The fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: Your story “Built to Sink Biannually” contains several allusions to historical events and people. How did you conduct research for this story?
Jaap Kemp: When I wrote this story I didn’t have access to any libraries, so I conducted my research online. I’m certainly not a scholar, so a lack of respectable and reputable sources was of no concern; quite the opposite. In recent years I’ve become more and more convinced that the term ‘nonfiction’ is one of the greatest fictions we’ve created for ourselves. Even the word itself is proof of this: we use ‘fiction’ as a root, and then attempt to negate it in order to describe something ‘real’. But negating fiction doesn’t equal a truth. It instead equals a greater fiction, a far more dangerous fiction, in that it’s believed to be inherently true. But any amount of research (respectable or otherwise) into popular historical events will demonstrate that not even the basic facts of any event are halfway reliable. To historicize anything is to first turn it into a narrative, a narrative implies a narrator, a narrator implies a point of view (or at best a few points of view). How do any of us today know anything about the Titanic? My guess is, for the majority of us (myself included), we recall most of our knowledge from the Jimmy Cameron film, and the rest we can find on Wikipedia. I choose Wikipedia.
RR: The cost of art is something central to this story but the implied message, particularly in the context of the ending, seems to minimize the physical costs and focuses on the mental costs and the amount of determination required to see this kind art through to the end. How can these ideals be applied to writing?
JK: When he was near the end of his life, my mentor in writing, the poet Samuel Menashe, often mentioned that he would frequently read certain short stories and poems, but he couldn’t bring himself to begin reading a new novel—“I don’t have the stamina to embark upon a novel,” I recall him saying. He used that word ‘embark,’ and likened reading a novel to crossing the Atlantic ocean by steamer. (He himself had made such a crossing as an infantryman deployed to France in 1944.) These are now my same feelings about writing a novel. And I’ve had far more icebergs than crossings. The amount of mental concentration that must be maintained throughout your daily life, while you hope to adequately accomplish mundane but necessary tasks—and all the while you must stoke the boilers of your writing. On any writing project, great or small, you walk through your daily routines contained within the vessel of your work. You must exhaust all of your knowledge with every single project. It must be a constant obsession that only you know about. The minute you share it, it’s no longer yours. And it must be always at the forefront of your mind in order to make any progress, or in order to even pick up the pen in the first place. You begin to exploit everything in your so-called ‘real’ life in order to keep sailing forth. You exploit anecdotes, strangers you meet, paintings, films, memories, dear friends and family—you must use other people’s experiences and stories, and not feel guilty about using them better than they can. It sounds very selfish and narcissistic. But there’s a reason such stereotypes exist about writers.
RR: Your storytelling style is very unique in the way that you weave historical events in with fiction. Is the style you use in this particular story emblematic of your work? What undergirds this approach?
