RH: How long have you been writing fiction?
MK: Since about 1989. I was out of college, living in Japan and teaching
English. After six months, my brother came over and was writing. He was a
copy writer and decided he wanted to write a novel. I'd leave in the morning to
go to work, then come home at the end of the day and he'd be sitting in the
same place, still typing. And I thought, "What the fuck is he doing?" Then I
came home and got a job at a doctor's magazine. Pretty soon after that, I started
RH: Did you start with short stories?
MK: I started with a novel, a terrible novel with dinosaurs and a nun
who surfed across fields of wheat...and then after that I wrote a story about a
kid in high school who finds out that his French teacher isn't really French,
that she went to school there fifteen years before.
RH: So which of the stories in Sam the Cat came first?
MK: "Sam the Cat" was my first story. They appear chronologically in
the collection. Well, actually, there's one story in the middle that I'd written
before all the others, but I had shelved it for four years because I didn't want
to show it to anybody.
RH: Most of your stories have a very distinct voice. How long did
it take you to find that voice?
MK: It took about a year and a half, maybe two years. I was just trying
different things. Now I'm sort of afraid to leave it. The last piece in the
collection is in the third person, and it was a great relief to me to write
publishable fiction in the third person. It makes me feel that I can do more
things I think that if you want to write a good novel, though, you have to be
able to do a lot of things well. You could write a great novel just by being a
virtuoso of the first person voice, but right now I want more skills.
RH: How much revision do you do?
MK: It depends. For a long time I thought that if you had to revise, it
meant you'd fucked it up. "Sam the Cat," the first story I'd written, and "The
Royal Palms" both came out pretty much done, and I got trapped into thinking
that if a story didn't come out like that, it was bad. Then I realized that
everybody revises, and you can make things better, and that it's not a sin not
to write it perfect the first time around.
RH: Your protagonists are in many different situations, but
they circle around some of the same dilemmas concerning love and
relationships, like how you decide to spend the rest of your life
with another person, and how you get through that.
MK: There's a line in the last story, "We're on the grownup train now.
We don't get off until the graveyard." And you can't help but feel that way
sometimes. It's hard not to. Are you cut out for monogamy? Are you cut out for
the long term? Is this the person you've dreamed of having a relationship
I know some people who just want to get married so they can have a family.
Other people don't want a single bit of sadness or down time or ugliness--
anything scrappy in their personal lives. But you can't avoid that.
RH: And when your characters hit those rough spots, at least at
first, they have no idea how to cope with them.
MK: A lot of the early stories are about salvaging what you have left of
your relationship at the end of the day. I think as I became more sophisticated
as a writer, though, I found other ways to get through those moments, other
choices to avoid the dead ends. I think I'm learning more about appreciating
the positive aspects of being in love now.
RH: By the time you get to "Issues I Dealt With in Therapy," the
protagonist seems to be a lot more capable of getting through the
turbulence and hanging on to his relationship.
MK: Keep in mind that, in these stories, we're talking about people who
aren't even 30 years old yet. When you're 29 and at a certain type of job, you
can feel like it's the rest of your life and you end up talking like an old man.
But most people now have seven or eight careers in their lives. The
protagonist of "Issues..." is probably about to hit one of those transitions. If he
isn't he's a fucking idiot.
I've lived in Washington, D.C. for seven years. And you see a lot of people like
him--people who were class presidents, and really meant well when they got
here. Then they realized that this city isn't about good will, it's about power.
I'm not part of that world, but I can see the falseness and stupidity--it's exactly
what they didn't want to do when they started out. But that can happen in New
York, too. Or the film industry in LA.
RH: How did it feel to be named one of the most promising
writers in the country by the New Yorker in 1999?
MK: I was psyched. The day before I got married, Bill Buford told me that
he needed to have a copy of "Issues..." right away. I knew it was for the
summer fiction issue, but I didn't know there was going to be a theme. So I
emailed him the story, got married, went to Miami for three days, and then I'm
checking my messages on my answering machine, and I find out they want me
to fly up to New York for a photo shoot the next day. So it wasn't until I got to
New York that I found out about the whole "20 Under 40" thing.
RH: I was guessing your reaction would either be "psyched" or
"pressured." You know, "What do I do to live up to
MK: But that's the kind of pressure you want to have, instead of the
"nobody cares about me so I'm going to have to make a really loud noise"
pressure. You finish a book, and it's like hitting a home run. Even if it's a
shitty book, it's done. The bases are cleared, everybody goes out to take a piss,
and now you have to figure something else out.
RH: You're working on a new novel now. How have you
prepared for that?
MK: I remember hearing a story about Jim Carrey. He was asked, very
early in his career, what he'd do if comedy didn't work out for him, and he
said, "I've made it structurally impossible for me to do anything else." He'd
burned all his other bridges, wrecked all his other opportunities. So that's
what I'm doing with my novel. I'm not starting any short stories, I'm not
nurturing stray ideas I get for short stories, not giving them any chance to
grow or incubate. I'm focused solely on this novel. Maybe I'll make a jackass
out of myself, but this is where I have to go.
RH: There's a line from a David Mamet essay that's always meant
a lot to me: "Those with something to fall back on invariably fall
back on it."
MK: I have a cousin who's 25, and he doesn't know what he wants to do. I
don't want to tell him this, but the truth is it doesn't matter. You just have to
decide and then do it. The risk is part of what makes you better.