Writer In Residence, August 2011
Around the time I finished high school, I picked up on a whim a slim, green book titled Still Life With Insects. I didn’t know anything about the book or its author, but something about the book — The cover description? The design? — grabbed me. At that point, most of the “literary fiction” I’d read was older and assigned for school, and I was only just coming to realize people still wrote those kinds of books. And this novel was a revelation: compact, focused, driven by crystallized moments and observations rather than elaborate plot. I’m sure I lacked the vocabulary to describe it in those ways at the time; I just knew it was like nothing else I’d read before and, two decades later, it still is each time I go back to it. Still Life With Insects is one of the books that made me think I could write the kinds of stories I want to write, and each successive novel by its author, Brian Kiteley, has amazed me as much. So it’s an incredible honor to announce that he will be our Writer In Residence for the month of August.
What I most admire and enjoy in Kiteley’s fiction is the quiet way he complicates individual lives. His characters, whether in the United States, Canada, or even Egypt, whether in the colonial past or the post-colonial present, always exist at the nexus of history, geography, and experience. It’s never didactic, and it never feels like there’s a transparent theory driving that style or those choices, but his stories reveal that his characters’ lives — like all of ours — extend further in all directions than we can ever be aware while we live them. In a 2006 interview with Tarpaulin Sky, he said,
In the end, history is writing, for me. What I can experience of history, especially very distant history, is accessible only through words other people have written, in letters, journals, newspapers, and books, or in a sense inscribed in the layout of towns or buildings. […]
The old feminist saying was the personal is political. I think the personal is historical, political, aesthetic, whatever.
Translation in every sense of the word. Translation from language to language, but also from mind to mind. The idea I had for this novel was fairly simple in some ways. It was about friendship and the way friendship is a translation of personalities and a presentation of selves.
And while I’ve come to think about his novels in a more critical, more writerly way as my own experience has expanded, and while I’ve learned from their craft and construction and style (as well his two books on writing), I’ve never stepped away from — nor would I want to — my initial, “amateur” response to Still Life With Insects. From that first reading I was struck by how the “small” life of an amateur entomologist was woven through landscape and nature and work, even politics and war, and the relentless passage of time, without those things standing up and announcing themselves in the clumsy way they often do. That book has been a touchstone for me, running through my life like an element in one of Kiteley’s own stories, something translated from mind to mind, from that first reading through many following ones. Once, three or four years after discovering the book, I found myself driving into Drumheller, Alberta, an arrival so similar to the opening of Still Life With Insects that I recalled those lines almost precisely and, for a moment, lost a clear sense of where and when I was:
They recently regraveled and tarred the road to Drumheller, so the dust raised by passing trucks was not bad. The long straightaway that leads up to the gorge connects evenly with the highway on the other side and gives the illusion of continuity. But there sits Drumheller in a fold of earth, a surprise each time I drive this road.
It was a powerful, palpable collision of literature and identity and place and time, a weak description that doesn’t do it a shred of justice any more than my descriptions of these novels do them. But that moment felt the way Kiteley’s stories feel when I read them, time and place and experience streaming together into a moment that might easily have been overlooked and instead is made crucial and crystalline. His novels are incredibly rewarding as rereads, and I think it’s for that very reason. They communicate a complicated historical, ecological, and personal experience, yet leave room for the reader’s experience — and re-experience — to enter, too.
The conjuring of these ghosts — of other river gods, both major and minor — is one of the novel’s finest effects. Throughout, Kiteley moves confidently between characters and time periods, creating connections between these many individual lives and also to Northampton itself, the common thread that ties them together even across the many permutations of what Northampton has meant as a place and as a community.
Unexpected connections, common threads, and long-haunting ghosts, both on the pages of the books and in the space between one reading of these novels and the next, and the next, not to mention between one reader and another. So I’m excited to see what ghosts will haunt the pages of Necessary Fiction this month, and what threads Brian Kiteley will weave us all with, and I hope you are, too.