The Alligators of Abraham
(Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016)
I met Robert Kloss when I published his story about Sarah Palin in a magazine I used to edit, and discovered he was from Wisconsin. We bonded over being Midwesterners uprooted, and began working together on projects once we both discovered a sort of symbiosis in our writing. There are loads of talented writers publishing work today—but probably only a handful with prose so distinctive, I’d recognize it anywhere. Robert Kloss is one of that handful. His prose style is unmatched and utterly original, living somewhere between the Old Testament and Herman Melville, with a good measure of Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner thrown in. If that sounds unusual, then you’ve never read Kloss’s work before, and you’re in for a rare treat—his book The Alligators of Abraham, a cult classic, was rereleased by Civil Coping Mechanisms this winter. I jumped at the chance to chat with him about the book, about the craft, about the president (then president-elect), about the publishing industry, and—of course—about the alligators.
Amber Sparks (Rail): The Alligators of Abraham first came out four years ago. A lot has changed in four years, and you’re a pretty prolific writer, so you’ve got a whole new body of work since that time. Did you and the editors make any or substantial changes to the text? Or is it more or less intact—and if so, how did you resist the urge to tinker?
Robert Kloss: Well, I’m getting less and less prolific. I was just thinking how I’ve been working on the second draft of my new manuscript for seven months, which is actually longer than it took me to complete The Alligators of Abraham. Anyway, no, I didn’t even touch Alligators. I didn’t even open the document, which is probably I kept from touching it. I knew that once I started tweaking—even just cleaning up the punctuation or straightening some of the phrasing—I would rewrite much of the book. There are clearly areas of The Alligators of Abraham that are not as strong as I’d like, but whatever qualities the book has were put there by a writer that doesn’t really exist anymore. I would rather just write new books and try to improve upon my failures that way.
Rail: I like that: the idea that the writer of The Alligators of Abraham is gone, and that in fact the writer of each subsequent book is gone, a writer-snake shedding each book.
Allow me to swerve away from that discussion point entirely, though, because I want to ask: this is a dark, bloody, apocalyptic story. It’s also probably the closest thing to truth I’ve read about the Civil War, if you’re thinking not about troop movements but about the original sin of the American settler. So much of our history is built on blood, and yet we build these shining monuments to our own moral greatness right on top of the bodies. And now it looks like we’re going to do it all again, with President Trump. Do you feel like the book has a renewed sense of purpose, or importance, in these dark times? And do you have any hope that we’ll learn the lessons of history this time around?
Kloss: President Trump. It’s funny, because the day or two after the election I started writing poems about Trump. And I thought, “I’m writing a sequel to The Alligators of Abraham.” I wrote ten poems in two or three days about Trump and then I completely lost interest. And I think I lost interest because the subject is just too obvious. And I also think Trump is incredibly boring. He’s about as interesting and meaningful as a series of commercials about shopping mall jewelry stores. I know the media has been breathless in its fascination of Trump since the moment he announced his candidacy, but that just illustrates how empty and hollow the media has become. I think he’s one of the least interesting things ever to happen to this country and electing him was the most obvious thing we could do. He’s the most American thing about America and we’re all just so disgusted and ashamed and horrified to realize it. But he’s the natural endpoint. And I don’t necessarily mean Trump, but someone like Trump. Trump, as a person, is less than nothing, and there’s no historical necessity to Trump the person. There’s nothing there except every shameful, ignorant, hollow, gaudy, classless aspect of our national identity congealed into one person. You know, I wrote three novels at least partly about this country, and I’ve always been fascinated by American history, but I’ve lost all interest now that I see what it adds up to. I’ve lost all interest in America as a subject. I’ll write about other things for now on. I don’t know if that directly answers your question but there’s probably an answer somewhere in there.
Rail: Yes! Oh god, so I think you’ve hit upon exactly why I’m feeling utterly paralyzed as a writer right now. It’s the most boring thing in the whole world, this obviousness we inflict upon ourselves. I’m sure someone out there could do a great parody but even then I’m not sure I’d really be interested because it’s like comedy about Trump—so obvious it’s unfunny. He is the joke, so any other is unnecessary. But I do think Alligators and maybe Blake Butler’s latest book are the most interesting recent stories about America because they take the violence and the banality both and turn them up to eleven. It’s why I’m glad the book is coming out again now.
