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An Interview with Kirk Marshall by David Hoenigman | Word Riot

October 15, 2011      

An Interview with Kirk Marshall by David Hoenigman

Kirk Marshall is the Brisbane-born, Melbourne-based author of The Signatory (2012; Skylight Press); Carnivalesque, And: Other Stories (2011; Black Rider Press); and A Solution to Economic Depression in Little Tokyo, 1953. He has written for more than sixty publications, both in Australia and overseas, including Award Winning Australian Writing, Wet Ink, Going Down Swinging, Voiceworks, Verandah, Visible Ink, fourW, Mascara Literary Review, Word Riot, 3:AM Magazine, (Short) Fiction Collective, The Seahorse Rodeo Folk Review, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology and Kizuna: Fiction for Japan (Japan). He edits Red Leaves, the English-language / Japanese bi-lingual literary journal.

What projects are you currently working on?

As of August 2011, I’ve just finalised the last draft and associated edits for my début short-story collection, Carnivalesque, And: Other Stories, which will be released in October through Black Rider Press, Western Australia’s newest independent publisher of experimental literary fiction and innovative poetics.

I’m compelled to concede that it’s constituted an unforeseeably protracted gestation period for my manuscript to reach publication, because my editor (the multitalented Jeremy Balius, a first-rate raconteur of villanelles and verse) and I are both so frequently invested in an assortment of creative projects — and not always at the same time! — that we’ve trained our gazes on extraneous ventures whilst we’ve waited for Black Rider Press to develop the profile it’s now gained in Australia and abroad. Perhaps revealingly, when I originally submitted the manuscript for Carnivalesque, And: Other Stories to BRP the book sprawled with the length and largesse of a William T. Vollmann prose collection – it was in excess of 400 pages — and my genuine intent was to lambast my readership with the most dense and diverse assemblage of stories that I could lever together.

This was back in 2009, when I’d just graduated from an intensive Honours research degree in Professional Writing, and I’d been inclined to invest the entirety of the previous year pouring over the legacy left by the greats of Modernist and Maximalist fiction — from Miguel de Cervantes to Geoffrey Chaucer to Wilkie Collins to William Faulkner to Mikhail Bulgakov to François Rabelais to David Foster Wallace, for the purposes of composing my thesis. My favoured literary stylistic has always been a multi-clausal, difficult, deconstructivist one — I feel this is deftly evidenced in A Solution to Economic Depression in Little Tokyo, 1953, my full-colour illustrated graphic novelette from 2007 — and having immersed myself in the supercharged phrasings of prose stylists past, I knew that Carnivalesque would represent no exception. What originally disconcerted me and excites me now, however, is that when Jeremy suggested in 2010 that I compress the contents of my short-story collection and apply a discerning oracular to retain the best fictions in the manuscript, I undertook what I believed to be an unenviable task, and yet within weeks I’d liberated a sleek manuscript of half the length from within the carnage of my original submission.

So Carnivalesque, And: Other Stories now assumes the guise of a svelte 60,000 words (comprising of fifteen rather than thirty stories!), and because (as so happens) my reading tastes have morphed over the intervening one-and-half years, I’m modeling my manuscript less on the hyper-embellished volumes of Vollmann and Foster Wallace, and now more closely on the collations of David Means and Barry Hannah, and specifically Airships (which, even today, must signify one of the most underrated intermezzos of poetic prose to have emerged from a man of flesh and mortar). Jeremy and I are both adamant that what I’ve delivered with Carnivalesque is in molten opposition to the register of fiction so often esteemed as valuable in Australia — I possess no sense of propriety or proprietary reservation when I explain that the Australian literary community is politically and aesthetically conservative beyond salvage — but our objective is to beat back the perverse nineteenth-century sentimentalism for bush poetry, genre realism and economical prose that so readily pervades the tenor of our country’s publishing lists, and welcome all those exponents of experimental literature who possess no likeminded community, and who remain scattered across the country, because they were exculpated from the sanctification ritual that made the Miles Franklin Award the determiner for what writing was worthwhile in Australia.

