Other Lubrication: The Rumpus Interview with Kevin Keck
Kevin Keck is the author of the contagious, THC-laden memoirs Oedipus Wrecked, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Kevin. Inside my copy of his collected poems titled My Summer Vacation he jotted a note. “To David, I confess I like to personalize every book I sign so if the recipient ever sells it I can track them down.” But I won’t be selling it, or any other copies from Kevin Keck’s wonderfully perverted, reflexive, unhesitating religio-comic oeuvre.
Kevin’s heartwarming story Stranger Than Friction corroborated the wild unrestraint of my adolescent affair with Pert shampoo – when I was twelve I discovered that applied vigorously to the most sensitive parts of the male anatomy, Pert creates a series of reptilian second skins that peel and crack painfully for days. But there are many reasons Kevin’s writing is so exhaustively funny. Kevin has fearlessly rubbed a rich patina of product on his private parts: “Cooking oil, motor oil, 3-in-1 oil, toothpaste, Neosporin, Smucker’s Apple Jelly, Vic’s Vapor Rub, Papa John’s garlic-butter sauce, Chapstick, sunblock, Hawaiian Tropic Tanning Oil, Speedstick, butter, margarine (for what it’s worth, margarine definitely holds up better than butter for an evening of intense stroking), and even ice cream.”
I got a chance to ask Kevin about writing techniques, perfect readers, canines in zero gravity, literary geometry, and of course, Pert shampoo.
The Rumpus: I’ve noticed you shove something into your ass within the first two paragraphs of both of your memoirs (a vibrator, a rectal thermometer). What will you be shoving in there for your next book?
Kevin Keck: My book of poems, by coincidence, also begins with an implied anal rape. This is one pattern in my work that is unintentional, but I think I may run with it from now on. At least in my autobiographical work. What will be next? Well, I can tell you from experience that it certainly won’t be a banana.
Rumpus: Some names were different for the same stories in Oedipus Wrecked versus the Nerve articles. Comment?
Keck: The names in the original Nerve articles are the actual names of the parties involved, unless I couldn’t remember someone’s name, or if I was using a composite character. At the time I was first writing the stories/essays that appear in Oedipus Wrecked, I was still under the impression that people would be delighted to see their name in print. I overlooked the fact that I was writing about intimate matters, and people are a bit touchy about airing their private lives in such a public fashion. Especially when it’s done without their consent. I think I initially didn’t change the names when the proofs of Oedipus Wrecked were being prepared, but after my publisher cut the best story from the book for fear of legal trouble down the line, I thought it best to protect the identities of the innocent. (You know, protect them well after I outed them on the internet. But at least the Luddites will never know who the people really are.)
That being said, if you slept with me and are filled with shame at the possibility of the world knowing, then you should have considered that before you hopped into bed with a writer.
But on another note, in the title story of Oedipus Wrecked I gave my parents different names. However, I did that (along with a few other things) to deliberately signal to the reader that I am operating in the borderlands between memoir and fiction.
Rumpus: I have to ask — Pert shampoo I can see, disastrous though it is. But, motor oil. Really?
Keck: I can’t tell you how many men who had been maligned by Pert wrote to me after that piece (“Stranger than Friction”) first came out. I think the makers of Pert need to put a warning label on that stuff: CAUTION: DO NOT USE ON GENITALS! Should that come to pass, that’s a legacy I’d be proud of. As for the motor oil: what can I say? I was at an impressionable age and I saw many Quaker State commercials boasting of their oil’s viscosity under intense friction. It may sound insane, but let’s remember this: the oil did nothing to my penis; the Pert shampoo nearly sent me to the hospital. Also, I am now bald. A connection? I’ll let you decide.
Rumpus: I enjoyed the scene towards the end of Oedipus Wrecked where you delivered your father’s dead, flaccid weiner dog to your mother. Did this scene inspire the title or was it the other way around?
