Stefan Kiesbye and I first met at the University of Tampa, where I was a student in the low-residency MFA program. Stefan was a faculty member. While he was not my direct mentor, he taught many classes and workshops, and generously shared his views on fiction with me and other students. I felt I knew him.
But during this interview, I discovered new things: Stefan grew up in a superstitious household that believed in witches and ghosts; his answer to a flagging muse is to feed it rotten apples; he prefers to write by the seat of his pants; and he has an obsession with feet. Of course, there were other things: the success of Stefan’s previous book, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, cast a shadow for some time; the humor in Stefan’s books comes from a place of some darkness—he does not consider himself a humorous guy; and he believes that some things are better left unsaid.
Stefan was born on the German coast of the Baltic Sea and moved to Berlin in the early 1980s. He studied drama and worked in radio before starting a degree in American studies, English, and comparative literature at Berlin’s Free University. He received a scholarship that brought him to Buffalo, New York, in 1996 and later received his MFA from the University of Michigan. He teaches creative writing at Sonoma State University.
Srefan’s first book, Next Door Lived a Girl, won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone was a top pick of Oprah Magazine and Entertainment Weekly. Slate named it one of the best books of 2012. His novel Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames, originally published in Germany as Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht, will come out in Fall 2016. The LA noir novella, Fluchtpunkt Los Angeles(written in English as Vanishing Point) was released in Germany in February 2015.
His new book, The Staked Plains, will be available in November from Saddle Road Press.
Robyn Ringler: You moved to California recently. Do you miss Portales [New Mexico]?
Stefan Kiesbye: [Laughs]
Is that a no?
It’s complicated. Any transition comes with this weird sort of letting go. But, no. Even though I always told horror stories about it, it was a good place. It’s a weird place. We didn’t want to retire there, but the work we did largely with students who were totally underserved by the state—by everyone—that part was really nice.
I felt the aura of Portales in The Staked Plains. Is Querosa, with its dust, wind, and lack of color, a landscape you are familiar with? Or was that an exaggerated view?
No, it’s not very exaggerated. The Eastern High Plains are very barren. It’s an acquired taste. The closest airport was Lubbock, Texas. You fly in, and there are no mountains there. Not even a molehill. On all four sides, it’s completely flat. For a lot of people, it’s just not enough. They wish there were mountains or huge forests. But I always felt happy coming in. You could see everything for miles and miles and miles. I grew strangely fond of it. But when dust storms hit or it’s one hundred ten degrees, it’s very forbidding, very harsh.
It seems you move a fair amount. Is it because of work?
I would say that my wife and I get antsy once in a while. Part is the job, part is just trying to change things up.
The reason I asked is because people say it’s difficult to get jobs teaching creative writing.
Absolutely. It’s a total crap shoot. You never have any clue why you get interviews one year and not the next. After 2007–2008, universities had hiring freezes because of the economy. I think right now the job market is a little better. Any year there are maybe sixty to seventy creative writing positions, but including fiction and poetry, there might be eighty. It’s a very small pool, and people want the whole package—twenty or more years of experience. So, yeah, it is relatively hard.
How did you end up teaching at the University of Tampa MFA program where you and I met?
Jeff Parker [founder of the UT MFA program] lived in Michigan for a number of years, and we taught at the same university. I was adjuncting. He was tenure-track faculty. He ran a small press with three of his friends from Syracuse. Before we had ever met, this press had a novella contest. I sent my manuscript there. One of Parker’s friends contacted me and said, “You’ve won the novella contest.” A month later, I got an e-mail from Parker saying, “Oh, I see you’re in Michigan—I’m moving to Michigan.”
And that novella was Next Door Lived a Girl?
Yeah, and we’ve known each other since.
What are you driving lately?
There are so many cars in The Staked Plains—from Malibu to Impala to a souped-up truck with truck nuts, as well as Mercedes and Bugattis in LA. Several years ago, you wrote some essays with the theme: you are what you drive. At the time, you drove a Ford Escort wagon, and I wondered if you still have it?
