Tim Kinsella is the author of three novels, most recently Sunshine on an Open Tomb out from Featherproof Books, and previously Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self Defense (Featherproof Books) and Let Go and Go On and On (Curbside Splendor Publishing), as well as a book of tour journals, All Over and Over (Featherproof Books). Kinsella has also been a member of several bands, most notably Joan of Arc, and currently Good Fuck. I came across Kinsella’s Sunshine on an Open Tomb as a fan of the publisher and found myself lit up by Kinsella’s language and approach to structuring the novel in single-sentence paragraphs that adds, as Kinsella notes in the interview, a dreamlike quality to the language and story. As I finished the last page and closed the book, I exchanged the book for my phone and messaged Kinsella through Instagram, extending my excitement and appreciation and asking for an interview, which he was kind enough to participate in. In our conversation, Kinsella provides insight into his creative process and research, how writing music and fiction are both similar and disparate, and a few influences, acknowledging Mark Lombardi, Gertrude Stein, and Richard Brautigan throughout.
Isaac George Lauritsen: Just an hour or two before writing this I finished up Sunshine on an Open Tomb. One of the last lines of the book reads, “With a bolt of corrective perspective, foreground and background reversed in my field of vision.” It’s a repeated observation the narrator makes, and while it touches on how our eyes work — I think the blurring of the foreground when focusing on the background or the opposite — it’s also one of the major projects of this book: the story lurking in the background has been drawn out by our narrator by exposing the history of The Family. I guess my question is where did you start with this story? What background did you want brought to the foreground?
Tim Kinsella: Sunshine took me about seven years to complete. I started it in 2011. Here’s what I remember about the initial impulses:
Mark Lombardi is kinda my favorite artist because he was so able to remove his personality from his work — even more than Donald Judd, but still not entirely — and he dealt directly with matters that affect the lives of every living being on the planet in tangible but hidden ways. Not to mention, counter-intuitively, there’s a kind of hippy utopian impulse to his creative mission, however dry and mechanical the psychedelia of his charts may be.
At the same time, I really wanted to write a book like Vonnegut, or John Barth’s Floating Opera or Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, books that I loved when I was much younger. They all have narrators who are simultaneously charming and unlikeable and I was drawn to that challenge. I knew that I wanted to do a Robert Anton Wilson kind of thing, a blur of disciplines that’s sloppy and loose, but sharp. When I taught at the Art Institute of Chicago years ago the joke in the office was that they referred to my class as “Subculture Indoctrination 101” and I liked that. It felt like a role I could aspire to. And no one seems to be writing books like Robert Anton Wilson these days.
I had the thematic questions in mind: something about a mega trust-fund version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski and I knew he was an estranged member of the Bush family; something about scales of power expanding from human touch to global conspiracies; something about River’s Edge — probably the most impactful movie of my life — being a character.
I have frustrated plenty of my collaborators over the years with my working methods and Jesse Ball once told me that I have the least efficient creative process of anyone he’s ever heard of. So this might sound a little bananas, but it’s what works for me. I had piles and piles of notes on these themes, phrases and details that I liked, etc. So my point is — and I’ve been doing this today since 8am on the current album — I tend to make big messes, attempting to exhaust the possible connections and really see how expansive a thing can get. Then I enjoy long long periods of slowly sculpting and chiseling away until the thing reveals itself.
It definitely makes sense! If there’s no mess in the process, a book can feel like one long calculation. I really like this part of exhausting the connections in your process. Sunshine feels almost like the novelization of a Lombardi drawing: a big, sprawling web of connections. There’s the line in the center of the drawing and branching from it are these little pods of information that then branch into smaller pods of information. The short chapters of Sunshine seem to do something similar: branch off the narrative through-line into histories American, ancient, The Family’s. As you said about Lombardi’s work, your book also grapples with “matters that affect the lives of every living being on the planet in tangible but hidden ways.” I’m curious to know about your impulse towards revealing and threading together the histories contained in Sunshine.
Hmm. That’s a tough question because it really comes down to instinct, but I guess the question is then how does one arrive at what they consider to be the appropriately sharpened instincts.
