DH: One of the most interesting features of your coming-of-age novel is the way you treat Potter’s evolution in his attitude towards his parents. I think it’s a reach for someone your age to be able to grasp the life situation of adults who are a generation older. It’s like the pendulum is swinging…away from Potter’s parents as they grow older and towards Potter as he comes into full adulthood. It’s one of the ways that you show that he is growing up. Was presenting well-rounded parental figures in your novel a challenge? A learning experience perhaps? I’m not putting it right really…I mean a step into a different world?
KB: The way you’ve worded this reminds me of what Brian McHale has written about the “dominant” with respect to cyberpunk. In McHale’s view, the shift from modern literature to post-modern literature is a shift from an epistemological dominant to an ontological dominant. That is, turning from questions based on knowledge (its acquisition, its limitations, and so on) to questions of the nature of the world itself: what world is this, what I am to do in it, and which of my “selves” is to do it? I think it’s fair to consider “adulthood” as a world separate from childhood, and even adolescence. In The Slide, these worlds rub against one another, and characters find themselves straddling the lines between them. Which proves to be uncomfortable as hell. And this dovetails nicely with the earlier thoughts about empathy and successful projection of oneself into a situation. When my own parents were divorced it came as a total shock to me because I never saw them angry, or sad, or anything less than (what I thought was) content. For a long time afterward, because I wanted to understand better, I devoted a lot of energy into creating my own versions of how their marriage failed. Because how? How did this nice pretty marriage between two nice loving people fall apart? If they couldn’t endure, who possibly could? And asking these questions made me confront some of the same confusion that we see Potter facing. So in that sense, yes, a learning experience to be sure.
DH: Class distinctions are rather blatant in The Slide as they are in our society even though it seems that everyone is trying to pretend that they are not. I liked the joke about Stuart’s wealthy parents that everyone was under-resourced in comparison to them. Potter tries to help the impoverished kid Ian, who he runs into in his water deliveries, in part because he has sympathy when he realizes how limited the kid’s opportunities are. Ian’s situation is exemplified by the lousy quality of his catchers mitts which he has gotten as a cheap giveaway and are about to fall apart. But Potter doesn’t have true empathy for Ian, it seems to me, because he can’t really understand a social world where people don’t have nice things. It made me quite sad. What were your feelings about the situation that Ian is in.
KB: Potter doesn’t understand Ian’s world, no. But with his uniform and delivery van he is granted a kind of access that he otherwise wouldn’t have. And his gut instinct, once he overcomes his initial fear of being in over his head, is to try and help. Of course, “help” is a tricky thing to pin down depending on whose standards we want to apply. And though this isn’t Potter’s motivation per se, a lot of his instincts align with the old Christian virtues, notions of camels and needle heads, the sort that so many of today’s loudest religious leaders conveniently ignore. A sense of obligation to help those in need however you can. That Potter learns of his family’s Mennonite ties halfway through the novel sheds some light onto this idea of service, but there’s always a chasm between intention and result. So, while sadness or pathos can spark action, one has to monitor exactly why one is driven to help. Is it selfish? Potter thinks the act of helping Ian might offer him a chance of absolution and salvation. Can this instinct ever be anything other than selfish? And, most importantly, is it okay if selfishness drives our desire to do something good? One of the things I wanted to touch on in this book is the relativity of challenge. Stuart Hurst puts it best, and rather crassly, when he says, “This isn’t Cambodia.” Ian’s challenges are the most obvious in the novel, and definitely the saddest. But for a reader to only sympathize and only despair for the boy’s life is to make the same mistake Potter makes. That is, to project one’s own values onto circumstances where they may have no business.
DH: The gifts that make a good writer are plural. One of them is the ability to set the stage. The stage of The Slide is St. Louis and the Midwest more generally. The sense that you are celebrating the heartland is palpable, a least from where I sit, in a very un-heartland New York City. Potter’s father is trying to revive the urban core of St. Louis, which is celebrated towards the end of the novel. However we are not talking about real estate values but how the city is a community of families with its heart at its center. It’s really a splendid conception of what an American city should be and a symbol of the hope for renewal that makes The Slide such a high as a read. Last time I looked, I noticed that the galley of your book lists your residence as Chicago but your Facebook page says St. Louis. These two cities seem to define the orbit of your life right now. Would you say something about what you feel about them?
KB: I just spent eleven wonderful days in New York. But at the risk of getting too Jim Croce about it, I will say that no matter how much I enjoy myself there, it’s obvious that it’s not, and won’t ever be, my home. During my flight back to St. Louis, an off-duty flight attendant took the empty window seat next to me for the landing. “There it is,” she said, watching our descent. “Right smack where we left it,” I said, and she turned to me and agreed vigorously. St. Louis is a pair of permanently open arms: a place of return more than arrival, if that distinction makes any sense. It is also a city of roads, which I drove endlessly for research. Winding roads that change names and form a kind of softcore labyrinth. Plus all the highways leading outward to the rest of the country – this is one advantage of centrality. Of course these same highways are the medium for the sprawl that’s threatened to destroy, or at least render ineffectual, the city core. Though there’s too much history buttressing the city for it to every go away. Too many bricks. And what to say of Chicago? Winter is torture but has proven exceedingly good for my work ethic. Summer is like a shared citywide orgasm, everyone bursting onto stoops and sidewalks and roads, smil
ing and laughing over beers and grilled meat. It is a city of neighborhoods and diversity and culture, which can sometimes breed conflict and always provides flavor. City of books and music and restaurants. It is a bicycling city, completely flat and widely paved. The rumble of the el, gorgeous rippled blue of the lake, scent of chocolate windblown from downtown. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s actually the greatest city in America.
DH: Kyle, this is my last question, so please accept my gratitude for showing me the kindness which is helping me to understand The Slide better. I mentioned the gifts that make a good writer as being multiplex…among them a gift for dialogue, a sense for the flowing currency of language, being a good psychologist, having the osmotic ability to soak up the quality of the times and put it on the page. Not all writers have all the requirements in equal measure, but you seem to be hitting the full range in your first published novel. I could see you going to Hollywood and writing screenplays…you’d be good at it…or joining the writers colony in Brooklyn. But my best guess is that you will have Chicago as your home base. You are at the beginning of your writing career and it seems that a lot of doors are open. What are your plans as you look forward? And can you give us any hints about another novel? Best wishes, Kyle.
KB: While I tend to have a few short things I’m juggling at all times, my main focus currently is on a second novel that has very little in common with The Slide. It is about bones and debt and fear and several others, and I’m happy with how the process is going. I learned a lot with The Slide, primarily that I have much to learn. So, while I thank you for the kind words, Dennis, I fear you’re being too kind. As for other options, I would love to work on a screenplay if the right project came up. I would not “love”, exactly, to join the working writers in Brooklyn. Much more likely that I’ll dip southward somewhere, find myself some kudzu. But for now I will stay in Chicago and read as much as I can, teach my classes, play with my dog, and write books about Americans. Thank you for your time, Dennis, and thank you to the Jasons as well.
Come back Monday to read the 3 Guys discussion of The Slide.