The Rumpus Book Club Interviews Roy Kesey


The Rumpus Book Club talks with Roy Kesey about Pacazo, Faulkner, historiography, and cheap cab rides.

This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.


Roy Kesey: Hello all!

Kristy : I don’t have a question so much as a general comment. I (and I think most of us agree) loved the relationship between John and Mariangel. And for a child who never spoke, she was certainly a wonderful character!

Roy Kesey: Thanks, Kristy. That’s a relationship that got richer with each draft. MA started off as a sort of narrative problematic, and got richer and richer, I hope, with each pass through. It helped, I’m guessing, that I was watching my own kids grow at the time.

Jenna: I noticed on the book jacket that it said you were currently living in Peru; how long did you live there? Was it just for research purposes that you moved there?

Roy Kesey: I lived there for about 8 years (1995-2003) at first, and we moved back a year and a half ago. I first went there because… I like going places and… looking at things. So I did, with the idea of staying maybe 2 years. And then fell in love, got married, had kids…

Rayme: How could John remain so completely obese when he is running around, sweating and fighting so much? He didn’t seem to be chowing down. Is his obesity a comment on Americans? Is his violence a comment on American foreign policy?

Roy Kesey: I guess I’d make a distinction between obese and very large. He’s agile, and strong, and immense. But he’s also very aware of his own size, and the obstacles it causes. This sense of being too large for one’s body was not a direct commentary on American foreign policy, exactly, (that discussion re: gorillas and bananas notwithstanding) but a sense of how it feels to be an American in certain other places and times. Which is, I suspect also how it felt to be a Roman at certain times, or a Spaniard, or Brit. You are bigger than you are whether you like it or not.

Betsy: Your book is beautiful. The story and the writing. It propelled me to pick up a copy of Open Veins in America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. I’ve already had the worst nightmare of my life over it.

Roy Kesey: Thank you. I like to think that if I’ve helped to cause you nightmares, my job here is done!

Neal: Roy – I think the fractured narrative took a lot of us a while to get used to, but once we kind of figured out what you were doing, it was really spectacular. Was it difficult to interweave the historical information, the narrator’s present, and the narrator’s past into a cohesive whole?

Roy Kesey: I’m glad that structural/vocal business didn’t make you give up on the book. It took me years, actually – and that was all between draft 9 and draft 11. In draft 9 John wasn’t a historian, and there was no Peruvian history, and almost none of the backstory from John’s life – that was after I’d been working on the book for 7 years or so, and then let it sit for a year after a bunch of publishers said, Close, but no tobacco. And finally I realized how hard I’d been working to avoid trafficking in history of any kind at all, and that that in turn was telling me what the book really needed to be about. And once I knew that, I was able to figure out how many levels of history could be worked in. And then I had to learn all the history, and all the historiography, in English and Spanish… which… took a while.

Betsy: Yeah, was it difficult to cut yourself off midsentence to spin on some history? That trick was awesome, though I had to read to page 80 to start to roll with it.

Roy Kesey: Page 80! Wow, you’re stick-to-it-ive-ness-ish! John’s voice was the one thing I had right from the very beginning, though modulating it according to his mental states and circumstances was a challenge – but, you know, a logistical challenge, like shooting pool. The fact that I could then use, for example, the tic you mention, was planned – but that it worked as it did specifically to bring in history, that was just good luck.

Betsy: We have been talking about the removal of the dead woman’s body from the crypt. Trying to see it as something more than, well, taking a dead body from a crypt.

Roy Kesey: Well, sure, I mean, I’d feel even more ridiculous than usual trying to argue that there was no weight resting on pulling a body out of the ground. In terms of what historians do, say, with the parallels to what judges do, and cops, and doctors, and etc. And art historians too for that matter. And anyone with any psychological baggage to speak of. Lots of folks! Carlo Ginzburg is great on this, if you’re looking to look into it further.

Sarah: Roy, when you say “parallels to what judges do, and cops, and doctors, and etc. And art historians too for that matter,” are you talking about that power dynamic between someone with authority and someone who has to submit?

Roy Kesey: I was thinking specifically about the way they build narratives to answer questions about the past, and the way their agendas (political, professional, personal) work to shape those narratives (at times without the agent realizing it), but I like how your reading plays into this: the historical figure has no choice but to submit to the historian, so to speak.

Stephen Elliott: This book generated a lot of discussion.

Stephen Elliott: At first people liked it, and then they fell in love with it. Anybody feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

Roy Kesey: Thanks for saying so. It would have sucked if it had worked the other way around. I’m generally not particularly concerned with plot, so I had to remind myself once a month or so: Stuff must happen!