JK:I recall reading years ago a quote from Victor Hugo, where he said (roughly paraphrased) that history is the nail upon which he hangs his canvas. Meaning that historical events and people were a linchpin to his novels, and that many of his plots depended upon history in order to function. Most of my work is based on historic events, and the rest I draw as directly as possible (hoping none get litigious) from ‘true’ stories taken from crime pages or paranormal news outlets. My plots don’t depend on such events, but the story as a whole or certain characters are enriched by them. Because history is dangerous territory: we get so caught up in facts that we become file clerks of information, and we completely miss the authentic nature of what we hope to understand. Mixing history with fiction clarifies the failure of facts, or, more specifically, the failure of a reliance on facts, of a belief in facts. I seek to value history and fiction as equally as possible, and to present both history and fiction as equally authentic experiences, understanding both as stories we tell ourselves for the sake of entertainment, edification, enlightenment, etc. And it’s certainly dangerous to fictionalize history—a countless number of atrocities have occurred and been praised due to such fictionalization—I argue it’s equally dangerous to authenticate history into objective truth. We’re faced with such a relentless barrage of contradictory ‘truths’ by means of the various screens we can’t seem to part ourselves from, and despite believing ourselves to be information-savvy and perceptively cynical and, most importantly, in-the-know, all of us, each single one of us, accepts at face value whatever we want to believe to be true. Our brains are programmed to do this with a number of cognitive biases. We accept what we want to believe about history, memory, the news, our relationships, our own selves. Fiction has the anarchic power to overthrow all of the supposed truths we believe, and it does this by lying to us in a very honest way. And most of history is unbelievable—most of our daily lives are unbelievable, if we stop to think about them—and yet we believe it. Or we don’t believe it, for equally invalid reasons. Fiction is honest about its deception. Nonfiction is deceptive about its honesty. In this age of information, the last thing we need is more so-called ‘nonfiction.’ And one shouldn’t try to disguise nonfiction as “creative nonfiction”—that’s just another outright lie, a further false qualifier. I understand that in saying this I may offend many talented, hardworking writers, writers who dedicate their lives to honing a specific craft, writers that I admire, writers that write much better than me. (And I understand in saying this that I’m biting the hand that grants me expression, as Rappahannock Review publishes nonfiction.) But creative nonfiction implies the rest of nonfiction is non-creative. I argue that nonfiction (creative and non-creative) is just a twisted branch of fiction—twisted for claiming itself to be more ‘real’ than fiction.
RR: Your story brings in a lot of historical events. What is your favorite time period to study?
JK: My sensibilities always return to Vienna in The Third Man. I have a fondness for the eras of gaslight Spiritualism and the American West. I love eras that allowed people to use cutting-edge analog technology in order to preserve something from the Old World—spirit photography, for example, or showcasing Lincoln’s embalmed corpse on a train route from the White House to Springfield. Perhaps it’s more revealing to say that my favorite American president is Tricky Dick Nixon. An utterly fascinating mixture of Quaker work ethic and political amorality. There’s such a popular mythos about him in American culture—the spited devil, who’s spited to the point of reverence. There’s a famous photograph of Elvis meeting Nixon (Elvis apparently offered his services as a federal agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs)—the Two Kings: sacred sinner and sinful saint. Nixon did some despicable things, and yet I can’t help but love him, despite how despicable he could be. Perhaps that reveals a bit too much about me.
RR: You wrote in your cover letter that in addition to writing short fiction, you also write short and full-length plays. Do you find that your experience writing this type of work influences your work as a fiction writer? If so, how?
JK: It certainly helps one keep an ear for dialogue. While dialogue in plays should be written in a different manner than dialogue in fiction (dialogue in fiction, even the best fiction, almost always sounds stilted when performed—perhaps this is the reason the best American novelists have dependably been some of the worst American screenwriters), each requires an attention to how people express their thoughts through spoken language, or, more frequently, how people disguise their thoughts through spoken language. A few short stories I’ve written have first started as plays, beginning with a conflicted dialogue between two characters. As I wrote more and more stage directions, I realized that instead of stage directions I needed a direct narrative, and couldn’t tell the story I wanted with dialogue alone. Playwriting is growing incredibly difficult for me. I’m an extremely pupal writer, I seclude and cocoon myself in order to refine my work. This is beneficial when it comes to fiction writing. But plays are not intended primarily to be read. It’s very rare to find a play that is both a good read and a good performance. Plays that read well are incredibly difficult to perform, and vice versa. I’ve found plays require a certain extroverted creativity that I possess less and less of as I grow older. For me, fiction and poetry are intensively introverted—a creativity originating outside the writer and moving inwards. Playwriting is a creativity originating inside and moving outwards. I used to be much more active in the theatre. But now I find I don’t have the patience to be around theatrical people for very long. It’s extremely exhausting being surrounded by performers who demand your attention. I suppose it’s just as exhausting as reading a writer writing on and on about himself. This is my own performance, I suppose. But I don’t have the benefit of being able to look my audience in the eye.
Jaap Kemp’s work in Issue 3.1: