About five and half years ago, I was applying to MFA programs and headed to my first AWP conference. In the airport on our way to Seattle, a friend introduced me to Levis Keltner, writer, Editor-in-Chief of Newfound, and graduate of the Texas State MFA program. I think I asked him a million questions that day, and he so generously answered them all. As his first novel, Into That Good Night, debuts, it’s an honor to question him once again. His responses, as always, are illuminating.
Shannon Perri: Your works have killer openings. For instance, your recent essay, “Resting His Eyes,” published here in Entropy Magazine, starts:
“Joe taught me about special effects, how the horror of a horror movie is fiction. The head blown off with a shotgun is a watermelon placed on a mannequin’s neck. The zombie-chewed shoulder is latex, cotton balls, and makeup. To get me to lower my hands and look, my grandpa explained these nightmares as tricks, technical feats plus imagination.”
Brilliant! And your novel begins: “Without the Summerson girl, we might never have recovered from the tragedy of young John Walker. The winter after his diagnosis, she was found stabbed to death in the woods outside of town.”
So captivating. What is your process/philosophy on ensnaring the reader from the get-go?
Levis Keltner: First off, thank you so much for interviewing me and for the kind words about the opening paragraphs. In their first drafts, neither story started as they appear here. These sections came during later revisions and were shuffled to the beginning.
Growing up, my father was the most amazing storyteller. Though he had only a fifth-grade education, he had a way of talking, a rhythm and a tone that got people to listen, confident in that, wherever his story went, it would deliver a punch. I aspire to emulate him in these oral history-style starts that allow a reader to sink comfortably into the dream of the story.
SP: In the referenced essay about your grandfather, Joe, you write: “I don’t think Joe ever expected me to write about him. He wouldn’t be too happy with my portrayal, eulogized as anything but a generous man loved by his friends and family. And maybe he would goad me to hit him as hard as I could.”
Your words made me think about how the goal of writing is to hit as hard as possible, to get at a truth. Do you find this “hard-hitting” more challenging in nonfiction versus fiction?
LK: Well said! Then I wonder what it means for a piece to hit hard. Are we talking verisimilitude? Whether a subjective human experience is rendered authentically enough? In fiction, there’s this feeling—right?—of peeling back a character’s many layers to expose the marrow of a story to readers. In application, it’s more like painting—broad strokes first, then finer and finer strokes over a series of drafts.
For me, this hitting hard in nonfiction wasn’t much different, but the process was longer and more personal.
After my racist, alcoholic grandpa died, I honestly didn’t feel much—little grief, little nostalgia, little loss. That was the story of draft one. I remember showing the draft to Tatiana Ryckman, who does a lot of great creative nonfiction, and she pushed me out deeper. She asked things like, “How does feeling nothing make you feel?” and “Could things have been different?” The introspective peeling back began, draft after draft. It was like therapy. It took months of interrogating the character—me in this case, or the semi-fictional me—to uncover what the story was really about.
There’s the additional challenge of portraying real people, family. The point of the piece was to exhume serious family bullshit, but straw folk do not great writing make. I worked to be as thoughtful as I could in portraying problematic individuals. In any case, the harder I swung, the uglier the truth became. The story went through a dozen drafts before I’d beaten down to the pulp.
SP: You are a writer, teacher, and Editor-in-Chief of Newfound, a nonprofit literary journal and small press. How do these different roles influence each other, if at all?
LK: As editor-in-chief, I manage the team, handle our financials, oversee grant work, manage the journal and chapbook prizes, and hand bind chapbooks. It sounds exhausting. Sometimes it is. Mostly the work energizes me, reminds me how much writing and publishing matters in challenging monoculture, fascism, bigotry, and all that trash, as much as it matters during the deeply personal process of reading and writing to understand the self and the world.
SP: The latest issue of Newfound is unapologetically political. The theme is “Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere,” and the cover image says, “No Fascist USA.” What are your thoughts on the intersection of art, politics, and social justice? Should art have a political agenda?
LK: During my undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I joined the International Socialist Organization for a stint. I went to meetings and we protested on campus and around the city. I still remember when the local chapter’s second in command learned that I studied creative writing and how disgusted he was. Art reinforced bourgeois bullshit, he was certain, and therefore couldn’t ever effect meaningful change. I came to realize that the ISO’s brand of socialism was problematic on a lot of levels, but the most troubling was the idea that revolution was simply a matter of equally redistributing wealth and control. A fan of thinkers like Paulo Freire and Jiddu Krishnamurti, I knew that the conditions of our lives shape our minds often as cogs of systems of domination and any revolution would be short lived without a liberation culture that questioned monoculture of any kind. The arts are tools toward that revolution.
The idea that politics and everything are interconnected seems pretty popular today. As Danez Smith lit-famously said, “Every poem is political.” Or am I speaking from a Twitter-friends bubble?
SP: This June you’ve published your first novel. Because the experience is still fresh, could you tell us more about your process, both in terms of writing Into That Good Night, pitching it to agents, and ultimately selling it? With hindsight, would you do anything differently?
LK: I entered my MFA naively—it seems a common narrative? I expected to write a great book or some knockout stories and to slide into a book deal. My development as a writer and frankly as a person didn’t match the shape of those expectations. I’ve been writing seriously for ten years and only now understand what I have to add to the literary conversation and how to say it. It took several years after the MFA and putting to bed all the old writing and starting fresh before the novel clicked into place. Bless all those that get it a lot sooner. Even then, writers need opportunities to be seen. So few have opportunities to be seen by tastemakers and land that [insert dreams here].