If I were obligated to describe the contents of Carnivalesque, I’d be convinced that the easiest encapsulation is to subscribe to the précis suggested by the book’s cover-blurb, which begins:

“The titular work of Carnivalesque, And: Other Stories is not a story at all, but a novella, and concerns the Rabelaisian exploits of one Efim Barnum Bank Zaslavsky — a Russian-Jewish carnival exhibitionist — and his anachronistic, wandering gypsy caravan as they pursue a potentially non-existent wolf, and peddle the wares of their particular breed of sideshow throughout contemporary Japan.”

I’ve already received a beguiling, immediately legitimating clamour of praise and plaudits for the collection from a small constellation of important writers — refer to the Black Rider Press website for details — and it’s so gratifying to see that everyone who has responded to the book are experiencing similar reactions and identifying the same intertextual references.

Insofar as alternative creative ventures are concerned, I’ve just had my first standalone novella — a 45,000-word exploration of Scottish cryptozoology entitled, The Signatory — accepted for publication by Skylight Press, an independent U.K.-based publisher specialising in literary fiction, drama, poetry and esoteric studies.

The Signatory is one of those projects that I fleetingly referred to above, inasmuch that I composed the manuscript during the latter half of 2010 whilst negotiating edits for Carnivalesque, And: Other Stories with Jeremy (for his part, he spent the same fistful of months penning a chapbook of epistolary poetics entitled, Adrift, which will be released by Fremantle Press in 2012), and I can’t maintain that I ever harboured a conviction that I would locate a publisher for The Signatory because such a notion was insupportable whilst I was writing the book: I wanted to test the parameters of the novella, as a form, and finagle a narrative that defied the conventional mechanics of causality whilst remaining coherent. To date, this has proven the most acrobatic work of fiction it’s been my satisfaction to produce, and I’m extremely appreciative of how supportive Skylight Press has been in championing the merits of The Signatory (they’re the publishers of award-winning literary svengali, like Will Alexander and Hugh Fox), which will be released internationally in January.

Once again, I’m predisposed to propose that it’s best to define the contents of The Signatory by referring to the original cover-blurb I devised for the book:

“In The Signatory, Sebastian Sackworth, an emotionally-depleted English anthropologist, and Adolfo Cavaggio, a lusty Italian ornithologist, leave the bread and circuses of bustling Britain to court a rare red swan — while revelling in a week of debauch, dilettantism and country living in the serene lowlands of Scotland.”

As you yourself know, David, in being a creative contributor to the cross-cultural anthology that I curate — Red Leaves, the English-language / Japanese bi-lingual literary journal — I’m also in the process of deploying the finishing touches (with my Tokyo-based co-editor, Yasuhiro Horiuchi) to issue #002.

This is an exciting time, because Red Leaves #001 (which was released in May, 2010) emerged as a full-colour anthology of 360 pages, and complied very closely to my prior knowledge of independent print publishing. Inversely, Red Leaves #002 is proving to signify an alluring learning curve for both Yasuhiro and myself, because this time round the journal manifests itself as a full-length audio anthology, comprising of twenty-six “spoken-word” tracks, and an accompanying album-leaf of translated poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and subtitled artwork. Issue #002 is set to be released this forthcoming November, and will feature original bi-lingual contributions from the likes of Sean M. Whelan, Josephine Rowe, Graham Nunn, A.S. Patric, Eric Yoshiaki Dando, Karen Tei Yamashita, Roland Kelts, Goro Takano, Kenji Siratori, Asami Nishimura, Hirofumi Sugimoto, Mandy Ord and Kuniharu Shimizu.

