Photo by Jennifer Percy
Kyle Minor's short-story collection Praying Drunk came out Friday. I had seen the very positive reviews and the raves, so I stayed in bed to read it. When I got to the end of the second story, I was bawling. Not sort of softly choked up, or tearing a little. I was really sobbing.
I had been impressed—up until the uncontrollable tears—with Minor's style. He is so fearless and so natural. He takes his time telling stories. He doesn't follow any convention I know. But when he tore out my heart, I thought, Everyone has got to read this.
So I wrote to Minor and asked if he'd do a little interview, and he agreed. We talked about writing about religion and crossing racial divides, but he also told me his favorite joke.
VICE: One thing that distinguishes your voice, for me, is that it is anti-minimalist, without being purple. I feel like you aren't afraid to unwind your stories at your own pace. How'd you come to that style?
Kyle Minor: I don't really think about writing in terms of minimalism or maximalism or slick or tight or purple, or any of the words people use to try to describe style in broad categories. I'm thinking, instead, about the question of who is speaking the story, and that's the choice from which all the other important choices—beginnings, endings, language, event, sentence-making—will rise.
Most of the stories in Praying Drunk are coming from the point of view of a single speaker. I want to give as much of that speaker's consciousness as I can possibly deliver, so the reader can know with great clarity what it's like to be the person the speaker is, in the moment of great trouble the story means to offer. So everything is on the table—every bit of knowledge, personal history, special logic, prejudice, peccadillo.
And since all of that is being offered through unfolding time, the sentences begin to wind around themselves, the way thoughts do. I'm trying my best to find a container for the thoughts, and simple sentences will hardly ever get the job done in a situation like that. A situation like that seems more often to require the compound-complex sentence.
I read somewhere that no one writes about religion. It's obvious why—it's unpopular. People think it's corny. How'd you come to write about religion?
Writing about religion isn't broadly unpopular. If you go to the bookstore, you'll see shelves and shelves of books about it, and they sell quite nicely. It's that writing about religion is unpopular with literary people who believe—perhaps because it is easy to live in an insulating liberal-ish bubble—that writing about religion is unsophisticated and, in some cases, beneath contempt. On the other hand, it's true that most of the books about religion that sell are books that also tell religious people the things they already think they know.
I think that Praying Drunk is the kind of book that is almost designed to alienate every popular audience, because it doesn't comfort any reader by saying that their preexisting story is good and right. To readers who scorn people unlucky enough to be born—as I was—into fundamentalist communities, the book says: Look. These are intelligent, three-dimensional human beings as full of want, need, and desire as you are, and whose lives to them are as important and meaningful as yours is to you.
And to people who live in those communities, the book offers the greatest offense, which is to say: There is probably a great dissonance, a great distance, between the story you have been telling yourself about your life and the more true—and probably darker—story that experience is revealing.
I spent a lot of years avoiding these things as a subject, because it seemed to be somehow shameful and unsophisticated. But I don't think that stories about the lives of the people I came from, the people who were manipulated by power to back the George W. Bush regime and all its disasters could be any more timely.
We hear all this talk about the red states and the blue states and the great divide. Why aren't we having more of a conversation across these divides, and why aren't we trying to understand one another for five minutes instead of continuing to lob grenades back and forth? Literature has always been about the business of asking questions like these.
One of your stories has a character, Kyle Minor, who is a minister for a brief period of time, and has a friendship with a black man named Tony, who thinks he is ostracized from the informal bible-study group because he is black and the others are racist.
The Kyle Minor character thinks it's not Tony's skin color, but the fact that Tony is always turning off the PlayStation games the other members enjoy and putting on Kung Fu movies. Then the Kyle Minor character changes his mind. That story encompasses so much and feels so hard won.
Could you talk about how you wrote it, where you were, and what you went through to get it onto the page?
I keep hearing writers of color say that race is a conversation that white people ought also to be having. Why aren't we? One answer, I think, is that as soon as white Americans engage that conversation, we run smack dab into our own unexamined and unarticulated culpabilities, and into the anger that rightly rises from our privilege—a privilege to which I'm sure I'm often blind, because all I can see is the other ways in which I don't feel privileged in our society.
When I was a young man, it was very difficult for me to cross this divide, because I came from the South. I was raised by people very much in the Southern tradition, who carried their own prejudices and woundednesses about race and class and about the local discomfort that came from—among other things—the first few years of the court-mandated integration of schools. It is very difficult to see more than three inches in front of your face, and to understand how systems work, and to develop the ability to reach out with empathy, to try to understand people who aren't you or your family.
For me, entering into intimate relationships with people who weren't white—a thing that didn't happen until my 20s—was a difficult and eye-opening experience, because I had to hear things that I did not want to hear. Things that I didn't at first welcome hearing. It turned out that these things were true to the experience of others, and I didn't have a way at first to understand them, because they weren't part of my experience. That's what I've hoped to show in my writing. I think that, as a country, these are things we must face and discuss more directly and enter into the dialogue that so many of us have been avoiding.
I know you are completing a book about short-story structure. What can you tell me about how to structure a short story? Do you use models, and if so are any of them useful?
I think that there are near-infinite ways to structure a short story, and in this book I tried to take as many of them for a drive as possible. This is a subject I like to think about, because I don't want every story I read or write to work the same way. I want the next structure to allow for a different kind of pleasure or surprise than the last structure did.
So in Praying Drunk, I wrote stories that work like digressive essays, a story that chases the cause-and-effect chain backwards through time, a story that was two-thirds set-up and one-third payoff, a story modeled after a four-part murder ballad, a story that was shaped like a single-movement lyric poem, a story in letters, a story in seven vignettes that added up to one larger biographical study, a story modeled on the conventions of magazine nature writing, a story proceeding entirely in dialogue, a story in two equal parts, and two stories in the form of the interview.
