Interview with Walter Kirn, Spring 2010
Walter Kirn is the author of a collection of short stories, My Hard Bargain: Stories, and several novels, including Thumbsucker and Up in the Air, both of which were made into films. He is also the author of She Needed Me, Mission to America, The Unbinding, an Internet-only novel posted in Slate magazine, and Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever.
Kirn has also reviewed books for the New Yorker and has written for The New York Times Book Review and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He is also a contributing editor of Time and an American cultural correspondent for the BBC.
Kirn received a BA in English from Princeton University and studied English Literature at Oxford University. He teaches at the University of Montana and was the 2008-2009 Vare Nonfiction Writer in Residence at the University of Montana.
In Capital Letters: What authors, books, poems, stories do you return to again and again?
Walter Kirn: Huckleberry Finn; The Great Gatsby; the short stories of Flannery O'Connor; Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry; Dubliners; Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson; Whitman's Leaves of Grass; the novels of Charles Portis.
ICL: How do your stories come to you? For example, is it by an image, character, line, phrase, idea?
WK: They come to me through the sound of a voice and sometimes a line that seems to conjure up other lines. I begin with inspiration, a hunch, a flash, and continue by trying to unpack its meaning and, ultimately, give the narrative a shape that seems to accord with its own inner desires to be freestanding artistic object.
ICL: Has the fame of the movie based on your book Up in the Air changed the way you think about your writing or about the writing process?
WK: Lightning can't be made to strike, no matter how you call upon the gods. Neither of my novels that became movies did so because of any conscious moves that I made while writing them. one simply has to rely on fate here, and on the notion that if a story hits home there may be someone out there in the film world who will be deeply enough affected by it that he or she will want to make it their own. As for fame, it really doesn't exist in the literary world -- at least not compared to the sort of fame that's available to movie types. Nothing much has changed for me in any practical sense except that the odds I'll be able to continue doing what I love -- in an increasingly hostile environment for literary fiction writers -- seem to have increased. That allows me a certain piece of mind, I guess, that I lacked when I was younger and more obscure.
ICL: Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.
WK: Most people don't know I suppose that I hold deep spiritual convictions not out of line with conventional Christianity but not exactly fully worked out, either. I write in a state of cosmic modesty, aware that the world is a great insoluble mystery and stories are more a way of coping with it and witnessing to its unfathomable strangeness than adequately describing it.