Because of the intensive process of professional bi-lingual translation and cross-cultural correspondence which Yasuhiro and I undertake in preparing each successive edition of Red Leaves, we suffer from long lead-through periods (all things considered, an issue of the journal generally demands twelve months of editorial toil outside of mine and Yasuhiro’s work/life responsibilities, and none of this effort is paid), which is why we won’t solicit to wrangle creative content for our next print edition, Red Leaves #003, until the end of 2012. In the interim, next year will see me unveiling Night Discourse (, the forthcoming free online interactive interdisciplinary fiction. I won’t disclose too much about Night Discourse just yet, as it’s still very much a pipedream, but whereas the curatorial focus for Red Leaves is in promoting discrete literary forms of creative expression (and, by the very reinforcement of cultural capital which ghettoises particular artforms, because it excludes individuals who don’t engage actively in the proliferation of literature), Night Discourse seeks to cater to all creative practitioners (and most closely shares blood ties with publications such as British Columbia’s Memewar — — insofar that my objective is to facilitate a dialogue between disciplines, rather than pitch to a specific readership). At this point, I can’t confirm the month during 2012 when Night Discourse will be unveiled (probably in the first half of the year), but irrespective of the launch date, the objective is to catch one and all asunder with the editorial scope of the project: it won’t go live for public access until I’m confident that the content developed for the website correlates with the core ethos of the project, which is to problematise — if not collapse — the illegitimate parameters of regulation and unified authorship previously assigned to digital content production. The point, herein, is to emphasise the fact that art is a visual mode of socialisation, and it therefore doesn’t have to exist as an exclusionary preoccupation. Everyone possesses the capacity to shape the way that creative content is expressed, and Night Discourse is an open gate.

Furthermore — after a hiatus in 2011 due to personal obligations involving my part-time work in the Marketing & Communications department of Oxfam (Australia) and full-time post-graduate study, in addition to teaching English and Media (Film & T.V. Studies) for three months of the year — I’ll also be able to finally resume composing my début novel manuscript, Reinventing Coffee, throughout 2012. This is a contemporary fictional bildungsroman concerning a Sydney-flung chartered accountant who communes with the Apocalypse. I set my sights on finishing the draft manuscript for the book next year. In sum: If my partner and I aren’t sharing a Tokyo Christmas with you, David, come December next year, and I’m still manacled to the keyboard in my Melbourne apartment, I’m probably masochistic. All the same, I feel like the forthcoming months will yield for me the best of times.

Who or what has influenced your writing?

Your question is an earnest one, David, and there’s an imperative for a new author in want of cultivating a public profile such as myself to answer it, but it’s also probably the proverbial Rosetta Stone of art journalism, the interrogative MacGuffin, because people like to perceive creative influences as definitive and synchronous diodes that they can refer to when orienting the dark geography of a new artist’s work – it’s easiest and least riskspawned for an individual (such as a reader) to apprehend an unknown quantity (such as a new writer) by way of measuring devices or signposts, and of course this only makes sense because there’s such an unnavigable tumult of creative stimulus striving to locate our attention on a daily basis, that any sort of familiar frequency discerned amidst this white noise is like a beacon to nightblinded bats.

However, I’m also wary of the naff and dangerous limitations of defining an artist by identifying one or two touchstones which have underpinned their work. More than any other year in my life, and without resorting to inciting or aggravating the harassed spectre of Jacques Derrida, I’ve realised in 2011 that there are more creative practitioners, texts, mythologies, philosophies, people, places, lives and emotions I haven’t found the opportunity to engage with directly which cumulatively trump any object or event I have personally experienced in determining the way I write. I think any honest writer – any creative practitioner – would be obligated to confess the same. It’s the world unexplored – in its multimodal swarm of intersections and intertextualities – that shapes, winnows and distorts what a writer produces, it has to be, otherwise there would be no narrative frontier to forge into, there would be no story to embrace or defy that is new and therefore necessary to emerge with.

You have to continuously and ceaselessly allow yourself to be engulfed by the newness of the world to produce a new comment on it. So like anyone, I’m influenced by everything that I love or hate; and so like everyone, I’m forever discovering new pleasures and dispassions. But rather than permit myself to assume the role of the poor guest and thwart the transparency of your question, I’ll proceed to name those foremost individuals who come to mind that might offer readers a false and haphazard coda for my own fiction:

