Honing the BS Meter: A Conversation with Gene Kwak

For the better part of a decade now, Gene Kwak’s stories have appeared steadily in both online and print magazines. You’d never guess it by the minimalist bio that accompanies his work: “Gene Kwak is from Omaha, Nebraska.” This statement reveals little about Kwak (the writer), but its unabashed modesty speaks volumes about both his character as well as his characters. With a musician’s ear for the rhythms of language and the heart, Kwak’s prose is visceral and lyrical and deft. His stories are as direct as his bio. He doesn’t BS. He doesn’t waste time. He moves straight to the truth. The writer Rachel Glaser perhaps best describes Kwak’s work: “Each sentence conjures a snow globe just long enough to see it smashed.” Indeed. Kwak was kind enough to answer a few questions regarding his writing process as well as his recently released chapbooks: Orphans Burning Orphans (Greying Ghost, 2015) and an untitled chap from AWST Press. The following conversation took place via email this past July.

Ryan Ridge: The characters in Orphans Burning Orphans are always on the verge of catastrophe—everything from falling off roofs to unprotected sex (these folks are perpetually on the edge of the edge). How do you decide how far to push this element? In other words, how do you know when a character is in just enough trouble?

Gene Kwak: It’s all this weird push and pull. It’s as much blind faith and tomfoolery as following a dowsing rod to water. Doodlebugging for oil. I push until they feel like they’re just on the verge of tipping into the too far. I want to write about honest, complicated, flawed people and greet you right at the moment of wrinkle. There’s a Hank Williams documentary and this writer, Rick Bragg, is describing Williams by saying that “he sang about loss and grief and funerals. And it always seemed like instead of making you think about those things and making you sad, it was the opposite. It was as though he pounded out all that agony and all that grief and all that sadness thin enough to where you could stand it.” When you write about people tip-toeing the line between just short and catastrophe, other people who may feel like they’re walking that line can find some recognition in the sing along.

RR: Speaking of singing: Orphans Burning Orphans. That’s a title that sings! Can you say anything about the Mailer passage from which it’s taken and how/if it informs the book? Also: curious as to whether the title of the collection came first or the individual stories?

GK: Actually the less I say about Mailer, the better. What an asshole that guy. And not even in a lovable asshole way. Just a genuine piece of work. I honestly came across it years ago, loved it as a title, and tucked it away for the right work. I do that with certain titles. I’ve always wanted to call a story “Old Man Teeth,” which was actually the name of “Bad Done to Her Good Hand,” but in a very different version. That one was about a boy with shitty teeth and read like something cribbed from Harmony Korine. I also always wanted to call something “Goldwood,” because in Downtown 81, at the very end of the film, Basquiat paints Goldwood across a blue Cadillac and rides off into the sunset like a street cowboy.

The stories kind of came together by accident. I told my buddy, Mike Young, that I wanted to work on flash fiction in between these longer stories and this novel. I cobbled together a bunch of them and sent them his way and he was like, nah. And I was like, yeah, you’re right. Which is the best thing in the world to have: an honest friend. But then I reworked some. Tinkered and toiled. And came up with something decent. Sent them to Carl Annarummo at Greying Ghost and knew I had a title that perfectly fit the mood of the room.

RR: Another thing I notice in the OBO chap is a sort of psychedelic reimagining of popular religious iconography. We have the image of God the Father rendered as wrestler Randy Savage as he leaps from the top turnbuckle and then there’s also the character Johnny America’s St. Peter impersonation, etc. What’s the source of that? Is religion something that you’re tangling with consciously in your work or is it something that arises organically?

GK: I never go into a work knowing too much about how it’s going to turn out. I start writing and follow the voice. A turn of phrase. But after having written a few things, I’ve noticed that religion does tend to creep up in my stories. Probably has to do with the fact that you can’t drive two minutes in Omaha without coming across a bank and a church. We’re more breadbasket than bible belt, geographically speaking, but we’ve got believers in spades. Even the words “religion” or “gospel” are bandied about today mostly meaning “shit that we’re really into” or “put stock in.” It’s always an interesting juke to write about people who are hardcore about a specific type of doctrine and see how that might bend or break when stress-tested. See how closely they hew to the fine print, which, let’s face it, almost none of us do.

RR: You’ve got a poet’s ear and a storyteller’s eye and your amplified language is such a dynamic presence in each story. I wonder: does the story grow out of the language or does the language come from the story? In other words, do these pitch-perfect sentences evolve through the revision process or are you the kind of writer who tries to get it right the first pass?