Keck: I believe I wrote the story first. I was quite pleased with the title because it’s one of the few titles in the book that I came up with myself. The editors at Nerve came up with the titles for the stories when they first appeared there. The exception to that would be “Hard Evidence”— it was originally titled “The Tale of the Tape,” but when it was translated to Croatian (yes, the good people of Croatia love a good sex story) the Croatian editor said the best translation for the title was “Hard Evidence”, and I feel that’s a better title.
I just looked at a copy of Oedipus Wrecked—“Delicates” is the only essay to appear on Nerve under a title I crafted. And I think that’s a rather limp title. Not as bad as “Cherry Picker” though. Maybe someone will suggest a better title for that one.
The point of this, however, is that I cannot even claim credit for Oedipus Wrecked. Woody Allen has a short story under that title in his book Without Feathers. I read that book when I was around 20, and I suppose his title stuck in my mind. I didn’t remember his story until after Oedipus Wrecked came out and someone reminded me of its existence. I need to go and reread it to decide if I wish to claim intentional allusion in the future.
Rumpus: Can you describe your relationship with the reader? Do you imagine there is a perfect reader?
Keck: I don’t think about this too much for the simple fact that I don’t want to hear this imagined “reader” editorializing in my head as I work. I didn’t write poems for a number of years after graduate school because the criticisms of other students in the workshops wouldn’t quiet down in my mind when I tried to work. In some sense that was a blessing, because it forced me to focus on prose. I feel my narrative voice in prose is more authentically me because I developed it without ever soliciting the advice of anyone else. I read a lot; I tried to understand the mechanisms that made the books I liked successful, and I went that route. So, as for readers— when I think about them I like to think they read the same books I do. My ideal reader has the same set of references I do, regardless of cultural upbringing. If you like Bukowski, King Crimson, drinking, smoking, fucking, finding beauty in the world, cats, and croquet, then you will like my books.
Rumpus: How do you write? What supplies does Kevin Keck need for an evening of writing?
Keck: It all depends on what I’m working on and if there is a deadline involved. Anything that’s headed toward a magazine or newspaper is hacked out on the computer; that’s a matter of efficiency. I write longer pieces of prose on a typewriter because the act of retyping it for the computer is a useful tactic for revision. Poems tend to be written longhand.
But how honest am I being about this? You know, there are those writers who work at writing every day. I’m not one of those guys. I tend to work at varying levels of intensity, based on the amount of time and energy I have available. Energy seems to be the more critical of those two variables, because if I’m really feeling the push/pull to write, then I’ll make the time. As I’ve picked up more responsibilities in life, I’ve found nearly every one of those extra burdens drains me in a way that makes writing more difficult. That may not be the case for everyone—I know plenty of writers and artists who seem to have energy in abundance for all the facets of life; but are they producing anything worthwhile? I’m only just now formulating this line of thinking, but if I consider the artists I know and really think about the quality of their works, it strikes me that the best ones are those who tell most people and obligations to fuck off. Engaging with creativity in a serious way is a shamanistic activity, and by extension when you choose to follow a mystical path you cannot have a “normal” life within the community. Your job is to stand outside the community and hold up the mirror. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that all writers are working in the deep waters that border on the divine. Most writers are just trying to pay the bills, like anyone else—Stephanie Meyers is the literary equivalent of a television evangelist. Fork over twenty bucks and she’ll help you forget your troubles for a while. I certainly don’t fault her for her success, but I hope she has no illusions about the quality of her craft or the longevity of her efforts.
What I need to write is a complicated equation. Maybe if I knew I’d be one of those writers, one of the steady ones. I rest upon my assertion that there has to be some balance of energy, or, failing a balance, a focused intensity of ALL energy. I’ve experienced both, I suppose. Curiously, the balance seems to come when writing is woven into every aspect of my life, like eating or exercising—one flows constantly into the next: I’ll wake up and have coffee, read the news, then write a letter or two (always in longhand), then go teach, and after teaching write a bit in a journal—dreams, what I had for breakfast and lunch and why I had it, what’s on the iPod, sexual habits, etc. —then read a bit, then work on a real bit of writing…you get the idea. But I tend to work most often from the method of ignoring any ritualistic writing for long periods of time, and then I’ll spend three straight weeks writing for 12 hours a day and just going through the motions with my worldly business because the compulsion to write descends upon me like a kind of madness. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but it feels that way when it strikes.