Barry Hannah, César Aira, Charles Portis, Donald Barthelme, Kenneth Patchen, Alfred Jarry, Jack Kerouac, Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.R.R. Tolkien, Kurt Vonnegut, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Ken Kesey, Richard Brautigan, Saul Bellow, Bruno Schultz, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Mervyn Peake, H.P. Lovecraft, Jonathan Franzen, David Mitchell, J.P. Donleavy, DBC Pierre, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Jasper Fforde, China Miéville, Percival Everett, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera, Günter Grass, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem, Joshua Cohen, Steve Erickson, Junot Díaz, Roberto Bolaño, Karen Tei Yamashita, Chris Ware, Sherman Alexie, Etgar Keret, Salvador Plascencia, Mark Z. Danielewski, Patrick Holland, Eric Yoshiaki Dando, Emmett Stinson, Jonathan Swift, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, Harper Lee, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, François Rabelais, William Gaddis, Wilkie Collins, John Brandon, Wells Tower, Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Homi K. Bhabha, Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin, David Attenborough, David Simon, David Milch, Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, Joel and Ethan Coen, P.T. Anderson, Wes Anderson, Martin McDonagh, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick and Terry Gilliam, amongst others.

Do you have a specific writing style?

My fiction is primarily fascinated with words, imagery, characterisation, interior emotion, social or physical disfigurement, heartbreak, the arbitrary parameters of insanity, causal subversion, hyperreality, absurdism, frame-narratives, intertextuality and metatextuality, popular culture, questions of authorship, humour, environmentalism, multiculturalism, the tenets of Modernism, and the ecosystem of human experience. I generally write my supercharged prose in an aleatory mode, in which the story, though meticulous and immersive in its machinery, is not the subject but the object of my method – this is something you’ll find common to all sorts of writers, from Barry Hannah through to César Aira – and pretty much the entirety of the past decade has seen me penning fiction in which I’ve slowly but irrevocably devised an unshakeable aesthetic manifesto, whereby consonantal cadence is king. If a sentence doesn’t smack of an ekphrastic music, of an inevitable assonance, then it shouldn’t be invested with artistic value because it warrants effacing or replacing – every sentence crafted by human hand is a political commitment on behalf of the author to assign a nominal importance to what has been written, over what was not. You best ensure that the words you’ve chosen to prioritise, in a sentence-by-sentence dimension, constitute an equal importance with the content you’ve chosen to express.

During an in-conversation event at the 2009 Melbourne Writers’ Festival, Wells Tower reframed the sentiments of the late Andre Dubus II by claiming that a scribe of fiction will obtain greater satisfaction by writing “vertically” rather than “horizontally”, and I tend to agree – administering one’s utmost attention to the cast and craft of every word, until each perfect phrase accumulates substance to collapse in on itself, forming a singularity at the sentence level which allows the writer to burrow to the heart of what each sentence signifies. Because story resides like a vein in the turbulent quiet of every ellipsis, paragraph, page.

As a scrivener who strives to devise stories which simulate a sort of literary acceleration for my readers, I think my most significant realisation was coming to understand that it’s okay – it’s only respectful to your discipline – to take time to accomplish writing of actual value. Not every short-story a person writes will be invested with mastery, nor even a suite of salvageable one-liners, let alone evidence to suggest that the story’s original concept was worth pursuing. But the more you seek to identify the emotions that undergird your sentences, the easier it is to reveal the narrative that resides beneath the surface. Okay, so theoretically there are probably some problematic quasi-Structuralist implications which result from the thesis that the material for a compelling narrative is waiting to be emancipated from within a static phrase, as if all stories were birthed in egg-form and simply required the mothering of a patient writer to permit it to burst asunder from its confines like Monkey Magic. And yet there’s truth contained in every myth, and I would be neither the first nor the last writer to attest to the fact that so often rhyme presides over reason, text determines matter, a precise phrase will yield a new premise or phase.

