who are troubled or troubling and have them mash up against other similar characters and still, hopefully, rope the reader along for the ride. I'm not exactly aiming for sympathy, maybe more empathy on the part of the reader.
Can you tell us a little more about that distinction?
I think when you sympathize with someone it probably comes from a place of kind-hearted, human-to-human, I-feel-you emotional connection. Compassion, at it’s best or best intentioned anyway. But it can also come off as pitying or patronizing. Empathy, for me, is more about trying to understand where someone is coming from. Trying to get into their frame of reference, even if that’s near impossible. Mostly it’s about stepping outside of the self.
But, this is part of a larger conversation about whether a character needs to be "likable." And how men are sort of afforded those dickhead roles and characters to inhabit (Both Steve Carell & Ricky Gervais in The Office; Will Ferrell in almost everything, but especially Anchorman; Danny McBride in almost everything, but especially Eastbound & Down) while women get the same inane questions about likability as authors and/or actresses. I think about Lena Dunham's take on Hannah Horvath in Girls, for example. In my writing, I'm basically saying there are few winners, just people trying.
Do you find that to be true of real life? How much of yourself can you see in your main characters?
I’m writing fiction for a reason. Maybe there’s a grain of truth in everything. Maybe there are a few more grains in particular stories. Or lines. Or utterances. But again, I do hear from women writers and creators and storytellers that they get asked the question about “likability” and how much of their narrators’ or speakers’ stories are based on their own experiences quite often. Definitely more often than their male counterparts. There’s also just a whole spectrum out there of fiction/non-fiction fuzziness that people have simplistic notions about, because a librarian told them when they were in third grade that this half of the stacks are fiction and this half are non-fiction and the non-fiction section is true and the fiction section is made-up. A grown man once told me he never read fiction because it was all lies. He was a lawyer, mind you. A lawyer. That one’s too easy.
What about the opposite case; how do you feel about creating characters with radically different experiences? Are there different ethical standards for authors writing across race, gender, and other identities?
There are definitely huge responsibilities. Not to be taken lightly. I mean, because I don't want to write a bunch of stories about dude narrators, sometimes I'll change the gender or sexuality or race of a character. And I hope none of those stories has come off as inauthentic. But also, while making those changes will obviously affect certain aspects of the story, I think most of my stories center on relationships between friends; siblings; parents and children; co-workers, etc., and most of us have experienced the highs and lows of those types of relationships so that I can find some grounding in writing those stories.
But the situation would be different if the writing had a political agenda or departed a great deal from the author's lived experience?
I think it's a whole different thing if you're inhabiting the skin/gender/culture of someone else and writing a piece that takes a hard line position on that culture. Even if that position is inadvertent. Or the position is to speak for the culture. Or passing judgment on the culture. Like Adam Johnson winning the Pulitzer writing that novel about North Korea. A ton of Korean people were hugely offended by that book. I haven’t read it so I can’t say one way or the other.
Adam Johnson did a reading in San Marcos recently and said that he'd cut the middle third of that book, which was set in a prison camp, because he thought that experience was simply beyond his understanding and he wouldn't be able to do it justice. But if some people felt that was true of the parts he didn't cut, how can we draw that line? Is there a rule of thumb?
I think you have to do your research and make sure you're writing things in a nuanced way and getting honest feedback from members of that group. And that may still not ring true for many people of that group. It's a tough balancing act. And I also think that if you’re a card-carrying member of the majority you should ask yourself whether you need to be the mouthpiece to tell this group’s story. If the story is what’s really important to you, maybe you should leave it to a member of that group to best tell their story.
Speaking of Korean, do you find yourself tackling the issue of race in your work?
I don't write immigrant stories and my narrators aren't necessarily outright Korean. So people may assume things about race whether I've said them or not. Sam Lipsyte once mentioned that Venus Drive was overlooked for a Jewish book award. And he was told it was because the book wasn't Jewish enough. He responded by saying something to the effect of how his book was the "the most Jewish book out there." That’s my stance. My book will be the most Jewish book out there.
What about the use of place in writing; is your region an important influence?
Maybe one of the most important.
So your writing and your life have been strongly shaped by Omaha?
