Talking to Christian Kiefer, Author of "The Animals"

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The Animals by Christian Kiefer

AnimalsChristian Kiefer's The Animals was a March Best Book of the Month selection. Here's the review I wrote when we selected it:

Bill Reed runs an animal sanctuary in northern Idaho. He keeps to himself mostly, dating the local veterinarian and caring for the animals who have come to the refuge over the past twenty five years. But his past is catching up to him. His old friend Rick has been released from prison, and Rick has an axe to grind. Moving gracefully between different periods in Bill’s life, author Christian Kiefer weaves a trenchant, profound literary novel that practically wills people to care about its characters. One of those characters is Majer, a blind grizzly bear and longtime denizen of the sanctuary. As Reed’s past closes in on him, and the sanctuary becomes something wholly different, Majer too will play a part. The Animals is a novel of action and emotion, style and substance, and I am looking forward to whatever Kiefer produces next. – Chris Schluep

I had the chance to ask Kiefer some questions. Read on to see what he had to say about writing his book and writing in general. It's pretty illuminating:

Chris Schluep: How did this book first come to mind for you? Did you start with a scene? With Majer? The shooting of the moose?

Christian Kiefer: I actually started with the end, at least conceptually. I had a failed draft of a book that I was calling Out of Iron. Nothing about that manuscript worked except for the final scene, which I just couldn’t shake. I was working on a different book, a book about early 19th century European cartography, and for whatever reason I took a break from that and started a new book that I hoped would end where Out of Iron ended.

I’ve talked with my friend Tim Rutili (of the band Califone) about images. As artists, we cling to certain images that we won’t or can’t let go of. The great writer Pam Houston calls them “glimmers,” which seems about right to me. Something about them takes hold of our hearts or souls and eventually that manifests in our fiction or songwriting or painting or whatever it is. For me, it was the idea of two men in mortal combat in a blizzard, the way they shift into and out of view.

The opening of the book, as it ended up, came much later. Actually, the animals themselves came much later. I happened to visit Animal Ark, a wildlife rescue up near Reno, Nevada. It’s a remarkable place and I was immediately struck by the notion that this was the kind of place my protagonist would have wanted to work. He grew up on Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (as many people did) and that interest in animals never really left him. Visiting Animal Ark opened up the world of the book for me. The animal rescue in the book is located in North Idaho but it’s really some mixture of Animal Ark and the Folsom Zoo in Northern California, both places I visited and contemplated in depth.

CS: How long did it take you to write this book (and how did you do it with six sons)?

Kiefer: It takes me two or three years to write a book, although the one I’m working on now I’ve been at—on and off—for five years already and I’m still not done with it. As for my kids, my wife is amazing. She takes care of most of the real life stuff—paying the bills and preparing the lunches and all of that—and gives me all the time I need to get my creative work done.

I write everyday, although by “write” I sometimes mean “read” or “think” or “research.” Often “writing” means I’m pouring through books and looking at maps and thinking about plot problems. But then there are many many days when I’m pushing 2000 words or 3000 words too. It’s important to me that I keep my toes in the stream everyday, otherwise, there’s a point at which I need to go back and read everything I’ve written and that always results in a big slowdown. Useful but we want to make forward progress when we can.


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CS: There are a lot of flashbacks in the novel, which is a difficult thing to pull off. Was that always the structure you had in mind? Was there a long re-write period? I can only imagine it took a lot of work to make the novel appear so seamless and simple.

Kiefer: There's always a long rewrite period for me. My first draft writing is never particularly strong and I’m super committed to going over and over and over the words and the sentences to make sure I have them all in the right order. Faulkner’s my go-to guy for sentences. There’s something about his rhythm and cadence (a Mississippi rhythm) that I adore. Vocabulary. Everything. So I do upwards of 40+ drafts to get all that stuff right.

