Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading Kris Saknussemm’s fantastic short story collection Sinister Miniatures. I was so impressed I had to sit down and conduct an interview with this mysterious figure.
1.) First off, how’s your dingo?
Sadly, she passed finally. Peacefully at age 16, after an amazing life. She’d survived being hit by a car, a huge thorn in her eye, a fall down a mine shaft in heavy darkness, a very venomous snake bit—and most importantly, the single most aggressive lymphoma ever recorded in a mammal at age 6. She was such a great athlete (able to swim over two miles with apparent ease, faster than any dog over 200 yards short of a racing greyhound, more than capable of clearing an eight-foot fence), her fitness stood her in good stead and she coped courageously with the long, exacting surgery and the chemo treatments we forked out for (she was after all, the most important member of the family). She went on to have 10 more years of great health and adventure, including a 12,000 foot skydive with me (dingo under canopy) and taking on the whitewater rapids of one of Australia’s toughest rivers. Well may the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Guinea revere these dogs as particularly unusual companions and spirit guides—I can attest to both personally. She became an international figure when she was made a special case study in the University of Wisconsin’s Veterinary Medicine literature (this was where the cancer treatment protocol was developed), which has helped in the later treatment of thousands of animals of several kinds, and also opened new lines of thought regarding the treatment of humans (because the drugs used are the same, the difference is the dosage and the sequencing). Her greatest claim to fame however, was as a local hero, when she apprehended a man who was working as a water meter reader but who was really a serial rapist. She heard him attacking our neighbor in her garden before we moved out of town onto the land, leapt the fence and had at him. He tried to stab her with a screwdriver, and did break a bone in her snout, but she seriously disabled him and allowed the woman to call the cops. He’s still in prison now. When she died, over 180 people came to say goodbye, including a Catholic priest, a Buddhist monk, a Wiccan witch, a psychiatrist, the chief of police, the local newspaper editor, and several of the local farmers who had traditionally been the most afraid of dingos. I laid her in the ground myself, beneath towering eucalyptus trees beside LakeDaylesford, but she still comes often to look over me in dreams. She was a one-of-a-kind dog.
2.) So, you’re a writer and a multi-media artist. How did you fall into these two mediums?
There are three answers to this question. I’m certainly a writer first, and have been since childhood—but visual artists, musicians, photographers, and filmmakers have influenced me in important ways. Sometimes this influence is easily seen and understood, but many other times not. So, partly what I’m doing with my participation in other arts is just trying to work out for myself in what way I’ve been influenced—to articulate that more clearly to myself. The second element is artistic challenge. I feel that working in other media has sharpened my sense of what I’m doing as a writer—or what I’d like to do. A pleasant extension of this is greater artistic freedom. One thing that annoys me about writing is that you spend a lot of time answering the question, “What is your story or book ABOUT.” No one asks that question about a piece of abstract art or music—at least not in the same way. Writing is always inherently representational and has a SUBJECT. Working in other media reconnects me with process and pure presence. The third aspect has to do with collaboration and sharing. Writing is a lonely game often, and you’re asking for a high level of time commitment to get someone to read you. A painting or a work of music can be accessed and engaged with much more immediately, and you can include people who may not be readers, while also opening doors to working with other artists in a way that’s hard to do with writing. A happy side effect of this is that you can expand the surface area of a piece of writing through multimedia executions, as I’ve done with the music soundtracks for my books PRIVATE MIDNIGHT and REVEREND AMERICA.
3.) Your novel, ZANESVILLE, has developed cult-following. How did this come about and how do you feel about cult phenomenon in general?
I feel very honored by the devotion that’s been expressed toward ZANESVILLE. Its following is principally American, but it’s been well received in Russia and Poland too, which pleases me. It gets categorized as “speculative fiction,” which I take to mean that it has appeal for some science fiction/fantasy readers, but also strikes a chord with readers of literary fiction. It’s a hybrid entity (as most of my stuff is!) so I think it’s picked up readers who aren’t satisfied with either genre fiction or more conventional literary works.
