Hari Kunzru’s short story ‘Love with Impediments’ appears in the eleventh issue of The Mechanics’ Institute Review (MIR11). Kieran Falconer interviews him about his story and his writing life.
You have written many short stories, as your website testifies, but you’re mostly associated with the novel, and I wondered what you felt about the short story form?
It’s a very good place to experiment. There are things you probably wouldn’t risk doing over the course of a longer work like a novel that you can try out on a short story. A lot of my short stories are more formally experimental than my full length fiction. I think the short story works as a scratchpad for formal stuff that you wouldn’t want to sustain over a long period.
I wanted to discuss the story, ‘Love with Impediments’, that you contributed to MIR11. Can you talk through the process from idea to finished story?
I was thinking of the visual language of advertising, there’s a kind of logic to it and I tried to imagine what the reality of an advertising world would be like. It would be a place where the rules of the television advert – things can dissolve into other things, there’s a constant exhortation to self-improvement and to buying and the elements of animation are involved – and that was the basic rationalisation for the story. The subjectivity is trapped in this world of advertising, the “you” of the story is imprisoned in this increasingly nightmarish world.
The title is a fairly hermetic private joke really but in the 1970s in West Germany, the terrorist group Red Army Faction was at war with German consumerist society which they felt was a weapon against the working class. Their book of manifestos and tracts was issued illegally by a press and because it was banned throughout Germany, they put a double cover on it and they made it look like a romantic novel which was called Love with Impediments. The title also has more direct bearing on the story as well but that was a kind of submerged political reference.
You talk about product placement in another of your short stories, ‘Raj, Bohemian’, and I wonder if advertising is an important theme for you?
I’m very interested in ideas about persuasion. I think we’re increasingly quite sanguine about the fact that there are agendas in communication. Maybe we’re too sanguine about that. Major areas of life are being corrupted by the continual requirement, not just to pitch products or anything but to pitch yourself. We’ve become salesmen for ourselves. And nobody feels this more than writers – we are expected to be constantly tap dancing on social media to promote ourselves, and because of the isolated nature of the work as a writer, you often are canaries in the neo-liberal coalmine. We are the ultimate freelancers who don’t have any solidarity with anyone else! I’m seeing everyone do this neurotic pitching, from the most financially and critically successful author right down to people who are attempting to get on a writing course. Everyone is working as hard as they can and so, in a way, my enduring interest in advertising and branding, is partly as a neurotic reaction to that.
An interpretation of the story is how advertising disconnects us from reality and I wonder if that theme of connectedness – between people and/or events – has been prevalent in your other works?
Absolutely, this is a return to the word neoliberal, the essence of liberalism is the sovereignty of the individual, for good or ill, but it has great difficulty in jumping to the idea of community and what it means to be in relation to others. A lot of our quality of life depends on our relations to others - mutual aid - which are over and above the individual and brings him/her into a system larger than themselves.
We get very excited by the idea of networking with each other and I’m very interested in whether a network of individuals is the same as a community? Are the Facebook friendships as meaningful as other kinds of community, perhaps this networking has superseded normal community? I don’t have a simple answer to that, but there are many positive things about technology-enhanced networking. However I think that our idea of community is eroded by this notion of a network of individuals that never come together in any more durable structure.
As novelists we’re supposed to be creating great characters, rich substantial, psychological individuals but do we get too hung up on the interiority of the individual at the expense of understanding relations and the community?
Publishing is changing and I notice that your most recent work, Twice Upon a Time: Listening to New York, is a novella, and quite an experimental one. Can you tell us something about how that came about?
It’s a diary pure and simple. Frankly I’d come to New York and underestimated how hard it was to change cities. I was in a slightly dislocated mental state anyway and I’d moved from London with deliberately not much stuff. I’d come from quite an established life in London and moved to a single room with a mattress on the floor and a laptop and that was kinda me!
So I felt very adrift and in an uneasy way, and I was getting literally lost all the time - I straightforwardly didn’t know which way was uptown or downtown for instance. I would get on the wrong platform and end up in Queens. So I tried to orientate myself and write little bits down of what I was experiencing and the idea came about of a street musician who negotiated the city with much greater talent than me.
The idea for using sound I got later. I decided to add a collection of images I’d made of ‘found’ writing from around the city and binaural field recordings of the places I’d mentioned in the text.
So in Twice Upon a Time I went over the same ground in New York five years later in a very different state and I had a much more substantial life. I was a dad for one thing and often travelled around with my baby son strapped to my chest! Having that distance and being able to contemplate what happened when I first came to the city was useful to me.
Having worked at Wired in the 1990s and being probably one of the earlier adopters, among authors, of social media what do you think about new technology and its application to fiction?
You have the opportunity to narrate your text and then bleed out into other media if you want to. The most important thing about the book is the cover, which is not to say about the design or anything like that but that it’s a bounded form, cut off from connectivity, and to find the concentration when you’re reading just the text is fundamentally different from the reading you do on your laptop, your iPad’s open and you’re half way through one piece and you get involved in another form. Your attention is bleeding into other things and you’re subdividing it further by music or talking to an online community. But a book has a kind of meditative state and a quality to the reading that is more important than it used to be because it is such precious time. So I’m very committed to the traditional book. I don’t think it’s going to die at all. This kind of experience continues to be valid to people.
Do you feel that the market/audience/publishing world has changed in the way it looks at shorter fiction? Do you think ten or fifteen years ago it would have been more difficult to publish short fiction?
There’s more short fiction getting published in the US than the UK. There’s just more outlets for short fiction. And I notice that young writers in the US tend to come out of the gate with a collection whereas writers in the UK are told you’ll never publish a collection until you’re famous. Writers in the UK come out with some big statement novel.
What do you have coming up in the next year?
I’m part of the way through a draft of a novel about music – not totally disconnected to Twice Upon a Time, it’s mostly set in New York. And I’m doing some screenwriting with my wife, Katie’s also a novelist, we’ve started working on a commissioned work for Film 4. I might do another project like Twice Upon a Time.
For the more geeky reader of this piece, what is your writing routine?
It used to be that I couldn’t write unless I was in my office and had all my stuff, but going to New York necessarily cured me of that. So in the last few years I’ve taught myself to write as and when. By choice I tend to write at home rather than a café. It’s pretty much a nine to five routine and now it’s around when I have childcare. It stops dead when my little boy comes through the little plastic gate that separates my area from toys!
Hari Kunzru is the author of the novels The Impressionist (2002), Transmission (2004) My Revolutions (2007) and Gods Without Men (2011) as well as a the novella Memory Palace (2013) and a short story collection, Noise (2006). His work has been translated into twenty-one languages and won him prizes including the Somerset Maugham award, the Betty Trask prize of the Society of Authors and a British Book Award. In 2003 Granta named him one of its twenty best young British novelists. Lire magazine named him one of its 50 "écrivains pour demain". He is a past Deputy President of English PEN, a patron of the Refugee Council and a member of the editorial board of Mute magazine. His short stories and journalism have appeared in diverse publications including The New York Times, Guardian, New Yorker, Washington Post, Times of India, Wired and New Statesman. He lives in New York City.
Website: www.harikunzru.com Twitter: @harikunzru
Photo: Jamie Diamond