by Sarah Leavens, March 2011
“All flesh begins as grass,” Brad Kessler writes in his 2009 memoir Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese. This is fitting for an exploration of the relationship between pastoralism and poetry—which is quite a strong relationship, by the way. Kessler is also the author of novels Lick Creek (Scribner, 2001) and Birds in Fall (Scribner, 2006).
He is the recipient of the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Whiting Writer’s Award, a NEA fellowship, and The Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Kessler’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, BOMB, The Kenyon Review, and The New Yorker.
He lives in Vermont with his wife and raises dairy goats in addition to writing. Kessler’s work is “bread labor,” the kind of effort that sustains us: making cheese and writing books, crafting each detail carefully by hand. I sat down with him when he visited Chatham as the Melanie Brown Lecturer on March 16, 2011.
The Fourth River: So, I’m interested in this ambidextrous ability that you have with both nonfiction and fiction—and you started as a children’s writer.
Brad Kessler: I actually started in nonfiction. My training was in journalism, or, rather, nonfiction writing—back then, the term “creative nonfiction” didn’t exist. The first time I heard “CNF,” I thought it was a railroad line, like “the CNF doesn’t stop here anymore.” [Laughs] The children’s book writing was really a way of making money and learning how stories—particularly folk tales– were put together: a sort of infancy of narrative. It was interesting training for how to write fiction.
FR: Now having written nonfiction, what pulled you back to fiction?
BK: Ultimately, I’m interested in storytelling as language and music. The form almost matters less than the writing itself. It shouldn’t matter, and yet, alas, it does, because in nonfiction you’re limited by the material, unless you’re making it up–in which case it’s not really nonfiction.
I can’t always express what I would like to in nonfiction; I find the form too limiting. You need to write what you’re passionate about, and in fiction you can always invent the material. That’s the wonderful thing about fiction. Invention. I was fortunate with Goat Song because it became a vessel for a lot of things I had been thinking about my whole life.
FR: It seemed like a culmination of themes in your novels, or traces of them, anyway.
BK: If you think of writing as a cup, each time you write a book you fill that cup, and then it becomes empty again. So you have to then find the next vessel, the next project, your next passion, your next book. And it takes a long time. There are writers who can finish one book and a day later start the next one. I’m not one of those writers; it takes me an incredibly long time to fill up that empty well.
FR:It’s pretty layered writing that you do, so I can see that there’s a lot of research. I was going through Goat Song and marking all the different things that are in here: fact and science, and your personal story, and folklore and etymology and recipes—that’s a lot to put together in one piece. In general, how do you approach the research process for a book? Does it happen before you begin writing?
BK: It happens initially. There’s an idea or just an image or a thread. Almost like a piece of music in your head. I think of it musically, but I also think of it as a tone or a tonality, something that you want to express but you can’t because you don’t really know what it is yet. So, out of that helplessness, the only thing you can do is read a lot and start researching around it. It’s a lot of reconnaissance, circling around this obsession. And it’s a frustrating few years of getting the clothes of the thing—you don’t even see the body of it, you just see the clothes and little fragments of it—a scarf or a shoe, or just the lace of the shoe!
With nonfiction it’s a lot easier because you have the story, you can’t really change too much; you already have the basic narrative and the characters. In Goat Song, for example, I was stuck with the characters around me–some of them had four legs instead of two—and the information presented itself. With fiction, it’s completely different because you can do anything and go anywhere. The research is the fun part. That’s the not-working, the leisure, the time you give yourself to contemplation and reading.
The hard part of course is the writing. I spend a lot of time researching at the start. And a lot of times I follow false leads. But ultimately, none of it is really wasted.. Once you have this little raft that’s floating in the water, then you can start to trim out your boat and make your craft; then the exciting part is when it’s floating on its own…but that takes a while.
FR: In the drafting process, did you have a hard time weaving all the different elements together?
BK: Well, Goat Song was a very quick book for me. I probably wrote it in two years or less, once it got going. As opposed to a novel, which takes me about five years to compose., The weaving you talk about in Goat Song came naturally to me because I had the personal narrative, or narrative arc (which in Goat Song was our own story) and then all this other really interesting science, mythology, music, religion, etc…I found it’s fairly easy to weave together the threads because you need a break from the personal story, just as you need a break from the mythology or the etymology. So, it’s just a matter of counterpointing, or braiding the narrative, one layer over the other, with a strong filament holding it all together. It reminds me of the Incan art of writing which was based on rope. Text as textus—a woven thing.
