Lying Liars and the Lawyers Who Love Them: An Interview with Michael Kun
'No matter how good the story is, the fact that the reader is holding something in his hands that expressly states that it is fiction prevents the reader from getting as involved in the story and the characters as he could otherwise.' PopMatters talks to Michael Kun about lies, truths, death, and Heather Locklear.
With the publication of his fourth novel, You Poor Monster: Or, This Should Answer Your Questions My Son, author Michael Kun has solidified himself as a master literary craftsman and a preeminent storyteller. While his previous outings were well written, entertaining mixes of comedy and pathos, something always seemed to be missing; something this reviewer could never quite touch on. Until now: What was missing was deft storytelling.
You Poor Monster, Kun's best work to date, begins when Sam Shoogey appears on lawyer Hamilton "Ham" Ashe's doorstep in the middle of the night. Ashe doesn't know what to make of the little man, but Shoogey politely greets Ashe and asks for his new neighbor's assistance in his upcoming divorce. Shoogey is an immediate enigma. He supposes to be a novelist, a college football star, a professional boxer, and a war hero. But the more outrageous his stories of accomplishment become, the less inclined Ham -- and the reader -- is to believe them. Who exactly is Shoogey? And why should we trust him?
The novel, told from Ham's perspective, is a layered, intricately structured story about lies and culling truth from deceit. It is a story about loss, about wasted dreams and relationships, but more importantly, it's about storytelling, both for Shoogey and Kun, who each demonstrate the power of shrewdness and fearlessness in making the unbelievable believable.
Kun, a working Los Angeles lawyer, is a novelist hard to categorize. His works are funny but maintain an air of seriousness. While sprinkled with satirical moments, none of his novels are out and out satires -- save, perhaps, The Locklear Letters, a novel about celebrity obsession comprised entirely of letters.
Splitting his focus between writing and his law practice, Kun has published three of his four novels over the past three years. PopMatters recently spoke with the author about writing, failing at writing, succeeding at writing, and those Heather letters.
PopMatters: You spent nearly ten years on You Poor Monster, with two novels written and released in the interim. What was it about this book that kept drawing you back to it?
Michael Kun: Even in its very different, earlier incarnations, I've always had a personal attachment to this book. I'm not ashamed to say that portions of it are autobiographical, and that the main character, Sam Shoogey, is based on someone I represented when I was practicing law back in Baltimore. Additionally, I was very pleased with some of the writing in the original draft of the book, and I just couldn't imagine throwing it away forever. So although I eventually put the book aside to work on something else, like The Locklear Letters, as soon as I was done I would always return to You Poor Monster. I took the manuscript with me on vacations, on planes, to ballgames, just hacking away at it and rewriting it. Perhaps it was something to do with work ethic, too - not wanting to leave a project incomplete. This project wouldn't be complete until it was published.
PM: Did the intricately layered structure grow out of the various toiling over the novel's long incubation period, or was it always a part of the original design?
MK: The structure of the book is definitely a result of the many years of editing. Originally, the book was a 650-page mess. There was some writing in it that I was pretty proud of, but it was something of a "kitchen sink" novel. I was 27 years old when I wrote the first draft. I thought the world wanted to know everything I was thinking, so I threw in everything I could think of. As I trimmed it from 650 pages, the plot changed, the characters changed, story lines were removed, characters were removed. In fact, I like to joke that the only thing that remained the same is the name of the main character, Sam Shoogey. Ultimately, I got it down to about 350 pages or so, but something about it felt wrong to me. Part of it was that suddenly if felt like too conventional of a novel. Too straightforward, too linear. Another part of it was that it felt like something was missing. Maybe the reader wouldn't notice it, but I sure did because I knew what used to be there. That was when I decided to include the endnotes, which tell something of a parallel story and comment on the main text.
PM: Your use of endnotes, which, in a way, serves to deconstruct parts of the narrative, is, hands down, the best use of those post-modern headaches I've ever come across. What inspired you to employ them the way you did?
