Christian Kiefer is a poet, musician, and author of the novels The Infinite Tides and, most recently, The Animals. The story of The Animals interweaves the lives of two boyhood friends, who, as young men in Reno, commit the unthinkable. Rick goes to prison for it, while Bill escapes and turns his life around, running an animal rescue in northern Idaho. When Rick gets out and sets his sights on revenge, Bill’s past comes back to haunt him. It’s a thriller rich with description of the wilderness, but ultimately is about betrayal, remorse, and friendship.
Last summer Christian was assigned the first chapter of my novel as a mentor at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop. The night before our initial meeting, I encountered a guy who’d already had his one-on-one with Christian and was upset about his feedback. In the morning, I sat at a wooden picnic table in the lodge, twirling my hair until it broke.
“Your main character is a real asshole,” he said. I turned to see a thin man with a full brown beard, long hair, arm tats, and a trucker hat. He sat.
“He has some endearing qualities.” I bit my lip.
Christian leaned in and pointed to his notes. He went line-by-line and showed me where my protagonist needed tempering. He talked about word choice and how to derive more sympathy from the reader. I realized where to dig deeper and pull out more thoughtful emotions. Mostly, I learned about perspective, because under the sharp and honest criticism, Christian was all heart. By the end of the hour, we were laughing, analyzing rock music, and planning parties.
In real life, Christian lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada with his wife and five sons. He also teaches English at American River College in Sacramento. I called him yesterday from Santa Monica to discuss The Animals and his love for everything that makes us human.
The Rumpus: First of all, this book is beautiful. I love how you get inside the heads and souls of all these characters including the animals. How did you come to the story?
Christian Kiefer: I wrote a draft of this book ten years ago. It was a failed draft, but I couldn’t let go of the ending. I just couldn’t shake it off. Since that early draft I started working at the community college where I work now, American River College in Sacramento, and I’ve had students over the years, when faced with the situation that they need money, don’t think, Where can I get a job, but rather, Who can I rip off? Whose got drugs I can buy and resell? or Who has an apartment I can break into? I got fixated on that sort of mentality as a way into what became a completely different book. The way it ended is the same, but everything else has been written from scratch.
Rumpus: These two guys do really bad things, but throughout the whole novel it feels like you genuinely love them. How do derive that level of compassion for your characters?
Kiefer: For me, one of my primary modes as a human being is empathy or thinking about empathy as a way to move through the world with as much graciousness as possible. I think these guys are in a sense likable even though they make the kind of bad decisions we might make. Their decisions are just magnified being that it is prose fiction. It’s really about trying to make moral and ethical decisions in the situation in which you currently exist and the ripples or repercussions of those decisions which you cannot unmake. The one thing about the economic class my characters come from is that there is no getting out of it. Nat even says in a very blunt way that there is no way of getting ahead in this world. If you’re living month to month or week to week as some of these characters are—and they are by no means totally poverty-stricken—it is hard not to be empathetic to the person who, in a bid to get out of his situation, does something drastic like robs his boss or a friend or throws someone under the bus for self-preservation. Because if the situation is so dire and so hopeless, then we’re left with the question of what else is a human being going to do to get out of that situation. That is basically the subject of every Bruce Springsteen song.
Rumpus: The Animals is beautifully written, but it’s also a great story. Can you talk more about your plot choices?
Kiefer: My first book, The Infinite Tides, was meant to be a book that spun in one place. The character changed so slowly that, although by the end of the book he was not the same man he was in the beginning, the reader might not realize that until he or she sat back from the text and considered what happened to this guy. I was really interested in a Henry James level of characterization where the slightest thing, like a guy using his left hand instead of his right, signified some monumental change in the character. I was interested in that level of subtlety. For The Animals, I really wanted to challenge myself to see if I could write something with a very specific sense of velocity so it would start ramping up right away from the first few pages. In my first book the protagonist was very stubborn, and I had to push to get him to shift. In the case of The Animals, my protagonist comes from a tradition of Thomas Hardy, Victor Hugo, Joseph Conrad, and characters that have attempted to completely change their own identities. That’s what Bill Reed has done up in Idaho. He has taken a new name and new identity. He has fundamentally tried to change, but in order to do that he has to deny his own past. When his past comes knocking, he desperately tries to make it go away without having to confront it. That’s essentially the tension of the whole book.
Rumpus: To me, the animals are very much alive. Where did their personalities come from and how did you get so in tune with non-human characters?