What will you write about now? Can you say? Prehistory? Ancient China? Space? (Please say yes.)
Kloss: Yeah, there’s no mystery with Trump. The satiric portrayals of him that I’ve seen are mostly watered down impressions. They reveal no deeper essence, because there is none. I think political writing—poetry, fiction, whatever—often fails because it has a thesis, the author knows what they want to say. It’s very obvious and timely and we can all nod or shake our heads, agree or disagree. There’s nothing particularly interesting about it. I suppose that’s a fairly unpopular thing to say now, since everybody seems to want clearly articulated political statements in their art. For me, when political writing works, it works because the author taps into something remote and mysterious and lasting. A thousand years from now, a reader totally removed from our political context will find it meaningful. I doubt very much that Blake Butler set out to write “a novel about America” when he started 300,000,000. The stuff with Blake’s writing that is most brilliant for me is the stuff that is beyond articulation. It depicts the thing, it doesn’t tell us a story about it, if that makes sense. If Alligators succeeds at all it isn’t because of the politics, which aren’t terribly interesting—it’s because of the alligators. It’s because of the aspects of the book that were mysterious even to me.
I’ll always say that Alligators is only incidentally about the Civil War. The Revelator is not really about Joseph Smith or the Mormon church. I have no idea what they are about. What people say they are about are just aspects, surface aspects. I’m in the middle of one project now, and I’ll be probably work on it for another year or so. After that, I can’t say. The other day I thought about a story I wrote eight or so years ago, about this Nazis’ mission to find Atlantis, and I think that could make an interesting novel. I’ve always wanted to write something about the 1918 pandemic. But for me a project takes shape very slowly. I write and I write and I write, for a year or two now, and then something slowly emerges—a person or a tone or an image or whatever. If I try to write about the 1918 Influenza pandemic I’ll just lose interest.
Rail: So, you and I have talked about this a lot: we neither of us can just pick something to write about and go, because the subject emerges organically from the writing. So the subject chosen is really the influence, or one of many influences. I think this is why I dread someone asking me what my book is “about.” I feel sure that as soon as I give it a name, it’s no longer true at all. And of course then I went and asked you that same question. But I am curious—when you say that those are just surface aspects, the Civil War, or the Mormon Church, I know this is true for you and I’d love for you to talk about that a little more. I guess what I mean is that those are BIG subjects, the Civil War, Mormonism—it’s not like you said, “oh, my novels are influenced by poker tournaments, or 1950s circus performers,” or something like that. There are people that write nothing BUT books about the Civil War their whole lives and never feel like they’ve said enough. Now, I think this sort of—I wouldn’t say irreverence but maybe refusal to weight certain subjects over others—I think it works for you, and is why your books are, frankly, completely different from anything else being written today. But do wonder if you ever for a moment felt nervous about that—about writing a book about Mormons or Abraham Lincoln that is not really a book about these things at all. Do you get frustrated, then, when people take you at face value, as a guy trying to write the story of Joseph Smith?
Kloss: I wouldn’t say I ever felt nervous. I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but when the work is going well, I tend to just go for it and I don’t really worry about anything—and that goes for any aspect of the book. There are moments of anxiety like, “am I going to humiliate myself with this?” but I think those are important moments, because they tell me the writing is coming from an honest place, a personal place, and there is something about the book that isn’t safe. So I don’t think there’s any courage so much as just going with what feels right and honest and personal. It helps that I don’t have any kind of readership to worry about. I don’t really have anything to gain or lose by them other than my self-respect.
I probably have gotten frustrated at times when the books were marketed in that way, if only because I don’t think the books succeed as books about Lincoln or Joseph Smith. But I don’t know anything about marketing, so I try to not worry about that aspect either. And really, once a book is out in the world, the author loses all claim to meaning. There’s no sense in worrying about how these things are received. As I’ve gotten older I’ve mostly learned to not care about any sort of reaction beyond that the book will occasionally be read and some will like it and some will not.
Rail: In some ways (not to keep talking about Trump) I feel like the election of Trump makes it easier, though, I no longer worry about posterity because there probably won’t be any posterity, right?
