Chuck Kinder, A Man Without Guiding Principles
One of the most recognizable figures of Pittsburgh’s literary scene, Chuck Kinder has, in his own words, “always written close to the bone.” He also said “I greatly admire imaginative writers, but I’m too lazy.”
“Lazy” is a rather harsh term for someone who is both an author of thousand-page novels (at least in their early drafts), as well as a much-beloved teacher. It’s true, however, that Kinder’s work straddles a line between fiction and memoir in a way that has little use for those distinctions. “A story’s a story” he says.
Kinder’s upbringing in Southern West Virginia formed the background of his most recent book, 2004’s Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life (Carroll and Graff), while his misadventures with close friend and short story luminary Raymond Carver are the basis of the long-awaited Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001). He also published two other novels in the early 1970s.
In addition to writing, Kinder has taught for over 30 years at the University of Pittsburgh, where, until recently, he served as the director of the creative writing program. There, he mentored such authors as Michael Chabon, who immortalized Kinder as a character in Wonder Boys. Though Kinder recently retired from his position at Pitt for health reasons, he remains a sharp-witted storyteller.
Kinder has also been a close friend of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, and on the occasion of his 70th birthday, he agreed to sit down for a casual, alcohol-spiced conversation with Sampsonia Way Magazine. Here he discusses his impressions of Pittsburgh’s literary scene, both past and present, his experiences as a writing professor, his influences as a storyteller, and the nature of narrative and “truth.”
What have you been up to in terms of writing during this time?
I’ve pretty much just written poetry since my strokes. I’ve always had a tendency to write big old fat books—one book was over 3,000 pages in the early version—but I don’t have the energy or concentration to do that anymore. So I’ve been writing poetry. I mean, how hard could it be? Throw a few lines of paragraph on the page, split it up. That’s a poem! So I’ve written two books of poetry since my stroke. (Laughs)
Have they been published yet?
One’s called Giant Night. Of course it’s 325 pages. That’s being translated right now into Italian. It’ll be out in Italy before here. I realized that American publishers—even though actually there are a couple publishers interested—are nuts over a book of poetry that big. So I went back and revised it. I cut it into two books and some chapbooks. One called The Sorcerer’s Daughter will be probably out on Camber Press first.
A lot of your work seems to take direct inspiration from episodes in your life and from other places you’ve lived.
I’ve always written close to the bone. I greatly admire imaginative writers, but I’m too lazy. I pretty much just wake up and try to do something interesting enough to write about. If not, I can always change it and make it more interesting.
What are your guiding principles?
Well I haven’t had a great belief in “guiding principles.” I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid them.
Everything one writes should be as literally true as the Bible. Think about that for a minute: If you believe in whales swallowing people and floods that cover the earth, why not man? It’s a damn good story. That’s what I mean when I say that every good story, if it’s good enough, is true.
If you feel like you are essentially a philosopher and want to set the world right with your wisdom, then be preacher, don’t be a writer.
Does this have any relationship to how you taught at all?
Teaching’s kind of a strange word. Young folks who want to be writers afford me the opportunity to read their work and I’ll just tell them if I liked it or not. If I liked it, I’ll tell them why, if I thought it needed work, I’ll tell them what I would do. But I have no great wisdom or philosophy to impart. Though I do like to play “What if?” “What if this happened?” Because in my mind, every moment in every story, and every paragraph even, is a fan-shaped destiny. And I’d say, “if you’re not risking things like melodrama and sentimentality you’re not in that ballpark.” You gotta risk all the risk you can possibly take. What’s the worst thing that can happen to you? Someone might laugh at you and you may not get laid later? Big deal.
All I can do is give the students the benefit of my experience, and “my experience” means going down the wrong paths and all the multitude of mistakes I have made in my life. When I was teaching I had no philosophies, no wisdom to impart. I always told them, “If you feel like you are essentially a philosopher and want to set the world right with your wisdom, then be preacher, don’t be a writer. If you have a good story, you can be a good writer. That’s all you need: A story.”
When did you understand that a good story is what a writer primarily needs?
I learned that from my grandmother. She had a great writer’s name: Daisy Dangerfield. We always called her Mimmy. When I was a little boy I spent a lot of time with her. I was the oldest grandchild and the apple of her eye. I’d be playing with little cars or something under the kitchen table, while Mimmy and all her sisters would sit telling stories about the ghost in the woods, about mysterious lanterns out on forsaken ridges, about Jesse James riding through and shootin’ places up. And they’d also talk a lot of family gossip.
