Vlad Savich: I would like to tell the reader about you. I mean your childhood, youth, family. Don’t just think that I’m an FBI agent.
Katharine Coldiron: I didn’t enjoy my childhood. It was obvious that the world wasn’t built for me. I couldn’t open heavy doors or reach the dinner table properly. And there was nothing but rules, everything designed to make me feel smaller and lesser. Still today I don’t understand childhood nostalgia. I never enjoyed myself until I was a teenager, and by then of course hormones made everything terrible.
I grew up as the only child of two very different people. My mother is a professor of poetics and translation, and she’s really, incredibly brilliant at a small set of things. My father was in the US Navy for more than 30 years, and he has wide-ranging knowledge about a whole lot of things. They divorced when I was a senior in high school. I never blamed myself for their divorce. It was so clearly something between them that had nothing to do with me.
Because my dad was a naval officer, we moved around a lot. I lived in Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Rhode Island before I went to college. After, I lived in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland again, and now California. I still hate change. I love stability and material reality. Like, stuff. I love stuff.
VS: You say “I still hate change”, but our life is a constant chain of changes. Once, a Russian rock musician sang, “We Are Waiting for Change”. Are you against changes in personal life, or in society?
KC: Not in society! Not at all. And in my personal life I’m always trying to improve, and I’m always finding new things to be interested in. Those are internal changes. I’m talking about external, logistical change in my own little life. We were told we have to move out of our apartment this month and instead of feeling the kind of surface-level annoyance most people feel about moving, I feel deep, existential dread. I have a horror of that kind of change. I want the same books to be on my bookshelf, which should sit in the same place it always does, in the same house, in the same neighborhood. When I was in grad school I wanted to stay in grad school, and for the same classes to happen all year long instead of just for a semester. That kind of thing. I like to settle. To nest.
VS: “I have a horror of that kind of change.” Would you like to be in Groundhog Day?
KC: If I had the option to get out when I was ready, yes. Definitely. Phil learned how to do all kinds of things because he had the time to spare. He didn’t have to get on with the business of life. Being trapped there is horrible, but having the predictability and time he had seems wonderful.
VS: Tell me, please, what is your ideal literary hero?
KC: Interesting choice of words. My literary heroes are often grossly flawed, or I love them for one aspect of their work and not another – so none of them is ideal.
Three writers named David have guided me into the direction I’m going now: David Foster Wallace, David Shields, and David Markson. But Wallace is hugely problematic, Shields is a provocateur, and Markson is rigid in a way I never want to be. So my three Davids are heroes, but only when I pick and choose from their qualities and then mash them together.
Other writer-heroes are Dubravka Ugrešić, Anaïs Nin, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Maggie Nelson. In film, David Lynch, Maya Deren, and Raoul Walsh. Artistically, Walsh wasn’t much better than average as a director, but he lost an eye in a car accident and did not allow that to affect his career choice. I’m constantly inspired by that.
VS: Today, a friend of mine asked me a question. How to become a writer? I don’t know the answer. Can you answer instead of me?
КС: I don’t know. I know some ways to get closer to being a writer, but I don’t know how “becoming a writer” works. I know that you have to read a lot, much more than you imagine you will, and that you have to try exponentially more than you succeed. I know that maintaining a tension between profound egocentrism and profound self-hatred is the way to produce good work.
There are a hundred ways to interpret this question, and a thousand different answers. My friend Chris says it takes you two seconds to say “I’m a writer.” I think that’s the zen koan answer.
VS: The most difficult question for me is: What is your book about. So please tell me, what are your books about?
KC: My first book, Ceremonials, is an experimental novella about music, ghosts, and obsessive love. My next book is a collection of hybrid essays about film, life, and truth. Also on tap are an urban fantasy novel, a writing craft book, a novel about Casablanca, and a collection of essays about bad film, all of which are at various stages of completion.
For me the problem is not in describing my work, but in convincing people that I’m not a hopeless dilettante. I can describe each project reasonably well. In some ways, though, the only thing that all my work is about is me. Which is a subject that I doubt I’ll ever exhaust.
VS: How can you describe yourself in a nutshell?
KC: I’m not sure I can. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
In the middle of a home reorganization, I once texted my husband “Sorry about all the books.” He was going to be home before me and books were stacked everywhere in our living spaces instead of put away on shelves. Later I realized that text message said a lot more about me and who I am than the literal circumstances that conjured it. I wouldn’t mind if that text message was on my gravestone, and perhaps it’s the only nutshell description of me I’m satisfied with.
VS: What does death mean to you? What is more important for a person, death or life?
KC: Sure, that’s an easy one. [/sarcasm]
I have very little experience with death. Friends have died in accidents here and there, but never close friends. Some of my family has passed, but I wasn’t very close with them, for the most part. In the past year, my husband’s family has suffered some terrible losses, but I feel more sorrow for their wives and kids than personal grief, as they didn’t influence my own life as much as those other lives.
I try not to think about death overmuch. There’s nothing I can do about it, after all, and it’s so frightening. I’ve had phases where I obsess, but then I go back to living, which seems more reasonable than worrying about living’s end.
