‘The Blank Screen Is the Enemy’: The Millions Interviews David Mitchell

- | 5

There are precious few things David Mitchell’s latest opus The Bone Clocks isn’t about. Across centuries and continents, Mitchell works the literary magic that has earned him a unique place in contemporary fiction—an author unbound by genre or expectation. The Bone Clocks was birthed onto bookshelves already longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, a daunting pedigree for a novel to embrace on its publication date, but Mitchell is already thinking two books ahead. Like the Horologists that feature in his new book, he can’t be bound by the constraints of time. Mitchell has authored six novels, and each one is a puzzle of narratives, characters, and plot. These elements leap between texts, taking minor roles in one novel and major turns in the next. The world of David Mitchell’s prose is immense. Speaking with him in person before a stop on his recent book tour, I decided to play Royal Geographic Society explorer and map out the vast expanses of his latest fictional universe.

The Millions: Do you see a book like The Bone Clocks or Cloud Atlas in part as an exercise in story architecture—dovetailing narratives, time jumps, callbacks, and so forth. How many blueprints do you need to draft before you build the final versions of your novels?

David Mitchell: An exploratory blueprint is to the finished book what a doodle might be to an oil painting, but you need somewhere to start. A vague, rough, approximate, sprawling, first something. From that you get an idea of how many parts there’s going to be—you’ve got to break it down into parts—six, in this one. Then once you know what the parts are, I draw a herringbone diagram, a horizontal line with limbs coming off it, and each limb is where I write ideas down. Each limb is essentially a scene, so you get to see all the scenes in the part and in the right order. More lines can come off the subspines—it gets quite hairy—and then a column of dialogue goes off in one direction and then another one underneath because there’s more space down there and then I might draw the face of a character because I’m stuck for a bit. That is the blueprint for what I write. What I end up writing may conform to that blueprint, or it may vary from it, but at least you are not dealing with a void. The blank screen is the enemy. You can’t improve on nothing. You have to improve on something, however bad, and patchy, and incomplete it is. Once you have something, you begin to work.

TM: The Bone Clocks deals with Atemporals, who are beings that either reincarnate or never truly die. In creating the Atemporals, you either appropriated or invented words like “scansion” and “psychosoterica”. What is the etymology of this vocabulary?

DM: Some Jung. Some what I imagine might be Greek, but I don’t speak any, so it’s only an imagined Greek. Some 21st century West Coast computer talk—some IT terms. “Redact” is probably a mid-20th century term. I see it in the Cold War sense: the redacting of documents.

TM: It immediately conjures an image of thick black lines on legal papers.

DM: Exactly. “Psychosoterica” I thought about long and hard. It is a relatively modern version of an old occult practice in the cosmology of the book. The Anchorites have fallen into a branch of the occult called The Shaded Way and the Horologists have followed a less predatory version called The Deep Stream. I made those terms up. I suppose there are echoes of how western Buddhism names the various branches of Buddhism, of which there are many. It is not a religion of the text, or a single book, that lays down the rules. It has morphed in many parts of the world into contradictory sets of beliefs in many areas, such as what happens to us after we die. A Sri Lankan Buddhist would give a very different answer then a Zen Buddhist. The thing I like about it is…that’s ok. No one has a real problem with it; they don’t go to war with each other about it.

TM: Your book features five narrators across six distinct novellas, with each section leaping forward a decade or so from the last. How did you decide what not to include from the missing years between each section?

DM: What would have skewed the novel. That’s what I left out. What would have stopped the novel taking off. I omitted what would have bent it out of shape. Watching what you’re making is what informs you about what you can and can’t include.

TM: A novelist, Crispin Hershey, narrates the third section of The Bone Clocks. In writing the character, did you gift him any of your creative leftovers like rejected book titles or abandoned story ideas?

DM: No, I think made everything up just for him, because he isn’t me. Well,he is me in terms of where the raw material comes from, but he’s a slave to his vanity in a way I try not to be. And that’s what generates, say, book titles I wouldn’t choose for my own. He’s a fictional creation and his oeuvre is tailored for him. It’s a bespoke oeuvre with him in mind.

