The Rumpus Interview with Walter Kirn


Walter Kirn is one of those writers you read for the company of his mind. He is forever interesting, pointed, a literary bad-ass. If he was on a rival debate squad, I would run the other way. His range is capacious. He’s the author of five novels, a terrific story collection, a searing memoir, Lost In The Meritocracy, which lays to waste the myths about an Ivy League education. Two of his novels, Thumbsucker and Up in the Air, were made into excellent films, the latter nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture. He’s penned campaign coverage for The New Republic and GQ, driven the California Coast with Robert Downey, Jr. for a Rolling Stone cover story. And still he might be best known for his tough and intelligent book reviews over the years for New York Magazine and the New York Times Book Review.

Kirn’s latest book, Blood Will Out, is the story of an improbable acquaintanceship he shared with a man who called himself Clark Rockefeller, and who was convicted of murdering a man in Southern California. It’s a first-rate book about crime and class, identity, friendship, manipulation, and the difficult job of being a writer. It may well become a classic.


The Rumpus: One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the extent to which you explore your own role in the story, your desire for an adventure, and your self-described naïve acceptance of Clark’s mythology. When, in the course of writing the book, did you realize it would be in part about you? Or did you always intend to make it in part a memoir?

Walter Kirn: I always knew the book would largely be about me. It’s the anatomy of a con, and every deception is a dance, two-sided. Clark Rockefeller discerned in me—almost instantly, I have a hunch—a set of tendencies and vulnerabilities that allowed him to take me in. First, there was my social insecurity. I grew up in rural Minnesota and then went off to Princeton, where I didn’t feel I was treated very well. Being friends with a Rockefeller seemed to heal these wounds. Also, I’m a sucker for a good story, and he was a storyteller above all else. He knew, as the best storytellers do, that dropping hints is a more powerful strategy than laying out a tale in detail. Bit by bit, he assembled a false biography that he knew I’d fill in with my own imagination. For example, by telling me that he’d never eaten in a restaurant (he asked me what Coca-Cola tasted like, claiming he’d never drunk the stuff), he caused me to picture an insulated upbringing filled with cooks and servants. By telling me that he had “high-placed sources” who’d given him the inside dope on the death of Princes Diana (she was killed, he said, by British Intelligence), he suggested that he was part of some cabal of wealthy international insiders. It hardly mattered to me whether his secret information was accurate; I loved the romance of believing that people met in private to share such gossip, perhaps in one of the clubs that Clark belonged to. He enchanted me, would be a way of putting it, and that’s because reality, in some way, wasn’t enough for me, and never had been. I was a fantasist underneath, eager to be charmed, amused, intrigued. Aren’t we all, to some degree.

One little point: I disagree that Blood Will Out is a memoir in the conventional sense. It’s the story of a relationship, primarily, not an individual. The “me” in the book is a specialized version of me, the person who Clark manipulated and fooled. I could cover the same years of my life from an entirely different perspective in another book, by concentrating on my experience as a husband, say. But I was selective. I focused on my duping.

Rumpus: Were there instances in which you were tempted to abandon the project, and if so, when did they occur?

Blood Will OutKirn: One reason I drove out to meet Clark in the first place was that I harbored some notion of writing about him, perhaps in a novel. I knew from our phone conversations that he was one of a kind: the most eccentric, outlandish personality I had ever come across. (How many self-described “freelance central bankers” was I going to meet in this lifetime? Only one!) Once I got to know him a little, I felt guilty for my opportunism. He was a real person—or so I thought—whose privacy was dear to him; I couldn’t just go and exploit it for the page. These scruples seem ridiculous given how things turned out, but there was a good little Minnesota boy in me, polite and pleasing, reluctant to give offense. I was also sensitive as a journalist to the suspicions of people I knew socially, who sometimes bit their tongues at dinner parties, fearing I might turn their stories into material.

