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Erik Harper Klass

Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

Interview: Erik Harper Klass

Author of

Polish Poets in Beds with Girls and other true stories

Erik Harper Klass has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England ReviewYemassee (Cola Literary Review)Summerset ReviewSlippery Elm, and Blood Orange Review. He lives, writes, and professionally edits in Los Angeles, California. 


Pamelyn Casto for O:JA&L: I enjoyed exploring Polish Poets in Beds with Girls, and Other Stories. I’ve read a few poems by Czesław Miłosz (who hasn’t?), but prior to your work, my exposure to major Polish poets was mostly limited to Adam Zagajewski’s Polish Writers on Writing. Your terrific novella expands my limited knowledge and I appreciate that.

You say it’s a two-chapter excerpt from the much longer novel you’re in the process of writing, titled The Letters and Diacritics of East Central Europe. The excerpt title is quite different from the original or “outer” title. How do you think this might play out in terms of readers?

Erik Harper Klass: The outer novel is pretending to be nonfiction. Of course, good readers will understand—more or less immediately—that the work is fiction, but I play with this fiction–nonfiction dichotomy (or maybe dichotomy is not the word, maybe likeness is the word) throughout the piece.

In the novella, on the other hand, I’m not conducting the same kind of trickery. The novella indeed may at times feel nonfictional, and the characters and many of the events are historical, but focusing on the orthography of the nations of East Central Europe didn’t really make sense divorced from the larger work. I guess the short answer is, the novel’s title and ostensible overarching concept really have very little bearing on the novella itself. The novella is but a hair or two (or eight) pulled from the novel’s (sadly balding) head.

Casto for O:JA&L: Do you expect some readers might take you to task over calling the poet’s lovers “girls”?

EHK: It’s interesting, a friend of mine and a good writer asked the same question. I had never intended any controversy. My ear seemed to naturally—without thinking about it—synonymize “girl” with “young woman.” Allow me to do some post factum investigations. One minute please . . . [sound of typing] . . . Here we go: Webster’s first definition of girl includes “a person whose gender identity is female,” and also “a young woman.” The second definition is, “a female romantic partner.” The fourth definition is, “a woman or girl native to a given place.” Anyway, thank you Merriam-Webster for providing my defense of the word, my feather-unruffler.

I will admit, however, that a good many readers might take me to task for writing a novella filled with sex and nudity, all from the perspective of the prurient male gaze.

Casto for O:JA&L: I find your novella project fascinating because of the way you’ve artfully mixed history, fiction, poetry, footnotes, the imagined life of Erik and Rachel, and the real lives of eight Polish poets and their lovers (beware of auburn-haired, freckled lovers). The force that holds them all together is poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whom Stalin called “the best and most talented poet of the Soviet epoch.” Tell us a bit more about Mayakovsky and why he is so important to history, to other poets, and to your novella characters.

EHK: Mayakovsky, and especially the timing of his visit to Warsaw in 1927, seemed to represent a pivot in the minds of the Polish intelligentsia of interwar Europe. He was the embodiment of socialist communism (hence Stalin’s valorization), but after his death, in hindsight, we can see in his work the qualities of lyricism, love, and heartbreak—all things anathema to the communal ideas of social determinism.

But it should be remembered that the prime movers of this work, both in the outer novel and in the novella, are always the semifictional autofictional narrator, Erik Harper Klass, and his ex-lover, Rachel Waszyński. When I prepared to write a chapter during my (endless) research phase, what I really did was fish for stories, stories in which I might portray this Erik-Rachel relationship. Mayakovsky provided me with this nexus, and gave me the excuse to learn about the poets themselves.

Casto for O:JA&L: You say the “outer work” of your novel, The Letters and Diacritics of East Central Europe, is filled with hundreds of footnotes and what you call “hidden endnotes.” Because I enjoyed your work so much, I’d like to know more about your process of footnoting and endnoting.

EHK: Since the novel is masquerading as nonfiction, and most worthy nonfiction is properly notated, I felt obliged to use notes of one kind or another. But it’s more than that, of course. For me, notes (like that other woefully underused vehicle for stratification: parentheses (and nested parentheses (and so on)) (I hope we can how these parentheses in the transcript)) is a way to thicken a work, to add different voices, different layers, different stories. The notes also allow me to have a quasi-metafictional conversation with my readers about narrative theory, about my influences, about my thoughts, my fears.

When reading other work (mostly nonfiction), I’ve always preferred footnotes to endnotes. I like being able to take a quick glance at the bottom of the page rather than go on a sometimes arduous quest toward the back of the book. I should also say that many of my favorite postmodernists use footnotes. Off the top of my head, see Baker’s The Mezzanine, Danielewski’s The House of Leaves, pre–Infinite Jest Wallace, etc. So most of my notes are in the form of footnotes.

