Foxhead Books chose Paul Kerschen’s story collection, The Drowned Library, to announce its arrival on the publishing scene for two reasons: Kerschen’s collection is stunning and he’s one of his generation’s best writers. We promise the best, and with The Drowned Library, Kerschen helps us deliver. The book will be available in November at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Books and the Apple iBook store. Order it. You’ll be glad you did.
RvF: Did you think of the structure of the book at the beginning of the project — or was it something that evolved over the course of the process?
PK: From the beginning I wanted to do a collection of short pieces with mythological themes. Originally I thought they would be shorter, more like parables, and I expected to write more of them; but each idea turned out to be a different sort of seed and grew into a different species of plant. The common mythological element allowed for more latitude in form. “Thoth,” for example, ends up spinning a long narrative out of its dictionary conceit, while other stories turn into something like essays or prose poems. By near-utter coincidence, the alphabetical ordering is very close to the order of composition, so the volume ends up tracking the experimental process.
RvF: How do these short stories fit into the context of your larger work?
PK: They freed me. I’d been in school a long time and had gotten into a rut, writing fiction that might uncharitably be called “workshoppy.” That is, I was trying to emulate a certain kind of domestic realism that I don’t want to start a quarrel with, but for which I didn’t have much feeling or aptitude. Moving to these short stories was a way to try out other techniques, and to build other kinds of sentences and paragraphs. The mythological adaptation really belongs to a pre-novelistic tradition of verse literature, where radical innovation in plot wasn’t expected and the criteria for judgment were stylistic. Translations of the classics had more standing as literature in their own right. So you have Keats on Chapman’s Homer, but also Ezra Pound’s deliberately antiquarian judgment that Golding’s Ovid is the most beautiful book in English. Of course none of the stories in The Drowned Library is a straight translation – “Philomela” and “Romulus” probably come closest in tracking Ovid and Plutarch – but the set themes were a great help in building up a gallery of styles.
RvF: You pursued a Ph.D. in English literature. What was your discipline?
PK: Three guesses, and “Anglo-American modernism” doesn’t count! I did spend a lot of time with Joyce, Woolf, Pound and others who repurposed mythology and the classics. Highly canonical writers all round, I admit. They were the ones who made me want to write in the first place, and I wanted to figure out why. My dissertation tried to describe the modernist novel as a form of Romantic poetry. It was useful to ferret out the ways that our contemporary literature, in many of its stripes, is still working in modernism’s shadow. Useful, likewise, to discover that the ideas I’d taken as gospel in my MFA years – the autonomy of the artwork, the integrity of the artist, the nature of genius and so on – have a very particular ancestry leading through modernism back to Romanticism. Which isn’t to say I disavow them completely. It’s complicated.
RvF: Is something missing from literary fiction today?
PK: There’s a wonderful running joke in Woolf’s Orlando, where an Elizabethan literary critic is heard to complain that Marlowe and Shakespeare and so on may have some talent, but they hardly measure up to the classics; then in the present day that same critic, or his reincarnation, laments that no one alive matches the Elizabethans. It’s very easy to make sweeping judgments about fiction today. I know it’s popular target practice in literary journals. I think that when you look at fiction in the aggregate, all you see are the reigning clichés, because so many books fall prey to them and because the books that don’t are marketed no differently from those that do. You don’t notice the ways that particular writers are able to evade or confront them. Of course the clichés are highly damaging – the worst, for my money, being the habit of taking fiction as the author’s “voice” or substitute autobiography, discounting fictional invention and generally wanting fiction to become as much like nonfiction as possible. But it’s not universal, and there’s plenty of fine work out there. It’s just at the margins, and you have to go looking. The most extraordinary recent fiction I know of – László Krasznahorkai, Yi Mun-Yol, Can Xue – has all come in translation. But extraordinary fiction is a small sample by definition, so that may not mean much.
RvF: Why I am so tired?
PK: Do you know the Norse myth where Thor goes to the giants’ hall, is challenged to pick up a cat, can only lift one paw and is mocked; then it turns out that the cat was the world-serpent and to lift any part of it was a terrifying feat of strength? I think that’s us, mostly.