MK: The endnotes were something I added relatively late in the game, and they were a subject of some debate. My publisher and my agent questioned whether we should include them, and my editor and I were pretty insistent that they had to be there. I really wanted to do something different, and the idea of deconstructing a novel was something that, to my knowledge, had never been done before. And if it has been done before, I'm begging you not to tell me! My thinking was that there is always a wall between a novelist and an author. No matter how good the story is, the fact that the reader is holding something in his hands that expressly states that it is fiction prevents the reader from getting as involved in the story and the characters as he could otherwise. As long as he knows it's fiction, he can only care so much because, on some level, he always knows that the people and the situations aren't real. With the endnotes, I wanted people to question whether the people and the situations in fact are real. Because if you think they might be real, it affects how much you feel and how you feel. I've been pleased that readers have contacted me to ask me just how much of what's in the book is in fact real. I've been told that they've looked for certain people or places that appear in the book, or that they became emotional because they thought some of the events in the book happened to real people they had come to care about. Feedback like that means that the endnotes work. If you don't mind me adding one more comment, let me say that I would not have used the endnotes in a different book. It had to be this one, where so much of the book is focused on the search for what is true. In fact, as you know, the epigram of the book is, "Is a lie a lie if you know it's untrue, or is it just a story?"
PM: I geeked out when I read the passage early in the novel where Ham, our narrator, references another Ham Ashe and a scene from My Wife and My Dead Wife. Was the shared namesake always a part of You Poor Monster, or did it get thrown into the mix as the novel evolved from its initial draft?
MK: The shared names were always in both books. The lawyer in this book and the tailor in My Wife and My Dead Wife are both named Hamilton Ashe. In My Wife, the tailor (who lives in Atlanta) gets a phone call from the lawyer (who lives in Baltimore) because both are surprised that anyone else in the world would have that unusual name. Then, in You Poor Monster, the lawyer Hamilton Ashe mentions that the only other person he knows with that name is a tailor in Atlanta. You don't have to read one book to understand the other, but if you do happen to read both books, my hope is that the fictional coincidence of the two characters' names makes you question whether it is a coincidence at all, and makes you question even more what is true and what is not true. If I said anything more than that, I might have to give away too much of what is in the endnotes.
PM: Let's jump back a few years to My Wife and Dead Wife. Were you disheartened when it received less attention than your previous outings? Have you any theories as to why that happened?
MK: Ah, yes, My Wife and My Dead Wife. The international worst selling novel. I believe there was a time when it actually had negative sales (the publisher had given away more promotional copies than it sold). I'd be lying if I said that it didn't sadden me that the book got so little attention. I've met readers and booksellers who said that they were waiting for me to write a follow-up to The Locklear Letters, and they were shocked to hear that My Wife and My Dead Wife even came out last year. It's a good book, in my very biased opinion, and I do wish that more people knew about it. But I would feel much, much worse if it were You Poor Monster that got lost. My theory as to why My Wife and My Dead Wife got less attention? I think it's tough for books from small publishers to get much notice in the first place, no matter how hard the publisher may work to promote it. At the same time, small publishers don't have the resources to promote all of their books with equal vigor. Multiply those two, and a book can get lost. If I were 25 years old, doing that multiplication would have crushed me. At 42, I can live with it. I never lost a night's sleep.
PM: You cast the other Ham Ashe as a tailor in Atlanta, and you get pretty specific about the technical side of tailoring. How much research went into this, or are you just a closeted seamstress?
MK: I couldn't sew a button if I tried. I don't even know where you find buttons. Do they sell them in drug stores? And I have no idea what you do after you thread a needle. Are you supposed to tie the ends together? For those reasons, I had to do a bit of research. I bought half-a-dozen books on sewing, learned as much as I could, wrote the book, then promptly purged all that knowledge from my brain. I suppose it would have been easier to give the main character a job I already understood, but easy isn't always right. In this case, I felt that the narrator had to be a tailor, even if he never quite understands why. And even if I decided not to spell it out for the readers. Both of them.
PM: Were there ulterior motives behind selecting country music as the object of Renee's desire and Ham's annoyance? Do you loathe country music, or was it just a funny gag?