TM: Holly Sykes is the heroine of your book, appearing in some form in each of its six segments, beginning in 1984, and stretching to 2034. How do you keep a character’s voice consistent across that time span while still allowing it to evolve with age?

DM: You are right in identifying a technical challenge. You do have to do that. The nature of the challenge changes a little big depending on what decade of her life she’s in, and what decade of the world’s life she’s in as well. First in the 1980s, you have to include a few 80s-isms and make sure that no recent developments in English slip into what Holly is saying. For example, “that’s so not what I’m going to do Mum.” We didn’t say that in the 80s. “So” was not an adjectival modifier in that sense. You make it decade appropriate. And you do that for all of the characters, of course. I factored in that at some point Holly got an education—a degree in Psychology—that would’ve upped her register away from demotic and more towards the hieratic. She learns to speak posher. That gives her a greater eloquence later in life. I needed her to be a writer, or at least a memoirist. I needed to enrich her relationship with language from the 1980s Holly. Alongside her own story, and in parallel to it, is the story of her relationship with language, which gets a bit richer the older she gets. She’s still using “sort of” to the very end; those are the last words of the book. I think it’s there in the first sentence as well. There are a few of those verbal tics, no matter how acrobatic with language we become, that stay with us. It’s hard to get it right, but it’s my job to get it right. If I got it wrong, it would endanger the fictional credibility of Holly, and then I’d have a broken book. So you think about it.

TM: The sixth and final portion of The Bone Clocks imagines a frighteningly possible near future in which an Endarkment has, in so many words, reset the world into barbaric times. Did any specific sources inspire your vision of how the world may look in twenty years?

DM: Any copy of a relatively highbrow newspaper will do it. I can’t remember exactly which news stories—it’s been a lousy summer for news, with Palestine and ISIS and Ukraine—just monstrous this year, but I’m sure there were equivalents last year too that bled into it. Actually, I read a really good book published in the 1950s called The Death of Grass, where a killer virus doesn’t kill us, humans, as they do in many contemporary stories, but it gets the crops we eat. That’s more interesting to me. Wholesale zombie apocalypses in six days makes for a few good scenes in movies, but we’ve seen those films already. But when food becomes scarcer and scarcer, and it’s moving closer and closer to your part of the world, and first rice goes, but it’s ok, because we’ve still got wheat, and then wheat turns into a brown mush in the fields, and then barley, and then oats, and then everything? Christ, what are you going to eat? What are you going to feed the animals? It gets very serious very quickly, but not so quickly that you can’t have interesting metaphysical discourse along the way. Another book, the one that Holly is reading to the kids in the last section, is The Eagle of the Ninth series by Rosemary Sutcliff. She was an English, wheelchair-bound classicist in the 1950s who wrote about the Romans leaving Britain and the collapse of Roman civilization. The series focuses on the power vacuums a collapse of that magnitude leaves, and how the innocents always end up having to pay more then the soldiers. Those books are colossal. They are fantastic. In the third book of the trilogy, The Lantern Bearers, the best of the three, there is a scene where the Roman ships leave the shores of Britain for the last time, and they know it’s the last time. What are they leaving behind? What’s going to happen to these people? That’s what was at the forefront of my mind—really how our world will look to my daughter as she grows—as I was writing that last section. What do you think, am I too gloomy, or might it happen?

TM: What scared me most was how possible it seemed to me, especially the idea of everyone trusting their devices to digitally store the history of their lives: their writing, their photographs, their memories. Everything that we think is safely stored on servers and drives is gone in an instant.

DM: It’s like a cyberstroke. And what about scientific research? What about the Hadron Collider stuff? Is anyone printing that out onto pieces of paper? I rather doubt it. Our grandchildrens’ lives are going to be a whole lot rougher then ours if I’m right. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

TM: Does the book on your bedside table often influence your works in progress?

DM: Yeah, usually, because I’ve chosen it to do just that. I read a book called The World Without Us about what would happen if humanity ceased to exist, and how long it would take to recover itself. Not long! I learned all sorts of things, like there is still a river flowing right through New York—there always was—but now it gets pumped out, except when it rains. But it just takes those pumps being stopped for 48 hours and there would be a river running down Fifth Avenue. I find that strangely comforting. The only problem is our plutonium dumps and deposits of radioactive material. We’ve damned ourselves to needing power grids to keep those cool and safe. When those go, you get what’s happening in Japan, in Fukushima. That would be the only disaster for nature if humans stopped existing. What a legacy to leave to our kids. How dare we. How dare we. Just so we can have our air conditioning and patio heaters. How dare we.

