books: Lithium for Medea (1979), Palm Latitudes (1988), Squandering the Blue (1990), Wonders of the West (1993), Small Craft Warnings (1998), Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir (forthcoming 2006, winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize)
interview conducted by Fiction Attic editor Michelle Richmond
1. What are you reading right now?
In my new mission to build a critical apparatus for this region, which I think is lacking because we are a unique post-historical conceptual region–that’s our legacy and reality–rather than a 20th century area measured in miles and area codes. So I read the National Book Award offerings, particularly Vollmann’s Europe Central which I loved, and Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking which I loathed. One is a revolutionary view and the other etiology of privilege. I want to make distinctions, from the text outward. A real political voice rises indigenous from the page effortlessly. A false one happens by inflicting the politics onto the page and then filling in a story. I can recognize the difference. I read Blaise Cendrares’s Prose on the Transsiberrain for the pleasure, as I pick up one of the same half a dozen poets and just read out loud for the music and transcendent joy. Plath. Neruda. Paz. I re-read, recently books of the 70’s, beginning with Hunter Thompson, ‘Robert Stone’s Dog Soldier and A Flag for Sunrise, Tom McGuane’s 92 in the Shade and Panama. I like to be read to. My husband is re-re-re reading out loud the LaCarre Tinker Tailor trilogy for the 8 or 9th time. That trilogy is better than Grahme Greene. I read very little, as reading is a work activity for me, as demanding as writing. I don’t read a book, but autopsey it. with somebody like Vollmann, one of his novels is like receiving the schematics for literary wmd’s.
2. It’s the 25th anniversary of the publication of Lithium for Medea. Congratulations! Any advice to writers on how to hang in there for the long haul?
When I began pubishing in the early and mid 70’s, it was the publishing world. Then it became the publishing business, then the publishing industry. When I began publishing, it was “a hand shake” situation, it was daring to use a female name, as the chances of publication were automatically diminished. My first stories were sent out with just initals, as was the custom then. K.E. Braverman. Not overtly belonging to that unpublishable caste, females.
How to hang in for 25 years, doing experimental work and taking the chance that the increasingly random maketerplace will not delete you, the spreading dumbness and numbness of a reading public that wants tiny conventional restatements of what they already know rather than engage in the trek of ambiguity and complexity a real literary work demands?Agents and publishers who care least about the literary merit but most about sales? Marcel Duchamp said if you’re 20 and you write poetry, you are 20. If you’re 50 and you write poetry, you’re a poet. I write because I have a calling I’ve been practicing for 30 years and it is the way I interface with reality. I am addicted and can not live without it. I’ve burned all the boats back, so I am marooned on this island where there is only landscape, dialogue blowing in with the vanilla scented wind and a word processor. No seasons, no climate, no time zones, just the work. It’s not a question of hanging in, but rather chancing to survive.
Most of the writers I meet don’t have a calling. I’ll do another 12 drafts of a piece that’s been rejected because I know I can make it better, get deeper, find where there’s an intersection I missed. Many writers I meet are not writing for the acts of alchemy that can occur when the page is entered into by convenant, caress and sacrifice. They are not using the page as it is meant to be used, but inflicting other mediums onto the innocent surface–as tv shows or tv sized ideas in book format. This is not a book, but a desecration. Why don’t those people simply write screenplays or treatments? Essentially, I’ve been reading San Francisco writers and re-reading.
3. Your husband is a musician, correct? Do you write to music? If so, was there a soundtrack of choice while you were composing your latest book, Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir?
My husband is a research scientist, a molcular biologist, genetic enginner, biomaterials, nanotechology visionary, and futurist. We tied for the Economist Prize in 2003, he wrote about the ethics of nanotech and I wrote a prose poem about growing up in LA and we were astounded to tie for the prize. He’s writing a book about the implications of the new technology on our collective human future.
He’s a musican by love. Over the years, we’ve experimented with putting his music behind or collaged with my poems. He’s in charge of all the music. Now we’ve got about 90 minutes of set music with poems and will be performing then for the Lithium for Medea birthday parties I’ll be having in NY, Paris, Instanbul and other cities. I’m using the 15 poems I arbitrarily chose that were written in the same voice, and then wrote a narrative for and between, the poems that were the spine and anatomy of LFM
4. What is the significance of the title of your forthcoming book, Transgressions to and From Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir? Were there any other titles in the running before you chose this one?
The new Graywolf Prize book didn’t have a sound track but the 7 seasons that lashed me as I wrote it in a farmhouse in the Allegheny Mts. of remote rural western NY State, just above PA where our nearest city was Buffalo and there was an 8 month virulent winter. It had a brutal yellow glare, since it’s about growing up in LA, moving to the country for that mythic second life in buccolic rural America. Then I spent a month in Prague and soaked up Gothic architecture and the lavendar on the cobblestones and the reds and purples of acres of Bohemian crystal and gave the book a certain softening gilt, garnets on the fingers, neck and wrists.
