More Stark Than Bleak: The Millions Interviews Richard House

January 13, 2015 | 3 books mentioned 1 11 min read

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For me, the best read of 2014 was Richard House’s thousand-page hardcover The Kills. I traveled a lot last year and I lugged The Kills around with me everywhere, undaunted by the fact that it was not built for shoving into an airplane seat-back pocket. It was the tome I could not put down, and it captured me so utterly that I begged off meal invites and bar get-togethers to finish it. I resented gigs because if I was reading my own work I wasn’t reading The Kills.

The Kills begins with a classic set-up: embezzled money, predatory contractors, and illegal U.S. waste burning sites in the Iraqi desert. A character known as “Sutler” (not his real name) serves as the front for a much larger conspiracy. From the literal and figurative wreckage of secret machinations, the novel explodes outward, exploring every bit of shrapnel and collateral damage, every consequence of the initial corruption. As Sutler flees the scene, other characters come into focus and then disappear into the anonymity from whence they came. Identities are abandoned, replaced with new fictions and mythologies about the self. The soldiers in charge of the burn pit reappear in a different context later in the novel. A book about serial killers in Italy — based on real events? — permeates all four sections and influences decisions by the soldiers back in civilian life.

House gives the reader exactly what we need to know about each character and situation through deft shifting between points of view, but no more than that. The overall structure has immense power as a result, thwarting normal reader expectations while showing great respect for the reader’s imagination. Comparisons to Thomas Pynchon, John le Carré, and Roberto Bolaño apply, but really are only a way of letting readers know the general territory they’re about to traverse. In short, the novel is surprising and unique — and, in the end, cathartic.

Published in the U.K. in 2013, The Kills was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It’s been highly lauded, and House, an accomplished filmmaker, has created audio/video extras that further illuminate the story. I interviewed House recently via email to explore some of the ideas in The Kills.

Jeff VanderMeer: In what ways does fiction infiltrate history? And, as individuals, are we fated to turn life into a story of some kind, whether we mean to or not? Is this different for U.K. writers?

Richard House: There’s a cultural difference in what happens in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe — in how writers do and don’t directly address social issues. I don’t want to generalise, but I do think U.S. writers allow themselves a broader platform in terms of subject, and also in how they approach form. It’s engaged and also playful. I’ve a lot of respect for that.

On a more fundamental level we (as in a generic ‘we,’ not just writers) have bad habits when it comes to translating life into any kind of narrative. I think this is almost automatic — and I really want to resist this — the way that fictive structures begin to shape and command history. The sense that events have a beginning, a middle, and an end is pernicious. It’s so deep we rarely question it. For me it comes from the way I was taught at school, from the way the media shape events, and even from the way my parents and peers speak about the world. There’s an artificiality to all of these stories, because they are always complete, and lessons are always learned. There’s always a point. I find this notion of closure really dangerous and it works against my experience of the world, of history — there’s a sense of putting something away, of learning from it, and of trying to establish one dominant way of regard. As if what we go through has a design, so that something occurs in the world for the explicit purpose of teaching us something, or proving a point. I find this artificial and frightening. It’s a form of consumption. It’s also, essentially, lazy. That three-part structure oversimplifies everything. I dislike the transformation of life or events into a received three-part act with an intensity.

That said, I think fiction is a useful, perhaps the most useful, way to digest the world, to consider ideas and positions that you otherwise couldn’t enter so willingly or freely — and fiction, like all disciplines, has certain necessary defining structures, genre to genre. Plus, it’s almost impossible not to narrate the world in some way, which is all about finding your feet, I suppose. I prefer fiction which struggles with topical events and wrestles with how to tell them — and that often comes through the lens of a specific genre.

JV: I don’t think of you as an absurdist in the way Franz Kafka was, but there is a streak of the irrational running through The Kills that struck me as very true to the way the world works. Where does this come from? I’m curious about your personal entry point or observation platform.

RH: For me this is a structural thing also. I want to resist that desire to round off, to teach, to give across an explicit position. In fiction there’s enough space to allow a reader to construct their own story. That roughness, of one thing knocking into another, is for me, pretty much how the world works.

I’m 53 and too much of a pragmatist to be truly absurd (although I’ve a weakness for humour which tends toward the absurd). Experience very rarely matches expectation (usually a very good thing, sometimes just awful) because at any given time the story or event which you think will play out in certain way, just isn’t the same story or event to anyone else. Experience is always oddly articulated — seldom ever what you expect. Things collide. Our perspectives are intimately subjective, and therefore always skewed. The good thing is that we’re not alone in this. Everyone bumps along, one way or another, all at different speeds. Most of the time there’s a sense that this or that is under our control, but that can fluctuate in a nano-second depending on a million other things. This goes back to your first question, how the world as we speak about it isn’t really the world that we experience.

JV: Are there parts of the novel you meant to be darkly funny?