Then again, I’ve found that depending on the amount of the check, disciplined inspiration can be called upon willingly. I think the name of the lesser known tenth muse was Dollar Dollar Bill Y’all.
I do know this, however: you have to put money in the machine to get something out of it. I can’t tell you the number of writers I know who marvel over the fact that I read a lot. What the fuck is that about? I don’t think you have to go to college to be a writer or any of that ivory tower nonsense, but you sure as shit need to read and pay attention to the world. Read the Western Canon. That’s a good starting point, and then read everything you can get your hands on. Most writers are lazy intellectuals, and it’s a goddamn shame because a writer with an audience has a moral responsibility to make readers think about the world in a different way than what they’re used to. Why else would you pick up a book if not to inhabit another realm of existence for a while?
Rumpus: Do you feel that you are vulnerable as the narrator of very personal, very sexual stories?
Keck: Well, this assumes I’m telling you the truth. Or that I view my stories as sexual or personal. Curiously, I don’t. When I was writing those stories I thought of them as comedy pieces in the vein of performance monologue, such as you might get with Richard Pryor, or Lenny Bruce, or George Carlin. So I don’t feel vulnerable because I know the line of demarcation between “Writer Kevin” and “Narrative Kevin.”
Rumpus: You’ve said that graduating from Hustler magazine to watching 8mm silent porn was like “launching a dog into space.” Do you think porn affects relationships?
Keck: I’m sure that it does. It has the potential to alienate one partner from another—but everything has that potential if you get obsessive. I have a friend who wants to collect every version of the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” so that he can compare them and determine which version is the greatest “Truckin’” of all time. That requires a very specific obsessiveness that has the power to consume every facet of one’s life. If you’re focusing all your erotic energy on yourself, regardless of whether or not you’re watching porn, you’re not going to have the healthiest relationship possible. Unless you’re watching porn together, and then that’s an entirely different story.
Rumpus: About halfway through Are You There God?It’s Me Kevin the book takes a serious turn — you’re taking care of your grandmother, and all the tenderness and discomfort that entails. You wrote that it was “the day I felt I was called upon to be a man in a way I could have never anticipated. It was a passage of compassion.” Soon the tone returns to a state of hilarity, but this moment stands out as a major statement. Was this conscious geometry on your part?
Keck: I took great care with the arrangement of that book. You’ll notice the table of contents is actually labeled as “Decalogue,” and in much the same way that Krzysztof Kieślowski was loosely dealing with the Ten Commandments in how he told the stories in his Decalogue films, I was attempting to do the same thing. The key word, once again, is loosely. However, it is not coincidental that the (generally accepted) fifth commandment is to honor one’s father and mother, and the center of my book tries to deal with that concept in a broad sense. You know, as I wrote that book I was thinking intensely about memory and beauty and what it means to be a link in a much larger narrative chain, which is ultimately the chain of humanity. Those are trite concepts for a certain set of readers, and I can see how some people might find the God? book self-indulgent or wandering. That wandering structure is quite purposeful. I do give a lot of thought to the structure of my work, and I like to play games (in the 17th century poetical sense) with my readers. I bury allusions in my work. I don’t know a lot of contemporary writers who use that technique of enriching the narrative with shared knowledge of other texts. I’m a straight-shooter in terms of my prose style: I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. But I have studied the wheel, and you don’t need to have my aesthetic education to understand my writing by any means, but if you’ve studied Beckett and Joyce and Eliot and Donne, etc., etc., and you’re used to having your skinny fisted antenna raised and tuned into little flourishes of communal fun, then I think I’m a satisfying writer on more than just the usual level.