There were no alternative titles, but there was a new ending I wrote after I’d won the prize which GW rejected. I wonder if it was censored and will be trying to identify those I can ask to read the ending I wrote and tell me if they think the real end was censored and if it damaged the political trajectory. I suspect it did.
I need to keep my living environment as bland, unobtrusive, quiet visually and audio as possible. I don’t have a tv or subscribe to any print publications. I delete popular culture completely from my writing life. I’ve been lisening to the same dozen albums for 10 years. I’m not interested in fashion, sports, the sport of politics. I pull the blinds when I write. I keep my back to the wall when I work. I’m a method writer, I live what I write (and so much more) so I’ve almost got my skin off, I’m using the loose tissue for sails, so I am always vulnerable and find transitions between the writing region and ordinary world extremely difficult.
5. You’ll be doing some events in Paris upon the publication of Frantic Transmissions in February. What does Paris mean to you as a writer?
I told my French publisher, Quidam, that I always wanted to be avant garde, but 25 years was more than I had planned on. When the books were published in Italy, it was information presented and received in so listless and posthumous a fashion, another publisher, another problem, that I didn’t see a way of partipating effectively. With the French, I sought contact and established a personal relationship by email. I offered to go and this has turned into a real tour. Turkey is publishing LFM in Jan and Palm Lat, my 1988 novel in May, and after Paris, I’m going to Istanbul for Univ readings, tv and media. I just found out about this and am very excited. Paris holds a significance not only in the conventional literary sense one ordinarily thinks of, but as a sign that my work must find a global audience, that the political intentions of my work might not be acceptable to American audiences (after 30 years) in the demand on the reader to engage in illness, marginalization, racism, the struggles of single mothers, anti-Semitism, the degradation of the 60’s asethetic entirely—I ‘ve always thought my books would be better read outside this country which continues to swing to right=Christian side in a suffociating, frightening way.
6. Okay, we ask this of everyone: what’s your favorite San Francisco eatery?
I am not interested in food as fashion. I hardly eat at all, don’t drink alcohol, work odd hours and don’t have a single favorite restaurant. I am not interested in food any more. A bowl of brown rice, oatmeal, fruit. I live on the milk in cafe lattes and vitamins. I just lost interest in food, selecting it, carting it in, preparing it, cleaning it up. In the Allegeny Mt exile, there were no restaurants and social life was the senior faculty inviting one another over for dinner. I learned to cook, grew my own foods, once made 3 pies a day for an entire summer to perfect my crust. When our daguther left for college, I annnounced I was no longer cooking. When we moved to SF, I announced I was no longer shopping or washing dishes. The women’s arts are too time consuming–it takes me all day to make a dinner and clean it up. I don’t have six hours laying around like that. Or I chose not to. I have always resented the time and energy the correct wife and mother is supposed to give to banal unnecessary activities. I am disturbed by how easily women writers cave into the same traditional peer pressures, especially with children. I want to make a car bumper sign that says JUST SAY NO TO SOCCER. I’ve dealt with these issues in the 2 collections of unpublished stories I have. Professional women are gutting their work and personal schedules for the new holy collective hallucination of soccer. My daughter, who is graduating from law school in May was raised by a feminist artist who was not a dillatante, but actually worked all the time. I told her my writing life was as much a real job as being a doctor or lawyer, that I had hours of work, that I wasn’t available for her every whim. We live in a society where every kid’s stray spasm of enthusiaSM is met with an immediate new uniform and coach. It’s random. Like week of the “C”. Every kind has cello lessons, Chinese and calligraphy, canoe lessons. Then it’s “M” week. Mandolines, Mandarin study, Muslim awareness, micro something, Mars study. We give our children an emormous sense of entitlement by mutilating our professional and personal lives for childish passing whims. What kid actually possesses the plethora of gifts we routinely attribute to them? Virtually no one. It’s another passing fashion that I am passing on.
7. Climate is often such an enormous presence in your writing. Why?
I go native wherever I live. As a CA writer, as a writer without skin, I write on a molecular level using my synapses as tools, the external landscape is a character for me. I’ve been more intimate with certain landscapes than certain husbands. My aesthetics have an errotic compoenent. I love landscape in a profound way I can translate onto the page, which is a unique kingdom, with its own unique rules and seasons, like a continent, vast, mysterious, inexplicable and inexhorable. To be a CA woman, even more so in LA where I was based for 20 years. is to inhabit a non-traditional America, without seaons, closer to Mexico City or the Pacific Rim than Europe. In LA, it was always about keeping the indigenous out, that real art could actually be done by residents of the subliterate heathen masses was unthinkable when I began doing it. We have a different relationship to traditional anglo-europen writing. We don’t have Hawthrone’s dark forest, we’re not in opposition to our nature but coexist with it in harmony. Our cities are named for Spanish saints and butchers. Asia blows in our wind. It is a climate that encourages experimentation and a more confessional approach. That’s why SF has a legacy as an outlaw capital. We welcome the renagade, the outlawed, the visionary and eccentric here. LA does now, but only if the individual is carrying a pass from a studio and can prove they have a movie in a secondary phase of development. Climate has an impact that is defining. When I lived in rural isolation, where getting 12 miles to the town with a supermarket was often impossible, a certain smallness of ambition and possibility becomes an intrinsic compoenent of one’s actions and vision. I love SF, this port city built by desperate gold diggers and the adventuresome that have at least moored here at pivitol junctions.
