Fiction » Contemporary Fiction

Rachel Kushner on Books That Influenced Her

Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers and The Mars Room, which has been shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, discusses the five books that have most influenced her writing, from Dostoyevsky to Marguerite Duras. She muses on the question of what fiction can offer: "A novel itself, if it is good, and effective at whatever its particular aesthetic and philosophical aim is, can answer the question best, so that a novelist doesn’t have to."

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Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner’s debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller. Her follow-up novel, The Flamethrowers, was also a finalist for the National Book Award and received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s and the Paris Review. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Do you have any rituals, superstitions, or habits when it comes to writing?

Only to get up and start before I am fully awake, and to avoid all speaking until I’m done working for the day.

Did you always want to write fiction? 

I didn’t think of literature in genres when I was young. I was interested in language, and in reading, and when I wrote, it was exploratory expression and I would not have thought of a category like “fiction.” But even as a very young child I was interested in stories and narrative and making up saga-type explanations for the tragic fates of, say, my dolls. But I think that’s quite common and not necessarily indicative of who is later going to become a novelist. I mean, we all drew when little, and so for a visual artist to claim that lineage (“I always drew”) as proof of destiny is a bit ridiculous. The path a person takes is mysterious and I’m hesitant to perform the logic of mine, even if it does sort of line up toward writer.

Do you think fiction offers something that nothing else can? 

Don’t mean to be snide, but, it offers fiction. And so, of course. I really don’t think I can answer this question well in this context. A novel itself, if it is good, and effective at whatever its particular aesthetic and philosophical aim is, can answer the question best, so that a novelist doesn’t have to.

How long did it take you, from conception to the final touch, to produce the book for which you have been shortlisted?

Five years. But of course, a lifetime of blood, sweat and tears, et cetera.

Do you share your work-in-progress with anyone?

My husband Jason Smith, who is highly literate and full of ideas.

Who do you write for?

No one. A big other? A mommy called “superego”? These are wild guesses. Never occurs to me I’m writing for anyone. It’s not something that is structured into my psyche.

Was there a particular aspect of the shortlisted work that you struggled with? 

I struggled early on with certain realities of bodily violence, to find ways to not judge those who had committed acts of it, but that was in real life, in parallel to the book, but not explicitly parallel. The book deals with some of it. The answer was to allow moral quandaries to retain their complexity. And to have a kind of radical, slightly Christian belief in an arc that bends toward justice for all people. Dostoevsky was an immense help, in this regard. Strangely, so was Nietzsche.

Did you surprise yourself—or did things take an unexpected turn—at any point in the process of writing the book?

At many points, certainly. That to me is what progress is, while writing.

What was the first word or sentence you wrote for this book, and does it come first or appear elsewhere, if at all, in the finished work?

I just wrote about this somewhere else (in the Guardian). The first line was, “I took a Luger into Peter Luger’s.” It got at something. The humour of the way people boast about the things they’ve done, gotten away with, or been busted for. I never used it. Didn’t need it. And it didn’t fit. Peter Luger’s is a steakhouse in Brooklyn, New York, and my book takes place in California. It was about tone. Do that tone, is what the line commanded.

Please pick a line at random from page 99 of your book, in tribute to Ford Maddox Ford, and reproduce it for us here:

“We talked to each other, and took turns standing at the little window in our door to watch the hallway, otherwise known as Main Street, where, if you were lucky, you could see some other person on ad seg being hustled to the showers in handcuffs with two cops behind her, which is ad seg protocol.”

Let’s move to book choices. Your first book is Practicalities by Marguerite Duras. Why have you chosen it?

Duras’s favourite authors were Proust, Ecclesiastes, and Marguerite Duras. I think those three are largely what she read. She also liked the screenplay of the great French film by Jean Eustache, The Mother and the Whore. She had a way of making declarations with a flair for the absolute. Here is a favourite, from Practicalities: “You never know yourself that you’re an alcoholic. In one hundred percent of cases, it’s taken as an insult.” And another: “You have to be very fond of men. Very, very fond. You have to be very fond of them to love them. Otherwise, they’re simply unbearable.”

“It’s a “telling” of life, about life. A reflection.”

