[img_assist|nid=917|title=Ken Kalfus|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=160|height=250]"He’s late for work and she misses her flight, but that morning, with the world shattered by grief, they each think the other’s dead and each is secretly delighted. They’re both soon disappointed, of course…"
At a Philadelphia Stories event in the creepy-cool Parlor on South Broad Street, the audience had[img_assist|nid=918|title=|desc=|link=url|url=http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060501405/sr|align=right|width=150|height=243] a rare treat: to hear the first words of a new book by critically acclaimed author, Ken Kalfus. “I haven’t even shown this to my editor yet,” Kalfus explained through a quiet smile. The raw words of his novel depicted an eloquent, haunting, funny story that started on that fateful day in September that changed all of our lives. Despite the ubiquitous nature of 9/11, Kalfus managed a fresh interpretation of this world-changing event.
This book, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country: A Novel, will be released in July, and fans and critics expect another success. Kalfus, who was born in New York and has lived in Paris, Dublin, Belgrade, and Moscow, has authored two acclaimed short story collections and the terrific The Commissariat of Enlightenment, a quasi-historical fiction spanning two decades in Russia. Philadelphia Stories spoke with Kalfus about the new book, and the sometimes frustrating writing journey.
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country: A Novel comes out in July. What was the inspiration for your latest book?
I think this is something else we can thank Osama bin Laden for. The novel’s a black comedy about a bitterly divorcing couple living in Brooklyn and increasingly entangled in current events. On the morning of September 11, 2001 he goes to his office at the World Trade Center and she rushes to catch a plane, United 93. He’s late for work and she misses her flight, but that morning, with the world shattered by grief, they each think the other’s dead and each is secretly delighted. They’re both soon disappointed, of course, but my novel takes them through the next several years as they try to complete their divorce. Everything that happened to us as a nation in those years – anthrax, the Afghan war, the stock market crash, the invasion of Iraq, etc. – weirdly and satirically involve them, even as their principal concern is the war against each other.
You published Thirst, your first book of short stories, at age 44. Were you discouraged you didn’t get published sooner? Any words of inspiration for those of us still waiting?
First, I should note that all the stories in Thirst were written in my 20s and 30s, and most were published in small literary magazines before the collection came out. But yes, there were many times that I was discouraged, and frustrated, despairing and morose too, before my first book was published – and certainly afterwards as well.
Getting published is by no means the most difficult part of writing. The struggle lies in composing something fresh, important and true. I still struggle and still get very discouraged, and then there are moments of light.
Perhaps the pains and failures of published writers are inspirational to the unpublished. But it may be more productive to remember that as serious readers and aspiring writers, we’re part of the great world literary enterprise, among the noblest human endeavors, whatever our level of success. Passionate reading, receptiveness to good literature, thoughtfulness about the world, the willingness to take creative risks and rigorous craftsmanship lie at the heart of the enterprise.
Has the Philadelphia area influenced your writing?
It hasn’t been a subject of my fiction, but my first book project, Christopher Morley’s Philadelphia, was a collection of Morley’s columns and articles from the 1920s and ’30s. I collected the pieces and wrote the introduction, work that made me appreciate the city I found myself in. The book was published on Morley’s centenary in 1990 and is still in print.
Can you offer any advice to the many creative writers who are trying to juggle work and family, yet want to write fiction or poetry?
We all have busy lives, and we’re always juggling responsibilities. For those of us who want to write, writing (and serious, committed reading) is work and we have to give it the same respect and effort that we do our more lucrative employments. My practical thought is that if we can’t write every day, we can write at least once or twice a week, even when it’s as inconvenient as, say, going to our jobs. We can give ourselves a minimal weekly word count – say, 250 or 500 words, or 1000 words and pull an occasional late-nighter if we have to. As the weeks pile up, so will the words.
I also suggest that we take the work of other writers seriously, allowing ourselves to be moved and transformed by their words. Reading is the best thing for an aspiring writer, not because it necessarily helps fulfill those aspirations, but because it most fully engages us in the literary occupation.