Kiefer: I struggled a lot with how to do that. I knew early on that I was going to have a section from the bear’s point of view, but how do you write that so it doesn’t turn out to be super cheesy? I was reading Heidegger in being interested in concepts of the self. I reread Being and Time very carefully over the course of a whole summer. At some point in researching Heidegger, I found this Estonian-born German theoretical biologist named Jakob von Uexküll. He has this notion called the umwelt. In German umwelt means the environment, but Uexküll uses it in a very specific way to indicate the perceptive elements of any being’s self. For example, say a fly flies into your dining room. It can’t see things pointed at it because of where its eyes are located. It has to do with the kinds of predators flies have and the kind of food that they’re after. They’ll see your food plate glowing brightly and the rest of the room will be gray because it’s irrelevant visual information for them. If you’re a bear, especially a grizzly, most of your information is coming not from sight but from your amazing sense of smell. Bears can smell a rotting elk farther than thirty miles away. There is plenty of evidence of bears surviving fine in the wild because that sense of smell is so strong. This notion of the umwelt was the key that opened up ways to deal with the animals and to understand that they have their own worlds dictated by biology and sensory preservation. That was how I wrapped my head around how to write about the animals, what that might look like in terms of language, and how they might exist in the text as characters with personalities. The two important animals are Zeke, the three-footed wolf, and Majer, the bear. Majer is the animal that Bill is attached to the most, but Zeke saves him at the end of the book. If Zeke exists in that scene or if it’s Bill hallucinating we’ll never really know.
Rumpus: How much did you know about the wilderness before you started researching this book?
Kiefer: I’ve been a nature reader and traverser since I was little. And when I was in my twenties I did a lot of mountaineering and ice climbing, but it’s been a while since I’ve felt the need to be all that adventurous. Science is the most important thing I can think of that I know the least about. I’m not trained in biology, physics, or astronomy, and so I’m extra interested in those things. Everything about science always seems new to me.
Rumpus: Setting plays an integral role in the novel. Why did you choose Reno and northern Idaho for backdrops?
Kiefer: I hadn’t really spent time in north Idaho until I went up to do research for the book. I had been there as a child because my aunt, uncle, and cousins live up near Sandpoint. I think it just seemed like the densest, darkest possible forest. It ended up being easy to research because the Ruby Ridge thing happened right around the time of my book. Randy Weaver was paranoid that the government would try to kill him and his family, and that was exactly what happened. The FBI got involved and fired shots and killed his wife on their porch. It was a total disaster. The government completely mishandled the event, but as a result there’s news footage of northern Idaho in the mid-nineties. And there’s similar footage of Reno in the eighties because the Judas Priest trial happened about that time. That kid shot himself in the face with a shotgun because of supposed satanic messages in the Judas Priest song. They were on trial, and so there’s all this footage of places in Reno that are no longer there like the Mayfair Market parking lot where kids used to hang out, make out, and score weed and stuff. It’s now the Silver Legacy Casino, but there’s actual footage of kids hanging out in that parking lot.
Rumpus: I read your acknowledgments pages, so I know you went to Reno and Idaho and talked to a lot of people. What was your interviewing process?
Kiefer: A lot of it was casual. There are various Facebook groups devoted to people who live in particular towns, especially small towns. And there’s one devoted to Reno. I put a question up there about scoring cocaine in a bar in the mid-eighties, asking which one would you go to. I got seventy or eighty responses. This wonderful lady named Kathy said, “These people don’t know what they’re talking about, I was there, so you need to talk to me.” There was something so strong and so bold about that statement that I sent her a Facebook message, and it became clear right away that she was the one. We made a date, and I went up with a buddy of mine and interviewed her at a bar. That was the cornerstone to everything about how I handled Reno in the book. I talked to her, then one of her old drug dealer friends came in, then another friend, and it was a whole pile of interviews all at once. It was amazing! The next day I went to the library in Reno. I was looking through the newspapers in the eighties and it was all about South Americans getting busted every week because they were bringing cocaine from Columbia and Bolivia into Reno. My friend Kathy was a Mustang Ranch girl in the eighties, had a line on how to bring cocaine into town, and was party girl central and making a lot of money. She was in the center of it in a way that my characters can see but they can’t ever get to. Reno is a beautiful, beat up, and weird town devoted to this false notion of luck. It’s a beautiful place. I really love it!
Rumpus: You weave in and out of time periods from 1996 to 1984 very naturally. Did you write all of the eighties scenes first and then the nineties, or how did you maintain the style of each decade?
Kiefer: I wrote them in the order that they appear in the book. There were a lot more signs, especially in the eighties sections. There is a moment in Chapter 2 where they’re at the bar and Rick and his girlfriend are dancing. I think it just says “a power ballad” now, but in an earlier draft it mentioned, “Journey’s new song Open Arms.” My earlier readers rightfully told me to scoop a lot of that out. It was for reminding myself. I also watched a lot of films again like Red Dawn and Footloose to remind myself of the idioms.