The book is unique and fits in no genre except maybe one formed by its inclusion with Proust, Ecclesiastes, The Mother and the Whore, and the rest of the books written by Duras. It’s a “telling” of life, about life. A reflection. In one case, it is a list of items MD thinks any woman ought to have in her pantry. It veers into a page of discomfiting homophobia, my least favorite part, but that doesn’t disqualify the book for me. People are complicated. Duras, when she wrote this (or “told” it) was in a multi-year relationship with a gay man, Yann Andrea, and, according to her various biographers, angry and hurt that he did not love her in an erotic manner.

Your second choice is a work of philosophy: God, Justice, Love, Beauty: Four Dialogues, by Jean-Luc Nancy. Tell us about it.

Nancy is a continental French philosopher perhaps best known, outside of circles of philosophy and theory, for his essay “L’intrus,” about his heart transplant, which was in a sense “adapted” by Claire Denis as a film. This little book, like“L’intrus” is very accessible. The four dialogues on the weighty topics in the title were actually dialogues with children, that took place in Montrieux. Nancy says some wonderful things about God. At one point, in answer to a child’s question, he suggests that Heaven starts very down low, down here, he says, and signals to just above the ground. This was a life-changing moment for me, to read that. And I had never really understood the lex talionis, the way in which it is meant to moderate, to limit to merely one eye, until I read this book. I reread it all the time. It is simple in the way that simplicity can hold a richness that a very intricate argument might not. It is on my desk right now, in fact.

How about the third book on the list, Journey to the End of the Night by Louise-Ferdinand Celine?

This novel taught me, early on, about hyperbole. The sardonic and paranoid narrator describes the tunnels in the ground left by felled trees, as he travels in French colonial Africa this way: “Whole Metro trains could have manoeuvred with ease in the hollows left by their roots.” When I read that for the first time I took it as a lesson and challenge, about description, accuracy, truth, and the powers of exaggeration to produce humour. I re-read that section of that book all the time.

Many readers will know your third book, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Why does it make the list of the top five that have influenced you?

I only read this for the first time while writing The Mars Room. I would work every morning and sit in a chair and read The Brothers Karamazov every afternoon. It infused me with a sense of the magical world of Russia in a way that no other Dostoyevsky novel ever had, even as I love many of his works. Somehow, the way that Russia is not part of the Occident, the way that it is full of incredible art, music, traditions, tragedies, just clobbered me. In a good way.

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The long section by the Grand Inquisitor was a useful demonstration of novelistic ambition, and the refusal of compromise. But most importantly, I was shattered, and also rebuilt, by Alyosha’s “talk by the stone,” when he tells the children around him to remember how good and earnest they feel, and to save and hold that feeling. It taught me something I knew on a much deeper level but did not have the language or the reasoning to state: that innocence is something very durable and interior, and also evanescent.

Your final choice is Pick-Up by Charles Willeford. Take us through it.

I found this novel on a shelf in a library in Italy a couple of summers ago, and read it because I saw that it takes place in San Francisco, where I’m from. The story is about an alcoholic who works various throwaway jobs as a fry cook at greasy diners downtown, on Market Street, an area I know very, very well. He meets a miserable alcoholic lady who sort of reminds me of the tragic dame in that movie The Hustler, with Paul Newman. The woman who scrawls her suicide note to Newman on a mirror, with lipstick.

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Anyhow these two drunks live, barely, drinking and fighting, and then at the end, Willeford reveals a shocking detail that recasts the entire narrative in a new light. It’s not a brilliant ending but it is a very compelling, weird little book, hidden inside the genre of the dimestore novel.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize. Which previous year’s winner (or indeed, shortlisted work) would you recommend and why?

I loved The Sellout by Paul Beatty for its wicked humor. Every joke in it smelled like the truth to me, in the way the joke produced shock: not in order to shock, but in order to refuse to comfort and appease.

What have you read lately, either for the first time or in re-visiting, that has gripped you and why?

I’m reading Lost Illusions. Balzac does cruelty really, really, really well. The cruelty of the father exploiting his own son for his retirement is pretty breathtaking. Balzac did not believe in capitalism, clearly …

What books are on your bedside table at the moment? (Or, in spite of best intentions, not necessarily the same thing: what will you read next?)

I’m reading the following books that have to do with a specific interest:

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes
Luminous Debris, Gustaf Sobin
Juniper Fuse, Clayton Eshleman
The Neanderthal Legacy, Paul Mellars
Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari
Who We Are and How We Got Here, David Reich
The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

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Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner’s debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller. Her follow-up novel, The Flamethrowers, was also a finalist for the National Book Award and received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s and the Paris Review. She lives in Los Angeles.