We asked Kirby Gann to talk a little bit about Our Napoleon in Rags before we move on to another book next week. Gwenda Bond came up with some questions, and Kirby kindly responded.
First I want to say thank you to those who read the book and shared their thoughts on this site; it's a great idea and very rewarding for a writer to get a glimpse of what complete strangers actually think about/struggle with in his work.
That said, I'm not sure how to respond to what appears to be a common response: that the book is difficult to get into. Yes, the language - especially in the opening pages - is ornate and unusual; I was trying to reflect the deep-night strangeness of the setting, and also work within an elegiac tone. I wrestled with that beginning for some time (it was difficult to decide, actually, where to open the novel), and understand that it's both unconventional and yet very old school -- starting with setting and mood, introducing characters by portrait rather than action, etc.
I'm a believer that good novels teach one how to read them: The more unique the experience, the deeper the reader can go into that invented world (prompting him or her, hopefully, to look freshly again at the real world, too). This also makes sense to me in the way I go about writing a novel, in that I feel like I'm "learning" it during the first few drafts. It's all about going against cliché, not just in language and expression but also in thought and experience and the people one chooses to explore.
That was my intent with Rags, at least.
To get to the questions that were forwarded to me:
1) How much of an inspiration was Louisville, where you live now, for Montreux? Beyond setting and character, I'd be interested in how the heated divisions brought on by police actions in Louisville influenced or manifested those in Napoleon.
Montreux IS a skewed version of Louisville; I started toying with the invented city in my first novel, The Barbarian Parade. The reason being that with an invented city you can place neighborhoods and monuments wherever you want, conflate areas as you need them, etc. In Rags, however, Louisville served more as inspiration, in a couple of ways. An idea I'd been turning over for some time is that Southern writers in general and Kentucky writers in particular are thought of as depicting the rural life; it's almost like we are preordained to write about Appalachia or coal mining in order to truly explore the experience of living here. Yet I grew up in Kentucky, and my experience of the rural world was that it was what you saw on the sides of highways between cities; I grew up in an urban environment and wanted to reflect that.
Another way Louisville influences the novel is that events in the book reflect certain events that have happened here. It's true that for an exasperatingly long time we've been dealing with violent police actions that, well, look fishy under examination. And these actions usually end with the death of an unarmed suspect.
Something like that happens once and it's tragedy; when it happens again and again it becomes a farce. I do not understand it, but then I've never been a police officer. So I've tried to keep an open ear to both sides in these matters, looking for clues as to why they might happen. As for the police action in my novel, it was inspired by an actual event that occurred in Louisville a few years ago. Initially it wasn't planned, but the further I got into the first draft, the more inevitable it seemed that Mather Williams was headed to a sad end. I think this developed out of a) logically following the trajectory of the characters' fates that I'd started and b) picking up on "what's going on" out in the real world while I was writing; when you're deep into the writing of a novel it's odd how so many things in reality tend to touch upon it, how so much seems to belong in what you happen to be working on.
2) Have you ever been a regular in a place like this? If you haven't, have you ever been a regular in any place and why that place?
Yes, I've been a regular in a number of "places like this." I like weirdness and I like bars, though I don't go to these places anywhere near as often as I used to. I don't like to drink as much as I used to, and rising early is a habit I've become accustomed to and prefer. The geography of the Don Q fairly aligns with a place in Louisville called the Rudyard Kipling, though my bar is much darker and less safe than the Rud is. I worked at the Rud for a while in my early twenties, and was very enamored by the strange people who were regulars there, by their camaraderie and their loneliness and their idealism. Basically what I like about bars is that you get to meet people and, just maybe, get a glimpse of lives and points of view you never would have been able to imagine on your own.
3) The book has very specific and ornate language and a (welcome) strong authorial voice. Was the style of this book in place right from the start, or did you have to experiment to find the way you eventually chose to tell the story?
A little bit of both. As I mentioned above, I learn a book as I'm writing it. For example, the structure of the book turned on the metaphor of the windmill above the bar: Haycraft Keebler is the hub, the rest of the characters are sails -- the book follows that form: we go to the hub, then follow a sail, then back to the hub, etc. I didn't realize this until I was in, like, draft #3. The tone of Rags was pretty clear early on, prompted most likely by the setting and the characters. Style is very important to me; style and story should mesh. Therefore it only makes sense that, over the course of a novel (and this one was much longer than the finished book, at one point!), the style should shift as necessary, when certain characters move to the front of the stage. Still, I like to think that Rags has a cohesive style -- a main voice with variations upon it. Thinking along those lines, as I was writing, most likely led me to identify that the book was in fact being narrated by one of the characters. This I discovered only a few pages before it happened, and realized I had a lot of work to do in the revision stages in order to make it work.