The good thing about a cult following is that the readers are very loyal—and the writing becomes a real part of their lives. The downside is that it’s not possible to have that depth of connection if a work gets too famous too fast. I’m the same way myself about books, music and artists I’ve been really passionate about over the years. You feel a sort of proprietary co-authorship position in something not everyone has heard of. My challenge (like many artists) is to keep my first and most devoted readers respecting and enjoying my work, while also growing my audience in a measured and genuine feeling way.
4.) I particularly enjoyed your short story collection SINISTER MINIATURES. Why did you decide to put out this collection and what are the challenges of constructing short stories as opposed to novels?
Thank you. I love short stories, and I think most of us grow up reading them first, before we get to longer works. What I wanted to do with SM was bring together all the shorter pieces that had been published over what I felt is my “apprentice phase” as a writer. I personally like thematically linked collections of stories, even though they’re hard to sell—but in this case I didn’t want to impose that kind of structure or work within some conscious frame. So, my only criterion was if the pieces had been published individually in some context I thought was credible. Then I turned the whole bundle over to a fan and friend, who has also had some strong editing experience, and she determined the order. It was a good way for me to step clear of this stage of my writing life and to see it all through fresh eyes.
The creative challenge with short stories is that I think they really do need to be written and finished fairly fast. The revision…mulling over process is very different. They offer the benefit of more immediate completion—but also put forward the challenge of more focused performance.
5.) A lot of stories such as “The Night Creature” are sexually charged. Was this on purpose or just something that naturally happens in your stories?
I think that the erotically charged is a natural direction a lot of my writing is magnetized toward—it’s a matter of how explicit the sex is. I’m honestly most fascinated by all the suppressed/repressed moments we have, which are psychologically tinged with a sense of sex, but that often don’t actually cross the threshold of the physical. As Freud argued, this is where we all begin in childhood, and I think there’s an undeniable level of truth in that, and that it never really leaves us.
6.) Your life seems to revolve around conspiracy theories, first with your novel ZANESVILLE and then in the prequel ENIGMATIC PILOT. What are your thoughts on this and conspiracy theories?
While there’s nothing new about conspiracy theories, they seem to me to have taken on a quantamized level of power and meaning in our age of mass and instant communications. To the point where they can be considered the default folk religion of the postmodern era, because one way or another, everybody seems to have at least one. I think they’re mechanisms for individuals and societies to help bridge the gap between very old inclinations toward the supernatural (and on a simpler day-to-day level, superstitions) with our so-called modern sense of science and reason. Patterns of conspiracy theories are part of the lingering tribal definitions we have for ourselves, and very obviously reflect our suspicious concerns regarding governments and the media. The one point I’d make about conspiracy theories, which I think often goes unnoticed, is that they contain a curious element of optimism. Someone somewhere knows the real answer, the real truth. If we could just step behind veil, peek behind the curtain. This is in strong contrast to the big questions of religion and metaphysics, which I think all people privately understand (no matter how vehement they may seem) are in this plane of existence at least, very likely undecidable propositions and therefore matters of pure faith and belief. Conspiracy theories have their own component of faith, of course. But they are concerned with issues that must finally have some level of concrete objective truth to them, if we but knew. JFK was assassinated—what’s the real story? Is there in fact a crashed spacecraft and alien technology being investigated at Area 51? Was the USA complicit in 9/11? Conspiracy theories, while they may seem to destabilize if not outright challenge the “official” explanations of such things, are actually deeply conservative and strangely affirmative. There is an answer…somewhere…however well hidden or denied.
7.) How close are you to finishing THE LODEMANIA TESTAMENT?
