Monday, October 5, 2020

Talking Back to Books: Kim Adrian and Stephanie Reents in conversation from our first Essay Daily Salon Series

Feeling a sense of general disconnection and a need to get myself more connected to people over the last many quarantine months, over here at Essay Daily we started up a Salon Series, hoping to double down on our goal to talk more with each other about the essay and creative nonfiction and writing and so on. We hosted our first Essay Daily Salon at the end of August with two writers who have recent books I’ve been spending a lot of time with: Kim Adrian, the author of Dear Knausgaard, and Stephanie Reents, the author of I Meant to Kill Ye, both books writing back to (more famous [so far]) books, both published in Fiction Advocate’s excellent new Afterwords series. I thought our conversation was worth transcribing and extending beyond the boundaries of the hour and change we had together. Revisit the Salon here, or for more about our Salon series and its future iterations, click here. We’ll be doing the next one, The Polymorphous Essay, with Sarah Minor and Bethany Maile at 7pm on October 30. RSVP here for the Zoom link. Stop on in and talk about their weirdo and spectacular essays. And keep joining us. We had a blast. Our plan is to do one of these every couple months. —Ander Monson


Ander Monson: So hello and welcome to the first ever Essay Daily Salon, which I'm really excited about. It's so great to see so many of us who want to come together and talk about essays and about reading and writing in these weird times that we find ourselves in. My name is Ander Monson, the founding editor of Essay Daily, the website that is obviously sponsoring today's event. We're starting up this salon series in part because we wanted to celebrate a couple books that we're really excited about by Kim and Stephanie, but also because we want to double down on our mission of trying to make space for more conversations about essays and creative nonfiction, and because we’ve been jonesing to actually talk with other people, (mostly) shut in as we have been. So we're going to do one of these about every month or two is our plan as long as people are interested in getting together to talk and listen to good work. 

First, a quick note: we have a second event coming up on scheduled for October 30 right before Halloween maybe will suggest that our participants show up masked or at least have something to trick or treat for us. The treat—or maybe the trick—is The Polymorphous Essay, which will be a salon featuring essayist Bethany Maile who's got a book just coming out this month called Anything Will Be Easy After This and Sarah Minor, whose new book coming out from Rescue Press is Bright Archive. Both of them are really interesting, exciting essayists, both formerly inventive. So if you're interested in formal invention in the essay that would be a good event for you to come to. 

But today’s conversation is Talking Back to Books with Kim Adrian and Stephanie Reents. I'll ask our readers each to read for maybe five or six minutes from their new books, and then we'll go into conversation from there. Kim, let’s start with you, if that's okay. Kim Adrian is the author of the memoir The 27th Letter of the Alphabet, the Object Lessons book Sock, and Dear Knausgaard which I'm pretty sure I'm mispronouncing from my understanding of how it's pronounced in the Norwegian, which maybe you can give to us at some point. 

[note: the automatic Zoom transcription rendered Knausgaard in many exciting ways, including the following variants: 

  • Nos card


  • Canal scored

  • Now scored


This is the book that we're here to talk about today. It came out this week. We’re really excited about that. She's also the editor of The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms which is a really fun anthology featuring folks using received forms to write essays. It’s super teachable, so if you don’t know it, get ye to University of Nebraska Press!

Kim Adrian: [reads for a while].

Ander Monson: Thank you. This is the thing that I missed the most in virtual events: the inability to successfully applaud. And that was fantastic. And we'll get back to talking with Kim in a little bit, but first let me briefly introduce Stephanie Reents. 

Reents is the author of The Kissing List, a sharp book of stories, as well as I Meant to Kill Ye, also from Fiction Advocate, which is the book we're talking about today. Her stories have appeared in the O Henry Prize Stories, Best of the West, and beyond. She's also an alum of Arizona's MFA program where I teach, although before I joined the faculty here. Stephanie, it was really a pleasure to discover your work right around when we met a couple years ago when I came to give a reading. It's been very pleasurable to read the stories and then see them open up in different ways in this particular book. So, Stephanie, take it away:

Stephanie Reents: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me and Kim. It was great to hear you read from your book. So I'm going to just just read a little bit from my first chapter. By way of context, I first read Blood Meridian when I was 21 or 22 right when it came out in 1992 and I've sort of been reading it continually for 25 years or so since then. And so this was my attempt to figure out why I was obsessed with a book that I would never have expected to be obsessed with, I don't like violence at all, but something about this book really got under my skin.