GK: Language always leads the search party. Try to get it right first, before moving on to the next sentence, but there’s always going to be revision too. Big picture, little picture. I always start by trying to get down the voice. But there’s also an awareness of making the language fit the story. And breaking down ideas of how certain types of people are supposed to talk. I try to write every story like the blues. Meaning: something that’s honest and heartfelt and devastating and relatable, but also something that those in the know can appreciate the craft behind. Understand all the fretwork.

RR: The city of Omaha is mentioned in your standard bio and it’s also omnipresent in your work. Whether you’re writing about it directly in the essay in your AWST chapbook or more obliquely like in the stories in Orphans, the city itself is almost another character. They say that place give rise to spirit and I wonder what is it about the spirit of Omaha that inspires you to keep returning to it as artistic fodder? Follow up: has anyone ever accused you of being a regionalist? (BTW: I’m not accusing you of that!)

GK: We’ve bred a lot of champions. Malcolm X was born here. So was Elliot Smith. Marlon Brando. It’s dirt cheap to live here. When I lived in Boston all these writers and artists complained about how it seemed like you had to have been born into money to make it anymore. While there’s a conversation worth having there, the biggest solution was don’t live on the coasts. So one part is this community of musicians, artists, ruff necks, Hessians, hooligans, heartthrobs, and activists all coming together here. We’re also a hard-drinking city. In my old neighborhood you could find twenty places to get a drink in a three block radius. While that constant partying can stymie artistic effort, it can also engender a sort of freewheeling camaraderie off the buzz. You know how there are different types of drunks? Omaha as a city is that overly sentimental drunk. Arm slung over an acquaintance professing your love for them kind of drunk. All cities have problems. There are no yellow brick roads. But this city really comes together to support you if you support it. As for the regionalist question? The kind of person who lobs that kumquat at me isn’t worth answering. That kind of person just needs a strong drink and a good friend.

RR: Friendship seems to be a much-maligned notion in modern literature. Basically everyone’s writing about a bunch a friendless bastards, yet friendship is a reoccurring motif in your work, which is something I find incredibly refreshing. Can you talk about the idea of friendship in fiction? What draws you to it?

GK: I grew up, like many aimless sons of immigrants, involved in bad things with bad influences. But one of the tenets of being involved in said lifestyle is an almost unwavering sense of loyalty. Usually misguided, but loyal nonetheless. While I have shucked most of the other BS posturing of my youth, that sense of loyalty abounds whether it be toward family, friends, or other loved ones. My friend, Lizzie, once said that we make our own family, because many of our friends don’t have the greatest relationships with their own flesh and blood. I’m actually extremely close to my family, but I still fly that flag. Writing about it is one of those things I don’t even consciously think about. It’s just what I’m drawn toward.

RR: What role does reading play in your writing process? In terms of input versus output, what and who and when do you tend to pick up in order to create your own stories?

GK: I’m always reading. Bits and pieces. Novels, stories, essays, websites, magazines, blogs, etc. Trying to ferret out weird little wonders of life. Like the fact that the residents of Naco, Arizona, play the residents of Naco, Mexico, in an annual volleyball match at the fence that separates the border. Or: Google’s AI bot apparently thinks the purpose of life is to live forever. I’ll work those bits into stories sometimes. As for influences: Barry Hannah, Mark Richard, Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, Noy Holland, Amy Hempel, Stanley Elkin, Mark Anthony Jarman. Recently I’ve been re-reading the first four Thomas McGuane novels. Carson Mell.

RR: When you write, do you ever think about your audience? Kurt Vonnegut said he always wrote with his kid sister in mind. Do you have a certain reader you’re hoping to impress when you’re tapping the keys? Also: what (or do?) you hope someone gets from your work?

GK: Not a specific reader, per se, but I definitely consider my peers that I respect. People like you, Mike Young, Michael Bible, Rachel B. Glaser, Blake Butler, David Nutt, Lindsay Hunter. I’m trying to dazzle you all. As for what I want someone to get from my work, I like that line Barthelme says about literature being “a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.”

RR: How do you know if a story is finished? What lets you know something is working and you can leave it behind?

GK: Honing the BS meter. If I feel like, in my guts, I’m trying to get away with something, it’s not ready. A lot of times it comes down to a sentence or two. I’ll let it sit just because those one or two sentences could be doing more. I’ve gotten to be a lot more patient with waiting things out.

RR: For many years you were my favorite writer with no books out, but now you’ve just had two chapbooks come out on the heels of one another and so now you’re just one of my favorite writers. My question: what’s next?

GK: Sincere thanks, pal. Who knows? A novel. A collection of stories. We live in an age where many people feel like everything they create needs to have eyes on it. I’ll work my ass off, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. I’ll only show it if I feel like it’s worth showing. Otherwise, I’ll put it in a folder somewhere (the digital version of the drawer) and only pull it out every once in a while to laugh at my own idiocy in private. It’s obscene to laugh at your own jokes in public.  

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