But, as you’ve noticed, I also occasionally use endnotes at the ends of chapters (there are two sets in the novella, one for each of the two parts). These endnotes are always missing the numeral superscript in the text (I call them unmarked notes), a convention I’ve seen used in poetry and some fiction, such as, appropriately enough, William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central (the practice, in fact, is sanctioned by The Chicago Manual of Style). Why the subterfuge? I guess there were times when I felt that interrupting the text with an acknowledgment would somehow spoil the flow. The reader, I hope, when finishing a part of the novella, will enjoy discovering these endnotes, and may choose, at their leisure, to go back to the preceding text and make these intertextual connections, much like learning the secrets of a magician’s methods—secrets, of course, best learned after the trick’s been performed. They also remind me of those final scenes of movies that sometimes follow the credits, something I’ve always enjoyed.

Casto for O:JA&L: Jerome Stern, who was once the head of Florida State University’s Creative Writing program, said, “Art is made out of broken rules. Art pushes at the envelope of the never-done, but also constantly recycles the forever-done. Clichés are the compost of art. Transformations, inversions, reversions, and conversions continually revive fiction.” Do you perceive your novella as adhering to this idea?

EHK: Yes, absolutely. The whole novel is a series of experiments—formal, textual, conceptual. When I first started writing a couple of decades ago, I put myself through a self-guided course on experimental fiction. Barth, Barthelme, Beckett, Burroughs, Borges, etc. I loved what the postmodernists, and even the late modernists, we’re trying to do. I, like many others (see Jonathan Lethem’s excellent essay on this: “Postmodernism as Liberty Valance”), hope to see some return—or a continued return, for there are indeed many living practitioners—to this kind of playful experimentation in popular fiction.

That said, I am a writer of my time, and I know that one can break a few too many rules, push the envelope too far (they’ve all been broken already anyway: see Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote, etc.). I have tried to keep myself properly restrained, like a good dog chained to a stake, free to perform a trick or two, but held within the circle of his contemporary imprisonment.

Casto for O:JA&L: Bruno Schulz, a great Polish writer, says in his essay “The Mythologizing of Reality” that all our ideas originate in myth and all are transformed, mutilated, denatured mythology.” Inventing fables, creating tales with them, is the most fundamental function of the human spirit, and with them he says, “we are building our house with broken pieces.” How might you fit Schulz’s ideas with your work? You make great use of fragments and it was an interesting kaleidoscope reading experience for me.

EHK: Those are wonderful quotes. The fragmentary nature of my work comes from a couple of places. First, fragmentation is the nature of memory, right? No one thinks or dreams or remembers in long narrative arcs. We are interrupted, distracted, intruded upon. We come to branches, make left and right turns, get lost, wonder where we came from. (This, indeed, is what it felt like to write the novel.) To structure my work otherwise, in a formal sense, seemed disingenuous to the whole operation of re-creating some kind of fictional universe. As I’ve probably made clear, reading this novel should very much not feel like reading a novel, at least not a conventional one.

I also think the fragmentation captures the sense of a mutilated and denatured (to use Schulz’s terms) intertextuality, which I highlight throughout the novella. Have you read Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project? It is a massive mixing of fragments—both direct quotations and his own thoughts. It was appropriately, and yes sadly, never completed. All writing is a tissue of quotations (and ideas) already written (and thought) by others. We writers, we are mere organizers, arrangers. I think, or at least hope, that readers will take some pleasure in trying to put the pieces together. No one enjoys starting on a puzzle already assembled.

Casto for O:JA&L: I noticed on your website you list no poetry publications. Yet your novella deals with eight important Polish poets. You clearly know so much about poetry of this era. Do you also write poetry? Or do you prefer writing about poets?

EHK: My first inclination was to answer your questions with a poem. But alas . . . As the author of this novel, I am guilty of many things. It is a novel about East Central European languages, about the interwar history of this region, about poetry, about narrative criticism and philosophy, about many things. I, however, am an American monolinguist with very little academic or professional background in any of these areas, poetry included (in college, I studied engineering and then music—I can build a bridge or play a flam-paradiddle, but not really write a poem). I’ve never been to most of the countries I write about. I spent a mere three days in Łódź after I’d finished my first draft of the novel. I admit all this, shamefacedly. I am a fraud, a clown. You have found me out, Pamelyn! To the literary gallows go I.

(That said, perhaps my freedom may be found in my incessant admissions, in the work itself, to my epistemological shortcomings. I have plea-bargained. I have tried to make lemonade from my lemon-like sciolisms.)