MK: My Wife and My Dead Wife is set in Atlanta, so having Renee want to be a country singer seemed to make more sense than having her want to be a rock singer. Though, of course, a lot of great bands come out of Atlanta. Also, the genre would seem to fit her desire to express herself a little better. Do I loathe country music? Not at all. I worry about people who say unequivocally that they like a particular type of music. Saying you like rock music tells me nothing, and most people who say that don't really like all kinds of rock music anyway. That said, I really enjoy some country music --Roseanne Cash and Lyle Lovett come to mind immediately -- while other country music doesn't do anything for me. Generally, my rule of thumb is that if the singer is wearing a cowboy hat, it's probably not something I'd really enjoy. The sole exception to date has been Dwight Yoakam, who's only wearing the hat to try to convince people he's not going bald. It's not working.
PM: Each of your novels strikes a fine balance between comedy and drama, without one overpowering the other. Instead, we're confronted with poignancy or a bittersweet feeling. How much planning goes into the tone of your novels? Or does that balance come naturally?
MK: I wish I could say that it's planning and hard work, but, for better or worse, that's just the way I write. I can't imagine writing a novel without having some humor in it. At the same time, if it's just humor, even I wouldn't want to read it. The humor has to be speaking to something.
PM: Your novels are strikingly visual, creating a clear portrait in your readers' minds, but has there been any instances in which you wrote something, picturing it one way, only to have someone read it and extract a completely different image or images from the same passage?
MK: The only thing that comes to mind is the ending of The Locklear Letters. Without giving away the ending of the book to people who haven't read it, there has been something of a debate among readers as to whether the last quarter of the book actually happens, or if the main character has lost his mind and imagines that it happens. It has always been very clear in my mind which of those perceptions is correct, but I don't mind at all that people read it both ways.
PM: There's a funny article on your website about lawyers turned novelists and the outlandish books they write? When are you going to sit down and write a full-on parody of those thrillers? Is that something in your radar?
MK: Not on the radar at all. I wouldn't even know where to begin in writing a thriller, let alone a parody of a thriller. I get asked all the time whether I'm going to write a thriller. I would have no basis for doing so. There are many adjectives that can be used to describe practicing law. "Thrilling" isn't one of them. At least not for me, or for any other lawyer I've ever met.
PM: With the publication of your first novel, A Thousand Benjamins, you seemed to enjoy critical success, then you vanished for 13 years, even inspiring death rumors. What was the real reason for your disappearance? Was it something more than a hectic work life?
MK: It was a combination of things. Partly, it was a very hectic work schedule. I've been practicing law full-time for 17 years, and it's very difficult to find time to write. At the same time, I was editing and rewriting You Poor Monster for much of that time. I didn't want to give up on it. It was a long time before I even decided to put it aside to write The Locklear Letters. Having said that, I can't believe it was 13 years between books. That really is absurd, isn't it?
PM: How did it feel the first time you heard that you'd died? Were you shocked, or were you honored that you'd become the topic of such bizarre speculation?
MK: I thought it was funny, to tell you the truth. Funny and touching that people would care enough that I hadn't published anything in a while. Not sure I would have felt the same way if anyone had seemed pleased that I was dead.
PM: On that note, what was the craziest rumor you heard? In which way did you supposedly meet your maker that made you laugh out loud when you heard it?
MK: They were all pretty crazy, particularly if you know me. One said I died in a mountain-climbing accident. Impossible. I'm afraid of heights. (I'm afraid of weights, too, but that's a different subject). You couldn't get me to climb a mountain for any price. Another said I died of a drug overdose. Unless it's Tylenol, that would be impossible. All of the rumored deaths got a laugh out of me, except for the one where I supposedly died in a car accident. That's one that could really happen, particularly if you drive on the highways of Southern California, as I do every day.
PM: Will A Thousand Benjamins be reprinted anytime soon?
MK: As I understand it, MacAdam Cage is going to be republishing it in the spring of 2006. Maybe they'll call it "a special 16th anniversary edition." Who knows? I hope you'll enjoy it, but at this stage I honestly don't even remember the names of the characters. Other than Benjamin, and only because his name is in the title. I have a recollection of it being a pretty good book. Then again, I also have a recollection of being a great high school baseball player.
PM: After a 13-year lapse, you jumped back and seemed to put a novel out damn near every year. How integral has MacAdam Cage been to your writing career?
