Books

Class, Craft, and the Cost of Ambition: An Interview with 'Lake City' Author Thomas Kohnstamm

While Lake City masquerades as a social climber satire that is really something else, author Thomas Kohnstamm is an open book about his intentions in his work and his hopes for his city.

Lake City
Thomas Kohnstamm

Counterpoint

2019

Other

In the post-9-11 America of Thomas Kohnstamm's Lake City, 27-year-old Lane Bueche is back home in his down-and-out neighborhood of Lake City, Seattle. Lane is leeching off his mom and over-imbibing to avoid thinking about how to win his way back into the heart of his girlfriend and benefactor. Things get complicated fast when, trying to make a quick buck, Lane is drawn into a custody battle between an opportunistic elitist (Nina) and a tragically beautiful addict in recovery (Inez). Each chapter further complicates the characters and Lane's dilemma of how to rub two pennies together when the thing between is someone else's dignity, maybe his own.

Named after Seattle's traditionally seedy, northern-most neighborhood, the novel, like its namesake, is a nexus of working-class people fighting tooth-and-nail to raise their class status via an American Dream elevator. The problem is that the elevator is on the fritz and the next level up is a clothing section at a dilapidated Fred Meyer. In the novel race, class, and sexual orientation duel in a three-way knife fight. Lake City's narrative does a final shapeshift that makes it clear the novel is something else: a coming of age story where instead of taking flight from your home town, you find a way to stand on solid ground there, as solidly as you can stand while being a little tipsy.

Executed with the snap of Thomas Kohnstamm's wit, Lake City is one of 2019's unsung treasures, but one you have to be okay dumpster-diving for. And I write that not just because it's set in my hometown, though that undoubtedly plays a factor. There are many phrases in Lake City that only a native Seattleite could have written, as the characters do things that I have done countless times:

"They flip between classic rock on KZOK and KISW. It proves Lane's long-held theory that either Zeppelin or Heart is playing on at least one Seattle station at any given point in the day" (132)

Indeed, Lake City seems like it was written for a guy like me, and in my interview with Kohnstamm, I discovered that, in many ways, it was.

Robot by Thor_Deichmann (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

What was an early entry point into the novel? Was it an image, an idea, a scene?

Lake City started as a conversation I was having with some friends who were doing a foster-to-adopt. They had deeply invested in and built their relationship with the child, basically saving the child from a bad situation. My friends were open-minded and thoughtful people while the biological mother of the child was getting her life back together. The question was whether she might want the kid back.

Though none of these people ended up being represented at all in the book, I thought that was a conundrum with no correct answer. Yes, the birth parent has the ultimate right, but what's best for the child? It's an unanswerable question, and I thought that was a good starting point for a dramatic story.

The obvious set up would have been a direct conflict between the adopted parents and the biological parents; however, that's a darkly dramatic story—a custody dispute novel essentially.

In the conversation with my friends, the adopted parents, when they mentioned needing to get lawyers and that the birth mom had drugs problems, I suggested I just introduce the birth mom to my friends from high school.

I said it offhand, as just a dark joke without any seriousness behind it. But I thought about how that was an interesting setup for a story. If you had this hapless interloper trying to make it all about himself, that would give more distance from the stakes of what would happen to this child and allow such a story to be more of a dark comedy rather than a drama.

At one point you write that neighborhood Lake City "... is the leaky, yellowed fridge in a remodeled kitchen of granite countertops and fresh stainless-steel appliances" (151). What drew you to writing about that leaky, yellowed fridge? a.k.a. Lake Shitty?

I was originally thinking about setting the story in Yakima [Washington state]. Yakima has interesting class dynamics with the fruit industry and these land baron types. But when was I going to have time to go out to Yakima to do the research?

As I was walking my dogs on Lake City Way, and thinking about the story, I saw this strange building with tinted windows and razor wire and these young guys loading these unmarked boxes into their cars… There were so many weird things going on right under my nose. It dawned on me that this was an area that I knew and could give a deeper treatment to with more opportunities to add insight and humor.

The novel is in third person limited narration via Lane—standard for adult literary fiction of late. But the story is narrated in present tense, even though it's set in 2001. Why did you write the novel from that perspective?

I originally wrote it in past tense, but then Lane's flashbacks were all in past perfect tense which made the whole thing seem like it was at arm's length. Flashbacks and exposition already hamper the forward thrust of a story, and so putting a reader two steps back felt overall a bit wobbly. A novelist friend of mine, one of my early readers, suggested I change it to present tense. That seemed counterintuitive to me, as it's in the past. But once I took a quick run at changing the first chapter to present tense, it seemed much more engaging.