I remember a major preoccupation of mine putting together my first novel, The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense, was how to acknowledge how the internet has changed how we all read— how could a novel engage a reader in the same way that flipping between multiple tabs keeps us engaged as readers? The simple noir plot of that book was precisely so that I could demonstrate this structural concept of the aside being given central priority. The plot needed to be as hokey and predictable as it is so that it could still be readable. (When I state it like this years later it sounds like I’m describing Pulp Fiction if not Breathless.)
Anyhow, a Richard Powers essay “Making The Rounds” on the systems novel and Calvino’s final lectures right before he died both probed similar questions (in Calvino’s case seemingly anticipating the internet) and these had a great impact on me in the couple years before starting Sunshine. I was sure to teach them every semester so that I had occasion to rethink and talk through them and Sunshine was definitely an embodiment of my reading of their ideas.
But also, who knows?!
Sunshine went through at least 20 major structural transformations and most of those different structures had quite a few drafts. One version would linger 40 pages at a time sticking to one “storyline” or the other and in another version every sentence to the next was a fracture or a leap. Both of those extremes read incredibly boring.
Through those years I most often would work long days on the book two weeks at a time, then step away from it for a month so I could return to it with fresh eyes. It took a lot of working it over and over to find the pace that felt right. For example, a 30 page aside telling the history of The Iran-Contra scandal got cut down to a couple sentences when I had to confront the cost-benefit ratio between what I thought the reader needed to know — vs — how to keep the book moving.
Some of these cuts really required me to trick myself into not thinking about them. One major revision — probably the cut from like 170,000 words to 120,000 words — happened one night around 4 am. I’d been working very long days on it, fell asleep around midnight or whatever, then bolted awake and with urgent clarity I went through the whole thing deleting big sections then fell right back asleep. Looking at it the next morning it was clear that I’d made the right choices, but I was afraid to do them when I was focused too intently on them.
One major element that was also spontaneous was the change of all of the narrator’s dialogue to “Duh, unga-bunga.” There was a cafe I used to love to work at — lots of space and big tables — and I was there every morning for years until noon or 1 each day and I was doing an editing pass when the ‘Duh, unga-bunga’ inspiration hit and I spent an hour going beginning to end just replacing every line of the narrator’s dialogue with that phrase and as I moved through the book changing one line at a time it became clear that it was working and when I got to the end I jumped up from my seat and did a spontaneous little jig of joy and I remember the hip kids that worked there rolling their eyes at me.
The idea of asides as central (a phrase I hadn’t thought of before now) was also because I was really interested in creating a tension between cause and effect. I had taken this on in my previous novels, but knew that I needed to do it differently this time. Karaoke was fractured across storylines, but like I said, not in a way that Hollywood wasn’t doing with jump-cuts for decades. Let Go and Go On and On went deeper into it by playing with the tension between who’s the actor and who’s the role and what if they were subject to each other’s causes and effects.
But I wanted to more directly address it. I didn’t want to embody it narratively or structurally again — Let Go was probably the most successful of my books — in a lot of ways — but definitely in terms of playing with this tension. By using River’s Edge as a character and the Bush family’s true biography I obviously teased at this same approach again, but I wanted to Tell Not Show this element of the story to make it pop from the rest of the book.
In my early 30s my first wife quasi-affectionately referred to me as a pothead philosopher. I needed a dopey narrator more directly asking these questions about the nature of time to really bang people over the head with them.
Right, time plays a huge role in the novel. We get the extensive history of The Family, the present narrative, and we physically move quickly through the novel because of the layout of the book: nearly every paragraph is only a sentence long! So our eyes are literally moving quicker through the book than, say, the book I’m reading now, The Organs of Sense, that has humongous, multi-page paragraphs. On top of that, the language of Sunshine really lights up the page. As a reader, I feel like I’m in this book as much for the music of the language as I am for the story. So, I have two questions about language/structure. Why write single-sentence paragraphs? And, since, as you mentioned in an earlier message, you’re currently working through a stack of lyrics, what differences and similarities do you find in your relationship to language when writing novels and when writing lyrics?