So switching gears again: I was reading Anne Carson on Greek myth and monsters right around the same time I was rereading TAOA. And she writes—I’m paraphrasing here of course—of Greek monsters and monstrous women as mostly female grotesques, women who have blurred or un-firm boundaries, who do not contain themselves in appropriate ways and thus spill over into something larger than life and terrifying. And I started thinking about Mary Todd Lincoln in your book, and how perfectly this seems to describe her. In her grief she refuses to be contained—not in some modern feminist way—but in this very Greek, grotesque, tragic sort of way. I could almost picture her going “AI AI AI, IO IO,” and tearing at her robes. She’s such an interesting and complicated figure in the book—and I starting thinking about other women in your stories and how so many of them sort of occupy a similar space. They refuse to be contained. They’re often almost primal in their disregard for something society values. This is one of those annoying questions where the interviewer drones on and on while you nod and smile but what I’m really curious about is how you write women, and if you consciously write them in a different way than men, and do you think of your writing as feminist or offering a new space to women beyond what male writers have typically offered? Do you agree with Carson about the grotesque—not as villain, but as person spilling over?
Kloss: That’s funny, about Trump. You know, I don’t worry about posterity at this point because I see little point in the worry. Not because I don’t believe there will be a posterity (who knows, maybe, maybe not), but because I think posterity is a small consolation for mortality and meaninglessness. Melville’s dust does not care that Moby Dick will exist until the species gives out. It’s absurd that his greatness has made money for so many people who had nothing to do with his work, while in his lifetime he was forced to self-publish. What does posterity do for him? Posterity is a racket. It only benefits publishers who make money reissuing proven classics with little risk and no responsibility to a dead author. Francis Bacon said something in an interview like we do these things, we create, to give our lives meaning, since there is no meaning otherwise. And the interviewer asked, “What’s the point?” to which Bacon responded, “No point.” And I think that sums up my feelings on the purpose of the creative act.
Anyway, that’s an interesting idea—the Carson. Where did she state that? I’d love to read the original context. I probably agree. There’s something incredibly true and real about grotesques. Maybe this is because I grew up in Wisconsin, in small towns, where everybody is supposed to be polite and normal and do completely normal things and have normal interests, but I’m fascinated by the ways people respond to the limitations imposed by society. I was probably less conscious of this idea when I wrote Alligators, but there are clearly sections where characters wear masks, play to expectations, and eventually the mask slips and they are doomed. So, I do think there’s something primal about their response to their restrictions. The more civilized we become the more willing we are to give our freedom up to the comforts and rules of society. We play by the rules. We do things and say things because that is the way they are done. Honestly, I don’t even trust people who aren’t just the slightest bit awkward. People who are completely at ease socially don’t even seem real to me—they just seem like constructions. Absolutely dull. And I’m not one of those people who forgives historical figures for being “a product of their times.” I want to admire people who saw beyond their times, who were too real and alive for their times. I suppose that’s why most of my favorite artists either committed suicide or died forgotten.
Rail: One of my favorite quotes is from Kurt Vonnegut, who says more or less the same. He says, “I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around, and don’t ever let anyone tell you different.” We create meaning, but it’s meaningless, and yet, that has meaning. I agree about dust. Dust is dust, and cannot think, and where once I wanted to be immortal, I find that pretty comforting now. Who wants to find themselves forgotten over and over again, forever, until the sun explodes?
Carson was writing about it in one of her chapbooks in that new Float book/thing/whatever. It’s a mixed bag—some of the chaps are brilliant, some are nothing much. But I really liked that one. And now I’m thinking about the grotesque, and Wisconsin, and that book Wisconsin Death Trip that you keep telling me to read. The smaller the town, the tighter the restrictions, the more masks, the more grotesque the real players are, I think. I really love that: “I want to admire people who saw beyond their times.” I feel the same way. I find very few political figures worth admiring because they had to be products of their times—that’s the nature of politics. But of course, the artists who survive, they mostly weren’t. They were far, far ahead. And now they’re dust, and dust doesn’t care.
I want to talk more about masks in Alligators. Where do you see that happening, with which characters? Do you feel that Lincoln was a man ahead of his times?
Kloss: Yes, Wisconsin Death Trip gets to the heart of Wisconsin. Most of the photographs are of what were considered perfectly normal people engaged in normal behavior. But time reveals strangeness, doesn’t it? Even the photographs of posed dead children were considered normal at the time, although in hindsight that fascination is where the surface reality and the deeper truth did overlap.
