Published in October 2016, Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames by Stefan Kiesbye is the second book published by Panhandler Books. During the book launch and author reading at University of West Florida, Stefan sat down with Katherine Masters and Lee Ellis to discuss the book and his writing process.
Katherine Masters: Who are your influences?
Stefan Kiesbye: Nasty question. Oh, god. I always have a hard time with that question because it feels like you’re putting these big trophies on your wall in the hope that by virtue of putting those big trophies on the wall somehow you get into that realm. But I think the first time that I really noticed that somebody had written a book and it had not created itself magically and poured itself onto the page, was Hemingway, and I got really excited about seeing the seams of his writing. Like the whole concept as a text as something that’s been worked on, and you can see how the artist worked on it, just like in painting at that time—that was really exciting to me. Of course I discovered him many, many years after he had done that, and then reading that—but that was really exciting to see the writer at work, because often many writers feel—at least I think—that they have to get rid of the traces of their writing, sort of sweep it somewhere and put it away, so as to look natural, and I find that really boring. I love when you can see that someone manipulated the text, very obviously, came up with something. Not that a stunning line happened, but that a stunning line was worked on. So that was a starting point, and I don’t think my books are right now at all like Hemingway, but at the same time, I don’t want them to become smeared—where people are putting up tiles and then grouting everything—I like the open lines and the tiles to fall off. On the other hand, I’m also super influenced by my earliest readings, and those were Brothers Grimm, and when you reread them and you read Hemingway together, it makes total sense. The language is very similar in its start, and it’s: Something is here because I say so and I’ll leave it at that. There is no explanation. There is no origin story. There is the American and the girl he’s traveling with and we’re not asking, “Well, where did they come from? Did they have a happy childhood?” And the same thing is in Brothers Grimm—we never want to know, “Oh yeah, so why did the witch become so evil? Or what happened to her in her early childhood?” None of that. It stayed at that. It’s there. The story is told in a very brutal way, and then it’s over, and I love that. On the other hand…that can also kill you. I have this weird, stupid theory that Hemingway killed himself because he wasn’t allowed to write in a different style other than the Hemingway style. Because whenever he tried to write a book that was not in the Hemingway style people said, “That doesn’t look like Hemingway; that doesn’t feel like Hemingway; write something that feels like Hemingway.”
Lee Ellis: Yes, it wasn’t familiar.
SK: Yes—and so that can kill you. And Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames, to me, was a project that was pushing off Your House Is on Fire which was much starker, much more toward the fairy tale realm, supernatural realm; and here, in this book, there are adult characters with very adult problems trying to figure out what they’re doing in the world, trying to make a living, while at the same time, of course, weird shit is happening all around them—weird stuff is happening all around them. So I like the seams of what we think of ourselves in the realist world and what is really going on, because when I grew up, there was no separation between the supernatural and the everyday life. The legends of the area where I grew up were very much alive, and my mother’s side of the family was very superstitious. And yeah, there was sort of the Middle East conflict already back then; there were all kinds of political developments—the Red Army Faction, all that—but then there was also the realm: “Oh, there’s the black cat,” and there is “Clean your plate or else the sun won’t shine,” and all kinds of different things you have to obey in order to make ends meet in your everyday life. So Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames—it’s an attempt at showing how these different things still interact, and that even though we want to always seem so rational and clear-minded, and new and global, and international and all that, at heart, we’re still the same weird, little superstitious beings trying to get through life and somehow extend our lifespan.
LE: I wanted to ask about Your House Is on Fire. So that book to me, like you said, it seemed like it was more focused on the children’s side, and Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames is pretty clearly more focused on the adults’ side. Was that a transition for you as a writer? Or did it come naturally, just sort of moving from that point of view to Benno?