Rumpus: You change Nat’s POV to second person, which writing students are often told to stay away from, yet it totally worked. Why did you choose to write Nat this way?
Kiefer: I love second person. I don’t know why anyone tells anybody to stay away from anything in writing. For everything they’ll tell you not to do, you can find an example where someone has done exactly that and to great affect, like Pam Houston’s use of the second person, which is about as great as writing can possibly be. As for that move in The Animals, I needed a radical point of view shift to go into the past. The past, the way that it appears in the book in dealing explicitly with backstory, is always an awkward move for me. Some writers are so good at fluidly flowing the reader backwards into the past, like Ian McEwan. You’re in this room in the present, and then it’s twenty years ago in the next paragraph. But for me when I try to do that it always feels like those cheesy movies where a guy is looking out the window at the sycamores, the leaves are blowing, it gets fuzzy-focus, and suddenly he’s like, “I remember when my mother…” For me it had to be a radical break. To make it clear I felt like I needed to change the point of view and the speaker. So the past becomes you. But I also have a little conceit in the book where Bill talks to himself in the second person. The very first paragraph of the book is conceivably part of that narrative. His internal dialogue is second person, like “You really fucked this up now.” Theoretically, that’s him telling himself his own story. He’s tried so hard to divorce himself from his previous self.
Rumpus: When did you realize that you were a novelist?
Kiefer: Early on in college. I wrote bad prose all throughout college. I went to USC to study film and realized that film was a huge business. I was being trained to succeed in business. I had no interest in business at all, and I wasn’t intelligent enough to understand that I could take what they taught me and do whatever I wanted. John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood came out while I was there, but apart from that I wasn’t aware of any real independent film scene. I balked and went into the poetry department with David St. John and did fiction writing with T.C. Boyle and never looked back.
Rumpus: Who are your writing heroes and what is the best advice an author ever gave you?
Kiefer: Richard Ford is a really gracious man. I just adore him, and he was kind enough to help me navigate the business side of The Animals. I was in a nervous position of moving from one publishing house to another, and he did a nice job of calming me down and helping me make that move in a graceful way so that there were no hard feelings and everyone is still friendly. The thing with Richard, T.C. Boyle, Denis Johnson, Pam Houston—writers at that level—is that their very existence inspires me. The thing with being in T.C. Boyle’s classes in college is that, while he didn’t give us specific advice, he modeled a writer being a writer. One day he was in our class and the following week he had a piece in the New Yorker, and a month later he was on David Letterman. Then his book came out. Then he was in Playboy and then the Paris Review. He never ever talked about it, never boasted or anything, although he certainly could have. But his being out there publishing reminded us that we had to be writing all the time, that we had to send our stuff out, and we had to work. All these guys are motivated by the art, not by commerce or anything else. Many of them came out with new books this year. They’re cranking out the work, and thank god. What a shitty world this would be if we didn’t have a new Richard Ford book once in a while. I need that like I need air.
Rumpus: You’re also a poet? How do you know something should be a poem rather than a story or a novel?
Kiefer: I almost never write stories. Stories are really hard for me. They’re much harder than writing a novel. I was on a panel at Squaw a couple years ago with Janet Fitch, and she said if she decides that she wants to spend a couple months with a character then it’s a story, but if it’s a couple years then it’s a novel. If I only want to spend a couple months with a character than I just forget about that character. Poems are separate for me. It’s a separate notebook. I’m not interested in narrative poetry anyway, so when I sit down I’m not even thinking of narrative. I’m thinking of language, kind of in a Rae Armantrout sort of vein, and in terms of getting at the language for the sake of expressing something that narrative can’t express.
Rumpus: How did you get involved with the Squaw Valley Community of Writers?
Kiefer: Many years ago I did the Art of the Wild, where I just showed up and read my work as a guest. I’ve known Louis B. Jones casually for years. When my first book came out I sent him a copy, and he found a spot for me at Squaw. They graciously asked me back the following year. You know how it is—that’s a transformative event for the participants and for the staff!
Rumpus: How does teaching affect your writing?
Kiefer: Since you brought us Squaw, that’s an event that really gets me fired up to create. One night I stayed up all night, watched the J.D. Salinger documentary on my phone, and worked on my book. I was drunk out of my mind on absinthe, but there’s something about being around people like Hector Tobar and Glen David Gold and Tom Barbash that make it all seem like a good idea. And it is a good idea. There was a moment where I was sitting at a table across from Tom and thought, I can’t believe I’m talking to Tom Barbash! It was a pretty great moment. Or talking with Steve Almond at two in the morning when everyone else is asleep. How lucky was I that that guy was taking a half hour of his night to have a conversation with me? At American River College, I learn a lot from my students, not about writing but a lot about how to be a human being. That’s about the most important thing anyone can learn anyway.