Rumpus: Are You There God? It’s Me, Kevin proves that Kevin Keck is not always tongue in cheek.
Keck: Not every story lends itself tonally to humor, so you have to navigate that territory properly. You can put a humorous spin on anything, really, if you know what you’re doing, but it’s not always desirable to have your reader laughing on every page. If you’re trying to convey a crucial emotional truth, you have to be in total control of the emotional pacing of the story, and if you can only strike one note in terms of tone then you’re going to be quite limited as a writer.
Rumpus: What’s new in the world of Kevin Keck?
I’ve been revising a novel I wrote in 1998. It’s a fairly significant revision, so ultimately there will just be the vague shape of the earlier version. I have two or three other long prose works I’ve been tinkering with for a while; I don’t know when they’ll be finished because I have the luxury of time right now. By that I mean, for the time being, my livelihood is in no way contingent on the production of new work, and I’m quite content with that arrangement. I’ve had to rely on my writing income to make ends meet for several years, and if I was a single guy that would’ve been fine. Alas, I have three kids, and as anyone who has freelanced for a living knows, you cannot count on magazines or publishing houses to pay you on time. When I was in school I always wondered why so many fantastic writers taught—now I understand it has a lot to do with financial stability.
Rumpus: The notion of a “fictional memoir” seems to come up when we talk about memoirs. How fictional is Oedipus? How fictional is your latest?
Keck: I suppose most writers are following Twain’s advice to tackle what they know, and my own readings habits drew me to writers who seemed to be writing honestly from their own experiences, whether they presented it in the guise of fiction or not. In fact, I always assumed that most everything I read was true, to one degree or another. I couldn’t articulate this fact until after I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and he discussed Happening Truth, Story Truth, and Emotional Truth. I always understood that the facts of The Sun Also Rises or On the Road were the facts as dictated by a certain narrative structure, but because the experiences of those characters echoed my own feelings about the world. I knew there was a Happening Truth behind them.
So I started out writing autobiographical fiction. As a writer, I was deliberately creating an alternate world, and then populating it with experiences and people that I knew in this world, but I’d shake up the mix considerably. And about the same time that the memoir was becoming the dominant popular literary form in the mid to late 90s, I started reading writers who were deliberately playing with the notion of “truth” and “fiction”— that struck me as a much more interesting way to tell certain stories, particularly in the realm of comedy. I’ve always been a fan of comedy, and I understood from a young age that what makes most comedy work is the immediacy of first person experience. I’d spent a lot of time from 1995-1998 focusing almost exclusively on poetry, and it’s an incredibly difficult form in which to achieve a sustained comic tone unless you’re Alexander Pope. I had some funny stories that I was prone to telling at inappropriate times during social gathering, but they were anecdotal. They lacked the shape of a story or essay. I made the necessary adjustments in terms of compressing time frames or splicing together events when I was working on the stories that became Oedipus Wrecked, and I try to signal to the reader (in part through the quotes from Kundera and Abbey at the beginning of the book) that I am a mostly reliable narrator, but I am a story-teller and and my job is primarily to entertain. I think in the newest book the moments when “Narrator Kevin” drifts into questionable recollections are quite clear.
Rumpus: What is the ideal day job for a writer?
I’m not entirely sure. A lot of writers teach. I teach. I also very purposefully teach at a community college. I have a sense there that I am not preaching to the choir—most of my students are workers who are seeking job retraining, or kids who are trying to save money before they transfer to a four-year institution… Most have not yet found the joy in the private imaginative exchange between a writer and reader. But it does exhaust me. Probably the best job for a writer is to just lie about the house looking fabulous.
Rumpus: If you could write a personal ad in retrospect, asking for what you actually got out of a relationship in the past, what would it be?
Keck: 33 SWM with mother issues and seven cats seeks bi-polar alcoholic female with daddy issues, great tits, and a car with a breathalyzer (court-ordered installations only, please).