|||

Like Ideas, or Birds in Hell

An interview with David Kuhnlein by Jesse Hilson

Along the pathways through indie lit land as it is experienced on Twitter, you make fortuitous connections with other writers, and some of these connections require a lot of effort and sweat to make, while others just seem to arise out of the texture of digital happenstance. I first became aware of David Kuhnlein when the Belgian experimental radio show L’Etranger on Radio Panik 105.4 FM featured samples of both of our writing on one of their programs. After that I started seeing his name pop up here and there in the stream of names on Twitter, usually in darkly effervescent company. I got a hold of his Six Six Six, and I reviewed this stapled booklet of horror film reviews just as I would review any other book. Kuhnlein was clearly having fun crafting finely chiseled, elevated perspective pieces on the horror genre, and while I’m not as invested in horror as I was when I was younger, it was fun to respond to that. He’s a polished, ornamental prose stylist working in fields that are often tarnished and littered with the refuse of literary burglary, furniture ransacked of valuables. Kuhnlein’s poetry collection Decay Never Came further demonstrated his verbal peculiarities, but in miniature. I liked both of his books that I’d read but I sensed that there was some larger statement to be made beyond these thin volumes. I asked him if he would participate in an interview, and it was only once we started that the news broke of his novella Die Closer To Me (Merigold Independent) coming at the end of June 2023. I’m sensing that the book is along the lines of a New Wave sci-fi high-conceptual affair concerning medicine, technology and interplanetary intrigue, and therefore an interview was the perfect opportunity to find out more about this Detroit-based literary/genre crossfader.

photo by Addy Malinowskiphoto by Addy Malinowski

Jesse Hilson
I don’t think it’s a secret for me to tell you that I like your work. I’ll just ask a few questions to get started: Do you consider yourself a poet, or a writer? I was thinking about this distinction the other day. Of course poets are writers. But poetry seems like it’s simultaneously its own special craft and yet intrinsic to other forms of writing. Your movie reviews are poetic,” from a certain POV.

David Kuhnlein
Although this might seem backwards, I’m more a writer than a poet because of my interest in language. Because of this (interest, obsession) my poetry often ends up self-conscious and overcooked. I think for a poet, poems come naturally, whereas for me, they are typically quite a struggle. It’s very rare that a poem comes out a certain way and stays put. Sentences come easier, or at least my ideas fit better into paragraphs than into stanzas. I think a big part of it is that I have the most fun reading fiction, and I like to write what I like to read.

JH
I haven’t read everything you’ve written but I’ve read enough to get a grasp that you are sort of in between these perhaps artificial poles, in a good way that erodes the poles themselves. You may not want to label them poems but your movie reviews in Six Six Six are more poetic, or have more of a poetic, chiseled quality than a lot of things that would unabashedly call themselves poems I’ve read lately. I’m probably just repeating myself but I think it’s an interesting distinction to at least play with before discarding it.

DK
I think we’re talking about style. Go back one hundred years and non-fiction writers even had it. I’ve had people say to me (like you suggest above) that the reviews are not just poetic but poems themselves, which feels double-edged — it’s nice that people found the language poetic, but I was trying to write movie reviews. They’re simply what happened when I felt compelled to write about a film, sometimes out of admiration, other times the driving force was more of a mystery. I like the way you use the word pole. I also feel the separation between prose and verse as a polarity, feeding on and needing each other. And of course, they share the same basic unit of composition: language.

JH
You have a novella coming out very soon, I take it, which I know next to nothing about except reading an excerpt in Expvt (Expat 5) called Bhikkhu Brendan Fraser.” I really liked the offerings in that anthology, which full disclosure I was in myself, but maybe my favorite was your piece. I just reread it recently and again I was taken with the bizarre quality that was there and hard to pin down. So, damn it, you’re doing this oddball fiction in addition to the other work. Can you tell a little more about the novella, any details you can share? I haven’t gotten any info about it up to now.

DK
The novella-in-stories (Die Closer to Me) will be released on Merigold Independent on June 26th, 2023. It was my first serious attempt at writing genre fiction, leaning heavily on sci-fi and horror elements as I understood them. The first chapter was featured in Allegory Magazine in 2021 (now hidden behind a paywall), and the project gained steam after I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood — which gave me the idea to try to build a world without moving steadily from point A to point B. Instead, the reader could glimpse the world through characters that may or may not connect. For those interested in sampling a chapter from the middle of the book, The Waitress” is available to read on tragickal.

It was predestined that I’d publish a book of science fiction.”

JH
One aspect of writing which is endlessly fascinating to me is the decision to write in genre, or out of genre. I spent a little time when I first came onto Twitter lit land in indie crime lit, and I’m still interested in that but I swerved away from genre for various reasons. I think finding the right amalgamation of genre and so-called literary” elements can be a fruitful path forward in the future for certain writers: writing post-genre, or extra-genre, if we wanted to get really pretentious and pointy-headed about terminology and prefixes. What was it about sci-fi and horror that drew you in?

DK
It was predestined that I’d publish a book of science fiction. Though my cards have been read by some fairly intuitive individuals, never have I experienced a reading as specific as the one my entire family had done at the church we attended when I was young. I remember sitting at the front of the church, empty except for us, while a man without shoes had the four of us take ours off. He closed his eyes and we pressed all the soles of our feet together. Then everyone opened their eyes real wide. He looked into each eye, past the eye, deeper, noting the blood vessels, then surfaced, commenting on the color of the iris, and size and shape of the pupil. He said simply that I would write science fiction novels. Ten years later I had forgotten about this when I got sucked into a Phillip K. Dick mass-market paperback. I worked from 5pm until 4am delivering pizza, reading between orders. I still think about Dick’s best: some of which were very short like Roog,” Beyond Lies the Wub,” and “Expendable.”

My attraction to horror, however, is a different story: I had an abdominal surgery in 2016 that nearly killed me. Several inches of my intestines were scarred shut and had to be cut out. The gore I continue to experience, in combination with the major shift in my gut bacteria (change a creature’s gut and you change its behavior), got me into the genre. It was in recovery, when I started renting DVDs from the local library, that I noticed the disturbance. Pain made so much palatable. The abdominal wound in Videodrome paired nicely with the one I rested the remote on, Salò felt like my biopic. Reading Stephen King and John Avid Lindqvist before bed ensnared my dreams in the conversion. I only wish that I appealed to observe murder over and over sooner.

JH
Those anecdotes are legendary, especially the abdominal surgery. I had heard a little bit about this before somehow, in the ambient soup of learning facts about the bios of other writers in indie lit. Both the oracular church encounter about being a sci-fi writer and obviously the surgery, if you might forgive my facile observations, are cases of being tapped into a body, of having the body sort of telling you things. I imagine not a lot of writers get messages that are that intimate and inward.

DK
Dreams seem like a good thing to discuss. I’ve had a very active dream life, sometimes recalling three fully formed dreams per night — this number used to be higher but I’m out of practice. One of my earliest reoccurring dreams was based on a scene in Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror. That stuff used to have an incredibly displeasing effect on me. I would be in bed with my sleeping wife when the shed door out back would start banging, which I knew I had locked before bed. I would put on my slippers and robe, get to the shed, lock the door again, and then look up at our bedroom window, which without fail would be aglow with a pig’s red eyes. The movie representations didn’t capture the horrifying element of animal slaughter that happened in Amityville. There’s something terrifying to me about animals, or at least there’s something terrifying about the way we treat them, the needle spiking all the way from genocide to eternal love. Just like how we treat each other, I guess. For better or worse, I am very tuned in to my body — a result of being sick. These inward messages that you’re referencing, I think, are endless. Like ideas, or birds in hell, their squawking never ceases. Your ear doesn’t have to be pressed to the ground to hear them if you’re already there.

I’ve always been inspired by the intersection of art and pain.”

JH
Among my friends in high school I was known for having the highest ability to recall intricate, bizarre dream details. I think for some people the subconscious is just closer to the surface than with others. And it has become de rigueur if you’re a writer to recount mental health struggles, which, unlike medical maladies with relatively clear symptoms such as bleeding, weight loss, lesions, etc, can disappear into hazy pop psychology accessible to all and thus of no real use to anyone. If I’m not mistaken you edit a column called Torment, that zeroes in on ailments and sickness. Could you describe this? Sounds like it could veer into the Cronenberg/Ballard zones.

DK
At the height of the pandemic, when everyone’s attention was fixated on illness, I proposed a book review column to The Quarterless Review — I happened to be reading John Donne’s Devotions and he’s got this great line: We do not only die, but die upon the rack, die by the torment of sickness.” That’s where the name of the column came from: Torment. I’ve always been inspired by the intersection of art and pain (thinking of people like Sontag, Artaud, Genesis P-Orridge). A tagline for the column could be the following quote from the German mystic Novalis: Diseases are the stimulus and the most interesting subject for our meditation and activity… Only, we know little the art of using them.” I agree wholeheartedly, and would add: we still don’t. I’m also (as discussed earlier) interested in criticism. This book review column is a bridge between these interests.

JH
I know this doesn’t always apply in a neat, organized way, because there are exceptions, but it seems like disease, illness, etc. could be sometimes a marker of experience and age. The tendency as we get older is to encounter more ailments and failures of the body and mind, and to kind of inherit some natural degradation over time. Or if you’re a young sufferer, you’re an exception. This leads me to a larger question. Do you see yourself as part of a particular generation of writers? Or a larger grouping or community? Or are you one of the members of an anti-group, anti-community, and such alignments aren’t really important?

