Please welcome Kenneth Calhoun to The Qwillery as part of the 2014 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Black Moon was published on March 4, 2014 by Hogarth.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Kenneth: I started writing at a very young age, mostly because I was a pretty avid reader and wanted to make stories happen like the authors of my favorite books. I also received a lot of positive response from my parents and their friends about stories I wrote when I first learned how to write sentences (see the bio page of my site). I saw that stories transported people and I wanted to send them places. I remember telling my brother stories in our shared room at night, reciting story albums I listened to at school. He was older and normally not too interested in what I had to say, except when I was telling stories at night.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Kenneth: I’m kind of both, actually. I don’t really outline, but I do work out in my head (and sometimes in a very sparse bullet point list), where I want things to go. But I’m pretty quick to deviate or abandon these plans if something “organic” happens on the page. I do think it’s good to have some idea of an ending. But, again, nothing should be chained to the floor or strapped in, in case the story goes off a cliff and lands in deep water.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Kenneth: The most challenging thing is actually just sitting down and doing it. Sometimes just finding your way into a story can take forever. It’s like a house with no door. It’s very discouraging to know that what you are writing is probably just the bad stuff that you need to get out of your system. Every time I start a story it feels like I’m standing in the foothills of a vast mountain range that I must scale. Knowing this is a pretty formidable barrier to entry. I wonder why I should even begin such an undertaking. But somehow I eventually go forward.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Kenneth: Julio Cortazar, Kafka, J.G. Ballard, Bruno Schulz, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Donald Barthleme, Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, Aimee Bender, Charles Portis, Diane Williams, Sheila Heti, Nabokov, Calvino, George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, Robert Stone, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur Bradford, Jim Thompson, A.M. Homes, E. B. White and the Brothers Grimm.
TQ: You teach graphic design and have done work in a variety of creative fields including documentary filmmaking. How has this influenced (or not) your fiction writing?
Kenneth: More than design, I think editing video has really helped me develop timing and structure. It’s very important to understand the power of juxtaposition, of true montage or collision editing. When two images or sequences are placed side-by-side, a third meaning arises in the mind of the viewer. This is an important tool for writing with concision and suggestion—leaving a lot off the page, though it is strongly implied.
Another idea from design that I find myself contemplating (or working against) is the notion of “snap to grid”. This is a setting in tools like Photoshop that automatically align compositional elements along the lines of a grid or guides. If the notion is applied to writing, it could result in lazy and trite storytelling. With certain kinds of storytelling, you really feel the pull of the grid. As a writer, you have to work hard to place things between the lines, at random and idiosyncratic locations along the spectrum of ideas.
TQ: Describe Black Moon in 140 characters or less.
Kenneth: I want to borrow Nabokov’s “Picnic, lightning.” But how about: “Multiple characters fight against the irreversible current of an insomnia epidemic to stay connected in a flood of dreams and hallucinations.”
TQ: Tell us something about Black Moon that is not in the book description.
Kenneth: There are only two mentions of guns in the entire book.
TQ: Black Moon is an apocalypse by insomnia literary novel. Why did you write an apocalyptic novel? And why insomnia?
Kenneth: I am a child of the Cold War and now have a rather warped nostalgia for apocalypse. It always seemed to be hovering over us, the end. I had countless dreams of nuclear winter and a landscape transformed into obsidian by a blinding blast. I truly believe that a part of me assumed it would happen. I assert that this assumption made me, in some ways, an underachiever and noncommittal. My thinking was, Why bother? But then, here we are. Apocalypse is still looming, but flavored differently—more so about epidemics, climate change and the death of Nature than the Bomb. My attempt to embrace—that is, hold it so close it can’t hurt you—these new forms of societal collapse takes the shape of literary simulations. Black Moon is one of these simulations.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Black Moon?
Kenneth: I read a number of articles about insomnia and actually spoke to brain specialists and sleep experts, though not very extensively. Like at parties or bars. I watched some fascinating videos of actual brain implant surgeries. Mostly, though, I have a few people close to me that struggle with insomnia and I observed their struggles with both sadness and artistic interest.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Kenneth: I would say the easiest character to write was Biggs, because he’s most like me. The hardest was Carolyn, because I needed to understand her, but make her difficult to understand.
TQ: Give us one of your favorite lines from Black Moon.
Kenneth: “A storm seemed to crabwalk over the plateau, rushing toward them on crooked stilts of light, and wind filled their mouths with thin, cold air.”
TQ: What's next?
Kenneth: I am eager to complete a new novel, which is about the transformation of Southern California in the 1980s, punk rock, coyotes, hidden treasure, landfills and a possible feral child. It is currently called “Cucamonga,” which is where I’m from. I also have a collection of short stories that I’d like to re-sequence and tighten, plus fatten up with a few new stories. There are many other projects, including some interactive stories, in development.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Hogarth, March 4, 2014
Hardcover and eBook, 288 pages
For fans of The Age of Miracles and The Dog Stars, Black Moon is a hallucinatory and stunning debut that Charles Yu calls “Gripping and expertly constructed.”
Insomnia has claimed everyone Biggs knows. Even his beloved wife, Carolyn, has succumbed to the telltale red-rimmed eyes, slurred speech and cloudy mind before disappearing into the quickly collapsing world. Yet Biggs can still sleep, and dream, so he sets out to find her.
He ventures out into a world ransacked by mass confusion and desperation, where he meets others struggling against the tide of sleeplessness. Chase and his buddy Jordan are devising a scheme to live off their drug-store lootings; Lila is a high school student wandering the streets in an owl mask, no longer safe with her insomniac parents; Felicia abandons the sanctuary of a sleep research center to try to protect her family and perhaps reunite with Chase, an ex-boyfriend. All around, sleep has become an infinitely precious commodity. Money can’t buy it, no drug can touch it, and there are those who would kill to have it. However, Biggs persists in his quest for Carolyn, finding a resolve and inner strength that he never knew he had.
Kenneth Calhoun has written a brilliantly realized and utterly riveting depiction of a world gripped by madness, one that is vivid, strange, and profoundly moving.
KENNETH CALHOUN has had stories published in The Paris Review, Tin House, and the 2011 Pen/O. Henry Prize Collection, among others. He lives in Boston, where he is a graphic design professor at Lasell College.