With his debut novel The Autodidacts, Thomas Kendall has produced a truly rare work. His words seem to unspool in patterns that from one angle come off as ramshackle, and from another as precise and suffused with intention. Paragraphs thicker than bunker walls transform into these vaporous passages that hover off the page. It’s a text about texts, mystery, and all the liminal feelings that hover beyond the reach of language. I was awestruck when I read it, and I leapt at the opportunity to have a conversation with him where I could hopefully glean some portion of what his process looked like, or at least get to know the guy better.
Meg Gluth: I feel like conversations between writers about writing often default to questions about craft: “How do you capture ideas?” “How do you create a draft?” “How do you edit?” To be honest, these types of topics seem super superficial to me and basically miss the transcendent aspects of writing. I totally have an interest in how writers write, but the interest is more around the creative process than the mechanics that support it. I have this photo of Joan Didion smoking a cigarette while sitting at a desk with a typewriter on it in what seems to be a spare bedroom in what I believe is an otherwise empty suburban house in the 70s—to me that image tells me everything I need to know about her writing. Bearing that all in mind, I’d love to hear what it was like for you to write The Autodidacts.
Thomas Kendall: I also share a kind of antipathy towards questions revolving around craft—maybe it’s something to do with the mundanity of craft as a metaphor. Like, why are you trying to make something less exciting and dangerous than it is? Why reduce it to competence? I think for me, in order to write, what I need—to invert a phrase—is a room without a view. I need to feel that I can disappear. As a kid I never really had many toys, or the toys I had were several generations old and already encrusted with wounds or imprinted with the identity of the relatives who I inherited them from. Consequently, the games I played tended to be in my head and in order to feel comfortable I’d play in the front room or anywhere that was empty. I think I needed to feel that I was hidden from God’s sight in order to be able to play. If anyone interrupted me while I was playing everything fell apart, I’d be paralysed and humiliated. During those games, which would often take on quite frightening aspects, I’d find myself breaking from the fantasy in order to edit certain scenes, to refine the ambience or imaginary setting. The story and characters were always secondary in that way, something inherited from the television and the bible that had to be relit with the emerging and tentative forces structuring my imagination. In a sense writing is the same for me. It’s a serious game. There’s a concept from Deleuze called “becoming imperceptible” that Rosa Braidotti writes about in her book The Posthuman, which I think encapsulates my process and, in some ways, provides a key to the hidden narrative in The Autodidacts. Braidotti writes:
What we humans truly yearn for is to disappear by merging into this generative flow of becoming, the precondition for which is the loss, disappearance and disruption of the atomized, individual self. Becoming imperceptible is the event for which there is no representation, because it rests on the disappearance. Writing as if already gone, or thinking beyond the bounded self, is the ultimate gesture of defamiliarization.
When I read that I felt seen in a way that I could stand. It also neatly summarizes the themes and structure of The Autodidacts. For an external image, well, right now I’m writing and there’s a window but the window just opens onto a brick wall. A lot of the early sections of The Autodidacts were written in a kitchen in Hackney during an ascendancy of mice. I set up a mini desk facing a blank wall. At night in my room beneath the kitchen I could hear the mice trafficking overhead through the floorboards. (Addendum: The rule of mice ended when a rat took over and presumably slaughtered them. However, centralizing power in this single embodied figure was hubristic and the Rat was removed after a brief reign of terror). The Mice and I shared a mutual treaty of non-recognition, we inhabited the same physical territory but operated in two different dimensions. We allowed each other the privacy to be multiple, they were the best tenants for my writing in that sense.
Anyway, is there anything that helps you tune into or intuit your imaginary? I’ve been rereading [your 2014 novel] No Other the last few days and I’m consistently awed by the rhythms and embodied abstraction your writing performs. There’s a kind of phenomenological bent to its perspective that is so unique. I’m wondering how your style developed: Was it completely intuitive or like archeology where you’re sort of dusting off and polishing a kind of half-submerged/-found/-searched-for structure, or the result of a series of experiments, or a choice made from a conceptual point of view? It seems so disciplined and tightly focused but simultaneously metaphysical and abstract that I’m just totally fascinated by it.
