Extreme Cases: An Interview with Affinity Konar


Elatia Harris

Earlier this year, Affinity Konar, a former 3 Quarks Daily blogger, published her first novel, The Illustrated Version of Things (Fiction Collective Two, April 2009.) One of the very few 3QD columnists to post short fiction, her pieces were received in a way that suggests the form has a future here. Her novel, too, has been greeted with excitement – and read hungrily by me, among others.

Illustrated-version-things-affinity-konar-paperback-cover-art In a bookstore, one might find The Illustrated Version of Things shelved under coming-of-age fiction. From time to time while reading it, I spared a thought for some classics of the genre – one in which growing up usually does a young protagonist a bittersweet bit of good. Less usually, a bleak childhood will be seen as a lost paradise by a narrator who has crossed over — if only he’d known. Whatever happens, poignant is the watchword. If to have that note sounded is why you would read about kids, then this is probably not the book for you. Sam Lipsyte has a word for the experience of reading it: “singular.” Ben Marcus, a phrase: “the far limits of sorrow and isolation.” I don’t disagree, but it’s worth adding that it’s also a very funny book.

Affinity and I exchanged emails over 10 days as she and her family prepared to move from Virginia to California, where she grew up. They’re all on the road as I write, headed west.

Elatia Harris: Though the brother and sister in the novel are extreme cases, I got an uncanny sense as I read of how provisional every childhood is. That it's kind of amazing that any of us makes it through — assuming adulthood is the point. A children's advocate I know says that adulthood is not really the point, only the result of childhood.

Affinity Konar: I see it as provisional as well, and have always been tempted to view individuals who surface from horrific childhoods—not only intact, but functional beyond all understanding–as unusually talented people. It’s as if they have an extra muscle in their bodies, or a passport that allows travel between worlds with disparate laws of maturity and justice.

EH: Do those laws bind fictional characters? The brother and sister in your novel?

AK: I’d hoped that the brother character would dilute the notion that their childhood experiences were solely responsible for the narrator’s failures. Her language and perspective were the more pressing issues to me, and I’m still unsettled as to whether or not she’s actually interested in making her life livable.

EH: Readers will notice we don't talk about your narrator by name — they should know we're not being vague. She gives almost every sign of not having a name. Tritely, I'm wondering about your first name. To me, it sounds straight out of a novel by Goethe. Or certainly like something to do with chemistry. And it's refreshing to be asking someone else about her unusual name rather than defending my own.

AK: It's an odd relief to speak to someone else who is eccentrically named, too–I know I should plead Goethe or chemistry, but I just turned around and asked my mother about it, and she says it was a purely aesthetic choice, that she wanted something very feminine, so… It was a good move in any case though, because it sort of encouraged an affection for words that are somewhat off the beaten path. And provides for a lot of funny interactions.

EH: Mm, tell me about it. But this isn't just gossip. Your having a highly unusual name, and your protagonist being positively handle-challenged, might be unrelated facts but they are not going unremarked on. Names like ours have their good points, but — would you name a daughter Affinity?

AK: No, I wouldn't, even thought it's been entertaining for me — and a lot of other people. I suspect sometimes that my name led to my shyness. Every time a stranger meets me I want to interject and tell them that it's okay to laugh, I know that it's funny too, and I still, after all these years, can't believe that that's what I'm known as.

It's definitely led to trouble in naming characters, and I can't say that the protagonist's handle-difficulties aren't related…

EH: I am wondering how being unnamed helps the protagonist more fluidly toggle from identity to identity Whether this may underline her shape-shifting, putting it on a nearly mythological level, where, in the end, it seems unabashedly — rather, necessarily — to be. Never to be called by name is to remain unclaimed in some essential sense — not by the writer of the fiction, but by the other characters.

AK: I was hesitant to leave her unnamed, but it was also impossible to name her. I couldn't imagine her answering to any one name–and thought that yes, she'd prefer to have the gift of flitting from identity to identity, given that some of her circumstances offer little wriggling room. While it's never spelled out, there's one moment of extreme duress where she calls attention to its written form–there's always been a great difference to me, in the spoken word and the written one. I can handle my name somewhat on a page, but it's a whole different beast if I have to hear someone else say it, let alone myself. There's something so final and limiting about it that's oddly physical to me.

