Samsun Knight and I first met during Oberlin’s freshman orientation in 2010, and last met over Zoom between NYC and Toronto at the beginning of October to discuss his new debut novel, The Diver. A horror novel about a scuba dive gone wrong and all that follows, we dug into the text and touched on shared ideas and strange shapes, how few things die, and whether you can ever be sure that they’re gone.
Kira Garfinkel: This is your first published novel! How are you feeling?
Samsun Knight: Good! Better every day, honestly. There’s a long period when it feels sort of like a kid that’s gone off to college and comes back looking like an absolute stranger, with weird hair and bizarre opinions and completely different friends than you thought they’d make; but now I’m finally remembering that I do really know this book, and I do really love it, and I’m just so inexpressibly proud it’s gone there-and-back-again all on its own. (And its new friends are so cool!)
The Diver began as a short story about the titular dive that sets the events of the book in motion. That story did not have many of the horror and detective story elements that are central to the finished book today. How did this novel evolve into a horror story?
In many senses, it was the only direction I felt the story could go. I’d always considered that short story to be one of my best pieces of writing and wished I could build it out into something more, but felt stymied by the fact that the story already covers so much ground; it seemed impossible to escalate after what happens in those first ten pages.
The big key that unlocked it for me was allowing the realism of the world itself to bend, in order to make room for that further escalation. The detective frame and the fantastical horror elements allowed me to push that envelope wide open.
That’s very interesting to me. As a question of craft or approach, how often does the initial piece of writing in one form become the basis of another piece when facing blocks or feeling stymied?
In a loose sense, all the time, especially for characters and voices. I wrote this book in a bit of a blur. After it was finished, I realized that I recognized almost all of the characters from different versions of themselves in prior work. For example, I wrote an earlier unpublished novel called If I Have Done This that’s all about accidental tragedy and the ensuing guilt (sound familiar?), and the dynamic between Peter and his boss is almost 100 percent the same as the dynamic between the main character and his brutal father in that book. It felt really nice to notice the connection, honestly. It can be hard, especially for artists where “skill” and “progress” is extremely intangible, to feel like unpublished work is accumulating to something else and not just wasted, and while that’s obviously never true, it was lovely to see such a clear refutation.
That makes a lot of sense to me as a reader of your work for many years now. The Diver feels like the culmination of a number of projects exploring alienated people and the kinds of identity crisis and anxious suffering that can develop in isolation. One of the things that I love about this book is the attention and care you lavish on the internal experience of anxiety, both as a thought process and a bodily experience. Anxiety, the isolation that comes from it and limitations it places on our ability to understand events, ourselves, and the internality of others, becomes a central aspect of the horror of this story. Where does your interest in these kinds of experiences come from? How do your own experiences of anxiety figure in this book?
I think anxiety is a bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to relating to other people, in that it can operate both as a contagion and as a barrier, like the “every man for himself” imperative that can take over entire crowds. On an individual level, it has this sort of natural tragedy to it, where anxiety often manifests as both an outward-facing need and internal self-obsession, blinding yourself to others in the act of begging to be seen. I’ve always been a very anxious individual, and I’ve often struggled with moments in my life where I feel that I’ve “accidentally” isolated myself, and entered that exact spiral.
In relation to this book, too, heights of anxiety are when you feel the most animal, operating on impulse or on some other force besides will.
Right, that’s common to my experience of anxiety as well. It’s incredibly difficult to parse anxious thoughts and ideas, and in trying to do so, I feel like I often find myself confronting uncertainty viscerally. Fears and worries about what might happen gain new currency as real or true features of the world, and talking oneself down off that ledge oftentimes means recognizing how much those experiences are internal and don’t reflect the real.
Is writing through anxiety cathartic? Do you feel it clarifies your own experience of anxiety?
I think it is, but it is funny to remember that at this point in the process; publishing is such an intensely anxious experience, it’s hard to remind myself that a long time ago, this was actually cathartic. But it was! (I’m pretty sure.)
The uncanny as a feeling and experience is another element developed throughout the book, which plays a central role in its pivotal events. At one point we’re introduced to Freud’s essay on unheimlich, and its further development by Lacan, culminating in the vivid image of a dismembered arm “flopping . . . on its own . . . with its own impulses, its own anxieties, panicking and blind.” Uncanniness is presented as that moment in which our trust in our special selfhood is called viscerally into question, the suspicion that the parts which make up the whole of “I” might have selves of their own that could exist independently. Have you had moments of uncanniness that informed the writing of The Diver?
Definitely. One of my earliest dissociative experiences came when I was traveling at nineteen. At the height of a rather stressful day, I abruptly began to feel like a visitor to my own flesh, to put it somewhat creepily. I felt like my sensory experience was an image on a screen, and I’d suddenly become aware of the empty distance between that screen and myself, watching. The more I thought about it, the more that distance seemed to increase. Before that and especially since, I was always drawn to horror as the genre that takes that beyond-the-pale mode of experience entirely on its own terms and allows that interior reality to be dramatized with complete fidelity and seriousness, from the inside of the breakdown, so to speak.
