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issue 43: July - August 2004 

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  extract from girls

interview with
NIC KELMAN

by Jill Adams

This summer Serpent's Tail will release U.S. author Nic Kelman’s debut novel girls, narrated by a composite of middle-aged male voices - all wealthy and powerful - who have one thing in common: a desire for pubescent girls. In fact, young girls are about the only thing worth living for. To the emotionally bankrupt men who lust after them, young girls provide a sense of rejuvenation: "You can live through them even though you are dead."

It’s an unsettling book, all the more disturbing because Kelman uses quotes from The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as etymological and sociological inserts, to back up his argument, which is summarized in the book’s closing line: "How did we get so ugly?" You may not like the book's premise that men of power throughout time have lusted after young girls, but you cannot deny that it is persuasive.

Kelman wrote girls while attending Brown University on a full scholarship for his MFA in Creative Writing; it was awarded the James Assatly Prize for graduate fiction and published by Little, Brown & Co. in the U.S. in 2003. Previously he studied Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, followed by some years working in independent film. He now writes and teaches in New York City.

 

TBR: You say you wrote girls so as not to end up like one of the guys in it, that you felt you had to understand what you had to avoid. What did you learn about the male psyche in writing the book?

NK: Well, that’s what I think now, looking back on the experience which is now a couple of years old. It was not a conscious decision of some kind. But I think what I learned about my own psyche at least was that there exists a propensity to get very caught up in two things: what other people think of you (especially other men) and the fear of not having control over your life. Since you asked, if I had to guess, I would say these are probably very, very strong motivational forces for most, if not all, men, and girls in many ways is about what happens if you give these two instincts the free rein they are constantly demanding.

TBR: In the world of girls there are men of power and pubescent girls, their ‘prize.’ Older women are negligible. It made me wonder about the woman who holds the same power as men and where she stands in the overall scheme of things. You mention one such woman in the book, but despite her flings with young boys she’s portrayed, when alone, as sitting in her empty dining room, forcing herself not to cry; whereas the men, even if they are spiritually bereft, are truly rejuvenated from their contact with young girls (her male counterpart is content to be alone watching a DVD). Is the power woman doomed? Are all women of a certain age doomed?

NK: I don’t know that they’re truly rejuvenated. They certainly think they are – or perhaps, want to be – but whether they are or not is one of the questions the book asks. Many people have read that scene and actually thought the man was the much more tragic of the two because he isn’t even emotionally aware enough to realize that something is missing, that he’s sacrificed something. The point is not that the woman is more doomed than the man, or vice-versa, but that the attitude of the main characters in the book leads people to the same place, men or women. The distinction lies in how we experience that place. Which, of course, means, no, not all women of a certain age are doomed by any means. For women and for men I think it just depends on the choices we make with our lives, on what we choose to value and to pursue.

TBR: It’s very effective the way you use quotes from The Iliad and The Odyssey. The quest for power and young girls has always been a male preoccupation and they’ll do anything to get it. Men have always been such bastards then?

NK: Thank you. As for the bastards part, that’s a tricky one. Again, one of the issues I hope girls explores is the question of what, precisely, makes anyone a bastard. And the Homer is, as you suggest, central to that. But for me it’s more about integrity than about action. One of the most interesting contrasts in The Iliad to me is between Odysseus and Achilles. Achilles is very open about his motivations and his desires; whatever you think of his actions, he is clear about what he is doing and why. Odysseus, on the other hand, is not. And I wonder about that contrast a great deal – I think as men we’d all like to be Achilles, but we end up having to be Odysseus whether we like it or not. And yes, of course, a murderer is still a murderer whether he is up front about it or not, but that’s a very straightforward moral question. The boundaries explored in girls are less obvious, both between what makes something right or wrong and where or when integrity dissolves.

TBR: It’s also effective (and entertaining) the way you interweave etymological and sociological information into the text. Was this, along with the Homeric quotes, something you planned from the beginning or did it evolve as you began writing?

NK: Almost everything in girls simply evolved. I did almost no planning, as things would come up, I thought – oh, that’s interesting and relevant, somehow it needs to go in. And once I had one etymology or sociological section, it made sense to make them threads and include more.

TBR: Are men really more mentally alert just after orgasm? What about women?

