An Interview with Kellie Wells
What’s the funniest question you’ve ever heard in an interview?
That question pre-supposes I’ve done a lot of interviews. Mostly I try to keep my yap shut.
What’s the kind of question that you’d like to answer?
Not that one.
I’ve got six albums: Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Kris Kristofferson, George Thorogood, Tina Turner, or Simon and Garfunkel?
Simon and Garfunkel.
I know that you work with antiquated words and phraseologies and that you have a lot of dictionaries at your house. Where does this love for words come from?
When I began to study German, I started to realize that English has a lot of words. One can theoretically learn every German word. That’s not the case with English, whose vocabulary is seemingly infinite. Because I have no interest in verisimilitude or realism, this frees me up to use all manner of non-standard English. If you’re trying to faithfully reproduce everyday English, and there are perfectly good reasons to do so, then you’re restricted in the vocabulary that’s available to you.
Not everyone knows that you’re a “recovering poet” who actually got her MFA in poetry from Montana. Which do you miss more, the poetry or Montana?
I loved Missoula.
I don’t miss poetry because I imported all my poetic compulsions into the fiction I write (which is why my books are bestsellers). I just go to the right margin now. I still read a lot of poetry. It’s still a useful goad for me. I was probably more narrative when I was a poet than I am now, actually.
Experimental writers are excited about the dissolution of genre boundaries, but isn’t this old hat to you?
I would love it if we’d enter into a New Modernism, where “style” isn’t a pejorative. I feel like I’m a Johnny-come-lately Modernist. That was a moment when high style prevailed and did so in a meaningful way; style was substance; there was a symbiosis between style and content, between the how and the what. There was no competition between the two. So if that would be the outcome of erasing the boundaries between poetry and fiction, I’d be pleased. Even if it was short-lived, as it would necessarily be. But I think perhaps boundaries are being erased, if indeed they are, because a certain kind of literary fiction is becoming as hard to hawk as poetry is. So why not write high style prose if you’re inclined to?
You have fiction in the latest volume of Fairy Tale Review. I noticed that the thirtieth anniversary reissue of Joy Williams’s The Changeling—introduction by Rick Moody—is being published by the same press. Do you agree that the retelling of fairy tales is something that we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the near future and do you believe this trend could possibly offer The Changeling the readership it never received upon its initial release?
It does seem like there’s a resurgence of interest in the fairy tale and in folklore in American fiction and poetry, in fiction that draws on that tradition. There’s certainly an appetite for fabulist fiction at the moment. Aimee Bender and Kelly Link, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, their books have received a lot of attention, and they all incorporate fairy tale elements in their work. Kate Bernheimer [editor of The Fairy Tale Review] would tell you that all fictional paths fundamentally lead back to the fairy tale in one way or another, and I’d agree. She has a terrific essay, by the way, about the craft of fairy tales coming out in Tin House, called “Form is Fairy Tale, Fairy Tale is Form.” So Anatole Broyard wrote a truly scathing, venomous review of The Changeling, burned it at the stake, and that book dissolved to ashes as a result and went out of print until just recently. The Fairy Tale Review has resurrected it and given it a second chance at a readership. The intro by Rick Moody describes just how profoundly doomed that book was by Broyard’s review. I do hope it will get this time around the audience it deserved to have in the first time.
You’re a fan of Joy Williams, right?
The Quick and the Dead is one of my top five favorite novels. Williams really has the courage of her convictions in that book (in all of her book but spectacularly on display in this one). She indulges all of her writerly idiosyncracies, all those amazing elements that make her fiction identifiable as hers alone, and takes them to a logical extreme in that novel. What she does is bold and exciting. Characters stop and deliver disquisitions on what might seem in another book and in the hands of another writer improbable and intrusive subjects. One of the lessons I learned from reading Joy Williams is that you can have characters say absolutely anything as long as you create the cosmos in which these unlikely (by realist standards) conversations can take place. That book is transcendent and I think she’s heroic for having written it.
I’d like to know your other top five favorite books.
Oh, I have a good fifty books in my top five.
Does Philip Roth live there?
What do you fear people might assume about your work?
A concern I’ve had recently is that a jauntiness in tone, by way of a certain kind of attention to language, might prevent readers from taking the work seriously. I’m always afraid that there’s a way that tone, language, and humor conspire to give a reader an excuse not to engage with the darker things that are going on in the work. I feel that way in particular with the fairy tale I just retold, the Pied Piper story, a very grim story in which all the children in this small town suddenly vanish. I use a voice to tell that story that’s marked by a rollicking rhythm and a whimsical tone, so my fear is that a reader might imagine that she’s given permission to ignore the fact that it’s a story about a town’s collective grief, or, alternately, I fear that it will appear I’m not taking the subject and the characters seriously. My hope is that, by contrast and dissonance, the sorrow, the darkness will actually be thrown into relief.
Earlier, you chose Simon and Garfunkel out of six records. Would you always choose Simon and Garfunkel?
No. Consistency isn’t my strong suit. “Hobgoblin of little minds” and all that, right? That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…