As far as choosing third person perspective, I was influenced by my experience publishing my last book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell [2008] a gonzo-travelogue which started out as auto-fiction but through the commercial process became non-fiction with me at the center. Because of the big online controversy that blew up in my face over that book—including being verbally assaulted by Steve Doocy on Fox and Friends—I never wanted to make myself a spectacle again.

Lane's a guy about my age, growing up where I grew up with similar life experiences. Though he's not me, much about him is like my worst insecurities about myself taken to an extreme. Through Lane, I'm asking questions. What's the personal cost of ambition? When am I putting my personal good in front of the greater good?

Writing [Lake City] in third person allowed me to explore some personal material via the protagonist while keeping him at enough distance so that I felt the freedom to make him unlikable in certain places. If I were writing about myself, I would have balked at taking the protagonist to certain points.

I was exploring the humor in the gap between who he sees himself as versus who he actually is. I wanted to put him on a bigger arc of going from a self-interested person who only talks about acting for the greater good, to eventually having to do something that required significant self-sacrifice in favor of somebody else's best interest. I wanted to set him and his arc against the Inez character: somebody who has always fallen on the sword for the people around her, leading to her life being tripped up and hampered in so many ways. I wanted to move her towards having to make a selfish decision to help her break out of her morass.

The novel is set in between December 2001 and Jan 2002. You utilize this period to your advantage plot-wise, with old beater cars that need to be pushed to start, and limited internet access causing miscommunications. Tell me a little more about your decision to set the novel during the early oughts.

It comes down to three things.

First off, in 2001, lots of bad things were happening at once. After 9-11, I found myself back home in Seattle from London, after a bad breakup. I felt cut loose and while my situation wasn't the same as Lane's, there was this feeling of uncertainty and dread. Though we're experiencing It again with the Coronavirus in the early stages of quarantine, we forget to a degree that there was a similar feeling in the months after 9-11. People didn't know if that was going to become our new normal, with one new terrorist attack after the next.

Within that, it was also very hard to find work. The economy was in lockdown. You couldn't even get a job bussing tables… Having that set of extenuating circumstances made Lane's problems somewhat real so that it wasn't just him feeling sorry for himself.

The second level is that in 21st century communications, it's very hard to really experience the isolation and missed connections I wanted to explore in the book.

The third layer to it is the Seattle story. The early 2000s were an interesting mid-point in Seattle's trajectory from blue-collar backwater to what it is now: tech powerhouse. In the early 2000s, things were starting to happen and change, but the change wasn't as complete as it is now. Then again, in 2001, it also wasn't as rough-and-tumble of a town as it had been even earlier.

I talk in the book about the film, Cinderella Liberty [Rydell, 1973]. There's this scene where James Caan's character is down by what's now the Pike's Place Market Gum-Wall, but it's all strip clubs and porn theaters and sailors on leave. I didn't want to write a Bukowski-like downtown dive bar novel so that change point of the older Seattle becoming the newer Seattle, that was where things all came together for me.

You have written books for Lonely Planet about many far-off places. How did writing Lake City compare?

I did treat elements of Lake City like a travel writing assignment, only with a place I'd done 30 years of research on instead of three days' worth. I wanted to get some sight-specific aspects in the novel to incorporate some of the history and to paint a different picture of Seattle than the precious, well-heeled image people are accustomed to, which isn't necessarily reflected in the place I grew up.

I wrote it for myself and for the people I grew up with. I wanted to make it something we would have been psyched to read.

Lane fits into a kind of buffoon archetype. As some have already noted, Lane is reminiscent of Chip from Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections [2001] in his impulsiveness and chicanery. But he's also in a similar vein as Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces [1980] in his pompousness, physical awkwardness, and being socially and occupationally arrested. Of course, Lane is like many of us writ-large, buoying himself from his menial daily tasks with delusions of grandeur. What drew you to the character of the buffoon and who were some of your inspirations?

I hadn't read The Corrections the whole way through until after finishing Lake City, so I wasn't working off Chip as a model, though I do see the comparison now. I had read A Confederacy of Dunces and watched Ben Best, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride's Eastbound & Down [2009-2013]. I was going for the kind of humor that mines the gap between somebody's reality and their ego. Beyond that, as far as picaresque protagonists go, other influences were John Fante's Ask the Dust [1939] and maybe Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of Night [1932].

While my first book is about travel, it's also about pursuing your dreams and the good, bad, and ugly that comes from that. There's being a travel writer—which you think of as a dream job— and there's the reality.

