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. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: About the book, this is maybe a little inside baseball, but what’s it like having the book with a couple hundred readers so far before the actual release date?
Kyle Minor: This is the first chance I’ve had to hear from readers who aren’t writers about the book. I feel really lucky to have this opportunity.
Bill Meeker: Kyle, I really enjoy how you rework themes, characters, settings, and even entire stories. How did that process get started for you?
Ana: How did you decide to include that note in the beginning, instructing the reader to read in order? It almost made me laugh, how decisive it was. You don’t always get that unwavering instruction from an author.
Kyle Minor: The book didn’t begin as a book, or not as one book. There are many failed books represented in it — essays, memoirs, short stories, novellas, an aborted novel. After about ten years of that I noticed how all the best of all of that was a kind of circling around the same stories, the same themes, the same obsessions. These pieces were in conversation, so I started to look for a form in which they could talk to one another.
Frances: It was good to know to read them in order. I often skip around and it would not have worked here.
Kyle Minor: Ana, I was afraid that people would read it the way I so often read story collections, skipping around. I felt like this book worked as a book only if you read it straight through, like a novel. It’s a bossy thing, I guess, to demand that of the reader, but I hope that the pleasures offset the bossiness.
Dulcie: I must be odd because I never skip around…lol
Ana: Me neither
Kyle Minor: That would make you ideal readers, I’d say.
Frances: many of us do skip around
Brian S: I usually start at the beginning, but I rarely keep going that way.
Dulcie: Did anyone balk at your book because a few of the pieces had been seen before?
Kyle Minor: Hi Dulcie. No, most collections of stories or essays are full of pieces that have been published elsewhere.
Frances: Quite a book! The pain was palpable. Made my chest ache. So well done.
Bill Meeker: I grew up in Lexington, KY. The stories that are set in KY really ring true for me.
Dulcie: Kyle, what felt different, if anything, about this versus your first collection and what do you think the reader should have taken away between the two books which I find very different?
Kyle Minor: Frances, a writer I know used to say: No pain in the writer, no pain in the reader. More than anything else I’ve written, this one hurt.
Frances: I could feel it!
Dulcie: I heard over the last trip to Colorado that as writers it is our job to write ourselves through the pain or through our lives…
Kyle Minor: That’s a good thing to hear, Bill. Many of those Kentucky pages were written in the acreage in the middle of the Daniel Boone National Forest where they are set.
Frances: The pain was authentic and very moving. The caring alongside the pain made it bearable.
Frances: The siblings caring for each other, the missionaries wanting to do good even though…
Kyle Minor: I think that this is the last book I will write that will be quite this dark. I hope that things will open out in new directions, going forward, tonally and otherwise.
Dulcie: I think it helped me to connect through better to this collection than your previous book because of the feelings and unique twists that were still palpable despite being something we don’t all go through
Brian S: Have you spent time in Haiti as well?
Kyle Minor: Yes, I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Haiti, mostly in the mountains in Ouest Province, but also in Port-au-Prince, Petion-Ville, and Cap-Haitien.
Jennifer: I read the majority of this book on the subway, and I could tell people were looking at me — many sharp intakes of breath on my end as I was reading…
Frances: I had sharp intakes, too.
Ana: quite the opening story
Dulcie: Do you think your next book will be lighter because you are in a better place personally?
Jennifer: Among the stories within this book, which one was the hardest to put together — which caused you the most anguish as a writer?
Kyle Minor: Well, that’s the hope — that somebody you’ve never met will read and feel things. That’s the best thing to hear, I think.
Frances: It was gripping. It was not off-putting as painful writing can often be.
Dulcie: All I know is everyone on the plane from Newark to Denver was staring at me as to how I had a book not bought five minutes before I got on the plane…they would have thought it very strange had I pulled out a shot glass to match
Kyle Minor: It’s hard to remember. The earliest parts of the book were written in 2004, and many of the stories came after many failures to write them. Sometimes the trouble was more technical than emotional trouble.
Brian S: Another inside baseball question–have you actually gotten copies of your book yet? Or are we ahead of even you?
Kyle Minor: I just received my first non-ARC copy of the book, and it’s one of the Rumpus Book Club editions. You guys got them a week or two before I did.
Bill Meeker: That special printing for the book club was pretty impressive.