TM: So is it fair to say you choose reading material that vibes with what you’re writing at the moment? Some authors prescribe the opposite approach.

DM: Well I do sometimes go the opposite, because you find stuff there as well, serendipitously. And sometimes you just read great fiction to remind yourself of how high the bar needs to be. Halldór Laxness’s Independent People is a book I devoured. No tricks, just an old-school, somewhat intergenerational novel. It’s set in the poorest possible zone in the world, novelistically: Iceland. But it’s not Reykjavik. It’s Northeast Iceland. And it’s not in a town in Northeast Iceland, it’s in a valley where a farmer is trying to bring an abandoned farmhouse back to life. I was trying to work this out: what’s the most impossible thing to write about and make it interesting? There’s this particular section set in a boy’s head, a half-hour in real time, where he wakes before everyone else, in winter, and nothing could possibly happen. It’s the purest nothing I’ve ever seen encased in prose. But it’s a brilliant, fascinating scene. Laxness is a magician. That’s another reason why I sometimes choose to read something with no connection to what I’m working on. Although, it is Iceland, and Iceland makes two appearances in The Bone Clocks: Crispin Hershey goes there, and it appears not in the last section, but past the last section. That’s my one real moment of self-indulgence in the book. I hacked it down from six pages to about three, but it’s a three page essay on not thinking about Iceland. My editor said, “are you sure?” and I said “yeah, I want one place where Crispin isn’t being a jerk.” This is what he does, this is how he thinks. It lends him some credibility.

TM: The cultural phenomenon of Easter eggs—hidden references inside of books, films, etc.—permeates The Bone Clocks in the form of appearances from characters from your past novels and references to their worlds. What inspired their inclusion?

DM: They’re just the right people for the job. It’s not really inspiration—it’s that they fit and can bring good stuff with them. Hugo’s cool. He’s in a thirteenth of Black Swan Green as Jason Taylor’s obnoxious, precocious cousin. When I wrote that, and I’m sure when readers read it, you don’t think you’re ever going to see him again. He’ll just stay in that book and he’s done. But then here he is in The Bone Clocks as the joint second major character with Marinus. If anything inspires me, it might be that moment when a reader encounters a character they were sure they would never hear from again.

TM: Can readers hope to see any of the characters that were in The Bone Clocks in your future works?

DM: Yes. I’m going to do a book mostly about Marinus in the future, about what happens once she gets to Iceland, and to link that to Meronym, who’s a character at the center of Cloud Atlas. They call themselves the Prescients. That’s how she introduces herself when she arrives in a fusion-powered ship to the post-apocalyptic times and the think tank the surviving Horologists have set-up in Iceland. I’m going to do Hershey’s father as well, the filmmaker. I’m doing something short now, but my next major book, I’ll start that next year.

TM: Short like your recent Twitter story?

DM: Five Twitter stories. They won’t be on Twitter, but five stories of that length. And they’re linked. The first one is the Twitter story. That’s part one, and then two, three, four, five. Really short book. Marinus will appear in the fifth story, in her Iris Marinus form.

TM: You don’t define the title of your book until late into the story. Was this choice an exercise in delayed gratification?

DM: It’s cool, when you’ve forgotten that the title is a puzzle, to then have it explained. Delayed gratification. Ambushed gratification really.

TM: At the point where it is defined, in the fifth section I believe, there’s so much else going on that the last thing you’re worried about is the title, and then you gift it to readers right in the middle of a major action scene.

DM: That inspires me to utter an evil villain type “mwahahaha!”

TM: The Bone Clocks also has more then a few history lessons embedded in its pages. Did you opt to place Marinus and other Atemporals in areas of history that particularly appealed to you, or was the where and when secondary to the character development those scenes afforded the story?