I love this city. At times I do feel the need to move away and explore other pockets, but I love that Faulkner line about writing about his "little postage stamp of America." I wouldn't be who I am if I wasn't raised in Omaha. I came to find Barry Hannah's work because the weirdos and fringe characters he wrote about reminded me of my friends in Omaha. I'll always come back here. I have friends and family here.
What are some of the city's greatest features?
It's always at the top of the list for cheapest cities in the U.S. But also, thanks to that Saddlecreek push in the 90s, we're a huge music town. Simon Joyner, The Faint, Conor Oberst, still, obviously. But also new up-and-comers like Sean Pratt and the Sweats. Nathan Ma and the Rosettes. Mike Schlesinger. Manic Pixie Dream Girls. And on and on.
When Austin was 'discovered', we expanded very quickly and became known as an offbeat city with a strong cultural and artistic center, but that led to terrible traffic, lost charm, and aggressive gentrification. Do you think Omaha is ripe for a boom, and how would you feel about that?
Omaha's been sort of growing in the last few years as one of those cities, though definitely not at the level of Austin. There are a lot of big wigs who come around because of Warren Buffett and a few other Fortune 500 companies. I both fear and love it. We definitely need to do a lot more work. There are a lot of social conservative old timers that push back progress. We need better public transportation. More food options. Better immigration and LGBT awareness and local law reform. But it's still really dirt cheap to live here and we have a great visual art and music scene.
What's the Omaha literary scene like?
The lit scene doesn't really exist, but it's starting to make a little yelp. I've tried my best to spread the gospel of this town and when I have organized a few Lit events in town, people have come away from here raving. Mike Young, Mike Schlesinger, and I went on tour and our kick off was my birthday party that had something like 150+ people at it. That's a reading. Rich Smith, Hannah Gamble, and Kyle McCord recently came through and they sold a ton of books and had a helluva time. This place will support you and sustain you if you also support and sustain it.
Speaking of literary scenes, how do you feel about online communities of writers and readers?
Even in Omaha, a city of more than 1 mil (with surrounding areas) we have very few good bookstores. Actually more like none. And very few writing groups outside of academia. Imagine all those aspiring writers in even smaller townships. Where are they supposed to find avenues to read and publish? Online literature has been great for marginalized voices as well.
So online literary communities have been influential in your writing life?
If it wasn't for online publishing, community, lit, etc. I also would've been a very different writer. When I got into my MFA program the first question the instructor asked us was who were we reading? I mentioned Barry Hannah, Mark Richard, and Mark Anthony Jarman. Nobody in my program knew any of those names. I found solace and comfort and knowledge and kinship in writing to "online" writers who kept blogs like Blake Butler, Mike Young, and Rachel Glaser. They were reading and writing the kind of stuff that piqued my interests.
I will say that with all the terrible stuff going on in the poetry-online literary community, members of the community (of which I am one, although I don’t write poetry) need to make sure that we’re being vigilant and responsive and careful. One of the great things about publishing things online is that it allows for less gatekeepers and anyone can really work their way up. But that ability can also allow terrible people to assume positions of power and to leverage that power in really horrific ways.
What do you think online journals can do to gain respect?
The only thing I hope for is that going forward online avenues will also take themselves seriously. No cheap free blog addresses or misspelled mission statements. Better design work. Quality writing. Yadda yadda. A lot of places have been doing these things in spades, and I'm so glad Awst is adding its name to the fray.
What interested you in Awst?
To be honest, when (Mike) Young vouches, I listen. Pretty sure he could coax me to take a swan dive out an open window. Leap of faith in my pal’s pointed finger. I thought the project sounded inspired and the design elements looked like Wendy took things seriously. It’s a massive undertaking and I really respect everyone involved.
Thank you, that's great to hear! We really appreciate your doing the interview, Gene, but we're almost out of time. Do you have any thank-yous, shout-outs, or parting words of wisdom?
Only what I tell my students. Reject fatalism and cynicism. Korean writers are rare as fucking unicorns. If I’d buzzed along on the path most intended, I’d probably be rich and miserable right now. Instead of decent and full of stupid joy. Which is all I can ask for in life.
Paul Adams is an author and MFA student at Texas State University.