Materiality is Proof: A Conversation with K Chess

K Chess is the author of FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED (Tin House Books, 2019). Her writing has appeared in The Chicago Tribune’s Printer’s Row Journal, PANK, Salon, and other outlets. Her short stories have been honored by the Nelson Algren Literary Award and the Pushcart Prize. K reads fiction for Quarterly West and teaches writing at GrubStreet. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.


Sam DiBella: Hi, K, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me about your sci-fi, New York novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived. For a book about parallel time lines, I was struck by how much the book it is centered around material memory, memory through things. The two central characters, Hel and Vikram, are so focused on finding and preserving physical traces of their own New York, like their favorite novel The Pyronauts. How did memory become such a core theme for the book?

K Chess: I think you’re right. Materiality is proof, right? Memory is ephemeral for all of us, but if we have a physical object, then that’s something that can be confirmed by others. That’s why there’s a focus on objects and what people brought through. Even if you share a memory with other people, even if you and other people read the same book and remember the plot of it, we feel it doesn’t really exist unless there’s a physical object, a copy of the book to back it up.

I was inspired by the work of Brian Sokol, a photographer who’s worked in refugee camps and asked refugees about objects that they treasure. For some people the thing they’ve hung onto is practical, like a flask so they could carry water while they were on the move. For other people, it’s something sentimental like a piece of jewellery. I remember there was one woman who had a pair of embroidered jeans and she didn’t even wear them. It’s just her favorite pair of jeans, and they have flowers on them, and she remembers the day she got them with her parents. She’s planning on wearing them later, and she’s brought them thousands of miles.

I think people are naturally sentimental and having something physical to hold onto is real in a way that our memories, or even our shared cultural possessions, are not. Folks do hang onto objects as talismans. I think that’s why for Hel it’s not just about remembering The Pyronauts, which is a book she’s read several times and can talk to other UDPs about—a lot of folks have read it. But it’s about having that physical copy of the book and knowing that it’s safe.

I was only imagining what it would be like to be displaced, but we’ve all played that game where we think, “If my house burned down, what would I grab?” Your house burning down won’t take away your memory, but nevertheless we feel the need—“I’d have this photo album. I’d have this vase that was my uncle’s, or whatever it may be.”

SD: I personally responded to the section where Vikram was watching reality TV shows of hoarders getting rid of their stuff—how he empathized with their attachment to what they had. The relationships we have with those objects are so unique, so asymmetrical. The character Dwayne had a connection to the same painting as Hel, and for Dwayne it held an evocative memory of his grandmother’s house, what it was like to live with her. Yet, for Hel, it’s something else, something symbolic, because she knows the author Ezra Sleight’s biography and what it meant to him.

KC: Yeah, but Dwayne has so much other crap from his grandmother and that’s actually an obstacle to him. He’s got the Airway Clearance System machine, and he’s got all the Tupperware. Any one object isn’t going to have the same weight; it’s a piece of his childhood among other pieces. The thing that you happen to have is worth a lot because it’s what you happen to have.

SD: Towards the end of Famous Men, the narrative threads start to unravel as the book follows everyone’s personal apocalypse. You have the flames at Ezra Sleight’s house and in The Pyronauts, but then also this imaginative section that Hel has written about her son. They felt like such a contrast to the earlier parts of the book. All these different calamitous events that come together—why did you choose to leave the earlier writing style behind?

KC: It just seems right to me to turn up the heat in the latter section of a book. It’s artificial from the writer’s perspective to try to make something happen in all the different threads at the same time. If it creates an effect for the reader that organically seems like lots of calamities, that’s what I was going for. It’s deliberate that we’re getting just sections of The Pyronauts, but we have John Gund in crisis toward the end, and I left that unresolved in the book. He’s watching the tower burn. I’m hoping that the emotional resonance of the sections contributes to the tension, even though the sections aren’t related. In a way, it is artificial that the sections of The Pyronauts happen to be tense. We could have had a boring section of The Pyronauts there, right?

I think it’s a beautiful thing about writing longform fiction that I discovered, since I’d never done it before, that you can realize, “Okay, I need there to be some sort of rising action and climax, and I need everything to be pulling its weight. I need all of the sections to build tension for that effect, and so I’m gonna fiddle around with when things happen in the different threads, to make sure they’re all pulling together at the end.” Some of that work happened in the editing process. Those sections fell in different places in the first draft and then I realized that it had to be moved toward the end.

