An Unlikely Interview with Will Kaufman
Coping with Common Garden Pests uses the conceit of a home-grown gardening manual to tell a post-apocalyptic story, a rather unique twist on the genre. What came first, the format or the story idea? Did you always know the story needed to be told this way, or did you start with a more traditional narrative structure?
This story actually came from listening to the Nightvale podcast. I love the way Fink, Cranor, and their crew manage to tell grand stories through a single voice, and I was toying with some way of doing something similar. I came up with the idea of a sort of post-apocalyptic, NPR-affiliate, radio gardening show as a format that would allow a single voice to tell a larger story from a unique perspective. Of course, as soon as I sat down, I wrote a short story instead.
I adapted the format the way I did because I’ve been reading a lot of older SF/F/W stories, and I’m fascinated with the way those stories established authenticity by presenting the text as having been drawn from some sort of diary, letter, or other ‘found’ source. I wanted to work with the story-as-artifact trope, because I’m fascinated with the concept of authenticity. So, “Coping with Common Garden Pests.”
According to your blog, you made your first three professional sales (including Coping with Common Garden Pests) in rapid succession. Do you now believe in the axiom that good things come in threes, and has your worldview been fundamentally altered? With the high you must be on from this success, what plans (if you can tell us without having to kill us) do you have for immanent world domination?
If I say anything out loud about the rule of three or any arrangements I may or may not have made over salt and entrails, the whole deal’s off, and I think a bunch of migratory birds might die. I’m not entirely sure, I was too drunk on fermented goat’s blood to read the fine print.
As far as future plans…I’m just plugging away. I’m hoping I can finish a novel at some point, and I’m hoping I can write more stories, maybe publish a collection eventually. You know, just trying to be a writer.
Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?
I’ve had a few odd jobs, but really the strangest was working as a QA tester for a major video-game console manufacturer. My job was to try and break the operating system – all the crap that made the console a “multimedia powerhouse” but didn’t have anything to do with playing games. The things I did weren’t strange in themselves…other than testing the efficacy of the porn filter on the web browser, which process has left me with certain mental scars.
The job was strange because it was my first introduction to being a very small part of a very large corporation. We were very far removed from the decision makers, both in terms of how many strata of management lay between us and them, and our physical and mental separation by an ocean and a language. That meant our group was this sort of self-contained little tumor festering away in the second-smallest toe of a larger body, and we had our own little ecosystem of weirdos.
What I took away from that job that’s been relevant to my writing was the first-hand experience of that immense internal separation. I think we often look at companies, campaigns, organizations, armies, conspiracies, or whatever else as being these centrally-controlled organisms that act with a single will. But what looks like organization from the outside is often actually a mass of barely connected, vestigial limb-things flailing around in some vague proximity to each other while some nodule up near the top takes credit or assigns blame for the results of that flailing. In practice, organization is often a retrospective act: the identification of particular motions of chaos that are then assigned a causality.
And that’s actually not a bad way of thinking about writing a story. So…yeah, I don’t know. I guess it helped.
Oh, also the weirdos. Meeting weirdos is good for your writing.
One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.
Oh, gods. I’m sure there’s a really poetic answer I could give. In the end, my teachers stuck with me more than the specifics of my lessons. They are part of the topography of the slope in my brain down which the marble of thought must roll. I can’t calculate a Lorentz contraction anymore, but that doesn’t make my high school physics teacher any less important to me.
What I learned in school were the things around the facts and figures. Maybe if I’d learned those instead, I’d have a paying job.
We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.
This list could go on for a long while, but one author who immediately stands out is Patrik Ouredník, and his wonderful Europeana. Europeana is a history of Europe in the 20th century, but one that abandons completely all the rules and structures of normal historical texts in favor of a rhizomatic approach, where progression from one topic to the next occurs by free-association rather than causal or temporal order.
I love the tension of ambivalence, so for me one of Ouredník’s best tricks in this book is the way he elicits emotional response. Ouredník packs all the horror, triumph, absurdity, and transcendence of a hundred years of history into 120 pages, and it keeps you on your toes.
I’m honestly not sure if everyone should drop everything and read Europeana right now, but if anyone is interested in spending 120 pages with something strange and enlightening…
We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?
My first ever published story was “Project,” which came out in Identity Theory in 2009. It feels like a lot longer than five years ago. I still like that story. It still feels personal, and when I read it I remember how good it felt to write it. I was in grad school, the first time, and literally just sat down and churned “Project” out in an afternoon. The published draft is almost identical to the first.
It’s formally not that different from what I do now, although there’s a chance I do it now with more intention, since I’ve read a whole lot more, and devoted a lot more time to thinking about writing.
I can definitely see where “Project” is clunky, where it falls short or doesn’t flow quite right. Where I could have emphasized or cut. But I don’t think I could tell you exactly how I’ve changed as a writer since then. Whatever ways I’ve improved, or whatever ways I’ve gotten worse, they’re all in the warp, not in the weaving.
The only real practical difference is this: Writing is so much harder for me now than it was then.
What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?
Well, I have a story coming out in Lightspeed at some point, which is a fun little yarn about the thing that lives in the wishing-well. I have no clue when that story will be out, but I keep a list of my publications at www.kaufmanwrites.com, and post updates about publishing and other things at willarium.wordpress.com. I’m also very annoying on Twitter, @specwill. If anyone’s interested in what’s coming, those are the best places to keep up.
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