Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Talking with Kelby Losack About Hurricane Season

This week, Kelby Losack returns to Do Some Damage for a discussion, talking with me about his new book, his first in three years, Hurricane Season.  I liked his two previous books, Heathenish (2017) and The Way We Came In (2018) very much, so when I heard that Kelby had a new book coming out, I was eager to read it. 

It did not disappoint.  Kelby lives in southern Texas, and in this book, he tackles what it was like, at least for his characters, to live through the maelstrom that was Hurricane Harvey.

Here's our talk:

Scott Adlerberg: It's been so long since we really spoke in any depth, and so much has happened, that I'm trying to figure out where to begin this conversation.  Before we get into any details about your new book, Hurricane Season, why don't you tell me what you've been doing for the last 2 or 3 years, both writing-wise and besides writing.  I assume you're busy with lots of stuff besides writing, like making a living and maybe other creative pursuits, because it has been a while since your last book came out and this new one is a slim volume. Beautifully composed, but slim.  

Kelby Losack: Man, it has been a minute, huh? There was the Noir at the Bar in New York around Christmastime in, what--2018? Didn't get to talk as much as I wish we could have, but that was a good time. The years between have been spent wrestling a sort of creative block, which I'm on the other side of now. I can write fast as hell, I just question myself a lot, whether I'm going in as hard as I could be, or experimenting with the medium in the right way for the moment. I guess I have to be inspired enough, but I'm not sure that's the best word for it. Writing to me is communicating with the universe or the soul or something, and I spent some years forgetting how to speak. But I'm back now.

Besides that, shit... been working a lot. Harvey fucked this place up. I'm down by the Coast, working in carpentry and custom woodworking and shit, and there was a good two years of getting houses put back together. Then the pandemic shut a lot of the country down and we had to hustle to not lose our jobs. Commercial contractors were using the so-called shutdown (this is Texas, not a lot changed) to crank out a lot of work without too much interruption. Or maybe it was 'cause they were freaked out, I don't know. If shit shuts down in construction, people's livelihoods crumble almost instantaneously. That's a machine not built to stop. But we tapped into that vein, did the commercial hustle, built bullshit cabinets for some bullshit gas stations all over the state. Boring but super taxing work. I'm talking like thirty-hour days. We'll turn in timesheets and the bookkeeper will go, "Ain't thirty hours in a day," and we'll just shrug, be like, "Yeah, that's what we thought, too."

But, I'm about to lose my job as we speak. Good riddance, honestly. I'll figure something out. Working on that rap album, finally. I've always joked about it--especially with you, you'd ask how serious I was--but I'm for real now. Got some beats on deck, got some homies to collaborate with, going to make it happen.

The thing holding me together has been the fam. My wife Erika is more supportive and encouraging than I deserve and the kid just turned two, so that's fun.

Sounds like you’ve been very busy.  I’m glad to hear, believe it or not, that the rap album is making progress, and of course, having a two year old will keep you on your toes.  I wrote a good bit when my son was an infant, but very little when he was two, three.  Between work and family stuff, it was tough. But I’m glad to hear, you’ve found your way back to writing.  I’m sure you were thinking about it every day even when not actually writing. And it’s clear that Harvey made a huge impact — and why the hell wouldn’t it have — on you.  What was the impetus, the motivating force, whatever you want to call it, to write about that? 

Yeah, kids will keep you on your toes, for sure. I've squeezed in a lot of writing on the phone while rocking him to sleep or when he plays in the tub, just little bursts here and there on top of the late nights. Which is exhausting, of course, but I've been getting high off the writing lately, can't seem to stop chasing the dragon. You were very encouraging, I remember, right before he was born you told me something like, "hey, you'll be up all night anyways, might as well write." I took that to heart, even when I was struggling, just writing shit to delete it. It's all part of the process.

And yeah, Harvey, man--there were just so many images imprinted in my mind during that shit. Horses with their flesh peeled off from the neck down from being in disgusting flood water for so long. Homes full of floating furniture. Shit flying around outside. Being in a hurricane, or following one on the news, or coming back home to the aftermath--there's a deeply ominous vibe to it all. It's like a sense of loss, but with this lingering spirit of what was there before. It's an aggressively haunting vibe. I was already wanting to write some kind of ghost story based on my friend's experiences living in a haunted house, and with these images Harvey left burned in my brain, I started making the connection between hurricanes and ghosts and thought, 'that's the move. That's what I have to write about.'  

What's fascinating is how you chose to write about the hurricane in such a condensed way.  By that I mean, it's a short novel that focuses essentially on two people trapped in a house and on the roof of that house as the storm swirls around them and puts them in grave danger.  You don't attempt to show the hurricane's scope, if you will. The canvas is small but there's plenty to get the point across about the scale of the damage and the overall weirdness of the whole situation.  What prompted you to tackle the storm and whole subject this way?  And how did you actually tie together, as the book does, the natural phenomena of the storm with what you might call the unusual, if not supernatural phenomena, relating to the story's ghost?

I'm not positive what the most truthful answer is here, so I'll just put it all on the table. As far as the scope of the storm, if this were just a hurricane story and not a ghost story, I'd have probably zoomed out, shown the effects a disaster like that has on a community or, fuck, a whole state, really. People gotta flee somewhere, if they can. But I guess I was limiting myself with the form a little bit, writing in first person so I had to stay with these characters, though that's not entirely true since I broke my own rule anyway, writing about that horse. I couldn't let that image go no matter what.

