Q and A with Ken Kalfus, COUP DE FOUDRE
1. The title story is a riveting feat of imagination. What initially drew you to the story of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the alleged events at the Sofitel of a few years ago? What are some of the sources you used while writing and researching this story?
I was fascinated by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, as was much of the world in May 2011. Some of that interest was the product of simple prurience and curiosity about what actually happened in the hotel room. In fictionalizing the story, however, I was drawn to the familiar specter of the progressive politician brought to ruin by personal actions that seem to run counter to his beliefs and life work. I'm thinking of course of Bill Clinton and Elliot Spitzer, men sensitive to gender, poverty and race. Which shows, to me at least, that good political sentiments don't guarantee the goodness of the people who adhere to them. It's not a matter of hypocrisy; it's weakness and the fact that life is more complicated than ideology.
Again, I wish to stress that this novella is fiction, but I obviously drew from events reported in the press. Particularly useful was Edward Jay Epstein's Three Days in May and John Solomon's DSK. I also visited the lobby of the Sofitel on 44th Street in New York to get a sense of the layout, and in Washington I looked down from the roof of the W hotel into the garden of the Treasury building. I studied the macroeconomics of the European debt crisis and checked that month's price of a New York City taxi ride.
2. “The Moment They Were Waiting for” is a subtle and haunting meditation on capital punishment. What inspired this story? (I can’t stop thinking about it.)
I believe it was jury duty, here in Philadelphia, a few years ago. I was in a pool for a capital case, and I was immediately weeded out when they asked those of us who opposed the death penalty to raise our hands. Most of us did, though in conversation afterwards I heard people say they weren't actually opposed to capital punishment in principle, only that they didn't want to be on the jury voting for it.
I was disturbed by the not-so-subtle distinctions being voiced, and this led me to consider my own objections and principles, and just what is being done when the State puts a man or women to death, regardless of the crime. Then I tried to play with these philosophical ideas in a kind of science fictional way.
3. I apologize in advance for this question, but I’m so curious – how much of your own life is in these stories? I’m thinking especially of “Factitious Airs” and “Instructions for My Literary Executors.”
I very rarely write the literal events of my life into my fiction, yet the fiction's inspirations, concerns, observations and obsessions are in many cases intensely personal. When I look at this book, I see it as very much self-revealing, almost a memoir of my internal life over the years I was writing it.
But yes, like the protagonist in "Factitious Airs," I get my gums cleaned every three months, I receive nitrous oxide for the procedure and yes, for decades now, I've tried to use the intoxication produced by the gas to see beyond the frame of my earthly existence. My next appointment is in October.
The other story that I think tracks my life pretty closely is "The Un-," about a young man trying to learn how to write and how to get published. He spends a lot of his time at home gazing at the mail slot, waiting for it to disgorge an acceptance letter. My editor proposed updating the story to the present moment, when he might receive that rare, thrilling news by email, but I insisted on keeping the story true to my personal history.
You don't need to apologize for asking the question. Reading your stories, I wondered the same thing about you!
4. Who are some of your influences? I’m guessing Kafka, Camus and Borges might be among them.
Well, Borges for sure, and one of the stories in the collection, "In Borges' Library," is an obvious homage to him. I love Kafka and Camus, though it's harder to track how they've influenced me. (Btw, I was once pleased to see myself shelved immediately between Kafka and Camus in a Russian bookstore, but that was only because the Russians spell the latter's name with a K).
The question of influence is always tricky, it presupposes that you've learned anything from your reading. One of my favorite writers is Vladimir Nabokov. I don't know if anyone is capable of learning from him, his genius is just too particular to him. I can say though that I was largely moved to go back to writing short fiction after reading his Collected Stories from beginning to end., brilliant from the first page to the last. Nabokov reminds us of the power that can be coiled within a single perfect short story.
5. There’s a lightly comic undercurrent in many of your stories that I loved. Would you say, as John Updike said of his own work, that your default mode is the comic?
Yes, certainly (if I had thought of it first!), and perhaps that's something I learned from John Updike - he's another of those influences you asked about, and another practitioner of the perfect short story.
I still like listening to Cole Porter music, Broadway show tunes and the patter of old screwball movies. I admire wordplay and style, the witty and the urbane. I write in the hope that one of the things that will keep the reader reading is her amusement.