I’m not a Lincoln scholar and it’s been a while since I read any biographies of Lincoln. I’ve never read a biography that didn’t compliment his exceptional nature. He was brilliant and wise and obviously incredibly ambitious, and capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people, and he was certainly eccentric in other ways: his ill-fitting clothes, his folksiness. But as interesting as I find him I do think he was imprisoned by his times. He was very much a politician in how he talked about issues, about how he approached race and slavery. Really, the people who have lived in the White House who are most interesting to me are often the wives of presidents—Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama. Mary Todd in her grief is fascinating, and she was less so before grief broke her open. So often we see that—these characters like F.D.R. or Bobby Kennedy who grow up wealthy and privileged, and not particularly interesting before suffering some illness or loss that allows their perceptions to crack open. Who knows what Lincoln would have gone on to do. I don’t think he ever fully revealed himself. That’s part of what makes him interesting. Alligators is filled with characters cracked open by grief or loss or confused by it. I don’t think any of them are particularly exceptional people otherwise.
The most obvious example of a mask is the woman who pretends to love the main character to manipulate him early in the third section. I wish I had done more of that in The Revelator. My failure to do so is a limitation of that book. Partly that’s because I originally meant to write two other volumes, one focusing on the story from the wife of Joseph’s perspective. A lot of her story was left out because I had reserved it for this other book. To answer your earlier question, I don’t know if I consciously write about men and women differently. I tend to write about characters who recoil against the expectations of society, or people who naturally conform to society, and people who pretend to conform to expectations, but privately rebel. I think much of character is formed by the society we belong to and our position within that society, so I focus a lot on where characters fall within those dynamics.
Rail: Speaking of what we write about often: why alligators? Do you see them as a symbol, a metaphor, or just a particularly Klossian element in the book?
Kloss: I’m not sure why alligators other than I find them compelling. I really don’t believe in symbols or metaphors—in my belief, reading for them reduces the power of a work of art. If a reader wants to interpret the alligators in some way that’s their right, but I think it kills a book to do so.
Rail: The alligators are the best mystery—and obsessions are the best mystery, too. I always think about Richard Hugo, talking about the difference between the public poet and the private poet. “If you are a private poet,” he says:
“then your vocabulary is limited by your obsessions. It doesn’t bother me that the word ‘stone’ appears more than thirty times in my book, or that ‘wind’ and ‘gray’ appear over and over again in my poems to the disdain of some reviewers. If I didn’t use them that often I’d be lying about my feelings, and I consider that unforgivable. In fact, most poets write the same poem over and over.”
What do you think about that last statement? Do you write the same book over and over? I think I probably do, though I’m not sure how politic it is to admit that. I’m always fascinated by the kinds of writers who can write ten books and each is completely different than the last. But I don’t think that any of my favorite writers are that way.
Kloss: Yes and no. This goes to the idea that I’ve read associated with different artists and musicians that we can’t measure up to the dead masters or everything has already been done so now our only option is to go deeper into ourselves, mine our obsessions and our influences, and develop a particular sensibility. I don’t want to offend anyone here, but I do tend to think that the most serious artists are the ones that carry a particular sensibility and a set of obsessions from work to work. The other ones are just picking and choosing styles and structures to tell a particular story and that to me is a different way of saying “craftsperson.” It’s art by utility, what fits here best, and I don’t think that way. I don’t respond well to it.
I’ve just been rereading Thomas Bernhard’s The Lime Works, and he’s an obvious example of a writer who on a certain level wrote the same type of novel over and over and yet I think there’s something valuable and new within each work. I haven’t studied his stuff as closely as I would like, but with most of these artists who “do one thing over and over,” you can see a clear development from one work to the next and eventually they arrive at something that is rather different from what they started at, while still recognizably their own. Melville was always Melville, but his writing developed immensely in the ten years from Typee to The Confidence Man, even if the progression seemed like repetition from work to work. The same with Lynch: you can see how Blue Velvet becomes Twin Peaks rather clearly and how Twin Peaks builds into Fire Walk With Me, and how Lost Highway is a logical progression, and so on. And in some ways because Lynch has his fascinations and a particular sensibility, it does seem like he’s making the same movie over and over again, and yet Blue Velvet and Inland Empire are hardly the same movie. He’d grown immensely as an artist in those twenty years. An artist should seek every day to learn and grow and progress.
