The Age of Struggling to Make Ends Meet: A Conversation with Kyle Coma-Thompson
Ranging from straightforward to experimental, Kyle Coma-Thompson’s stories are surprising and evocative. They manage to capture the 21st century zeitgeist by tapping into the tragic humor and collective madness of living in these waning days of the American empire. Novelist Joshua Cohen writes of Coma-Thompson, “In smaller countries, in earlier times, he was Aleksey Remizov, Virgilio Piñera, Clarice Lispector, Danilo Kiš.” Indeed, Coma-Thompson contains multitudes and he’s a writer unlike any other writer you’ll encounter. He’s a true original. Kyle was kind enough to answer some questions regarding his process as well as his recently released second collection, Night in the Sun, which is out now from the excellent Dock Street Press. The following conversation took place via email this past June. Check out the interview and then read a story from Night in the Sun here in the archive.
Ryan Ridge: Let’s talk about your latest book. It’s called Night in the Sun and oh man, do I love that title. Not only is it a striking, central image around which the stories orbit, but it’s also a phrase that captures the richness and dichotomy of the collection. I’m curious as to how and when the title materialized. Did you have it going in or is it something that arrived after the collection was completed?
Kyle Coma-Thompson: In May 2012 I wrote a poem called “Night in the Sun.” Later that summer I put a collection together under that title. Sent the poems around, with no luck. But when I was working on these newer stories, it seemed to fit; and since there seemed to be a slim chance the poems were going to find a publisher, I chose to at least get the title published. So you could say I had to write a whole other book, just to get the title.
RR: What does a “night in the sun” mean to you?
KCT: Well, the original working title for the thing was Valentine for the Bottomfeeders, if that gives you an idea. We’re increasingly living in the age of struggling to make ends meet, and have been for a while now. For many, that has always been the case.
RR: Speaking of the struggle, it’s no secret that 99% of writers work day jobs. Now you’ve taught in academia, worked in book publishing, and done a multitude of other 9 – 5’s. In your experience, what’s been the most complimentary job for your writing?
KCT: The job I’ve held down that was most conducive to writing? The one I was laid off from, so I could collect unemployment checks for a few sweet months. I called that time my “Kentucky sabbatical.”
That was the publishing job, but I wouldn’t dignify it by calling it a book publisher. It produced college course packs and provided content for learning management systems. Five, six months out of the year we worked long hours; but the rest of the year we were rewarded with free time around the office. That’s where I wrote most of the stories for my first book. I wouldn’t have started writing fiction if I hadn’t had that job.
There’s a lot of griping that goes around among writers about their day job, but I think it’s a good thing, to not be afforded the chance to self-cloister. In most instances, I’ve worked with people who are very different from me in matters of interests and vocation, and it’s enriched my sense of things considerably.
Which is just a roundabout way of saying: most of the finest storytellers I’ve come across don’t work in the medium of literature.
RR: In addition to this being your second collection of stories, you’re also an accomplished poet. What role does poetry play in the crafting of your fiction?
KCT: Poetry’s taught me to treat a sentence with respect. Though I think of them as separate forms, in practice I don’t keep them separate: after a story, I’ll write a couple of poems, then move onto a story. Or an essay. Or back into a longer piece of fiction.
I think writing poems sensitizes you to semantic ambiguity, syntactic precision, how to cut each sentence to the measure of its purpose. For me, I’d also credit it with teaching me how to think.
RR: The pieces in NITS range from classically structured tales (with definitive beginnings, middles, and endings) to more formally dynamic, modular stories. Regardless, the results are always surprising. I’m curious as to whether the content dictates the form or vice versa. For instance, did you know that the story “Master and Man” was going to be a triptych when you set out to write it or did the structure emerge organically?
KCT: Form and content—maybe in the after-the-fact consideration of things they have some application. But during the act of writing I’m not sure they exist as separate concepts.
Things don’t proceed programmatically at all, for me, at least. When I’m moving through a story, the sentence I’m in the middle of writing is already beginning to kick other sentences out ahead of it, and it’s my job to follow the beats and catch the sentences. The whole thing may start with a sketch or intimation of a character or scene, but that’s just a reason to get the thing on its way and flowing. It’s a state of total immersion, and nothing could kill the buzz and momentum of being in it more than standing back to consider things conceptually.
With “Master and Man,” I had a number of pieces that played off the dynamic in that Tolstoy story; I chose three that came across with the most clarity, then sequenced them.
RR: While on the subject of structure and process, I’d like to ask you about “Seven for a Leper.” It’s a harrowing story of a self-diagnosed leper told in seven sections with a shifting quartet of POVs and in this reader’s opinion it’s a masterpiece. How did you decide on this carousel of perspectives?
KCT: Thanks for the good word! That one’s close to my mind, you could say. I had to lose someone (slowly, to Alzheimer’s) in order to be educated enough in the ways of such things, to write it.