Ron: I was impressed by how much those around John cared for him, even though his own estimation of that seemed lower than the reality of it. Despite the trouble he would cause carelessly or otherwise, his friends always took care of him.

Roy Kesey: I think that’s very true. He struggles at times, I think, with how much his friends care about him, how much they are willing to risk for him, because of what this might imply in terms of debts owed, etc. But he covers for them too, as necessary, in general…

Sarah: I was wondering if you feel like any writers influenced you in writing Pacazo. Some of us compared it to The Sound and the Fury, at least in the constant emotionally-charged time-shifting around the first half.

Roy Kesey: I’ll take my Faulkner comparisons wherever I can get them! And there was certainly a time when his work was a big part of what was going on in my head, but no, I wasn’t working off of any particular model in this book – at least, not consciously. That said, I knew I wanted a binary-looking ending to get complicated, and there are plenty of models for that. I didn’t actually read much fiction while actively working on the book – lots more history. So to the extent that there were active influences, they’re more likely to have been Ginzburg and White than Vargas Losa and Ribeyro, say, dear as those latter two are to me.

Patty: So, not having spent any time in Peru. Are the conditions described present day?

Roy Kesey: The circumstances were true, I hope, to that part of Peru in the late 1990s. To say any more would be a little irresponsible, I think. And things change slowly… until they change quickly. The Peruvian economy is going gangbusters these days thanks to the price of metals in the past few years (and to a [relatively] low level of governmental corruption and a [relatively] high level of government competence in the past decade or so. And that improvement is felt everywhere, or nearly so, albeit more in the capital and the 4 or 5 other large cities than in the countryside or jungle.

Eileen: I loved the way that you weaved the history into the narrative. I only wished that I knew more about South American history so that I could have fully appreciated the relationship between the history and John’s story. Were the historical parts actual history?

Roy Kesey: Thank you, and yes, the history was real history, except where I needed it not to be. One of the things I was working with was the relationship between history and historiography, with what it means to think about the way history is written. And I was also dealing with the occasional breakdowns in John’s brain – his possibly misremembering events from his own past, and moments as in the first chapter when his own fantasies interfere with his memory of his own research and reading. But for the most part, yup, real history. Even Juan de Segovia was real, though I chose him specifically because almost nothing is known of him, and so it is not totally impossible that one day his will might show up in such a preposterous (but just barely possible) manner.

Jenna: How many drafts were there? Was this process comparable to how your other novels were written?

Roy Kesey: 12 drafts altogether. Probably about average for me. This is my first published novel, though, so it’s a pretty small pool we’re swimming in!

S.X. Rosenstock: “Trafficking in history” is a wonderfully loaded phrase. Your history is myth-like and so, so scary in Pacazo.

Eileen: John’s violent tendencies were fairly disturbing. Was he always that way or was it his wife’s death which pushed him over the edge?

Roy Kesey: Agreed. That’s not a question I really get to answer, though. The possibilities were always latent, I have to feel. There’s no great violence detailed before Pilar’s death, but there is a certain lack of balance implied here and there.

Betsy: I wanted to adopt the poor, hairless dog. That was hard to take. I didn’t mind when John threw the man against the wall, but the dog – yikes.

Roy Kesey: Yeah, that moment caught me a little by surprise too. There wasn’t much of a way around it, though, given the role they played in the Conquest and in Pilar’s death-or-thereabouts. (See Todorov for more on the former, if you’ve got a strong stomach.)

Kevin: There’s this great article by Mark Swartz in Believer #4 called “The A.S. Byatt School of ABD Literature.” John’s all-but-dissertation status made me wonder, were you aware of this trend when you wrote the book, did you seek out or try to avoid other all-but-dissertation novels, and what made you decide that John would be not just a widower but also a borderline academic failure?

Roy Kesey: This is one of the terrifying things about writing novels: that you’ll turn out to be part of a trend you knew nothing about. Ah well. No, I didn’t know about it – do I have good company? John’s academic failure, for me, came mainly from his inability to choose an interpretive structure that he could believe in long enough to make it bear fruit. Which plays into the plot in other ways, of course. I wanted him living in Peru, not visiting Peru. And why did I want that? Weeeeeeeeeell… I shouldn’t admit this, but surely part of it stems from the fact that in the 9 drafts I’d written when he wasn’t an ABD historian, I wrote a lot of things I wanted to keep that required him to have stayed in Peru far too long to be reasonable if he was only coming for occasional research.

Kevin: Thanks for that great answer. I haven’t read any of the other ABD novels, but The Tempest by Juan Manuel de Prada sounds the most interesting.