I really worked with my editor, Tony Perez, on Vikram’s arc. If you think of all the sections he’s in, fairly early on he has this delusion that maybe more people from his world are passing through. Because he wants that very badly, he’s willing to consider that a realistic theory when he sees the blue light in the storage warehouse where he works. Then he discovers there’s a less exciting explanation for it. It’s someone who’s trying to send a signal back, and it’s someone who’s been doing it for years without any hope of it working out. It’s disappointing to him and he sinks into a funk for a while. And then he recovers and moves forward by making real friendships outside the UDP community and by interviewing people within his community. All of that happened earlier for him in the first draft of the novel. The revelation that nobody else was coming and getting over it happened quickly. Then he spent most of his arc being well-adjusted and feeling good.

My editor helped me realize that some of that had to happen later, and Vikram had to feel bad for longer for it to work with what was independently going on with other characters. It’s cool to know you can do that kind of editing in a longform work. You would never have to consider that, writing a short story. It’s like, “All these events are fine and most of the words that you’ve written can be preserved, but you have to change when things happen and move the words you’ve written to different places for it to have the right or most effective emotional impact on the reader.”

SD: Developmental editing’s a hard decision.

KC: I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be an editor, honestly. I did an MFA program and I’ve been in a lot of critique groups. I like to think that I give great critiques to other writers, but I’ve never received advice as helpful as from my editor, ever, from any of the other smart writers I’ve worked with. I’m sure I’ve never given advice that was as helpful as the way my editor guided me. I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know if all editors are like that, but I had a great experience. It’s kind of magical.

SD: I wanted to talk a bit about your piece on LitHub about transcription and writing dialogue. Part of the way you structured Famous Men is to have these oral statements and third-person point-of-view sections. You keep going back and forth between them, and I wondered, how did that structure relate to your previous experience with transcription, as you described it in that piece?

KC: Yeah. It’s a cheat. I think it’s a break for both reader and writer to have different kinds of sections. I’m convinced that the hardest kind of writing is to write in a single point of view, consistently, chronologically, for an entire novel. So, I put in sections from The Pyronauts and interviews partly as a break for myself. That said, though I didn’t transcribe any interviews for this book, I wanted to give it multiple voices in the way that Svetlana Alexievich does in Voices from Chernobyl. I wanted to give the sense that even a shared experience is highly individual. It doesn’t do justice to this made-up, science-fiction disaster to just be hearing what it’s like for Hel and what it was like for Vikram. It’s different for all 156,000 people who experienced it, and I wanted to give other people voices there.

I wanted to depict an immigrant experience or a refugee experience where everybody who is a refugee in this fictional experience is a true New Yorker. My experience of New York is so heterogeneous and diverse, and I wanted to have characters from different backgrounds, different races, and genders, and sexual orientations, and ages, and socio-economic backgrounds, and cultures. Even though the two main characters have different backgrounds, that’s not enough.

I enjoyed my experience working in New York and talking to people who interacted with the cops—the random grab-bag of people. I talked to young, ultra-Orthodox Jewish people who’d got speeding tickets. I talked to older Jamaican people who’d witnessed a convenience store holdup. I talked to people who’d been having a quinceañera and got into a fight on the steps of their brownstone.

Even though I only am who I am, I wanted to do my best to show—I think if you were a young, white twenty-something who moves to New York, many of your friends will also be young, white twenty-somethings or maybe people of color, but twenty-somethings who came to New York to be artists. But there are so many different ways to live in New York and so many people you wouldn’t meet in your social circles but whom you’re going to see on the train and at the bodega.

SD: It makes sense. I don’t know if this is just New York or cities, but the feeling of being—there’s so many different worlds so close to one another. And the ones that you could even consciously choose don’t even cover it.

KC: Yes. I think I touched more worlds in New York. After New York, I lived in Portland, Oregon, which I guess I’ve heard is the whitest major American city; I’m not sure if that’s still true, though there is a long and proud tradition of African-Americans in Portland being screwed over by redlining. I’m not trying to say everyone in Portland is white. And then after that I lived in Boston, and I feel like things are so segregated in Boston.

There are, of course, these other worlds, but I never even got a glimpse of them. That’s what I like about New York, that you’re not going to be a part of other worlds necessarily, but you have a sense of them. No matter who you are, how tight your blinders are. I feel a fear of not doing justice to experiences that I haven’t lived, but I also—it’s more important to give it a go, because I didn’t want to create a whitewashed version of New York that’s not accurate to what you see around you.

SD: It’s a tricky dilemma. Did you do a lot of research or ask people to look over your statements?

