I assume that at some point I must’ve told Dan Kois what to do. During the years he worked for me at the grand old Bull’s Head Bookshop on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus somewhere in the late ‘90s. I must’ve said, at least once, “Shelve. Show that customer to the cookbooks. Shut up.” If so, I don’t remember it. What I recall, mostly, is laughing at his antics and his zany brainy-ness and then humming the “What do you do with a problem like Maria” song from The Sound of Music and wondering what the hell was going to happen to him.
What happened is that he began to write and publish and then do it again and then do it again. His first book was for Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, Facing Future, about the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Then, with Isaac Butler, he wrote The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of “Angels in America” (Bloomsbury), an oral history/theater saga which included interviews with actors including Steep and Parker and Lane and Wright, and producers and directors and with Kushner himself.
After The World, a wild idea: he and his wife and his two tween kids picked up and moved to New Zealand and then the Netherlands and then Costa Rica and then a little Kansas town….all within the space of a year. Good father? Tyrant? Read it and weep/chuckle/say “Whoa: there’s courage.” The memoir’s called How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together (Little Brown).
Now, here’s his fiction debut, Vintage Contemporaries (Harper). Here, Dan answers the question I, boss-Erica, wondered about a quarter of a century earlier. What does a zaniac do when they grow up? And how do they get there? Here, in this novel, is what looks like sort of a path from then to now and then, of course, beyond. What happens to the passion of a youthful friendship? Does it fade/strengthen/explode/dissipate? How does emotion turn into art? What makes people hang onto each other? Here’s depth, folks, and sensitivity and, obviously, guffaws. I interviewed him via email.
Erica Eisdorfer: Was this book brewing forever? Or did you suddenly turn what are you 45 and suddenly your youthful self kept pounding on your brainpan until you had to let it out?
Dan Kois: What happened was, after I left the Bull’s Head and Chapel Hill, I did an MFA in fiction. (As I recall, you wrote me a great letter of recommendation.) I was 22 or so and the MFA was a mistake. I didn’t have a sense of myself as a writer or enough to write about yet; the program wasn’t funded so I had to work full-time all three years. All in all, what I came out of that program with, mostly, was a bunch of debt and a sense that I couldn’t quite make fiction work yet.
So then I wrote basically zero fiction for about 15 years. And then when I turned 40 I had a little midlife creative crisis. I was proud of the journalism and criticism I was writing but I didn’t feel as though I was creating anything new, and that had been all I’d dreamed of doing for so long. So I set myself to writing something different. Any night when I wasn’t too tired and wasn’t working on something else, I would just write for 45 minutes about something made-up. If I didn’t have an idea, I’d use one of Lynda Barry’s exercises or prompts. This meant that for several years this novel existed only as a set of unconnected Google docs written at various 10:45 PMs. The docs had names like “nonsense” or “new thing” or “idk wtf.”
Over time, I found the fragments and exercises I was generating mostly revolved around people in their early 20s or new parents in their 30s. These were the eras I kept focusing on. I liked thinking about young people, which was a way of remembering when I was a young person. And I liked thinking about the baby years, which were incredibly emotionally charged and funny, I thought.
So I liked all these fragments, but they weren’t a book. When I turned 44 (this was a slow-rolling midlife crisis) I decided to make them a book: to simply declare that these were parts of a novel, and the character was the same character at different times in her life. I was sort of doing The Secret on my creative writing: If I just thought of these Google Docs as a novel for long enough, through writing and rewriting they would shape themselves in that way. And they did!
Anyway, I finally finished a draft right around the time I turned 46, and now I’m 48, and it’s being published. I don’t recommend writing a novel this way. But it was what I needed to do at a time in my life when I had a job and kids and a million other things going on.
EE: You chose a girl’s point of view. You own two girls. You married a girl. What’s up with you and girls.
DK: I like writing about girls, or, as they’re sometimes known, “gals.” For one thing, it helps me separate myself from whoever I’m writing about, and escape, at least a little, the easy move of thinking of each beat along the lines of well what would I do? But also, for this particular story—once I decided it was a novel—it became clear pretty quickly that many of the themes, story beats, and ideas I was most interested in would be more dramatic and compelling if I dealt with them in a woman’s life than in a man’s.
