Interview with Nic Kelman
Gaines: Let’s start with the typical first novel question: what part of girls is autobiographical? Do you identify with any particular character?
Nic Kelman: I have to say none of it. There are one or two very short pieces that are close to non-fiction, but even those are not autobiographical. The identification question is a different one, however, and I think my answer to that is: if most men did not identify with the characters to some degree or another, and most women did not recognize that identification, then the book wouldn’t be reaching people the way it seems to be.
What were some of the difficulties you faced as a writer, given the nature of the material?
There was really only one difficulty – staying honest. It was very, very hard not mitigate the subject matter. I found myself always pulling back and having to rewrite passages because they simply weren’t the truth – they were the PG13 version of the truth. As Tim O’Brien says, “the truth is obscene,” and I had a hard time sometimes remembering if I removed the obscenity (in the broadest sense of the word), I might as well not have written anything at all.
Your characters are written in the second person, with only subtle distinctions between them. Did you intend these characters to morph into one another, their similarities greater than their differences?
Definitely. The characters are intended to be real people, not archetypes, but real people that are facets of the same character. There were so many different ways of looking at the kind of relationship I was examining in girls I needed to be able to explore many subtly distinct scenarios, too many for any one man to have realistically experienced, but I didn’t want to manufacture some kind of forced structure simply for the purpose of linking these different men, these different experiences, together. Hence the simplest thing was to throw the rules away and say, “Well, why can’t I write all these different incarnations of the same character and put them into all the necessary situations?”
Your novel resurrects the specter of Humbert Humbert and his moral dilemma in Lolita. Do you feel your novel changes the image of the bumbling older man or simply wraps him in more sophistication?
That’s an interesting question. I guess I actually see Humbert as considerably more sophisticated than most of the characters in my book – he’s certainly more educated. What I think Humbert and the characters in girls do have in common is their weakness. And not just in the sense that they are neither strong enough to overcome their desires nor to claim them without shame, but in the sense that their desires make them vulnerable – to ridicule, to prosecution, to any number of things that they would not be vulnerable to otherwise.
Obviously, your characters enjoy the protection of wealth, thereby avoiding immediate legal consequences. To what extent does this wealth contribute to their moral decay?
Well, that’s one of the questions the book examines – is the wealth the cause or the facilitator? Personally, I think it’s a facilitator, but I could be wrong…
Do you consider the men’s obsessions anomalies or addictions? What does the future hold for such men, given their escalating behavior?
Definitely addictions, but also definitely not anomalies. One of the reasons I felt compelled to write girls was that the kind of attraction these men feel for younger women seemed to be everywhere I looked – in politics, in film, in Homer - and I started to ask myself, “What’s going on here?” This kind of obsessive attraction is so prevalent – and has always been so prevalent – I felt if it was examined closely and honestly, it might reveal something more about the nature of our lives.
I’m not quite sure what you mean about what the future holds for such men. If you mean the characters in the book, I imagine they would probably simply continue to indulge their desires outside the United States - the U.S. is, after all, one of the only countries in the world with an age of consent over 16. But if you mean for men in general, particularly in the U.S., I don’t know. I do feel like our current model of what a relationship between a man and a woman is supposed to be is reaching a crisis point. Part of the reason I wanted to include the Homeric passages and other historical sociology was I wanted to point out that what we consider to be “normal” when it comes to relationships between men and women is actually a fairly new way of looking at things, not to mention somewhat geographically localized.
What was the intent of the Homeric passages throughout the book? Was that technique successful?
A very interesting question. It’s one I’ve struggled with a great deal since I completed the book. The intent was manifold. For one, I felt it provided both a temporal and structural backbone for the work. Temporally, I felt it added an amazing perspective on the topic. I mean, here’s the very first western narrative and what’s it about? A powerful man stealing a teenage girl from a less powerful man and everyone around them dealing with the consequences (both differently and similarly to the way we might today). Structurally, it is the only thread that consistently and explicitly returns to the same characters and that is in chronological order. Beyond that, I think, as Simone Weil put it, “Those who dream that force, thanks to progress, from now on belongs to the past, see [Homer's] poem simply as a historical document; those who have learned to see force, today as yesterday, in the center of all human history, find there the most beautiful, the most pure, of mirrors...”
As for whether or not it was successful, I think it does things for the text that are not necessarily overtly noticeable, but that would be sorely missed were it removed.
As a woman, I am particularly sensitive to condescension by male authors. For example, I was deeply offended by American Psycho, especially Ellis’ intentional degradation of women. How did you manage to cover similarly charged territory without offending your female readers?
First let me say that I’m very glad you feel that way – that was certainly my hope. Having said that, I unfortunately don’t think I can answer that question. Not because I don’t want to, but because I don’t really know the answer. My intention was simply to try to tell the truth the way I saw it without worrying about who I was going to offend. And I have to say, one comment I often hear is, “Wow – you know, I get exactly what you’re saying, but everyone else is going to be really offended.” So, the book seems to have a said a great many things that both men and women were obviously thinking to themselves but always a little afraid to say out loud… Maybe that’s the answer?
How have the critics treated you so far?
The book definitely seems to have touched a nerve…
You are currently at work on your next novel. Would you describe the process as easier or more difficult than girls?
For me, so far, it’s been a process of waiting for the right inspiration to come along. When the inspiration is there, it’s easy. When it isn’t, it’s impossible.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines conducted her interview with Nic Kelman via email for curledup.com.
Click here to read her review of girls.