Rumpus: Where do you write? Do you write at home, and how do you while having six sons?
Kiefer: Only five are at home. One is all grown up. I have a separate building on the property. It’s a recording studio on the bottom floor with a little loft upstairs. I write up there.
Rumpus: Where did your musical instincts come from?
Kiefer: Probably from my dad. We had an electric guitar, an old amp and a drum set in the house. We also had a vast record collection of all the early Stones, the Beatles, Hendrix, Cream, and Earth, Wind & Fire, so I was raised in a household with music and things that made music. My dad was a drummer, so when I was learning how to play he could teach me stuff. When I switched to guitar we could actually play together in my bedroom. We’d have these great jam sessions. Eventually, I convinced one of my buddies to play bass so we could sort of play songs—or as you do at fourteen. We’d play “Stray Cats Strut” for like forty minutes nonstop.
Rumpus: How does your music affect your writing?
Kiefer: When I’m heavy into writing a book there’s no creative energy left. Lately, I keep a guitar or a couple guitars next to where I write so when I’m stuck or just need a break I can noodle a bit. But for my first book I totally stopped playing music. I didn’t even touch my guitar for two years. When you’re really working hard in music you dream melodies or when you’re in the shower or driving in your car melodies come to you. You’re tapped into the spirit of the music. When I’m writing heavy what comes to me are sentences. Sentences are in a sense melodic. I’m fiercely attuned to the musicality of a sentence, and in some ways that’s why I write. For that reason, my favorite writer is William Faulkner, whose plots sometimes are stupid, but his sentences are so miraculous. I’ve read the first two pages of Absalom, Absalom! probably a thousand times, because I think those are the best two sentences—the first two pages are two sentences—ever written in the English language.
Rumpus: There’s a lot about Van Halen in The Animals.
Kiefer: I listened to a lot of Van Halen while researching the book. I grew up on the 1984 album in particular. I actually like Van Halen. I listened to a lot of Rush too, but I’m not really a Rush fan like I’m a Van Halen fan. That was actual work for me to sit down and listen to Moving Pictures over and over again like Rick does, but I could listen to 1984 for pleasure any time. One of my favorite moments on the road was when I read out loud to my band David Lee Roth’s entire autobiography. I half hope that he reads the book and I get to meet him!
Rumpus: How many instruments do you play?
Kiefer: In rock band context I can play anything, which isn’t really that impressive. Anyone who has been in a rock band a long time can play anything in a rock band. Because the drummer gets drunk or something and you have to sit in for him that night. Maybe a bad example since my drummer doesn’t drink.
Rumpus: You also wrote a soundtrack to The Animals.
Kiefer: I did, and I produced it. I collected musical elements, pieced them together in the studio, and assembled a soundtrack in a way a music director might assemble a soundtrack for a film. Some of the stuff I’m playing on. A couple pieces are solo guitar pieces that other people did. It’s about an hour of music and it captures the tonality of the book. I don’t know if someone would necessarily listen to it while reading the book, but it covers the tonality in a way that a great film soundtrack reminds you of how great the film is without necessarily quoting from it.
Rumpus: Where can your readers find the soundtrack?
Kiefer: That will come out on vinyl at the end of March from Jealous Butcher Records up in Portland. The digital version will be out on iTunes at the same time. And it’s called What You Have Come For Is Death, which is the first sentence of the book.
Rumpus: You’re writing a third novel. Can you talk about the evolution of your writing from your first novel to this one? How has the process of writing a novel changed for you?
Kiefer: The new one is far and away the most ambitious thing that I’ve attempted. It takes place in Europe in 1806, and it’s about a German-born photographer working for Napoleon’s military. It’s a total Italo Calvino slash Jorge Luis Borges freak-out book. It has a lot of layers. It’s grounded in reality but also very much uncoupled from reality. While they’re living in eighteenth century Europe, they’re also living on a separate plane of existence simultaneously. A fairytale plane. I think it’s going to have six or seven different endings like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Richard Ford said about his latest book Let Me Be Frank With You that he was coming back from New Orleans and sentences were coming to his mind, and they were Frank Bascombe’s sentences. He was surprised. That’s the case with me. I think in terms of images and sentences, and when those two things come together, if my mind is occupying this, I have to work it out. My friend Tim Rutili is in the band Califone, and I’ve heard him say, “If I think about something long enough, I’ll start dreaming about it, and if I start dreaming about it, I’ll start writing songs about it.” Your mind gets hung on something and it can’t let go of it. And if it can’t let go of it for long enough, you need to make it into art—if you’re like you and I.