Rachel Kushner was the girl who spent her teens sneaking onto the backs of motorcycles in California. Today, a couple of decades later, she’s the novelist who is writing about girls on bikes and becoming something of a literary phenomenon in the process. Five years after her 2008 debut novel, Telex from Cuba, a 2008 National Book Award finalist, Kushner released her highly anticipated second novel, The Flamethrowers (Scribner) on April 2. Set amid the social and political unrest of Manhattan and Rome in the 1970s, the book is a tour de force to say the least, and critics can’t seem to get enough of it. When asked how she feels about all the acclaim, Kushner said quietly, “Well, I just got lucky.” She speaks thoughtfully, smiles frequently, and chooses her words with a meticulousness, sincerity, and intelligence that makes you wonder what it would be like to be Rachel Kushner for a day. We met this week at her hotel in midtown and caught up about the novel, political fiction, bikes, literary sex scenes, Soho, and fire.
Rachel Kushner will be speaking at McNally Jackson tonight at 7 p.m.
The Flamethrowers has been described as being somehow erotic, with its machines, pornography, sex, girls on motorcycles–
I didn’t think of it that way when I was writing it. It’s been my sense that men find women on motorcycles provocative maybe because they think it has something to do with them. Perhaps it’s a leap to imagine that women might be interested directly bikes without male mediation. In having a girl on a motorcycle, I was drawing on an autobiographical interest: I rode motorcycles all through my twenties, and I was always into them from when I was little. Pornography is more a topic I can cop to as obviously erotic. But I don’t think of it as a theme in the book, it’s just part of the cultural wallpaper, if you will, of the era.
Then how do you feel about your novel being called sexy?
Well, sure, I’ll accept that. Why not? Sex is a big part of people’s lives. The young twenties are so much about pursuing and being pursued, attraction and magnetism and desire, economies of desire. The horizon line of it all is sex, even if that isn’t always, ultimately, the part with the most meaning. As a writer, it’s a fun challenge to simply go there. As a reader, I sometimes like reading a sex scene if it’s done very well. Sex is this strange and incredible thing, but it’s not something we all talk about in open conversation. When you’re reading a book, you’re having a very intimate and almost illicit conversation with the narrator of that book, and, by proxy, with the author. I don’t shy away from sex as a writer, but I didn’t consciously try to make the book sexy or anything.
Your first novel is narrated from multiple points of view. What led you to write The Flamethrowers in first person?
This is an important issue. I thought a lot about whether she should be a first-person narrator or a third-person narrator. At this point in my life as a writer I resist third person narrators. If she were third-person and we knew what she looked like and what her name was, there would have been a certain distance that, as it is, was compressed and even diminished for me by the “I”. I wanted the reading experience to be very tightly bound to her perceptions and experiences, and the ways in which she is misled or overrun or seduced by the other characters. I didn’t want the reader to have an objective distance from her. I wanted the narrator to be in the world, attempting to interpret it, and for the reader to be right there, having her experience, close to her.
I understand you moved to New York in your mid-twenties and were involved in the art world then in the 90s. How did you get interested in that world as it played out two decades earlier, in the 70s?
I had always been interested in the 70s and and Soho. My own early exposure probably sparked an initial interest in that era, in terms of writing about it, or using it as a fiction context. I would come to New York as a child, because my aunt DeeDee Halleck is an artist and was very much in that downtown milieu. When she was younger she worked for Richard Serra and had been friends with Gordon Matta-Clark, she was a protege of Shirley Clarke. I had been exposed to that world. My best friend’s mother ended up working for Donald Judd, and now lives in Marfa. But also, as someone who is interested in contemporary art, the 1970s are a hugely important time, and by writing about art I was forced to familiarize myself in an in-depth way with the 1970s in the art world and its ideas and movements and figures. And a lot of those people are still alive and working, and by being in New York and hanging around that milieu you get to meet them and ask them questions, see their retrospectives, read all the documentation, piece together an era.
In Telex from Cuba you write about revolutionary Cuba, and in The Flamethrowers you take on seventies Italian radicals. In some way, all art is political, but would you consider yourself a political writer?
I suppose I write on the latter end of a spectrum of types of novels, from the more intimate domestic sphere to the big canvas where you’re dealing with history and political events. I’m a writer who goes for the broader canvas. But political does not mean my work has a message, explicit or not: the novel is a work of art and in that sense it transcends any kind of agenda, ideally anyhow. Still, I find politics somewhat inescapable. We live in capitalism and it’s the horizon beyond which people have trouble thinking and as a writer I can work with that a little, and attempt to reveal certain contradictions, expose assumptions, and be contrary. But again, when I say “political writer” I mean I replicate or try to locate truthful aspects of modern life. I don’t mean that I create books meant to propagandize. Not at all.
Were there specific ideas that sparked this novel for you?
I don’t really start with an idea. I tend to start with a poetic image of some kind. In this case I was thinking about two events, crowd scenes, one in New York and one in Rome. The first was the blackout that occurred in New York City in July of 1977–an unpredicted and sudden space of illegality–widespread looting, in other words–among totally unconnected groups of people (mostly poor, mostly not white) all over the metropolitan area. No one planned it. It just happened. The other scene was in Italy, the same year, but a few months earlier, when 100,000 people marched through the streets of Rome. There was a certain building up, in that event, a radical left movement in Italy that had really exploded. The blackout, the protest in Rome, each of these scenes had a historical specificity, but both seemed open-ended, mysterious. I wanted to put them into play as neighbors, aesthetically, but not link them. That pairing was something on the level of an image that helped lead to the writing of the book.
What’s your advice to young writers?
If I had useful advice for them, I would give it to myself as well. Read widely. Take your time, be patient. It took me many years to write my first novel. I was not in a hurry to publish. Also, work hard. Writing takes work. Find a form to activate, and utilize, what is unique in your sensibility. And have faith. Some aspects of writing can actually be learned.
Starting with the title, the book is studded with images and talk of flames. What is it about fire for you in this novel?
I don’t know! Let’s get a psychoanalyst–or literature grad student–to figure it out. I should say that my editor, Nan Graham, actually thought of the title. Fire is an agent of change. And I was interested in the Italian flame throwing regiments in World War I. My book to some degree takes on themes and imagery of revolt, and fire is often a part of that. A Molotov cocktail is often a tool of the provocateur, the saboteur, and never of the state. Still, the book ends not with fire but its opposite. Ice and snow.