Flashbacks are difficult for me. Some writers are so good as seamlessly drifting into the past. I can’t do it that way; it always awkward. So I tend to block out my backstory in separate chapters so that the reader is just sunk into it and they can’t escape. In the case of The Animals, I also decided to do the backstory sections in present tense, second person. People keep talking about that like it’s some great innovation but I pretty much stole the whole idea from Pam Houston, who does it to great effect in some of her fiction. Putting the backstory in present/2nd gives it a kind of velocity that it wouldn’t otherwise have. That’s the great danger of backstory, of course: that it drags the narrative velocity down.

As for the structure, this book was very very difficult for me to structure, in part because I wanted it to move forward in ways my first book purposefully did not and that kind of thing isn’t naturally to the way I think, read, or write. A guy eating a bowl of cereal and looking out a window: I can write that all day. Put a gun in his hand or make him a gambling addict or have some low level mob guys looking for him: then I have a big problem. So I worked really hard trying to figure out how to give the book velocity while maintain the kind of lyricism that I want from the sentences.

CS: Why did you decide to write passages from an animal’s perspective and what challenges did that present? Did you have to restrain yourself to some degree?

Kiefer: This is something I knew I was going to try to do soon after the animals came into the manuscript. You’re right to pinpoint that it brings up specific kinds of challenges. I didn’t want it to be Watership Down, for example. I wanted it to feather into the larger voices of the text and to be organic to the whole thing but I also wanted it to be different from everything to have come before. I mean I wanted to seem radically different but also feel familiar.

My process on this was to read everything I could on animal consciousness and, in particular, on grizzly bears. I visited some wolf people up in North Idaho and also the carnivore folks at the San Francisco Zoo, both of whom were very helpful. Really it comes down to understanding that animals have an entirely different set of inputs than humans do. For bears, that input is primarily their sense of smell. So the writing problem becomes how do you present a sentient being, in human language, who understands the world through scent? Hopefully I did something with it that works!

CS: How aware were you of Big Themes as you were writing the book? Discuss as much or as little as you’d like.

Kiefer: I had a pretty good idea of the big themes through most of the process, although I might add here that the big themes issue is something that comes through the rewriting more than the writing. One big theme throughout is questioning who/what gets put in a cage and who/what gets to decide that. But another, even larger notion, is the idea of being and of the self. I’m interested in the inability of the deep core of a person to change. We are, I believe, pretty much hardwired to be who we are. I’m not saying that change it impossible but rather than it’s improbable.

I spent the year I was doing the heaviest rewrites of The Animals reading Heidegger’s Being and Time. I’d read it once before but this time I was really trying to understand being—what I’d rather call the “self”—in a fundamental way. Of course Heidegger’s method is unnecessarily complicated but there’s much to take away from his conception of being. Heidegger called boredom one of the most profound states of existence and boredom is a heavy theme in the book for this reason.

CS: How would you compare the experience of writing a second novel compared the writing your debut The Infinite Tides?

Kiefer: You’d think it might get easier but, for me, it really didn’t and really doesn’t. It’s hard to write a novel and this one was maybe even harder than the first. The one saving grace is that I had done it once before—I mean I had written a publishable novel—so there was that knowledge fanning the flames a bit, but in some ways that just made me feel closer to the edge. You’ve got to believe that you can do it, on some basic level, otherwise it’s easy to quit. So something draws you back. Your ego. Your love of sentence. The characters. The stack of pages you’ve already completed. Something.

CS: Do you have an audience in mind when you’re writing prose or poetry, or when you’re making music? Is that audience the same for each different art?

Kiefer: Wow that’s an interesting question. Part of what I need to do when I’m doing any of those things—prose, poetry, music—is to completely disavow myself of the notion of an audience. Art has to exist outside of such concerns, at least on a conceptual level. But then there must be a point during the writing of a novel or a poem or a song when you have to consider what someone else will make of it. As my friend the poet Traci Gourdine says, “a poem is not a selfie.” You’ve got to turn that work toward the audience at some point otherwise you’re doing journalling or writing incomprehensible poetry or whatever. The art can be difficult—in some ways it should be difficult—but if you’re the only one who will ever understand it then you’re not being a very good artist. “Artist” to me is a job in a community so at some point that needs to be acknowledged as you’re working. (I think I may have just argued myself in a big circle on this answer!)

 

 


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