Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Kelby Losack on Heathenish

For awhile now, I've been hearing good things about the writing of Kelby Losack. I wasn't hearing much in the way of specifics, but since we share the same publisher, Broken River Books, I put stock in what I did pick up. Kelby has an honesty and a way with language, was the word, and his new novel, Heathenish, will be one I'll want to read.  So I asked for a copy when the book was ready, and I haven't been disappointed.  Heathenish is a short fast read, but it's intense.  And I thought why not talk to Kelby about it, to see where the book came from and to congratulate him on being around to tell the tale.

So here's our talk.

SCOTT ADLERBERG: I knew basically nothing about Heathenish going into reading it, so I didn’t anticipate that it’s closely based on your life at a certain time. So, first question, how long ago did these events or the events they are based on take place? 

KELBY LOSACK: The book itself starts in the winter and ends in the middle of summer the following year, something I felt was thematically important, you know – I wanted to have these seasons passing to coincide with the narrator’s personal changes – but that also happened to be the way things went down, as far as events that inspired the book.  And those events took place a little over three to four years ago.

So Heathenish, though it’s not confessional fiction precisely, is fiction where the author bares….a lot. You don’t shy away from showing yourself doing all sorts of illicit and less than respectable activity. What I found impressive was how you did all that, portraying a period when you’re somewhat out of control, and yet wrote with a sense of detachment. There’s no self-indulgence in the book - the usual pitfall for the “young” author writing about himself. You’re in control, writing about yourself being somewhat out of control. How did you get to that detachment, if that’s the best word for it, while writing? Was that something that came naturally to you or that you had to work toward, going through various drafts and editing?

The short answer is it came naturally, but that’s because – in the beginning, at least – I did not want to write this book. J. David Osborne asked me to write it – and I’m glad he did now, because it was very cathartic and seems to be connecting well with people – but it took a lot of mental gymnastics and encouragement from my wife to get the words out. I wasn’t happy with where I came from, what I had very recently separated myself from, and so it was only natural to detach myself from what was going on the page in order to keep myself from sinking in to a deep depression.  I was determined to be honest about it, though.  So it was a tough balancing act of baring my tarnished soul while also being a little cold about it, keeping a safe distance from myself.

On your About the Author page, it says about you, “This is his second novella since his rap career never took off.”  Unusual to see an author implying, even if partly in jest, that they are writing sort of as a consolation activity to their main creative love.  Is that true?  Is writing books a creative thing you fell into because music hasn’t taken off for you, or were you always doing both at the same time?

The joke of it is that I was ever chasing a career in rap. But there is truth in there, yeah. For as long as I can remember, I've been into music. From learning any instrument I could get my hands on to writing songs to figuring out the production and engineering side of it, I've always been obsessed with anything about music. But I've also just always been into art. There was never a decision like, "I'm done with music, I'll write books now," there was just a point where I decided to start writing books and my love of music spilled into that, for sure. The way I see prose is I'm trying to feel out a rhythm, same way I would approach a beat when rapping, which I still love to do. I like to bounce around between creative endeavors. One of these days, I'll probably drop a mixtape. 

Heathenish is certainly about more than the joys and displeasures of the drug life, but it is a good addition to that select library where drugs and intoxication figure prominently. It's an honorable literary tradition, stretching way back at least to the days of Poe and Thomas de Quincey. Do you have any particular favorites, from old or newer books, in the drug lit category? And did any give you any ideas about how to approach this type of material?

Jesus' Son and Trainspotting were each like my bible while writing Heathenish. I love that vignette style that allows the narrative to just jump from one interesting or pivotal scene to the next one, with total disregard for filling in the blanks. That method is perfect for these drug-infused stories, because that's what it's like to live in that state of mind--you're here and then you're somewhere else, and the in-between is often a bit hazy. Let's see, what else... oh, A Scanner Darkly might be my favorite Philip K. Dick. I love the way he turned real life experiences into sci-fi insanity.

While these narratives have seemingly been being told for as long as the drugs they depict have existed, it seems like there's been a recent rise of tales that empathetically represent the low life--sort of a gutter renaissance--maybe enough for it to be considered a sub-genre. Tiffany Scandal's Jigsaw Youth, Troy Weaver's Witchita Stories, Constance Ann Fitzgerald's Glue, and J. David Osborne's Black Gum are recent favorites that come to mind.

Yeah, I definitely thought of Black Gum a little bit as I was reading Heathenish. And that's a good point about the depiction of low-life existence, as you call it. Well-put. One thing: these stories seem often to take place in a kind of semi-urban to rural back drop. The environment is key. Your book captures this very well. Not just what's going internally with the narrator but how he fits into the world immediately around him, how that world impacts him. Want to talk a little about where you grew up and the environment portrayed in the book?