Mimmy was sort of the story master. Someone would pop up with a new detail, and if Mimmy liked it, she would accept it into the story. I realized they just invented a new story! But they all thought it was true. So I started popping up from under the table with stuff, just making it up. And since Mimmy loved me more than any of the others, she’d say, “Yes! Chuckie’s right. I remember that now.” And everyone else would say, “Yeah that’s the truth, I remember that.” So I learned about the nature of narrative and what “truth” is. It was the first lesson I had on narrative and it was a profound one. If the story’s good enough, it’ll be true.
Has Pittsburgh offered you any truths that you’ve put into your writing?
Well, nothing that’s been published to a great extent. I touch on it a little bit in Last Mountain Dancer, but I have reams of unpublished work in my journals that use Pittsburgh settings. If I have enough good sense I’ll probably never publish them. Not while I’m alive, anyway! Most of the people in them are still alive, so the less said about those stories, the better!
When you first moved here what were your initial impressions of Pittsburgh’s literary scene?
I moved to Pittsburgh, frankly, to be near all my old relatives in southern West Virginia who were dying off—all my old aunts, my grandmother. I wanted to get their stories straight. I didn’t know a lot about Pittsburgh.
The first thing that hit me about the city was that it reminded me, amazingly, of San Francisco. The topography is hilly. All the little, great neighborhoods. Well you can’t really equate an ocean and a bay with a couple rivers, but it still has triangular space where the rivers join. So just the outer beauty of Pittsburgh. I remember the usual thing, just driving through the tunnel the first time, and I said, “Wow.” The next big impression I had was of the Cathedral of Learning. I said, “That’s a schoolhouse? Holy Moly!”
Was there a thriving culture of writers?
There was also the Drue Heinz Reading Series. Pitt had the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. And of course there were more poets than you could shake a stick at around town. It had a great tradition, going all the way back to Gerry Stern, who I got to meet. He became a hero of mine immediately. And of course there was always Gertrude Stein.
I also knew that Willa Cather had been here. One of her stories, “Paul’s Case” is absolutely one of my favorite stories. It’s set in Pittsburgh, and, in fact, my wife and I are convinced that “Paul” was based on the young man who lived in this house, Harry Sellers, who had been a student of Willa Cather’s when she was teaching high school here in Pittsburgh. It’s a long, convoluted story, so I won’t get into it, but Harry unfortunately shot himself right there in that bedroom upstairs. You can hear that his ghost is still around, if you believe in ghosts. I guarantee I could convince you that they exist…that Harry exists. I don’t have hard evidence that “Paul” was based on him, it’s a lot of supposition, but I can make a good case.
What would you say is different now in Pittsburgh compared to then in terms of the literary culture?
Well, I don’t know quite what to say, except that it’s more diversified and there’s so many different venues. In terms of local fiction writers, we have at least two of international stature that pop into my mind: Hilary Masters and Stewart O’Nan. They both live in Pittsburgh.
I’m more conversant with Pitt though. There’s Keely Bowers, who won the prestigious Nelson Algren prize, Peter Trachtenberg, and Irina Reyn. In terms of poets, there’s Lynn Emmanuel and Toi Derricotte, two of the most important poets in America. In fact, the last book of poetry that I read cover to cover was Toi’s The Undertaker’s Daughter. It’s just a magnificent work. It’s like hearing Billie Holiday sing the blues on every page. There is also Ed Ochester who was director of the writing program at Pitt and editor of The Pitt Press Poetry Series for I’ll bet 50 years and just an amazing poet himself, and the CMU Press, edited by Jerry Costanza, a fine poet himself.
Of course there’s also Michael Chabon, who’s done pretty well for himself. But there’s a novel that hasn’t yet been as widely broadcast, by Michael’s dear friend Lee Skirboll, who was an undergraduate at Pitt with Michael. They were best friends. The character of Cleveland in Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is based on Lee Skirboll. Lee wrote a book called Cage Days, based on his experiences being a bar tender at The Cage (The Squirrel Hill Cafe) and also being a Teaching Assistant at Pitt. In the book he makes an outrageous claim that he was personal friends with a professor in the writing program and that this professor pulled strings to get Lee awarded one of the coveted T.A. positions if Lee would in turn tear up said professor’s bar bill at the Cage. No comment on who that professor is supposed to be based on! It’s outrageous! Outrageous! Literally, it was as true as the Bible, though. If you wanna talk about local color, it’s astounding. And if you want Pittsburgh as a great setting and backdrop, try Kathy George’s wonderful novels. And for over ten years we got to enjoy the fabulous Gist Street Reading Series, run by Sherrie Flick, whose own work I admire mightily.
