Interview with Kris Saknussemm


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In January 2006 I met with ZANESVILLE author Kris Saknussemm outside Readings Bookstore on Lygon Street in Carlton, Melbourne, Australia.

I’ve been a heavy user of the Internet for years now and I’ve met hundreds of people online. Kris is the first person I had the courage to meet in person. I still felt dodgy, hanging around outside the bookstore waiting for him. I had no idea at all what he looked like. Despite the press clippings I had collected, a photograph of the author remained elusive. I mused to myself that perhaps Kris was Clearfather himself, a master reality hacker who creates his own past and controls his own future.

Zanesville sure hacked my mind, its thoughtware continued to alter my perception for many days after putting the book down. I felt I knew him and what to expect but I had no idea who he was. Other guys who looked like writers were hanging around outside the bookshop as well; I just could not bring myself to approach and ask – hey man, are you Kris? Too dodgy for my liking. Thankfully I was not waiting long when a guy who I had never seen before but looked very familiar walks on up and says – are you Brentley? – o good, lets go eat. A few weeks earlier I received an email from him saying that he thought Retort Magazine was cool and would I like to have a look at his new book ZANESVILLE. Of course I would, that crazy duck on the website freaked me out. Besides, who can resist the catch line from an advertisement I had seen – Better to lose an election than an erection! After many lengthy email discussions we agreed it would be cool to meet next time he was in town, and after embarking on his hyperactive neuron altering text I was looking very forward to the opportunity.

Zanesville is something entirely new, a new art form, a digital petrii dish, an uncontained biomystic disaster that is still somehow contained, somehow…

It is a world that is familiar but totally alien with a startling array of new consumer products to dazzle and astound (try a tinned tiny hammerhead shark won’t you). Zanesville literally begins with a tornado, a potent symbol of the vortex of our protagonist’s history. The introduction reads like an extended lead-in to a sci-fi film, the massive scale of a Lucas blockbuster crossed with the claustrophic foreboding and weirdness of Bowie’s Labyrinth. Instantly I was drawn into the story as I downloaded Clearfather’s history file into my head (or the story was drawn into me, who can tell?).

This is like bluetooth text transmission, wireless, no big spikes through the back of your skull like in the matrix. And this old historic world Saknussemm paints, that hints of the absinthe soaked debaucheries of Baudelaire and dreadful biblical forebodings, already reeks of the techno-paranoia that is to follow. This is a world of the putrid stenches that linger beneath the sanitised vinyl seats of a busy commuter train. Strange albino children obscured in sedative fogs. Butch pixies. Cracked lips oozing collagen. Adventures in the Patrick Swayze Center for Serious Depression. Overnight stays in the Will Smith Hotel. Flesh and machine unified, bodily secretions and digitised DNA sequences. This is not a map-on-the-first-page fantasy novel, these biomechanoids that hang around in derelict factory precincts aren’t carrying your light sabre, they want to wear your face. It reminds you that plastic is made out of oil and oil is made out of dead animals and rotten trees. It’s a anarchistic spiritual journey this text, a satirical metamorphosis of our dystopic 20th century fondness for infomercials and the latest gadget into a twisted nightmarish future of drug dependency, addiction to superficial surgery and bioengineering, a broken urban landscape littered with the remnants of an exhausted consumerist ideology, a slapped stick insect leaking its green guts onto grandma’s favourite lace tablecloth, or a smashed flatscreen monitor oozing liquid crystals onto an autopsy table.

This book is the Hegelian dialectic manifested, it contains a threat and this threat contains its own solution, it is Sleeping Beauty’s fruit and the Prince’s kiss all rolled into one easy to swallow pill. Kris Saknussemm is like a magician directing a film inside of your head. They say a picture paints a thousand words – I’d sure like to see a thousand words from Zanesville made into a picture. That would be some freaky picture indeed. The biomystical character Clearfather, ex porn star turned cyberwarrior against the omnipresent technofeudal overlord the Vitessa Corporation is enigmatic, loveable, charismatic and prone to playing with language in a high brow intellectual way but can suddenly slide into slovenly rhymes such as “Old Mrs. Rushcutter had a rough-cut punt. Not a punt-cut rough, but a rough-cut punt.” In other words, totally loveable! The narration from the story’s author and the protagonists own observations become very blurred, almost like it is Clearfather telling the story himself in this clever almost idiot-savant kind of obsessive way. Books like this help you to remember that in the beginning there was The Word, and that the word reigns supreme. Characters like Clearfather will live on in the cybernetic dream.