MK: I have a great agent. Her name is Sandra Bond, and she's become one of my closest friends. A few years ago, she was shopping The Locklear Letters and You Poor Monster at the same time. MacAdam Cage wanted to publish The Locklear Letters. Another publishing house bid on You Poor Monster. But they wanted to publish it in paperback, not hardcover. And they wanted me to remove the endnotes. Even though they offered substantially more money than MacAdam Cage, and even though they were going to publish the book I really loved (You Poor Monster), Sandra and I decided to go to MacAdam Cage. I really hit it off with my editor, Pat Walsh. Even though we've butted heads frequently over the past three or four years, having an editor who champions your work like Pat has done has been great. He fought to get The Locklear Letters published, and I think he was vindicated. He fought to keep the endnotes in You Poor Monster, and I think he has been vindicated there, too.
PM: Why Heather Locklear?
MK: As you know, the premise of The Locklear Letters is that a former acquaintance of Heather Locklear writes her a letter asking for an autographed photo for his brother's birthday, and that letter leads to more letters, which cause the main character's life to spiral out of control. In deciding who the celebrity would be, I had three criteria. First, it had to be someone most people knew; if it was a little-known rock singer or an obscure actor, the story wouldn't work. Second, it had to be someone who, for whatever reasons, most people have positive feelings about; no one wants to read The Mike Tyson Letters -- actually I would, but I'm probably alone on that issue. Third, the celebrity had to be someone who, because of the way they have been presented to the public, readers could actually imagine writing back to the old acquaintance; if you don't think there's a chance the celebrity might get involved; a critical element of the book is lost. I shared those criteria with about 20 friends, and 17 of them immediately said, "That's Heather Locklear!" It really was very surprising and very overwhelming. I believe they were correct, even more so now than when I was writing the book.
PM: I personally found the novel, although funny, extremely creepy. The obsession, and constant bombardment of letters, was one that made my skin crawl. How did you justify Sid Straw's desire to write these letters? Do you view him as insane?
MK: I can't answer your question about whether he's insane without perhaps giving away the ending of the book (and settling the dispute some readers have over that issue). I'd rather leave it to readers to decide at this point. As far as Sid's desire to write these letters, I hope readers start to figure this out as the book progresses. He was a happy, successful, funny guy when he was in college. Twenty years later, he's alone and lonely, working in a go-nowhere job with a bunch of people he barely knows and doesn't particularly like. His letters come from his desire to connect with happier times.
PM: Written entirely in letter format, The Locklear Letters is unique in your canon. Did you explore alternate means of telling this story, or was the letter angle there from the beginning?
MK: It was always going to be written in letters. I can't imagine that it would have been as funny or as interesting if it had been a straightforward narrative. It would have been a very different book, I suppose, and not one I would have enjoyed writing. And, frankly, the fact that I enjoyed the format was the reason for using the format. I doubt any writer has ever enjoyed writing a book as much as I enjoyed writing that one. I just made myself laugh. I'm sorry if that sounds immodest, but making myself laugh was very important to me at the time because I really needed to remember why I was writing in the first place. If you don't enjoy it, you shouldn't do it.
PM: Lid Sid, Shoogey is such a great character, at times large, yet he's not the most sympathetic character in the world, having said that, however, I couldn't help but to care for the guy. How important was it to you for Shoogey to evoke that reaction from readers?
MK: That was incredibly important. Shoogey doesn't make a great first impression, or a great second one, on the narrator or the reader. I had to make him interesting and charming enough for readers to want to keep reading about him despite the fact that they may not have liked him at first. Eventually, hopefully, it becomes something of a surprise when readers realize that they actually care about him, just as it is a surprise for one of the characters to realize that she also cares about him. If the reader never comes to care about Shoogey, then for that reader the book probably will never answer the question "Is a lie a lie if you know it's untrue, or is it just a story?"
PM: What are your thoughts on Shoogey? Is he really such a bad guy?
MK: As I mentioned, Shoogey is based in part on someone I actually represented in a lawsuit in Baltimore many years ago. The attorney-client privilege prevents me from revealing much more about him. That client and Shoogey are very similar in spirit, but far from identical. I have much fondness for both that client and for Shoogey, and that fondness came from realizing that neither were bad guys once you understand how they had come to be the men they became.