Re: Every sentence being its own paragraph: That too is to play with the reader’s sense of time. I think it was Gertrude Stein who wrote about how the end of a sentence implies a subconscious sliver of time passing and the end of a paragraph implies a slightly longer sliver of time, maybe a breath. But if every sentence is its own paragraph then hopefully that evokes a kind of dream state in which every event is given equal priority and each one floats. It screws with the sense of scale, what’s important and what’s an aside. Practically speaking, it simultaneously propels the reader along while also giving each sentence the space to be its own thing, whether that’s a narrative action or a psychedelic observation. I did that same move in Let Go and that’s how I understood it.
Also, for years I’ve been trying to teach myself to read more slowly. I was always aware of fighting against this tension to hurry through a book even as I was enjoying it. Just this year I’ve finally gotten better at it; I guess thanks to lockdown and definitively having nowhere to go. This structural move helped me impose that tension on the reader, hopefully granting she or he greater self-determination.
Re: the relationship between writing novels and lyrics: I’d answer this differently every day for the last 15 years. Best I dare hypothesize today is that they work as counter-balances. I know that I think through the books as musical pieces from the smallest elements — each word — up through the form of the whole. Reciprocally, hopefully writing the books has helped me identify the appropriate word collisions to make a song resonate with the necessary ratios of narrative and mystery.
But having said that, just by virtue of being 46 years old and having been obsessive about it since I was a toddler, I really do experience the world as music. I don’t mean that to sound woo-woo or whatever, just that by this point I know myself and that’s how it is. I quite literally think through everything I do all day as music and I did this unconsciously for many years before consciously recognizing that I do it. If I’m looking at something — a landscape or a parking lot or anything intentionally framed — I quickly and automatically translate it into music in my head to comprehend its composition and orient myself spatially. Especially whenever something puzzles me, I can only work through it when I think of it as music. That’s why things like simple home repairs or administrative forms of any variety totally baffle me. Music is the model through which I can potentially comprehend anything, even language, so it’s not even close. I chose to write a few books because they seemed like fun and interesting challenges and I love books. But music I don’t have a choice. It’s inseparable from my consciousness.
So, if you were to describe Sunshine as a piece of music or band or instrument(s), how would you do that? Also, were there points in writing the book that you remember music specifically influencing the process?
I’ve always made hybrid things. I imagine that’s partially thanks to my instincts, but very much thanks to the massive and generous creativity communities of Chicago that reared me. Is that the right word? Nursed me?
So I couldn’t assign a musical genre to Sunshine, but I expect you knew I’d say that. For both of my previous novels I made epic playlists with a song assigned to each scene and I used them as dynamic guides as I revised. But Sunshine for whatever reason I never did that.
After my first band when I was teenager broke up, people started pointing to it and saying Ah ha, that’s Midwest Emo. But when we actually existed people were just like WTF kind of punk is this? Then especially when a couple of us started Joan of Arc soon after that and our palette really exploded open, again in hindsight people said A-ha that’s how Midwest Emo evolved. But at the time of those first Joan of arc albums people were appalled and enraged. The reviews were vicious because no one knew how to make sense of it.
Obviously none of these hybridizations or juxtapositions that we were playing with were motivated by some deep drive to define some corny genre. We wanted to short-circuit people’s everyday minds so we could hack and rewire them. Eclecticism was never the ends; I’ve always been repulsed by that li’l something-for-everyone / variety show aesthetic sensibility, probably because I know that I tend to tempt that line of bad taste quite frequently.
It’s always been about teasing tension and release and shock fractures to crack open access points in people’s perceptions of their own perceptions in hopes of shining a light on how fundamentally bizarre it is to be alive in the world and then suggesting immersive uncanny-valley-type scenes to poke people to ponder the innumerable infinite universes simultaneously swarming around all of us at every moment.
So how’s that for a humble ambition? Haha. I do indulge in quite a bit of weed and I’ve been a little cooped up for about a year or so, so please excuse me. But I swear I’m just telling it like I see it. I mean, an hour ago I walked by a man on the street — the snow is up to our waists — and this man on Western Ave had a coffee table in a garbage bag duct taped to his leg from the knee down. WTF kinda songs does the universe expect me to write?