I realize as I’m trying to answer this question that I’ve set up a series of “in case” moves about death. In case this is all there is, make the most of it. In case I have an eternal soul that’ll be judged, be a decent person. In case all the Cheetos I’ve ever eaten are building up as a tumor that’ll kill me, eat more kale. In case something happens to the people I love, tell them I love them.
VS: Is man the crown of nature or the harbinger of the apocalypse?
KC: Man is the harbinger of the apocalypse. Woman is the crown of nature.
VS: LOL! Do you think there is a difference between the sexes?
KC: I think the history of civilization over the last three thousand years will answer that question better than I can.
VS: I think that in a thousand years, humanity will be same-sex. What do you think about the future of humanity?
KC: That question is way out of my line, so I don’t really know how to answer it. I know that our future is going to be nonexistent if we can’t do something about global warming. Beyond that, speculating seems unwise.
No one has ever been right about the shape of our future, anyway, because the technology factor has proved so impactful and so unpredictable. I’d rather wait and see.
VS: “Listen! if stars are lit, it means – there is someone who needs it,” said Vladimir Mayakovsky. Who are lit for by the stars and why?
KC: That’s a beautiful quote. The question seems like it’s for a poet, or a scientist, or a priest, none of which I am. I’ll say that I think the stars are where we look for wonder – whether we’re astrologers, astronomers, or just human beings who have forgotten our smallness. The light of the galaxy reminds us.
In English there’s an idiom, “he thinks she hung the moon.” I’ve always loved this phrase as a way to demonstrate admiration for someone. As if love had the power to fix the moon in the sky.
VS: Do you like the person you have become?
KC: Yes, although not to the point of thinking I have no more work to do to be a good person.
VS: Does the moon exist when you don’t look at it?
KC: Yes, of course it does.
VS: How would the world change if you were not born?
You’ve asked half a dozen of these grand questions now and I’ve tried to blow them off by saying I don’t really know or that the world at large can answer them better than I can. Not blowing them off would have meant answering in an egocentric way: this is what I think about these questions humanity has grappled with for centuries. This particular question seems designed to make me give an egocentric answer.
The philosopher in me says that we have to define our terms. Is some surrogate me born to my parents? Or do my parents never meet? Is there a hole in the pattern of the universe? Is this a George Bailey situation or is it a Twelve Monkeys situation? All these things affect the objective answer to the question, if that exists: X, Y, and Z would have been different in these ways, but only in a George Bailey situation; in a Twelve Monkeys situation, nothing would have been different.
The subjective answer has some variety too. I assume my husband would have found someone else to love, and that my friends would have other friends to fill the gap I leave. There wouldn’t be a noticeable change; the world would shift to make me, as I am today, irrelevant. That’s the answer I really believe.
But the more entertaining answer is the egocentric one. My husband’s wife wouldn’t make him quite as happy as I do. The books I’ve reviewed wouldn’t have been reviewed quite so incisively. No one could have mentored students as meaningfully as I have in the past few years. No one would have written a book about a Florence + the Machine album.
VS: “My husband’s wife wouldn’t make him quite as happy as I do”. Is that going to be the plot for your new book?
KC: Oh, goodness, no. I’ve written a failed time-travel novel already and don’t want to write another one.
VS: Does your husband like your literary works?
KC: Yes. He’s very supportive. Often he believes in the quality of my work even more than I believe in it myself.
VS: What is the wisest thought you’ve ever heard?
KC: “Always play tennis with someone better than you.” If you only ever play tennis with people who are as good or worse than you, you’ll never improve – never strive to be any better than you already are. Of course this doesn’t apply just to tennis, but to any number of pursuits: writing, art, conversation, sex. Always engage with people you look up to. It keeps your ego honest.
VS: If your life was a movie, would you advise me to watch it?
KC: Probably not. The days of my greatest drama were brief and depressing rather than well-paced and exciting. Inner turmoil isn’t interesting on the screen.
VS: “I Have a Dream” is a public speech that was delivered by American civil rights activist Martin Luther King. Tell me Katharine, do you have a dream?
KC: A dream that one day this interview will be over.
VS: You don’t like our interview?
KC: This interview has been going on intermittently for over six weeks, it stopped being about my work as a writer a long time ago, and I have no idea where your questions are going or which is going to be the last one. I like the quirkiness of this interview and I like the format of asking many questions over a long period of time, but putting those two elements together has proved exhausting and annoying.
I’m sure you have a clear idea of what you’re doing as an interviewer but I’m damned if I can figure it out. The only thing I can think of is you’re asking a huge quantity of off-kilter questions to break me down, so I’ll say something weird or revealing. But I’m never not weird and revealing. So I really don’t get it.
Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, LARB, The Rumpus, and many other places. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming from KERNPUNKT Press in 2020.
Vlad* Savich was born in the USSR, where he was educated, married and fathered his daughter. As soon as the chance appeared to leave, he did. At present he lives in Montreal, where he writes, directs for the theatre and breathes the air of freedom. He can be found online at: savich.lit.com.ua. *He prefers not to be called Vladimir, so as not to be associated with the disreputable activity of a certain barnardine Russian leader. Image: Tennis, Nintendo, 1989