With fiction, it’s a little harder because we don’t expect in our fiction to learn, to have things like science or mythology or facts interwoven into the narrative.
FR: Birds in Fall was really great to read, for that reason.
BK: I’m attracted to that sort of hinterland between fiction and nonfiction. Straight-up novels or big social or comic novels don’t really excite me. I like the blending of the forms. But it’s troublesome, because it feels like you’ve got to break form each time you write a book. Lick Creek, my first novel, was more of a traditional novel in that sense, where there’s a real arc and things happen. Whereas in Birds in Fall, not much happens.
FR: There is this theme of tragedy in your writing. Even the word comes up in all of your books.
BK: I’d never thought about that.
FR: And Birds in Fall, you said, was based on a Greek tragedy?
BK: Yes, on the myth of the Halcyon Days, which is retold most famously by Ovid in the Metamorphoses. It’s about Queen Alcyone and King Ceyx and how they bragged about their perfect love, so much that they said their love was greater than Zeus’ and Hera’s, which was a big no-no, to compare yourself to the gods. The king went off on a sailing trip and left his wife, and the gods conspired to kill him. They shipwrecked him and he died. His body came floating back to shore and queen Alcyone saw her dead husband’s body floating back; in her grief, she threw herself into the water, and right as she hit the water, she was transformed into a bird. And then the king was transformed into a bird and they flew off together. The story goes that for seven days each winter, the gods calm the water so that the halcyons can breed. And that’s where our expression comes from: “the halcyon days.” Halcyon’s are ornithologically, the genus of kingfishers.. I’ve always loved that story (as well as the bird) and was haunted by it for years. And so that became the hidden story of the book, a contemporary retelling of the myth.
FR: Did you start with that in mind?
BK: I’m not sure where in the process it came in, but it was pretty near the beginning, along with the event that the novel’s based on: the crash of Swiss Air Flight 111 that went down off of Nova Scotia in 1998.
That part is basically factual. The transatlantic flight took off from Kennedy and it was going to Geneva and crashed off of Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia. Everybody on board died. It was a very international flight, people from all over the world. A friend of my family was on the flight, and what happens in the novel is a reimagination of what happened afterwards: people gathered there from all over the world on this vigil, waiting to hear news of their loved ones. And it was more about getting confirmation that they had found pieces of the bodies. Our friends spent a long time on that coast, just waiting. I was interested in writing about the terrible juxtaposition between this stunningly beautiful Nova Scotian landscape and the horror that happened there–the juxtiposition between this rural, isolated place and the international community that descends upon it after the crash. All of this material became what l’d call the top story of the book. The bottom story would be the myth.
FR: So, with the bottom story: I wondered about the character Diana Olmstead. She seems sort of emblematic of peace symbolism. After all, Birds in Fall won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize…
BK: I realized as I was writing the book that I couldn’t tell this story exclusively from the point of view of people who’d just lost their husbands or wives or children. I needed a few characters who were a bit removed from the rawness of the tragedy, to act in a way as guides. Diana Olmstead, a practicing Buddhist, was one of those characters. As was Kevin Gearns, the innkeeper, who was a minor character when I first started writing, but became more important as the book found its legs. I needed someone who could step back a little, who had perspective, who had what Charles Baxter calls “rhyming action” where something in Kevin’s own life that happened earlier comes back or reignites through this plane crash. That first trauma was when Kevin lived in New York City and all his friends died from AIDS. Afterwards, he tries to escape by going to this little island in the middle of nowhere, but even there finds death at his doorstep overnight. Diane Olmstead, also has a unique perspective on the death of her terminally ill sister—who died in the crash. She has a certain objectivity and reacts the way we all hope we could react to news of tragedy, with real empathy, equipoise and calm. I think,if anything, she’s a kind of ideal that maybe we strive toward, but rarely achieve..
FR: You mention in Goat Song that you studied at Dharamsala.
BK: Yeah, when I was at the ripe age of 20, I um, dropped out of school for a year and travelled to India and did crazy things that I absolutely cringe to think about now. [Laughs] I ended up on this little ridge in the foothills of the Himalayas where all these Tibetan monks lived. Dharamsala is where the Dalai Lama fled when he was kicked out of Tibet (and later become the de facto capitol of Tibet in exile). I thought I’d spend a couple of days there, but ended up staying a couple of months because the Tibetans were so wonderful to be around; there was something very calm about the energy in Dhramasala.