SK: So between the first draft of Your House Is on Fire and the first draft of Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames, it’s a time of eight years; they came out not that far apart, but Your House is on Fire had a long-winded publication story and a lot of detours and false starts. I don’t know. At that point, I was really still interested in the point of view of children because there’s a certain starkness to the experience that cannot be replicated in adult life. The more adult you get—at least the way I see it now and it might change—but the way I see it now is that you notice how much more complex things become. You know that all the morals and values that people are spouting out and profess, you can’t take at face value. But when you learn as a kid, you’re still, “Oh, they say this,” and then you discover that it’s not that way and it still hurts a lot, and you can’t make sense of it. Also, to me, childhood was always interesting because when you’re a child, you’re kind of a prisoner to your parents. You don’t have any rights, none whatsoever, really, unless your parents really brutalize you and a neighbor calls child services, but even then you can’t make your own life and you’re given up somewhere. You don’t have any of your own money, and you’re entirely dependent on people who might or might not have your best interests in mind. It’s a very strange position. I mean, it’s very weird and horrible at times, because the older you get, you notice that your parents might be doing horrible things to you or to others, but you can’t get out from that. And I love this perspective. In Your House Is on Fire, what I really love is that the kids learn how the adult world works and are fighting back with the same ugliness, and they’re taking charge—sometimes against each other, which is more horrible, and sometimes like Christian in the story where he kills his father. He’s just seeing things very clearly: “Okay, my father is molesting my sister, and I want to save her, so what do I have to do?” The only thing he can come up with is, “Well I have to kill my dad”…and he does that. There’s beauty in that starkness and this trying to be a moral being in an entirely immoral world, and only having immoral things at your disposal. So it’s a conundrum and everyone in the novel pays heavily for that, but at the same time, the kids, in a weird way, are the only ones who have a moral universe, whereas the adults have given up on that. But of course, I’m also getting older and to me there aren’t a lot of adult books where adults are treated seriously. Often it’s the male loser who can’t get his shit together, or the nagging wife who can’t get her shit together, and we have such bad opinions of adult life. Especially in America. I always felt, early on when I started reading American literature, that a lot of people feel that after college, life ends. Then it’s just this desert of adulthood, of responsibilities, of drudgery, but that high school and college are the years when you’re alive, full of hope, and then you try to steer into a certain track and then it’s all horrible after that. It’s just death. At the time I was reading Gibson, his trilogy that starts with Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and then Zero History, and his adult characters, even though it’s adult genre novel and all that, were really smart—not in a hokey way, but they had sort of their ups and downs—but they were very much of the world, doing weird, really cool stuff in the world, and didn’t see themselves as just providers for kids and college funds. But took their own life very seriously, and to me that was really an eye-opener, “Oh there are these books that don’t dramatize it horribly, where it’s the lost-child story or the marriage-gone-to-shit story and all that. But they’re doing other stuff.” They’re having a life, and I was steering into this age where you feel, “What are people doing around me?” And you don’t find anything that’s remotely interesting to you, and so that was the glimmer. And with Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames, I wanted to show the other side, when the grayscale has expanded and you’re trying to make sense of the world, but you still don’t know how to do it. But also at the same time, try to make it and try to take yourself seriously, and you’re not just one stereotype or the other, but you’re trying to lead a life that is still recognizable and meaningful to yourself.
KM: That’s one of the things I really appreciated about Benno—that he was not just the kind of stereotype that was trying to get it together and having this failing marriage. It almost seemed like a kind of coming of age for him, at an age where you wouldn’t normally expect that. I really loved that. What I found fascinating was the dog, Rasmus. The dog went toward Tim, but Benno kind of started to gravitate toward the dog, and kind of had him as a leader. Was there something to that? I noticed there was a YouTube trailer for the book, and it’s forty five seconds of the dog sniffing around. I don’t know if you had a part in that trailer.
SK: Yeah, I made that trailer on my iPhone 4S.
KM: I loved it.
SK: So full disclosure, I have three dogs and it’s not something—I’m very suspicious of that, that suddenly in my fiction dogs appear, just because I have dogs. In 2006, we got—in real life his name is Dunkin—we got this dog from the humane society who was found under a bridge in Detroit keeping a dead dog company and totally emaciated from disease, and when we got him he looked horrible, but he was already, the vet said, a hundred times better than when they found him. There’s something really strange about the dog because he’s super well trained, but also fearful; so somebody was probably relatively rough on him training him, but trained him. We have no idea because he never ran off or even tried to run off, and so we don’t know how he got away; only he knows. But there’s something in the dog when he—he doesn’t like me. I mean, he’s okay with me but he’s really my wife’s dog. Whenever you look at the dog, that’s the closest thing I’ve ever come to seeing god, and I know how stupid that sounds, and I don’t mean it in this— but there’s something when you look at him in his reaction, his demeanor, and the way he looks back at you, and you feel that’s not a normal dog, there is something else happening there…and I don’t know, I had to put him in the book. Also he was a nice plot device there. In this book that I wrote recently, The Staked Plains, there are three dogs, and I’m very suspicious of that now. I’m probably still writing about dogs for a while. I’m not a crazy dog person, and I hate people who write books from the point of view of dogs. I’m very super suspicious of that, and I don’t like people who do that. It’s like dressing up your dog; it’s horrible. But nonetheless, there is something in—probably more animals than dogs, but since I have dogs—something that totally escapes us in our everyday life…that there’s something weirdly—I don’t want to say “pure” because that’s kind of sentimental—but there’s something else going on and a directness and an openness that is very enticing to me. It’s like knowing what you like, acting on that. Knowing your way around, looking at the world from a very different lens, but still being aware of the smell of people—to which we are also very susceptible. We know how people smell, even though we don’t know, and we pick up on certain things in a person whether we like them or not, but we, usually in our everyday, we don’t act upon it because it’s not very civilized to do that. Dogs don’t have that; so I love that. And here, Rasmus has the central role of savior but also this weird companion who was already a companion to somebody else, and I like the mystery he’s carrying with him for a long time.
