Shit My Cats Read is a regular series on Artinfo.com for which two erudite Brooklyn kittens, Uni and Chloe Zola Volcano, engage in conversations with the brightest literary minds of their times. The interviews are gently facilitated by their tireless helpmate, Scott Indrisek. For Out, they checked in with Booker Prize-nominated author Richard House.
Richard House's most recent book is The Kills, a huge-and-strange tale of war, murder, burning garbage, con jobs, men-on-the-run, desert intrigue, mistaken identities, and much more. It will soon be adapted for Starz and the BBC. Despite how busy the prolific Mr. House is, he took time out for an interview, because cats matter. We chatted with him about craft and kitten-facilitated writing.
Uni & Chloe: We've only taken one very basic Fiction Writing 101 class (online, through Phoenix University), but the professor was quite adamant about what he called The #1 Super-Golden Rule Of Superior Noveling: "Write what you know." That led, on our part, to a lot of fairly unproductive and meandering prose about eating, sleeping, chasing sunshine, etc etc. But reading The Kills, and researching a bit about you online, it's clear that you have very dramatically disregarded this #1 Super-Golden Rule. You were never, for instance, employed as a government contractor in Iraq, burning boatloads of incredibly toxic shit out in the lonely, foreboding desert. What gives, Richard? Aren't good novelists supposed to stick to, like, personal experience?
Richard House: It's a daft rule, if I'm honest. It's limiting. I agree with the basic idea (which is, no one wants to be stuck with some dreary armchair analyst who thinks they're a world expert on such and such), but, that said, fiction is a long game, and it benefits the reader if the writer is unravelling and inquiring into ideas for themselves and looking into fresh territory. And besides, it's almost impossible to look into any subject and not draw connections with your own experience. Most times I write to inform myself. I'm pretty ignorant, otherwise.
What is your daily writing regimen like, and how does your cat play a part in that (both as inspiration and obstacle)?
It changes. At the moment I'm writing every spare moment. Trains. Office. Bed. Anywhere. In writing The Kills I was in an attic office, overlooking a park in which some seriously dodgy stuff was happening. So I veered between writing and watching this mayhem unfold outside. The best part-and I still grieve over this-was having my partner's cat sit with me. She'd rest with her head on my wrist while I wrote. The whole day, for about five years. Her name was Taz, and, alas, she was old. I had a very long period where writing/life/work wasn't going well, but I could always sit down to work and she'd hurtle up three flights of stairs, jump on the desk, set her head on my wrist and I'd try to write. Day or night. The things that make you hold on can be infinitesimally small, but outrageously important. You cats can be difficult, but you are unparalleled company. We have a new cat called Mouse who is here with me while I write, but she's just figuring out things-like you can't attack images on a laptop screen / sit and clean yourself on a keyboard/bite fingers while they are typing, etc. Slow learner though.
Uni posing with 'The Kills
Lately we've been on something of a trans-Atlantic jag, ping-ponging between American authors (Dawn Powell, a lot of Dawn Powell) and British ones (Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis). Would you say that British literature is just better than the stuff we Americans crank out? We're still on the fence, though our kitten-heartstrings are, of course, pulled by predictably patriotic inclinations.
I had to read Evelyn Waugh for school and haven't approached his work since-doubt I'll get to it, life is too short even when you have seven lives. I'd say, generally, that Brit lit isn't better. It's not a conscious thing, but I tend to prefer American (South and North) writers, although that's not a rule. I usually read to inform a project, and the writers I'm looking at aren't timid about approaching big or tough subjects-and they happen to be U.S. writers. Stylistically, and this is a very general comment, but there can be a robust and direct quality to some contemporary U.S. writing-which I prefer.
You're an artist in addition to a writer of very big, highly acclaimed novels (because, clearly, you are a pathological overachiever whose goal is to make us kittens feel small and unacclaimed.) What sort of art do you make, when you make art? Would you rather hang out with artists or novelists?
