In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Kevin Lanahan
Tell us about your cnf piece “There Is a Light” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
Years ago, a friend I’d met at the Bread Loaf writers conference visited. He was showing me sections of a nonfiction travel book he was working on about returning to the battlefields of Vietnam with his father, a veteran of the war. We were up all night and into the morning exchanging stories of our childhoods, fathers and sons, family tragicomedy and adolescent calamities. At one point he said, “You really should write this stuff down.”
It took me a while to believe that myself. When writing memoir, whether you give it attention or not, other people are in your stead. That weighs on me. Flannery O’Connor said, “Anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” I started with that imperative. Her thoughts gave me a way to begin. Soon I was back there feeling what my adolescent self was feeling then, seeing what that kid was seeing, experiencing the fear again but moving forward in that space anyway. Maybe in spite of the fear.
We all have our story. This is a piece of mine. I said recently to someone very wise that I didn’t know why I wrote it. She said, ‘yes you do. It’s your attempt to connect to the world.’ I’ve thought a lot about that, and it’s as good an answer as I can think of. I suppose that’s true for most writing, and perhaps most writers.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
I’ve always been fascinated with language and the alchemy that comes from mashing up surprise words, images, sentences. When I was a kid it was the lexicon of comic books. Later on, rock and roll lyrics, and then texts like Finnegan’s Wake and Beloved. I’m hooked by writing that grabs me by the lapels from the very start and forces me to sit up and pay attention in some way. Is the character’s name weird or uncommon? Is the dialogue a surprise that opens up some new subculture? As I see it, we’re in a battle with social media and technology for our hearts and minds. As writers I think we need to understand what we’re up against. Don’t take the reader for granted. Go out there and fight hard from the first bell for someone’s attention and imagination. With the short story form, especially, you can’t waste time. I think a good novelist is aware of the importance of designing every sentence like it matters. It’s hard work but worth the effort. Annie Proulx does this. Rachel Kushner, certainly. Can’t wait for what Justin Torres does next.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
My high school English teacher, David Kissick, saw something in me I didn’t recognize in myself. This was 1981-85. A small, all-boys, Catholic, military school in a rough, upstate New York former mill town. He came from Philly after serving in Vietnam. The war wasn’t very far behind him and he brought a certain wisdom to the classroom I’m guessing can only be learned through that kind of horror. He was young, dynamic, and just knew inherently how to connect and inspire. He also challenged us with difficult texts he knew would prepare us for whatever was out there in the America we would have to navigate after high school: Joyce, Melville, Faulkner. Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. That one got the attention of the military staff there. Think Dead Poets Society. That movie came out after my class graduated. Kissick had moved on from the school by then and I remember calling a friend and saying “Did Kissick move to Hollywood and write a screenplay?” We thought he must have advised Robin Williams on the character. It was uncanny. He taught me how to be a reader first, and how reading well is the basis and foundation for good writing. He was the first person in my life that got me thinking ‘Hey, maybe I can be a writer one day.’ I wouldn’t be the person I am today without him and his classes. He taught us how to ask the hard questions of ourselves and the world, our place in it. This is at the core of why we write, isn’t it?
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
Like my taste in music, interests and influences run the gamut. My literary giants are Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, DeLillo. Mark Richard’s short story collection, The Ice at the Bottom of the World and Adam Johnson’s Emporium are magic to me. Clarice Lispector’s Near the Wild Heart and her short stories. Everything Jim Shepard writes.
Richard Price was also an early influence. I think I was 11 when I found The Wanderers and then went on to Bloodbrothers. At this point I was reading H.G. Wells, Ursula Le Guin, but then suddenly became fascinated with New York City because my father was traveling there for long stretches of time for work. This was the late 70s. Part of the fascination was to define and understand this place he was disappearing to so often. Price gave me an entry point, and that eventually led to my discovery of punk music and the Ramones, which influenced me greatly in all sorts of ways. But I had to keep secret my interest in punk and the ancillary weird stuff that came with it. In the upstate New York suburbs where I grew up, you got clobbered for being different. Or worse, excluded and ignored.
As for mentors, in college I worked with Charlotte Zoe Walker. She’s a fine novelist, and a Best American and O’Henry prize winner. I walked into her writing class not knowing what I was doing. She took an interest in my work and was just so damn encouraging it confused the hell out of me. She was the first published, award-winning author I’d met and she talked to me seriously and treated my writing with respect. It’s her voice that has stayed with me all these years and brought me back to the writing life after a long absence. I should probably let her know.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
The guitar is always within arms reach of my writing desk. When I’m stuck or need to catch my breath I pick it up and get the brain working in a different medium. A kind of creative cross-training.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
I try my best to insulate myself and my family from too much of the dangerous language and behavior in that environment. But not so much we have our head in the clouds either. As the father of two girls, I have a responsibility to know what they’re up against and get them prepared for the world they’re going to find when they’re out there on their own. The dinner table talk is difficult but necessary. I believe a significant purpose of art is to teach. To promote empathy. Sadly, the modern political climate is really anathema to connection. So, in that sense, it seems to me an imperative is for writers and artists to band together and do our thing to communicate the commonality of the human condition. We need to understand the responsibility we hold to the balance of things. Be the counterweight and the ballast to the tribal mentality that tries to separate us. That’s always in the background somewhere when I’m working.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
Self discovery through alienation, isolation. The influence of environment and place on our sensibilities. Violence and redemption. What McCarthy calls “the notions of fate and chance.” The world is elegantly designed to deconstruct. Human beings are coded to fight for survival. When McCarthy’s Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon that scene in No Country for Old Men, he faces a pretty clear choice. He faces yet another choice when he’s lying in bed thinking about the man he left dying there.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
“There is a Light” is the opening of my non-fiction book about coming of age in upstate New York during the late 70s and early 80’s as a burn survivor, punk rock fan, and catholic military school kid.
I think it’s a universal story in many ways. A bildungsroman with hopefully plenty of humor among the tougher, more difficult stories. As fun as the project has been at times, it’s also been a challenge. I think the natural assumption is that writing a memoir or a creative semi-fictional account like Justin Torres’ We The Animals is a cathartic experience. I haven’t felt a lot of that yet. Maybe it’ll come at some point. There were hurdles with stepping back in time. There were mornings, waking at 5:00 am, I felt I had to go after the inspiration with a lasso and wrestle it down. But I’ve found that very little in life worth something comes without some struggle and amount of suffering.
Kevin Lanahan has attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. He is at work on a memoir about his teen years as a punk rock fan and burn survivor attending an all-boys Catholic military school. He lives in upstate New York and the Adirondack Mountains.