All this changed the moment he was unmasked. Not only was he already a fictional character, he was a murder suspect—one who I believed to be guilty. My guilt turned inside out at that point; I was ashamed for having backed off so easily, for betraying myself as an artist and observer. I resolved to dig into the story with twice the force I would have in the first place. Later, it struck me that my initial modesty was actually a stroke of luck. By giving the plot time to thicken, I’d set myself up to write a better book. How much the plot would thicken was beyond my power to foresee, of course. Though maybe not. Maybe my cunning, quiet, unconscious mind knew I was onto something from the start, and that it was big, and that I should be patient.

Rumpus: Why are stories about impostors—The Talented Mr. Ripley, Six Degrees of Separation, Blood Will Out—so compelling? And beyond that, why are they of particular interest to you?

Kirn: We’re all impostors to ourselves. By that I mean that we know instinctively, intimately, the difference between whom we are inside and who we appear to be to others. Most of the time—when we aren’t flat lying about something or playing a particularly stylized role in some heightened dramatic situation—this difference between the internal and the external is modest and manageable. But there are moments when it frightens us, threatening to expose us as inauthentic. Well, the big-time impostors we read about in literature run this risk constantly, flirting with destruction, not just humiliation or embarrassment. It’s a spectacle that we can’t help but find compelling, and it involves a certain level of courage that we sneakily admire, perhaps.

I’ve always defined a truly alluring story as a journey we’re not equipped to take ourselves with a person we’re tempted but afraid to emulate. Impostor narratives are exactly that. When they end in disaster, as Clark’s did, or as Gatsby’s did, we can congratulate ourselves for our own wisdom. We can also experience, safely, at no cost, the terrible thrill of radical self-invention, of trading who we are for who we might be.

Rumpus: To what extent do you think Clark believed his own lies, and to what degree was he aware of all that he was doing?

Kirn: People who know Clark’s story superficially tend to find a strange comfort in the notion that he fell for his own lies. They imagine that he was delusional, confused—not unremittingly shrewd and calculating. They’re wrong, though. They’re projecting their own humanity onto a sociopathic, alien mind, a mind that couldn’t afford for even an instant to lose track of its own schemes. You or I would have trouble targeting different people with an array of specialized deceptions tailored to their respective personalities; we’d crack under the stress, the mental strain. But for someone like Clark, such pressure is a pleasure. I imagine that he woke up each morning wondering whom he could deceive that day. It made him happy, misleading people. It was his craft, not merely his compulsion.

Rumpus: Although the events of the book began in 1998, much of this was written in a whirlwind of productivity in the last year. Can you speak a little bit about that time, of corralling all your thoughts, emotions, and moment-by-moment observation into such a brilliant, and perfectly-paced book?

Kirn: I wrote the book in a trance, over four months, working eighteen-hour days with a mattress beside my desk and a notebook beside the mattress. I concentrated my time with the material because I wanted to live with it for as short a period as possible. Knowing Clark was a boon for me as a writer, but it did me no favors as a human being. It not only eroded my ability to trust people, it shook my faith in my own judgment. The night I turned in the final manuscript I woke from a nightmare of driving through the dark with him, along an empty country road. I realized in that moment just how vulnerable I’d been spending time with a man who was capable of anything and never once, in all the time I knew him, spoke the truth about anything, that I could tell. In any case, the book’s ultimate form reflects, I think, the fever dream state in which I wrote it.

Rumpus: There’s a wonderful moment when you describe Clark telling you another one of his falsehoods: you sensing he is observing more you than imparting anything, that he’s watching you—looking for your soft spots, areas of gullibility or sensitivity. Can you elaborate on the subterranean chess match, if you will, on the sense you had of being played, and then understanding your own opportunities to fight back?

Kirn: The worst moment in my relationship with “Clark” came when I first visited him in jail. The last time I’d seen him, he was a friend, well-dressed, full of blarney, and seemingly quite harmless. Now I knew him to be a liar and a killer. We faced each other through a small glass window, our eyes just inches apart, with phones pressed to our ears so we could speak. But the phone line didn’t turn on immediately, leaving us to stare each other down for maybe thirty seconds, which felt like hours. I’ve never felt so uncomfortable in my life. It seemed imperative not to flinch, not to show weakness in front of a cruel predator; this was a contest between us, or the end of one. I realized that at a level I’d never been conscious we’d been engaged in a game of wits for years. I suppose most writer-subject pairings are like that. Of course, I’d set aside my plan to write about him as soon as I’d gotten to know him some, but now I’d resumed that intention.

