Interview with Kevin Arnold
USR will be running serialized chapters of Kevin’s novel The Sureness of Horses every Monday, as well as his weekly column Kevin’s Most-Loved Poems, which will run on Thursdays. In the following interview, Kevin discusses his experience with the writing process.
USR: Should we call The Sureness of Horses a romance novel, or does this even matter? It’s an absorbing love story, but it comes from a first-person male perspective. The main theme isn’t really the woman’s sexual awakening. Did you intend this innovation or just tell a story that matters to you?
Kevin: I realize this sounds like a cop-out, but a good writer seldom chooses what he or she writes about. The material finds them. I’ve always wondered how people live through horrific events in which they’re implicated, like people in summer who suffocate a child in a car or run over them in their driveway. I wanted to write about a decent person who makes a mistake with appalling consequences. The romance with Diana was to heighten Wade’s loss—Diana is one more thing he loses. I referred to the chapters after Marita’s death as the “Dostoyevsky chapters”; an exploration of guilt and redemption. I also wanted to write about horses and what it was like to write poems—I didn’t think anyone had done that before. Two years ago when I presented the novel at the Yale writing conference, I got feedback I didn’t want to hear—that I had to make The Sureness of Horses work as a romance. I realize that romances are out of touch with the taste of many contemporaries, so I’m hoping I also told the story I’d intended.
USR: It’s fair to say that the singular approach you describe is what makes the novel so compelling. Your writing also demonstrates impressive attention to detail, and you believe in constant revision. What drives you in this regard?
Kevin: As your readers know from my Carver article, he was always pushing us to make our writing the very best it could be. He said: “Otherwise, why do it?” Ray’s question is underscored by economic reality: writing is an inefficient way to make money. Even now, as you’re about to publish The Sureness of Horses, part of me says, “Not yet, please. Let me work on it more.” It’s not just that I think it could be better, I know it. But it’s time to let go.
USR: It does seem like a never-ending process, doesn’t it? Along the same lines, which is the greater challenge for you–developing plot or character? Does one matter more than the other? For instance, Wade is amiable enough, but he’s hooked on the horns of a dilemma that drives his decisions. Diana’s character took you some time to develop; yet the action in the novel is tremendously dependent on her character.
Kevin: My answers to the earlier questions are relevant here, and my writing habits. I’ve heard writers at conferences examine how they detail plot and character before actually writing, but I don’t do that. I make an attempt to write sequentially, but when I fail, I feel that’s often good. On my best days my characters develop the plot by doing unexpected things. I didn’t expect Diana to take in Marita’s daughter, Eva; I’ve had some experience with the foster care system, and thought I could use that to inform Eva’s life after the police station. I thought Diana would say “no,” but when her daughter Beth challenged her mother as a Christian, Diana relented. Her decision drove the ending.
USR: What do you love most about writing?
Kevin: The oft-quoted answer is “I hate writing; I love having written,” but that’s not completely true. I write for the same reasons people jump motorcycles or participate in line-dancing competitions—it interests me and I’m good at it. Writing has given me two treasured experiences—contact with a long line of writers from whom I’m always learning, and, especially because I write about characters not far from myself, a path to psychological growth. As Galway Kinnell said in a workshop, “Writing poetry isn’t therapy but it does help people.”
USR: You’ve enjoyed working with some high-profile writers, but your writing also owns a timeless quality. Which of your literary influences seem to be staying with you these days?
Kevin: Always F. Scott Fitzgerald and Keats. Carver and Ferber too. And contemporaries, such as Jennifer Egan and Junot Diaz, also influence me. I recently took a seminar from Amy Bloom, who emphasizes listening to—hearing—one’s characters, something I need to do more of. And Julia Glass, the generous novelist who helped me re-write The Sureness of Horses, was a great influence. She made me more conscious of world-building and tone.
USR: That’s an impressive blend of past and current talent. Let’s talk a little more about process. How does it vary for you between prose and poetry? Do you have a preference between the two?
Kevin: If a novel is a marriage, and a short story is an affair, a poem is furtive passion in a cloakroom. I tried to explore what it was like to be a poet in The Sureness of Horses. I liked having a poet protagonist because I’m so engaged with both forms; I like to think I changed an “either/or” to an “and.” Wade said, “Poems nag at me.” They require little commitment except to be available when they present themselves. With some notable exceptions, they can be written and “finished” in a month. Novels take years, at least for me. Revising a novel, even once it’s “finished,” takes several months.
USR: Do poems ever come to you as you’re working on a novel?
Kevin: I’m afraid they do. Fairly often.
USR: Which takes precedence?
Kevin: Unless there’s a deadline on a novel, I go with the nascent poem.
USR: What are a few things you would like your USR readers to take away from your column Kevin’s Most-Loved Poems?
Kevin: You end with an easy one. I’m simply hoping a light may go off for a few readers that poetry is worthwhile. Poetry is the most compact of literary forms; exposure to it is rewarding and addictive. I’d like my column to bring more USR folks to that understanding.