No, unfortunately, we got rid of it when we moved to Portales because it was a very old car. We didn’t want to break down in the desert. We were like, it’s a hundred degrees, we’re broken down, we’re in between Portales and Albuquerque, and nobody will ever pick us up. We got something I describe as the Buick for people who want a Buick but need something more reliable—we’ve got a Toyota Camry now.
You wrote something about the Toyota Camry in your articles.
I said something very flattering about it.
I love the protagonist you created for The Staked Plains—Jenny, the bad psychic. And honestly, I didn’t see what was coming all the way through the book. I thought her behavior was driven by her being this bad psychic and wanting to see the future. And then having psychological challenges because she was a psychic. But in the middle there’s a hint, and toward the end it escalates and you see what’s really going on. Can you tell me about writing her?
There are basically two writers: the plotters and the “pantsers.” And I belong more in the camp of the “pantsers”—they write by the seat of their pants. I think Jenny is a lovely woman, and I like that she’s so flawed. I’m most fond of people who have a vague sense of what is right or wrong (I think it’s terrible because the religious right has totally occupied this right or wrong thing), who have a general moral compass, but also know they will never be able to fulfill that. I’ve been very fond of that—that she can’t uphold her own standards but still knows that these are her standards.
Her flaws involve the men in her life. You describe Carl as her puppy dog or dessert, while JD Hartt is the one she is desperate to latch onto. But he is an older balding banker taking over the town. Carl is a strange husband because of his lack of intimacy. He makes Jenny feel safe, but not satisfied. JD is a completely different guy who kind of pays attention to her and kind of not. What do you think about these characters?
Carl is very self-absorbed. He’s the polar opposite of Jenny, really well-meaning, but not self-aware. Jenny knows how much of a failure she can be, but Carl is just doing what he’s doing. He feels loved and, just, “Oh, this is my life.” He can’t step outside himself, which is really a blessing. Because when everything is said and done he won’t understand, but he won’t suffer because he’s not able really to suffer.
JD is different because he is the closest we come in the book to being evil, although the whole concept of evil is really weird—how it is used in our society—but he knows what he wants and he gets it, and he’s not even trying to mask it or put on a charade. He likes control. And I find him very interesting because he knows he is bad. He’s not stereotypical like some characters who laugh, “Ha ha, I’m so bad!” It’s just that his means are very dirty.
I always like my bad characters the best because they’re so full of life. They are aware of what they have to do to accomplish things. And they don’t have this, “Oh, if I only pray enough or pet little puppies enough, then I’ll go to heaven.” They’ve set themselves outside their value system and they just go straight for something. And he’s not very pretty. He had his heyday, but it was in a very small town, in Querosa, so it wasn’t a very big heyday. But with his power, no matter how ugly or bald or fat he is, he is JD, and that’s very attractive. But he’s not very sympathetic.
Tell me about politics and religion in The Staked Plains.
The area I describe in The Staked Plains is poor, underserved in every way. The hospital in town was a complete disaster—they would kill you. The school was a bright point, but education isn’t a priority for the State of New Mexico. The state is poor, the workers underpaid. Strangely, the population is also very religious. It’s part of the Bible Belt, and the Republican Party has managed to usurp the space that says, “Even though we’re not giving you anything and we will see to it that you’ll never receive a damn thing in your life, vote for us because we’re the upstanding Christian citizens of the world.”
People live in decrepit houses way below the poverty line, but still have this strange pride of “We’re the best. We’re number one in the world.” And it’s not to vilify them. People are very friendly—as long as you don’t talk about politics or religion. If there’s a family in need, like if somebody gets sick, people are there to help out. It’s a tight-knit community. But, the fraud is staggering. This town has everything to gain from something like universal health insurance, but it’s vilified and seen as sort of the Antichrist coming to town.
That’s interesting, how ideology can bend our vision on very practical things like policies that look out for the poor. Because they are poor. There’s a great fear of socialism. Church and right-wing politics are beating up any initiative to increase the minimum wage, have better working conditions, better environmental protection. On the Eastern High Plains, you have cattle ranches, tons of dairy farms that initially moved from California. In the seventies, the area was still somewhat green, and now it’s completely dry. It’s this state-endorsed sucking dry of the landscape. You have this manmade ecological disaster and everybody’s just like, okay, that’s how it is. So religion and politics are wrapped into this unholy burrito and served to people who would benefit from better politics but who are so engulfed in the church they would never look outside it.
You show that beautifully in the book. Dolores Price ran the Baptist Children’s Home. When Jenny brought Dog Boy in, Dolores refused to take him—and that was a very Christian home. Helen and Dan went to church every week, and the things they did were not at all Christian.
Changing course, I love the humor in the book. Does humor come naturally?
The humor is probably despite myself. I’m not a very humorous person. It always ends up getting so dark and weird that it’s almost funny. Humor always comes out because people are way too serious about what they are doing. Even Dolores. Dolores Price is beautiful. She is very Christian, but she’s, of course, very un-Christian. She just tries to carve out her little niche in the world.
Did you have fun writing The Staked Plains? What is it like for you to write a book?
I don’t talk ever about my writing process. I’m a big believer in making up wild stories, so I can say I get drunk every night and just write in a drunken stupor or somehow divine powers are channeled into my pen. But I don’t think anybody learns anything from writers who talk about the process because everybody has their own process. I like to give the example of Friedrich Schiller, the German poet, philosopher, playwright. He had a drawer with rotten apples. And whenever his muse was flagging he would open the drawer, smell the rotten apples and feel refreshed. Who would come up with rotten apples? So I think everybody just has to find their version of rotten apples.
But writing is not easy. Writers who think if you don’t have fun it’s kind of wrong are looking at it the wrong way. A friend in Berlin always said you can have fun afterwards when it’s all done. Then you can enjoy yourself. But this is not about something where you go, oh my God, this is so much fun! It’s hard work. You can have a drink later, that’s fine. But don’t try to enjoy it.
The one thing I promised myself I would not ask about was your writing process. So I apologize. It just came out.
That’s very funny, but I always feel bad. My mother’s side was very superstitious. Words are curses and words are little spells, and certain things are better not talked about.
So much of your imagery made me smile and created a clear picture within each scene: “tumbleweeds ran in families”; “it was a Speedo of a word”; “the beach’s surface was … seven snakes wide”; “the great winepress of the wrath of God.” How do you approach the little pieces in each sentence or paragraph as far as picking the right phrase or word? Do you labor over language?
Oops, ummm. No comment. [Laughs]
It’s okay. No comment is all right. We can just throw that one out.
I’m afraid of laboring over things because there’s humongous pressure on writers to be fresh and new, and it can easily go the other way. It’s like, the sun rose over the horizon—how many different ways can you say that? My ideal is that you are so steeped in a certain place or narrative, that you don’t have to grope for language, because usually the language you grope for is bad language. And even if it’s beautiful language, it’s too beautiful. I think where you are and what characters you spend time with should determine what you’re writing. If they’re characters that use highfalutin language, let them use highfalutin language. If they’re characters who talk in slang, let them talk slang, but don’t try to force it because everything you force will sound forced.
I read an article in The New Yorker that said voice has become, in American poetry, the major thing. That no matter what you write about, people want to recognize your voice so that—at least that writer made the argument—some writers have sacrificed content so voice will be recognized. I think that’s a problem. The message we give to a lot of writers is go find your own voice. But that’s really crap because everybody already has their own voice. So a lot of people try too hard and then it sounds full of angles and sharp edges.
Over time you might, as a writer, evolve—your style will change, your take on language will change, your stylistic capabilities will increase. But I try to be as simple as possible. And if it gets too weird or “language-y,” it should come out of the text, it should come out of the atmosphere, it should come out of the characters, because otherwise it’s trying too hard.
How has your writing evolved over the five books you’ve written?