DM: I chose them with thought. I needed Esther Little to be more ancient then the Horologists. Archeological evidence points back—I think the last time I looked it was 80,000 years—to indigenous Australians being the first inhabitants. There are few places as unaltered as Australia, so for deep time, it was good to give her that neck of the woods to call home. The Horologists that can’t chose their hosts, the ones that get reborn according to the laws of demographic probability, are most of the time Chinese. The Chinese population has always been a high fraction of the Earth’s population. Marinus is Chinese in the incarnation before she is Iris, when she’s the doctor who happens to be in England in time to treat Holly. It was almost a process of elimination, that one.

TM: Horology is defined as the art or science of measuring time, and is the name adopted by the group of Atemporals that Holly Sykes encounters early on in her life as well. Do you consider The Bone Clocks to be an extended definition of horology—an examination of an abstract concept that toes the line between science and art?

DM: There’s certainly an academic in Los Angeles who thinks that, Paul Harris, a member of the International Society of Time. Inadvertently, yes. That isn’t where I started though. Character development and narrative. Start there, and then the ideas will appear, like spores turning into mushrooms. I think time is a default theme of all novels. As is memory, as is character, as is identity. You can spot this when editors don’t know what to put on the jacket copy, so they put “a mesmerizing mediation on time and identity”. How can you write a novel that isn’t about those things? Maybe that’s a notch too high, because I needed to show time passing by, on the large-scale temporal arcs that plot the novel.

TM: Your novel reminded me in a small way of Richard Linklater’s newest film, Boyhood, where in the course of three hours, the audience watches a single actor go from adolescence to adulthood. Like Holly in your novel, you see this person at the end of their journey, and you know they’re the same character from before, but they’re nothing alike, not even physically.

DM: Realism, when done well, is more fantastical than fantasy. And you can’t dismiss it, because its happening in your own cells, in your own lives, in your own families. Reality is the ultimate trip.

Previously: In the Edges of the Maps: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

As If Guns and Testosterone Rule the World: An Interview with Colum McCann

- | 2

TransAtlantic is not a novel that lends itself to three sentence synopses. It is a work that spans 150 years, four generations, and a single length of dark, alluring ocean. Themes of loss, innovation, and identity carry over from Colum McCann’s previous novel, the stunningly beautiful Let the Great World Spin, but make no mistake – this is not a book you’ve read before. Moving from the historical record of Frederick Douglass’s tour of Ireland and the world’s first flight across the Atlantic by Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown to the imagined lives of the women who knew them, Transatlantic asks its readers to redefine where memory ends and the past begins. Via email, I asked McCann to elaborate on the novelty of ice harvesting, explore the deeper meaning of tea, and tell me if he ever worries he’ll run out of ways to describe his homeland.

The Millions: TransAtlantic meditates on the many meanings of flight, from the voyage of Alcock and Brown to the universal search for a place to belong. What first kindled your passion for the subject of flight?

Colum McCann: To be honest, I’m not really all that interested in flight in general, but I was corralled by the idea of this particular flight by Alcock and Brown. Or rather I was taken by the image of two men emerging from the horrors of the First World War to pilot a modified bomber across the expanse. It’s not a forgotten flight but it’s not as well-known as, say, Lindbergh’s solo flight, which occurred seven or eight years later. Once I started researching it, I was truly amazed, not only by the prowess and bravery of these men, but also by the fact that there were a lot of misconceptions about the flight on the Internet. There are rumors, for instance, that Brown went wing-walking when he was up in the air, which is not only ridiculous but impossible. The wings were largely linen and would not have held his weight. I learned a bit about flight in the course of my research and I even co-piloted a small plane while out on a visit to Fargo. And I learned that I didn’t want to pilot a plane ever again – I was terrified!

TM: Frederick Douglass plays an integral role in your book’s narrative. As a novelist, do you feel an obligation to accurately portray the historical figures that appear in your work?

CM: I definitely feel an obligation to get the texture correct. I hope my Douglass is texturally true. Facts can be misdirected and shoehorned in. Texture is a different story. It relates to an idea of general honesty. I want my Douglass to be authentic. I want him to emerge in all his complications. For example: I give him a pair of barbells when he is in Ireland. I know for a fact that he had barbells later in his life because they are on display in a museum in Washington D.C, but I have no idea whether he brought them with him to Ireland. But it says so much about his character – his vanity, his stubbornness, his awareness of his body in space, his forward-thinking, his stamina. Furthermore, I have the barbells made from old slave chains. This is poetic license but hopefully poetic enough that it rings true.