Yeah, man, I've always been in a fight against the pitfalls of where I grew up, which is just south of Houston, near the Gulf of Mexico. This is a place where the more urban areas owe most of their growth to the chemical plant, a place I thankfully only worked at once. The air is polluted, the beach is trash, and good jobs are hard to come by. And there's a small town kind of mindset that is present even in the developing cities, probably because it's just a few minutes of driving before you see feed stores and farm land... towns where everyone knows everyone's business. We have the beach, the woods, and the city in our backyard, all at once. You'd think it's paradise, but growing up, it felt like hell. I don't know, man, it's strange coming up in a place that has no solid identity.

It seems a place where there isn't a lot to do so you have to invent your own excitement. I mean teenagers do that everywhere of course - make their own excitement - but in a place like you describe it sounds like you don't have much choice. It's somehow find shit to do in this nebulous place or you have nothing to do.

That's a spot-on critique of it. The boredom breeds frustration and frustration influences a generation of teenagers to become criminals or artists or both.

That's my personal experience and observation of a lot of people I grew up with, at least. There's exceptions, of course. It just takes a lot of personal responsibility and focus on something positive to not become a product of your environment. That's the constant struggle here, it seems.

Has anyone from that world, people you hung out with, relatives, your parents, read any parts of Heathenish? It'd be interesting to get their feedback on it.

My mom took a long time to get through it. It made her sick to her stomach, but by the end, she said she was glad she read it. I think my dad is waiting for the paperback, to be able to hold it in his hands. I can imagine it's a tough thing for either of them to read. Soon as I put the last word on the page, I gave it to Erika [Kelby's wife] to read, and she spent close to an hour in silence, gave me a tearful hug when she set it down. As far as people I hung out with, there's going to be some that pick it up, I'm sure, because I've still got some supportive friends who have gone on to do better things and make something of themselves, didn't fall victim to the traps. A lot of friends I had to ditch, though, when I walked away from the shit I was getting into. I don't think they'll read it.

One question I find hard to avoid, and which I think a lot of readers will wonder about - the kids. The tension between the narrator's drug-thug life and his fatherhood time is stark. And vividly drawn. You see him trying, young as he is and despite his situation with his ex, the mother, to be responsible and on top of things with the kids. Then (and I don't want to give too much away here), the kids just figure less in the story. Now, regardless of how things with them unfolded in real life, did you worry about how that whole indeterminate scenario with the kids would come across to the reader? As far as how they regard the narrator at the end. Things are looking better for him, cool, but....It's a sensitive and tough area to write about - parenthood and children.

I thought about that a lot and figured, you know what, there are always people who think because they have kids that they are enlightened to all things parenthood and can tell every other parent what to do, and those types will judge no matter how hard a person is trying. But then there are the people who struggle with their kids, but don't want to vocalize that or admit it--usually even to themselves--and maybe if I was just straightforward and didn't dress anything up, those kinds of people would be able to relate in some way, and I'm always more on the side of the underdog than the people with their noses up, so I just put it on the page for people to take how they will. It's a tough subject, but what are we writing for? Why make it easy on the reader or on ourselves? I want to keep people's thinking in the grey areas as much as possible.

You talked about some of drug-lit type books you like and how they influenced Heathenish. What about crime fiction? Are you a crime fiction fan? Any authors in that area you particularly like?

I dig on crime fiction a lot--in books, movies, and music especially. Gangsta rap takes up most of the bytes on my iPod. In books, the type of crime that I'm most interested in are the ones that don't focus much on the crime, but exist in that world. Does that make sense? Like, I just recently watched Moonlight, which feels like it exists in a crime fiction world, but it's not a crime story. I dig those stories. Which, sort of coming full circle, is what initially attracted me to Broken River. I have a feeling you and I might be on the same page with that.

As far as authors I dig... I don't know, trying to think of names is hard, because I know I'll forget some good ones. Elmore Leonard, of course. I like Harry Crews, too. The ones I'm not sure how to define are always my absolute favorite, though, so my favorite crime authors probably aren't technically crime authors, if that makes sense.

It does. Sounds like you're talking about authors whose stories involve crime in one way or another, but not what you'd call genre authors writing within crime fiction categories like the private eye story or the police procedural or whatever. 

I like crime fiction of many types, but we are on the same page about loving a certain kind of less classifiable fiction that has crime in it. No doubt about that. And it's great that there are indie presses like Broken River and others that want this kind of stuff. Really is. 

So, do you have anything in the works or a novel planned? I can't wait to see what you do next.

I'm working on a letter to a family member I no longer speak to in the form of a novel. Experimenting with format with this one--it's in first and second person, at least as of now, but I think it works for what I'm trying to say with it. It'll be all fiction this time, and of course it'll be crime, because when it's longer than a short story, I can't seem to break out of that world. At least not yet.

It's a rich world. And the new book sounds intriguing. You don't find many novels written in the form of letters anymore, so I'd be interested to read a contemporary one.

Well, it's been a lot of fun. I enjoyed our talk and congrats on Heathenish. It took guts to write and it's a compelling read.

Hey, it's been an absolute pleasure, man. Thanks a lot.

You can find Heathenish to buy right here.

No comments: