How Weird Am I To My Horses? An Interview with Verilyn Klinkenborg

Verlyn Klinkenborg is an author and a member of the New York Times editorial board. His newest book, More Scenes From the Rural Life, is poised to hit bookstores in the spring of 2013. With literary interests ranging from the 18th century novel to the quiet, dynamic poetry of his own farm in New York State, Klinkenborg writes diverse yet specific descriptions and vignettes, overcoming traditional characterizations of genre by experimenting with voice and perspective.

LIT: Tell us a little about your history, your entrance into academia.

VK: I have a Ph.D. in English from Princeton, and I started off as a medievalist but moved to the 18th century, and actually ended up doing a dissertation about canon formation.

LIT: About what?

VK: Canon formation. How we decide which books to read.

LIT: Oh, I thought you meant the way we line up cannons. Like, during siege.

VK: Oh, no no no! [Laughs] Yes, it was an artillery Ph.D. No, it came right out of being a curatorial assistant at the Morgan Library in New York where I put together two huge exhibitions of British manuscripts, which raised all these questions about why an Alexander Pope manuscript is essentially somehow inherently more valuable than a William Collins manuscript, for example. And those are questions that just became political after I wrote about them. I think I was in the last generation to go through such a completely historical education. And then I was just a young academic, heading off into the world to make my fortune as an assistant professor—

LIT: And then something changed, right?

VK: Well, like anyone who writes I think I’d always been a passionate reader. I got to the point where I was reading a lot of non-fiction, a lot of John McPhee, a lot of Joan Didion, a lot of the long pieces that were running in the New Yorker, for example. And I realized I just didn’t want to be writing academic prose, because it wasn’t fun to write, it wasn’t fun to read. It wasn’t interesting; it insisted on this degree of specialization that actually meant the world was mostly omitted, and you got to focus on your tiny little thing, but the world you lived in was irrelevant. So in the early ‘80s basically I taught myself how to write in a completely different way by offering a course teaching students how to write in the way I wanted to write, which is not all that surprising. People do that all the time. They offer courses in things they don’t know that much about but they want to learn a lot about.

LIT: How did that go for you?

VK: It was great, it was really successful. Some of my earliest students from that class became editors. And it really was inspiring to me because I could take the academic prose that I was trained in, which is the same stuff you guys are trained in, and just really break it apart, using the analytic tools I had been given as a reader of poetry, and, when I was done, I had a completely different prose. It was sort of naïve and hyper-energetic—I was really trying to show off, that I could do this, and then I calmed down, and it got much better. But I did what I always tell my students to do, which is publish anywhere. Publish in a local place, something special interest, a magazine, a blog. I started off writing about fly-fishing. It was a tiny little world, but I figured, ‘How many good writers can there be in the world of fly-fishing?’ In fly-fishing, of course, there are thousands, it’s a profound literary tradition. But it was a great introduction, because I wrote some pieces and people liked them, and I did what I know how to do which is a blind submission to Esquire, over the mail into the slush pool. And they picked it out and said we can’t run this piece but we’d like to talk, which I always think of as being very good news for writers, because a lot of writers think it’s a closed world, it’s about who you know and what kind of contacts you have. No, it’s really about one thing, it’s only about being good.

LIT: You write a column for the New York Times, The Rural Life, that has to do with your experiences on your farm where you live, and that always struck me as a really bold thing to print in the New York Times, where presumably a lot of the readers are city dwellers, metropolitan kind of people. Have you had any sort of conflict with the audience?

VK: Well, most of the audience is deeply romantic about anywhere besides where they live. They all want to have farms of their own, they’ve all imagined farms of their own. Actually after a certain age, about 40 or 45, everyone has an uncle or aunt, a relative who has a farm. It’s only when you get to a younger age where people are wondering about that connection. People are very attracted to the idea of where I think I live, but there’s always a counter-response. About once every 18 months Gawker will write a piece saying—

LIT: ‘Verlyn Klinkenborg Must Be Stopped?’

VK: Yes, exactly, which is to me, it’s like: fabulous. Try and stop me. What am I supposed to say? I think the idea that The Rural Life would appeal to everybody is just about zero. And frankly, it fills column inches for Gawker, so more power to them. My favorite response actually is a woman who is writing a blog, ‘I read Verlyn Klinkenborg so you don’t have to.’

LIT: Yeah! I was wondering if you knew about that one!

VK: Well, I don’t know her, she’s in LA, but she is actually a sweetheart, because first of all they’re funny—

LIT: She refers to you always by your full name, every time.

VK: Yeah, and my favorite one is, I wrote something, I can’t remember what it was, and her comment was ‘Verlyn Klinkenborg is really high today.’ But you know, when I was in California I wasn’t writing a lot because I wasn’t home, but I submitted a piece, and she wrote this piece writing ‘Welcome back!’ And I wrote her a note saying thanks, I read your blog, I really like it, and she said, ‘If this is really you, I’m thrilled, if it’s not you, well played.’ To me, it’s just fun.

