Monday, June 29, 2020

Q&A with Kos Kostmayer

Kos Kostmayer is the author of the new novel Fargo Burns. A novelist, poet, playwright, and screenwriter, he lives in Mississippi and the Hudson River Valley.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Fargo Burns, and for the character of Fargo?

A: In 2000 I was making my living as a screenwriter, traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and our family’s farm in Mississippi, and I became increasingly unhappy with the work I was being called on to do for Hollywood. I love movies, but I always felt a bit lost in Hollywood, and I had a strong sense that my sensibility was deeply at odds with the demands of the studio system.

For me, being a screenwriter was a terrific way to make a good living (and to make some good friends) but a terrible way to do good writing. It just wasn’t my world, and I had the feeling that the requirements of the job were separating me from myself and drawing me further and further away from the kind of writing I had always loved.

Truth be told, I felt a bit desperate, and more than a little frustrated, so I started writing Fargo Burns, not in the hope that it would turn into a finished novel, but simply to exercise whatever deeply held and personal gifts – however meager – I might possess.

The character of Fargo obviously betrays some autobiographical elements, but those elements primarily served as trigger points to start the book and then propel it forward.

Most of all I wanted to experience the very thing I was unable to experience as a screenwriter, namely freedom. Freedom was what I wanted, and freedom was what I found with Fargo Burns. Incidentally, the first draft was an incredible mess, roughly three times the length of the published book.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started working on it, or did you make changes along the way?

A: When I began writing Fargo Burns, I had an opening sentence and nothing else. In fact, I didn’t even have an opening sentence until I picked up my pen and began to write, and then the first words of the book came out: Howling and half-naked in his torn and bloody clothing Fargo is a desperate man and dangerous to himself and others.

Sometimes I felt as if were following the book rather than leading it, and sometimes I felt as if I were chasing language down the road, running after the words that had already gone on ahead in pursuit of something I wasn’t able to identify until the words revealed it.

Maybe that’s one reason the first draft, for all its eager grasp at freedom, was such a rambunctious mess. I had no idea where the book was going, so I guess it’s fair to say the book and I traveled together from start to finish, helping one another along in our search for resolution.

One of the cardinal influences on the book was my love of modern jazz and its ability to create freedom through improvisation and surprise. I’m not a musician and have little or no expertise in that area, but I love the spirit of liberation that lies at the heart of so much of the work accomplished by jazz from its inception to the present day.

There’s great beauty there, as well as great daring, and I don’t see why writers shouldn’t avail themselves of the freedom that musicians enjoy. In Hollywood I was always obliged to create a plot in advance of the writing (something I never liked doing) but with Fargo Burns I let the story emerge and allowed myself to be surprised along the way.

Q: How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: The novel travels freely back and forth between New York City and the Mississippi Delta and draws its peculiar rhythms from both those remarkable places. I was born in Louisiana and spent summers in Mississippi as a child and later lived in Mississippi on the farm that my wife’s family had owned and operated for generations.

But I was raised in and around New York City, where I also raised my own three children, and the energy and vitality, the reckless high-speed rhythm and sardonic wit of New York, are part and parcel of my nature. I consider myself a New Yorker first and foremost, but the south is in my blood and plays a role in Fargo’s life as well.

Obviously place is important to me, but I think one could argue that the true setting for any work of fiction is the author’s mind, or rather the entire scope of his or her sensibility, which includes mind but also encompasses history, feelings, wishes and facts.

Borges says that one of the great joys of reading is that it allows us to think with someone else’s mind. Fiction amplifies that joy.

Q: You’ve also written poetry and plays. Do you prefer one form over another?

A: I don’t really separate the three forms. In fact, in my work I try to fuse them. I’ve worked extensively in television, film, and theater, and I’ve written and read poetry all my life.

All these disciplines have blended together in my thinking about the art and craft of fiction, and I’m happy to exploit the various kinds of freedom each of them represents. Speed and compression play an important role in my writing, and the kind of compression to be found in film and theater have heavily influenced my own development as a writer.

Joseph Brodsky once defined poetry as a form of accelerated intelligence, and acceleration is one of the gifts that modernity lends to contemporary writing through the disciplines we associate with film, theater, music and poetry. Italo Calvino has written brilliantly about this in Six Memos for The Next Millennium.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have three more novels coming out in the next 18 months from Dr. Cicero Books – my wonderful publishing company, which has provided unstinting support throughout every phase of the publishing process.

All three of these novels are finished, and I’ve just completed a final polish on The Avenue Of Sad Days, which will come out next spring following the publication this fall of The Politics Of Nowhere. Lost Religion will be published in the fall of 2021.

Now that my work on these four novels is done, I’m revising and polishing two volumes of poetry, The Year The Future Disappeared and The Marriage Bed. Then I’ll start work on something new, which is to say I’ll soon be living in a state of daily worry sufficiently unsettling to suggest some sort of drastic remedy - hard drugs, for example, or grain alcohol.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, two things come to mind – one strictly professional, the other strictly personal.

On the professional side, I’ve been compared to an odd, somewhat surprising, sometimes flattering and often misleading list of writers.

People magazine said I was a combination of Samuel Beckett and Henny Youngman, a very odd pairing indeed. There’s not much of Beckett in my work, although I share his affection for sardonic humor in the face of catastrophe, and not much of Youngman either, although his backward and inappropriate jokes often make me laugh.

I’ve been called the Saul Bellow of extreme emotions, but I’ll admit I don’t identify at all with Bellow, nor do I share any of his stylistic graces.  

I could make a long (and loving) list of writers I admire, and while I’ve certainly done my best to learn from the example of writers I revere, I sometimes think that the greatest influence on my work, aside of course from my own history, has been the work of modern painters, musicians and filmmakers.

On a personal note, I live at the center of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-colored, multi-lingual family, many of whom have suffered direct insults as a result of racism, bigotry, homophobia, anti-immigrant fervor, and xenophobia.

I can’t help but feel cautiously hopeful as I watch the uprisings that are sweeping across our country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. These uprisings are a sign of grace, a national blessing, and proof positive that honesty and courage, when combined with passion, can be transformative and truly revolutionary.

For a writer, and speaking now also as a husband, brother, father, uncle, and grandfather, I can’t help but hope that the political geography of this country is on the verge of being permanently and beautifully rearranged.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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