I’ve honestly taken a bit of a break from the direct writing work—and for two good reasons. One was that my research led me onto a storyline that’s great action-adventure fun and has more commercial potential than anything I’ve ever worked on. I think this often happens when you really get on to something—other paths open up. This idea is being developed into a pitch to Hollywood come mid-October. The other reason for cooling out on the focused writing is that I wanted to really reflect on and nail down the underlying mythology of the cycle. The end of the TV show LOST had a big effect on me. I was a huge fan, even when things started to get a bit silly. I still had hopes for a satisfying resolution that would fulfill my sense of loyalty. Like many viewers, I felt bitterly disappointed. In the end, it was decisively clear that the creators never really knew what was going on. They were just throwing mud at a wall. So, I’ve pulled back and done some hard thinking and note taking—trying to make sure my supporting frame and internal mythology is tight. You never want to over-determine and feel like you’re writing to a formula—but you still need to have some pretty clear answers, at least within yourself. With this nitty-gritty work done now, I’d like to think a focused year of work would bring the whole thing together, but in the meantime, I want to complete some other projects that are in that awkward near-done state.
8.) Can you tell me some of your inspirations?
I’ve had a lot of different inspirations over the years. I started writing when I was just a kid, because I realized that my consumption of Hardy Boy books meant I was soon to run out. So, I invented my own series called The Benton Boys. Then I thought I wanted to be a songwriter and music producer / DJ (and actually did have my own late night radio show on a community soul station that I’d have to sneak out to). After my athletic career blew up when I had a major car accident trying to impress a girl, I replaced that whole team thing by getting into acting and the theater, and that made me want to write plays, so I read all the American heavies, then the Europeans, then back to Shakespeare and the Greeks. With fiction, it was sort of the same arc…adventure and science fiction as a kid, then the American greats like Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, then the more experimental work of the Europeans, South Americans, etc. If I had to get specific about writers I continually come back to, Cervantes, Swift, Sterne, Melville, Kafka, Faulkner, Miller, Dick and Burroughs come to mind—but there are many, many others (and I have large sections of the Sherlock Holmes canon committed to memory). My favorite female authors are Djuna Barnes, Clarice Lispector and Katherine Anne Porter. But probably my biggest influences come from the fields of Outsider Art, the history and philosophy of science, psychology, religion and anthropology.
9.) Can you describe a normal day of writing for you? When you sit down what type of thoughts are running through your head?
I usually wake up very early—around 4AM—and immediately try to record or write down what I remember of my dreams, whether it’s complete drivel or some quite detailed and fantastic epic. Then I make some coffee and work through correspondence and social networking communications while I wake up. Once I’m really alert, I’ll plow into new writing on the primary project of the moment. Hot and fast, laying down track (I’ll often attack scenes that place a premium on the rhythm of the dialogue, or the lyrical atmospheric riffs that bring scenes to life). I usually go for about two hours at that pace and then slip back to bed or just the couch for another hour or so of sleep. Then, where I live now, I hit the pool and do some exercise, have breakfast and begin working in a more conscious stop-start way (as in I allow myself to go online to check a detail, or refer to other books). Then lunch of some kind and some meditation to clear my head. In the afternoon, I do menial household stuff, errands, shopping etc., and then go back over what I’ve done earlier, although never in a formal revision way (I save those bouts up, like paying bills). This process always leads to some new spurt of writing, and I usually work until the sun gets low and then I chill out on my balcony. Evenings I give over to reading or socializing with friends, or hanging with the new woman. I try to be fairly disciplined this way, because there’s so much I want to get done, and I’ve fought hard in the past to find that time and energy. Whenever I get bogged down on one line of work, I shift to another, or make a painting. I find the creative production aspect of writing is easy. The hard parts start with revision, and all the peripheral promotional correspondence you have to engage in (working out reading tours, etc.) The absolute hardest part of all is integrating exciting creative work with a romantic relationship. I’ve finally come around to accepting that the other party has to be in something of the same line. Another medium perhaps, but a similar kind of perspective.
10.) I read somewhere that you said something along the lines of how magic is all around us yet most people are unaware of this? Can you elaborate on this?