FR: In Goat Song, you talk about terroir regarding cheese, but there’s obviously a parallel with writing. How would you describe the terroir of your writing?
BK: Oh God. That’s an astute and difficult question. Because, you know, one doesn’t know—if you’re in the terroir, you don’t know, you’d have no critical faculty. So I don’t really know.
FR: I think obviously this interest in language and etymology…
BK: Yeah…but again, it’s too close, it’s too part of you, too autochthonous, to be critical about. But I do think there is a terroir to writing, and you can sense that in certain writing where people are connected to the land. Or atmospherically. It could be urban. It’s not necessarily rural. You get that in, say, Thomas Hardy: there’s a real terroir to his novels. In American writing, you get it in Faulkner, Toni Morrison—just to name a few. Well, any good writing connected to place has its own type of terroir.
I think most writing does have that sense of the earth that it arises from, because ultimately writing is a piece of natural history. Language is something that’s born out of culture, which is something that’s born out of the earth. There’s a very good series of essays by Gary Snyder about this natural history of storytelling, how it arises from a time and place and a culture. But not only stories. Any elements of culture, down to its smallest units. Pop Songs, for example, as mushrooms; they sprout overnight from a certain matrx when the moisture is right, or the moon, or whatever is in the air. Ultimately, we’re creatures made up of the same elements as the earth, so why wouldn’t the byproducts of our cultural endeavors retain a kind of fingerprint of those elements—no matter how seemingly removed from the soil? I’m really interested in that sort of nexus; Goat Song is about that, about culture and agriculture.
FR: It’s interesting you say not much has been written about the influence of agriculture on writing.
BK: You don’t find a lot of it. That’s why I mention Gary Snyder: he’s one of the writers who is talking about it. It was a revelation to me, when I started to write Goat Song. I was doing these two things in my life: I was writing, and then I was herding goats, and strangely they didn’t feel disconnected, although people didn’t really understand, and I didn’t really understand, how they were connected, or why.
Then I discovered that, “Oh yeah, there’s this thing called pastoral poetry, and it’s one of the earliest forms of literature, and it goes back to Mesopotamia, to the earliest form of literary writing, and the two things it involves are: herding and poetry. The craft of raising animals and the craft of raising words, both to a new or different level than previously experienced. Both forms of art. One with words, one with ungulates And it was this incredible revelation—and validation—for me, this realization that they were related. How they were related became part of the exploration in the book.
FR: Goat Song is dedicated to Annie Dillard, who is another writer who definitely has that terroir. Can you talk about why you dedicated the book to her?
BK: I was her student when I was, a kid, at Wesleyan University. She was my teacher, and I was… a punk, and she was this kind of goddess, you know. I was wise enough at twenty to realize she was an amazing writer and I loved her work, but I was completely scared of her. Because I was twenty years old. [Laughs] We remained in contact through the years, and it just seemed like the least I could do, without seeming a little self-serving, to dedicate [Goat Song] to her because it’s a nonfiction book and that’s what she taught me. I didn’t write novels until later. It was almost as if I had come back to my original love, in some ways.
FR: Which other writers that have influenced you?
BK: Countless. Flaubert. Keats, Nabokov, Rilke, Woolf. .In terms of contemporary writers. John Berger is somebody who I consider an early and maybe continuing influence. An English novelist and art critic and nonfiction writer: he does everything. And then, I think mostly I’m influenced by poetry.
FR: That’s something that I was interested in. You write a ghazal in Goat Song and your prose often has a lyric feel. Do you write a lot of poetry?
BK: I don’t. I mean, I’ve tried and failed. Ultimately, I would like to—I like the economy, the word-lessness of poetry and how it strikes, how it goes straight to the heart, with nothing in between, but I don’t have the chops to do it. And there’s a certain comfort level one develops with form. I’m perfectly comfortable reading poetry and parsing it, but not actually writing it. It’s just always been that way. That’s not to say I haven’t tried—I have written poems, and most of them are terrible. So. They’re hidden. Far away.
FR: It seems to me that Goat Song is especially timely, coming out in 2010: there’s this back to the land movement, the slow food movement.Were you conscious of that when you were writing it?