EH: Well, I'm not telling what it is! Words have such different presences in different forms for writers, but you're talking about something bigger than that…

AK: My parents taught me to read by placing signs with the names of objects all over the house and I'm not sure if it assisted my progress whatsoever, but words have always been strangely tactile to me, and names especially so. Making her anonymous made her untouchable in a sense, and I wanted to offer her at least that illusion of comfort.

EH: Well, she needs it. I've read a lot of fiction about late adolescence and its hideous pains, but never before one in which a kid turns bars of soap filthy with her touch — twice! That really is awful — you should be congratulated. I was convinced she only saw herself as that unclean, and her soap probably looked as good or bad as anyone else's. But the world of the novel is one in which there's a lot of blood and filth and injury. With the narrator — not quite literally — clawing her way through a cloacal passage, laboring under a curse. Why shouldn't it show on her soap?

People haven't accused you of being a particularly naturalistic writer, have they?

AK: I love that you think that her soap was as clean or as unclean as anyone else's!

I can't say that I'm often accused of being naturalistic. I actually began the novel when a mentor challenged me to write a story as realistically as I possibly could, and in the least opaque language that I could manage. I thought it was a pretty useless task at the time, and was offended as only a young person whose adolescent survival was highly dependent on surrealist word games could be, but that attempt to skew as closely to what other people perceived as natural clued me in to how I might be able to articulate a certain outsider's point of view, one that is constantly in a process of translating itself into acceptability, while having very little idea of what acceptability is. So that assignment became the opening chapter, and while I was in the thick of writing the rest of it I wasn't preoccupied so much with where it fell along the naturalism spectrum.

EH: Your protagonist is probably the least acceptable kid I've ever met reading. Totally unacceptable, although endearing in how wrong she is for everything, and in how low her sights are set. I kept wanting to put the book down and talk her out of it, and then would realize there was no way to reach her but to keep reading — which I had other reasons for wanting to do.

People should be careful talking about the mother. But the mother, even off-stage, is a bad mother of the epiphanial class.

It was the father I kept needing to hit, however. There's one scene in which he appears wearing only a beach towel. I thought how much fun to reach in and pull it off. To make him to face himself naked as a nurse who made vitamins for a hobby and spliced up at the sight of the suffering he caused.

AK: Your very physical impulses towards the father are so welcome to me, because I often hear people bemoan the mother exclusively. The fact that she tends to be singled out as the only party responsible for the protagonist's stunted nature has made me more sympathetic to her than I believed myself capable of being while writing the book, and it's given her another life in my mind that I wish I had been able to incorporate. It seems unfair that the narrator's disproportionately extreme longing for the mother serves to indict her as the more ghastly half of the parental unit, but there's also something of a tribute in it, I think–it's difficult to envision her having such extreme swings in affection for the father, whose inertia and passivity are often perceived as more forgivable.

EH: The father's impulse to give aid and comfort to everyone but his children is devastating. And funny. I knew a mom like that — no, I am not her daughter. I kept thinking of that Bunuel classic, The Phantom of Liberty, wherein the “missing” little girl in the powder blue coat is seen to be found by everyone except her deeply concerned parents, on whom her reappearance does not register. She tugs at their sleeves in the police station, but they can't be distracted from their absorption in the loss of her. The father is blind like that.

I felt the mother needed to be missing, artistically, so I was not necessarily expecting her. (Anyway, certainly not the way she — never mind!) I felt she needed to be immanent. But positioning your baby under a leak in the roof, the better to obtain nourishment for it, nourishment that was otherwise withheld, deserves a niche in the Bad Mother Pantheon.

I guess you can't write about kids whose parents carry on so without writing a coming-of-age fiction. Are you artistically comfortable locating The Illustrated Version of Things there?