RH: Definitely. Some of the core ideas — like building a city in the middle of nowhere — are to me rich with potential. I try to level that darker stuff as it can dominate — more stark than bleak, I guess. I particularly enjoyed writing the sections with Rem in Iraq, it’s not that these sections are funny, so much, but I liked writing about how men congregate, socialise, wrestle for position. Similarly with characters like Rike and her sister, there’s a competition and friendship that I hope comes through with a little more lightness than in other sections. There’s a wryness to the German Berens also. I’ve known many people like that who seem to closely observe themselves. In person I’m a lot more affable than my writing probably indicates.

JV: The section entitled “The Kill” and set in Italy is, to me, the center of the novel thematically and it radiates out fictional affects that impact the real world. There’s a potential resonance or connection with the parts set in Iraq in the depictions of war-time life as well. Were there other, less obvious connections, you want the reader to make?

RH: As I worked on the main body of The Kills, the idea that there would be a separate story which would somehow refocus ideas and issues in the other books became useful. I was very particular that The Kills would show an occupation from the occupiers perspective — my father was in the military, and this was my experience of Malta, Cyprus, Germany, where we had very limited interaction with any local population. In the Naples story, I was able to look, in a small way, at the other side of an occupation, and by setting that in Europe, and referring to WWII, I could give a perspective to what an occupation could mean, one that most of us could readily follow. What was happening in Iraq was immediate, we could see it in the news as it happened. But it was also removed, in happening in some remote place about which we have no proper or developed understanding. Iraq is somewhere else, foreign, distant. It’s almost a rule of action, that every country in which we have a conflict (I’m specifically thinking of the U.K. here) becomes abstract, and in some way, lesser. This is exactly what happened in Naples in 1943. If you look at a place as a theatre for war, then it makes it easier for us not to consider the reality of what is happening. That makes the consequences very hard, very bitter — and long term. I think the third book, “The Kill,” was a way of looking at this from a different angle.

Almost every character is out of water, in some circumstance they can’t control, to which they have to adapt, change, react. In “The Kill” the characters are outside in some way, being foreign, unable to speak a language, a sex worker, gay, not that these are equitable positions in any way, but they each add a level of complication to how they manage in the world. The same fish out of water issue stands for [several other characters].

“The Kill” works from a basic proposition. Two brothers deciding “what if.” There’s no consideration of what might happen afterward. In fact, there’s some delight for these brothers in how they leave behind them as big a mess as possible. I don’t believe this was our intention in Iraq, but it is the effect. There’s something deliberate and wilful about breaking a country apart and in attempting to restructure it as a marketplace — particularly a country which largely worked on traditional models of kinship and association. We demolished a country, every structure was devalued, disassembled, and when we came to reassemble it, we just couldn’t manage. Parts of Europe underwent similar destruction, except our obligation to restructure — propelled by a fear of communism — was followed through — for good or bad.

JV: I’ve heard “The Kill” was written first. Did the rest accrete around that? How much exploration was there structurally for you?

coverRH: I wanted to write something like Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal Danger, a short book that starts out as a crime novel but quickly unravels, and while seeming to be simple (the murder of high court judges) it addresses why these killings are happening, rather than who is doing the killing. Which is a smart distinction, and it opens up an ever-expanding problem. It’s a scary read, and there’s a film version by Francesco Rosi called Cadaveri Eccelente that was largely shot in Naples and is superb.

I took a side trip to Naples, thinking I’d write something lighter and quicker than usual, and ended up spending a considerable amount of time there, back and forth, over a couple of years. Whenever I met people, Italians, there would be this groaning realisation that if I was a writer, in Naples, then I’d probably be writing a crime novel or a thriller, and that the city was, and is, overburdened with these narratives. I set the book aside, and once the main story based on the Massive developed (the idea of a city being built in the desert in Iraq, and of focussing on contractors rather than the military) I included “The Kill,” the novel set in Naples, as a private reference. Not a joke exactly, but I didn’t want to let those ideas disappear.

JV: Did you realize after you’d finished The Kills that you might’ve written something that mimicked certain genres but didn’t really fulfill the trope-arc of those genres?

coverRH: I wanted to play with different kinds of narratives, partly because, as a reader, it sets up an expectation. As a writer it is hugely interesting to twist and articulate, and also frustrate those expectations. I’m a big fan of Wilkie Collins The Moonstone because almost too much is happening, it’s uncategorisable because it acknowledges different expectations — it’s a penny-thriller, a heist (sort of), a ghost story, a romance, a story divided between narrators and forms. Big fun. Thrillers and crime novels are also populated by different kinds of characters, which is for me their main pleasure. Mainstream literature can tend towards normalization — even when characters aren’t straight and white, they might as well be for all of the values represented. While thrillers and crime novels tend to freak difference and can be hugely problematic in how they stereotype (particularly women), they also show difference. I might not like some of the gay characters I read in crime novels, but once in a while there will be some humane, amazing character that I just won’t find anywhere else. I think I’m mimicking that kind of inclusion. I hope that those smaller characters (particularly in “The Kill”) matter. Part of how I worked their stories is that you’re engaged with a character only when and where they intersect the main narrative — more or less.