In both books, I explore the theme of ambition. We live in a society in which we're told that ambition is an unalloyed good. The assumption is that if you're not successful it's because of your shortcomings. But there's a lot of fucked up stuff that comes with getting ahead. There's a cost to you and those around you, and that doesn't often get talked about. Lane is my own wrestling with ambition versus trying to be a decent person. This is something that we all individually and nationally, within the American myth, have to wrestle with. Bootstrapping yourself is seen as this noble thing, but what's the cost?

Lane is a hard protagonist for some people to swallow. I could have given him a brother with a disability whom he needed to take care of or put him in a situation where he needed to do things for the money to help his mom. There were some straightforward Hollywood ways to make him more likable, which may have given the book a more mass-market appeal, but I decided not to do that.

Photo of Thomas Kohnstamm by © Lucien Knuteson (courtesy of Counterpoint Press)

While some may focus on Lane's unlikability, there are admirable things about him. What made him a compelling character for you?

I think he's somebody who fundamentally means well. He knows that he has a lot of potential and is terrified of wasting it. There's a pettiness to him that wants everybody to know that he's good and he's worth it, but even if it's misdirected as a man in his early 20s, he also has a sense that he has the ability to do something worthwhile. Even if he's still feeling it out and feeling somewhat fake about it, he thinks he could use his potential to do something worthwhile for other people and do something positive.

He's a complex person; not a bad guy, just self-interested. He would tell you he's self-interested for a reason. If you were to ask Lane, he'd say "If I'm not looking out for me, who is?" Lane is a mix of things, just like all the characters are. People are complex and the writing I like shows that. Nobody's all good or all bad. I tried with all my characters to create complexity. There's a character who's an antagonistic force, but the situation overall is the greater antagonist.

Speaking of complicated situations, here's a hardball. You're a straight white dude depicting a diverse cast in terms of ethnicity and sexual orientation and, as they are a cast in a satire, they are seriously flawed individuals. Did you worry about this while writing or after writing? Note, I ask you this as a straight white dude working on a novel and stories with diverse casts…

It is something I take very seriously. I did my best with all those characters to see them as people. Yes, they're flawed. They're good, they're bad. I do believe that some of the weight is taken off in my choice of Lane as the protagonist. If I would have chosen Inez (the half-Native American character) as my protagonist, the task would have been much more complicated. As a fiction writer, you have to feel out who you can write as without getting out too far ahead of yourself.

I think it was a strong choice, as you're able to get to a lot of thematic material through him. On page 163, there's a passage about the American Dream (Lane's lowest moment, in a character otherwise given bounce to his step by his delusional optimism) and the intractability of class. The passage is remarkably like what the whole discipline of Sociology has been saying about upward mobility. Who / what were some influences leading you to that conclusion?

My own life experience, more than anything else. I think that really comes out in this book.

I was a kid from Seattle that got a scholarship to an East Coast private school [Bowdoin] where I was thrown into a world of people who were from very different class backgrounds that I was from. Then I went on to graduate school [Stanford] to get a lot more of that in bigger ways. I started the equivalent of a Ph.D. in London, but I didn't make it far into it at all. I had that breakup and came back to my parents' house and it all instantly evaporated.

I didn't have my terminal degree, so I couldn't become a professor. Sure, I had been to Stanford and gotten great grades, but all of that stuff just seemed elusory. In the end, the unfortunate reality is that not much replaces cold hard cash. We're not told that, nor do we want to believe it.

My reality growing up was different from Lane's. My father had a Masters, my mother had the equivalent. My parents valued education and cultural things and though we didn't have a lot of money, we had a lot of cultural wealth. My Dad could tell you all about Buddhism and jazz for instance. And a lot of people in Seattle back then didn't have money or nice cars.

But being out in the wider world, there were these few life experiences that just slapped me down hard to make me realize that I had less control over my place in the world than I had thought or been widely taught.

Sounds like the perfect irony to find some humor in. Humor is a struggle for many writers, myself included. What strategies do you employ to make a scene funny?

I just try to make myself laugh. I think it has to come naturally. I mean I'm sure practiced comedic writers have an approach to consistently knocking out jokes, but I'm just trying to cope with reality. Even before I wanted to write, I've always been big into telling stories about something I set out to do and how it went poorly. I was always telling stories where I somehow got myself into hot water. That's just who I am.

I had the good fortune with my first book [Do Travel Writers Go to Hell] to go on some elaborate book tours. I got to spend time with Junot Díaz in Australia and New Zealand, and I found a strong similarity between his writing and who he is when he gets off and running.

