The Flamethrowers appeared on many best of 2013 lists, and to celebrate the release of the paperback edition of the book, Rachel Kushner read from the novel at Powerhouse Arena. She was joined by critic James Wood.
Kushner arrived in New York City in her youth and fell into the art world, a scene she felt more comfortable in than the literary scene. Before leaving for Los Angeles, Kushner attended Columbia’s MFA program. She has also edited Grand Street and BOMB. She says she felt she was totally useless for any other profession other than writing. School was easy, she said, and she believes she could have been academic–but writing allowed for something else.
Kushner is a storyteller. She likes listening to people to talk, how they talk, and how their tone is (when she reads from the novel, she gives each character a distinctive voice performance). But in college, she explains, she was interested in other areas like politics. She majored in political economy.
Mythology hardens into truth, she says to explain her trajectory towards novelist. She cites reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) as the moment she understood what she wanted to create.
James Wood asks her about her relationship to the literary world.
Kushner explains that she believes the literary world is separate from the writing world. The two offer distinct points of view. She doesn’t see writing as a profession as the fundamental commonality between writers. Certainly a writer might befriend another writer, but not necessarily because they are both writers.
A book is a four hundred page calling card, Kushner explains. Published authors can be revealed by the books they have published. It provides an immediate access to the author.
However, she says its not necessary to talk about the novel in order to write one. She says she didn’t write her book in a community with other writers, and she doesn’t think having conversations about writing a novel helped.
Wood turns the conversation towards Kushner’s first novel, Telex from Cuba (2008). He asks about Kushner’s concept of what the novel should do–he pauses and apologizes for his roundabout question, “I’m good at telling people what to think, and bad at asking.” He wants to know her conceptualization of the novel as a form.
“I don’t have a manifesto about the novel, but I do have private opinions,” she says. She says she hopes to combine things into what she wants to read.
“I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction,” she says, saying instead she rather be in conversation with the novels she considers the gold standard.
Telex from Cuba is set just before Castro’s revolution in the island country. Wood asks Kushner about her research for the book, and her other research habits.
Kushner explained that she wanted to capture the sense of colonial creep Telex from Cuba, and for that she needed research on the history of the revolution. To fully comprehend the novel requires some understanding of the impact of the enlightenment on the whole of the Caribbean. And because her characters were from the mid-century, she needed research in to them as well.
The Flamethrowers came from her pre-existing knowledge base. She focused on things she already knew a lot about and pieces of information she had picked up along the way.
“I only want to write about things I care about anyway,” she said.
Like her narrator, Kushner is well versed in motocycles. She owned an Italian model, necessitating her ability to maintain it. Her father owned a rare British bike, a Vincent Black Shadow, when she was growing up. And she says, she has been friends with many tinkerers.
Kushner wrote more than what appeared in the book. She wrote extra parts and says she prefers getting to a point where she can look at the whole work and take away what isn’t needed.
Wood observes that the structure of the novel really focuses around the narrator getting caught up in the history around her.
For Kushner, the thing that interests her is the idea of the event. The event, as she intends, is the historical catalyst that sets in motion the action of history. She is interested in the people surrounding the event, their ideological motivations.
Kushner is a natural storyteller, Wood says, and the stories proliferate throughout the novel. He asks if this was a self-conscious effort.
Kushner says that she loves to read Conrad’s novels because they often feature storytelling, but, she says, these kinds of novels aren’t practical to write anymore. A storyteller can dazzle the reader, and offering up a filter.
The Flamethrowers is a first person narrative, however. Because, as Kushner says, the narrator is long winded, the other storytellers within the narrative breakup the narration. She also says she wanted to distract readers with side stories whenever the narrator was about to give important pieces of information.
Narrative voice is an essential question. “Its an elemental decision that has to be made with every single book,” she says. She knew she wanted to write the novel in first person, but didn’t think at first that it was the right choice.
Asked what she’ll do next, she says quickly, “Broadway.” She’s joking. Obviously, she says she’ll start writing her third novel.