What was your writing schedule on the book?
I didn't really know, with this book, that I was writing a book. Some of the stories in Praying Drunk are older than some of the stories in In the Devil's Territory. Some of them began as poems. A few were originally published as essays. There are the remnants of several failed books represented in this book—memoirs, essays, story collections, a couple of novels. It wasn't until I wrote the Q&A sections that I began to see how these parts I had begun to collect—these fragments, these ruins, these fragile parts—were in conversation. Many of the stories retell others of the stories from different angles, in different forms.
I started thinking about the traveling preachers who came on Sunday nights when I was a small child and scared the shit out of us with their talk of demon possession and backwards messages in Beatles records. They reminded us that if the sky turned blood red, we should look to the east, because soon Christ would be arriving on a white horse and all the corpses would pop out of their graves, and if we weren't ready, then we'd be left behind among all the criminals to be chased through the mountains by the UN helicopters that were going to take us to the guillotine presided over by the Eastern European Anti-Christ.
These men spoke of a Great White Throne Judgment in which all the dead and all the living would be assembled for a great and embarrassing movie night, in which all our misdeeds would be screened in 16mm film in a giant amphitheater the size of the whole world until everyone had seen everything, and then the good people, the sheep, would be divided from the bad people, the goats. As Cake sang in that song which might as well stand in for my whole interior life as a child, "Sheep go to heaven / Goats go to hell."
But what of heaven? It doesn't seem so appealing. You get there, all the interesting people are gone, all the trouble is gone, and all there is to do is sing the same shitty songs you didn't like to sing them in church. You get crowns as reward for your good deeds on Earth, but you don't get to keep them. You have to throw them down at the feet of He Who Sits on the Throne.
I figured, after a while, I'd get back to writing, and necessarily I'd be writing about the good/bad old days—when there was still interesting trouble, when there was still a future of possibility, when there were still the high stakes of aging and mortality, and when you still had some skin in the game. Since I'd have all eternity to do it, I'd probably keep grinding on the same stories, telling them over and over in different forms and genres, trying all the while to do the same thing I've been trying to do for more than ten years now, which is to do my best to figure out: What was all that? What did it mean? Why does it still matter so much to me?
That's what Praying Drunk is, I guess. That lonely man up there in awful, boring heaven, trying to get it all back again. Trying to do something with it, not letting the futility of the enterprise shut down the enterprise. My schedule was: I did that for ten years, and I didn't ever know what I was doing, but I kept trying every day, until the end.
What's your favorite joke? I read a letter by Paul Tough on Open Letters, and he said he had two favorite jokes: One was from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, when Jim Carrey comes out of the bathroom at a big house party and shouts, "Do not go in there!"
The other was that he and his wife were staying at a friend's house. This friend was into alternative medicine, and they weren't. They saw a book on one of her shelves called Cinnamon: The Mystery Cure-All or Just a Spice? And they laughed themselves to death, imagining her reading the whole 400 pages, and then going, "Huh. Just a spice."
Do you have a joke like that, that's not necessarily the funniest, but that is the funniest to you, and stays with you?
For the last two years, I've spent a lot of time on the road—ten to 30 hours a week and sometimes more, and most of it driving. It can be very difficult to stay awake, especially when the drive stretches past eight or nine hours and into the dark.
The only reason I'm still alive is because a fiction writer I know, Tony Tulathimutte, turned me on to the podcasts every standup comedian in America seems to be producing. There are a lot of good ones—Kevin Pollak, Pete Holmes, Jeff Garlin, Chris Hardwick—but the best, reliably, is Marc Maron's What the Fuck? podcast. A couple of months ago, his guest was Yakov Smirnoff, the Ukrainian comic who made his name in the late stages of the Cold War playing a cartoon version of himself, as a faux-naïf Soviet immigrant who good-naturedly misunderstood American idiom and customs, and who happily punctuated everything with "What a country!"
Maron got Smirnoff to tell his life's story, which I'd never heard before. It involved scarcity-era bread lines, suppressed Jewishness, the inevitable indignities that arise from multiple families sharing tiny apartments, and a two-year stint in the Soviet army, in which Smirnoff got out of artillery training by volunteering to paint portraits of Lenin and Stalin.
What Smirnoff really wanted was to be a stand-up comic, a dangerous aspiration in a totalitarian state. There was a Department of Jokes—a Department of Jokes!—which would censor your routine once a year, and if something seemed a little too pointed, you'd be summoned to explain your joke.
Smirnoff said, "You couldn't talk about government, politics, religion, and sex. The rest was fine. So animals were a big topic."
One joke went like this: A tiny little ant got married to a female elephant. After the wedding night, the elephant died. The little ant said: For only one night, I enjoyed myself, and now for the rest of my life, I have to dig this grave.
The Department of Jokes thought maybe the joke was about the Communist Party, a metaphor of some sort, and Smirnoff told them, "No, no, it's just an animal joke."
Maron said, "You went in and defended that joke. You have such a limited palette to work with, and they call you on the carpet to defend this thing, and it's a victory that you get to do the Ant-Digging-the-Grave joke."
Smirnoff said, "Thank God. I'm allowed. I'm allowed; I'm alive; I'm not in prison for telling the ant and the elephant joke."
That's where the real humor is for me. Not in the one joke, the one punchline, but in what Tig Notaro calls the cosmic joke—the big joke with life-and-death stakes for which the little joke is simply a temporary diversion. The cosmic joke goes like this: We're all going to die. To the vast preponderance of other human beings, our individual lives are meaningless. To the vast universe, our lives are meaningless. Maybe our whole planet is meaningless.