The same goes with Senator Mitchell. While I am forensically true to much of the peace process, there is so much more that I invent and imagine. Mitchell was very kind and trusting. He allowed me to create a fiction. This is very brave on his part. For example I have him holding a soiled diaper on the first page of his section. The history books don’t have our leaders changing diapers. But fiction can do it. Fiction is very agile in this respect. It can get into all the various corners.

TM: One of TransAtlantic’s biggest revelations for me was this notion of selective remembrance. While the stories of men like Alcock, Brown, Douglass, and Mitchell are interred in history books, we often fail to chronicle the people who existed beside and among them. Was getting a chance to reposition the spotlight part of your inspiration for this novel?

CM: I am interested in the idea of who owns history and who has a right to tell it. The smaller, more anonymous moments are the glue of history. We have a responsibility to what some might call the “little guy.”  Often the little guy is a woman, in fact. Women are often excluded from the history books. As if guns and testosterone rule the world.

In writing about the women, I felt like they were partly correcting a little corner of history. I wanted the women to have power, to own the novel, to say that their story mattered, not only to themselves but to history too.

I wish I could say that I set out to do this initially but I’d be lying. I discovered this on the way, partly because I was shocked by how much of my own narrative was being owned by men.

TM: Your book almost convinced me to build a time machine so that I could try my hand at harvesting ice. What research went into that segment of the book?

CM: What a nice way to put it. Yes, a time machine. That’s what fiction can become. I might have to steal that line from you. It is such a powerful way to step into the past. I remember hearing about the ice harvesting years ago and tucking it away into the recesses of my mind. It was a beautiful image and one I couldn’t shake. It took a bit of research, but mostly just library visits and some shuffling around on the Internet. But libraries are still so much deeper than Google – that’s where I found most of my information.

TM: Towards the end of the novel, Hannah observes “there isn’t a story in the world that isn’t, in part at least, addressed to the past.” Is part of the work TransAtlantic does to wrestle with the question of when exactly something becomes the past?

CM: Faulkner said that the past is never dead, in fact it’s not even past. I like this notion. In fact, I feel that the past can sometimes expand the further we get away from it. For instance, Douglass’s visit was largely forgotten in Ireland for about 150 years. Scholars began to “rediscover” it in the 1990s and then when Obama came to Ireland he hailed the Douglass visit. And so it became alive again. But of course it had changed.  Our relationship to history is constantly expanding. It develops lungs and every now and then we have to exhale.

Of course it’s very important to examine how and why the past infiltrates the present moment. We become more and more layered when we begin to examine the past.

TM: You’ve challenged yourself to describe Ireland and its surrounding geography in much of your work. Do you ever worry you’ll run out of words to describe it?

CM: Oh, never. I hope not. No language could ever be exhausted by any landscape, in particular Ireland.

TM: TransAtlantic traverses a lot of history. In a way, the tradition of tea drinking felt to me like a glue, a constant link that bound the decades as your story progressed. Do you write with those kinds of concerns in mind, or do things like the tea organically inherit a thematic intent as the prose evolves?

CM: The tea took on its own life. It began to stew in the novel so to speak. I thought to myself, “oh shit, should we really have another cup of tea here?” And then it became an odd link. Both Mitchell and Douglass were teetotalers and that helped. And the Irish drink more tea per capita than any other nationality in the world.

TM: When you’re in the middle of writing about 1845, is your nightstand stacked with books about that time period or do you prefer to read about vastly different times and places?

CM: Not my nightstand, but yes my office desk. On my nightstand I have contemporary novels and poems that perhaps somehow infiltrate my dreams. But the funny thing is that I can’t remember my dreams in the morning…I have no idea why.

TM: In researching the novel, did you come across any tidbits of history you really wanted to include but couldn’t fit in?

CM: I had a real dilemma about whether or not to include the horrific bombing on Omagh a few months after the peace process. It was the very last kick of a dying horse. But I thought it would confuse the ultimate message, which is that peace was achieved. It was a quandary for me. I also wrote a huge amount about the bombings of Belfast during World War II. I spent months researching them, but they felt wrong and didn’t contribute to the progress of the novel. Sometimes, as the saying goes, you have to murder your darlings.