Saknussemm has shoved his way into the broken line of my favourite authors, he writes with the mastery of the greats, Baudelaire, Lautremont, Philip K Dick, William Burroughs, JG Ballard, Umberto Eco to name but a few. He creates a new version of the old familiar world, a new fractal of the possible direction we could all slide if this dimension continues as it is. Do yourself a favour and read Zanesville, read it three times. It is being described as brilliant, funny, impressively deliberate and as one of the most original books to appear in a long time; and I agree with the reviews. It is not every day you get the ear of a burgeoning great author and I definitely wanted to ask him some questions, this was going to be interesting indeed. We spent four hours on the pavement in the sun drinking beer. I managed to ask him the following questions before coherence left me for the evening.

zanesvilleFirst up Kris, after I read your book I could not help but think of many of my favourite authors, (see above). Do you view such comparisons as debilitating to an author’s career, or do you find such comparisons encouraging?

We’ve all heard the saying, “You can choose your friends, but not your family.” Well, the thing that writers do above all is to choose their family. They externalise their imaginations and emotional being, and they knowingly or not reach out to their antecedents and inspirers. I think the only time comparisons are debilitating is when an author feels they’re outright invalid or superficially applied. In this case, you’ve put me in great company, and I’d love to think my work was worthy of them.

In several reviews I read of Zanesville previous to my having read the book it was painted as being a satire, comic, a parody. Personally, while indeed in part it was obviously a satire, you intentionally draw our attention to this in the beginning with the giant electronic billboards streaming AL-WAQI’A STILL A THREAT, I found it contained a warning about humanity’s current obsession with things like genetic engineering and physical enhancement via plastic surgery and implants, the dangers of physiologically addictive entertainments and artificial stimulants. But it was also funny, and entertaining. So my question is, was it your intention to educate and entertain, or just freak people out in general?

This may say something disturbing about my psyche, but it would have been a far freakier work if I’d really let my creatures loose. I felt I was being very disciplined and restrained. I hesitate to claim any educational benefit. Authors who consciously try to educate their audience have usually underestimated their audience. I’m very happy if the book is entertaining. Entertaining the people I’m trying to reach is a high calling. As to the predictive, warning aspect of the story, there are undeniably things in our society which are scary and which really scare me. I find the best way to deal with them is through farce. Other people’s paranoia can be so amusing—it’s only our own that grates and jars. ZANESVILLE was a way for me to distance myself from certain fears about our culture and regain my sense of humor and hopefulness.

There is an ever-present supernatural theme throughout the book, to your character’s, godheads and ritual prayers are commonplace. I read in your biography that while working with the guerrilla theatre group you founded (False Frontier Society) you had a near fatal fall from scaffolding. Did this experience lead you into themes of mortality, transcendence and personal longevity that you explore in Zanesville, or were these things of interest to you previously?

These themes have always been of interest to me, and indeed the accident you mention, although unhinging, was only one in a long series of “ritual enactments.” I’ve always believed in a secret, invisible world of presences and influences behind or adjacent to this reality. When I was growing up, my father was a minister and my mother was a drama teacher and theatre director, so there was from the beginning an underlying element of ritual magic and “spirit talking” in the family, although neither of my parents would have acknowledged it as such. My principal life experience and the inciting incident for this on-going fascination actually occurred when I was 9. I was attacked by a sexual predator along a railroad bridge that lay on the way home from school. I escaped but all my school books had to be abandoned. I went into traumatic shock, living with my grandmother for six weeks afterward. When I eventually returned to school, I found that my classmates, who had found my school books torn up along the tracks, assumed I’d been killed. For the rest of that year I had an eerie celebrity of having come back from the dead. That sense of movement between the worlds has never left me.

I believe that there is an important relationship between the scanning/surveillance technology in Zanesville and the diagnostic quality of the text as a whole. I get the impression you are a heavy technology buff. Are you personally interested in the evolution of technology and the future implications of such things as nanobots, or are you like a method actor who gets seriously interested in his subject only while writing about it and then you become an authority on the subject?

As with people like J.G. Ballard, I am extremely curious about the interplay between technological development, culture and the individual psyche. Back in the middle of the 19th Century Thoreau said “Man has become the tool of his tools.” Ever since I read that I’ve been interested in trying to understand the dynamics of this observation, and I’ve been very influenced by people like the anthropologist Edward T. Hall and his theory of how our technological “extensions” have redefined and vastly accelerated human evolution. The whole question is, I think, the major cultural issue of our time. But I’m not a technophile and certainly not a techno-fetishist. If anything, I believe we overvalue, animate and even deify technology, while forgetting or ignoring some of the really complex and intricate social mechanisms which define human culture and make technological advancement possible.

May I pry into your technique? If I may, how reliant are you on technology? Are you one of those writers who uses the latest voice-to-text technology or do you sit down in the garden under a shady tree with a notebook and a cigarette? Do you work with the smell of high-density plastics or old typewriter ribbons?