One of my life missions is to revitalize the term “magic” and to lift it back out of the realm of unicorns, rainbows and the cutesy context of Harry Potter. I mean a range of things by it. From my earliest memories of childhood, I was afflicted or gifted with a hypersensitive awareness of meaningful forms in seemingly random patterns—not just shapes in clouds, but complex scenes in pine knot heads or floor tiles and sidewalks. I saw not only faces but full-on dramas taking place all around, and reasoned that there was a Secret World which surrounds us and informs our lives, even if we’re only occasionally aware of it. The second level of meaning for me is the adult, psychological extension of this natural mode of perception. I’m continually amazed by the myriad synchronicities of design and detail that take place all around us constantly, without most people noticing. Wherever you are, literally, it’s said that a kind of spider is somewhere nearby. There are whole universes in motion in a stream of dust particles. Below the conscious level of every conversation is an intricate exchange of energy, a subtle conflict of animal instinct, and layer upon layer of linguistic complexity. We know so little really about ourselves and so much of what we call perception is actually selected or subconscious inattention, filtering. Back during the hallucinogen days of my youth, I’m not sure I ever had some grand spiritual/cosmic insight or experience. But I did very much have some powerful glimpses into the workings of my own mind, all the things around us that so often go unnoticed—and the complex psychological interactions between people.
The third level of meaning for me within the concept of magic relates to my time directly trying to learn the art of native sorcery in places like Papua New Guinea. There’s a clichéd line of evolution in Western thinking that goes Magic -> Religion ->Science. I think much of the cultural turmoil we’re seeing around the globe today is proof that this model is grossly simplistic. I brought my Western limitations and assumptions to the study of native sorcery—but I also brought an unusually open mind, and I was rewarded for that with many insights I wouldn’t have had otherwise. To try to summarize an immensely complicated phase in my education, I saw in some life changing new ways that the Western distinction between the Psychological and the Physical is one of the most specious and most burdensome polarities in all of our cultural tradition.
11.) If you had to survive an alien invasion what would you do?
Intermarriage! I actually look forward to an alien invasion, although I don’t intuitively feel “invasion” would be the right word. But I think it would be a great honor to be alive to see such a thing, and I think whatever form it would take would somehow be healthy for the inhabitants of earth (especially the non-humans). My interest would be in gaining as much information and knowledge as directly as possible. I guess I’d like to be a double agent.
12.) Can you tell me and the readers out there what lies ahead in the future for you and where they can find you?
My new website is:
It gives a good overview of both my writing and multimedia work, and has a blog that I’ll be contributing to regularly. My latest novel is REVEREND AMERICA, which came out in February to great reviews, and is a kind of road movie/personal pilgrimage in the New Depression Era America of today. I also have a new book out right now (as a special limited signed edition in print as well as an eBook from a UK publisher) called EAT JELLIED EELS AND THINK DISTANT THOUGHTS. It was originally conceived of as a prologue to THE LODEMANIA TESTAMENT overall and was the intro to ENIGMATIC PILOT, but Random House found it too weird (imagine that!). I think readers who enjoyed ZANESVILLE will find it interesting.
My next book, coming out in November from Soft Skull Press, is called SEA MONKEYS. It’s billed as a “Memory Book” and is my most realistic work to date, although kaleidoscopic and poetic in style. It deals with my childhood and growing up years in the San Francisco Bay Area and Central California. In February of 2013, Lazy Fascist Press is publishing my first play in 20 years (which was first staged in Melbourne). Named THE HUMBLE ASSESSMENT, it’s a kind of dark, surreal, Kafkaesque take on the job interview scenario. Around that same time, another art portfolio work entitled POSSIBLE LANGUAGES is coming out in Europe, and I am near completion of a collaborative book with the French photographer Esther Voisin, which combines her images with text from me. The two major writing projects on the go blend fiction and memoir and relate primarily to my years in Australia and the bizarre adventures in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Meanwhile, I continue to work on THE LODEMANIA TESTAMENT cycle.
Here’s the link to the video trailer for SEA MONKEYS.
Thanks for the engaging questions. All art only comes to life when other people care.