Understanding Desperation, & Knowing the Natural World: Q&A with Christian Kiefer

Christian Kiefer
Christian Kiefer

“Once upon a time, you told yourself that you would be no killer, that this was how you would live your life,” reflects the protagonist of Christian Kiefer’s new novel, The Animals (Liveright/Norton; 320 pages), as he prepares to euthanize a wounded moose in the book’s opening chapter. “And yet you learn and relearn that everything is the same.”

Bill Reed is the operator of the North Idaho Wildlife Rescue and a man haunted by a guilty conscience. Caring for wounded animals—raccoons, badgers, an owl, a wolf, and a blind grizzly bear, among others—is a form of catharsis for Bill, who is on the run from his criminal past and living under a different name. (His real first name is Nat.) When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatens to close the rescue shelter, the livelihood Bill has carefully built for himself and the animals is endangered. To make matters worse, his former best friend, Rick, is fresh out of prison and seeking payback.

The narrative switches between the story’s current setting of 1996 Idaho and Bill’s young adulthood in 1984 Reno. As he grapples with the rescue’s impending closure, we learn who Bill was, about his gambling addiction, and the catalyst for the bad blood with Rick. Survival is at stake as Rick and Bill circle each other in increasingly aggressive encounters from which neither can back down. As past sins threaten to eclipse the present, Bill is forced to explore what he is willing to do to save the people and animals he loves. Kiefer, whose story “Muzzleloader” appears in the upcoming issue of ZYZZYVA (No. 103), uses nature and seasonal imagery as powerful backdrops in an atmospheric narrative about conscience, survival, and primal identity—a story in which violence is inevitable. We talked to him via email about how he came to write The Animals, the importance of reading the work of master writers, what it means to “know your plants,” and the role of poverty in narrowing people’s options.

ZYZZYVA: What was your inspiration for The Animals?

Christian Kiefer: Much of my inspiration came from teaching at American River College in Sacramento. Many of my students come from pretty poor economic straits, and some of what I’ve worked in the book come out of the kind of reality—characters who are struggling to make it into the middle class, or at least to alleviate their economic suffering. When there’s no money in your pocket, everything becomes more dire, and there’s a lot more at stake. There’s a real, tangible sense of falling apart that echoes through everything you do. So much of what these characters are faced with in the book comes from their economic level. Their choices are limited and so the possible decisions they can make are limited.

Part of what happens to them has to do with their level of desperation and this is especially true of Nat, who suffers from gambling addiction. Of course gambling addiction is not necessarily limited to “poor people,” but for Nat his ability to make truly bad decisions stems largely from a sense of desperation that has been engendered by his economic position. At one point in the book he says, “There’s just no getting ahead in this world.” That’s a pretty true statement; if you come from poverty, there’s not a great many opportunities to clamber out of it. Someone’s going to argue that you can work hard and lift yourself up by your bootstraps, but there also needs to be an acknowledgment that it’s pretty hard to find your bootstraps when your food stamps won’t pay for tampons. I suppose I’m mixing a metaphor there, but the sentiment is intact. Nat’s a depressed guy and he can’t imagine a way out of his situation. It’s as simple as that.

The AnimalsZ: The main character is the operator of North Idaho Wildlife Rescue. How did you become interested in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation?

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CK: I already had a problematic draft of the book together when I happened to visit Animal Ark, a wildlife rescue located outside of Reno. I immediately thought it was the kind of place Nat/Bill would enjoy. I thought about making it Nat’s day job at first, but it ultimately made it into the later part of the book, where Nat has changed his name to Bill and has tried to make a totally new life for himself in North Idaho. Later I visited the Folsom Zoo. The animal rescue in the book is a combination of those two locations.

I might note here that I’ve always been strongly interested in nature and the natural world. The rehabilitation thing is new to me, but what’s not new is wandering around with a field guide in my hand. I still do that kind of thing all the time. As Gary Snyder says, “Know your plants.” Knowing the names of the plants and animals in whose presence you live is important in that it gives you a sense of “knowing them.” That weed sprouting up from the concrete has a name. So does that bird. And that insect. We live in a world of named things.

Z: Each chapter alternates between Bill’s present and past. What were some challenges and benefits of this type of story structure?

CK: I struggled with some way to present Bill’s story so that it unrolled in a satisfying way but also did not rely on a gimmick. Alternating between the past and present gave me a way of letting both timelines move organically so that the reader was privy to certain information as he/she needed to be. It made it possible to ramp up the tension based on omission and accretion, creating juxtapositions between events and information that were surprising even for me.

Z: Do the animals’ injuries represent what Bill has lost and is trying to regain?

CK: I hope so. Bill’s work in animal rehabilitation is, in some ways, a way for him to pay penance for what he’s done to Rick (which isn’t revealed in full until the second to last chapter). Bill’s a healer, but he also keeps all these injured animals in cages, which is something he comes to understand differently by the end of the book. It’s problematic and I hope it’s one of the questions the book raises: how do we decide what we put in a cage?

Z: Third person omniscient point of view is the main narrative mode in The Animals. Why was second person used for some of the novel’s crucial scenes?

