Kevin Fanning has written for The Morning News, Eyeshot, and many others, and is the author of Twelve Times Lost, a fiction chapbook published this spring by So New Media. He lives in Champaign, IL.
DB: I lived in Champaign in the late Seventies when I was six, seven and eight years old. We lived in a ranch house on a slowly developing subdivision street surrounded by soybean fields. In tube socks and cut-off jeans, I’d ride my plastic skateboard, narrow as a necktie, in the street. I caught crawdads in creeks, played in an abandoned barns, and tied onto my bike fender the tail of a squirrel my dad’s friend had shot for stew. How’s Champaign looking these days?
KF: Bigger, busier. If I met you at your house, blindfolded you, spun you around a few times and deposited you on North Prospect Street, I don’t think you’d have any idea you were in Champaign. There are new buildings, shopping districts and subdivisions popping up every few months, it seems like. Was the town of Savoy anything but farmland back then? It’s basically been annexed by Champaign as one large strip mall at this point. I’m over in East Urbana, which is still relatively sleepy. But Downtown Champaign has cleaned up real nice, no more porn theater, just nice bars and restaurants and independently-owned shops.
DB: You moved to Champaign from Boston, I understand. What were you doing in Boston, and how have you managed the transition from the East Coast to the Midwest?
KF: I moved to Boston after college and enjoyed a few years there, but after about 26 years on the east coast, I was ready for a change. It was shocking how easily I adapted to life out here. It’s much more affordable, it’s a great place to raise a family, the people are friendly, and there’s no traffic, so overall it was a quality-of-life improvement.
DB: Writing pays peanuts. How do you make a living? And what kinds of jobs have you had?
KF: I’ve changed jobs a lot, and worked in a lot of different sectors. I worked on a farm, I played piano at banquets, I worked in state government, at a university, in real estate investment, and I got tangled up in that whole dotcom mess. I’ve temped at more places than I can remember. It took me a while to figure out a career path, as far as my day job is concerned. I think sometimes I enjoyed the interview process a lot more than the jobs themselves. That was part of what led me to get into Human Resources, which is what I’ve been doing for the last few years. I currently work in the video game industry, which I could not be more pleased about. And it’s great that I enjoy my day job so much, because that allows me to not stress about my writing, to not have it be about money. I can just keep writing because it makes me happy and feels good for my soul.
DB: How do you balance writing fiction and work/family?
KF: It’s really not easy, and I haven’t figured out a perfect solution. But I’ve come to realize that having a day job and a family actually helps my writing beyond just the being out in the world/participating in life stuff. Years ago I took a few months off to do nothing but write, and it was one of the least productive times of my life. I went stir-crazy in my apartment after the first week. I would wake up each morning filled with dread about having to fill up the day. Now, between work, family, dishes, laundry, changing diapers, etc, I’m lucky to find a few hours each week when I can really sit down and write, but that makes the urge to write more imperative. I just carry around a small notebook wherever I go, jot down ideas as they occur to me throughout the day, and grab a few minutes in front of a computer to collect everything and make sense of it whenever I can. I’m a very slow writer, so this works out fine. I don’t think my style and temperament could handle the boredom and stress of being a full-time writer. And you know, we grow up with this idea that we need to be Stephen King in order to be successful, and I don’t think that’s a very healthy way to approach art.
DB: What’s your website, whygodwhy, about? How did it start? What incarnations has it taken over time? And what are some unexpected things you learned about yourself as you’ve kept it up? (For example, I was gung-ho about my site in the beginning, adding rooms and renovating constantly; now I just keep it simple and clean, like a cottage.)
KF: My interest in having a website began, as it still does for millions of people every day, because I was bored at my job. I was an office manager in Harvard Square. Keep in mind that the internet was still taking flight at this point: when I’d first started working there, we didn’t even have web access. But eventually I was spending more and more time looking at the internet and wondering how hard it would be to build a website. Not that hard, it turned out.
I’d been writing short stories since high school, so there was never any question about what I’d use for content. From day one, I saw the internet as a way for me to get my stories out into the world, and nothing has changed about that. I basically view my website as a kind of writing workshop. I put ideas up, and I’m able to gauge people’s reactions almost in real time. Nothing I put on my website is ever “finished,” they’re all works in progress. Things are always being edited, added, deleted.
