A Conversation with Jay Kirk, Author of Kingdom Under Glass

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I found this marvelous creature at the gas station today; he was taking a ride on a bike.  A wonder, I thought, and then I thought of the cabinet of wonders that are unlocked by Jay Kirk's book, Kingdom Under Glass:  A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals.

Jay's book, his first, is due out in a month from Holt; I had the pleasure of reading an advance reader's copy. As one who majored in the History and Sociology of Science at Penn, I was fascinated by Jay's protagonist, Carl Akeley, who didn't just revolutionize taxidermy and fit out the African Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York with his lifelike creatures, as the jacket copy explains, but wrestled big cats and won, stared into the haunted eyes of massive elephants and lived to tell the tale, and somehow did not evaporate beneath the glaring African sun.  Akeley was a character of outsized proportions, and Jay has brought him to life in every vivid color and with a vocabulary that had me keeping dictionaries near.

I asked Jay a few questions about Kingdom.  He kindly replied.

You say in your notes that you have a "near-allergic avoidance of the subjunctive."  How is the subjunctive too often abused?  How did your stance regarding the subjunctive ultimately help you shape your book?
I don’t know if the subjunctive is abused, per se, but I do feel pretty averse to its overuse in nonfiction.  For one, I think it tends to enfeeble a story when an author is too frequently falling back on “Carl very well must have been thinking…”  or “Akeley in all likelihood was on the verge of…” or “she very well could have been feeling blah blah,” and other forms of demurring along this line.  It’s kind of flaccid and takes away from the authority and immediacy of the prose.  It distracts.  Not that you can avoid it altogether, of course.  It’s definitely mandatory if you need to qualify some kind of pseudo-attribution to a character that isn’t citable.  But the easiest way to avoid it is to be as absolutely rigorous as possible about the things that don’t fall under the strict category of “fact.”
Can you give me an example of what you mean by what doesn’t fall under the category of fact?

Well, a lot really!  Especially when you’re trying to bring human characters to life based on their own very subjective and limited interpretations, i.e., diaries, correspondence, etc.  But let me give you an example of where I might use a detail I don’t know existed for sure, with absolute and total certainty, yet where I felt absolutely justified leaving out any subjunctive qualifications.  What I am often conscious of employing, in these cases, to develop scenes without crossing the boundary into fiction via pure speculation/invention, is inference.  As an example, there’s this one scene where Carl and Mickie are on the Uganda railroad, aka “Lunatic Express,” and I describe them as wearing the same goggles everyone else is wearing to protect their eyes from the clouds of red dust that filled the passenger cars.  Now, neither Carl nor Mickie ever made mention of these goggles in their diaries, or anywhere else, nor did I ever see a photograph of them in said goggles.  However, from reading Charles Miller’s exhaustive Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism, I did learn that in addition to all the other discomforts of the train ride (ceaseless thirst, bad food) “dark goggles were also advised… as protection against the desert’s red dust which penetrated every compartment in billowing red clouds…”  That certainly doesn’t prove that the Akeleys wore those goggles too, it still is not a fact, but I do know that Carl and Mickie were sensible, well-equipped travellers, and I’m comfortable enough with the likelihood (inferring from the general to the specific) to omit the milksop subjunctives.  Not to pick a fight with imaginary agonists, but for anyone who just doesn’t buy it, I would have you consider how cognitive scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that a hundred percent certainty is never possible anyway when it comes to memory—so even if Carl himself had written that he firmly remembered wearing those goggles, it’s just as possible he could be confusing his own memory with the interposing memory of all those other passengers wearing goggles, leaving the poor objectivist reader hung up on absolute certitude facing the same dilemma: fiction or nonfiction? 

Akeley’s life is grippingly fantastical.  In writing about Akeley in the way that you do—so much loving detail, so much vivid rendering—you necessarily had to choose some scenes over others. Can you describe your decision-making process?
It’s obscene, the amount of things I was not able to include.  But it would have been equally obscene to try and include everything.  There were just so many, many things over the course of his life, and his five truly unbelievable expeditions to Africa, all stuff that I would have loved to have kept, and that I really struggled over cutting, but in the end, the over-arching, or maybe under-lying, themes of a book do dictate making omissions that if I were writing a biography proper would be sinful.
You have always been a writer, and always, too, a reader.  What books have shaped your idea of what nonfiction can be?  What nonfiction should not be?  What boundaries can still be broken with the form?
Too many great nonfiction writers come to mind: Geoff Dyer, Lawrence Weschler, Erik Larson, Dave Eggers, Norman Mailer.  I really loved The Executioner’s Song.  But, for personal pleasure, I still find myself reading more novels than anything, because the thing I love best is that deep sense of story.  As far as boundaries waiting to be broken,  I think nonfiction has a very open field.  And for that reason alone it’s tremendously exciting to write.  You’re kind of always giddily asking yourself: can I get away with this?  I mean, look at Akeley, he was an artist working in a completely “nonfiction” field and he broke every boundary, but it didn’t require fictionalizing his material in the least.  I mean, he used his subjects’ actual skins.  There must be some sort of metaphor there for the grisly work of writing nonfiction.
You have a huge vocabulary, and you have fun dispensing it.  What words did you discover in the writing of Kingdom that have become a lasting part of your everyday talk?
A few words jump to mind that I picked up, though I can’t say I’ve yet to work them into my everyday talk:  Brainspoon.  Haversack.  Spoor.  Xylonite.  Puggaree.  Bovril.  Askari.  Gerenuk...  On the other hand, I guess I am more apt to use the expression “bully!” nowadays.

Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs—you put them all to good use in Kingdom.  Do you have a special relationship to any particular parts of speech?
I like sentences that keep things in motion.  That do their job, which, in my opinion, is to advance the game in some way, to move the story along.  So, with that in mind, I’m a fan of any part of speech that’s doing its job and helping out the sentence.  I’m in favor of strong verbs and of course nice carbon-based (concrete) nouns, the words that make up all the vivid things to look at and touch and bounce the senses off, nouns like “tusk” and “bootstrap” and “indiarubber.”

How do you know when a sentence is done?  A passage?  A book?
I know a sentence is done when it feels riveted in place.  When I cannot revise further.  When all the extra verbiage has been junked, and the genetically inferior sentences dragged off to the slag heap, and everything has been compressed to the point where it all somehow feels essential, where all the words are doing their job.  Sometimes I just suddenly realize, oh, I guess I’m done.  And then I have to get myself out of the house as quickly as possible so as not to print off another draft and pointlessly fiddle with it.


KFP said...

What a great answer to great question: How do you know when a sentence is done? A passage? A book? I have printed the words out and posted them above my desk.

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