It’s called creative research through praxis, and once you take ownership of its possibilities there isn’t a world that words won’t disclose nor a woman they won’t wrangle to unclothe. I composed the entirety of The Signatory this way, using each sentence as a hinge to the next, and the plot constructed itself from the inside out like the set of a Michel Gondry film, prefabricated cardboard walls that emerged to compile a kingdom, or something akin to the minor note of a major chord, a seemingly displaced keynote culminating in a performance of awesome sonic power. I’m writing the manuscript for Reinventing Coffee this way, and the great benefit of this approach has been in discovering new directions for the novel which I couldn’t have determined in advance, because the impetus for each new event derives from the very pedestal of the sentence. I remember reading that Haruki Murakami was loath to spend two years of his life grappling with a new book, if he knew what was going to eventuate from the outset. I understand this sentiment, but I’m quick to ally myself to its opposing axis: I can know with a voracious favour what I’m writing when I start out and who the central characters are that populate my book, but the very act of subordinating plot to language necessitates that from the beginning my story will morph to justify itself at the sentence level. It becomes my responsibility to ensure that this transformative process remains unimpeded throughout the entirety of the manuscript. It’s like being front-row when the metamorphosis results in some beguiling monster. A writer can be no more generous than by regularly surprising themselves on a daily basis. If he can achieve this much, he’s already charmed one reader on his side.

What genre are you most comfortable writing?

On occasions, I’m obliged to confess to behaving like a human moth when confronted with a new concept or an unimprisoned vision, and this particular question is invested too sweetly with the promise of fire to disregard. So I’m sufficiently bewitched to pilot myself right at it: Genre is less a matter of categorisation or stratification of story, than it is a language of narrative that invites individuals with sensitive tongues to try their best at being understood. Though a writer may not be natively fluent in a specific genre does not discredit his capacity to parrot the patois in a convincing fashion. I see “genre” as the cultural arbitrator for what content or aesthetic should be manifest in a work of fiction – a false guideline, reminiscent of a mother threatening to sabotage a child’s estimation in the eyes of Father Christmas if the kid were to continue to misbehave. The act of betraying convention or common expectation is immediately linked to an imagined sanction, one whereby the writer fears being discredited as a valuable contributor to culture because he has defied the standards of easy categorisation.

This is why I see “genre” as the equivalent of a literary bogeyman, because as a writer you’re compelled to simultaneously recognise its existence whilst disregarding its imagined power. I’m convinced that any worthy artist can explode the internal circuitry of a specific genre to reveal its artificiality, but the best writers can also demonstrate how such exclusively-automated narrative apparatus can be reconfigured to create something that doesn’t yet bear a name. As a statement of intent, this is what I strive to accomplish with my own fiction; it doesn’t always work, of course, and I’m not so transfixed by my own rectum to contend otherwise, but I feel that Carnivalesque, And: Other Stories and The Signatory are testament to my attempts to challenge the readymade parameters of an established “genre”, in order to produce a text which is stylistically or thematically recognisable but at a remove from any one favoured model of narrative. My favourite writers – Barry Hannah, César Aira, Charles Portis, China Miéville, ad infinitum – do this all the time.

I cannot write if not to defamiliarise the everyday, and strive to make new again narrative forms that were once adventurous and which have since fallen into a cycle of manufacture. Obviously, it’s always sensible to have a snappy philosophy up your sleeve or an incontrovertible saint-of-letters you can quote if forced to interact with detractors, and Brecht’s notion of verfremdung is therefore probably the most impressive principle or platitude to invoke to explain my motivation to write. “Take a common recurrent universally-practiced operation and try to draw attention to it by illuminating its peculiarity”. Reality is so ungovernably strange and life is so invested by particularity that it just smacks of a lack of consciousness to convey an experience of the world as though it could assume a uniform meaning. This is why the argument for “genre” is, at heart, a fallacy: if any incentive exists for a story to reflect or engage with human experience in any capacity, it must deviate from the rule. Not only is no individual experience identical; all strange experiences are relative. To produce fiction which attempts to deemphasise the value of this insight by hewing to an explicit formula is a sure way to exhaust your commitment to literature by repeating yourself. An opinionated friend of mine is convinced that any writer who continuously moves between genres, attempting to own/disown each one, is also an artistic egotist. That may well be the case, but I nevertheless can’t see myself writing novellas about freakshow gypsy carnivals and studies of Scottish cryptozoology too far into the future.

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