[Stephanie reads.]

Ander Monson: I've got a bunch of questions I'm interested in talking about with both of your books. If folks have questions that you'd like to pose, put them in the chat. And we'll see if we can get to some of those a little bit later on. But, for starters, I would like to talk a little bit about collaboration. I think I mentioned to both of you that this was something I’ve been thinking about with each of your books. I mean, it's partially what we're up to what I say daily in the Essay Daily. But there's a lot of collaboration that happens in both books, both like a collaboration that happens with you and the books, right? I mean you talking back to the book, talking back to the writer. I've never read My Struggle and I haven't read Blood Meridian. Both of your books didn't really make me want to read them, which is a bonus, because I also felt, after readings yours, that I had read them. And now I didn't need to, which saves me a lot of time. So I appreciate that. But in both books, we see the presence of your families, and in Stephanie’s book, your students’ observations about the book as you teach it sort of change the way that you read the book. And of course, you know, you go on this quest to try to understand some things about the book. And in Kim's book we see a lot of conversations with other readers around this book, with Lisa especially, who is like the main character in that regard. So I'm wondering if you would both talk a little bit about how collaboration features in either in these books or in how you approach [collaboration] in your reading experience in general.

Kim Adrian: I think collaboration is an interesting word in this context because reading itself is a collaborative act. And I think both of these books really foreground that. As active readers, you're laboring—you’re co-laboring—with the author to make sense of this, in both cases, huge crazy novels. And I think extending that to the people in your life, like Lisa...or other friends that I talk about books with my husband…. I talked the ears of all my closest friends off for a solid year just obsessing about My Struggle even though they hadn't read it—nobody but Lisa had read it. And Lisa and I would often have little tiffs about it. So she wasn't that much help sometimes. But I think when you read a book that really puzzles you and that really is engaging you and you're not sure why, it's just another part of the reading process to try to talk about it and reach out with your mind and other directions to make sense of it.

Stephanie Reents: It's such an interesting question. One immediate reaction I have is that I'm a creative writer in an English department, and that's always a little bit of a thorny relationship. I had a lot of anxiety about writing this book because I'm very much not a literary critic and that's how I position the book—that this isn't a work of literary criticism. So on one hand I made a very conscious choice that I wasn't going to read any hardcore McCarthy criticism in order to write this book because oftentimes when I read criticism I feel like it's like a foreign language to me. So there's that. A deliberate choice not to collaborate in that way, not to enter that critical conversation about Blood Meridian, but then to enter into a conversation with other books in other ways. For instance, it was important to me to look at E.M. Forster to see what he has to say about how plots often work in novels. Or to think about Franzen, who has a great essay on reading difficult literature and why he read a really difficult book at a particular time in his life, which helped me understand why this book had gotten under my skin. I think I was also in conversation with earlier versions of myself because, as I said, I had read this book so many times over so many years. I think that my quest in this book was in some sense to understand how I’d evolved as a person and as a reader. I had really wanted [at one time] to think that the kid evolved morally in this book, that was really important to me, and that was how I taught the novel for many years. But by the time I embarked upon this project I was ready to let go of my insistence on seeing the kid evolve morally. And so part of that conversation certainly came through conversations with students and seeing how they related to the book and what they had to say about that question. Every time you teach something again, you're really coming to it anew. That focus and attention asks you to perform a new reading of it. And the final thing that I'll say is that I did go out into the deserts of California and retrace part of the route of the Glanton gang. Being out there and knowing that my family was back on the east coast made me realize the weird choice that McCarthy makes not to really consider at all the physical circumstances of people being out in a really difficult landscape. Because I was certainly aware of that, and I had my cell phone and water and sunscreen and every object that I could possibly need. And still I was afraid. What would happen if I got lost? You think about those characters, the Glanton gang, moving through that landscape, and you think of McCarthy's choice not to attend to the physical reality of that journey—that gave me insight into what I thought McCarthy was up to in the novel. 

