Desire and Limitation: An Interview with Jim Krusoe
As some of you may know, I am attending the low-residency MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. There, I’ve had many opportunities to work with well-established writers. When reviewing published work by the faculty, I was especially impressed with what I read of The Sleep Garden by Jim Krusoe. It was thus a pleasant surprise when I learned he would be conducting my second residency’s workshop.
That workshop was wonderfully educational for me. The advice I received on physical descriptions and pacing were especially valuable. Today, I hope to bring some of that same value to you by interviewing Jim Krusoe about his work and his perspective on the craft. Thank you, Jim, for agreeing to this interview. Now, let’s begin.
Rob: For those unacquainted with your work, how would you describe yourself? What style and thematic qualities would you say define your body of work?
Jim Krusoe: I call my fiction meta-realism, which means nothing to anybody but me. But what I mean is the world of my fiction is a real world that also includes the unlikely, delusions, and dreams. My intent is to explore and challenge conventional boundaries: between life and death, dream and waking, past and present, artifice and natural, desire and limitation, good and bad, comic and tragic.
Rob: I’ll start by touching on a few items you mentioned at the December workshop. You mentioned that, for a recent novel, you entirely changed the point of view after your initial draft. Can you tell me more about that and how you feel POV impacts the story?
JK: Every different POV unlocks a different set of conflicts and details. I once wrote a novel where my protagonist began as a teenage boy in the first draft. In the second he became an old woman and, in the third, ended up as as a middle-aged man, richer and wiser for his earlier incarnations. In addition, I will almost always move a draft back and forth from first to third person (person isn’t the same as POV) until I find the strongest method of delivery. As a rule, I prefer third person because it’s the most congenial to description, but in some cases, depending on the nature of the protagonist, first is the only way to go.
Rob: You’ve mentioned that characters “being in search of something” is what creates interest for readers. Can you elaborate on this? Would you say this the only key element of creating interest, or are there others?
JK: Number one: there are no rules, only tradeoffs. No one has to need anything, but if your character doesn’t have some motivation, there had better be another reason the reader cares about the outcome. The good things about objective correlatives are that they 1) set up goals and endpoints (hence action), and 2) if a character fails to reach a goal (or succeeds) we are left to ponder what that means.
Rob: One major discussion in our workshop evolved around creating physical descriptions, especially while establishing the setting for a scene. Why do you feel this is important?
JK: Descriptions are the most basic of fiction’s building blocks. They create a world, control drama, control pace and, most importantly, put the writer (as well as the reader) in contact with a scene. The rule of thumb is that the details create depth and the lack of them forces one to rely on action.
Other things that can make a narrative compelling are great sentences, great dialogue, ideas, righteousness, outrage, history, and I suppose, beauty and horror. If you have none of the above you might start to worry.
Rob: You also mentioned a couple of strategies or exercises for this: Can you go over any exercises of this nature that may be useful for writers struggling in this arena?
JK: Yes, there are exercises to practice using details, but an interview is probably not the best format to present them. An easy one, however, is to find a page of writing you like and to just type it out.
Rob: In the workshop, you mentioned that the concept of “unities” can apply to modern work, either as guidelines to work within or push against. Can you elaborate on that?
JK: The unities! Aristotle had three: action, place, and time. To which I add character. Action means there should be one main action that is the narrative concern. Place means that it should happen in a single location, and time means a clear and compact interval. By character I mean that we should know whose story it is, and not to double up on characters if we only need one. In any case, what was true then is still remarkably good advice, because every time we mess with a unity, the reader has to recalibrate, and a certain amount of trust (or suspension of disbelief) is lost in the process.
Some of the most memorable stories I can recall are a single mouthful, practically an elevator pitch. That doesn’t mean that every simple story is good, only that if the project is simple, don’t overcomplicate it. I like simplicity and I like complexity; don’t mix them up. Still, the more a writer breaks the unities, the more likely it is that the reader will balk. This is especially true for short stories, but also it is why many a novel is put down and left unfinished.
On the other hand, we also know the joys of finding ourselves in a new or unexpected situation. The sudden realization that things aren’t what they seem is liberating and distressing both in life and fiction. As collateral damage of my investigating borders, I break the unities all the time. It comes with a cost. All those people (in fact, most readers) who just want to be transported by a great story often don’t make it very far. If you absolutely need break the frame, have a good reason, and do it early and often. Don’t jump to another character or time just because you happen to be stuck.
Rob: You made a big genre shift pretty deep into your career. Why do you feel that happened? What was the process like?
JK: I spent at least twenty years writing and publishing poems when it gradually dawned on me that I had stopped enjoying myself. After that, it took about five years to find my footing in prose, and most of what I wrote during those years was not interesting. I still write poems, but in general, fiction catches the rhythm of my thoughts and I know less how it works. This is why fiction is more interesting for me to write. It still feels strange.
Rob: How do you feel your experience with poetry has impacted your fiction?
JK: Reading poetry forces one to pay attention to language, concision, rhythm, and also everything that’s not said (it’s what all that white space on the rest of the page is about).
Rob: Process, especially when it comes to larger projects like novels, feels like one of the greater mysteries of writing to me. Or, perhaps more accurately, it feels like one of the most important and difficult to figure out aspects of writing. Are there approaches to process, or discovering one’s process, that you would recommend to aspiring writers?
JK: As nearly as I can tell, everyone’s process is different. It’s important to learn what yours is, so you can lean on it when things aren’t working out.
Rob: What does your process look like?
JK: I begin by collecting images and questions I can’t seem to shake. Eventually, when there’s a critical mass, I look at them to see how they might form a narrative. The problem, of course, is that out of this initial mass, only twenty percent will have anything to do with anything useful. Figuring out which parts are important and which aren’t can take a while—four years, for my last novel, as an example.
My process is like a blind person in a dark room who is trying to find the parts of a machine he needs to assemble, although he doesn’t know what kind of a machine it is, exactly. Also some of the parts in the room go to other machines. Also, just when he thinks he’s making headway, he hears the door open and somebody throws in another batch of parts.
Rob: You’ve noted that you often do dozens of drafts for any given novel. Why is this important to your process?
JK: In the first place, I need to write a ton of drafts because the sentences in my first few versions tend to sloppiness. In the second place, because of the fragmentary nature of my narratives, it takes three of four drafts for me just to figure out what a book is about. By the time the dust has cleared (somewhere around draft number thirty), at least as many scenes have been tossed as remain.
After I get my sentences to where I can read them without blushing and have finally have run out of ideas of anything else to do, I hand the manuscript over to four or five friends (one at a time), and take in their reactions. After each reading I repair what I can before I hand it to the next person. When I can’t figure out what else to try, I’ll give it to an editor and see if anyone cares about it at that point.
Rob: Your work has followed central characters with unexpected, and sometimes despicable, characteristics. Can you talk about the value of giving characters these layers?
JK: I have never met a human who does not have layers. I’ve never met a bad person who doesn’t justify their behavior to him or her self. Characters are not puppets to project a writer’s agenda, but the means for us to learn about ourselves. They can be illustrative, but they have to be alive.
Rob: What other advice do you have for aspiring writers?
JK: My advice is to make your work as strong as it can be and forget about publishing until you have gone as far as you are able. I think it was the art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, who told me, “Write for your smartest friends and, if they aren’t smart enough, get new ones.”
Be brave, be patient, be sincere. Be humble. Remember that just because you wrote it, it doesn’t make it worth hanging on to. Let go. Swim. Keep swimming.
Rob: And lastly, the two questions that I try to ask everyone who has chosen the writing life: What do you believe the purpose of writing is? And is writing worth it?
JK: The purpose of writing is an attempt to know ourselves. Writing is not the only way to try to do this, but this attempt to understand who we are is the only project I care about.
For those interested in learning more about Jim Krusoe, a brief introduction can be found here. If you’re interested in reading his work (which I really do find to be stellar), you can find the majority of his published fiction listed on this page.