But that’s just Pitt. Around town there’s Micki Myers, Jan Beatty, and Michael Wurster. At CMU there’s Jim Daniels and Jane McCafferty, who was a student of mine. Also Sharon Dilworth. The list goes on and on; I’ll begin forgetting people, there’s so many writers of note and so much going on in Pittsburgh. The energy is at all levels. The New Yinzer guys do a great reading series and Kristofer Collins, who was an editor of TNY and is now the editor of Low Ghost Press has done a great job. And there’s also Autumn House Press, whose editor is Michael Simms. What these publishers are doing, and the books they’re putting out is remarkable.
You gotta risk all the risk you can possibly take. What’s the worst thing that can happen to you?
One of the most important developments has been City of Asylum. Besides the connection that City of Asylum makes to some of the most important writers in the world—Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Russell Banks—it brings in writers like Horacio Castellanos Moya and Huang Xiang. And now Henry Reese, City of Asylum’s visionary Director is establishing a literary center, where I intend to apply for a job as a bartender and sort of Literary bouncer and can read patron’s manuscripts while I pour their drinks.
There’s a lot of stuff going on in Pittsburgh. Actually, at that level, a lot more than San Francisco, from my old days there.
Is this why you once referred to Pittsburgh as “The Paris of Appalachia”?
There’s that, and there’s the bridges. And also there’s sort of a romantic aura about Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s the kind of city you like to walk around in when it’s raining. It’s like walking through a wonderful old 19th century photograph. It’s the lights on the street.
It just has an amazing texture. It seems just like you’re walking through, beside, into, and out of history. It’s haunted in a wonderful sense. Great old houses. Great neighborhoods. And all the great jazz traditions: Billy Strayhorn. There’s just an atmosphere about Pittsburgh. It’s a wonderful city to be a young writer in. Find yourself a nice garret some place and watch the ghosts of Gertrude Stein and Willa Cather dancing in the falling snow under a streetlight. In Pittsburgh that place of mysteries and cloud factories, of cathedrals and house poems, and Primanti Brothers French-fry stuffed sandwiches. Michael Chabon once said this about Pittsburgh, “In Pittsburgh, perhaps more than anywhere else in our languid nation, a barmaid does not care.” Pittsburgh, that Paris of converging rivers and seemingly countless bridges where the glittering romance of dark, rainy, lamp-lit Left Bank cafe nights and the salon glamour of Gertrude and Alice are reborn, Pittsburgh, that Moveable Feast where many of the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds and Zeldas and Joyces of this found generation of young writers are polishing their shiny new legends and trying them on for size.
When I just came to Pittsburgh there used to be a bar up the street from the Cage called O’Rourke’s. I was in there one night watching a fight on TV. And this very dapper, very handsome older man sat down beside me. His presence was impressive, and he looked familiar somehow. When I was young I used to box in Golden Gloves, so I always fancied myself a tough guy and a boxer, and I started talking with this gentleman about the fight we were watching. I noticed that people would come up to shake his hand and that they were just honored to be shaking his hand. I shot my mouth off. “Watch that guy’s left. Watch his right,” like I was giving the gentleman tips. Finally someone said, “Billy. Billy Conn.” I was sitting there talking to Billy Conn, the greatest light heavyweight that ever lived. And he was such a gentleman, he’s patting me on the shoulder as we’re walking out of the bar. After that we started meeting and drinking beer. I mean, where else in the world can you sit and talk boxing with Billy Conn and he’s so kind to some smartass kid? He listened to what I had to say, even though it was pure stupidity. To me that’s what made Pittsburgh forever, right when I first moved here.
And that’s literally true! Bible or not!
Do you have any sort of guess at the future of the literary scene here?
I’d say the energy is going to grow and grow. The writing program at Pitt is getting better and better… the quality of the young writers coming in. And they’re coming from all over the country and around the world.
On that note, do you feel your body of work shows some sort of trajectory or maybe an evolution of particular themes or obsessions?
It seems I’m always circling about an emotional home. Sailing back into that same old port and seeing it anew and knowing it for the first time. Then set sail again!