NK: All I know is, the study I did as an undergraduate suggested that men perform better on intelligence tests after orgasm. It was a relatively small sample size though, I’d love to see someone do a bigger study on this. It is clear that your hormone levels change radically after orgasm, so it makes sense this would effect cognition. But I actually don’t know about women, I haven’t seen any studies on it – it would be interesting to know though!

TBR: I enjoyed your tracking of the origin of the word "cunt." I’d never seen that exact history of the word. I do know it’s a hard one to trace.

NK: It was – and there’s definitely enough speculation in my history of it to give the average etymologist a heart attack. But it just seemed to fit so incredibly well, I had to put it down on paper. And I do think there’s a really good chance that might be the history of the word – it would make a great deal of sense.

TBR: Did you receive much adverse reaction to the book when it appeared in the U.S. last year? Do you expect it to be received any differently in the U.K.?

NK: You know, it’s funny. Everyone (and I mean everyone, men, women, young, old) who reads this book has the same reaction: "Well, I really get it – it’s all true – but I think everyone else is going to find it offensive." Which has been really interesting to me because it suggests, I think, that there are things in the book that everyone thinks but never says. So I guess, no, I don’t expect it to be received differently in the U.K. – but we’ll see!

TBR: I see Carole Maso listed in your acknowledgements. Did you study with her at Brown?

NK: She was my thesis advisor and consequently encouraged me to keep going and going on the earliest draft of girls.

TBR: What advice do you have for new and emerging writers?

NK: Trust yourself. That was the one thing my MFA program taught me. Every time I thought something was bad, everyone else did too. Every time I liked something, everyone else did too. You can’t get away with anything. Just follow that little voice in your head that tells you whether you should be pleased with what you’ve done or not. And never, ever ask if you should or shouldn’t do something. If it moves you, put it on paper. That’s the only way it will ever move other people.

TBR: Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?

NK: Sorry, no – I am working on another book, but I don’t like to discuss it – part of the pleasure is discovering it for myself and if I talk about it too much, that process of working it out comes out in conversation instead of on the page where it should be.

Off the cuff . . .

- living icons

Geez – all my favorite writers are dead, I think. Sorry.

- England vs the U.S.

A HUGE topic, but very quickly: England has a better sense for history and thus for what really matters in life; the U.S. is more willing to try new things just for the sake of trying them.

- ideal night out

Hmmm – there’re are too many possibilities. Last Saturday I was out until 5 a.m. with a bunch of friends at a Korean karaoke bar. This Friday I think I’m going to a drag party. I guess my ideal night out always involves some new and intense experience, whatever that might be.

- musical preferences

Everything. And I mean everything. My iPod confuses the hell out of people.

- film: Lolita the original vs Lolita the remake

VERY interesting question, I wrote an essay about this once. I think the original – but it’s interesting as a study in adaptation. The original, written by the man himself, is really a "highlights" version of the book, whereas the remake is almost a page for page adaptation. The result, I think, is that the first one gets into great depth where it can whereas the second covers everything but only superficially, resulting in nothing being covered well.

- three favorite literary classics

Moby Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, Of Human Bondage

- Bush vs Kerry

Do you really need to ask? I’m insulted that you did. Kerry, of course. Or rather: anyone but Bush.

- three things of the non-writing variety that you hope to do

Hmmm – that’s an interesting one – all my goals are either writing oriented or incredibly superficial. Can we leave it at that before I embarrass myself?

© TBR 2004
extract from girls

This interview may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

navigation: 

issue 43: July - August 2004  

 
Short Fiction

Barry Gifford: Holiday from Women
Nic Kelman: girls
Brian Leung: Executing Dexter
J.K. Mason: A Caricature of Faith
Juan Bonilla: Mónica’s Letters
picks from back issues
Julie Orringer:
Care
Javier Marías:
Fewer Scruples

Interview

Nic Kelman

Quiz

The Iliad
answers to last issue’s quiz Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

Book Reviews

Do the Blind Dream? by Barry Gifford
The Little White Car by Danuta de Rhodes
girls by Nic Kelman
World Famous Love Acts by Brian Leung
Deadfolk by Charlie Williams
One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed by Melissa P.
Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi (review available August 7)

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)
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