Female friendship, for example, is such a rich literary and cultural vein, and I liked the idea of these very self-aware (and culture-aware) characters thinking through the dissolution and re-establishment of a friendship in that context. I wanted to write about the borderline abusive bosses many people my age had in our 20s and 30s, and that made me think about the Gen X women I know who’ve told me about the perverse sense of pride at making it through those years, even as becoming a boss and recent developments in the news have colored those memories. And while I think of my own time as a brand-new father as somewhat momentous and traumatic, it was definitely more momentous and traumatic for my wife.
I’m working on a new novel now, and it’s all boys. Boys, boys, boys. Honestly, it’s a lot harder.
EE: Harder because boys don’t have the interior lives that girls have? Surely not. Harder because it’s closer to you?
DK: Well, the specific boys I’m writing about, who are 12, certainly are not as self-reflective as the women in this novel. Pushing past the surface, which consists mostly of mostly farts and boners, into their interior lives is what’s challenging and gratifying about the writing. But yes, also, I have lots of ways to write about myself—I write memoir and essay and other nonfictional forms. The fun of fiction is, at least in part, doing your best to think through other people’s experiences, and to apply your own sensibility, ethics, politics, and humor to them.
EE: Talk to me about Laurie Colwin.
DK: Put simply, I wanted to write a novel that made me feel, while writing it, how I felt while reading Happy All the Time. If I was going to be spending years of my life doing this thing, I wanted to enjoy it. And then I had an opening, I guess, for a character who was a little older than my protagonist, who had a wholly different idea of what books should do, and who could provide her with a professional failure and then, later, a success. I thought it might make me happy to solve that casting problem by putting my own version of Colwin right there on the page.
EE: So, this is a little personal, but bear with me. I have this distinct memory of you ripping your shirt off in the middle of the academic professor-y bookstore, just to make us all laugh. And you did stuff like that all the time. You were genuine. You weren’t a poser. But was that how you felt inside or were you roiling around like everyone else? I’m thinking about your novel now and the yin/yang of the two Emilys. Am I on the right track here?
DK: Wow, I do not remember this at all, and thank god for that. I did spend a lot of my teenage and early college years roiling around, finding ways to make myself miserable or neurotic. But it was right around the time I started working at the Bull’s Head that I made a conscious decision to do my best to be happy more often. That meant trying to shape my life so I was mostly doing things I enjoyed, but it also meant, to some extent, faking it ‘til I made it. So episodes like whatever the hell I was doing that day in your bookstore came out of a real desire to do things I might have been otherwise nervous about.I was going to be spending years of my life doing this thing, I wanted to enjoy it.
I do see this spirit reflected in the two Emilys, and in the book more broadly. Nineties Em sometimes reflects the most tentative version of me; nineties Emily sometimes reflects the worst version of me. I wanted to see them both find different ways to be as we revisited them a decade-plus later. And the book itself, befitting its Colwiny inspiration, is an attempt to put happiness (of lots of different flavors) on the page, and to make an argument about how important that can be.
EE: What’s your favorite coming of age novel?
DK: I am an enormous fan of Brian Hall’s The Saskiad, a book that so richly understands its teenage heroine’s psyche that its language, structure, and central metaphors seem to have been conjured by her. It’s beautiful.
EE: Bookstores famously employ underachievers. What do you say to that?
DK: I would counter your assertion by pointing out that your kind and inspiring management made the Bull’s Head the first place I ever worked where I felt inspired to overachieve—to take initiative, to try unusual and exciting new things. You encouraged me to launch a reading series! And write a newsletter! And build a brand new section of literary essays and call it, highfalutinly, “Belles Lettres”! And it wasn’t just me. Weren’t we all overachieving, somehow sneakily building a wonderful, quirky literary enclave under the noses of the university administration?
EE: You acted and directed in college; you wrote a very drama-turg-ey important book; the theater is very nearly a character of its own in Vintage Contemporaries. Talk about the connection between writing and acting.