KC: I relied on my memory of people that I had known. And I had some diverse readers (not necessarily New Yorkers), reading drafts of the book; but a lot of it is swagger, you know? I did the best I could to be true to the people I talked to when I lived in New York. The fact that I’d done transcription in the past helped me with fidelity. Because I think you pay more attention if you are literally writing down someone’s words. I’ve heard of this as a revision technique.

Writers write a version of something and then re-write it in their handwriting when they’re trying to figure out what they need to do with it, and that somehow makes you think about it a different way when you’re copying the words over. I feel like revision makes you do that. All of us have conversations all the time, and we do our best to listen to our interlocutors, but when you have to write down the words that they said, then you are really paying attention to the words.

Because they didn’t have apps that could transcribe interviews back in 2007, 2008, when I was working as a civilian investigator, right? I had to actually listen to the tape and rewind and listen again and rewind and listen again if somebody had an accent or used slang I wasn’t familiar with. I would ask friends, “Can you hear what’s happening at twelve minutes and thirty-two seconds? Because I keep listening to it and I can’t understand it.” Actually listening to my voice and these peoples’ voices and typing it all up was an intentional act.

SD: I liked the subtle vocabulary differences that the UDPs had or would talk about in the oral statements, when some minor thing that had a word in their world wouldn’t have one in ours or the word was something slightly different. It was part of how you showed some of the more subtle divergences. There’s peoples’ phonetic accent and how they speak, but then there’s this whole semantic vocabulary of describing the word that can differ as well. And those were intertwined.

KC: Thank you. I’m talking about a divergence that was in 1908, 1909, or 1910, and that’s not very long ago, but so many of the words we use or the phrases we use are new. We all use the word “gay” for people who have same-sex attractions, or whatever. “Gay” is such a weird word, and it’s a new word, and it seems completely neutral to us. But if the twentieth century had gone differently, we would call that phenomenon something else entirely. I chose a clinical word that was used in the 1800s and 1900s. “Invert” used to be what people who were gay were called, and what if that was the thing that had become not just the medical term—that’s pretty funny too. The idea that you are inverted, you’re attracted to yourself, which seems like a weird way to think of it. But that was a real word that was used at one point, and what if that had been taken up so people who are gay in the UDPs’ world are called “verts.”

I could’ve done so much more. It was fun to play around with. I’m not a linguist, but even as just a dabbler, it was fun to think about. The chancy ways that our language has evolved and to show that in the ways people speak.

SD: I remember from our earlier conversations, you mentioned that there was a difference between how you decided to write these oral statements. You wrote them as monologues as opposed to the dialogue that’s in the other parts of the book. Would you mind describing that decision and how you went about writing those?

KC: There’s an interviewing technique where you interview someone and then you turn that interview into a first-person statement by the subject of the interview, which Alexievich uses. I’m not an expert, but I hear that this is a genre in Russia that’s more common. You, as the journalist, have more freedom in how you edit it to come across as a first-person, forthright statement. I think that I talked about Tony Parker’s Life After Life before as well, which is a book of interviews with folks from the U.K. who’ve been convicted of murder and sentenced to life. It’s almost a fantasy of talking to someone and having them directly tell their own specific experience, in their own words, but only touching on the stuff that’s interesting and relevant—when we know, if we’ve ever done transcription, if we’ve ever done interviews, that the way people actually speak is boring and repetitive and contradictory. The interviewer is allowed to take an editorial hand and cut out those redundancies and just express what we believe the person meant to express. The advantages of the directness of the interview without the disadvantages of the meandering. I liked to play with that idea.

SD: I wish I knew more about oral history to follow up…

KC: Well, I don’t either, so I’m glad you don’t! I just read the Zora Neale Hurston book Barracoon, where she interviewed the last living survivor of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Kossula. Kossula was captured and kidnapped as an eighteen-year-old from his home in Africa and brought to the U.S. and was enslaved, I think, for a year and a half before Emancipation happened. So, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade had already been abolished, but some asshole in Alabama decided to get a ship and go kidnap some people from Africa, despite the legality. So Kossula was still alive in the thirties, and he was an old man and had lived most of his life in the segregated South as a free person, but had been briefly enslaved and had memories of his upbringing in Africa, as well. And Hurston authenticates the manuscript by including the specificity of his speech and the repetitions and the way that she would ask him a question and he wouldn’t really answer it. By leaving all of that in, it’s a way of showing its legitimacy. That’s this whole different school, right?

SD: I was familiar with her work from Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is also based on a lot of anthropological research. It’s a book where so much detail goes into representing dialect, but as a fiction of that place and time.

KC: Yeah, Barracoon had trouble finding a publisher at the time Hurston wrote it, because of the dialect. She preserved the way that Kossula spoke, and even then maybe dialect was falling out of favor. So, maybe it sounded like someone’s imagining of how a not-very-educated Black person might speak, but she’s using that dialect to authenticate the fact that she really talked to this guy, who had such an unusual experience.