I wish I mixed more with artists. When I lived in Chicago I worked with a collaborative called Haha, and I miss that kind of intense interaction--although it was demanding. I like how fluid artists can be with ideas and media. Since working on The Kills I'm back to working at a pitch where I feel engaged and challenged in the same way I did with Haha. It's oxygen. Vital. Once you start developing ideas, the harder you are with them, the better they get-and they keep dividing into more iterations, I guess. If you've ever had that great crazy hour spent chasing after something, where you just feel so perfect for the job, but in honesty, you don't really know what the hell you're doing... that's exactly how I feel when I'm talking through and developing ideas. We have a young cat. She's intense about everything. Perfectly in the moment. I want to work with that kind of presentness and submersion and engagement. Maybe one day I'll work in a studio environment with other writers/artists immediately at hand...
The Kills is over 900 pages long. Since most people, according to recent scientific studies, have an attention span of 12.9 seconds, and think entirely in 140-character flatulent outbursts, where do you get off expecting someone to make mental time and space for this novel, especially considering that-being a novel-it's just a long story about things that didn't even actually happen?
It's a big ask, I guess, but it's the kind of challenge I like to be set as a reader. I prefer to read works which are a little tougher, maybe even colder, something that might become immersive. In longer works pace and pressure are important, and those qualities can really test a reader. If it works for you, it's going to be a worthwhile experience. But... if you're getting nothing from it, then there are plenty of other books and other choices, so there's no insult or problem with moving on. I have one (over-used) notion about reading fiction, which is that the book is this suspended ball, this thing you return to each time you read, a world, an object, a gathering of ideas, who knows, something sparkly and distracting. It takes time to read, and you get to spend that time with ideas, characters, situations, you might otherwise not encounter. It takes time, it happens inside your head, and it's intimate. In reading you gain experience, maybe even knowledge, without risk, without suffering. It's the most human thing you can do-so I think it's worth knocking about the form a little and asking a reader to work a little harder.
Now that The Kills is finished, and busy being applauded, what have you been up to? By that we mean both: What did you do this morning? And what have you been working on in a 'professional sense'?
Mornings are pretty much gym, emails, train to work - during which I'll catch up on what needs to be caught up on, usually writing. It's a four-hour back and forward which gets wearisome in the winter. There's one section where foxes hang out by the tracks - which I always keep an eye out for. Though, since I saw half-a-fox not far off that section, I (unsurprisingly) haven't seen any others since. It's pretty magic to see something so wild, this creature, feet away from the train. Half-a-creature, less so.
I'm working on a new novel, Murmur, which is a working title, so let's see if it sticks. It's a tale of how a group of activists start agitating in the 80's, break up, then reform in 2015. It's as involving as The Kills in terms of subject, structure, scope. I'm really interested in dissent, and very curious about what might happen now post-Occupy.
Have you been watching these Republican debates over in America? We sure have -- shivering, cursing, mewling, despairing. If someone commissioned you to write, say, a 900-page tragicomedy about one of these horrific contenders, who do you think would be the most ripe for fictionalizing?
I have, and you're right, it's a horror show. I'm honestly not sure you could do anything because it's so bizarre. Trump particularly seems to self-fictionalise, and self-satirize. A writer would just get in the way. A friend in Chicago recently wrote that we're asking the wrong questions if these people believe themselves to be the answer. What's interesting to me isn't that top tier, or the figures themselves, but the structures underneath. The processes of election, the structures of governance, all this is ripe for fiction.
Chloe, courtesy of Scott Indrisek
Richard House: So, I have a question. What's it like to kill something? Like mice and stuff? You ever feel guilty? Or is it just big fun?
Uni: Don't get the wrong idea, Richard. We're not sociopaths (we've done the checklist, we're cool).
Chloe: But that's not to say that we're afraid to admit to the exquisite pleasures of mouse-homicide, the blood-rush inherent in stalking one of those disgusting thousand-legged insect freaks for an entire afternoon...
Uni: It's sport and ritual and catharsis, you know?
Chloe: I mean haven't you ever just wanted to hunt something and then, once you've found it, just sort of mess with its emotions, taunting it, maybe picking it up and throwing it against the wall, letting it pretend to be asleep and almost escape into a corner before reigniting the entire horrible cascade of violence, and without any actual useful purpose, like killing for food or sustenance?
Uni: Useful but beautiful in its own way, see. Idle afternoon killing is our art. Guilt is an outmoded concept; it helps that we're adorable.