My website has taken on a variety of forms over the years. The stories I was writing in college were meant to be read on paper. I’m not so sure that’s absolutely the case anymore. Over the years I’ve experimented with voice, with style, with combinations of fiction and non-fiction—intentionally misleading to the reader or not—in ways I don’t think I would have if I hadn’t had the internet as a backdrop.
DB: Your tiny chapbook, Touch Anything Except Me, seems to be a collection of your early writing. The end notes are hilarious self-deprecating self-criticisms of your stories, certain lines in them, and even your motivations for writing them. It seems very much like the kind of ziney chapbook a writer makes because they just can’t help it. Is this right, and does much of your writing come this way, i.e. you write first and then figure out what to do with it all later?
KF: That’s true for those stories in particular, I think. Lately I’m much more self-aware of what I’m trying to accomplish, what ideas and themes I want to mess around with. Earlier it was much more about exploring moods.
That zine, and the others I have planned, was basically just born out of my frustration at the state of publishing. It’s very important for me, every so often, to delete everything on my website and start over from scratch. I don’t want to become complacent about exploring new ideas, trying new things. Cleaning house periodically keeps me from getting stuck in a rut. So the question then becomes, what to do with all these stories as they get archived onto my computer? I’ve never had much luck getting stories placed in literary journals. I think there’s a huge disconnect between the kinds of writing they publish, and the kinds of writing that are happening on the internet. And I’m not even convinced publication in lit journals is a worthy pursuit. It often seems like lit journals exist mainly to help MFA students at one school secure jobs on the creative writing faculties of another school. Obviously I have misgivings about the proliferation of creative writing MFA programs, but that’s a different conversation.
So I figured why not just try to do it myself. Print it up cheap, sell it cheap. I use the money I get from selling zines to invest in other people who are selling stories and artwork on the internet. I want that community to grow and thrive, because there are a lot of people creating some really amazing stuff.
DB: Your recent chapbook, Twelve Times Lost, is focused, haunting, more assured in composition. Ships might or might not be ghost ships. A father might have disappeared. Shadows and reflections play tricks on perception. There are odd maps and foggy woods and lost cities in the desert. Doors lead to different parts of a city or cities. Its subject and mood suggest to me that you’ve been influenced by Borges and Calvino. Is this right, and what else influences your writing (authors, movies, your childhood)?
KF: Yeah, I liked Calvino when I was younger. He, Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Maxine Hong Kingston were the primary motivators who turned me from a person who thought “Oh man I want to be a writer someday” to a person who actually sat his ass in the chair and tried to write stories. These days most of the fiction I read is on the internet, stuff by people like Josh Allen (fireland.com), Paul Ford (ftrain.com), and Pia Ehrhardt (piaze.com).
But in terms of what specifically influences my writing, I’m mostly inspired by dreams, voices, people I meet, broad social trends, and music. Definitely music; I originally turned to writing because I was a frustrated hack of a musician. I’m also inspired by comic books and movies, to a lesser extent.
DB: Can you describe the structure of the book? Was the structure something you intended at the start, or did you work at it for a while?
KF: Originally they were just a handful of unrelated stories written over a period of a few months, but gradually I realized how important they were to each other. The structure of the book was still being molded right up through production of the first print version. The title was Twelve Times Lost because there were twelve stories in the collection. But one of the stories bugged me, and seemed hopelessly ineffectual, so I decided to take it out. Eleven Times Lost didn’t roll off the tongue as nicely, so I kept the original title—the fact that there was a story missing fit in perfectly with the theme of the stories. So in that way the editorial process directly fed into the lore of the book.
DB: The elements in your fiction are everyday things. Doors. Houses. Trees. But the banality of daily life gets a torque when something slightly odd happens. A convenience-store clerk pretends to pull an old map from the narrator’s pocket. A strange man guides a lost girl into an alley and through a secret door that opens onto another part of town. What is it that fascinates you about how quickly the mundane can become the unreal?
