By Benjamin Preston
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Where is the line between fact and fiction? It can be a blurry one even in fiction, where fact isn’t even fact. And ultimately, trying to know everything about another person’s history and circumstances borders on the absurd, even, suggests novelist Rachel Kushner, if that person is someone you’ve created.
“I put into the text exactly what the reader and the author need to know,” she said at a public reading Wednesday evening from her book, “The Flamethrowers,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The presentation was the last this season from BAM’s Eat, Drink & Be Literary series. “It’s not part of the creative process to know everything about the characters.”
Kushner has written two books: “The Flamethrowers,” her most recent novel, and “Telex from Cuba.” Both books were finalists for the National Book Award. At Wednesday’s reading, she chose an excerpt from “The Flamethrowers” — a story about a woman who moves from Reno, Nev., to New York City to pursue her calling as an artist. But the passage Kushner selected for the BAM audience contained no details of the 1970s art world the book chronicles, but, rather, a sea tale told by one the book’s supporting characters to the rest of its cast.
“It’s a great literary trope to go to sea,” Kushner said. “I myself get seasick, so I guess this is my way of going without vomiting all over the place.”
She said she had always, even at a young age, been fascinated by the idea of a commodore. What, or who, rather, is a commodore? By Kushner’s reckoning, that seems to depend upon the interpretation of the person wearing the title. One of the characters in the detail-laden paragraphs she shared — from her story within a story — is one such self-proclaimed officer of the sea, a yachtsman who takes a boy suffering from amnesia — the storyteller — aboard his sailboat on a long cruise. Kushner’s details — including a piece of flan that sits at an angle because the boat was at a constant list from tacking into the wind — are always sharp, but the motivations of characters’ actions aren’t always so well defined. But that lack of clarity makes the characters all the more intriguing as Kushner silently coaxes them into different contortions of explanation and justification.
Kushner said that in her use of detail, she tended not to hone in on time period-specific details that the producer of a historical drama on TV might use to define time and place.
“You don’t just put in contemporary details,” she said. “You want to have something to say about your time.”
She said she drew on personal experience to frame the time period. Although she wasn’t an artist in New York City during the ’70s, it was a decade she lived through, and about which she was able to remember the general feel. She called it the end of industrialism, when American manufacturing was on the wane and the economy was making a grand shift toward service orientation.
If her manner of removing prominence from physical time-period cues is a way of making a story timeless, Kushner said she also tries to keep ideas open for reader interpretation. She said she avoided having preconceived ideas about things while she was writing so that she could avoid beating her readers over the head with certain points of view.
“The novelist’s job is not to be polemical,” she said. “The scene and the people inside it tell the story.”