Rachel Kushner
Photo by Ann Summa

Rachel Kushner: “There’s this lens over life”

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Short Profile

Name: Rachel Kushner
DOB: 1968
Place of birth: Eugene, Oregon, United States
Occupation: Novelist

Ms. Kushner, your novels have featured dictatorships and revolutions, motorcycle accidents, kidnappings, and riots. Is there a thrill to writing that type of fiction?

Only on very rare occasion, and I think that’s the thing that I probably wait for. It’s not so much like an adrenaline thrill, it’s not like riding a motorcycle; there are many days where I’m just sitting and waiting for something good to happen. The more experience I’ve had at writing, the better able I am to recognize when nothing good is happening. Writing a novel is a journey and it’s a way of thinking through things… But eventually it starts to feel like something starts to happen. I’m interested in this messianic faith that you have to have to be a novelist.

Messianic faith?

You just have to keep working. I was read about how Joan Didion once said, “I stay in the office all day long even if nothing good happens.” And I remember that. I would never abandon a subject because it wouldn’t be the subject that was the problem, it’s me that would be the problem. It’s sort of like the subject that you give yourself is just the vehicle that you’re moving through to create some inevitable form which is the thing that is the destiny for me in that moment. It took me two years to write the first chapter of The Flamethrowers — it’s a little sad to admit that, but I stuck with it no matter what.

“Everything goes into the work as if writing a novel is a condition.”

Does it get easier after the first chapter is written?

The whole foundation of the book has to be laid in that first chapter, and once it’s there then things can start to happen really quickly. And actually the same thing happened with my new novel. It took me a long, long time to write the first chapter. So, that’s been the case so far — but there can be fits and starts as well. Some things happen fast, some things happen slow. But that’s life.

You once said that writing fiction mobilizes parts of your imagination that are otherwise quieted in daily life.

Oh God, that sounds so pretentious! (Laughs) I need to tone it down!

Does reading fiction also accomplish the same thing for you?

No. I love to read but they’re very different activities. They go together but they are different. I’ve only written three books so I don’t want to sound like some seasoned novelist who lives a certain way because I’m steeped in the deep and mystical craft of art making — but I do think that when I’m deeply immersed in writing a novel, it’s as if everything in life is interesting to me or not insofar as it may or may not pertain to what I’m writing. Everything goes into the work as if writing a novel is a condition. It’s a modality of being that is always in effect no matter what I’m doing or who I’m talking to; something will click or shift based on something I’ve seen or something I’ve read. And that’s when transmutations get interesting because you can take something from one realm and put it into another in the book and then it kind of cracks open the real meaning of the thing.

It sounds like you see the world through the book that you’re writing.

Right, like there’s this lens over life… But it’s not a scrim that dulls the view, I think it sharpens it and it gives it purpose. It’s a very active way of living life: living it through the world of this novel that you’ve built… It’s hard to describe. But reading is different. Maybe I also read in the same way when I’m writing a novel, I’m looking for whatever will help my cause. I’m hesitant to just read aimlessly. But sometimes the aimless is like the cunning of reason that lets you arrive at the thing you didn’t know you needed.

“I experience small moments of joy in all kinds of ways in life but I think I would be at a loss if I wasn’t a writer.”

Are there other things that mobilize you in the same way that writing does?

I experience small moments of joy in all kinds of ways in life but I think I would be at a loss if I wasn’t a writer. I’m not sure what else I would do. I think I’ve always felt very protective of my interior life. There’s something deep about that from childhood. Solitude is really important to me. It sounds so pompous when artists say, like, “I’ve been drawing my whole life!” And you’re like, “Dude, everyone drew when they were kids.” (Laughs) But I always liked to read, I liked to make up stories and write in a diary. It seems like in a certain strange way, my writing hasn’t changed all that much from when I was little. Hopefully it’s developed. But there’s something about the tone that’s remained.

You recently said that a writer is someone who asks a lot of questions. What kinds of questions are you asking yourself when you sit down to write a book?

Well, I think a writer ideally is a noticer and a good listener, but in terms of questions I ask when writing… It’s more like I would formulate it as a problem or challenge. With The Flamethrowers, one problem that I wanted to create for myself was placing the downtown New York art world in the 1970s kind of contiguous with this leftist movement in Italy and not over-relating the two as having anything really to do with one another. That was a good problem, in a sense, to have to do that. You can put things in books and they are connected simply by virtue of the fact that you place them there. The connection is the author. There must be some unconscious instinct for putting them there and then whatever the connections are or aren’t gets teased out over the journey of writing the book. With Telex fromCuba, maybe the question was “How do I write a novel?”

“The process is a living process for me. When you’re writing, things just happen.”

You were intimidated?

Definitely. I had never written a novel before and I’d wanted to be a writer my whole life. But the idea of writing novels seemed really intimidating to me when I was younger. I remember meeting published authors and thinking they were people who are on the other side of some kind of threshold.

And now that you’re an author yourself, has the idea of writing novels changed for you?

Well, I can’t speak to the affect of my novels because once I’ve written them, it’s for other people to have experiences reading them. But the practice of writing novels… The process is a living process for me. When I was writing The Flamethrowers, I felt this urge for storytelling starting to burble up… When you’re writing, things just happen ­— that’s what I love about fiction: it really is a way to have an encounter with your unconscious.