Anne-Marie Kinney interviewed by Maxi Kim.
3:AM: Your debut novel Radio Iris explores both the everyday external demands and the fleeting internal life of an office receptionist named Iris Finch. Can you tell us about your background? How was it working with Two Dollar Radio on the production of the book?
Anne-Marie Kinney: I was born and raised in California, studied creative writing at USC and got my MFA at CalArts. I worked a lot of different jobs in the interim: retail, food service, office temping… customer service coordinator, movie extra, copy editor to this day… uh, somewhere in there I married a dude… and then a couple of years ago I found a great agent, Judy Heiblum, who hooked me up with Two Dollar Radio. I got incredibly lucky with them. Eric Obenauf, the editor, had a vision for the book, and really guided me while also encouraging me to “go bananas,” as I think he put it. I’m obviously biased, but I think Two Dollar Radio is doing something so exciting for the future of books. They really give a shit, and their optimism is infectious.
MK: How did CalArts’ MFA experience influence your creative process?
AK: Just as I got lucky with Two Dollar Radio, I got lucky with CalArts because I got to work with faculty like Bruce Bauman and Steve Erickson, and a group of exceptionally talented and thoughtful peers. I wanted to pursue an MFA mainly to have the time and focus away from the 9 to 5 world to write a lot and hone my craft (that word is terrible but I can’t think of a better one at the moment), so I pretty much kept my head down and worked for those two years. I don’t know what to say without sounding like some kind of CalArts commercial, but it was all good for me, and Bauman and Erickson have continued to be a huge support, which is part of why I’ve gone back to moonlight for Black Clock as production editor. So, thumbs up, I guess? The memory, it’s hazy, but like most of my experiences, it left me with an overwhelmingly positive feeling.
MK: Do you spend a long time revising? Did you ever think of giving up?
AK: I think the published product of this book is the seventh draft. So yes, there was a lot of revision, first in the MFA program, then with my agent, and then with Two Dollar Radio. There have been four different endings, I think. Giving up has never occurred to me. Revision is fun, though. I think of any “final” version as just one of infinite possible versions.
MK: Your work has appeared in Black Clock, Indiana Review, and Keyhole. How did you learn to control your tone? Have you ever been tempted to write so-called “experimental” fiction?
AK: I guess I don’t know what controlling tone is. And I guess I never did figure out what separated “experimental” fiction from the experimentation that any writer practices. I experiment in my writing all the time by giving the story a long leash, and if one approach doesn’t work then I try something else. I don’t think I would get very far in trying to be capital-E “Experimental,” though. I don’t even know what that would look like.
MK: In introducing us to your novel Two Dollar Radio describes Iris Finch as “a socially awkward daydreamer who works as a receptionist/personal assistant at a business whose true function she doesn’t quite understand, . . . Her world begins to splinter as her co-workers gradually start disappearing, her boss’s behavior becomes even more erratic, and she discovers a mysterious stranger living in the office suite next door.” Without giving anything away can you tell us a bit about Iris Finch’s relationship with her “co-workers” and boss? Who is the mysterious stranger to Iris?
AK: Iris’ boss is an enigma. He’s a very busy man, but Iris doesn’t know what he’s busy doing. Nor does she know where the money, and thus her paycheck, comes from. The book opens with the departure of a colleague as she waltzes out with her belongings in a cardboard box. There’s a sense, over the next few chapters, that the workforce has been dwindling for some time and she’s only just begun to notice that more offices are empty, for instance, or that she’s transferring calls to dead extensions. But just as she begins to realize that all isn’t well in the office, she is captivated by her accidental discovery of a man of mysterious habits who is apparently living in the office next door. She turns her back on the immediate mystery of the office to focus on one that touches her in a much deeper place: who is this man and why can’t she stop watching him, what does he stir in her, what does he make her remember? In the end, the two mysteries converge in a way, or, collapse in on each other. That might be a better way to put it.
MK: Much of Iris’ psychology and interior life appears to be dictated by the minute obligations and the general artificiality of the office. What seems to accumulate is boredom, daydreams, and a quiet, passing dread. The office isn’t a grueling or unsafe work place, but it certainly is a hermetic and uncomfortable environment that is neither totally public nor completely private. Are we approaching here something that is singular or important about the psychology of modern office workers? What sorts of insights and experiences informed your depiction of Iris’ office?