DK: Huh! The more I think about this question the more I think there isn’t really a direct connection between writing and acting. While acting, you’re making a series of choices and reacting in the moment, but within a severely limited set of options. It’s like walking along a trail: You can veer a little, and you can pay attention to different trees or birds or whatever, but your route has mostly been determined in advance. Whereas writing fiction feels a lot more like you’re the guy who they send to the new state park with a topo map and a machete and someone says, “OK, make us a trail, dude.”
The performance genre that reminds me the most of writing is not acting but improvisational comedy, which I also did a lot in those days (and for many years after). Improv requires a near-pathological level of psychic openness to be performed successfully: Even when you’re not in a scene, you are standing on the back line, listening, allowing your conscious and subconscious minds to banter with each other, thinking about narrative, looking for that next beat.
I found that the best moments in this book—at least the ones that feel the most original and surprising—came from the kinds of unlikely connections one makes in a really good improv show, and happened because I managed to tap into that same kind of mindset. It’s what Lynda Barry means when she talks about the “image world,” I think, a kind of radical state of awareness in which you are more alert to the dozens of paths leading away from you than you typically are.
EE: I find writing to be terrifying. Do you?
DK: No, I really like it. I think blogging helped with that. For several years I had no choice but to put thousands of words into the universe every week, and I couldn’t think too hard about it. It helped me see writing as not a long slog toward some perfect, finished product, but as an actively creative process that helps me work my way through interesting problems.
EE: Yeah, but the process is difficult not only for the reasons you mention above but also because it so often becomes a process of self-discovery. So there’s the craft, yeah, but then there’s the undefined uncomfortable muddy stuff as well, and there lies passion. So talk about that.
DK: For whatever reason, I just don’t find that undefined muddy stuff that uncomfortable. Maybe it stems from the same stupid self-confidence that led me to believe that taking off my T-shirt in my workplace for a laugh was a good idea? But I’m so grateful for the ways in which what I’m writing—whether fiction or memoir or criticism—gives me access to my own interior life and language to better understand it. And yes, the things I uncover are often unpleasant: Certainly my memoir revealed, for many readers, what a fucking pain-in-the-ass dad I can often be. But I felt such relief and even a kind of pleasure in transforming that experience into a story, one that helped me understand how our family had changed over that year, how I had struggled and failed and yet sometimes stumbled into beauty and love.Writing fiction feels a lot more like you’re the guy who they send to the new state park with a topo map and a machete and someone says, “OK, make us a trail, dude.”
And with this novel, I went even further: I took some of my most truly crappy life experiences (broken friendships, toxic workplaces) and recast them in ways that allowed me to think of them entirely differently. I challenged myself to find glints of happiness in even the worst shit, and trusted that the end result would be valuable to readers, because writing it sure was valuable to me.
EE: I want to visualize you as you write so answer these questions: Music?
DK: Yes, I have different playlists for different writing tasks, including year-specific playlists for the four years I was writing about in this novel.
EE: A specific space or more like your living room couch?
DK: I wrote most of this book out on the porch (in the summer) or in by the fire (in the winter).
EE: Drunk or not?
DK: I’m a big proponent of one and a half beers.
EE: Sacred time or whenever the hell?
DK: I mean, usually it’s 10:45 PM. But really the answer is that the most and best work got done when, after getting rejected by every writer’s residency and fellowship on the face of the earth, I finally got accepted to Hambidge in Rabun Gap, Georgia. The weeks I spent in that beautiful place while my kids were occupied with a number of summer camps and vacations got me over the hump.
EE: Do you keep up with people? This novel is, in great part, about the way friendships require sustenance in order to keep going. Is this something you do or something you don’t do but wish you did.
DK: Yes. I think this is one of my superpowers. As I got older and learned that people no longer in college simply don’t make friends the way they once did, I really made it a priority to feed and water friendships. Social media helps, of course. But also, I’m definitely the one organizing get-togethers for college friends or inviting neighbors out to dinner or offering to read writer friends’ books and give notes. I feel sharp pain at the friendships that have fallen apart—whether because of real conflict, like the one in this novel, or just through inattention. I’m glad we’re still friends!
Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois is available from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.