JP: Well let's go to the story itself, which I read today. It's such a gut-punch of a thing -- it couldn't have been anything other than a short story, right?
SK: Yeah I think it's only a short-story idea. The motorcycle accident made me think of this terrible crash that happened on Mother's Day -- these two women, and they were going upstate with a whole bunch of kids, and there were eight or nine fatalities, and the van was going over a hundred miles an hour, and nobody knows why. Okay? Were they arguing? Were they maybe on a cell phone? There was no alcohol involved. And I think sometimes we write a story to try and figure out what happened, to our own satisfaction.
JP: One of the things that you seem to enjoy is sort of mixing, or actually in this case colliding, different categories of experience.
SK: Walks of life.
JP: Right. I mean, here you have these two poets who've both had these rich, fulfilling lives, even if they're waning a little bit now, and then these stomped-on women ...
SK: What I wanted to do is: You've got two people who are intellectuals, who have made a career out of using language to exalt the human experience. To me that's what poetry does. It takes ordinary life, it takes things that we all see, and concentrates them in this beautiful gem. When the good ones do that, that's what you get. When the Philip Larkins or the James Dickeys do that, you get something that is heightened, that says to us that reality is finer and more beautiful and more mysterious than we could ever possibly express ourselves. Which is why we need poetry. And then on the other hand you've got these women whose lives are the absolute opposite of poetry. Who are living below the margin, below the radar, this kind of desperate life, and it seems to me that when they look at each other, and take this unspoken decision to just end it, not only for themselves but for their children, who are going to have lives that are just the same -- that's almost like a poetic epiphany. That moment. Their deaths are a kind of poem. It's an awful poem, it's an awful decision -- nobody's saying that this suicide is the right thing to do -- but if you read the story and respond to the story, you can say, "Well maybe for them at the time it was the only thing to do ..."
JP: I'll tell you what I responded to. In the last two paragraphs, the tears sort of jumped to my eyes, but I realized that it wasn't the deaths, oddly enough, that I was responding to -- it was the bravery of the old poet, staggering around.
SK: Oh yes. I love that little moment there ... when I thought to myself: Well, these are poets. And poets, in my view, and I think the view of most people, do speak God's language -- it's better, it's finer, it's language on a higher plane than ordinary people speak in their daily lives, that these women or their children would speak in their daily lives. And at a moment like this the old lady poet turns and says, "What the fuck does it look like?" Because that's all you can say. Poetry falls apart. In that sense it's not a very cheerful story. The woman is almost saying "There's no language that describes how terrible this is."
JP: But on the other hand, they are still present at the scene, the poets. I mean, they are witnessing to this thing ...
JP: I mean, that was my takeaway -- that in the instant, there are no words for it, but later, perhaps ...
SK: I'm not very good at analyzing my own work, but I would say that probably this is an event that neither one of these people would ever write about in their own poetry, because it's beyond poetry. It almost negates poetry. But I think it's tough to overanalyze a short story, because they don't stand up to it.
JP: I don't know. I think if you drive into a reader that hard, they're going to be left with all sorts of things to think about and process, right?
SK: Yeah, but when fiction works for me it works on an emotional level first and an intellectual level second. If you say that tears jumped to your eyes, even if they were metaphorical tears --
JP: They weren't. They were physical tears.
SK: Oh ...
JP: I sniffed a little bit.
SK: (laughs) That's good. Well, James, it was all made up.
JP: Martin Amis has that line about how the writer dies twice -- first the talent, then the body, or however it goes. This story would seem to deny that. Herman Wouk's still writing!
SK: Undoubtedly. And that's why the poets are old in the story, because I wanted to be able to say: These are people who were young and roistering --
JP: That, I really liked. The fact that he was a broad-shouldered dude, I loved that detail.
SK: Kinda like some of the Beats that came out of San Francisco, I really kind of wanted that, and the idea of the passage of time and now he's this skinny old man and she's had all these lovers. But the thing is, though, they're still working, and Herman Wouk is still working. And you know, I remember very clearly, probably10 or 12 years ago, I was at a bookstore in my hometown in Maine and I walked in and there on the new-novel table was this book A Hole In Texas by Herman Wouk, and I was just... I was slain, James! I thought to myself: "What a hero! He's still working!"
JP: More generally, are you still as pessimistic about the short story as you seemed to be in that New York Times essay that you wrote?
SK: Ah well ...
JP: Or was that like a cranky moment?
SK: Well it wasn't really a cranky moment. I mean, it's a question of who reads them. And I've got a perspective of being a short-story reader going back to when I was 8 or 9 years old. At that time there were magazines all over the place. There were so many magazines publishing short fiction that nobody could keep up with it. They were just this open mouth going "Feed me! Feed me!" The pulps alone, the 15- and 20-cent pulps, published like 400 stories a month, and that's not even counting the so-called "slicks" -- Cosmopolitan, American Mercury. All those magazine published short fiction. And it started to dry up. And now you can number literally on two hands the number of magazines that are not little presses that publish short fiction. And I've always felt like I wanted to write for a wide audience. And I think that that's an honorable thing to want to do and I also think it's an honorable thing to say, "I've got something that will only appeal to a small slice of the audience". And there are little magazines that publish in that sense -- but a lot of the people who read those magazines are only reading them to see what they publish so that they can publish their own stories.