Jennifer: Super impressive.
Brian S: That’s awesome. I was going to send you one if you didn’t have it already.
Frances: Yes, very impressive.
Kyle Minor: I think it’s reflective of the esteem with which the Rumpus Book Club is held by my publisher. Well-earned esteem, I’d say.
Brian S: Yeah, Sarabande was tenacious, in an excellent way.
Kyle Minor: I have been very happy with them. I might have chosen a larger publisher, but I knew how they would take care of the book, and they have exceeded any expectations I might have had.
Dulcie: I still am in love with “The Truth and All Its Ugly.” I wonder what story was your favorite in this collection and why?
Bill Meeker: In one of the Q & A sections, you wrote about fiction being “what people write when they want to get away with telling the truth.” Then you mention “angry emails.” How autobiographical are your stories and who sends you those angry emails (besides the people you list in the book)?
Ana: That makes me think of the first section’s title/allusion “I wish my soul were larger than it is.”
Kyle Minor: When my first book, In the Devil’s Territory, was published, I received a lot of confrontational emails, letters, and phone calls from people in my community of origin. The complaints belonged mostly to three categories: 1. It’s wrong to write about such immoral matters as sex and adultery and homosexuality and so on; 2. It’s wrong to betray the community secrets; 3. Your version is wrong, that’s not how life was, that’s not how the world is. Often they used the word “worldly,” which might seem a compliment in other contexts, but which in this context means sinful or wrong.
Ana: The poem it alludes to – screaming the truth nobody wants to hear or say. I liked the titles and reference to different poems
I know that use of the word “worldly.” It has a special meaning to fundamentalist christians.
Bill Meeker: Yes, I live in TX now and am familiar with that definition of “worldly” from my evangelical friends’ conversation.
Kyle Minor: “I wish my soul were larger than it is” is a line taken from “Heat Lightning in a Time of Drought,” one of the two poems by Andrew Hudgins which are sort of shadow texts informing all the pages of the book. (The other is “Praying Drunk,” the poem from which the book takes its title.)
Dulcie: Hmm, I just moved away at a very young age from my family and they think I am worldly and have only thought that of myself within the past few years and not because I traveled the world but because I opened up to it…at my families it is not such a good thing to be worldly in leaving or in expanding our lives and definitions
Frances: Many families do not like their offspring to expand their lives. Scary for them.
Brian S: In the fundamentalist world, worldly might as well mean depraved. It’s not so much a matter of expanding your worldview, though that’s part of it–it’s a matter of valuing things outside the acceptable experience, and thus falling prey to sin.
Ana: How or why did you draw on those poems to structure the book?
Kyle Minor: I didn’t draw on them to structure the book, but I was reading those poems a lot all the years I was writing the book. They are from a book titled “The Never Ending,” my favorite of Hudgins’s poetry books. One of the poems, “Praying Drunk,” is part of the story “Seven Stories about Sebastien of Koulev-Ville,” during the scene with the scrotal tumor. I started thinking about the relationship between what those poems are about and what this book is about after I wrote that story and sent it to Hudgins, who told me: It would have been better if the poem saved the old man’s life. Maybe he was right.
Brian S: The secular side of me wants to agree with Hudgins, but I can’t quite get there.
Dulcie: I do also see the difference with the fundamentalists as well since they too were part of my family…
An interesting thought by Hudgins
Frances: Many families feel that way, even if not fundamentalist. If you stray outside the boundaries of the known culture, you are in danger.
Kyle Minor: There is a correspondence, though. When I was a child they taught us a song to sing titled “Input/Output.” The lyrics said: “Your mind is a computer whose / Input / Output / Daily you must choose.” The idea was that you must police yourself, not let unsanctioned things or ideas in, because those things might be corrupting. I think that’s a lot of what’s meant by the word “worldly.” I hate this subject by the way, but here I am again, not escaping it.
I’m pretty sure Hudgins was joking darkly. The poem, of course, never saves anybody’s life.
Bill Meeker: Like in the book — you get away from the subject but seem to be drawn back to it.
Brian S: We never quite escape it, sad to say. I’m working on a poetry project now that requires me to reread the Old Testament.