TM: Several characters speak on the idea of taking the war out of the plane, and in a way, you’ve taken the war out of your book. The American Civil War as well as World War I & II all occur in some fashion during TransAtlantic without ever taking center stage. Do you feel your fiction is better equipped to grapple with war when it’s set outside of the battlefield?

CM: This is something that was certainly on my mind. There have been times I have written directly about war, but this time I wanted to grapple with something much more airy and ephemeral — the idea of peace and the desire for peace. And so I left much of the war on the outside, like a rumor, or a cloud.

TM: You recently said in an interview that an ocean of sorts divides book one and book two of TransAtlantic, with the first shore housing real-life male characters and the second playing home to their fictional female contemporaries. Where then does book three fit into this mapping of your novel?

CM: Book three was the holy trinity for me. It completed the gulf between the two sections. It flits in and out of fiction and non-fiction, hopefully with ease. And it is the only first-person account in the book. It’s almost as if Hannah, the narrator, has narrated the whole book. I always wanted to get to the present day as well. So the novel goes all the way up to 2012.

TM: Reading about Brown and Alcock’s flight across the Atlantic makes you really take stock of how little time we spend marveling at the fact that we can now fly through the air pretty much as we please. Did writing TransAtlantic change the way you perceive the hassle of going to the airport and taking a flight?

CM: They flew in an open cockpit. The tip ends of their hair froze. They drank brandy to keep themselves warm. They basically flew a boat of air and linen and two Rolls Royce engines across the water. Every time I fly and begin wanting to complain about the tepid taste of the chicken marsala, and the lack of a good movie in the economy seats, I think of our two lads making their way across the expanse! A good dose of humility always helps.

The Most Monstrous Version of Yourself: The Millions Interviews Karen Russell

- | 7

Karen Russell’s stories defy definition. They are at once warm and sinister, a bubblebath with a shark fin lurking underneath the suds. Hailed as a rising star in the next generation of great writers, Russell has made her name with fiction that expands the possible, gorgeous prose forged in the fires of dark beauty and wistful longing. Her debut collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, was set largely in the brackish backlands of Florida, which also served as the backdrop for her novel Swamplandia!, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. Her newest work, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, consists of nine stories spread across decades and continents. I spoke with Ms. Russell by phone a few weeks ahead of her collection’s release, intent to learn more about how the fantastical can humanize us, what caused her to take her stories away from the swamp and why Stephen King is better than The Babysitters Club.

The Millions: Vampires in the Lemon Grove is your first book to be set outside of the swamps of Florida. Was that a conscious choice to set your fiction in a new geography?

Karen Russell: Thank you for noticing! I think it was a conscious choice. Some of these stories I was writing alongside Swamplandia! — I think about half of the collection was written while I was drafting that novel, and then half after that book had come out. My first story collection has a couple of sojourns abroad but most of them have a uniformity of setting. I love the setting of the swamp so much. It feels so familiar. It’s all so humbling, because you see where your preoccupations start to surface. I love that after a novel, where you’re so committed to one place — I spent most my 20s in that goddamn swamp — so it was freeing to get to time-travel a little bit and try on some different skins.

TM: Many of the stories in your new collection seem to focus on a symbol, like a precious glass window or a treacherous stop screw or a red trip wire. Do you often start writing by building around an image or do they take center stage more organically?

KR: I think it can be both. It’s always exciting when something presents itself as a symbol that you can recognize, something that concretely manifests itself. With the window, I think I was on the L train, and this couple happened to tell me about this settlement where they swapped a window around. They only had one glass window and it was this really rare commodity. That was like a gift from the universe. With the wire, I had this idea of a tattoo, and trying to define whatever desire makes you want to get a tattoo, to memorialize something, and having that unstablize and get really slippery. That took a little while. Same with the stop screw. It was something the story needed. I remember having a conversation with my brother. I was like, “what could you find in a nest? Something really small, like lynch-pin size that if it was knocked lose from your life, it would cause your life to go slack.” And he said, “a condom?” He also suggested Three 6 Mafia’s Oscar. I’m so glad that at some point, the story within a story presented itself, because it would’ve been a different meditation on loss if it was about Three Six Mafia’s Oscar.