I wrote that story in one sitting, without any preparation or planning in regards to structure. I wrote a thumbnail sketch of the idea a couple of weeks earlier, let it sit, then one day sat down and wrote through it. A year later I went back and revised it.
RR: How much changes in the revision process? Do you edit along the way or did you return to the collection once you had a complete draft of it? Or something in between?
KCT: Yeah, the revision of most of the stories is folded into the writing of them. Then weeks or months later I’ll go back and move through them quickly, making nips and tucks or expansions. The last thing I want to do, though, is get to a place where I’m overworking something. If a story freezes up, I’ll pulp it.
RR: Several stories in the book ask sort of epistemological questions regarding the nature of storytelling. I’m thinking of “27-B,” “Collectors,” and “M.W.” Do you think there’s a moral obligation between the teller to the tale? And what do you make of the transformative power of stories in the 21st century?
KCT: I’m attracted to writers who have a disciplined but capacious moral intelligence. But I also think the unconscious is amoral. How writers explore and represent that vitality in them that sometimes contradicts their better natures, the obligations of their moral investments and respect towards others—that’s where the real energy is; and that energy can often be brought into stronger focus when set in contrast against the limits (social/moral) imposed on it.
I once read in an essay or interview with Kundera where he said the aim of the writer is not to oppose evil but to understand it. I agree with that. As a citizen, as a person, oppose those things that undermine the dignity and freedom of individuals; as a writer, though, enter them, embody them, if you have to, to gain a more detailed and sympathetic understanding of what motivates them.
I’d also say it’s a writer’s responsibility to be aware of what they’ve compromised, by writing about a person living or otherwise. Tact isn’t often a quality much appreciated among artists. But it should be.
RR: I’m interested in the way certain news stories feature in some of your fictions. I’m thinking in particular of the somewhat recent news item about the homeless guy in Bullitt County who snuck into a ValuMarket and had a drunken, late-night feast for the ages. It’s a funny story and it filled my Facebook feed for days. Yet when this gentleman appears in your story “Back Pay (& Other Vagaries)” you manage to make his plight not only funny, but transcendent. Can you say a bit about incorporating nonfictive elements into your fiction? For instance, a story like “Spite & Malice” could almost be classified as an essay. Thoughts?
KCT: When that news story broke, my brother said to me, “For one night, and one night alone, that man lived as he truly was: as a king.” We have to secure our rightful glory at least once in this lifetime, right? Sometimes all it takes to do so is a little crime; hopefully the harmless variety.
Nonfictive elements. Well, stories are stories. A writer is also a member of a community, a citizen, and receives news daily from that broader involvement; and it’s only natural this forms a kind of subtle feedback loop, news stories entering the writer’s unconscious and turning over and mutating into what I guess you could call, in this context, imaginative fiction.
Of course the shaping of any experience into a narrative is a way of molding it into a form of fiction. And writing that shapes factual information in a non-discursive manner, for non-didactic purposes often begins to move and feel like such. But hopefully with an added touch: it’s beautiful.
RR: There’s never a slack sentence in the book and quite a few lines read like aphorisms: “Revelations and lessons, as with wishes and fates, come in threes.” Have you ever considered taking these talents to Twitter?
Sainte-Beuve said Montaigne’s prose reads like one continuous epigram. Maybe that’s an unconscious ideal for me. Twitter isn’t really my thing. I prefer elaboration, how sentences build and work together. Imagine writing a story and after each sentence you have people butting in to give you their two cents or to snipe at you, or reward you with “likes.” Pretty distracting. Guess I like my language without the distractions.
RR: The writing throughout is in many ways philosophical. Which philosophers do you dig?
KCT: There was a time when I read a fair amount of philosophy, often with barely functional comprehension. But even then I read it from a thoroughly compromised angle—appreciating philosophers foremost as stylists. So of course the only ones I reread regularly are Wittgenstein and Simone Weil. And Lichtenberg and Pascal. And a few others.
It’s always been the case that someone like Paulo Freire is more engaging for me than, say, Baudrillard. Someone who writes from a place of genuine investment in the well-being of the very people he or she would level critiques at. No radical chic, no self-aggrandizement. If they have a dog in the fight, they’re the dog.
RR: Generally writers wear their influences on their sleeves, but a Kyle Coma-Thompson story is such a unique beast that influences are impossible to pin down. Your stuff doesn’t remind me of anyone other than you. Who do you read?
KCT: The answer I’d give is the same anyone would give: within my ability and what time I’m allowed, anything and everything.
A few weeks ago I nabbed a stack of thirty-year-old National Geographic magazines from my neighbor’s recycling bin. So along with everything else, I’ve been reading those.
RR: What’s next writing-wise?
KCT: Aside from stories and poems, I’m always working my way into longer projects, trying to arrange my commitments so, with luck, I might be able to stay in the pocket with a novel. I wrote one before and pulled it from publication. I’d like to finish another and see if I can’t get it past myself. I can be a harsh censor.
RR: Kyle, thanks for writing the book and thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your work.
KCT: Hey, man, you’re the one putting in the real time here. So thank you!
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