Interview By: John Wisniewski
Richard Kalich is the author of “The Nihilesthete” (1987), “Penthouse F “(2010) and “Charlie P” (2005) published in 2014 in a single volume as Central Park West Trilogy, and The Zoo (2001). He has been nominated for the National Book Award and for a Pulitzer Prize. His novels are internationally acclaimed and widely translated: his novels have been published in Bulgaria, Denmark, England, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, and Japan. Kalich was born and lives in New York where he co-directs a film companywith his twin brother, Robert.
Whom are some writers who have influenced your writing?
My favorite writers as a youth and over a lifetime have been: Dostoevski; Camus, Hesse, Lagervist, Gobrowicz, of course, Kafka and Beckett, but they might have been the founding fathers of my work but…and its a big but…my own work only matured and was realized much later in life. Since those mature years, and I’ve read voraciusly, Thinkers and Writers such as Sven Birkerts, Warren Motte, the New French novelists of ‘PLAY’ and humour, and levity such as Marcel Benabou, and let me not forget Durrenmatt and Max Frisch, and the philosophy of Milan Kundera defining the novel; these writers have nourished and affirmed what I inwardly have found to be kindred to my own vision. But still, the moment I pick up my pen, figuratively speaking, my vision and what I have to say is so wholly “inward,’ that I’m ALONE with my self and really no early readings or writings offers much help. And paradoxically, perhaps, they all do.
What was the critical response to “Penthouse F,” Dick?
On an artistic and intellectual level, this novel has been as well if not the most well received of my works. However, “The Nihilesthete,” arguably is the most admired and powerful of my novels, and certainly COST ME THE MOST! ” Charlie P” was my breakthrough novel and based on the response of MANY…seems to be their favorite. It’s light (for me) and Funny, and a feat of some dimension inside me wholly different than anything I experience or wrote before.
How do you prepare to write, Dick. Could you give us a look into your working method?
I don’t have a method but…and its a big but…I can speak of a pattern that has repeated itself with all four of my novels. And the same will be true with my next.
I see my novels metaphorically. By that I mean an image comes to me…and that image, that poetic metaphoric image, contains all I need to know about the fiction to follow. The image is always (to me) more than just an image. Not only does it give me the beginning, middle and end of the narrative, but it also suggests a fundamental elemental universal of our world. I don’t mean to suggest the demonic/divine illumination of the l8th or l9th century novelists, nor do I want to glorify or romanticize the artistic process, but this is what I’ve experienced as a Writer. If pressed, I would say this metaphoric image is a gift; some poets have it I’m told. Where it comes from… who knows. I call it …the fecundity of the unconscious. My particular unconscious showing me the way: Before words or thought or deliberation or calculation that which lies deepest inside me articulates itself with this image. Once it appears I allow it or it allows me to form, shape, edit and refine itself over a gestation period that ususally last two to twenty plus years. The image never leaves me. And, yes, though as a Writer and person I evolve and change, recreate myself and the forms I might make use of as a novelist, the first image, the central image…stays the same. I’ll give you an example. The day I finished my novel “The Nihilesthete” an image came to me of a man hovering over a surveillence camera while hiding in his closet spying on a boy and girl. It only took me more than twenty plus years to find the courage to write that novel now titled “Penthouse F.”
Are there any films that may inspire you or artists?
I’ve written ten screenplays and thirty and more film treatments; made one thousand and one meetings with Hollywood Producers, Writers, Directors, etc but NO…not particularly. There are great films I’ve seen and loved over the years but for inspiration about Art and the Artist…no. Literature does it for me in that holy realm.
Would you call your writing “experimental”?
No. Not deliberately or purposefully experimental. But my works, especially “Charlie P,” are what I ‘see’ at the time of creation. The departure of my fictions from the traditional novel is because, for me, its not particularly interesting to work in a tired form. Consequently, when I “see” a way to explore the ficiton in an original way I follow the path. Its more a question of what feels right to me; what seems to be appropriate for the individual work. Each novel requires its own form and “Charlie P” is a good example in extremis of the challenge.
While forming and shaping my novel, “Penthouse F,” I was very much conscious of the massive regression of language and concommitantly readers attention span in our electronic age. Therefore, though I certainly wouldn’t call the ‘computer-like text I chose to create the novel experimental, the formating and form was deliberative and very much attuned in both form and content to the necessties of our age. I found the style compatible to my own inner voice and once started, finally started, “Penthouse F” turned out to be my most satisfying novel. What I mean by that is the form allowed me to say what I most wanted to say without stress or strain
How do you view writing in relation to the other arts – painting, music etc.?
I don’t mean to simplify, dichotomize or place Keerkegaard’s “Either/Or” epithet upon creative expression. Still, I do believe there is immersive art which seeks out the ‘depth’ of the human experience; and then there is something else. Something ‘less.’ What in today’s vernacular might be deemed: Pop Art. Today, of course, there is the great democratization of all human expression and so Pop Art and High Art have married. Yet, literary writing to me, for me, seeks out what is best in me. What is deepest and truest. It has little in kind to those expressions the seek to tintilate, excite, stimulate, eroticize or make spectacular and sensationalize the work. High Art can of course be found in all the disciplines, music, painting, all creative writing, film, etc. For me…all that I define as High Art has but one categorical imperative. It makes as its inherent demand and calling that we. as humans, stand before it and surrender ourselves wholly and completely to it. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does: That’s Art.
What is the critical reaction to your work? How do readers respond to your writing?
Fortunately, if you scan my website, you’ll see that the literati affirm my three best novels, “Nihilesthete;” “Charlie P;” and “Penthouse F” with superlative critical response. The fact is “The Nihilesthete” when first published received two ‘bombs’ from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.
And then…went on to receive over one hundred extraordinary reviews worldwide. Most often, the elite intellectual not only applauds my various novels, but also to my delight…UNDERSTANDS what I’m getting at. And that is as much as a Writer can ask for. Since my novels are written on various levels and for the most part highly accessible, whether literary or not, readers in general have for the most part invested themselves in the fictions as well-told dramatic narratives; a certain portion even citing them as ‘page-turners.’ Most interesting to me was prior to having my novel “The Nihilesthete,” published, seventy-five publishers PASSED on it. At least half the editors complimented it with high praise but said…it’s too grotesque, dark, perverse, for their particular houses to take a chance. The other half simply shied away from the demonic depths “The Nihilesthete” explored. My conclussion was and is: that we respond to such explorations from the depths of our being and all too often these reactions are not hardly critical or intellectually well thought out. But, as I’ve said: fortunately a good portion of readers have the courage to confront and integrate the demonic and are open to my vision.