SD: What was your writing process like for Famous Men? And what are you working on now?

KC: My writing process was very specific to the place and life that I was living when I wrote this book and that was: in graduate school. I was not taking classes. I taught every single day at 8 a.m. so I had to be awake and sober every weekday, but then my duties were over at 10 in the morning. That was a great environment for working on a long project, because I felt like I had succeeded at something and I was ready to work and I didn’t have a day job that I had to do. It was awesome, and I wrote in my five hundred square foot apartment that was a converted garage. I like to pretend it was a small studio in New York, but it was actually a converted garage in Illinois.

My life has changed since then and I am out in the real world with a 9 to 5 job, so my writing process is different. Now I get up at 5 a.m. to write. I don’t think I’m good for much after work, and I’m sick of fighting that battle. So, I get up before work and write for a couple hours. I try to do it four days a week, but more often it’s two or three. And then I write on the weekends at a co-working space.

I am the kind of person who falls into over-editing almost as a method of procrastination. You open up the document to look at what you did yesterday and fiddle with it and add a comma. I knew that about myself on entering this project and I wanted to avoid that. I used a lot of different documents, so that I wouldn’t always be looking at the same first line. That was helpful for me, for maintaining momentum.

I think after I’d got not that far in—I’d written around six thousand words—I found myself slipping and falling into editing instead of moving forward. At that point, I wrote down the best outline I could at that time for the entire novel. But I did it on notecards and put each scene on its own notecard, so I could move them around or add additional notecards or take notecards out. And that worked out pretty well for me—it enabled me to finish an 80,000- or 90,000-word novel.

I don’t know if that means it has a deterministic feel. I’m working on novel now in which I have not outlined that much. I’m still doing the separate documents thing, and I have a scene list. So, if I’m feeling like I’m not getting anywhere with one of them, I’ve got other scenes that I know need to be in the novel that I can switch to. But I haven’t mapped out the entire book in the same way, because I’m hoping that I can evolve more naturally.

I don’t know what people’s appetite is for this question. It’s a common question in interviews, but I never really know what people want.

SD: It’s a weird question because it’s sometimes where people—in the arena of people getting asked one question and answering another—wax philosophical. For me at least, I’m curious about all the details, like literally what the files were and things like that. So, thank you! And then the last question—

KC: What I’m working on now.

SD: I think you said, you’re still…

KC: I feel weird answering this question, but I am going to answer this question. I feel like a sucker, because I feel like I’ve answered this question about a novel that I’ve since given up on, and I’m worried I’ll jinx this one by telling you what it is, but I’m going to anyway. So it’s on the record. It’s all good.

I’m writing about Providence, Rhode Island, where I live. I’m writing about young people and the music scene. White people who are obsessed with Black music from a hundred years ago, in a diverse city, and running into non-white people, about the blues hobbyist culture now and also the white people in the sixties who were collecting blues stories and digging up folks who were making music in the thirties and bringing them into the light and making them suddenly famous. And how weird that is. I’m thinking about—I read a biography of Skip James who recorded some 78s in 1931 for Paramount Records, which went defunct, and then he gave up on making music and worked as a laborer. And definitely didn’t know that anybody still cared about his music. He used to be popular at parties. He’d play at house parties, and other Black people loved his music, and he had a good time and then he grew out of it, basically. Then a new generation of young people, mostly white people, decided he was a genius and found out where he was. And he was sort of like, “This is weird.” And also he had had this life of nobody recognizing him and now he was suddenly being validated as a genius but from an unexpected quarter.

SD: What time periods or neighborhoods will you be writing about?

KC: I’m going to do some research into the specific blues history of Rhode Island—it just happens to be set in Providence because I live here now. But, like many New England cities, I think there’s an interesting history of white people and Black people coexisting uneasily, too. There are downtown scenes and there are scenes on the Pawtucket border. I like Providence—it’s a book about people walking and biking too, and I like how compact it is. There are neighborhoods that kids that come here to go to Brown have never seen, but I think the whole city is pretty walkable. It’s a book about walking drunk late at night, from one part of the city to another.


Sam DiBella

Sam DiBella recently graduated from a masters program in media and communications at the London School of Economics, and he is now working as a copyeditor for a weekly news magazine in London. His dissertation research is on online deanonymisation and lateral surveillance. His essays and reviews have appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, the LSE Review of Books, Heterotopias, and First Person Scholar, among others. He tweets @prolixpost.

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