by Emily Behnke
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Emily Behnke, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Rachel Kushner about her book, The Mars Room (Scribner), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2018 NBCC Awards.
EB: How did you come up with the idea for The Mars Room?
RK: It seems to have been germinating over the course of my life, and I mean my whole life. But: one could possibly say that of any novel a person writes, at least I hope so, even as such a claim can’t not inspire eye rolling. In any case, when I finished my previous novel, The Flamethrowers, I felt, with it and the novel that came before it, that I’d been moving along a timeline as a fiction writer, a conveyance of lived and known histories that interested me and had to do with me, but were rooted in historical moments previous to contemporary ones: first the mid-twentieth century, and then the 1970s. What is my relation to contemporary life? I asked myself. Which must be asked, if you’re going to write a contemporary novel. Otherwise, why mess with the now? If you’re going to write about it, have some view on it. I live in Los Angeles. I am from San Francisco. I am shaped to some degree by the severe and brutal features of this city (LA), by other people’s lives, by women’s lives, and by my own adolescence, and the book resulted from those impressions and that shaping. This novel is my exploration of contemporary life, in California, and more or less “now.” Not Trump-now, but the deeper now, as in, the mean austere world that came after deindustrialization. And that’s not abstract, it’s real, occupied, lived. So, the Mars Room is my take on the contemporary novel. It’s also in a way a response to my last book, where men did all the talking. Women do most of the talking in this one. I wanted a book full of women’s voices and also full of people who are like certain people I’ve known and cared about and in certain ways have been. I fell into a vicious mood when I wrote it, a mood of vicious humor, perhaps, and that mood sustained for the five years it took me to complete it.
EB: Where did Romy Hall’s character come from?
RK: It’s hard to describe how she formed without falling into myth making. I can’t entirely remember. But the tone of her expression was probably the beginning. It’s a cold but petulant tone, in homage to I suppose somewhat idealized versions of other women I have known. I ruminated at the bottom of what felt like a well for a long time with this book, a good two years, before I was able to write in her voice. How would she feel about her situation, having been given a life sentence? It both does and doesn’t matter. I find psychologization in fiction somewhat cheap, pat, shallow. What mattered to me was how she expresses herself and what she occupies her time and mind with thinking on. I didn’t realize, at first, that she would be a girl from my own neighborhood, that her friends from childhood would be my friends, that the whole milieu that I know so intimately would come to be hers, but once it was, everything came together. I knew her and could talk in her voice.
EB: While this book is largely set in a women’s prison, it’s also deeply rooted in the city of San Francisco, California. Why did you choose San Francisco to be Romy’s home?
RK: Thank you for noticing that a lot of it doesn’t take place in a prison. There’s also the Central Valley, and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. And Los Angeles. And of course, SF. Perhaps my answer to this is in the above, but since I’m from San Francisco, and not only grew up there, but lived there as a young woman in the 1990s, and worked in the Tenderloin, and just know the city so well, it crept in. These decisions are made in strange ways, though: it wasn’t as if I went location scouting and thought, “Oh, I’ll set it in SF because I have the detailed background knowledge.” It wasn’t like that at all. It was more like the book mugged me in an alley and forced me to write about places and experiences and worlds that were in my own roiling unconscious and ready to be grafted to the more consciously made narrative I’d been attempting to pursue. It was only after that mugging that the book really started to make sense, in terms of why I was writing it.
EB: While this book is largely told from Romy’s point of view, we briefly get a glimpse into the minds of other characters, such as Gordon Hauser and Doc. Why did you decide to move between perspectives?
RK: I didn’t really decide. I went with inspiration, trusted it. I do not believe that fiction can really be forced to assent to the writer’s conscious demands about who should tell the story, or how. Which isn’t to say that I’m doing automatic writing or that it comes in a trance, exactly. Rather, I go toward the energy. Doc to me is a site of energy. I know him, and like Conan, he’s a vehicle for my own dirty mind and dirty jokes and he was part of the generally vicious mood I was in. Also, since I met a guy like him, whose essence went into my skin, I felt I had no choice. Gordon formed later, out of some writings I was doing from the perspective of someone who can come and go, freely, from the central valley prison where Romy is held, but who, it seemed to me, was in some other manner unfree, on account of who he was and the work he was doing, in a women’s prison. He sees the natural world and the social world beyond the prison as I did, and was able to, and what he saw seemed an important part of the story.
For me novels are not about the journey of one character, I should say. I’m not interested enough in character for that. Or rather, I don’t think one character can tell the kind of story I was trying to tell. Which was not merely about a woman’s life, some transformation she might undergo, but was about an entire cruel universe and a set of questions, some of them philosophical, and that don’t have good or easy answers. My sense of the novel is polyphonic. Not because I’m into voices, although I am, but because I’m not convinced that the secrets we need to look at lie inside the lives of individuals.
EB: Prisons are built largely off of systems, numbers, and bureaucracy, but storytelling and narrative seem to be important, too. Romy is repeatedly told stories of famous prisoners, and characters like Laura Lipp are intent on telling, or as others are, not telling, the stories of their past. Why do you think stories are so pervasive in this space?
RK: I get a little bored when writers talk about the importance of storytelling (I’m already yawning, what about you). And yet, people do tell stories, tall tales. They bullshit and prevaricate. But even when people are pulling your chain, they are telling you something. About them, about you. About lying. Or something else. And this has always really interested me. The way that people reveal themselves even when they are deep in some performance they think is constructed. But, about prison as a place where people talk: when you think about presentation and currency, people in the free world have a whole host of ways to communicate and signal who they are or who they think they are. But people in prison are stripped of most of those ways. What they have left is their personality. At least, those aspects of their personality that have not been yoked to, and broken by, the institution. So telling people, “I was this, we did that,” becomes hugely important. And also, “I am this, I am doing that.” Using your personality to charm, threaten, manipulate, seduce, entreat, etc. What people have is talk. They have time, and they talk. Whole intense relationships form between people who, in certain circumstances, don’t even get to be in the same physical space. They yell from cell to cell. Fight, fall in love, form really deep friendships. And given that they are denuded of almost their whole life in prison, the way they come to know one another is, in part, by what they say about who they were before they got there.
Lastly, I might add that I’m really interested in the confessional form, for use or misuse, the way the first person is a testimonial, whether it is being consciously used that way, or not. And as I was writing this book, I’d formed in my mind a kind of archipelago of “I”s, from St Augustine’s Confessions to Rousseau’s Confessions (let’s air quotes those), to Nietzsche’s final blow-mind book, Ecce Homo. All first person accounts with varying degrees and types of insight and performance.
EB: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
RK: The whole idea of a reader remains so abstract to me. I don’t think you can make art by anticipating the desires of other people, so I have no specific hopes in regard to what readers will find. While writing the book, I asked myself some questions about destiny. And violence. And the way society is organized. About moral complexity, which seems so painful for people, and why is that. And why is the truth sometimes foreclosed: what does it mean to live without it? What is justice? What is the law? Why has one dirty joke lived in my mind for forty years now? I mean, really! And where is everyone, and what has happened to them? Which is a line from my own book but I ask it all the time and feel dumbfounded.
A reader can take from my book whatever they want. I have no say, and no hopes for that. But, if they ended up asking themselves some questions that don’t have easy answers, like I did, I guess that would mean the book has had some effect on them, which is more than I hoped for.
Rachel Kushner is the bestselling author of The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Top Ten Book of 2013; Telex from Cuba, a finalist for the National Book Award; and The Mars Room. She lives in Los Angeles.
Emily Behnke is student in The New School's MFA in Creative Writing Program. She splits her time between New York and Connecticut.