Real talk, I was just drawing from the well of personal experience, trying to get across the vibe of being trapped in a hurricane. It almost didn't need to be a ghost story, 'cause that's a haunting feeling in itself, being trapped in the dark with the windows boarded up against some cosmic monster. Personally, we fled Harvey, but I was thinking back a lot to being caught up in Ike. That shit was eery. Connecting that to the ghost was just natural. I was compelled to write a ghost story, too, not just wanting to steal my homie's stories about his haunted house, but the homie Isaac Kirkman had died when I was figuring out what direction to take this story, so that was haunting me a lot, too, weighing heavy. He was a spiritual dude.

Isaac was indeed that.  Not to mention that he wrote well, which always helps.  But in terms of writing, as you said, though it has something to do for you with communicating with the universe or the soul or something outside of and larger than yourself (my interpretation of what you’re saying), you write in Hurricane Season, as you have in all your books, with great clarity and precision.  My feeling has always been that the weirder the story, the more it relies on what you might broadly speaking call “spiritual” or “non-realistic” things, the more lucid in presentation it should be.  Kafka comes to mind as an absolute master at this.  And you do this superbly.  I’m just wondering how you approach this when writing what you do.  Do you think of this consciously when writing, or editing  – translating the ineffable, the bizarre, the insubstantial into the tangible, dramatic stuff of narrative fiction so that the reader doesn’t get lost in a fog of anything like hazy spirituality?

It's conscious, for sure, and it's a page I ripped from Kafka as well as Cody Goodfellow, who I remember saying something similar about the more over-the-top the content is, the more straightforward the prose should be. Writing feels abstract to me because I gravitate to shit I only understand on a visceral, gut-level, and hope to articulate that feeling through tone. I'm trying to not get lost in the fog myself. So it's basically about--and I can't help but get spiritual here, that shit's integral to the process, the craft, right?--but it's all about putting shit on the table I want to have a deeper understanding of, so when the universe or soul or whatever is ready to talk, I've laid out the shit I want to talk about. And that demands clarity. Any kind of ritual has to be precise, you don't want to fuck up and be stuck with something you can't handle.

Were there any particular books or movies, or any music, that influenced Hurricane Season? Any specific ghost stories?

Music is always the biggest influence, trying to tap into those frequencies that can evoke a certain feeling and sustain it. Hurricane Season is like my attempt at a sludge metal or witch house album. I was listening to a lot of Electric Wizard and The Body. Shit with lots of droning, distorted guitars. But I was also listening to this lo-fi experimental rap trio from Japan called Dos Monos. Their shit is real heavy and manic. And the Kevin Gates references come honestly, I usually have his whole discography on repeat at least a couple days a week. Some think he's too polished and clean now, but they're tripping. His shit is soulful, mystical, it ain't just hype music, but it is that, too.

I don't think ghost movies ever get the ghost shit right, I think they show too much. In terms of being true to the vibe, at least. I mean, they have to show something, right? Film is a visual medium. I dig ghost movies but none really had any influence. I just straight jacked the homie Marcus's stories of weird experiences he's had at his place.

I was talking with another author, though, Bram Riddlebarger--he wrote Golden Rod and Messages from the American Trashcan, both bangers--and he said the book reminded him of the play Waiting for Godot. That wasn't on purpose but I can totally see the similarities, at least thematically. That stubborn or maybe desperate faith in waiting for something that might never show up. You seen that play? 

Never saw it, but I've read it once or twice.  And I see the similarities also.  And that brings to mind something you do well in this book.  You capture the essential stillness that can occur in the midst of a violent storm.  Sort of reminded me of accounts you'll read by soldiers, how so much of war is waiting and boredom punctuated by spasms of violence and terror. Your two guys confined to a house in a flooding hurricane zone had that quality.  The book's written in these short terse scenes -- calm but compelling in their odd details, chaotic whenever the storm flares up -- and I'm wondering whether you wrote tons of stuff you didn't include or what your process was for this book.  Because all the books you've written are so compact, and that's something about your stuff I love. No waste, no fat, elliptical at times, yet highly evocative. And you know, I think we share an affinity there.  Always working for that compactness, turning out short books.

Thanks, man. Yeah, soldiers in war time is a great analogy that also works for the process. People who've seen some shit or been in the trenches always get to the point, or know which details form the shape of the point. Say you're telling a story about some shit that you've been through, you know which feelings you want to articulate, which elements of the experience stand out to you as worth sharing. That's kinda how I think when writing. What's the point and what's interesting, what's the vibe? That's all I want on the page. Maximalism has its place, too, that's just not me. I love rambling, tangential shit like Stephen Graham Jones or Cormac McCarthy, but that's not how I tell stories, I don't think. You do this too, in your work, you don't spend time explaining shit. If someone reads Jungle Horses, they'll enter that world and get a feel for it through experience, not explanation. And I'm not saying you wrote it from experience, but you're a knowledgeable dude, you wrote it knowing the heart of it already. I mean, that's what I assume. Am I wrong?

I just know those short bursts--shit that can fit on an index card or inside a text bubble on a phone--that's just how I like the shape of my words to be, I guess. I wrote more for Hurricane Season initially, but they were scenes that got cut altogether, nothing got trimmed down. Some of it actually got extended. I showed the first draft to J. David Osborne and Lucas Mangum and they both suggested stretching a couple parts, so I did, and they made it better, so shouts out to them.

And now that you've got your writing voice back, are you working on something new?  Wanna talk about what might be next or what you're shaping now?

I'm working on something equally inspired by life with a toddler and the weird shit you can get into if you hang out at the gas station long enough. It's got a mundanely surreal and grungy vibe to it so far. And I'll just drop it when I'm done with it, trying to keep this momentum going.


You can pick up Hurricane Season right here.


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