Ken Sparling’s most recent novel, BOOK, was published by Pedlar Press. HUSH UP AND LISTEN STINKY POO BUTT, previously available only in a handmade edition, was released in paperback by Artistically Declined Press earlier this year. Other Pedlar Press books by Ken Sparling include an untitled novel and one novel titled FOR THOSE WHOM GOD HAS BLESSED WITH FINGERS. He has a story in the latest NEW YORK TYRANT and stories online at Corium and JMWW. Pedlar Press will release a new novel by Ken Sparling’s INTENTION. IMPLICATION. WIND. in 2011. He lives in Toronto.
Michael Kimball: I’ve been reading your work ever since I took a copy of Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall from the Knopf offices back in 1996. One of the striking things about the book – and something that has carried through the untitled novel, For Those Whom God Has Blessed with Fingers, and Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt – is the storytelling unit that you use. These are bits, fragments, sometimes just a line or a brief paragraph, sometimes up to a page or so and the narrative accumulates out of these pieces and the spaces between them. Could you talk about how you came to structure your novels in this way and what it does that a traditional narrative doesn’t?
Ken Sparling: My life comes in bits, fragments, brief paragraphs, and sometimes a page or two, so it makes sense that this is my unit of storytelling. I’ve only ever been able to squeeze a bit of writing in here and there. I loved that story about Raymond Carver going out of his house and sitting in his car just to get some time away from everything going on in his life so he could do some writing. From my perspective, those storytelling units I use are what life looks like. My storytelling units don’t exist in contrast to traditional narrative, because I don’t see traditional narrative happening in the world anywhere I look – except maybe in books (not mine), newspapers, magazines… Traditional narrative doesn’t happen in the real world, as far as I can see, but I don’t pretend to be able to see very far.
It isn’t so much that the storytelling units are small in my books, more that they don’t seem connected, they don’t seem to relate to each other. There seems to be no rules for what happens after a reader encounters an expanse of white space and moves onto the next little bit. Whatever it is that sustains each individual section seems to break down as soon as a section ends.
I do spend some time thinking about how to order the pieces in my books. Especially in Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, where I had no guide, no precedent to follow.
I make a sustained effort to order the storytelling units in my books in an effective way. I do a lot of rearranging of the storytelling units in my books. I do it by ear, listening to how one unit sounds, then looking for a unit to follow that will sound completely different. I don’t think about what I might be able to accomplish by ordering a book a certain way. I just feel my way through. But I am trying for something, a certain feeling, and I would maybe be comfortable at this stage of the game calling that feeling a feeling of beginning again. And then again.
It’s readily apparent that I am in command of nothing in my books. They almost seem to command me. But they don’t seem to be in a position to command anything.
What if your story was about a guy going grocery shopping with his wife and kid and then paying for the groceries and then loading them into the car? What if that was the whole story? If you could tell a story like that and somehow sustain a reader’s interest, it might be a way of uncovering a little bit the impulse that drives the writing, as opposed to getting caught up in the story. Beneath the story is an impulse and it’s this impulse that I think remains when you take away the story.
I love reading traditional narrative. I love being involved in a sustained story, a story that makes me forget there is no story in my own life. It’s a fantasy. It’s an escape.
When you open a novel and discover that there is no story, you begin to wonder what the writer’s intention is.
If you wanted to divert a reader’s desire away from discovering a great story and seduce her into exploring intent, how would you do that?
My books might be a kind of confession. An admission that I have no authority in the field of writing; or, at least, that my authority is based on something beyond command of story.
The record the writer leaves behind in the form of his books is never an authoritative command of the genre; it is always only an exploration of what it means to be authoritative.
I don’t think it’s so much that the units in my books are small. It isn’t the units in and of themselves. It’s the way the units relate to each other. There seem to be no rules governing what is allowed to go into any of these books I’ve made. I seem to operate on some principal that demands I structure my work as though the words were some sort of small, insect-based protein that lives in small colonies sandwiched between unbreachable white space, space that operates to ensure that no single colony of insects will ever encounter another.
Making a book looks like it should create a kind of coherence. There are rules when you pick up a book. You start on the first page. You read the word at the top left corner and then the word beside that and then the next one. You get to the word in the bottom right corner of the page and then you move to the top left corner of the next page. Then you do it again. The book as object sets up expectations. Books look like they should cohere because all of the words are in an order you’ve learned to follow.
A book looks like a plan, and a plan puts me in a bad place, a place on the far side of a barrier that gets harder and harder to breech every day.
Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, is now in paperback in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005). His three novels have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. His work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, Open City, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)—and two documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).