DK
I’ve noticed a tendency for the sick to look out for each other. Not sure if this applies to writers. Even though my inkling would be that it does not, I’ve met some of my finest friends through writing. I’ve also experienced (twice in the past two years) meeting people irl who I originally met on social media. A connection made through the appreciation of one another’s work. Maybe this is the type of thing you’re thinking about in these questions? Not sure what community” is beyond a series of one-on-one connections. I’ve also experienced the opposite of this Internet to irl trend when an ex-girlfriend took me to a reading at ditto ditto — a now defunct venue in Detroit. Sean Kilpatrick was one of the readers and his performance was a total mindfuck. After the event, we had a lengthy convo about books and movies and have stayed in touch. I friended him on Facebook (this was roughly a decade ago) and read everything he published, sometimes on sites I had never heard of. Through Sean I found tragickal, Hobart, Maximus, Apocalypse Confidential, etc. (along with the writers publishing therein). He has been one of the most generous writers I’ve ever met, helped edit Die Closer to Me, and made himself available for counsel. As far as groupings” or a generation” — I would much rather point to writers whose work I admire, some of whom have also expressed interest in my own work. Kevin Killian (RIP), the brilliant New Narrative poet, comes to mind, who often said that he was my biggest fan (and I believed him). I could go on and on. I’m a voracious reader (and I try not to read things I don’t like). I have a decent selection at home, a library card in my pocket. I certainly don’t feel like I’m a part of an anti-anything, on the contrary — I feel connected to all of it, especially the world of small press. Small press publishing is the amateur porn of the literary world. Some of it is even good.

JH
Die Closer To Me, your new book. Could you describe it a little more? We know it’s a sci-fi novella told in stories or pieces. And that it has something to do with medical issues and illness. What other works have influenced the book?

Die Closer to Me follows a single character, Jo, as she cares for her mother on planet Süskind — Earth’s failed disability experiment. The chapters that don’t explicitly feature Jo instead give glimpses to Süskind’s origins, or reveal Jo’s mysterious past, including how she came to be a bounty hunter. While the main narrative only spans twenty-four hours, the flashbacks paint a broader picture. It poses (and possibly answers) some larger questions: Was collecting the disabled on a planet far from Earth just an excuse to get rid of them? What good are good intentions? Were those in charge truly making an architecturally friendly planet for neurodiverse, cognitively and physically impaired individuals, or was it all a ruse?

This book was inspired by many films and books. Here are a few: Brazil (1985) for its bleak hilarity; Baskin (2015) for its single-minded New Age philosophy taken to an evil extreme; The Skin I Live In (2011) for its sinister interpersonal revenge; PKD’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said for its beautiful futuristic imagery; Babel-17 (and much of Samuel Delany) for its blend of literary and sci-fi elements; Border (2018) and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (yes, the planet shares his surname) for each centering a character with a doglike sense of smell. I spoke a bit about animals earlier. Stephen King’s Pet Semetary (a favorite) has a startlingly good page from a dog’s perspective. A lot of this book was written while simultaneously reading several informational and behavioral books about my two beagle-mixes, Larry and Energy (my first dogs). Forget everything else I said. They were the guiding genius behind this work.

David Kuhnlein

Twitter: @princessbl00d

Jesse Hilson

Twitter: @platelet60

Up next "Installations: The Delivery" by Terence Hannum "The Campland Guide to Pack Fitting: 8 Easy Steps" by Kent Kosack
Latest posts NIAGARA by Juliette Sandoval TO MAKE OF THEE A NAME by Andrew Buckner Two poems by Jessica Heron "Grocery Outlet" by Lisa Loop "Gatorbear" by John Biron Interview: Skizz Cyzyk on Baltimore Filmmaking and the Mansion Theater "On Time" by Hanna Webster "Only the Most Neutral Executioners" by GRSTALT Comms Poems for Clara Peller by Ella Wisniewski "I've Got a Fake I.D. from Nevada and No Name" by Max Stone Truth Cult (Last Show) [Anything for a Weird Life] Three poems by Stacy Black "Bob's on Fire" by Alex Tronson Two poems by Alexandra Naughton Reflections on Series Two: How Does He Do It? [Anything for a Weird Life] "A Sadness that Sings" by David Hay "The City" by Ryan Bender-Murphy Three poems by Abigail Sims "The Depth of the Abrasion" by David C. Porter Steve Albini 1962-2024 [Anything for a Weird Life] Some Things are the Same Everywhere [BRUISER Field Report] BRUISER ZINE 005: Foul Black Rookeries by David Simmons "Bilbao" (for Richard Serra) by Damon Hubbs Beyond Periphery by Ada Pelonia Mayday [Anything for a Weird Life] "Drones Drones Drones" by Aaron Roman Review: White Paint Falling Through a Filtered Shaft by Adam Johnson "Buckskin Jacket." by Noam Hessler A User's Guide to Universal Order of Armageddon (Numero 221) [Anything for a Weird Life] "Sepulcherality" by Cora Kircher “Barricade” by Will Marsh