On a related note, we’ve all heard the dictum, write what you know. I say: write what you can learn. (But be prepared to spend way too much time researching. These are the decisions that lead to decade-long novel-writings. Maybe my next novel will be about bridges and flam-paradiddles.)

Casto for O:JA&L: In one of your essays, you urge writers to write “thick” by creating an inner story and an outer story. You say it’s the “interplay, the imbrication, of the two that adds thickness.” Is this similar to the idea of braiding that the writers of creative nonfiction put to use? How viable is the idea for short-short work where there’s so much less room to write thick?

EHK: I love this quote by Edward Gorey—I think it applies to works of any length, even microfiction—allow me to paraphrase: “Anything that is art is presumably about some certain thing, but it is really about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it’s boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”

Scattered across the pages of the novella—and the novel itself—are the stories and actors of history. There is, of course, the exploration of language. There is all the philosophy and narratology. But all of these things are outer stories. The inner story—let us say, at the risk of cliché, the heart and soul of the work—is about the autofictional narrator and the girl who broke his heart. This may sound like a spoiler (sans alert), but I do think most readers will pick up on the idea right away.

Which raises the question, why not just write about this relationship and skip all the baggage, the detritus, the, what’s the word, the excrescence? Oh, the temptation! I could have written the whole novel in a few weeks. But then again, the final product would be, à la Gorey, either boring or irritating. Probably both. Certainly both. It is the mixing of these different layers, the thickness of the work itself, that I hope gives the novella its power and resonance, that makes it something different and, thus, worth reading.

Casto for O:JA&L: What writers have influenced you most? I feel Borges at work but I’m eager to learn of other influences.

EHK: Borges of course is a big one. He was ahead of his time, with his playfulness, his intelligence, his mixing up of fiction and non- (obviously a theme of my writing). Joyce and Proust are big influences, particularly because of the historical focus of my novel (I think you know, the outer novel is an extremely loose retelling of Ulysses—two sad men walking the streets of European cities, thinking about lost love). Can I do some free associating? W. G. Sebald (no fiction feels more like nonfiction than his), Georges Perec, Vladimir Nabokov, Alain Robbe-Grillet, William Gass, William T. Vollmann, Nicholson Baker, Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera, Orhan Pamuk—all have left their marks on me. When I fall into what I might call my pretty “lyrical mode” of writing, I try to channel prose stylists like Rick Bass, Anthony Doerr, Annie Dillard, and Cormac McCarthy. I should mention more contemporary writers like Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill, Amy Hempel, Olga Tokarczuk, Percival Everett, and I could probably go on and on forever.

Casto for O:JA&L: What do you hope for your writing future? Are you determined to finish your “outer novel,” The Letters and Diacritics of East Central Europe? I enjoyed reading your novella pieces so much that I’d love to read the full work too. Do you have other novels in mind? Do you see a collection of stand-alone flash fiction pieces on the horizon?

EHK: Yes, I’m absolutely planning to finish The Letters and Diacritics. As we talk, I’m wrapping up my penultimate round of editing (it’s a long novel, well over 240,000 words, maybe 800 pages or so, although I have some ideas to stretch it to 1,000 if a ballsy enough publisher comes along). Once more through, and then it’s time to share this thing with my hypothetical (as yet completely imaginary) agent (interested agents may contact the author, 24/7).

I’ve been working on this for a long time, and quite honestly I’m looking forward to moving on to other projects. The thing about taking ten-plus years to write a novel is that you end up with a long list of ideas for your next one. I took a road trip with my eighty-four-year-old dad last year. We drove out to the California desert, up Highway 395, over the Sierras on Highway 89, and down the Central Valley on Highway 99. We stopped at little towns, explored mines and ghost towns, and really had a wonderful time. I’m planning to take some of that material and turn it into a novel—a short novel, maybe a very short novel. I hope to never again write another leviathan like The Letters and Diacritics. I have the following note written on my bulletin board, right here over my writing desk: Thou shalt not write long novels! Thou shalt not write long novels! Thou shalt not write long novels!

Casto for O:JA&L:

Your trip with your father is great material to make use of for your future projects. There are so many ways to use your trip material. I’m excited for you.

It’s been a pleasure interviewing you, Erik. I wish you well in all your creative activities and I’m eager to read the full version of Polish Poets in Bed with Girls, and Other Stories. What I’ve read of it so far has been fascinating. I learned a lot and I thank you for that.

EHK: Thank you, Pamelyn. It was great speaking with you. This was fun.


About the interviewer:
PAMELYN CASTO, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books And Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia Of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly flashfictionflash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L. Pamelyn Casto’s new book Flash Fiction: Alive in The Flicker (A Portable Workshop), a new release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press, is available now on Amazon.

Image: Portrait photograph courtesy of Erik Harper Klass.

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