Ander Monson: Yeah, physical reality seems really important to both of your books and I suppose that's, I guess, to some degree, inevitable as a way to ground a book that's essentially about reading, which doesn't have the most dramatic plot to it inherently. Although both of your books have the same plot implied, which is why did this book get under my skin? What do I want out of it? But in both books there's a lot of movement between the physical location—like, Stephanie, in your case, it’s more. You literally use the word quest, and you are on a quest to try to find something out by moving there to see if you can understand something different. But then there's also a lot of movement back and forth in Kim's book. I mean, I haven't read My Struggle—and now I don't have to because you've done it for me, so thank you—but this seems like that's something Knausgaard is doing a lot of too—moving back and forth between the internal and external. There's all these descriptions of what you're eating in that book, having some tea, having some snacks, getting interrupted by your kid or by your family or by whatever else. And I wonder, is that something that was intentional in terms of creating a back and forth movement between book and life.

Kim Adrian: I don't know if it was for me intentional. I think part of why My Struggle was such an intense reading experience is because it's so long and it took me so long to read it. And so it became a part of my life. I think I just wanted to reflect that thinking about it was just part of my everyday life at that point, and now writing about it was part of my everyday life. And it's almost more or less coincidental that that's also what Knausgaard does. I had to write it that way because it really was a part of my life. But it also happens to mirror what he does in My Struggle, like you were saying.

Ander Monson: I definitely felt like it gave me the effect of reading My Struggle in a bonus way which I like a lot. And also, there's something really appealing in reading you reading, but being interrupted. Like you are our avatar in reading the book, in being interrupted by the things that you're interrupted by. And there's something very pleasing to that experience, the intimacy that that creates as a reading experience, which is pretty rare.

Stephanie Reents: I agree. I love the point that Kim makes that Knausgaard is writing about perceptions of reality and yet there’s a lot of artfulness in this. When your life comes in, Kim, when you’re drinking tea or eating cookies or listening to the sounds from the school that your son attends, it seems naturalistic, on the one hand, but on the other, highly constructed because we’re only getting glimpses of your life. I haven’t read Knausgaard either, but you seemed to be doing a wonderful job of mirroring what he’s doing, though perhaps we get less of your life than we get of his life, but I was still very interested in your birthday celebration with your friends and what you ate.

I think both of our books have this narrative drive. Kim’s choice to construct her book as a series of letters creates a sense of chronology and also a narrative arc. As a fiction writer, I knew I also needed to figure out a story to tell. That's just in my DNA. And so that was why it was important to go on this quest. Or to discover a mystery. When I was reading earlier drafts of the novel in the McCarthy archives, I came across a note that had been cut from the final version that I felt like was the key to understanding the novel. Later on, I realized that I had misread it, and the mystery wasn’t as mysterious as I thought, but I needed that sense of mystery to allow me write something that I knew how to write, to narrativize this quest to understand this novel. 

Kim Adrian: Yeah, I wonder if you felt like… Putting in pieces of my life just felt like opening the door and letting some air into the analysis. I mean, there's the narrative aspect, wanting to keep some storylike elements alive so that there's different textures happening and the reader can stay interested in that way, but I think the letter format really made it very natural to reference my own life. And every time I did that, I just felt like I had a burst of fresh air and oxygen. And then I could go further with the analysis without hopefully exhausting anybody. And I wonder if the narrative of your trip helped you do something similar? It seemed like it.

Stephanie Reents: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's probably not even just like letting the air in, but like giving myself—well, as you said—like giving myself oxygen to breathe. Writing narrative was definitely a more comfortable mode than writing straight criticism. I got a little bit of oxygen and I could continue on in the analysis. 

Ander Monson: I want to talk a little bit more about mystery. Like, I mean the quest automatically has a mystery. We don’t know. We're going to go find out. Kim's book doesn’t exactly have a quest, but it does have an antagonist—well, Knausgaard is also a protagonist, like in a weird way like you've got a complicated relationship with him, which you often amusingly deploy. You seem to deeply loved the book and yet you know you're happy to just like discount big chunks of it. And the volume that you just pan. And there's something really pleasing about that. If you haven’t read Kim’s book, at one point she decides to refer to Knausgaard because what are you going to call him Mr. Knausgaard, no; so it becomes KOK, which I guess you tell us you pronounce Coke, but it was really, really hard for me not to pronounce it cock. There’s also a leveling that happens by doing this. When we see you describing, in often very beautiful intricate detail, the things that are happening in your life, you’re asserting the edges of your life and experiences of that against—but not in opposition to—the edges and details of Knausgaard’s, which have been so celebrated (and occasionally lamented). I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about maybe about like I don't know your complicated relationship with him.