8. Much of your work seems to beg to be performed. How would you describe the relationship between you and the audience during a live performance?
I began as a poet and one of the first poetry readings I attended was one I gave. As a poet and now a writer of incantory prose, such writing is intended to be read out loud. I have seen many opportunities during my career to put the work on stage. During the 70’s, when I came of age as a writer (I was a Haight Ashbury runaway at 15 and put myself through Berkeley High and Cal in LA (Hunter Thompson and the Beats are 20 and 30 years older then me) it was the time of Punk. Since many of the punk bands went through the Venice Poetry Workshop, which I was a director of at the time, poets and punk bands were performing together. I saw the change of dynamic becoming a performer would require and this did not appeal to me and my work on the page. I used to do readings with a pencil in one hand so I could live edit, feel the kinetics of where a piece was off. Trust your ear, not your eye. Trust the physical kinetics, not what the lines look like. I write music. I don’t write, I compose. I started to give live readings in SF after many years of not having a live audience and I loved it again, felt the thrill again. We would, over the years, do an occasional gig with music, but I didn’t want to put the energy into it—a form of washing dishes, dispensible. Now we’re doing it for fun, the classic poems with music written as for songs. The rush of connecting with an audience when you don’t have a book in your hand is up there with injecting drugs and sex. It’s an A list rush. Since moving to SF, I’ve become more experimental about the work in all forms, including considering stage and music, rythem, cadance, that which accentuates the incantory nature of the work. Our living room is now an ad hoc recording studio. We’re exploring a whole new terrain. I think I can write directly to the music and will be trying that as an experiment. Writers don’t experiment enough, take the wild chance, rearrange, restructure, re-experience, reinvent. Our approach with the sound collages is an entirely new synethesis. The possibilities are still unfolding.
9. Robert Polito, who judged the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, called your prizewinning manuscript ” an enthralling mix of memoir, history, and fever dream.” What is the role of dream in literary creation? More specifically, fever dream?
Many answer, though few are called. To volantarily enter a sort of permanent house arrest, to live as though you are at all times engaged in a public psychoanalaytic session/AA sharing meeting, while feeling you are being interrogated by state police and confession to a priest is not for everyone nor should it be. To live with emotional malaria is not a wise decision and should only be taken if there is no alternative. They are graduating 10,000 certified MFA writers a year. That’s 10,000 unemployed writers who must get jobs teaching in MFA programs, of which few will be gainfully employed and fewer still will earn a living from the sales of their work.
In her great book on writing, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard observes that very few are writers and very little harm comes to them. I would add that the converse is also true. Looking at the artists of the last century in America, it’s a story of suicide, drug adiction, alcoholism, child abandonment, divorce, dysfunction, mental illness. Of course, when men engage in these behaviors, we say they not etching lives of brutal chaos, but are the embodiment of the mythic artist. When women engage in these identical behaviors, we call them mentally ill aberrations and degrade and dismiss their contributions. The fever dream, the complete surrender to a transcendent other has always been the province of males. When women enter this state of grace and vertigo, we call them mentally ill, promisicus, defective. Women are chained on the page as they are in life. The marketplace demands female versions of real characters that lack the epic dimensions males are permitted. This has not altered signifcantly during the 30 years of my work.
The new book is a complete experiment in subverting genre. It’s an “accidental memoir” and is, as all my work, rendered in my primary language, which is poetry, with its musical, incantory component. It’s real history, fiction, pure poetry, stand-up comedy monologues, essays I’d written for the LA Times during the Allegany exile, impressions by a CA woman on small town life. It’s about space, architecture, climate, region, identity, aging. It’s pushing the envelope on what nonfiction can do, and since Capote, Mailer, Didion and HST, nonfiction seems a fertile field, less fortressed, fewer crocodiles in the moats.I do wonder about the last chapter, which I may post on my web.
10: What’s in your attic?
Do you mean that metamorphically? My work is largely autobiographical, though the page requires a complete transformation of the original impulses. There are always 2 stories, the one you set out to tell and the dynamic that occurs when the page speaks. It’s a dance, you do some, the page does some. In this dynamic arises the discovery and revelation, the alchemy. My real life is much more exciting then what I’ve written in my 11 published and 5 still unpublished books. My life as a teenage runaway. My life in the LA Punk scene. My life in the barrio of LA where I had an illigitimate baby. My life on the run with my infant from prosecution by the authorities who wanted to decree that I tie my destiny to a stranger I didn’t want to know; most women wouldn’t run. I did. My activities as an anti-war activist during the 60’s. I think my attic has been open for decades. I invite the curious in.
author photo by Chris Felver
Visit Kate Braverman’s web site at www.katebraverman.com.