Dulcie: Wow we didn’t get computers…only time once a week for 30 minutes to play Oregon Trail…as part of social studies…
Frances: Those things are “corrupting” by changing your views. But we can’t grow without being “corrupted” and I think many families fear growth
Dulcie: My family has a hard time understanding being spiritual versus devote. And anything where you don’t dress conservative and go to church every Sunday without being a heathen
Ana: I liked how the Praying Drunk was incorporated into the story
Brian S: I think poems save lives sometimes. They just don’t cure tumors. I was thinking more that the others in the story at the time wouldn’t see the difference between prayer and poem, and so wouldn’t credit the poem for the miracle.
Kyle Minor: Bill, I have one more book on this subject in me — a novel I’m titling The Sexual Lives of Missionaries. After that, it’s all worldliness, all the time. I’m pretty sure it’s a self-defeating thing, to write about the people from whom I came. But also it seems important. American literature is not very full of the very people group who brought us George W. Bush and the radical rightward turn of the Republican Party. That seems an imbalance worth addressing, somehow.
Frances: You shouldn’t escape it. The Bible is a big part of human tradition and background. Read it as an anthropologist, a writer, an interested consumer – not as a fearful servant to it.
Ana: Once I went into a church and, kneeling to pray, realized I had completely forgotten any prayers so ended up reciting a poem in my head instead.
Brian S: And on too many occasions when they do show up, they end up as caricatures.
Ana: When I was reading it I thought how it aligned prayers and poems as some kind of offering
Kyle Minor: That’s unfortunately true, too. Caricaturing is as indefensible as the hagiography that arrives from the other direction. The truth is, though, I’m close to exhausting the material’s hold on me as an obsession, after almost three books of it. I’m becoming more interested in other things — American colonialism, the idea of race and gender, formal experiment. These things are already beginning to be manifest in this book and the next one, but I see the interest in the religious lives receding, as my adult life has moved so far away from the community of my origin.
Brian S: Yeah, I don’t write about Jehovah’s Witnesses so much anymore either for similar reasons, but the base, the core still sticks with me, no matter how far I move from it.
Bill Meeker: Yes it is, definitely. I am also interested in learning about how you went about pursuing writing after you decided to leave your previous life. Did you do any “formal” writing education?
Kyle Minor: Bill, yes, I did go to school and study literature and poetry and fiction writing and screenwriting, at Antioch and Ohio State Universities, and, more recently, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I found those to be meaningful shelters. They bought me years, and brought me friends and mentors who likewise have been devoting their lives to telling stories.
Frances: Not self-defeating. You have shed the obsession and you have affected the reader with the pain, the worry, the anxiety, the story of it all. That is of value.
Dulcie: I agree, Frances.
Kyle Minor: Self-defeating in terms of the marketplace. Fundamentalist Christians aren’t the first priority of acquisitions editors in New York or film rights acquirers in Los Angeles.
Frances: Still of value even if not commercially.
Brian S: Also, though, eventually you have to leave certain subjects behind as primary source material, or you’ll never be able to move on with your life. That subject will inform your work, but it won’t be the main thrust.
Kyle Minor: Brian, well said.
Kevin T.: Speaking of mentors, who was the teacher you quote on page 87?
Kyle Minor: Kevin, that was one of my teachers at Ohio State.
Ryan: Kyle, I’m interested in your “art of writing”. Pen and paper? Computer? A cabin retreat or a busy coffee house? Did you struggle with any particular aspect of Praying Drunk?
Kyle Minor: Hi, Ryan. My life is all over the place. Right now I’m living in Ohio and working full-time in Indiana and also trying to get a TV pilot off the ground and finishing a novel and a screenplay adaptation. So I’m on the road a lot, in hotels, in truck stops, on airplanes. My writing process is: Wherever I can find a space, whenever I can find time, I work, and I try to do it every day. Most recently, I’m on a new MacBook. For five years before that I was on a $200 WalMart Acer NetBook. I’m happy for the change.
Dulcie: Kyle, would you say you did a hard push away from the fundamentalists or soft and that is why they are so quick to have an opinion about your work?
Ana: Do you think growing up fundamentalist, or just with an emphasis on religion and spirituality, informed the importance you place on story telling? Or its function?
Brian S: TV pilot? Do tell, if you don’t mind.