Kim Adrian: Well, I think the leveling was super important for me to get to that point where I could feel not intimidated by him so that I could actually write the book. And doing it in letters is what allowed me to get there. I mean, I do admire his work so much that for a long time I was just paralyzed and—like Stephanie said—I was avoiding reading other people's [critical work]. I read a few reviews but I tried to stay away from listening to what other people were saying about it because the whole point was to have a close reading [as] what Knausgaard calls “the unfamiliar reader.” I wanted to fulfill that role. His work is so intimately pitched to the unfamiliar reader, and I wanted to respond in kind, showing my response within the intimacy of my own life. And so getting to the point where I could feel not intimidated by him and doing those little things like "KOK"… (And I think it's hysterical that every man who reads that section or that I tell that to, is like, ‘But you would say that cock,’ but women don't seem to have the same impression. It never occurred to me to say cock. It's always been Coke. That was super important for me— to level it enough to just get the book written.

Ander Monson: That leveling seems really important because these are both Big Books, capital B Big capital B Books. My Struggle is like a million pages or whatever. I mean, you know, so we don’t have to. It's not a million, but it's a lot! The big literary man with this big literary book which is also the case with Blood Meridian. I mean there’s someone who has a legendary status in letters. Stephanie, would you talk a little bit about the tactics you deployed to feel like you could approach Blood Meridian? I mean, I felt like you were very much on the same level as McCarthy here, and I admired that.

Stephanie Reents: Yeah, I don't think I ever felt like I was on that level. I'm certainly not on Cormac McCarthy's level, and there's definitely a degree of hero worship involved in my obsession with Cormac McCarthy and with this novel. When McCarthy published All the Pretty Horses in 1992, he did an interview with the New York Times and my memory of the interview is completely different from what is the substance of the interview. I remember him saying something along the lines of “You know, looking at my boots is just one of the things I do.” He didn't say that. But that was my memory. I'm from Idaho and I was attending an East Coast college. And I felt so out of place and I so longed to be this very rebellious Westerner who McCarthy seemed to be in that interview, even though I was the polar opposite of him: a total goody two shoes who did everything I was supposed to do. 

I think once I decided to let go of reading all the criticism of the novel and engaged with the novel as it was, and did these crazy expeditions out west as well as reading the earlier drafts of the novel, then I felt, or sort of felt, equal to the work. It was especially interesting as a writer to read the earlier drafts and look for instances of McCarthy cutting out character psychology or interiority. I knew the novel well enough that I could read through the drafts and I could see tiny, tiny changes McCarthy had made, and I could put my finger on how cutting all of psychology or instances of foreshadowing made the novel more chilling. The thing about the violence is that you never see it coming, that’s what makes it so disturbing. To see him working as a writer and to see the choices he made as a writer, maybe that was one of the ways I felt like I was on his level because I could appreciate the work and craft that had gone into the final version.

Ander Monson: I'm also struck by the degree to your books feel like they're such intimate books—as I suppose books always are. I was reminded of when Alison Deming, my colleague down here, lent me her copy of this Albert Goldbarth book which is really hard to find. I was reading her book, and that but you know she's got her annotations in it. So like this feeling of reading her reading him was very pleasurable and intimate in an odd way. I don't know. I mean, I don't know if there's something about the time that we're in, where this intimacy felt especially pleasurable, because you know most of us are not able to see each other together in a room to have this conversation, for instance, like we have to rely on the screens. For those of you who have been following A Public Space doing these ead along projects where they have everyone reading along to War and Peace, for instance, this feels like a time where reading—and reading together—can be a radical act. So reading your reading Knausgaard and McCarthy like that may at first sound boring, but it's really not. It's definitely very thrilling and intimate and exciting in a way that I would just not expecting. And I don't know if I would have read it the same way, like, a year ago, um, or if that's just a function of like the time

Kim Adrian: I think that the close reading that both Stephanie and I have done in these books—it is about connection and it is about intimacy, this weird intimacy that you can have with a text. It's a very unique thing. And when we're all so isolated—even more than we normally are—by Covid, maybe that just feels more enriching than it might otherwise. I think there are just too many screens in our lives right now, and so even reading a book about someone reading a book, you know, maybe that's also a special pleasure right now. Especially if you don't want to give up books. If you have that mindset, that anachronistic mindset that believes in the power of books.