Roy Kesey: The Tempest, I’ll come back when we’re done and Control-C that puppy. Thanks.

S.X. Rosenstock: When you say in your many early drafts that there was “almost none of the backstory from John’s life,” do you mean the dead father, mom who never visits, the aunt in Shreveport? Or something else? The American family seems lightyears away from John’s needs and his grief and the reality of his life in Peru.

Roy Kesey: Exactly. NONE of those things were in draft 9, and all were in draft 10. They are light years away, but I felt like I had room to bring them in precisely because they’re his… history.

Lidia: I’m HUGELY fascinated with the various uses of “history” in your novel. As a person who thinks of history as a constructed thing, a mutable story that shifts and bows in relation to tellers and listeners and environments, I’m curious about the variety of ways history is represented throughout your book. I loved it because the definition or stability of “history” kept…changing…. so I guess my question is what’s your DEAL with respect to history?

Roy Kesey: Awesome, awesome question. First let me say that part of the fun was that (for totally unrelated reasons, although I could have changed it if I’d wanted to, and chose not too), John was working through his Ph.D. program in the waning years of the Linguistic Turn. I.e. it wasn’t yet clear that the history industry had to turn away from post-structuralism if they wanted to keep their jobs. (Not that all have. There are hold-outs, and they’re slippery enough [I mean that in a good way] to keep ever from being pinned down. I guess I just mean it’s a super hard position to right monographs from, right? And if you’re not writing monographs, what are you doing? Am I right? Can I get an Amen? What was the question again?

Right, so, yes to all your comments, and as for my own deal with history, I’m agnostic and love them all. Really. I love even the cat fights and the self-seriousness. And I truly do believe that someone like White still has something worth saying. Which means that when I go to WVU in a few weeks to give a talk on history and literature and identity and whatever, I’m probably going to make a complete ass of myself and get laughed out of the room.

Jenna: And I will give you an amen.

Stephen Elliott: Someone in our discussion thread described John as an unreliable narrator, which was interesting. I hadn’t really thought of him that way. I guess because I felt like we were being signaled when he wasn’t in his right mind.

Roy Kesey: He’s a weird mix, isn’t he. You are being signaled, yes, but some signals are stronger than others, and one of the novel’s tics is that the signal always comes two and a half beats later than where it would normally come. Not always, but most of the time. Which creates these odd little eddies in the text that were, frankly, a hell of a lot of fun to create, but I was also perpetually worried about screwing them up, postponing them so long they became unlinkable, and so on.

S.X. Rosenstock: The book is amazing, such a hypnotic read, beautiful, surprising, drug-like, disturbing. Poetic. I will def read it a second time.

Neal: Yes, this is a book that will definitely benefit from a second reading. There are just too many strands to pick up and fully explore the first time through.

Ron: Another thing that struck me about John was his lack of uncertainty in his own actions. He never seemed to second guess himself, but to simply keep going and take the next action. Notable especially how his choices of action were often strange, misguided, questionable. As a reader it left me a bit adrift, wondering what the “right” actions should be, particularly as he operated in a cultural landscape not his own.

Roy Kesey: I hear you. I think the main thing, especially in the first and last thirds of the book, is that he has this clear but preposterous goal, and he’s fully aware of its preposterousness at times, but can’t be at all times or he’d have to quit, which isn’t something he’s willing to do. And that’s just at the level of plot – as you note, it’s also useful as a manner of questioning the concept and practicality of certain kinds of rightness (particularly as understood historically, if that makes any sense).

Cruise: I enjoyed John’s lack of professionalism regarding his job teaching English. Do you know people like this in Peru ie working as EFL teachers even though they don’t care about teaching at all?

Roy Kesey: Thanks. The EFL world does attract its share of kooks, but then, what field doesn’t. I think maybe the world is just awash in low-grade kookery. Lots of the EFL teachers I’ve met cared some (i.e. more than John) but just weren’t very good at their jobs (often because of the kind of baggage that in some cases would lead someone of a certain age into the field in the first place.)

Patty: John seemed to have a lot of cash to blow on cab rides and rounds of drinks, yet his home life seemed to be described as somewhat poverty level – I found this conflicting.

Roy Kesey: Interesting. The cab rides there are a buck apiece, and a bottle of rum goes for ten, so those are pretty easy expenses to cover on an EFL salary, particularly in John’s case, where he’s the only native speaker, and happened to land at a time of high-need. His home life is more a function, I think, of his minimal needs, distaste for certain kinds of luxury, and the fact that he’s living in a small city in the desert in the 3rd world, where a lot of things that would interest most 1st worlders just aren’t available–or at least weren’t in the late 1990s.