AK: The feel and mood of the office is definitely informed by my own experiences working in offices, and the particular quirks of every workplace, the unquestioned habits, the sounds you get used to, the cumulative effect of sitting in the same chair, in the same room every day, of smelling the same air. The building dread that Iris feels, and the little ways in which the office becomes increasingly absurd or “broken,” speak to the breakdown of the social contract, and the American promise of stability, of a secure future, in exchange for work. The contemporary reader knows that there is no such stability anymore. The whole construct is a house of cards, and Iris may not know what it is, but her unconscious knows something is happening here, to clumsily paraphrase Bob Dylan.
MK: What initially struck me most about your writing in 2006 is your ability to capture the essential loneliness of contemporary life. There is an unmistakable longing, sometimes muted by her fatalism, in Iris. Could you discuss whether or how far it would be right to see the idea of a particular 21st century “loneliness” in your work being elaborated?
AK: I wouldn’t say that loneliness is a contemporary phenomenon, of course. The feeling of being alone in an often-nonsensical world has always been part of being human. But the speed of technological advancements in the last decade puts it in relief, I think. It didn’t take long for us to get to a place where people dash off little messages to each other on various devices instead of conversing in person or on the phone. It didn’t take long at all for the trading of painstakingly curated mix tapes or CDs with the song titles written out in ballpoint pen to give way to Spotify playlists. It can be jarring to realize the way we connect and communicate has been utterly transformed, seemingly overnight. I remember the telephone numbers of childhood friends, but I couldn’t tell you the phone number of anyone I’ve met in the last decade, can you? I think some of Iris’ malaise speaks to that whiplash, the feeling that there was a world, it was just here, and now it’s gone, and now what?
MK: How far do autobiographical elements become important to the writing? In particular, how much of Iris’ family is a reflection of your own family? For instance, like Iris, did you learn what death was when you were six years old?
AK: Iris’ family background has nothing in common with my own, really. I don’t tend to draw much from my actual life events, but I am inspired by places. While the bulk of the story is imaginary, all of the locations in the book are based on real ones. For instance, the house with the horses that Iris dreams about and longs for is based on my late grandparents’ house. In the scene you mention, in which Iris learns about death, the events are imagined, but the lagoon is real. It’s near my parents’ house. I start with the atmospherics and the story sort of grows out of the space and the mood.
MK: Who are some of your writing “heroes”? Which artists and thinkers have been significant in your own development? Who are you reading these days?
AK: There are lots of writers I consider heroes. Joan Didion. Amy Hempel. Yannick Murphy. Arthur Bradford. Kurt Vonnegut. Marguerite Duras… I have a hard time pinpointing who my influences are, though. I can’t really make a connection between what lights my fire as a reader and what I write. Reading and writing are such separate experiences. I’m sure I’m influenced by the authors I idolize, but I don’t think about my process enough to say how, you know? Anyway, for a while now I’ve been reading a lot of pretty dry stuff about Desert Storm and Gulf War syndrome for research, but I am currently digging Jim Ruland’s short story collection, Big Lonesome. And I really enjoyed Steve Erickson’s latest, These Dreams of You.
MK: You’ve been active in the Los Angeles MFA literary world and your work has been performed by Los Angeles’ Word Theatre. How do you feel about giving readings?
AK: Reading in front of an audience is an out-of-body experience for me. I go into this zone where I don’t feel like I’m breathing and I don’t remember how to move my mouth and time becomes incomprehensible… but somehow I seem to do okay, or so I’m told.
MK: Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t you working on a book about popular music? Who are you listening to these days?
AK: Oh yeah, my rejected 33 1/3rd pitch for the Stooges’ Fun House. I didn’t get very far into that project. I do love the Stooges. I got distracted by other things. Maybe I’ll revisit it someday. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Portugal. The Man, First Aid Kit, Lana Del Rey (I don’t care what the internet decided, Born to Die is a killer record), Gram Parsons, T. Rex, Serge Gainsbourg… I’m not sure where to stop the list.
MK: What’s next? Is there a second novel in the works?
AK: I am knee-deep into another novel, yes. It’s about a Desert Storm veteran, the dog with whom he shares a semi-telepathic connection, and the young actress he believes to be his daughter. I find it useful to have a made-up genre in mind as I’m working on something. If Radio Iris is an existential thriller, then this one is San Fernando Valley melancholia.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maxi Kim is a recent graduate of USC’s Rossier School of Education.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 21st, 2012.