BK: I’d always had a garden wherever I lived, and when we lived in West Virginia, we learned in a small way how to “live off the land”: we canned our vegetables, grew a big garden. Then we moved to Vermont; one of the reasons for moving there was to grow food. It wasn’t trendy then. It was something we just did.
FR: The terms “locavore” and “sustainable” didn’t really exist a few years ago…
BK: We were at the American Academy in Rome when I got the book’s manuscript pages. Strangely, it took going to Rome to see what was happening back in the States. The kitchen at the American Academy was set up by Alice Waters because they had this vision called the Rome Sustainable Food Project—that all the food that’s served to guests and visiting scholars is sourced locally and seasonally and it’s all organic. That’s the goal, anyway. The kitchen there was a real interesting place because you had all these young American interns and cooks who , in my generation at least, would have been going to law or medical school—and they were going to culinary school instead and were all interested in this locavore stuff or how to use the fifth quarter of a pig. So I think that’s when I realized something was happening in America with young people and food cutlure, or the raising of animals. People wanting to relearn what had been forgotten. It was exciting.
FR: Goat Song’s afterword is sort of a call to action.
BK: Well, the afterword was written a year after the book came out, and the publisher asked me to write it. And since it was outside the book—because the book has a certain self-contained pastoral form—I could change my voice to be a little more strident and a little more political, I guess.
FR: Obviously this is something that you care a lot about, and you’ve certainly done it justice in this book. Do you feel inclined to be active in this political issue, currently? This food politics, or…you know—
BK: Sustainability, locavore—
BK: I guess I would ask in what form, other than doing it, would it mean to be active? It’s a good question. But, I’m basically a writer, and nobody’s asked me to make speeches or policy, which I wouldn’t be comfortable with, because I don’t know enough. I can only speak to my own experience.But I would certainly advocate for, if anything, the farmer and farm labor. I feel passionate about that. They are the people who make us live. And they are notoriously and scandalously underpaid.
FR: In our program, we’re interested in environmentalism and nature, but everyone has something they’re interested in. What exactly is our role as writers?
BK: Yeah, it’s a really important question. George Orwell said something to the effect that if he lived in a different age, he would be writing strictly novels or he would be writing strictly plays but that he lived in such a violent and polarized time that he had to write journalism. And I think that’s the big question for a lot of writers: are you purely active, or are you purely contemplative? This is a question, interestingly, that goes back to monasticism. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said “Every human becomes pure action or pure contemplation.” He meant ideally, that’s what they become.
In my life it’s an important question. Writers are by nature contemplatives; that’s what they do. They don’t really act—they sit behind a desk. And um, take up space. [Laughs] So it’s a real struggle. It’s hard to do both, I think. And yet not impossible. I think you do whatever your gift is. If you’re good at organizing, if you’re good at getting people motivated, if you’re good with people, if you’re good with doing community work– well, that’s what you do. And if you’re not, then you do this other thing. You “be the change you want to see in the world,” as Gandhi said.
FR: What excites you the most about writing?
BK: It’s an exploration, it’s a journey, it’s a quest/ Every book is a question, it’s an answer to an obsession, it’s the thing you’re trying to puzzle out, like an equation that takes years to find the answer to..or your whole life, or perhaps you never really figure it out, but you get closer to it. each time, perhaps. With each book, you get closer.
FR: So you like that process of discovery, or seeking—
BK: It’s definitely part of it. Writing is just what I do, and I don’t even know if I like it. I don’t have any value judgment about “I like it because of this,” or “I enjoy it because of this,” because it’s not always enjoyable and it’s not always likeable. It’s just the thing that I ended up doing because I don’t know how to do anything else. Had I been a better musician, maybe I would rather be a musician or rather be a painter. I don’t think the art form matters. In the end it’s a way of seeing through things.
FR: Okay. One last question. Your interest in etymology is one of the things that makes reading your books so much fun. Can you pinpoint the beginning of your interest in where words come from?
BK: I think if you’re a writer, by nature you love words. That’s your medium, that’s your paint, that’s your notation. So how could you not be interested in unpeeling the word? What its many layers are? Every word has a shadow of what it was. So it seems natural. Maybe I’m being more explicit or showing off more by putting it in a book or pointing it out—look at the places that word has been!. I think a lot of good poets [use etymology] without commenting on it. They let the word and all its past meanings resonate all by itself. So I think it’s always been there. Once you love the word, then you want to know what the word has at its heart.
Sarah Leavens is an MFA candidate at Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Photo by Dona Ann McAdams.