KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is the author of eleven books that have been translated into 22 languages. His first novel ZANESIVLLE was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award and has become a cult favorite in Russia and Poland. His second book PRIVATE MIDNIGHT became popular in France and Italy, and is now in development as a cable TV series in Hollywood. He has recently been the Gallagher Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute, Distinguished Writer in Residence at Seattle University in the USA, and the Mellon Scholar in Residence at Rhodes University in South America. A long time American expat, he is back in the USA, based in Las Vegas.
What is your earliest reading memory?
-The first book I read on my own was a picture book called Tinker and Tanker Go West, by the once very famous Richard Scarry (not the best last name for a children’s author). It was part of a series. Tinker is a rabbit, Tanker is a hippo. It’s considered very un-PC today. I loved it, and still do.
Has writing been a conscious choice or a natural thing for you?
It began of pure necessity. I was seriously addicted to the Hardy Boys series by age 7. One rainy Sunday afternoon I had a panic attack because I suddenly realized there were only so many books in the series. So, I created my own series called The Benton Boys—and if I got stalled for ideas, I’d borrow some from the Hardy’s and exaggerate them (like fights with 50 thugs or banditos instead of 3). I just imported the Hardy’s fat friend Chet Morton wholesale.
Do you have any special habits or rituals when you write?
I take a lot of photos and create visual art that at least to me reinforces the world of the story I’m working on. I collect little totems, trinkets, and icons around me. Anything to make the thoughtwork more physical. I picked up that habit as a child, but the study and practice of sorcery in Papua New Guinea long ago really solidified it.
Do you choose your stories/poems or do the stories/poems choose you?
I do choose a lot of what I write, but I see that the work that really gets written and finished has chosen me. Other work slips down the line, perhaps to return again or bubble up to the top. Perhaps not.
What national books/authors do you enjoy re-reading and why?
Walker Percy and William Burroughs come first to mind. Percy for his philosophical insights and phrasing. Buroughs for his peculiar imagination, life experience, and prescience about culture. Lately, I’ve reread Sinclair Lews, Katherine Anne Porter, and Lovecraft. I am always rereading Emerson, Thoreau and Melvile (I did my graduate work on them). Usually I reread for three reasons: inspiration when down, because I change my opinions a lot, or to check out some very specific technique / style issues. Paul Bowles too.
What foreign books/authors do you enjoy re-reading and why?
Kafka (because Kafka!), Cortazar, Borges, Lispector, Robbe-Grillet, Max Frisch, Angela Carter, Atwood, Conrad, and Graham Greene. All for very different reasons. I read a lot of African literature too.
What is so important about fiction/poetry?
Well, neither is important to everyone, and certainly not the masses. Not anymore. But I think the deep anthropological answer is that these forms of expression take us all the way back to the Paleolithic beginnings of culture, whether we experience that directly or not.
Flaubert says he was physically sick when he wrote Emma Bovary’s death. Are you empathetic with your characters?
What is your ideal reader?
Different depending on the work. I’ve written overtly for highly educated people, and for very street level working people who may have read few books before.
Should writers be embraced by society or should they be exiled?
Wouldn’t it be great if there were some middle ground that wasn’t quicksand? I generally feel fairly unmoved by contemporary writers who have been embraced by the literary establishment / award and grant machine. To some important extent, I think it matters at what stage of their careers they’re embraced. The other thing is, you can only be so exiled and still get published and be part of the cultural fabric. Part of my larger project as an artist overall is to break down the Either / Or dichotomies that cripple us today.
Is there a God or are there gods for writers?
Gods. Many. And many spirits. Ghosts. And a whole lot of demons.
What makes a writer a writer?
Writing first of all. A sheer, dogged need to do it. Second, a deep love for and suspicion of language. Third, noticing things that other people don’t. Fourth, being in touch with one’s dream life. Fifth, the ability to move frames. Miles Davis once told me, “Even the flushing of a toilet has a key and a time signature.”
Tell us about your fiction.
I’d like to think it’s different with every project. But in overall life terms there are some enduring tensions / visible arcs. I started off as a playwright, and I write in scenes. I believe in the power and the ceremony of dramatization over narration. I believe that what we call consciousness is but a tiny subset-fragment of a vast dream mosaic of existence that lies (most often) just beyond the reach of our perception. Most of the inciting incident-takeoff points in my work have to do with a character or characters suddenly getting a glimpse of this Secret World, which they can’t ignore.
What is the purpose of your writing?
To demonstrate my allegiance to the Secret World. I was a minister’s son. I remain a fundamentally religious writer. The faith doesn’t have a church. It doesn’t collect enough money. But I’m working on the hymnal.
How do you really feel about recognition and fame? Are you a satisfied mind or always craving for more?
I think almost everyone, as individuals, has some kind of dream of fortune and/or fame. In younger days, and in different fields, I had the chance to work for several very famous people, and some very wealthy people. I can’t say I’d want the lives of many of those folks. I unconditionally would like to make more money and to be fully self-sustaining on the basis of what I love to do. Who wouldn’t? As a writer, my goals in terms of recognition are to reach some people and to be part of their living library of thought, and to occasionally be mentioned credibly in the same sentence as some of my heroes.