MG: All I can say is I usually start a book with a mood or an idea or a sentence and I work on that one thing. Eventually it becomes paragraphs and then more and more. I’m always revising the structure of the narrative, as if you were to build a building one brick at a time, and you spent a lot of time making each brick, and then only planned the building after building a few walls. And then kept revising the structure as you developed different types of bricks. God, does that make sense? To me, the main feature of my books—the main character, if you will—is the narrative structure. The style is all instinct. I just work on each sentence until I’m happy with it. I feel like each sentence should ideally stand on its own outside of whatever context the book provides. I’m not there yet, but that’s my aspiration.
I love that Deleuze line, “generative flow of becoming.” I can totally see how it jibes with your writing in The Autodidacts. To quote a line I’d noted when I first read it:”The cigar smoke is only a mask. There is another physical, weighted, smell pursuing an increasingly territorial policy regarding the car’s subsidiary of air.” It feels like you bring the reader through a sort of stillness. And the moment is transformed in the process. There is movement, or at least a process, unfolding, but you manage to portray it in a way where it feels like a photograph, one that is so clear that you feel like the image is almost moving when you look at it. It feels like you are bending the language by hand or something. I’d love to know how much the effects you achieve are born of intention, and how much comes out of instinctual experimentation? For example, I’d like to say I want my writing to capture the sense of being within this ever-becoming moment, but I honestly don’t really intellectualize or think about my writing process too much, to the point that it feels disingenuous to say I have a stated goal. Either because I’m incapable, or because I’m scared that understanding it will kinda motivate me to potentially take shortcuts or something. I’m going to try to quote Wes Anderson trying to quote Stanley Kubrick: “I’m just trying to do the best possible version of what I’m doing.”
TK: As to the architecture of your books, it makes sense to me, like there’s something that has to be intuited that can only be discovered through the act of writing. It makes me think of that outsider artist [Ferdinand Cheval] that collected rocks and built the “Ideal palace.” How did that evolve? I think my interest with outsider artists is rooted in the organic need to edit, refine, to pursue some invisible structure, some possibility, and draw it into the world without having the framework of the accepted and acceptable representations of the world as a delimiting force. That it’s not about representation ultimately. The edits are a kind of restoration work. Or the whole work is an act of restoration—trying to get to the thing that you had faith was there.
I think my own “style,” if it deserves that term, is at its core not a choice that I have total agency over, but I think recognizing that and trying to challenge it in some way has helped provide the narrative momentum. Because of this, in The Autodidacts at least, there’s a self-awareness that the writing is always trying to simultaneously work out and conceal. But at the same time there’s a desperate need to be real, to experience the suffering moment, and the writing is ultimately real, it does something and so does whatever animates it. That’s the tension that I’ve tried to pull taut with The Autodidacts. At the level of the brick, the sentences are always having to be nudged into reality. I tend to think of metaphors as a form of associative revelation, that there is something ecstatic you can access through their worm-holed connection.
It’s interesting that you mention dialogue. I’d be so fascinated to see how you’d approach doing something dialogue-intensive. Damn, I want to read that! I think you’d come up with something amazing if it ever took your interest. Have you ever read JR by William Gaddis? It’s pretty much just unaccredited dialogue and it’s incredible. I struggle with dialogue too. I think the way I’ve tried to get around it is to realize how often people are talking past each other and that it’s mainly rhythm. I’m wondering if one of the reasons you find it unpleasant is because dialogue, in a way, breaks that flux of inner and outer perception, seems to act as a kind of command to be limitedly present, externalized into socialize space, ordered into the moment in a way that seems to ridicule the possibility of an interior space.
MG: I know and love JR. I guess I have yet to find a way into a dialogue heavy work. It could happen for sure. One thing I’ve been doing in the book I’ve currently writing is building the dialogue into the prose so that it’s just part of the paragraphs and is kinda uncredited and obfuscated. I think my thing about dialogue is how it feels super obvious in my hands, and I’m always trying to alter the text away from obviousness.
You bring up an interesting point: Representation vs atypical or non-representation in work. My writing, to me, has always been non-representative, meaning it’s really just the end product of its writing process, as opposed to being something toward which I consciously worked. My process is always about experimentation, and then reacting to the results of the experimentation with more experimentation, really following my instincts and letting the text take whatever form that process lands on. I feel a representative text comes out of a place of attempting to realize some sort of end goal, and reverse engineering that goal in some sense to map a path to it. My process is this: I have one small idea, maybe a mood, a visual, a concept, a line of dialogue, and I try to explore how to capture it in some way. I write by hand, and eventually there is enough text to type it up and print it out. I then edit the printed text by hand, retype it, etcetera. Each round of editing involves adding, removing, rearranging, and the text ultimately grows during this process. I’d love to know your thoughts about this regarding your own work and to hear what your writing process is like. Aside from the rodents, which weird me out to no fucking end.