In Next Door Lived a Girl, the language was blunt, really super blunt, and while it was, I hope, somewhat poetic too, it was cruel, brutal, violent language pared down to its minimum. Once you do that, you can’t really do it again because then you’re trapping yourself in that kind of mode. And, of course, I’ll never be a writer who’s stringing together paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs of a sentence. I’m no Faulkner. But, at the same time, you develop different sensibilities. You try to find the tone that’s right for the setting and characters. Every time, it should evolve into something else. You’ll try different things, go a different way.
For example, in The Staked Plains, it’s important that the landscape is so strange and barren and beautiful. The earth curves away from you and all you have is sky. It needs a different language than a piece set in Los Angeles where there’s nothing but the city. Ideally, you’ll find that language where it feels you are in the landscape, you are in the characters. Then it feels somewhat organic. Maybe if you were given just a cello, every time you write something you’re playing the cello slightly differently. But, in the end, it’s always a cello; in the end, I’m always Stefan Kiesbye with my blind spots and preferences and weird fetishes. I’ll never sound completely like someone else. But nevertheless, you should try to stretch and expand. So I think The Staked Plains might be a bit more lyrical than other texts I’ve written.
Tell me about Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone.
I started writing Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone as an homage to the landscape of my childhood. The Devil’s Moor really exists, though the village of Hemmersmoor is fictional. I loved the legends of that region, and I wanted to find a way to portray what I had felt as a kid—that reality and the fantastic constantly intersect and that both realms are “real.”
I started with the story where Christian kills his younger sister, and later found out I wanted to stay with that village and some of the same characters. I wasn’t planning on writing a novel, but that’s what it became. Most chapters work on their own, but the full impact of the five main characters’ lives (four of which narrate the individual chapters) only unfolds over time. No one knows the whole truth about Hemmersmoor but the reader. Only the reader gets to connect the dots, and I love that.
You had a great deal of success with the book. What was that like for you?
The success of the book allowed me to pursue new projects. But Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone also cast a shadow for some time. It had created a particular kind of world, and some people expected me to stay within that world. It’s a very common thing—you hear a song by an artist, and you want her to do the same song again, just different enough to be enjoyable again.
How is The Staked Plains different from Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone?
The Staked Plains is very different in tone. Yes, there is violence—and I don’t think I’ll ever write a book about birds and fluffy bunnies—but the Eastern High Plains are very different from the small villages in the Devil’s Moor, and pace, language, and imagery had to be very different. The biggest difference might be that the characters in Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone were children and adolescents. They committed terrible crimes, but they had no other choice in Hemmersmoor.
The point of view in The Staked Plains is also different from Your House Is on Fire, where characters narrate their own chapters.
The Staked Plains is told from the point of view of Jenny, a psychic who runs afoul of the townspeople in Querosa. And Jenny has that choice, because she’s an adult. She has money, she isn’t forced to act one way or the other. She doesn’t have to become involved in fraud and violence. That’s what I love about her—she’s clear-eyed, yet always makes the choice she knows is wrong. And she is unapologetic. She doesn’t blame anyone for the mess she gets herself into. She understands that she is choosing her own path, her own tragedy.
White was so prominent in The Staked Plains. JD wore a white jacket; there was a white peacock; white cowboy hats; she hiked toward the whiteness; the doctor was not liked because she was not white. You also had a lot of red references. Jenny’s red feet were like two orphans; the red camel or “Red Ghost;” the billboard for the new car company was big and red. What did you accomplish with color?
I think in the setting in Querosa, the light is often super bright. It eviscerates everything, blurs any boundaries, you can’t really see into it. You can’t distinguish contours, it evaporates things around you. It always points you back at yourself as the only thing that’s there. When you spend time on the Eastern Plains, if you go, for example, to a place called the Grulla National Wildlife Preserve—where Jenny goes on her own in the book—the sand is white, the light is white. It’s not yellow, it’s white. And everything dissolves. It’s beautiful. The whole world around you is sort of decomposing. It makes you stand out. You’re hot, you’re sweaty, the spotlight is on you. And it feels alien. In NYC you can go down Broadway, you can slip into the stream of things, you can lose yourself. Whereas this landscape always makes you find yourself. And that’s very painful.