Ander Monson: I mean, it's a physical pleasure too—I mean like the size of these which you can see on the screen: they're small, they're palm sized right, made for the hand. And physically I find them very easy to read, whatever else you may be doing in your life, and I really appreciated that, and I think it emphasized that physical experience of reading the book.

Stephanie Reents: I think that's true, and maybe it's particularly true of this moment, that it's really nice to get to know the human behind the project. One of the things that makes these books so unique is that there's this melding between coming to understand someone else's book and also the act of revealing yourself to the reader. That's the whole project—it’s up to each writer to decide on the balance between memoir and criticism. As a reader, I really want to know something about the writer who I'm reading and I’m especially interested in personal details that inform their reading of particular things. 

Ander Monson: That ties into a question that showed up in the chat, which is wondering if y'all feel like your books fulfill a function that traditional criticism can't or won't.

Stephanie Reents: It was very important to me to write a book that my mother could read and appreciate, even though she’s not a literary critic and hasn’t read Blood Meridian. I think the purpose of this series is to allow writers to say a few insightful things about some really great books in such a way that anyone can follow your argument and the points you’re making.

Kim Adrian: I think my book was as much about reading as it was about My Struggle, so I wasn't trying to analyze My Struggle for the whole book. I was trying to do something else as well, which is to explore what it means to really read a book, what it means when you really love a book or you're troubled by a book and all those questions that come up with deep engagement. I think that that's a big departure from traditional criticism.

Ander Monson: Another question from the chat that I think sort of may take us an interesting direction is: how long did it take these books to get written, or how long did you work on these books? I mean, aside from your whole life or whatever. And I mean, since you were in your twenties, Stephanie.

Stephanie Reents: I think it took me four months to do the research and write the book. I turned it in a few days after my July 1 deadline and then I revised it over six weeks six months later.

Kim Adrian: Does that question count the time I was paralyzed, before I could start writing? I spent, I think it was the better part of a year when I wasn't really writing it. I just didn't know how to really write it. So I was just sitting on it and occasionally pecking away at it and feeling like, oh my god, that doesn't work, and rejecting each start until I landed on the letter format and then it flowed pretty quickly—I want to say nine months, but I'm not sure. I started on February 20 and I ended it September 3rd. So whatever that is. Seven months.

Ander Monson: That's pretty fast. It feels like, at least with Kim's book that once you found the form, then it sort of came quickly after that was that the case for you. Stephanie?

Stephanie Reents: Yeah, once I went on my quest that helped a lot because then I could organize the book around different particular things that I'd done. 

Ander Monson: So related, someone asked on like I guess how long was your relationship to reading the author before you wrote the book. Stephanie, you mentioned first reading McCarthy in your 20s.

Stephanie Reents: Yeah. I’m 50 now. So a long time ago: 28 years at this point.

Kim Adrian: Mine was much shorter. Two years, I'm thinking. I think I started reading My Struggle in 2017 and I wrote the letters in 2019. I mean Book 6 wasn't even—... That was a big stumbling block, actually. I'd agreed to write my book before Book 6 had been translated into English and that book just blew open the whole project—his whole project—for me, and I had to grapple with what I thought it meant in a way I hadn't expected.

Ander Monson: Another question from the chat is, were there any rules or boundaries or limits that you set for yourselves. During the writing of the books, I guess, aside from the timeline that you were stuck with in Stephanie's case.

Kim Adrian: I don't really know what that means. 

Ander Monson: I think this is from one of my thesis students who I think is looking for some guidance on possibly how to write her thesis. I'm like, how to keep your eye on the target, perhaps, I don't know if that's a fair gloss of the question.

Kim Adrian: I don't know if this is helpful or not, but for me, the only rule was: does this feel alive if I read it back to myself? Does this sound dead or alive? And if it sounds dead, just get rid of it and go back until it feels alive.

Stephanie Reents: I don't think I had any explicit rules for myself. I'm a very slow writer. So it was a miracle that I did this project in the amount of time that I did. So perhaps my one rule was like to just get the words on the page and not be so critical of myself as I was writing the draft. I rarely follow my own advice, but in this instance, I had to in order to meet my deadline.

