Copyright Brian Kiteley
Brian Kiteley’s Answers to Pedro Ponce’s Questions about Still Life with Insects
Pedro Ponce teaches at St. Lawrence University and he put these questions to me recently, after teaching Still Life with Insects.
Pedro Ponce: What was the genesis of Still Life with Insects? Did you know that you wanted to write a narrative and then later came up with the connective device of insect entries? Or, did you start with insect entries that then became a larger story?
Brian Kiteley: I visited my grandparents in Montreal on a very roundabout way from Seattle to New York in 1982. I was going to graduate school at City College in New York. I’d been out of college for four years, and I felt some distance from childhood, but I also had great affection for these grandparents. I always slept in the furnished basement of their house, which was also my grandfather’s entomology lab. The bed I had was right next to his table, where he mounted the beetles and wrote the nearly microscopic notes to put on the pins underneath the beetles he mounted. I couldn’t sleep, and I picked up a little notebook that had entries numbered from 1 to 842—all describing locations, dates, and a few other important details of each batch of beetles he’d collected—dating back to 1945. I wrote down four of these laconic entries in my own journal, and then I lived my life oblivious of this discovery. Eight months later, casting around for an idea for a story in Donald Barthelme’s fiction workshop, I saw these entries, and I used them as triggers for very brief stories. They were spaced between 1945 and 1982. I wanted to write a very short story that took place over a very long time. This “story” was three pages long. The method of the novel arrived at the moment of its inspiration. These four narratives, somewhat rewritten, are still in the novel. The book was also the result of a study of my family over several years that had left me dissatisfied. I’d been writing about myself, my brother, and my sister. Then I tried to write about my father, who is a philosopher, but I realized I’d have to learn something about philosophy myself if I wanted to write about him (and I couldn’t face that then). It seemed a natural progression to write about my father’s father, so I did.
Pedro Ponce: A related question: How did you come up with the headings for each section? Did you fill these in after completing the sequence of episodes? Or did you add them in as you wrote?
Brian Kiteley: I used a few more of my grandfather’s locality notes, but I made up the rest of them. In the beginning, I wrote the locality notes first, as inspiration. But later, I wrote the story first and the locality note to suit it. I don’t like those locality notes as well. The cartoonist scene and the one I called (to myself) the dancing executives scene had locality notes added after the stories were pretty much done. The scene that takes place mostly in the attic of my childhood home, with my brother playing pool with some friends, has no real locality note, and I still think of that section of the book as somehow cheating, though I like its flow and detail.
Pedro Ponce: The narrator of Still Life occupies a complicated narrative situation. It is unclear whether the episodes are diary entries that are composed as Elwyn experiences what he’s writing about—or whether all of these episodes are being narrated retrospectively by Elwyn after all the narrated events have transpired. Did you intend for this ambiguity? Or, if not, how did you intend the narrative situation to work?
Brian Kiteley: I did not intend the scenes Elwyn narrates to be thought of as diary entries. I imagined them to be interior narratives happening concurrent with the events he experienced out in the field. I liked the way his life was lived around the edges of these narrations, usually off stage. When I presented the novel to a group of writers I met over the years after my graduate workshops, a common complaint was that the voice did not change an awful lot over the years. I wanted a consistency of voice, as well as a development of family detail. I did not mind the unchanging tone of the narrative, because I felt that Elwyn had reached a kind of bliss at the beginning of the novel, and all change in his outlook would have to be gradual and gently entropic, thereafter.
Pedro Ponce: One of the scenes we talked about in class was Whit’s suicide (33). There is an unsettling parallel between the description of the suicide and the way Elwyn collects his “specimens.” To what extent do you see amateur entomology as a metaphor for writing fiction (or any kind of writing)?
Brian Kiteley: I’ve never thought of that parallel, but I like it. I was concerned, writing the book, to present a man’s gradual movement toward mental health in the second half of his life (despite his bliss at the beginning, he still had a good deal of recovering to do). I was also interested, simply, in presenting a man I loved—in showing how and why this man was loveable. I certainly thought of him as a creative artist of sorts, and the scene with the Warner Brothers cartoonist was my effort to explain to myself the way the processes worked in tandem—the cartoonist’s art and Elwyn’s art. The fact that Whit hangs himself in a basement, which was the locus of most of my grandfather’s painstaking work as an entomologist—well, that does seem to indicate I was partly aware of this notion. Whit is pinned, in a sense; his life is completed in his basement.
Pedro Ponce: A bonus question that I was wondering about after today’s class—how much research did you do on insects to put the book together? How did you decide that you had done enough research and were ready to start writing?
Brian Kiteley: I started the book before I did any research. I knew a fair amount about beetles, because I grew up with this man. As the story became a novel, I did do some reading of naturalists, and I was changed by the way these men described their own meditations out in the field. I also took a class at the Museum of Natural History in New York, late in the process of writing the book. This elderly woman’s lectures (she was the emerita assistant entomologist at the museum) were amazingly entertaining, and a couple of her stories worked their way directly into the novel. I did the last little bit of research a few weeks before I finished the novel. How did I know I’d finished the novel? I had a job in Cairo, Egypt, which I’d accepted months before as a way of making me finish this novel (it took five years to write). I had to finish the book, print it out, and take the copies to my agent in New York a week before I left the U.S.
Pedro Ponce: Still Life is clearly a uniquely shaped narrative. In the process of selling the book to publishers, was there any pressure to make it into a more “normal” novel (e.g., using numbered chapters instead of insect entries, making the structure more linear rather than like a mosaic)? Finally, what kind of response would such a narrative get from publishers/agents today? How might an author interested in this style overcome any pressure to write a more straightforward narrative?
My agent did not suggest any changes. My editor suggested only a handful of small changes. A few friends, over the years, did think I should add an overarching narrative to connect the stories more cleanly to each other. I resisted but was also wounded by the suggestion, and mostly I thought that these friends were right and that I was stubborn and probably preventing myself from becoming a published author because of my stubbornness. A couple of reviews of the book (the vast majority of which were very kind) also noted a lack of connective narrative and any mention of the big events of the day—the Vietnam War, the moon landing. I found that criticism amusing—the book is about isolation, methodical scientific exploration, and contemplative insect-based meditation, not big-ticket items of history.
I believe I would have a great deal of trouble selling Still Life today. I’ve written a book that I think is something of a follow-up to Still Life, a history of the town I grew up in, Northampton, Massachusetts. It has about seventy short chapters. Each chapter opens with a month, a year, and the name and age of the protagonist of the vignette. I make no effort to connect these stories to each other, except by the brute fact that they all take place in this one town over 400 years. The book has been turned down by ten or fifteen publishers. I think one should stick to one’s guns, despite the lesson I seem to have been taught the last few years. I am glad I did not alter Still Life with Insects before I sent it out to publishers. It is a book whose simple structure would have been hobbled by too much—or any—scaffolding.
Let me say a word about the present timidity of American mainstream publishing. It is astonishing how much variety of narration one sees in contemporary television and film narrative, news reporting, and film and print advertising. Time is bent completely out of shape, stories are condensed (leaving out many steps but allowing for easy comprehension), character is evoked by the merest line-sketch or prop. But American publishing not only refuses to publish anything they find too “adventurous,” but they also scorn these adventures, as if they were not deeply integrated into the very DNA of modern life. We all use computers, the internet, youtube. We watch television while also reading blogs that comment on the shows we’re watching concurrently. We navigate a world dazzlingly different than it was even ten years ago.
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