The red is in many ways, the counter-white. Jenny has red hair so bright and burning that even the white can’t extinguish that. In eastern NM, you have beautiful sunsets and they’re flaming oranges and reds. And you have the midday light that’s completely white, and it’s blinding you and piercing your eyes. Those are the two extremes that you encounter in that landscape.
So, moving on to feet …
The first reference I could find to feet was from several years ago in the beautiful short fiction piece “Dreams,” where you wrote: “Her second toe was a bit longer than the big one. The way you loved it.” In The Staked Plains, Jenny uses people’s feet to tell the future. Why?
I personally find feet super interesting. I have a fascination with feet, and I noticed that very early in my life I would always stare at people’s feet. For several years, I was a running shoe salesperson. Our store was very good at fitting people with the right shoes. We made people walk without any shoes up and down our little track to see what their feet were doing to match them with shoes they could actually run in forever. So I saw a lot of feet. We’re used to having manicures, putting cream on our hands, but the feet are kind of our stepchildren. A lot of people don’t take care of them, try to hide them. In our culture, feet are gross. That’s what we have decided. Like a lot of people can’t even look at feet. Hands are observed. Feet are usually not. And I found it very interesting to observe how feet match up to the person.
When I created Jenny, I found it normal to think that, no, of course she wouldn’t take the hand because the hand is so adulterated and it’s so out in the public and spruced up. She would take the foot. To get a feeling for who that person really is. It’s the naked self.
I am curious about the reference to Jenny’s great grandmother being a witch in Germany. There are also references to eating German brats and making a German meal. Tell me about the German references.
Germany had a pretty good relationship to the witches, and what it does with Jenny’s heritage is to give her this rather funky background, this point of reference—Great Grandma was a witch, so what I’m doing is not so far out there. The German meal was coincidence and something you would never expect to get in Querosa. So probably, yeah, I’m more attuned to German things than to things Italian or Irish, but that’s not to get my heritage in to create action. It’s just something I know about. It finds its way in there.
What is it like to be German in America right now?
Well, it’s sometimes very strange because people won’t ever let you forget that you’re from Germany. In Portales, we bought our first house and one of the first visitors was a Jehovah’s Witness and who came with several others and camped on my doorstep. So I opened the door and asked what he wanted. And the first thing he said was, “I detect an accent. Where are you from?” And like, man, I just got a home and you’re asking me where I’m from? Twenty years in this country, and that’s the first thing you ask me?
You know, there’s no malice, and I think people right now have a much better view of Germany than they probably used to. And often I get very nice reactions—oh, I was in Germany. But of course you’re somebody in a generation, not in the immediate aftermath of the war, but relatively close. You can’t forget how the generation of your grandparents treated people. And there’s a lot of hurt, a lot of tragedy in the world because of that.
You are always aware that you might get strange—or not so strange—reactions to you being German, that people will look at you as coming from a country that killed six million people for no reason. So that is something I’m acutely aware of. People might not welcome you unconditionally or might think, “My grandparents were killed because of your grandparents.” I take that very seriously because it is something that won’t go away, and Germany will have to deal with that for a thousand years, and rightfully so. But it makes interactions always a little bit loaded because I am never sure how people will receive the knowledge that I’m from Germany.
Your books Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht and Fluchtpunkt Los Angeles—will they be coming out in English?
Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht will come out next fall  as Knives, Forks, Scissors, Flames. For Fluchtpunkt Los Angeles, also known as Vanishing Point because I wrote it in English, there are no plans right now because it is a novella. Novellas are really hard to publish.
Who will publish the novel?
Panhandler Books, which is an imprint of the University Press of Florida.
You’ve had the same agent, Markus Hoffmann, since 2010?
My main agent, Michael Gaeb, is actually in Germany. And Markus Hoffmann, my American agent, is now with Regal Hoffman & Associates. They are in close contact with each other.
Did Markus find you through your first book?