Ander Monson: Someone else had asked—these are a couple of questions for Kim—I'm thinking about Knausgaard and thinking about how anger works. Like, were you at any point like angry at Knausgaard when reading him. I mean, I'm angry at Knausgaard even contemplating the idea of reading these fucking giant books. Did that come into play at all with you like tackling the book?

Kim Adrian: I talk about being angry, especially about the way he relates to the feminine and describes the feminine and the way he's so oblivious to his position in society and in the smaller circle of the literary world. I definitely write about feeling angry. I mean there's one part where I talk about, my god, I've read you for two solid years, I've been talking everybody's ears off about you, I think about this work all the time… And then there's this one scene in the seasonal books (that he wrote after My Struggle), where he describes the difference between old buses and modern buses, and he describes the buses of his childhood as being these funky, rusty, rambunctious environments and objects, and the new buses are just streamlined and impotent and feminine. This is the word that he chooses, and it was just one too many times, because there are hundreds of times when he uses the word feminine in a really derogatory way, and there are interesting and complex reasons for why he does that, but that was just it for me. I just literally threw the book across the room and left it there for a while.

Ander Monson: I mean, that's nice, though. Like, that's part of the pleasure, it's like you just liked it. Right. I mean, if you just like the book, that’s not very interesting from a plot perspective. But when you have a occasionally antagonistic relationship, and then you're happy just to tell us how you feel in a very candid way, it’s pleasurable, especially in the context of people having like big literary feelings about Knausgaard. And then you come in and tell us, yeah, Book Five sucked. And someone else had asked in the chat. Was there a point at which you felt like you had to do justice to the project that you were writing toward? Or how did you feel like you've done enough with writing back to My Struggle or writing back to Blood Meridian?

Kim Adrian: My intention was to do justice to my reading experience. I felt like if I could do that, then I would cover my bases with My Struggle because I had been so invested in it and I had read it so carefully, and I felt like I did have—do have—a really deep appreciation for it. But it really cowed me when I had my focus more on My Struggle and the critical act of ‘doing justice’ to it. That was not working for me. When I focused more on my own personal reading experience, then it just became a lot clearer what my job actually was.

Stephanie Reents: I don't know if I thought so much about doing justice to Blood Meridian as trying to convey something about the complexity of the novel. Maybe that was my way of doing justice to it. There are things about it that just slip out of your grasp. There are ways that McCarthy breaks rules and yet still writes a successful novel. And that’s part of the novel’s brilliance. At the same time, I’m aware of not wanting to be a cheerleader for the novel because it’s very dark and bleak and it’s not for everyone. 

Ander Monson: How did your books come to find a home at Fiction Advocate? I know a lot of our readers may be working on books like this in one way or another, and imagine that they’d love to know your stories.

Kim Adrian: I learned about Fiction Advocate’s Afterwords series from Alden Jones when we ran into each other on the train one day. She told me she was working on a book that was a mash-up of memoir and literary criticism and I was excited to hear about it because that kind of thing is right up my alley. Alden was writing about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. (Her book just came out, too, it’s called The Wanting was a Wilderness, and it’s terrific—about Strayed’s book and Alden’s own adventures hiking, and also about how to write a memoir.) Anyway, I emailed her a couple of days later to get the publisher’s name, and then I approached Fiction Advocate to see if they’d be up for me writing something for the series. My first thought was to write about Lydia Davis’ work, which is pretty funny, because nothing could be further from Knausgaard, really, than Lydia Davis. But Brian (the publisher) told me they already had a list of about thirty or forty books, and he’d like me to take a look at it to see if any of those titles held any interest for me. I did, and while I liked some of the books, I didn’t love any of them enough to write a whole book. So I emailed him back to say, thanks, but I guess this isn’t going to work, and then, I think as a PS, I mentioned that I was reading My Struggle, and that I could see writing about that. He was excited about the idea and we moved forward from there.