TM: I’m pretty sure everyone would’ve been psyched for that story.

KR: I might’ve made a mistake. I might’ve made the wrong call there.

TM: Going back to the red trip wire. With the complex imagery of Sgt. Zeiger’s back tattoo in your story “The New Veterans,” did you find it necessary to create a visual representation for you to write from?

KR: That’s always my dream. I’d really like to illustrate these stories. You know Reif Larsen had that book come out [The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet] that was so gorgeously illustrated. I remember just touching it with longing. I’ll try to do some doodles, but thank god for words. Otherwise I’d never get the pictures in my mind excised in any form that another could see, because it definitely wouldn’t happen with visual art. I can draw a dog that looks at a clock. I had my own mental template of what that thing looks like. It’s hard to describe a tattoo, it turns out. You feel wasteful. I wish that I could illustrate actually. Maybe somebody will. It’s a pretty ridiculously intricate tattoo.

TM: Your work, along with the stories of writers like Kelly Link and Etgar Keret, is often set in a kind of hyper-reality, where a surreal element is introduced into what we consider to be the normal world. What do you think this rising trend of fantastical elements being incorporated into modern literature signifies about readers’ interests?

KR: It’s funny, because I often think if you look at Kafka, or an entire tribe of Latin American writers, I don’t know how new it is necessarily. I think the conversation about genre in the mainstream feels more fresh and new. I remember in graduate school that many people seemed to be moving away from a really gritty kind of realism. For me, there’s something playful about it. It feels intuitively right to me as a register to try to represent something true in. For people like [George] Saunders and Link, I don’t think any of them would say they were writing about a world that’s not the normal, ordinary world. Often they’re just dilating some aspect of it so you can see, so you can think through it. What’s attractive to me about those stories is in a way they feel so much more honest and so much closer to the real deep and uncanny experience of being alive. They now have this emotional vocabulary to talk about how really freaking weird it is to live any average Tuesday. In addition, it’s exciting to be the arbiter of a whole world. Even a writer like Junot Díaz, who often doesn’t get the rap of being a fabulist or using magical realism, his stuff is him reading Dominican history through the lens of Tolkein and Frank Herbert. That’s another way people are filtering history. I just think those distinctions sometimes feel rigid and false to me.

TM: There are three stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove that share the common traits of featuring a young male protagonist in the midst of dark circumstances. Why do you think adolescent boys and scary stories fit so well together?

KR: I love scary stories. I really loved them when I was younger and I still love them now.  I love the experience of being afraid. What it did for me when I was a kid is give me a way to contend with all kinds of unruly appetites like violence, discomforting tragedy, and questions that couldn’t be addressed in speech. From an early age, I always preferred to read a Stephen King book to something like the Babysitters Club. In the funhouse mirror of those books, you could see so much of what’s unspeakable about life on this planet represented. Between the covers was like a safe place to contend with monstrosities. In the last story of Vampires [“The Buried Doll of Eric Munis”], I think he’s an adult consciousness retrospectively looking back at the monster that he used to be. It’s a horror story about contending with your own youthful indiscretions and the afterlife that has. As a writer, it’s helpful to put on a boy voice because it gets me a little farther away from myself. It gives me a nice leap to try and take. I think there is something fascinating about the wickedness that boys get up to in groups. I used to take these groups of high school students abroad, and I swear to god, the boys individually would be beyond sweet, but collectively they would transform and posses this evil energy. I don’t know what unleashed that genie but you’d have this sweet kid who looked like a hot dog, a skinny little sweetheart who wrote poems, and then you’d plug him into a group of nine boys and it was terrifying.

TM: Your title story follows two aging vampires who’ve settled down in an Italian lemon grove. Did this story generate from a desire to put your own spin on the emerging deluge of vampire literature?