He read it and thought, what the hell was that? And contacted me. Which is the best-case scenario because you know that he’s interested in the writing. It’s a difficult relationship because the author and agent are at different ends of the spectrum. You are interested in writing, and the agent is trying to get a product they can sell. Those might not always match. So your agent is great at giving you pointers as how to make something ready for the market. But certain projects don’t work for an agent. Traditional publishers don’t take novellas. They might do one for Tobias Wolff or Richard Ford or Annie Proulx, but that’s about it. And certain things you write might end up in niches where marketing will go. Most major publishers are driven by marketing, determined by editors who see something valuable in your work. Or something they love. But it’s, how can marketing make this work?
Your agent is your best friend in guiding you through that process—sometimes saying, “Oh, wait this cover is horrible. Let’s make them come up with another one.” An agent should be your protector, your knight in shining armor. If you ever feel that he or she is not, then you probably have to find somebody else. If they don’t get what you’re trying to do, then you have nothing. But if you find an agent who is attuned to your work, then you really lucked out.
What did it feel like [in reviews] to be compared to the Brothers Grimm, Ray Bradbury, Quentin Tarantino, Flannery O’Conner, Shirley Jackson?
It’s nice on the one hand, but it always creates expectations that you won’t be able to fulfill because it was never really what you were trying to do in the first place. It’s marketing. If somebody asks, “Oh, you eat frog legs, what do they taste like?” Well, what do you have? Can you say, “Well, like frog legs?” But nobody can imagine that. So you say, “Like chicken, but better,” and you can approximate that. For reviewers and marketers, there’s always the need to compare you to something. But if you compare your work to Shirley Jackson or Stephen King, you also create expectations of their fan base. It’s nice on the one hand, but on the other hand, I think sometimes it puts up a barrier between you and the reader. Ideally, someone just goes into a bookstore, opens the book, reads the first paragraph, and goes, oh, it’s not too bad, and buys it. But it’s a marketing thing. And marketing is a big way of bringing you to the public, telling people who you are. But somehow it’s not that comfortable. Because, am I really Stephen King or Shirley Jackson? I love Shirley Jackson, but you always feel kind of, oh, no, no, what will people think? And so it creates a lot of anxiety.
What are you working on now or, as another interviewer asked you, what are you currently obsessed with?
[Pause.] I try never to talk about things that aren’t really there. Because again I have a superstitious background. My mom believed in all kinds of weird witchcraft and ghosts appearing and all that. So I’m very careful. No, I never talk about that.
Is there anything you’d like to tell me that I haven’t asked?
It’s something I find myself repeating a lot right now because it is a concern of mine. I think that sometimes when people read a book of mine, it’s very dark and sinister. I think there’s a general feeling that I took revenge on a place or town, and I’m trying to put people down or get rid of some demons. And yeah, that’s something I’m afraid of because that’s really not what I’m doing.
Even something like Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, set in a totally fictional village—it’s a love letter to this fictional village. Which is not rooted in any type of reality. I mean, it is. But it’s not a specific town. And you know all these texts are really love letters to certain communities I’ve known, certain landscapes I’ve known, and I think that’s often what people don’t quite see. That even if you have somebody like JD Hartt who’s as evil as they come, he’s a beautiful being and he’s full of life. When Jenny has sex with him, it’s a revelation to her. Even though it’s not what she should be doing. But even though people err terribly and commit horrible acts, they can still have their transcendent moments.
In Next Door Lived a Girl, there’s a character who is terrible. He does really nasty things. He’s the meanest guy in the book and he’s full of life. He’s there. He’s there in every single moment and he’s as close to life and being in the present as possible. So people should read the books not as manifestations of evil. You know the world can be a really shitty place. And it’s also a very vibrant, lively place.
Robyn Ringler graduated from the University of Tampa MFA program in June 2015 and received the “Outstanding Graduate Award” for academic excellence and service. Her collection of short stories, Occupational Hazards, was completed as her thesis. Ringler’s work has appeared in the Yellow Chair Review; two anthologies, Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present and Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies; on NPR and Martha Stewart Radio. Ringler holds degrees in nursing and law and owns East Line Literary Arts in upstate New York.