My two published novels, The Alligators of Abraham and The Revelator, do share many similarities—similar tone, similar style, similar themes, etc. They are both mutations of big American events, and they are both written in the second person. But within those similarities I do think there are clear developments and I think those developments will be clearer in time. I do think a lot about how Melville progressed into The Confidence Man, and I think the greatest writers do progress in a similar way. Woolf with The Waves is another example. Lispector and Água Viva. Markson and his final three works. Plath and Ariel. There is a logical conclusion these artists reached. Their obsessions culminated in these works that almost defy description. Now, maybe Plath would have continued to push into something still newer and stranger, but she didn’t, so I read it as a conclusion rather than a transition.
So those are the writers I want to…not emulate—but I do use their developments as models. I wrote my published novels in less than two years, and they were my first two novels, so the growth isn’t quite so obvious, but even in my use of the second person there are fairly large departures and developments. And I wrote those novels five, six years ago already, so the novel that I’m writing now is possessed by different obsessions, and my style and sense of purpose has grown, even if the book is set in what seems like the 19th century and the second person is frequently used and all the other obvious hallmarks of my “style.” People can learn a lot about an artist by looking at these progressions closely, but too often people settle for superficial similarities. They see the word “you” and they think, “oh he’s just rehashing his old stuff.” But I don’t think it’s rehashing at all. There is so much to continue learning about the second person or a falsely recognizable 19th century. They still appeal to me and the moment they do not appeal to me, or the moment I feel like I’ve covered that ground the best I can, then I will stop.
Rail: As you know, I’m a little obsessed with Bernhard for exactly that reason. I don’t think Hugo was talking about stagnation, but rather about something deeper and truer: an acknowledgment that the private writer, the writer who writes for themselves, who has something they’re trying to get at—or around, or through—and it’s more like rolling a rock uphill than performing backflips to do that.
At the risk of inflating your ego (though, you’re a Midwesterner, so, not much danger of that, I suspect), I see a lot of similarity between your trajectory and Melville’s in the development of your writing and your growth. And I’ve read your latest finished work and I think it’s maybe your Confidence Man, in a way. I know you’ve been wrestling a lot with issues of publishing and platform, and have been thinking of self-publishing. Do you think you might self-publish? Have your opinions changed on the stigma behind that?
Kloss: Well, I didn’t mean to imply stagnation. I understand there are some concerns that you can continue wrestling with for a lifetime. But some of them drop away. You arrive at the answers you wanted. Alligators and Revelator are both concerned with fathers and sons and mothers and sons. And in each of my four novels the main character is orphaned, in one way or another, but I think I’ve sorted out or lost interest in those concerns at this point. It was an intense focus in the first two books, and now it is not.
I’ve probably told you about this before, but last year I attended a talk given by Ben Marcus. And during this talk he addressed the evolution of his own work. He suggested that content—the events and themes of a story—are the permanent aspects of your identity, but “style is a mask” that you can remove and replace with another. A new style allows you to approach your old themes with fresh legs, in a way. I don’t think any of it is a mask. A mask suggests something imposed, intentional, and I can’t work that way. But I would like to work toward more of a pure form, a pure style, a writing based on rhythm and image and sound, and away from plot and character and theme. I don’t know how to do it yet, and maybe it would never work. To this point I’ve always been forced to return to books about people doing things, but the ideal would be something closer to stillness.
So for that reason (and many others of course such as my total lack of genius) I have to reject the comparison to The Confidence Man. Melville pushed the novel form and his style as far as they could go with what he wanted out of them. Confidence Man is such an achievement, but critics and biographers tend to see the financial failure of the book as the end of his career. He retired and took up poetry as a hobby is the more or less official story. I disagree; I think he had to move into poetry after Confidence Man. And I’m not to the point yet where I have to move into different genres, although I do want to teach myself how to write essays, criticism, and I want to teach myself how to write poetry, and all these other forms that I find more interesting than prose fiction. Maybe this novel will be the final novel. Who knows.