I’ve had a bag of mini-cassette tapes and a handheld recorder for years. Never been able to use them. I have to have the keyboard action, to have those reflex arcs lit up. I use a laptop now, which does offer some appreciated mobility, and I carry notebooks and pens around—but just for notes. For me, working effectively outside my office would be like a sculptor who welds trying to do stuff on the run. You can harvest things, reflect on what you’re doing and get inspiration—but then you have to get back to the shed. Using a computer just makes sense. Mine’s a cool silver one with a lovely sensual touch. Her name is Barbara.

You are from the United States originally and have been living in Australia for the past 20 years. Although your book uses American English I find it very, if you’ll forgive my terminology, European in its philosophical thematics, it’s post-existential anti-authoritarianism, like the writings of Guy Debord in Society of The Spectacle. Also I cannot help but think of Nietzsche while reading Zanesville, his Ubermensch seems manifestly Clearfatherish, as does his Zarathustra. Do you have an affinity toward any particular national identity or do you consider yourself a citizen of the world?

Often when people hear me speak they can’t quite pick out what kind of accent I have or where I’m from. I guess that’s how I think of myself. Very American in one sense, and not all in others. I definitely have been heavily influenced by European writers and thinkers like DeBord and René Girard, the author of books like Violence and the Sacred. There is a profound insularity (if not ignorance) in American culture, which is only understandable because Americans feel they are the centre of the world at this point in history. That view concerns me greatly so I can’t imagine ever feeling truly “at home” there, although I confess I also miss it. I think I’ve come around to being grateful for my distance from American culture, even though that hasn’t helped my writing career—but I’m always curious about what sort of outrageousness they’re going to get up to next. The US is arguably the best funded social experiment on the planet, and I don’t want to miss anything.

It is obvious from reading your work and speaking with you that you are wide awake to the political situation on planet earth at present. What is your take on the current government attitude of implying that ‘the arts’ are dangerous to the statuts quo and the implementation of draconian sedition laws. Do you consider this to be an ominous sign of a further erosion of civil liberties?

Henry Miller once said, “We don’t need more freedoms, we need bigger ideas.” To me, there’s no question that there is a concerted program in place in America which is designed to undermine specific freedoms that I feel are very important, and it’s spreading fast to places like Australia. But sometimes the civil libertarians worry me as much as the religious fundamentalists and the political hardliners. Fanaticism and ideology are the real enemies—and the nullification of common sense that comes from inter-tribal conflict. In the American state of Florida, a currently enshrined civil liberty is the right of average citizens to carry a concealed firearm. I don’t know if I feel good about that. Or consider the issue of abortion. If you’re a leftist minded person, to have any reservations at all about the abortion rights issue’s monolithic importance on the social agenda is sacrilege. Forget healthcare, education, the environment or the question of public versus private responsibility—are you Pro-Choice, yes or no? No one could be more vehemently opposed to the growing strength of the Christian Right than I am, but I find it ludicrous and pathetic when singing Christmas carols is outlawed in public schools and the only song that passes muster is “Frosty the Snowman.” This is one of the things that ZANESVILLE is about—the paralysis of reason and goodwill—the inability to be discerning for fear of discrimination.

I think there are indeed vicious assholes out there trying to control us, but I’m actually far less worried about their frontal assaults on personal liberties, than I am by the collateral and peripheral damage of orthodoxy, political correctness and the downside of things like computer technology, which offers so many welcome benefits while having harrowing implications for the right to privacy.

As to any “attack” on the Arts, whether overt or insidious, I think it’s a blessing. We have far too many culturally approved artists supported by grants, comfortable with low-responsibility teaching positions (that are really effectively grants) or earning significant sums for churning out insipid middle of the road drek. I don’t think artists as individuals have any responsibility to be political, moral or socially instructive in the least. They do need to have ability, vision and courage. I think threats of “sedition” are the best thing that could happen. The sad truth is the Arts today are about dangerous as whist and lawn bowls.

Considering the previous question and the climate we are operating in here, and if it’s not asking you to jump into the fire, what is your political persuasion? Are you left of the fence, right of the fence, or have you built an easy chair on the fence?

In American terms I am staunchly left. I believe the current administration is not only stupid but malignant. The nation’s foreign policy is a disaster of phallic militarism and commercial greed. The let market forces rule/retreat behind the walls of wealth mentality has, along with endemic racism, meant that the public delivery of healthcare and education is virtually obsolete. Things ain’t good on any level and those in power are intent on doing still more and possibly irreparable damage. Of course they are merely public stooges for less directly accountable corporate criminals and witch hunt-hungry special interest groups who are crazed with a religious sense of mission that is every bit as terrifying as the most rabid Muslim fundamentalist.