CK: Everything I learned about second person comes from Pam Houston. She uses second person with incredible fluidity and grace. As a voice, especially with Pam’s writing, there’s an immediacy to second person. For these reasons it seemed the correct voice to use when dealing with Nat’s more distant past. There’s also a conceit in the book where Bill talks to himself in second person, like, Well, you really screwed up this time. The first paragraph in the book is in this voice. So part of the reason why I might have gone to the second person is to draw a line between Bill’s self-narrative and the larger narrative of the book. He’d have told his own story to himself in the second person. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but there’s the kernel.

The other, and perhaps more important, reason for employing second person is to create a sense of immediacy in a part of that book that normally might flag some. As a reader, backstory is a hard sell for me as I tend to want “now” narrative to continue moving forward and for the writer to tell me what I need to know about the backstory as part of the organic forward-moving narrative. Nonetheless, in both The Animals and my first book, The Infinite Tides, I have big chunks of backstory as separate from the narrative. Tides treats the backstory like another chapter (more or less), but The Animals shifts into the second person that you noted. In a book with the kind of forward velocity that I hope The Animals has, I wanted to make sure the backstory sections still moved forward. Second person was the best way for me to do that.

Z: Were moments of foreshadowing and imagery clear in the first draft?

CK: Likely no. I’m a terrible and messy first drafter. All my good work comes from redrafting. Like my first book, I did 38 or 40 drafts of this one. All the foreshadowing, careful writing, scene setting, plot, character—that all comes from later drafts. There’s some OK writing in those earlier drafts but it only becomes a book (for me anyway) after I’ve combed through it over and over again. It’s obsessive, really. The early drafts are so wholly different that I could probably publish that material as a separate book.

Z: Do you consider yourself an outliner or a free writer? Or both?

CK: I’m an outliner, for sure. I can’t write a word without really understanding where the book is going. Despite this, as I noted above, I really spent a great many hours going over and over and over the material I’ve written. I’ll make a pretty detailed outline but sometimes the characters don’t quite go where you think they’re going to go.

I collect materials when I write—images, texts, ideas—I’ll have a bunch of materials before, during, and after the outlining process. The outline for the new book I’m currently working on is something like 50 pages long, and yet I’ll still find moments where the writing turns away from the outline, away from the structure, and into something different. Sometimes those moments lead out into the ether and I have to go back in and prune stuff out, but other times it leads to my best work.

Z: The afterward details extensive research and interviews. What did you learn that was most memorable or interesting?

The novelist David Vann and the poet G.S. Giscomb both thank a lot of people in their books and I’ve found that to be surprisingly gracious so anyone who spends time talking with me about their experiences gets a nod.

As for what’s memorable or interesting, there’s a Facebook site with a name like “If you grew up in Reno then you remember…” I put up a post there asking where you might score drugs in the mid-1980s. I mean which bar. I got a ton of responses—70 or 80—in just a few days. Down at the bottom of those responses was a lady whose post was something to effect of, “These people don’t know what they’re talking about. I was there. You need to talk to me.” And so I did talk to her, on Facebook, and it quickly became apparent that she was absolutely right—she did know what she was talking about.

I drove out to Reno to interview this woman, Kathy, in person. She provided an absolute wellspring of information and anecdotes and it was her that really opened up Reno in the 1980s for me, giving me the specifics and the material to make that world come alive. I probably would have ploughed on without her, but after talking with her a whole range of landscape and setting became accessible to me.

I should add that about the same time I was trying to figure out Reno in the 1980s I was also trying to figure out North Idaho in the mid-1990s, which represents the other significant setting in the book. I took a trip up there to visit my aunt and uncle and my cousins, one of whom took the time to drive me around out in the wilderness. I kept jumping out of the car to look at trees and such. They’re all big snowmobilers so they have a real knack for getting around out there.

There was a point in my research when I was asking Denis Johnson for information about North Idaho in the 1990s, since he’s lived up there for a while. Denis told me to throw all my research out and just make it up. That’s probably the best advice. Research can be a wormhole from which you can never escape.

Z: Do you have any advice for aspiring fiction writers?

CK: Read Richard Ford.

I’m only half-joking. Find someone whose work you really enjoy—especially a master writer—and really read through everything he or she has done. I’ve done this kind of thing with many writers over the years. It provides a sense of depth and breadth and development that you can’t get from reading one or two books. I bring up Ford here because he’s the writer I’ve done this with most recently. I’ve always enjoyed his work, but reading it all, in publication order, allowed me to really follow his writing career in a profoundly informative way. You might do something like this with Alice Munro or Kazuo Ishiguro or Deborah Eisenberg or Larry McMurtry or Virginia Woolf or anyone whose work is instructive to you and whom you can stand to read for a long period of time.

If you’re already a writer—aspiring or otherwise—you’ll be reading as a writer, picking out important passages or character development or individual sentences. You can’t help but learn from this kind of study. Dig in and don’t let go. Make it a summer project. You could do worse than reading, say, Chekhov all summer. Your writing will be better for it.

One thought on “Understanding Desperation, & Knowing the Natural World: Q&A with Christian Kiefer

  1. What an interesting interview. The questions were very insightful. I am not familiar with this author and I enjoyed learning about his writing style and his methods for writing his books.

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