Katie Kitamura on Ambition, Morality, and Writing Ugly
Bethanne Patrick in conversation with the author of A Separation
Katie Kitamura seems to live the dream: Her previous novels, Gone to the Forest and The Longshot were both recipients of awards. She’s won a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship and published fiction, essays, and criticism in places like The Guardian, Granta, and The New York Times Book Review. Born in California, she graduated from Princeton and holds a PhD in literature from the London Consortium. She was once a serious ballet dancer and has a serious interest in mixed martial arts. She’s married to the novelist Hari Kunzru.
On top of all that, Kitamura’s new novel, A Separation, has received raves from fellow writers, from Karl Ove Knausgaard to Jenny Offill to Rivka Galchen. A spare and suspenseful story of a woman who heads to Greece to see her faithless husband and put an end to their marriage turns seamlessly into a tale of murder and betrayal—but this book is no whodunit. More like a who-thought-it. Its gripping, dreamlike quality recalls the recent work of Rachel Cusk, Claire Messud, and Han Kang, while being wholly Kitamura’s own. I spoke by telephone with the talented Kitamura, who was at her home in New York.
Bethanne Patrick: Do you want to talk about politics? Or are things too heavy?
Katie Kitamura: I’d think I’d collapse. It’s relentless. For the first time in my life I dread looking at the front page.
BP: Let’s talk about being ambitious, as a reader—and as a writer.
KK: I think being ambitious as a reader is always going to be the most important thing. It’s very hard to be ambitious as a writer if you’re not ambitious as a reader.
I think almost every fiction writer I know would say you don’t want to start out writing something if you think you can do it. As you grow, you have more confidence that you can explore something, that that process is even good for your writing, but if you know you can write it, it’s not worth writing in some way. There are scenes I knew I wanted to write, and I didn’t know if I could sustain them. One scene, where the narrator is watching Stefano and Maria having their conversation—I knew I wanted to see if I could stretch that scene out, but I didn’t know if it was going to work. One of the great pleasures of writing is that you try something, and if it doesn’t work, you just cut it. It’s fine if you sort of fail. That’s part of the process.
BP: In one interview, you said “Pleasantness is the enemy of good fiction.” Discuss!
KK: Some writers have this idea of wanting to be liked by the reader, begging the reader to like them, but if a reader likes you in some way—you, as opposed to your writing—it sets you up for this kind of constant seduction. That can make for wonderful fiction, for instance, when it’s part of the authorial plan, like Nabokov with Lolita. But it’s not the only kind of fiction, and I don’t want a surface-level likability. I’m not running for President! I don’t want my readers to want to have a beer with me! I want whatever feeling they have, on reading my work, to be a feeling towards the piece, and not me.
Let the book do what the book needs to do. Don’t insert yourself too much. There are many writers I do admire who have strong authorial presence, and they write wonderful books, but for me, if I’m writing from the position of wanting to be liked or to not offend, then I just can’t write. It’s too crippling. It makes me too self conscious.
BP: I love what you’ve said about the best novels often containing awkward prose. Sometimes a bad sentence can say more than a perfect paragraph—could you elaborate?
KK: I believe in really getting into the muck of writing, getting waist deep in it. I completely understand beautifully written pull quotes, but I do find them slightly puzzling; in a way style becomes less and less interesting to me as I read and write. A series of perfectly executed metaphors is fine, but not at the heart of what I look for in a piece of writing. One reason I’m suspicious of that perfectly executed prose style is that I feel it can become a tic and a way of avoiding the heart of what you’re really trying to say. You can find yourself relying on little linguistic tricks. For me, that was becoming a way of avoiding the complexities I wanted to succeed in presenting. If it’s messy it’s fine, if it’s ugly it’s fine, as long as what I’m expressing is what I want to express.
BP: You’ve said that you prefer “morally fantastic” fiction. Could you explain?
KK: I’m very interested in setting up a situation with a moral question at the heart of it. I’m a relatively polite person, but to find the elasticity of the scene, of that situation where things are far beyond polite, is really interesting to me as a fiction writer. How people who think of themselves as good people behave in bad ways. My French translator told me, “I find your characters really unlikable!”
BP: What, for you, is the relationship between subject matter and prose style?