That’s a fascinating and deeply unsettling experience, I’m reminded of a horror or thriller trope—the moment when a character notices that something is not quite right with the world around them, a small detail that allows them to peek behind the curtain, and what usually follows, unable to turn away or unsee. I’m curious if you have any thoughts about the connection between actual human experiences and the horror genre, and what parts of ourselves that horror can uniquely address itself to.
Yes! I think the book probably explores this better than this answer will, but I think that horror is the only genre that really elaborates and validates these “boundary” experiences of self, and includes them as true parts of experience. So many other approaches essentially boil down to treating those blacked-out moments as untrue, which just makes that lonely space so much lonelier than it needs to be. Horror keeps you company in the dark.
Henry, the dead brother of Peter, one of your central characters, has a spectral presence throughout The Diver. At one point, we are treated to a verbatim excerpt of Henry railing against the limitations of language. Henry feels trapped by our shared vocabulary, the fact that as closely as the words he uses mirror what he is experiencing, convey what he is trying to say, they are nonetheless the language of countless others. There is no special language that perfectly conveys him. As an author, working within the limitations of language, do you sympathize with Henry’s complaint? Is Henry also speaking for you?
I hadn’t thought about that at all, but in many respects, yes—although I don’t share his despair or grandiosity, I think we’re all a little bit trapped in our shared language. As an author, I probably have more flexibility than most, because I can spend entire paragraphs wrapping my way around an unworded concept, or build a scene that describes a particular slice of emotion that doesn’t yet have a term. But I’ve become increasingly occupied over the last few months with this feeling that intelligence is a social phenomenon, that the experience of self is taught and learned and many ideas exist between people, passed back-and-forth.
Which is all to say, I both agree with Henry’s lament and agree with the other side of the coin, that language both limits us and extends us, by offering us many more shapes and words and phrases than we might have built into ourselves otherwise; and as much as it constrains and molds us into these generally-accepted forms, it’s also such a brilliant miracle that we get to experience ourselves as a part of this multiplicity, and pour ourselves into such strange vessels as we find in everyone else.
Yes! I love this idea as well, intelligence does feel like a social phenomenon, that we carry parts of our thought and experience in others, and those parts can sometimes only be accessed in their presence or through conversation with the other. Do you think there is something analogous here to the concept of possession or a ghost?
Definitely. Building off of the last point about love, there’s an older conception of love as true knowledge of another, and I think the part where the ending falls hardest on the characters is that possession is supposed to be a path to intimacy—giving form to an interior that I’ve known before, and loved before—but the knowledge necessarily changes with its form.
What kinds of research did you do while thinking through the supernatural elements of the book?
Most of all, I talked to my wonderful partner Amanda, who’s a genre writer and helped me enormously with the basics of crafting unreal realities. I also talked extensively with friends and family who are obsessed with Tarot and related mysticism, and read post-Freudian psychoanalysts, mainly Klein and Kristeva.
Related to this, I’ve been rereading Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, and I’m thinking particularly about the sections of that book that deal with human approaches to the dead and the role of mourning. Many groups across the world have had an intense and violent fear of their own dead family members and friends, believing that the dead, and especially those who have died unnaturally or violently, can harbor fatal grudges against the living. To avoid this, humans have engaged in elaborate rituals of appeasement, oftentimes involving sacrifices such as the killing of animals so that the dead may eat, the burning or burying of prized possessions, and extended periods of public mourning. In some cases, however, it also involves the abandonment and destruction of the home of the dead and the hidden burial hiding of their body, a kind of excisement of the spirit from the community. I’m wondering here about the modern experience of death and the role that ghosts and possession play in our collective imaginations today: is that something you were thinking about when you wrote this book?
It wasn’t something that I was thinking of explicitly, but I have always been extremely interested in the insufficiency of modern rituals, and especially modern rituals around grief. Much in the same way that non-horror genres tend to see “edge states” as somehow inauthentic or deceptive, a lot of our mainstream approaches to grief is that it’s not real but rather some mood to purge out of you, ideally after no more than three or so days away from work. The rituals you describe, more than anything, take grief seriously.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on two new books, both about family. One is about an open marriage and all the passions and breakdowns in trust therein, while the other is about two sisters working on how to be close. In both cases, partly familiar terrain about the difficulties of intimacy, but from quite different angles. The first is under contract with University of Iowa Press and will hopefully be available in bookstores sometime in the next two to three years, so keep an eye out after this.
Kira Garfinkel is a visual artist. Their abstract work manipulates landscape visual tropes and centers themes of environmentalism and the anthropocene. Kira’s work was most recently shown at Gallery Petite in Brooklyn at their first solo show, “The Fire When We Burned Everything”. They have been featured in a variety of literary publications, including the Iowa Translation Workshop’s Exchanges journal, the Minetta Review and Oneirocritica. Kira lives and makes art in Brooklyn, New York. You can follow them on Instagram @aaronakirasg.
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