Stephanie Reents: I got to know Brian when he was the book review editor at The Rumpus, and I was trying my hand at writing reviews. When he moved on to Fiction Advocate, I got a message from him asking whether I’d be interested in contributing to the Afterwords Series. I jumped at the chance, and even though I’d just finished teaching Blood Meridian to a group of first-year students and swore I’d never teach the book again, when I looked at the list of books and saw Blood Meridian among them, I knew I had to choose it. It was like fate, like when Blood Meridian’s narrator says on the very first page about the child: “He can neither read nor write and in him brood already a taste for mindless violence.” Or something like that.

Ander Monson: I guess I've got one more question. We're almost out of time here, we're running a little bit over on, so when I was talking about this. I'm teaching chunks of this to some of my students that semester, and one thing that came up when someone was responding was like they had a very different relationship with the two books because one of my students had read Blood Meridian and hadn't read My Struggle, so they came to your books very differently situated. I wonder if you’ve thought about how whether or not your reader has read the books you’re reading might affect the way they read your books? Since I haven’t read them, I'm just like, inevitably in your corner. And I wonder, I mean have you maybe have you run into folks who've read the book that you're writing to and feel rather differently? Or is that a problem that you anticipate?

Kim Adrian: I would expect people to disagree with me. Some people would disagree with some of my assertions. But the question is more about what would you get out of it if you haven't read [My Struggle] at all…?

Ander Monson: I just, I'm just wondering about how the experience and this is not a question that you too can answer because you've spent a sizable chunk of your time having read and thought about the book. Or maybe it's a better question for people that haven't read the book, or people that have read the books and then read both of your books to ask them how that affects their reading experience of Dear Knausgaard and I Meant to Kill Ye.

Kim Adrian: I definitely had in mind two different kinds of readers. Like, will this satisfy somebody who's read the books and will it satisfy somebody who hasn't? What am I providing for somebody who hasn't read My Struggle? And, you know, hopefully there's enough there that gives you enough to chew on if you haven't read My Struggle.

Stephanie Reents: I think that the nature of reading is that every time you read something you’re reading it anew: you're paying attention to a few new things as you make your way through the book. And so I feel like in my book, I'm paying attention to narration and to some extent to plot but there are many, many other things to pay attention to in Blood Meridian. These Afterwords books sort of direct our focus in a particular direction. But you know there are hundreds of different directions you can be pursuing or a 100 different things that you can focus on when you read something. I don't think reading my book would limit someone's enjoyment of the novel, if they're just coming to Blood Meridian for the first time. In fact, it might actually free them up to pay attention to some other things—like if I’m obsessing over narration, then they can obsess over illusions or some other interesting pattern of things in the novel. 

Ander Monson: That actually may tie well into a point from the chat, a comment by Adele, that we can maybe end on for the moment.It's not more of a comment than a question. But I think it's an apt one, which is: “listening to you all reminds me of how I and my friends are reading during the pandemic, having trouble concentrating. So I'm dipping in and out of the texts forgetting what just happened and having to go back again. Sometimes I wonder if pandemic reading isn't just a screenshot of how we read in more normal times, which I think we see a little bit like in the attentions that you're talking about when we come to these both those books that you're reading and the way that you're reading in and out of them, not only an act of reading and an act of attention but a process of moving back and forth between the books in our lives, even as we're in the process of reading.”

That feels quite apt to me, and maybe that's why one of the reasons why I connected so strongly to both books is that I mean both that feeling of watching you two move back and forth between books and your lives and also sitting down with that physical thing in my lap, you know, a glass of crappy peanut butter whiskey that I bought at Target—which I definitely do recommend. The Skrewball at least, a dumb name, but don't buy the cheaper ones, like you're an adult now, and you 100% want to drink it on ice is my only advice.

But I felt very good to, like, you know, have this glass of very un-Knausgaardian liquor and sit down for maybe an hour, where I could actually just read something uninterrupted, theoretically, to the degree that that's possible. Let’s use that as an ending point and say thank you both very much for spending time with us today and to everyone who was here to be part of the conversation. 


Kim Adrian is the author of the memoir The 27th Letter of the Alphabet, the Object Lessons book Sock, and Dear Knausgaard. She's also the editor of The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms. [website]

Stephanie Reents is the author of The Kissing List, a sharp book of stories, as well as I Meant to Kill Ye, also from Fiction Advocate, which is the book we're talking about today. Her stories have appeared in the O Henry Prize Stories, Best of the West, and beyond. [faculty page at Holy Cross]

Ander Monson is the founder and editor of Essay Daily.

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