So yeah anyhoo—Sunshine is like a long, dynamic DJ set, a balance of building up trances and then snapping people out of it for a moment at a time so that they recognize they were in a trance. Very much consciously inspired by the Hiphop pioneers that re-imagined the source material they inherited into fresh and relevant new forms and maybe aligned in sensibilities with sample epics like Negativeland or Girl Talk, taking components from seemingly disparate sources and stitching them together into a unified whole.
There aren’t really specific musical moments in the book as much as I think of each line and the overall form as musical. Does that make sense? Any hunk you might chop off it would be equally musical as any other hunk.
Definitely. Especially this last point about disparate sources stitched together into a unified whole. Just as a call back to the Lombardi drawings mentioned earlier, there’s a clear, yet incredibly nuanced, threading that occurs.
I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about Richard Brautigan’s impact on the book and your creative life. He’s part of the dedication section, which, as someone who really digs his work, really perked my ears up as soon as I cracked open the book. In a way, it set the tone for me. In Sunshine, there are these little moments that feel like they exist in the same universe as In Watermelon Sugar. I’m thinking about how the narrator talks about the sweet smell of trash in Hyacinthignatzi. And the corpses! Walking around them as if it’s any other day. Brautigan does something similar where what’s strange or unfamiliar or surreal or scary or grotesque is just part of the everdayness of the worlds of his novels.
I remember the first moment that I sat with a Richard Brautigan book very clearly. It was in Columbia, South Carolina. I was 19 years old, on tour with my band at the time, and we were playing that night with the legendary Assfactor 4 in the back room of a used bookstore. I came across a copy of Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt and it looked like a Smiths cover or one of those British kitchen sink dramas that all the Smiths covers were based on. I remember sitting on the floor and reading the whole thing in one sitting and being blown away by how charming and care-free this narrator was, but he was also so profoundly unguarded and open and imaginative. Surrealism and Magical Realism always felt hokey to me. But Brautigan was just matter-of-fact about it: the world is a bizarre and shocking spot to inhabit and you can feel that deeply while still keeping your cool about it.
That would’ve been ’94, a few years before those 3-books-in-a-book reissues came out. Every used bookstore had his books for just a couple bucks. People didn’t seem interested. So it was easy to collect them all, scooping them up here and there as I traveled. Obviously there was no internet then, so the world still bubbled with the mystery of innumerable lost histories. I had zero idea who this guy was, except for his books, which oddly featured portraits of himself on the cover sometimes, like the book was as much about the writer as the story.
When I was 19-21 years old and I was regularly drifting around the country with my own bands or with friends, with or without bands, very often not sure where we were going or where we’d stay or much of anything, Brautigan was my constant companion and my patron saint of lovable losers. To be clear, traveling then, we weren’t going to cool or exciting places much; I’m not talking about jet-setting. I mean walking around Sioux Falls and Denver and Omaha and Port Washington, WI and Morgantown, WV, living on seriously like $5/day and depending largely on the kindness of like-minded punks. I honestly have a lump in my throat right now — this beautiful sunny morning in my apartment that I love with my wife that I love in the next room reading — just remembering that life and trying to comprehend how my life now can possibly be part of this continuous same life, but also it’s impossible to imagine this life without that one.
I remember it was very, very hard for me on my 42nd birthday because I thought that Brautigan died at 41 and I couldn’t fathom being older than he ever lived to be. I’ve since learned that he lived to be 49 and I very much hope to outlive him.
Anyhow, the very first thing that I knew about Sunshine, before I knew Bush Family or anything else, I knew that I wanted to write a book that could hopefully make a 19 year old somewhere feel like Brautigan’s books made me feel when I was 19. I wrote the book with my 19-year-old self in mind as the reader. That was meaningful and impactful to me as a guide because I always resented this sinister little subconscious voice in my other books, insecure that people wouldn’t pick up on how smart or clever I thought I was. Brautigan, to me, represents the complete disavowal of concern with that sort of validation, which really insinuates itself easily once one becomes self-aware that they are writing a book.
Isaac George Lauritsen is a poet and illustrator. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in Jabberwock Review, The Roadrunner Review, mutiny! magazine, The Shore, Soundings East, Tilted House Review, on a broadside from Octopus Books, and elsewhere. He serves as Associate Poetry Editor for Bayou Magazine and teaches first-year writing composition at the University of New Orleans.