Living in Australia, my views soften considerably and I think the situation is genuinely very, very different. I strongly oppose many of the Federal Government’s policies but I think Labour is a shambles of ineptitude and petty squabbling. The Union movement seems deeply corrupt, and no party is effectively supporting small business, which is responsible for 75% of employment in the country. The privatisation mania will no doubt have the same negative effect as in the States, and yet I see that there has long been a complacency within the Australian populace, a dependence on a bureaucratic socialist model of government, which in my view still needs to be prodded awake. As to Australia’s support of American foreign policy, what real choice is there? Either party would do the same. In for a dime, in for a dollar. Or rather—in for a penny, in for a pound of flesh—and a cubic tonne or two of greenhouse emissions.

You said in a letter to me that it took you many years to get this book into print, and I applaud Villard (an imprint of Random House) for doing so. With this in mind and considering the fact that Retort is a writers magazine, I have to ask you a writer type question. Do you have any advice for all the writers out there who are walking the same path littered with rejection slips and faith stealing economic ghosts? Maybe a little advice about keeping the faith, which often seems to be the hardest part…

One of the principal characters in ZANESVILLE says at one point, “I have time for science, religion and magic.” I think all three are required to survive as a writer. You mentioned faith, so let’s take religion first. It’s essential to have faith not just in yourself but in a higher power or more precisely, a higher purpose. For some people, this will be a traditional divinity. For others it will be like the Third Mind that William Burroughs and Brion Gysin wrote of. For still others, it will be a sense of participating and sharing in a larger cultural project—telling a portion of the Giant Story, contributing to the Big Debate. However you think of it, you have to feel you are not just alone typing in a room. You are linked. You bring the whole art form alive through your efforts. The word has to be made flesh continuously. As ego-driven as the enterprise can often seem to be, it’s really about communication, connection and collaboration. Those who lose themselves will find themselves.

The science is the systematic discipline of defining your audience and reaching out to them in deliberate, measurable ways. Don’t show your work to friends or colleagues you know won’t understand it (although you may well reconsider them as friends and colleagues). And don’t submit your work to publications or publishers that are clearly not going to “get” it. I once submitted a highly experimental novel to a major New York publisher—and surprise, surprise, they wrote back! They wrote back and suggested I seek urgent psychiatric evaluation. We can, if we choose, sabotage ourselves and waste tremendous amounts of time and energy. Or, we can be brutally honest and build the strongest and most self-sustaining networks possible, however small. The acid test is this—which would you honestly prefer, one reader who really digests your words, questions your ideas and engages with what you write—or ten people who know your name? Do you want the big display section in the chain bookstore—or would you feel more pride in seeing someone in a wheelchair who is dependent on public transport get your book out of the library? If you’re truly honest with yourself about what kind of success you’re seeking, you’re 100% more likely to achieve it.

As to magic, I mean the ceremonial attempt to reinforce and project one’s imagination. I set out to write not to seek approval or gain recognition and/or income—I wanted to make a world interesting and whole enough for me to live in. Of course contracts, reviews, awards and recognition become important—but they are really only means to send one’s imagination rippling further out into the pond. My work space is filled with icons, images and quotations that strengthen my inspiration field. I see the whole act as transposing my Tardis-like environment into the larger world. Above my desk is this remark from Kafka:

“If you have the strength to look at things steadily, without, as it were, blinking your eyes, you can see much; but if you relax only once and shut your eyes, everything fades immediately into obscurity.”

I think above all else, writers need to protect their sense of concentration. It’s a hard thing, because you may lose a lot. I lost a marriage. I lost years and thousands of dollars. I now celebrate those losses and failures. Unless you are a culturally sanitised spokesperson angling for grants and approval, you will be very lonely and wonder what the hell. But every so often, if you can sustain your focus and suspend your own disbelief, the magic circuit will be completed and for a moment you will be not just telling a part of the Story but a character in it. Now all you have to do is to make that moment last.

And finally, but very importantly, what can we expect next from Clearfather in The Lodemania Testament, from the brilliant mind of Kris Saknussemm? Is there any thing you can give away without ruining the surprise?

The next book, which has the working title of ENIGMATIC PILOT, takes us back to the beginning of the Lodemania saga—to the birth of Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd in the mid 19th Century—his mystical experience with the tornado and the trials and adventures that both shape my alternate version of America and his life. His first life.

Readers will have to wait a little longer to find out what happens to Clearfather and for “all to be revealed”.

ZANESVILLE by Kris Saknussemm
A Villard Trade Paperback Original
ISBN 0-8129-7416-6 $23.95 US
As yet unreleased in Australia
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© Brentley Frazer