Ron: The mixed time periods, scenes, impressions flowed quite beautifully. Don’t our minds circle and wander in just such a fashion?

Roy Kesey: Thanks. It was fun to try to copy certain mind-mannerisms literally. Impossible, but fun. And then to magnify them through John’s given damage.

Neal: John’s journey through his grief to a better, more balanced place, was facilitated in large part by his interactions with those around him. As the book progressed, it seemed like John was letting others in more and more, not trying to do it all alone. Was this sense of an emerging community/support system for John always a feature of the book?

Roy Kesey: That’s very true, especially in the middle third of the book, where John allows himself to start building (in the midst of all that rain and destruction, of course–writing those countermovements was fun). And then what he’s built in that part comes to help kind of a little bit maybe save him for real toward the end.

Stephen Elliott: The book is very balanced, I thought, between truth and fiction, between suffering and redemption, loss of mother but love of daughter.

S.X. Rosenstock: I got oddly used to the postponements and almost-not-linked causalities. How did you work to layer those in? The syncopation of this strategy really works over the reader’s bodily sense vs. the reader’s ‘sadder-but-wiser’ mind . . . You made this very experiential . . .

Roy Kesey: I’m so glad to hear that. Layering is, for me, the whole point of editing, of doing another draft, and then another. (Well, not the whole point, since there’s also the point of getting rid of all the typos and other fuck-ups. But, you know.) So, lots of the layering happened in the original drafting, and then every subsequent draft needed to have more of it everywhere if possible.

That doesn’t feel like a very helpful answer. Is there any particular bit you’d like me to address? I guess I just mean that if at any point in the editing process on any given draft I saw a non-interrupted sentence, I took it as an opportunity, a chance to create a little bit more useful disjunction. I tried hard never to worry about too much being too much, at least not until the end of draft 11, which is the one my amazing editor, Matt Bell, took his shears to.

Lidia: Another thingee about your novel that arrested me and stole my breath: the layerings of grief/death/loss and how memory (personal, historical, cultural, maybe even geographic) “haunts.” that idea always kicks the can far down the street for me. I don’t mean like cartoon ghosts. I mean something more like how to be haunted means to have a skin story or a bone story or a land story inside you larger than yourself…dispossessed people, grief stricken people, in particular but also everyone. In the loss of the mother/wife there is a generative space.

Roy Kesey: Yes yes yes. I love (not love-love, but professionally love) the damage done by all those things. Which was why realizing that I was avoiding the whole point of the novel, and that that point was history in all its forms, was so terrifying and fantastic. To all the kinds of memory you mention I’ll add in racial and economic and local (as in communitarian) and national. These ideas are threatening because they’re so big and so easy to get wrong and so strong and so capable of harm. But, so, what the fuck, let’s write them out anyway.

Jenna: You’ve published short stories, a novella, and now a novel; which one of those forms are you going to continue with?

Roy Kesey: All of them. And others. Mostly others. But then again all of them.

Kevin: Any advice for people who eventually plan to read Finnegan’s Wake?

Roy Kesey: My advice is to never take advice from writers. We suck at it.

Sarah: Roy, have you ever been shat on by a pacazo?

Roy Kesey: Never, but I did almost step in a biggish pile of it once, and that was close enough!

S.X. Rosenstock: Roy, your writing here in the hectic atmosphere of this chat today is the most thoughtful and layered of the author chats I’ve participated in or observed. It’s so evocative of your book, it makes this chat even more fun . . . Did you toss ideas or wishes, plot or encounters of various kinds ahead of your writing and then amble toward the sides of them before knowing that John would catch up to them? How knowing were you?

Roy Kesey: What a great question to end on. How knowing was I… The answer is: fairly knowing. Most of the time I knew how many balls I had in the air and when I was going to have to catch them again. I dropped a few of course, and had to pick them up and try again, but that’s what editing’s for. (Well, that’s the other thing that editing’s for…) And occasionally, marvelously, I was surprised speechless, and just sat there for a while (oh he is NOT going to rob her grave!) but of course he was and so I wrote his way there.

Roy Kesey: Okay all, I need to jam here pretty quick, my kids are now pounding on the door demanding to be, I don’t know, probably fed or changed or burped or given money for the movies or something.

Isaac Fitzgerald: Don’t get in trouble with Social Services on our account Roy!

Roy Kesey: And thanks to everybody for having me in tonight. Stephen, Isaac, it’s been amazing. Take care, all.


This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Jill Haberkern.

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