- An Interview with Randall Kenan
This interview was conducted by telephone between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Oxford, Mississippi, on Wednesday, August 20, 1997.
During the past academic year, when I tried to reach you to tape an interview, it was wonderful to discover that you were away in Rome writing at the American Academy. What does it mean for you as a writer to escape outside or within your native territory in order to write?
I don’t think of it as escape. After a decade of traveling too much, the only thing I’ve learned is that you don’t really escape anything. It’s always there. You can do it superficially, you can do it temporarily, but all the matter you use to write fiction with is very much present—all the time. Traveling might provoke you to look at things differently, or encountering things in another culture, another place, another landscape may happily give you a new perspective, but you’re still looking at the same things in the back of your mind.
What do you mean when you say, “You’re looking at the same things”?
I believe that we write about, and out of, our obsessions, the things that haunt our souls, things we never get over. Willa Cather said something to the effect of, “all you need to know in order to write, you know when you’re five years old.” The matters of the heart, the relation to parents and friends and lovers and institutions, are the fundamental elements of what makes a narrative. We human beings actually only have a few stories that we tell over and over again: there is the story of being an outsider, or having your world invaded; there is the story of achieving some success against great odds, or having something special and losing it; and there is the story of malice towards a brother or a mother or a father or anyone. We mix these stories up, and we turn them around and inside out—but we’re all obsessed with the fundamental elements. One of my teachers always said, “The great themes are given to us: Love, Death and Pain.”
Does the place of composition matter? The site of composition? If the site of composition does not matter, then why did you go to the American Academy in Rome? And now why are you down in Oxford, Mississippi, the very opposite of Rome? [End Page 133]
Being invited to Rome was an honor and a happy coincidence of being offered an opportunity to go there without having to worry about money and a roof over my head. The decision was based more on monetary freedom than on a choice of landscape. The American Academy in Rome is time-honored, and its very existence is founded on giving artists and scholars the space and the time and the freedom to work. That is why I was there, and largely why I am at the University of Mississippi now. Through the good graces of John and Renee Grisham, I’m writer-in-residence. I only have the responsibility of teaching one course, one day a week. The rest of my time is free to work on my own writing.
But for me—and I’m sure this is true for many writers—I tote my fictional landscape around in my head. All I need is peace and quiet, paper and ink and something to write with, and to be left alone. That need is one of the reasons for the success of places like the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo and the Virginia Writer’s Center. Many readers don’t realize how indebted they are to such places that offer their favorite authors that precious, temporary freedom.
Yes, “free to work on my own writing.” That is an envious privilege. So few of us ever get such time during an academic year, especially. Will you talk about your writing practices?
Because of the nature of what I like to write about, I am forced to do a great deal of research, even for a short story. That means...