KF: Magic-realism was an important aspect to my writing even before I knew there was a term for it. I’m not interested in documenting how things are, or what happened when. It’s more interesting me to create a world where strange, impossible things happen in a very matter-of-fact way. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world like that. It wouldn’t be any fun to write if I didn’t think that the worlds we create are more interesting than the world we live in.
DB: I don’t want to spoil the story, but I’m curious about the end. The twelfth piece brings together a lot of the elements from the prior sections (without fanfare, I might add; the reader has to pay close attention), and it appears as if we’ve returned, in a way, to a kind of beginning. Or at least it could be read that way. It appears less as if we’re supposed to interpret the piece as an allegory and more as if we’re meant to experience, with the narrator, the dizzying dips and interrelated swoops of memory. Ships, woods, beach, flowers: these elements have emotional weight and get recombined almost as if a young man were remixing his childhood memories. In part (ix), the narrator says, “The right feelings, the random confluence of certain moods and images, can help you create memories of the experiences you weren’t fortunate enough to have.” Am I way off here?
KF: Not at all. Twelve Times Los was important for me because it helped me come to terms with my limitations as a writer. I always found myself abandoning stories halfway through because I couldn’t figure out what should happen next. I will never be a mystery writer, because I can’t think that far ahead. I can’t draw connections that literally. To put it plainly, I realized that I have trouble with straightforward plot because I’m not interested in plot. I’m not interested in what happens next. I’m interested in voice and mood. I don’t care about what happens to a character as much as I care about how they react to what has happened to them, if that makes sense.
And it also goes back to being influenced by music. Think of an album that you love. A mood is created by the combination of those songs. The story contained in each song doesn’t necessarily have to follow logically from the story in the song that preceded it, but they still make sense together artistically. What that means to me is that we don’t need someone holding our hand to take us from Point A to Point B. We can just be given Points D, E, K and W and come away from those points with your own impressions and conclusions. I think songwriters are granted a lot of artistic leeway in this sense, so I wanted to try to steal some of that fluidity.
DB: Loss and the attempts to return home, even to a memory of home, seem central. What emotional core drives this story for the narrator and/or for you?
KF: Being lost, either physically or emotionally, has been a theme in my writing for as long as I can remember. Where does that come from exactly, I don’t know. I have some guesses, but I’m not sure it’s something I even want to explore. It goes back to not being concerned with plot, I guess. It’s just what I’m interested in, and that’s all I need to know.
DB: What do you friends and family say about your writing? Do you get more feedback from them or from online folks? What kind of feedback do you get, and does it affect you positively or negatively?
KF: I get the best feedback from my partner. I’m extremely lucky to be in a relationship with someone who takes my writing as seriously as I do. I get a good amount of feedback from internet people. I’ll get an email every few weeks from someone I’ve never met, telling me they like one of my stories. I used to get a good deal of email telling me how much I suck, but that doesn’t happen much anymore. I think there’s too much competing noise on the internet at this point; it’s easier to just never visit a website again than it is to take the time to explain why you hate that person.
DB: Make some media recommendations: books, blogs, zines, mags, movies, music.
KF: John Porcellino, who runs king-cat.net, was my main inspiration for getting my zines out there. His comics are packed with lovely little quiet and heartbreaking moments, but they’re very simple, and very affordable. I don’t know how he can sell his stuff for so cheap, but the world is a better place because of it.
Tinyshowcase.com is a great new website that sells striking, breathtaking art prints for about the cost of a CD.
Achewood.com is daily comic strip, and it’s hilarious and original and all that, but what I appreciate most about it is that he writes the best dialogue of anyone, ever.
Tobias Seamon’s book “The Magician’s Study : A Guided Tour of the Life, Times, and Memorabilia of Robert “The Great” Rouncival” is hugely fun, perfect for a weekend at the beach or whatever.
And my favorite non-fiction blog right now is bearswillattack.com. Writing on a very ordinary topic becomes filled with magic and wistfulness and grace in his hands and I don’t know how he does it.
DB: What are you working on now?
KF: Longer stuff. I’m not sure where it’s going. I’m trying to get into novel territory, but we’ll see what happens. I have a long list of projects I hope to tackle someday, and the list just keeps getting longer.