I do agree that I find myself at something of the career crossroads of Melville post-Confidence Man. I’m the age he was at the time that book was published, and I’ve learned to admit that my work is not wanted by “the industry.” The books don’t sell to a wide audience, and publishers either don’t think they will sell or they don’t know how to sell them, and so to stay in that relationship I would have to change in a way that I find appalling. And if I did change I would probably waste my time trying to write something that wouldn’t come out very well anyway. So there are a few publishers out there that I absolutely admire, and I’d love to work with them. Publishers like Coffee House and New Directions, just to name two, consistently publish interesting, challenging, beautiful work. But I don’t think that’s my route. Had what I call my “writing career” gone differently, had this book or that really taken off, then I would be in a different place.
This isn’t about not being able to find a publisher—I could find a publisher. But I want an ideal publisher, and for what I have in mind, that’s a very limited row, especially without an agent or connections. And I suppose without genius as well. So Cannibals is still under consideration with one of those publishers I would love to work with. And if they decide against the book or if I don’t hear back from them soon then I will just self-publish the book. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, and there is something about going back to the purer interests of childhood that appeals to me. I’ve had editors and agents tell me that my work isn’t for a large audience, it is “more of the same,” and I need to think about what I want out of writing (implying that I need to fall into line), and to fall in line, to write to be published, to interest an agent, to interest an editor, to receive a large advance, to go on tour, to give interviews and dress up and attend parties and awards ceremonies, and all this other stuff, is not why I began writing. After a certain point you start to trick yourself that those other things are important, but they are not. They are the opposite of important, and they stand in the way of creativity and innovation and authenticity. A little voice whispers to you while you work, don’t go there, don’t try that, do this instead, because you become conditioned to writing in a way that will appeal to these other people, these industry people.
So, yes, there is something very appealing to me about self-publishing. I’m not sure yet how I would do it. Some days I think about just having a hundred books printed up and bound together like manifestos and more or less give them away. And some days I think about making a very beautiful book, a gorgeous object. My wife, as you know, works in publishing, and I am blessed to know many people who could help me learn how to make such a book. And part of me does relish the idea of becoming proficient at design and copy-editing and these aspects of creating a book that I’m currently ignorant of.
My main—this is all becoming a long answer, but I’ve thought about this so much of the years—my main impulse is to achieve a freedom—an artistic freedom—and control that I’m not certain is possible unless I do self-publish. I’m ready to tell the gatekeepers that they are meaningless to me. Their values are largely not my values. And I think we are better off, serious writers are better off, in large numbers just doing our own thing. The book industry in this country—the publishers, the awards committees, the trade publications, the bookstores, the writers, and what we call “book readers”—is in large part hostile to what I want to achieve with my work. So I’m not sure why I would spend months, years, of my life trying to fit into that company. So that I might make enough money to write full time? That will never happen. There’s nothing more I would want, but I let go of that one a while back. And just trying to make that happen is so uncomfortable, so limiting, that it kills the creative act. You start to think you haven’t sold your soul and then one day you realize you’ve written a book that you would be ashamed to show the artists that you admire. You mention the “stigma.” I suppose that’s the other reason to go through that horror—I’ve been in rooms when one writer will ask another writer, “Who’s your publisher?” and when the answer is a big publisher, suddenly everyone looks at that writer differently. People treat you differently as a writer when your book is reviewed in big publications, when your book is in all the stores. Or so I assume.
None of that matters to me anymore. I could care less. I’ve been trying to do this for so long, with such minimal outside interest, and I’m still doing it. I write for myself in the end. I write because it intoxicates me. I seek out art and experiences that intoxicate me, that make me happy to be alive and a writer and that make me want to create. When I am not inspired I don’t feel as alive as I do when I am inspired. There is nothing that makes me more happy to be alive than when I am chasing some impossible goal, and I feel like I might almost make it this time. That’s why I write. I could care less if there is a stigma or not—I know what I’ve written. That small audience of mine, that very small audience, they know what kind of writer I am. And I know this book—The Woman Who Lived Amongst the Cannibals—has value, real value. I don’t need some editor to tell me that to make it true. I don’t need reviewers to make me feel it. And if I have to self-publish Cannibals, then I will never submit another book to a publisher. I will write entirely for self-publication, without regret or hesitation. That’s a very freeing thought, actually.