LIT: What role do you think non-fiction is playing with young writers these days? Or whatever you want to call it—I know that genres aren’t something that you revere—but do you feel an emergence of interest in the personal essay in young writers?

VK: I think non-fiction is reemerging in colleges partly because of the wealth of creative writing programs everywhere. You know, when I was in graduate school in the ‘70s, there were not that many creative writing programs that were part of regular English departments, and those have expanded and incorporated more genres. I think it’s just easier for students to be aware of it. If you think about right now, when fiction is so dominant in a way, and if you go back to the 19th and 18th centuries, when fiction is this fairly thin thread, and the vast amount of prose that’s being written is non-fiction, and so much of the great writing that really carries through the 19th century is non-fiction. And the reason I’m not interested in genre is that it becomes another category that writers use to prohibit themselves from writing. If you talk about genre, and all these rules associated with it—I’m much more interesting in dissolving the rules than recreating them, so non-fiction to me also seems incredibly interesting formally. That’s probably because I’m not so worried about the ‘non’ in non-fiction, I’m worried about, what do we do as writers? Where does imagination come in?

LIT: You talked about your interest in dissolving these various structures that prohibit writers from writing well, or writing at all. Is there something you wish you could unlearn yourself, some kind of writing tick that you have yet to overcome, or have been dealing with?

VK: I think that it’s the sort of thing I experience when I read something that I really love. I think, ‘I’d like to be more like that.’ But I think for anybody who has worked as a writer for a long time, part of your job is to be always looking out for those tics, and eliminating them. Otherwise you end up—and I think this is really one of the reasons why people get in trouble talking about voice and style—otherwise you end up with this set of really personal clichés that are sometimes stylistic, sometimes formal, sometimes verbal.

But how uninteresting. How incredibly uninteresting. It’s just so much more important to be self-vigilant, so that as you work your prose is always trying to be new. Not in an overreaching way; it’s just you’re always testing. You know, I can tell you from one of the pieces I was reading in my class yesterday. It was a piece in which the word ‘still’ kept reappearing. It’s a great word but it’s also one that I have to weed out. ‘Still’ and ‘somehow,’ those two, and I just have to watch and make sure that I’m checking for those, otherwise they’ll just creep right in and infest my prose.

LIT: Are there other sort of tics that you notice often?

VK: It’s not so much a tic as a habit. Especially in The Rural Life pieces—we take for granted relationships to natural creatures, and I really love to invert that, I love to turn it upside down. I love to think what they think of us, how our behavior looks to them. We’re so busy looking at everything, thinking of the strangeness of all of them, but in fact, how weird am I to my horses? How weird am I to my chickens? These are really good questions. And they’re serious questions. The animals that I live around have a degree of sensory engagement with the world that’s completely different from mine, and often vastly more acute than mine, so you learn to pay attention to that. It’s one of the reasons for living with animals. To be surrounded by a different category of perception.

LIT: What about your students, or today’s young writers? What do you tell your students to preemptively un-stick them from the habits that will prevent them from writing well?

VK: The upshot of all this for me is that almost everything people think they know about writing distracts them from actually making good sentences. I see this in MFA students, my forestry students. Whether they know it or not, they have this big burden of stuff they’ve picked up. Most of it’s clichés, some of it has been passed on by well-meaning teachers, some of it’s been passed on by phenomenally stupid teachers, but the fact is, it ends up being a set of assumptions of who writers are, how they work, how the language operates. And almost all of them have the same effect, which is they prevent you from actually looking at the sentence in front of you.

One of my MFA students said, ‘I guess I do this because I’m so interested in the control I have over the reader.’ In other words, she wanted to sort of believe she could, in her writing, shape what the reader felt. To me it’s like, ‘Are you kidding?’ The phrase I use in my book is ‘the reader is on the other side of the ink.’ The reader has all the authority to close the book, close the piece, walk away. The only power you have as a writer is to look at the sentence you make, and what I find in every writer I work with at the start is that they are looking at anything but the sentence. Almost anyone I’ve ever worked with ever has had to have their attention redirected to the only thing that matters. It’s a very weird thing that our culture produces this understanding of writing that is essentially about anything but the only thing that counts.

What I’ll end up saying is, I know you’re all really good writers, I know you’re full of great intentions, I know you have all these meta-accounts flooding your head, and the fact is that you do not always know how to make sentences, and I’ve seen it. And we’ll talk about all those other things as soon as you can bring me two pages of perfectly clear sentences. After that, we’ll talk. But really, after that, we don’t need to talk. As soon as the prose gets clear, the structure becomes more clear, and the possibilities become more clear. It all becomes clear. It’s really bizarre, that’s all I can say.