LE: I sensed very strongly the struggle between the establishment of the town, the struggle between the townspeople and the outsiders coming in. At first it seemed like Benno and his wife were on the same team. They were both in this similar situation, and they were trying to immerse Tim in this town, trying to get him introduced, so they’re kind of fighting on the same side. Pretty quickly, it seemed like the struggle moves to being between Benno and his wife. I wonder, because we’re in Benno’s point of view. It was sort of natural, I thought, that we take his side, but toward the end, I was thinking that actually Carolin deserves a lot of credit for at least trying to become part of this town, even if the means of doing it were suspect.
SK: I didn’t want to have the cliché of the naggy, crazy wife—they have this really strong bond and think they really are to a large degree very devoted to each other, only that they’re really looking for entirely different things and can’t see eye-to-eye there. She wants to fit in; she wants to have a meaningful experience that is not big-city, but a small community where people know each other, where her son can grow up without any outside fears. So she’s very invested in that, and I hope that the book never betrays her—she really means well, but she also sees what a horrible person Benno can be at times, and that he’s waffling, and he can’t make up his mind, and that his vision of adulthood might not be the kind of life that she wants to lead. So I think they both do some growing up; they both come of age in a weird way. I think in the final scene, they’re meeting as equals. They have gone entirely different routes, and they really want different lives, but none of their visions are discredited. She has learned something about herself; he has done that, and now it’s up in the air. They could either say, “Okay, we’re going to try again,” or they can say, “Well, that’s not going to work out.” But it’s not that she’s just a detriment to his happiness. She really wants a clear path; she wants the best for Tim, so she’s as justified in her pursuit as he is.
LE: Sure. Toward the end she seems to kind of throw him out the way that she threw out his records, right? It was a very similar banishment, and I felt in that moment that she was choosing the town over him. I wonder if that’s still a choice in that final scene that she is faced with, or if they can move forward together.
SK: I don’t think that they’re going to go back, because the town has revealed itself, and I don’t think you can go back to a point of banishing what you just witnessed. And of course, the house burned down.
LE: Maybe not to that specific town. I could see Benno wanting to move back to the city and her wanting to move to a different town.
SK: Yeah and that’s probably going to happen. Even if they were going to try to get back together, I don’t think that that would work out necessarily. They just have very different visions of how life should be—what they value in life. Both versions are perfectly fine but can’t be had together.
KM: I really love what you do playing with the superstition and the legends, and myths, and how these mythical things manifest themselves through people making it real, which makes it incredibly terrifying, because it’s more than just a myth. I love the mixture of all the different things, especially toward the end when Otto’s saying, “I’m trying to bring in a new god,” when he’s bringing in the pastor and things like that. Is that something you write about a lot? Is that a small town kind of thing?
SK: It’s probably a small town kind of thing. But I always get stuck in small towns. I did write one book about L.A. which was published in Germany, not here, but in small towns you just have a very nice context of meaning and frame of meaning, because whatever you do will be noticed and people react to that. In L.A., you kill your lover, hack off his limbs, put them in garbage bags, put them in a shopping cart and go around the streets and try to barter them off to your friends, and it takes weeks to notice any of that. In a small town, everything you do will be noticed, and there is a certain price to pay, but also people protect each other. Yeah, you might abuse your daughter or your son, but I’m doing something weird with my husband or wife, so let’s stay quiet about that. The other thing I think I like about religion—well I don’t like about religion, but where religion comes in—is how do we create meaning in our world? And I think that’s always maybe the underlying theme of whatever I write. How do we create something that makes sense or that is really meaningful? When can we say, “Okay, we lived a good or an adequate life.” And we don’t have that, and I think that’s where the trouble starts. The children in Your House Is on Fire don’t have that, because they see whatever their parents tell them, they don’t do themselves. With Benno, it’s similar. He wants to do the right thing, but discovers that it doesn’t make sense to him. And the way his partner wants to live, he can’t really stand, can’t fulfill. So how do we create order? Who’s the referee? It’s really like real life—in The Staked Plains we have the same thing with a woman who moves into this small town in the Southwest and is up against the villagers and how they want to live their life, and that doesn’t really mesh. Everybody’s trying to just create an order in which their life is special and meaningful, and I think we see that—not to be topical or so—we see that very nicely right now pre- and post-election. That everyone wants to shape the world in a way that’s beneficial for them and makes their group the special group and makes their life meaningful in a way they want to. But we don’t say that. We always say, “Oh God. It’s God’s rule,” or “It’s that one’s rule,” and we’re always lying, you know? And there is no meaning. There really absolutely is no meaning. We can give ourselves meaning. We can try to abide by a certain set of rules that we find tenable. But there is no meaning. There is no God coming later and saying, “Well done, well done, Stefan! You didn’t waste a minute!” You know, there’s nothing of that. There’s no one coming out of the wings and congratulating you. Like the scene in American movies, which you see in so so many movies, in the end people are applauding the main character. That’s our dream, that people say, “Yes, you did the exact right thing.” But we don’t get that in real life. There is nobody. The more adult we become, the more we grow up, we see how shitty the world really is, and how horribly corrupt everything is. And so what do we do with that? How do we create meaning out of the world where there is no meaning? So that’s always the problem in all of these books, that people are trying to give themselves a moral code to live by and feeling sorry because there is none. Wow, that sounds really dark and gloomy. Anyway…
LE: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the architecture of this book. Specifically about some of the choices that you made with the pacing. I thought that after Benno dances with Corinna and sort of begins his search in earnest, that it was kind of a rush. It was flying. It was flying along. There were a lot of moving parts, and it was just a lot of fun. I wonder how you kept it all organized. There’s a lot of information being emitted out.
