‘It’s wonderful to be acknowledged for one’s work, but, luckily, no jury deliberates on tomorrow, it just comes.’
In this Man Booker 2018 longlist interview Rachel Kushner tells us where the inspiration for The Mars Room came from and how her main character ‘had gestated over the course of my own life’.
What’s it like being on the longlist?
A great honour, if a little bit distracting. Do you know the song Break It to Me Gently by Brenda Lee? It plays in my head all the time (the original 1961 version, I might specify). Although it is a plea to ask a disenchanted lover to let Brenda down softly, I interpret it as a plea to let life continue smoothly on a course, and not to be unsettled by either good or bad news. This stands in direct opposition to the sentiment of Lee’s other great ballad, I Want to Be Wanted. I want to not want to be wanted, and instead to want nothing, because dailiness is the bread of the writer. Each day is a chance to look outward, and to learn something. It’s wonderful to be acknowledged for one’s work, but, luckily, no jury deliberates on tomorrow, it just comes.
You have said before that you had found inspiration for your novel in a Californian maximum-security prison. What drew you to researching the subject matter in the first place?
I’m not sure if I said exactly that. But if I was quoted as saying it, let me amend here: I found inspiration for this novel in my own fears, dreams, hangups, childhood, and adolescence. (And yet perhaps those are nothing special, merely the grains from which all novels are formed.) A novel is a chance to get mugged in a dark alley by your own unconscious, or at least, to have an encounter with yourself. One character, Conan, minor in page-space but a major and early inspiration for The Mars Room, is written in homage to a friend from childhood who went to jail, escaped heroically from jail, went to prison, rose gloriously through the social ranks among prisoners, and then died. The backstory of the main character, Romy, and her adolescence and young adulthood, are all quite personal to me; she had gestated over the course of my own life, and became a medium through which I could think about all the people and events that shaped me and are gone, vanished, done for. Worlds disappear and then they live in us, and this to me is endlessly distressing and inspiring.
I do go to prisons, as a volunteer, and I’m very involved with friends who are in prison or were formerly in prison, but that involvement is separate from novel writing. That said, I do have mentors and advisors inside prison who read my book, and their thoughts, along with my own observations from the many courts, jails and prisons I’ve been to, helped me to sketch out some of the mechanics of how Stanville, my fictional prison, feels, looks, functions. But the book to me is not about prison. It is about California. And I never could have written it without a deep curiosity about California, where I am from, and about the Central Valley, an epic and mysterious and forsaken place where I spend a lot of time, and an interest in the role prisons play in the landscape and in people’s lives. But this isn’t learned from going to a maximum security prison. It is in the very air here.
The book to me is not about prison. It is about California— Rachel Kushner
What novels have inspired you and your writing?
While I was writing this book, I read, side-by-side, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Saint Augustine’s Confessions and had a totally new and shattering experience with both, and with how they seemed to ‘correspond’. The poetry and interviews with the late Phillip Levine, who came from the auto assembly lines in Detroit to the dustbowl of Fresno, and maintained an artistic intensity and a muscular ethic, were inspiring to me. Although some of the work is flawed, I thought a lot about John Steinbeck’s novels, and Steinbeck’s relationship to the landscape and people of California, his drive to see the world around him. I connected a commitment to seeing with the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Denis Johnson’s first novel Angels inspired me with its day-glo prose and the way he handles so perfectly the modest unit of the paragraph. Charles Willeford’s Pick Up I found coolly stirring: a book I must revisit in order to understand anything of its mysteries and how they worked on me. And though I read it after I finished, Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye: Passing Through Youth seemed to be approaching the same realm I was writing into, but from a different angle. Finally, everything by Marguerite Duras is an inspiration to me, but I would never claim that my work shows even the barest trace of her inimitable mark.
Favourite Man Booker-winning novel?
From recent times, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, for its brazen humour.
What are you working on next?
A novel about the tyranny of the human face, which is, so far, its title. It’s partly about early humans, wanderers of separate tribes—sapiens and Neanderthals—who either snubbed one another, or simply didn’t know, for half a million years, that they coexisted, until one day, two met on a path, cataclysmically, as thrilling new genomic analysis tells us. That part’s the love story. There are some contemporary people in it too, less romantically, and in particular a person of unknown provenance who covers their face, unsettling the rules and lives of those who choose not to.