In hindsight, I would take another year or three before submitting to agents to polish the manuscript and work harder to build a readership by publishing short work in journals. If my favorite writers took months, sometimes years, to craft a single story, how did I think I was going to write an amazing novel in two measly years on top of working two jobs? Great writers say this on repeat during craft talks, I feel, and yet it can be a struggle to put off the payoff of “finishing” or “making it” and to simply enjoy the process itself.
The novel took two years to write and underwent significant revisions at each stage, for about two years, thereafter. My agent Mark Gottlieb and my editor were largely pleased with the book. Still, I kept at revision until the very last minute. Even now, though I’m resigned that no novel is perfect, I wish I’d had time for one more pass to tighten the language even more. But a writer could do that forever.
SP: About your novel, Tim O’Brien writes, “Keltner has given us a smart, engaging, and gracefully written story, full of surprises, beautifully plotted, and peopled by fascinating and complicated characters. I was spellbound from start to finish. What a truly wonderful book this is.”
What I appreciate about this book, and your writing in general, is that it has plot-driven momentum, but doesn’t lack human complexity. As a storyteller, how do you balance the need for narrative drive with the need for character depth?
LK: That’s sweet of you to say. Funny enough, what you identify as a strength, some might identify as a weakness. Is the book a page-turning YA mystery or a thoughtful coming-of-age literary work? Choose a side, right?
I came to terms early on that Into That Good Night wouldn’t satisfy beach readers or the literary cool kids. I hope the book finds a home among a third readership that shamelessly enjoys the ride of genre plotting with stops along the way to ponder existence. Those are the books I want to read. To me that’s the full package.
Reading Shakespeare’s plays first made me consider that a story could do all the things: interesting prose, complex characterization, tight plot. I’ve also come to see that great novels engage readers on three fronts—emotionally, politically, and existentially. I constantly consider how these aspects are playing out in the plotting and characterization.
To pull any of it off, I proudly rely on my friends for rigorous feedback while drafting. Raymond Carver once said that he accepted nine out of ten comments that friends made about his stories, so I feel in good company. The genius posturing of some artists is tired and false. Authorship is as slippery as selfhood—we’re all coauthors of each other in some way, no? I accept the limits of my experience yet aim toward the polyphonic novel. At some point I need you and others to point out what I can’t see. I think that’s more than OK. It’s healthy.
SP: Into That Good Night embraces many compelling questions, such as: how does one find purpose amidst unspeakable grief? Or, why are humans drawn to groupthink, and what does it take to break away and think independently? I’m curious—as you write, do you consider theme?
LK: The distinction between drama and the socio-political implications of that drama are inseparable to me. And I read quite a bit of nonfiction that falls under philosophy or X theory, and that likely leaks into the work. I also write to understand what I find distressing. At the time of writing Into That Good Night it was being & nothingness and the tendency for well-intentioned groups to fuck up the world as if means wasn’t ends.
I can be terribly critical and find fault in every work and enjoy picking apart canon works or overrated popular stuff. The critical impulse can be disastrous in writing. If allowed to set up straw characters for a beat down, the whole story will be lifeless and meager and false. I struggled to turn the damn thing off, to write against the impulse. Then I realized I could go the other way with it and lend my characters the eyes to scrutinize their worlds and their interiority and to expose their rich and conflicted inner lives. This critical tendency is probably also why, I’ve recently realized, that all my stories are tragedies.
SP: Though the novel has a clear protagonist, the point-of-view rotates amongst several characters, and at times even shifts to an omniscient perspective. The book examines group dynamics, so the alternating point-of-view seems fitting. Still, how did you settle on this way to tell the story?
LK: Into that Good Night is very much the story of a group, and a roaming close point-of-view felt like the only way to make every kid’s fears and dreams and desires authentic and to spark understanding from the reader. Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse was a huge inspiration and resource in this regard.
I also believe it’s inevitable for a literary mystery to play on subjectivity. Readers want answers, so the real story must be about the search for answers. How much are answers worth? How does the search contribute to our problems? Do answers bring clarity and peace, or does such resolution come from another place entirely? These are the real mysteries that Doug and his friends explore in Into That Good Night. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods were big inspirations in that regard, and always the work of Jiddu Krishnamurti.
SP: I’m obsessed with the Bruce Springsteen “Dead Man Walkin’” lyric that precedes your novel: “Between our dreams and actions lies this world.” What world are you living in now—or put simpler—what’s next?
LK: I’m so glad to hear the line resonated with you! It was a lucky fit for the book and has since served as a needed reminder of the similarities between the writing life and being a musician. I used to be in a band, a lifestyle in which living out of one’s van for months at a time, touring for years before you had an album on a label, let alone a major one, was an easy swallow because you believed in what you were doing without interest in selling out to make it big. It wasn’t a glamorous life. It was authentic one.
Somewhere along the transition from music to writing, I think I forgot that writers were artists, or can be, if interested in pushing at the boundaries of form and content. So, I’m enjoying where I’m at writing-wise—an indie author who’s found voice with a lot more to say.
Going at my own pace, I’m working on short pieces for journals and magazines—a fiction short story and an essay about Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, even some poems. And I’ve started a semi-fictional novel about the Santa Cruz Strangler, the porn industry, Silicon Valley AI researchers, and the end of the world.
Shannon Perri holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas and an MFA from Texas State University, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has appeared in Joyland Magazine, fields, Fiddleblack, and elsewhere. She lives in Austin and is at work on a novel set in Big Bend National Park.
Levis Keltner is the author of the novel Into That Good Night. His short work has appeared in Entropy and Bull: Men’s Fiction. He is the editor-in-chief at Newfound and teaches writing at Texas State University.