This might not be right, but when I read a thriller the characters, in some ways, fit the narrative, they work within that world, so much so that you’re right in that world with them, but they are clearly constructions. I’m aiming for that. There’s a real pleasure for me in seeing the artifice of something while you are also involved within it. A performer, Nancy Forrest Brown, used to perform these events where she would inhabit these characters, which was a kind of a drag act in a way. You’d be aware that this character was Nancy, but also, simultaneously, this character. I love that fluctuation. Fiction does that for me. Fake and real at the same time. Genre writing excels in this.

In terms of structure, I think readers are, or can be, highly sophisticated. As soon as a story starts we’re already working on the middle and the ending — and while we progress through a book tiny modifications or clarifications are happening to that overall plan. I prefer works which mess with this, and articulate themselves in unanticipated ways. Not fulfilling a genre’s expectation is going to frustrate a reader, and in some ways I take it for granted that a reader can complete a story arc without it needing to be spelled out. I have a particular dislike of being instructed, of being told how everything works, how I should feel, how I should think. Closure is an artifice, and it’s also the point where a writer can display their moral position or a neatly packaged world view — which is almost always problematic. I don’t read to be instructed, I read to discover and debate and to be challenged.

JV: Did you think that you were writing something metafictional just because a text embedded in your narrative replicates itself in people’s minds? I don’t personally see the novel as metafictional, but that might just be my world view intruding.

RH: Good question. There are certain pleasures here, some quotes from other writers that I love — in many senses the book is a map of writing that I value. There’s Sciascia, Highsmith, a bunch of others I forget. What I enjoyed in writing The Kills is that I’d given myself something huge to work across, and that some ideas could be re-articulated, and that other ideas could be set and returned to many hundreds of pages later. It’s tricky, because I’d like to set up a narrative where some associations or links are explicit, and others are implicit, without impeding the story. It would make me very happy if a reader started to make connections I hadn’t intended. I wanted to set up that potential. When I think about events in my own past I often have realizations — ‘oh, ok, that meant such and such,’ — notions which you revisit, revise, there’s the potential for this in a long-form narrative.

JV: There’s the novel in your head and then the novel on the page, and then the novel in the reader’s head. Have readers, generally, gotten what you were going for? The novel tends to keep making you re-evaluate how to read it from section to section.

RH: I have to be totally honest. Most discussions, frustratingly, are about the book’s size. It takes a certain temperament and intention to take on. We’re all watching that “% of pages read” progress bar on the kindle or iPad, which turns a novel into a challenge, not an experience, and takes out all of the pleasure. I’ve had a few people ask what happened to Eric, or Sutler, or Lila, and I love the idea that this question means that they could push the stories further for themselves.

I wanted a book that was packed with ideas and invention, without being too cumbersome. I also wanted a book which shifts in direction and has a logic that assembles itself as you read. I think I achieved that.

JV: What’s been the most interesting reader or reviewer response?

RH: A great deal of writing is about process, and about finding your way, so reviews are useful in helping me reflect back on what I’ve done. I think I was a little stunned once it was finished, so any kind of discussion helps me gain perspective, and I’m very grateful for that. It’s a scary prospect putting out something so huge and so involved. The book has received some passionate and particular support. As a very general rule, people who read a hell of a lot tend to get the overall project. People who don’t tend to read a huge amount think, erm, well, what kind of a thriller is this? Which makes the book a tough proposal. It makes me unspeakably happy when someone does get it. Some reviewers have asked questions about genre, which has been hugely productive for me to consider.

A good number of people think I invented the burn pits. Which sadly exist, and have caused ongoing health problems, perhaps even some deaths.

JV: Did Sutler make it out?

RH: No. I think not. You know that frozen man, Otzi…

’s NYT-bestselling Southern Reach Trilogy made Entertainment Weekly’s top 10 for 2014 and many other best-of lists. The novels have been optioned by Paramount Pictures and translated into 20 languages. VanderMeer’s nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Guardian, and Atlantic.com, among others.

One comment:

  1. Thanks for this interview. You mention that The Kills has garnered accolades, but I would argue: Not enough! It continues to fly under the radar more than I would wish. I considered this book, together with Crace’s Harvest and Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary the cream of the 2013 crop of Booker nominees. How rare to read such a large novel and not bemoan a lack of vigorous editing (cf. The Luminaries). The Kills was tremendously compelling and productively mystifying — as in, what *really* happened here? do I trust this account? what did I miss to help make sense of these characters? is this guy really gone? how do I understand the web-like relationship between the story within the story and the story itself? Orthogonal video and audio components provided additional texture without being in any way redundant to the written text. A bravura performance.

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