Kyle Minor: Ana, that’s a good question. I think that I grew up awash in stories — the traveling preachers, the King James Version, the colonial missionary tales, the Chronicles of Narnia, all varieties of musicals and puppet shows, allegories, fables, lots of didacticism, lots of 19th century British inheritance, lots of God-and-guns America stuff. The thing that was shocking, when I encountered literature, in my twenties, was the difference in the reckonings, which pushed past the received story, in the direction of the more complicated story that experience reveals. That’s where I wanted my allegiance to be pledged — that harder examination, that unwillingness to accede to the community-sanctioned conclusion, that stretching out into the questions and the irresolvable things.
Brian, I can’t say too much, but I wrote a TV pilot, and it was optioned, and now I’m rewriting for the producer. Who knows what will happen, but it sure would be nice if it got made.
Dulcie: Is it like it more like the past writing or your future books regarding the darkness factor?
Your TV pilot…
Brian S: Fingers crossed for it.
Bill Meeker: Please post on your website if the pilot gets made so we can watch it!
Kyle Minor: I will!
Brian S: When does the book tour start?
Kyle Minor: It starts January 23. I’ll be out every Thursday and Friday through the end of April, plus a few Tuesdays, with a week on the West Coast in March. I’m excited about it — it’s a lucky thing to be able to do a long book tour, and this will be my second. This time, though, I get to sleep in hotel rooms instead of on people’s floors.
Ana: Any stories you are – or not – looking forward to reading? OR any questions you are not so happily anticipating on the tour?
Are you coming to Chicago?
Kyle Minor: I’m probably going to read mostly from “You Shall Go Out with Joy,” “The Truth and All Its Ugly,” “Seven Stories,” and “There Is Nothing But Sadness.” What I dread most are the religious questions. I get most excited about the formal questions, and, of course, any time I get the chance to speak about Haiti, my favorite country in the world besides my own.
Ryan: Sad to see you are skipping Colorado. The Tattered Cover would have been an excellent choice for a stop on the tour!
Ana, I am. Here is an incomplete tour schedule:
January 23, Seattle, WA, TBA January 30-31, Elizabethtown, PA, Elizabethtown College, Thursday 4pm craft talk & 8 pm reading; Friday morning class visit. February 7, 2014, Provo, UT, Brigham Young University, Friday Reading Series, noon reading & craft talk TBA. February 13-14, 2014, Huntsville, TX, Sam Houston State University, Thursday evening reading & Friday morning Q&A/craft talk. February 20, 2014, Myrtle Beach, SC, Coastal Carolina University, Thursday reading, Recital Hall of the Edwards Humanities and Fine Arts Building, 4:30 pm. February 26 – March 1, 2014, Seattle, WA, AWP Conference, Washington State Convention Center & Sheraton Seattle Hotel. Panel Discussion: “Happy Endings that Don’t Jerk You Around,” with Ian Stansel, Amber Dermont, Danielle Evans, and Rebecca Makkai, Friday, 2/28, 9-10:15 am, Room 202, Western New England annex, 2nd Floor. Book Signing at the Sarabande Book, Book Fair, Friday, 2/28, 2 pm. Sarabande Reading, Thursday, 2/27, 8 pm, at Pike Place Market. March 6, 2014, Manchester, NH, New Hampshire Institute of Art, Time TBA. March 10, 2014, Brooklyn, NY, Franklin Park Reading Series: Fifth Anniversary Bash, Franklin Park Bar and Beer Garden, 618 St. John’s Place, between Classon and Franklin Avenues, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, 8-10 pm, with Adam Wilson and Dani Shapiro March 11, 2014, Brooklyn, NY, Community Bookstore, OFFICIAL New York City Book Launch for Praying Drunk, Details TBA. March 15, 2014, Los Angeles, CA, Skylight Books, with Amelia Gray March 16, 2014, San Diego, CA, Details TBA. March 17, 2014, Portland, OR, Powell’s City of Books. Smallpressapalooza. Other readers TBA. 6-10 pm. March 18, 2014, Portland, OR, Between the Covers with David Naimon taping (KBOO 90.7 FM) March 20, 2014, Chicago, IL, Roosevelt University, with Angela Pneuman. March 25, 2014, Louisville, KY, Carmichael’s, 7 pm. March 27, 2014, Arlington, TX, University of Texas-Arlington, time TBA. April 3, 2014, Iowa City, IA, Prairie Lights, time TBA. April 4, 2014, Madison WI, Madison Public Library, Night Light Friday, opening band TBA, 8-11 pm. also, early afternoon workshop or talk, details TBA. April 10-11, 2014, Washington, DC/Fairfax County, VA, George Mason University, reading & workshop with MFA students, times TBA April 17, Toledo, OH,with Angela Pneuman, and Ben Stroud, details TBA.