KK: “Your prose style changes with each book,” Knausgaard told me. I think it really does, which is maybe not the most productive way of working, because I have to find the voice for the story before I can really produce much prose. For A Separation, I initially wrote an entire draft in third person, then put it in a drawer for two years. I’ve never looked at that draft again. An imagination that you can’t control, a surfeit of emotion that you can’t address, leads to being uncertain, to meandering digressive endless speculation and long sentences. That’s important; a book about looking and searching has to be reflected in its prose
BP: Does that have anything to do with the exceedingly British feel of A Separation on the page?
KK: First, in terms of references, there’s a lot of European fiction that has a kind of unresolved mystery, often an act of extreme violence, at the center of the novel—I’m thinking, for example, of Duras. So that’s one way I think my book “feels” different. But in terms of specifically British, well, I lived in England for almost a decade. I went to college when I was young and moved from there to London. I think the city you first lived in that’s not your home, that really marks you in some way. I think there are plenty of British usages of language in the text that are deliberate, but others are not. That’s just how I use language.
BP: Reviews have already mentioned a murder in this book. I have to tell you the announcement of that in Chapter Seven really was a shock—and I am not easily surprised.
KK: Obviously I always knew it was going to happen and that it was going to be the split in the book. I had in mind No Country for Old Men; things like that can be such a shock when we understand certain narrative conventions! He really sets you up to expect genre, then, boom. It’s important to me that my narrator comes out of this with a sense of guilt, whether it’s earned, or not. It’s important to me that the book feels open ended and without a fixed solution.
BP: Did you spend time in Greece for this novel?
KK: I did spend time in Greece, but it wasn’t specifically to write this book. Recently I tried to work out the dates; it’s quite a long time ago, but I spent three weeks in Mani, where A Separation takes place. The hotel in it is an actual place, and I think that’s where the first seeds of this novel were planted. It was brief but intense, and it’s really interesting to unpick how books get put together. When I finished the book recently, I thought it was about jealousy and infidelity. However, when I turned back to my time in Mani, I realized the book is about grief. When I was there, in Greece, my father was in a remission from the cancer that killed him seven years ago. The dread I had of his impending loss seeped into the landscape, and it’s in this book, too.
BP: On the surface this seems like the least political of your books, but . . .
KK: It probably is. In a funny way it’s the most personal of my books, possibly because it’s the first time I’ve used first person. But politics is in our everyday life. There’s a lot in the book that’s specifically about class, particularly in the characters of the in-laws; the politics is in facets of the central characters rather than a set of ideas.
That was absolutely why it had to be first person for me. I knew that what was important to me was that it was a woman who was narrating the story, choosing the frame through which the story is told, choosing the depiction of the central male character. The narrator is unnamed, a presence that’s entirely voice. She’s almost a kind of disembodied character, and almost a kind of ghostly character.
BP: In a first-person narration, you do a lot of telling, rather than showing.
KK: Absolutely, you can’t get away from the telling. She reveals herself in terms of what she doesn’t say, but the fact that she is controlling the narrative is important. She speaks from a position of such deep uncertainty about who she is, about who she was to her husband. That sense of shifting ground is part of the grief narrative.
BP: She can’t get away from her own narrative; there’s a sense of interiority combined with claustrophobia.
KK: [My novel] wasn’t going to be driven by more conventional plot, its tension derives entirely from dread and claustrophobia, from mood. It was very important to me to depict the nature of obsession. Her imagination is unruly and she cannot control it. One of the tensions between my narrator and her mother-in-law is that the mother-in-law is a survivor, someone who is capable of shutting down her imagination and getting on with it and moving on, too. My narrator cannot.
BP: Instead of asking you “what’s next,” let me ask what you’re aiming towards. Does that make sense? Is it answerable?
KK: I’m working on another novel. When I was in my twenties I had a lot of time to experiment, not just in writing, but in collaborations—doing things that weren’t part of a book, just feeding myself with very varied input. Now I have two children and a book deadline and teaching, but I miss that dead time when you’re sitting around wondering what to work on next. I would like to preserve that, it’s the kind of elasticity that time has in college, for example. I actually think being bored is very, very useful to the creative process, yet nowadays I’m never bored. Trying to carve that out is a challenge—but that’s the dream.
Watch: Katie Kitamura discusses inverting the classic trope of the dead or disappeared woman, paying tribute to life’s lack of tidy resolution, and her focus on female consciousness in her most recent novel A Separation.