KR:  I feel some embarrassment at the title of this collection, because even though it felt kind of right, metaphorically, to apply the title to all of the characters in this collection — everybody’s kind of a monster, everybody’s dealing with an illicit appetite — I didn’t know the Stephanie Meyer thing was going to happen. It’s a sad thing to feel a little bit like a biter of Stephanie Meyer. Nobody wants that in this life. I loved Dracula when I was kid. That was my favorite monster. Vampires are just rich as characters, in terms of hunger and addiction and unregulated appetite. They’re pretty great. We really did something right by creating a monster that resembles humans with an unquenchable thirst. It’s fun for me to play with those strong conventions. People already have a relationship to vampires that’s so deep, and I guess in this case, something about it just felt right. I like the idea that what keeps you trapped in your most monstrous version of yourself is this belief that you are a monster.

TM: And yet Clyde is really humanized when we learn in the story that drinking blood isn’t a vital component of a vampire’s survival.

KR: I feel like we all know vampires, so you can relate to Clyde’s befuddlement when he learns that this dysfunctional and evil thing he’s been doing isn’t necessary or effective. It’s like, ok, now what?

TM: It reinforces this idea that he’s wasting his own immortality trying to figure what he’s supposed to be doing.

KR: Yes! It’s all one long Sunday, right?

TM: Exactly. There’s a similar vibe going on in “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” where an assortment of U.S. Presidents have been possibly reincarnated as horses.

KR: That story is maybe the strangest leap in there in some ways. I was living with my best friend, Carrie, who had horses, and she had this book by Mary Twelveponies called There Are No Problem Horses, Only Problem Riders. I thought that book was amazing. I read that, and I’d just read Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, and I was taken with some of the questions his book raises, this whole idea that when people die, they go to this liminal space where nothing is resolved and they’re just as clueless as when they were alive. There’s something sweet and naïve on our part to think that all of our questions will be answered when we die, that we’ll get one final answer to everything. And also I think I watched this really long documentary about the U.S. Presidents while I had the flu. I wish I could connect it to our current election cycle, because then I would sound topical and smart, but actually it’s one of the older stories in the collection. So I had these ideas percolating: Brockmeier’s meditations on the afterlife and the hagiography of these powerful men. It was sort of this ode to ambition. Originally, it was going to be each of the presidents being reborn into a different situation, and the first one I came up with was for Rutherford B. Hayes to be stabled in his afterlife. This is turning into the forensics of my own bad idea now.

TM: When you’re writing about the presidents, or in “The New Veterans” where you talk about IEDs and Fadaliyah, Iraq, how obligated do you feel to root your fiction in facts?

KR: I think with the president’s story, it’s a lot looser in a lot of ways. That one maybe felt a little lighter to me, although I also felt deeply sad for this man who believes in a really standard heaven but then finds himself in an extraordinary circumstance. It’s not like it was a bad Saturday Night Live sketch that I had no emotional connection to. With “The New Veterans,” that felt like the riskiest one to me, because it’s contemporary and such a sensitive topic. There are a lot of veterans that I’m close too, and so much of the heart of that story is pretty personal. That was the one I probably put the most work into. There’s a lot of delivery ambiguity, a lot of fogginess inside that story. Nothing is specifically true, but I read quite a bit in preparation for it to be as plausible as I could make it. In order for the more fantastical elements to hold any emotional resonance, I felt like I had to get all the historical stuff correct. I was a lot more conscious and anxious about that one then the “The Barn at the End of Our Term” because I didn’t think Dwight Eisenhower’s relatives were going to be too upset with me.

TM: I found that the concept of time seems to permeate many of your stories, whether it is omens from the future, changes to the past, or uncertainty over the present. Was time a specific focus in this collection?

KR: I feel like I wake up to that stuff halfway through sometimes. You figure out what you’re up to, and then you can consciously make those connections. I decided it’s like blood rising to a cut. There might be something you compulsively want to address or think through, and then when you figure out what it is you can consciously shape it a little bit, but I don’t think I always have so much control over what the heart of a novel or story is. I think at a certain point I realized how many of these stories had to do with hunger and how to deal with certain appetites. A lot of these stories are also about stories, in a somewhat goofy, probably too explicit way. There’s a lot of traumatic repetition, and trying to figure how to tell a new story to move past it. With the writers I love, you see the same things surging up again and again. Maybe we all get like a finite set of preoccupations, but you just have to find new ways to let them give life to your stories.