Me too, Ryan.
Brian S: I’m interested in the story The Truth and All Its Ugly, which is related thematically to the story of the nephew’s suicide, but is set in the future and has science fiction overtones. How did the story come about and why did you decide to include it here?
Kyle Minor: “The Truth and All Its Ugly” came about when Pinckney Benedict asked me to write a robot story for his anthology Surreal South. I had already been writing essays and poems and stories about the story of the suicide, and I found, to my surprise, that the robot story became the form that best could bear the weight of that story. I can’t account for why.
Brian S: Did you write it as the robot story first and then write the other pieces with the suicide in it later? I guess I’m asking if doing it as sci-fi first opened it up so you could work with the material more.
Bill Meeker: How did you get the gig writing for Salon?
Kyle Minor: The Salon thing happened because the editor was looking for someone to review an audiobook on short notice for a new series. I took the assignment, and then I just kept doing them, every two weeks, and it’s been a year-and-a-half of those, by now. I’m glad I said yes. The best outcome of that relationship was that when the London Review of Books published a hit piece on Alice Munro, I was able to respond at length in a venue as widely read as Salon.
Bill Meeker: Happy to hear that it opened up a forum for you.
Ana: Do you read the comments section on what you write for Salon?
Brian S: Never read the comments anywhere. Except at The Rumpus and at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog at The Atlantic. There’s your internet tip of the day.
Kyle Minor: Ana, any time I read the comments section of anything on the Internet I wish I hadn’t. Those sections seem to be where all the willfully mean people hang out all day and night.
I have a friend who teaches at BYU, Joey Franklin, who was the winner of the Random House Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers contest in 2006. I also admire another writer who teaches there, also an essayist, named Patrick Madden. I have occasionally had lunch with them and their students at the AWP Conferences, and although we come from very different worlds, I’ve enjoyed the respectful and intelligent conversations we’ve had, and I count them friends. I’ve never been to that campus before, and don’t know what to expect, but what I mostly expect I’ll do is enjoy reading and having a conversation about my work, the way I do everywhere I go to read.
Jack W.: Very cool. Some of my friends go there, I will have to let them know as well. I grew up Mormon, went on a mission, left the faith. Hope the reading is open to the public! Always good to see authors come through Salt Lake City or Provo.
Kyle Minor: Brian, I wrote the last story, “Lay Me Down in the Blue Grass,” first, then the robot story, then “The Sweet Life.” In between I wrote dozens of drafts in many genres. Later, I thought I wished I had tried even more genres. I think of the Q&A sections as a place where a lot of those imagined versions live.
Brian S: Where did the idea to tell a story in letters come from?
Kyle Minor: From Alice Munro, who wrote the best story-in-letters I’ve ever read, “A Wilderness Station,” which also involves a character who is the story’s object but who is seen entirely by others, and never gets her own say. I wanted to write a story that worked that way, too, so I did.
Brian S: It worked really well. I’m very glad you left the mother for near the end, as that voice would have completely changed the way I read the rest of the story.
Kyle Minor: Every editor I sent that story was in love with the mother, wanted the whole story to be hers. But she’s the worst — she can’t see how beautiful her daughter is.
Brian S: She’s horrible and yet I couldn’t hate her. Pity her somewhat, but not hate her.
Bill Meeker: I agree, Brian.
Kyle Minor: I loved her while I was writing her. She’ll be back, in the novel. So will all those characters, so if you like them, you’ll get more of them.
Ryan: Will continue to check your site for updates on your projects. Thanks for Praying Drunk. Really enjoyed it and will encourage my book club to read it in April when I choose the book. Any books you are reading now or intend to in the near future?
Bill Meeker: By the way, I love the Rilke epigraph.
Kyle Minor: Thank you, Ryan. I could enthusiastically recommend Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland and Pamela Erens’s The Virgins, for starters.
Me too, Bill. It’s true: If I lose my devils, I’ll lose my angels as well.