TK: You write by hand? That’s amazing to me. I can’t, however much I might want to, partly because my thought is so disordered that I tend to leap around the pages and also because I just can’t believe in my own handwriting. If I see something written in my handwriting, I can’t pretend it’s not mine, I suppose. I need the dissociative, flattening affect of the typed-out word to feel comfortable reading in good faith anything that my brain produces. Also, when I write, I tend to work on several sections at the same time and then try to tune them into one another. Even this answer has been written completely out of sync. It’s a kind of maddening process that I have had to just accept. I’m probably a terrible conversationalist. Otherwise, your process of experimentation sounds similar to mine. I think I’m always trying to think through a concept or something when I write and that concept provides the structure even as the novel documents, on one level, the discovery of the idea. It seems to me an artist is precisely someone who doesn’t understand and that’s the motivation.
MG: Yeah, I write by hand, mostly in cursive, typing it up only to get a clean draft to edit further by hand. I think it does two things. First, it makes the text feel alive to me. When something is typed it feels too “done” to me which is often dissonant to the fact that the text is so far from being done. I get where you need that dissociative effect from a typed out word, but that is exactly what I don’t want. The second thing is it gives another level of editing, another step that I can play with. My thinking is really disordered too. I’m usually working on whatever chapter I’m working on while also monitoring and editing the overall structure of the narrative and ensuring all the elements of the text will fit together in the way I intend them to.
TK: Maybe a good way to conclude this chat would be to discuss a little bit about the experience of submitting work and finding a publisher. I started submitting The Autodidacts way too early and it was rejected a lot. I learned that while I edit intensively at the level of the sentence, I needed to think more broadly in terms of the reader’s experience of its structure. Once I figured that out it started to get a little more interest from places. I’m so thankful to [publisher] Miette [Gillette] at Whiskey Tit for taking a chance on it and being so supportive of the work. How has your experience been?
MG: My experience with finding publishers is probably the same as most. My first book, I worked on intently by myself for four or five years, got it to where I was happy and sent it off to a bunch of places—maybe five or six. They all declined it, and then Dennis Cooper picked it up for Akashic. My second book, Akashic didn’t want it, and Dennis wasn’t working with them anymore, and Ken Bauman picked it up for Sator. Then everything since I kinda just send to Michael [Salerno] at Kiddiepunk, who seems to always want to publish it. I honestly don’t think about a reader, or their experience, or anything. That sounds arrogant and I don’t mean it to be. Just the calculus involved in trying to balance writing as good of a text as I can while also worrying how it will be taken by some potential audience—it’s beyond my abilities.
Balance is really important for me. Writing is one thing I do, but I also have a day job, and a personal life. I would love to hear what your life outside of writing is like. In my job, I do analytical and reporting type work. I work in the west coast tech industry, which is its own vibe for sure. Outside of that, my hobbies mainly center around hanging out with my wife, texting my best friend. I’m a big women’s basketball fan, and the WNBA season runs during the summer in the U.S., so that takes up much of my time right now. I’m lucky to have some good friends I spend time with. I’m also a perfume enthusiast, meaning I read alot about perfume, reviews and such. I also think of perfume as the strangest art form, and I’m always trying to think about how to achieve effects in writing that perfumers achieve in their work.
TK: That’s a good question about balance. I work at a French school in London teaching English literature and I have a three year old kid. Usually I’m up at six, walk an hour to work, get home at five and do the bedtime routine. I’m often flat out knackered. I write in the evenings two or three times a week and whenever else I can. Days off are pretty kid-centric and then there’s the usual mundanity of having to cook food etc. Plus we moved back to London after living in Peru for the last five years so while the cost of living is crippling there are a lot of free exhibitions, public spaces, interesting art to see and most of the friends I have live here too. But I love it. I love hanging out with my kid and my wife. I’m not the most sociable person so to have two people in my life I don’t ever get sick of is something of a miracle for me.