Written by Panio Gianopoulos on Monday, April 13, 2015
I first met Christian Kiefer at a 2013 reading we did together in San Francisco. His debut novel, The Infinite Tides, had recently been published. An old man wandered into the middle of the event, searching for a book on dream interpretation, and like magic, we’ve been great friends ever since.
Recently, we had a conversation about his new novel, The Animals, for the LA Review of Books. Our discussion ranged from gender biases in literature to the art of the grizzly bear POV to the inscrutable appeal of supermarkets. It was pretty fun. The really lame stuff I cut (I hope). Below is an excerpt.
PG: Hard to believe I’ve never asked you this, but where did the idea for The Animals come from?
CK: I wrote a draft of a novel called Out of Iron about 10 or 15 years ago. It was a failed experiment, but one that stuck with me, especially the ending scene. I couldn’t quite shake it. Maybe five years ago, I started a new novel that takes place in Napoleonic-era Europe, and at some point during that process I needed to step out of that world and into something else. I tried to do a rewrite of Out of Iron at first, but it didn’t really come together. And yet there was that ending scene again. It haunted me and wouldn’t keep quiet.
A good part of what drove me toward the actual book are experiences I’ve had teaching at American River College in Sacramento. I sometimes have students who have been in the prison system, and I became fascinated by their stories. These are young people who made whole strings of truly terrible decisions, one after another, so that they find themselves, at some point, having duct-taped a family to their dining room chairs to rob them in broad daylight — an action you or I probably wouldn’t consider, but for them it’s often just the next logical step in a life of crime. My characters in The Animals come from that world, in a way, making one bad decision after another until they end up in an untenable situation.
I’ve got two intertwined timelines in the book — three, if you consider the characters’ backstories in Battle Mountain, Nevada. For me, the whole book is about trying to change the core self, the thing deep inside that is who we are. So there’s a vein of The Mayor of Casterbridge and Lord Jim in this book. North Idaho is where that big change happens or where Bill, the protagonist, tries to make it happen. And it almost works. Almost.
PG: At the risk of sounding like Esme in Salinger’s titular story, what I love about The Animals is that everybody is dead broke. While crime novels and mysteries readily involve down-and-out characters, literary fiction seems to pay little attention to it. Some notable exceptions come to mind — Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a lot of Bukowski, Henry Miller, and Raymond Carver — but take something like Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets: the fact that he’s dealing with people who are struggling to make ends meet is significant enough that it works its way into the title. (I love Jess’s book, incidentally.) Why do you think “literary” writers — and please forgive the quotation marks — shy away from protagonists who live in trailer parks and face real economic hardship?
CK: Maybe literary fiction is too genteel. Part of the tradition comes from court poetry and courtly narrative (The Tale of Genji, The Faerie Queene, etc.), so it could be that this is the strand that has solidified into this thing we call the “literary novel.” There are those writers you mention, and there are also relative newcomers like Jodi Angel and Donald Ray Pollack and Tupelo Hassman — writers who are mining the rich vein of abject poverty in the context of literary fiction…
For the full Los Angeles Review of Books Q&A, click here.