Clark RockefellerCould he sense it? I read a review of my book the other day whose author pointedly questioned my motives in staying in touch with Clark at all. He accused me of stalking him, pretty much, and of lying about ever being taken in by him. That’s ridiculous. It imputes to me a cunning patience that I’m afraid I don’t possess. What I will fess up to, though—and do in the book, repeatedly—is a certain artistic detachment when it comes to observing the people in my life. A writer has a use for his experiences that most civilians simply don’t; he or she discerns material in situations that others simply live through. Perhaps there are some who disapprove of this, but without this double consciousness, literature would not get made at all.

Rumpus: Speaking of difficult subjects, you recently wrote a profile of the writer Walter Kirn for the Sunday Times. How’d you two get along?

Kirn: I suspect that the Times was just trying to save on airfare from New York to Montana by assigning me to profile myself at home. It turned into one of those complicated spoofs that is so close to the form that’s being satirized—the up-close and-personal portrait of the writer that attempts to catch its subject off guard and is heavy on details of his “process,” diet, and—that a lot of people who read it didn’t realize that it was humor. This is either a measure of how well it mimicked the conventions of a fairly shopworn format or my failure to exaggerate them sufficiently. More than a few acquaintances approached me after reading but apparently having failed to read the byline—sincerely dismayed by its author’s seeming disdain for me and puzzled about I’d given him so much fodder.

In any case, it was an easy story to write—the logical consummation of a process that every author of a memoir goes though: turning one’s self into a character and regarding one’s own life from a distance. The Walter Kirn in Blood Will Out is me, of course—eager for approval, slightly vain, and wounded by what he perceives as a long history of class-based, social slights. But he’s also an object fashioned by Walter Kirn, analyst, observer, and story teller. The self-splitting required to pull this off didn’t end the moment I finished the book; for a memoirist I suspect it never does, quite. Because once you’ve divided yourself into two beings, and required one to pass judgment on the other, its hard to recapture your unity, your innocence.

Rumpus: Lastly, are you surprised that you and your Up in the Air leading man, George Clooney, might well get hitched in the same year?

Kirn: I am surprised by the news of our impending nuptials, not just because we’ve both been vocal skeptics of marriage, but because our stories share remarkable parallels: two confirmed bachelors in their early fifties, both with conspicuously graying hair, falling for dazzlingly bright women in their mid-thirties. The development does seem fitting, though, given the person who brought us together: Ryan Bingham, the footloose, romantically retarded protagonist of my novel, which Clooney portrayed so convincingly onscreen because, as he confided to me on the set: “Ryan is me. I’m playing myself.”

As it happens, the day I first spent time with Clooney—while shooting a scene in which I had a cameo as a fellow, commitment-avoidant business traveler—I set down on the table between us, out of range of the movie camera, a slightly racy picture of Amanda, my now-fiancée, whom I’d only begun dating a month earlier. I guess I was showing off to the notorious ladies man, trying to make him eat his heart out, if such a thing is possible with him. When Clooney saw the photo, he suggested that I was lying about knowing her; he accused me of stealing her picture off the web. Well, eat your heart out, Casanova, she’s real!

A few days later, when she flew to the set and he met her in person, he laid the charm on awfully thick; a terrifying moment for yours truly. And what did Amanda do as he flashed his plumage? Reached out and put her arm around me. Stunning. Right then, I knew I’d marry her. I’d never been paid a higher romantic compliment or witnessed such a show of female loyalty. Poor guy; he’ll never know the satisfaction of having his great love reject the likes of George Clooney just to be with him.


Featured image of Walter Kirn © by Lynn Donaldson.

Tom Barbash is the author of the novel "The Last Good Chance" and the non-fiction book, "On Top of the World." His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Tin House, One Story, The Believer, The Observer, The New York Times, Narrative, Story, VQR, Storyquarterly and other places. He is on the faculty at California College of the Arts, and his most recent book, the short story collection "Stay Up With Me," comes out in paperback this month with Ecco/Harper Collins. More from this author →