SK: The thing was, the book was longer in its original draft. I wanted to take my jolly good time. I was kind of tired of short, clipped sentences—which I might come back to at some point. There’s kind of two aesthetics—well there are more, but those are the two—so there’s Hemingway, and then there’s Alice Munro. The iceberg theory, you show just a tiny little bit and you feel. But when you do that, the reader, of course, can only feel what is in their repertory; they fill in the gaps according to their own experience. You can’t give them any kind of new experience. So the Alice Munro school is documenting experience very minutely to show us the moving parts of the mind, of an experience, of a certain time. To me, I wanted to take my jolly good time and really explore certain characters, whether they were guilty or not, just hanging around with them. To me, the atmosphere of the thing was more interesting than who did what to whom or any of that. I felt it was very slow. My editor, with whom I had many fights, didn’t want to do the book. He wanted to always cut, cut, cut. Cut this. Cut that. But at the same time, of course, the book towards the end—or towards three-quarters, one-quarter into it—develops it’s own trajectory of stuff happening. That there are always these tiny little things that happen that don’t make sense, and Benno’s going after them. So to me, it was always pushing that away and trying not to go there yet, which is entirely, sort of this weird…to delay the moment of revelation. So if it’s a rush—to me the book feels super slow, very, very slow. Only maybe the last thirty pages or so where things get pretty crazy. But to me it was a very slow experience because all the other books I’d written up to that point were always very brutal and direct, and here it’s more of a soaking in, to me, the atmosphere of things. Somebody is saying something weird. What do I make of that? I see somebody who’s collecting knives and who’s mentally disabled. What do I make of that? And to soak that in and just live in that village for a while and enjoy living there. I had a different experience of that. But at the same time, of course, you want to advance. You want to make people go, “Oh, oh, so what does that mean?” You want to drive them forward, but at the same time, I wanted to delay it as long as possible.
LE: Anything you feel that we didn’t touch on that you felt was important to you about the book?
SK: Well there’s one thing, and it’s a thing that’s entirely buried there, it’s not really part of the story, but it’s the year before the German reunification. On a technical level, that had the advantage of there being no cell phones, because getting cell phones into the narrative can be a really awkward experience. If you read the Kurt Wallander novels by Henning Mankell, there’s always: he doesn’t get the message, he gets the message late, his phone poops out, and all that. It’s kind of awkward, so I got rid of that, which is lovely. It’s the year before the German reunification, and they’re leaving Berlin, which is a slightly ironic move. Berlin is becoming this not exceptional city as they’re leaving. And just as much as Benno and Carolin are transitioning in their lives, trying to make a new start, trying to unite the pieces—she has the son, he has whatever baggage with his own family—so trying to unite those pieces, Germany is sort of slowly moving towards this unification. I like the movement of that, that it’s just this awkward transition time. New identities are formed and people have to make sense of that experience. It’s not dramatized at all, but it’s there for people who remember ’89. It’s there. The book ends early ’89. In the fall, the wall would come down, a new kind of period of German understanding was started, but right now it’s still the old world and the Cold War and the separation of things. That is sort of the immaterial structure of the piece, but it doesn’t come into the foreground.
LE: I enjoyed that too. There were a couple of references to the wall, but it didn’t seem to matter so much to the townspeople. It seemed to matter to Benno that he was not in Berlin, but for the life that they were making there, it seemed like it just wasn’t a part of their daily existence.
SK: No, it wasn’t. I mean, when I grew up, we didn’t have any relatives in the East, and I grew up in the West, and I was always a kid with two German states. I never understood what the fuss was about. The position of Berlin inside Germany was, of course, really bizarre, but when I moved to Berlin I loved that, because it wasn’t really a part of the normal Germany. It was this weird fantasy island and cheap to live in and very beautiful, very goth, and I loved that.