There's something to be said for being able to communicate your natural voice on the page. You can tweak it in different directions you need on the spectrum of humorous to serious, but it has to be the way that you look at the world and where you find humor in the first place. In my case with Lake City, the humor is pretty close to how I try to pass through life.

There are some hilarious idioms in the book. When Lane's friend Lonnie hears about Lane's murky justification for helping Nina, he says deferentially, "I mean, even eggs Benedict once came out a chicken's pussy, right?" (81) How do you come up with phrases like that? Do you go to bars and listen to old friends chew the fat? Do you make them up? What's your strategy?

[laughs] I'm happy you liked that one! It was just one of those things I came up with when I looked at an egg—like the most common thing in our refrigerator. And I always wanted to find a place for that expression to fit. So, I was pretty pleased it found a home with Lonnie.

But as far as a strategy for coming up with memorable idioms and phrases, the strongest thing I have going for me is a good memory. I have a good power of recall and I'm interested in language, so I do remember random things. Things people say stick with me.

I don't proactively look for what certain types of characters would say. When I remember hearing somebody say this funny thing in the past, then maybe I can build that into a character. Neil Gaiman says you have to have a compost heap of things you're letting molder. Different things intermingle organically from there.

Another source of humor in Lake City is the dialogue. The dialogue is also a big driver of suspense, especially towards the end of the book. You use dialogue to reveal nuanced motives and surprising actions that occur off stage. Through dialogue, the characters show they are much larger and more complicated than the plebes Lane dismisses them as being. Yet the narrative remains concise, hustling at a clipped pace just behind Lane. How do you decide what to leave out, and which scenes to not write in-full?

I guess it goes back to how I spent a couple of years working really hard pitching pilots. Learning about screenwriting took my writing in a slightly different direction. You have to learn to cut a lot out in screenwriting and learn to keep things tightly paced. You learn to allow people to infer things in dialogue while trying not to be ham-fisted in laying out too much information.

Early drafts of Lake City probably had a lot more on the page. You have to look for ways to say things that are a little more buried and not so on-the-nose. So, I think that comes just from polishing. You can get to something big about to happen, hint at it, and then cut! End of chapter, on to the next.

Zadie Smith does this in Swing Time [2016]. Just as there is in screenwriting, in fiction writing I think there's power in letting the reader's imagination fill in some of the blanks, rather than doing too much hand-holding.

You mention how, in 2001, there was a tension between the up-and-comer force of gentrification and the authentic eccentricity of old. Do you still see that tension? If so, what about that is important for a city like Seattle?

I think that the balance has shifted. It's not like we've been taken over by middle management from investment firms or something. The tech industry prides itself on eccentricity and being progressive or leading alternative lifestyles whether they're more progressively liberal or more libertarian. That's one of the reasons that tech blossomed in San Francisco and Seattle the way that it did. But I think that we're on the other side.

Seattle is not a town for young artists to come unless those young artists have a day job in branding. It's a much more professionalized culture. It's a much slicker culture. Seattle still has some edge and quirkiness to it, but it's nowhere near as eccentric. There's less room for error. Because the cost of living is so high, everybody has to be much more intentional. You can't just work in a coffee shop and be figuring it out. You'd have to move out of town in like two months if you tried that.

Both sides of the 1960s culture wars sort of won, at least in Seattle. Everything has been mainstreamed, from alternative power to cannabis to environmentalism to healthy eating to liberal policies. At the same time in Seattle, everybody's a professional, and everyone's going to have their Roth IRA or 401K. We've kind of cherrypicked things from both sides in an ongoing balance where we see who we want to become in the longer run.

There are so many newcomers, but I'm not a townie who thinks everything was great before and everything's bad now. That's corny and isn't really remembering how it was. Growing up in the' 90s in Seattle, there were certain things that sucked. There weren't a lot of all-ages things, for example. Now, I see much better use of public spaces, food trucks, richer nightlife, and more diversity.

I'm not saying that my novel, Lake City, solves any of this, but I do think its good for people to create a record and continue elements of the past in the arts so that Seattle can have its own style so people can be aware of its history. Like Brad Holden's Seattle Prohibition: Bootleggers, Rumrunners, & Graft in the Queen City [2019]. He's written a colorful history of Seattle but in a richer story-telling fashion.

The point is, it's cool for Seattle to grow and become a bigger world city. It's better for us to be better-heeled than becoming part of the rust belt, but I hope we can maybe look at San Francisco as a model. They're maybe five- to ten years ahead in this process and if we could see where they've made mistakes and not, hopefully, we can maintain some of our character while still growing.

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