AK: So many of my favorite books rest along the coming-of-age spectrum, and I'm always too happy to hear it classified along those lines; I suspect that a portrayal of the narrator at any age though, would fall into the same category.

I made a living writing educational scripts for a children's cartoon brand during the whole process, and it's funny to think how much of that informed the novel–I had to make pitches concerned with teaching kids about coping mechanisms and behavioral skills through these super-saturated, pop-culture characters with catchphrases and anagrams, and I can't say that my personal diagrams of maturity weren't frequently corrected by the editors.

EH: So that was one inspiration! What were some others?

AK: Twain’s Huck never really left me. He kicked off my obsession with the supposedly unlovable figures, derelicts, outsiders, underachievers—it’s a love that won’t resolve itself, though I thought it was close to closure after reading “Red the Fiend” by Gilbert Sorrentino, which pulls you through scenes whose horror is matched only by playful, often gymnastic language. I also thought a lot about Gary Lutz and Ben Marcus stories, the sad and comic ways that they bend words, the lines you only have to read once to remember always. And I ended up returning Grace Paley for conversation, Rimbaud for the synesthesia, Witold Gombrowicz for nearly everything, and Beckett for just as much, sometimes more. Lydia Millet’s “My Happy Life” put aside my doubts about creating characters that are at a great disadvantage in the world, but it’s so much more than that, and I wind up wordless just thinking about it.

EH: It's hard to talk about the end of the novel without uncorking it. And, while I think people should read it to be reading it, they should also read it for the way it ends. I will say that while reading — and after — one feels caught up in something tremendous, not in a story about quirky kids. There's a filmic aspect to the book, too. Are there films that have made a difference to you as a writer?

AK: Sam Lipsyte referenced My Best Fiend in a workshop once, and spoke about how Klaus Kinski habitually entered a scene with his body at a lean, half-hidden, evasive angle, just lurching into the frame. And he talked about how a writer could enter a story in the same way, at a slant, with an evasive sentence leading to a more revealing sentence. Thinking that way–in terms of physical gestures as applied to language—was really striking to me, and it became a sort of game to play with the narrator and my favorite actors. As in—here she’s in Buster Keaton mode, completely deadpan, or here she is, doing a teenage Jodie Foster, all narrowed eyes and swagger. I have difficulty thinking visually sometimes, and it was strangely helpful to think of writing as a sort of performance.

EH: Although people in an excellent position to judge have written about your use of language — and it is striking and beautiful and original — I considered that asking you to talk about that was like collaring a weaver of the Unicorn Tapestries to make her talk about stitches. Instead, tell me a little about publishing with Fiction Collective Two. I am not so sure most mainstream publishing houses are excited when they hear a writer's use of language is extraordinary.

AK: The prospect of publishing—even though that was supposedly what I’d set out to do—made me feel more uncomfortable and disembodied than I’d thought possible, and abandoning it was a genuine, ever-lurking temptation. Much of the content of the book had been inspired by my mother’s childhood, and what was written as a personal tribute to her suddenly felt too limited, too final. Brenda Mills, my editor at Fiction Collective Two, pulled a magic trick and drained a lot of the fear out of the experience, but my knees still knock with awe at the fact that my book was accepted by FC2, since it has a history of publishing great work on the fringe of what’s commonly perceived of as publishable.

EH: I'm a friend of Jonathan Baumbach, who was a friend of my late teacher, Art Edelstein, and a founder of the Fiction Collective. Maybe FC2 is doing for our era what the Fiction Collective did for the late mid-century.

When you get to California, will you live close to your family?

AK: Oh, yes. We're all joking that we're like the Joads — but with a happy ending.

The Illustrated Version of Things , by Affinity Konar, Fiction Collective Two, March 2009.

(amazon.com link)

A Factual History of Fictional Natures, Affinity Konar, 3 Quarks Daily, December 8, 2008.

All We Know, All We See, Affinity Konar, 3 Quarks Daily, January 5, 2009.

In Nutshell Code, Affinity Konar, 3 Quarks Daily, February 2, 2009

Web site of Fiction Collective Two — http://fc2.org/