Interview: Rachel Kushner, author, The Hard Crowd
It’s the thrill of speed and the propulsive rhythm of riding that brought Rachel Kushner, 52, to writing. The American author has been a motorcycling enthusiast since childhood. Her father had a motorcycle, a Vincent Black Shadow, but since he forbade her to ride, Kushner went on to get an orange Moto Guzzi after she graduated from University of California, Berkeley. At 24, she took part in a 1000-mile illegal motorbike race across the Baja Peninsula in Northwestern Mexico and crashed at 130mph. This propelled her to pursue her writing career. The kinetics of writing comes as natural to Kushner as the kinetics of riding once did. This is showcased in The Hard Crowd: Essays, 2000-2020, her first book of non fiction, published by Penguin Random House. Kushner’s 2018 novel, The Mars Room, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her other two novels — Telex from Cuba (2008) and The Flamethrowers (2013) — were both New York Times bestsellers and finalists for the National Book Award.
Kushner is alive to the places and people she writes about. The Hard Crowd, a collection of 19 essays written between 2000 and 2020, spans literary journalism, memoir, and cultural criticism. The essays revolve around motorcycle racing, bartending, partying with The Rolling Stones, the subtle aesthetics of a photograph, the complexities of prison abortion, the sordidness of Shuafat, a Palestinian refugee camp in Jerusalem, which she visited in 2016, and her reflections on writers and writing. The closing, eponymous essay is Kushner’s manifesto on nostalgia, doom, and writing. “The catalog of a life’s highs and lows regifts a person daily. Especially if she’s figured out how to do a thing that takes all of her, for better or worse, into its accounting. That is what writing does. All the memories, the ‘material,’ it starts to answer questions. It gives testimony. It talks,” she writes in The Hard Crowd. Excerpts from an interview:
Did you conceive The Hard Crowd to look back at the distant city of your youth — Sunset, San Francisco — as one of the survivors of the “wild crowd” of that city laid waste, and to rest, by prison, drugs, and the untimely death of those whose stars shone bright early, but also burnt out early?
To me, it’s a single book divided into chapters, rather than an anthology — by which I mean, I put it together imagining a reader begins on page one, and ends on page 250. At the end, having read essays that I ordered in what felt like a logical sequence, by tone, theme, recurrence, and at the end, with the title essay, The Hard Crowd, there’s a kind of accounting of who I am and what I think about it in regard to certain aspects of my adolescence and young adulthood, and the distance between me and some of the people I used to know, including people who burned bright and died prematurely. Only one friend went to prison, but maybe even just one can stay with you, shape you. I don’t regard San Francisco as laying waste, but instead, it’s just a place I’m from. I think anyone’s past is laid waste in the sense that it vanishes but remains, both at once, which is the strange magic of life, that the mind is populated by scenes and people who are gone.
You begin the collection with the illegal motorcycle race down the Baja Peninsula in which you participated when you were 24. Tell us about your passion for riding. How has it has shaped your writing?
I placed that essay, Girl on a Motorcycle, first in the book, because it’s propulsive as a story — the tension is built in, since it’s an adventure with some unforeseen calamities, and because it gives a sense of who I was before I became a writer. At that time, in my early twenties, I was immersed in other things besides writing. I worked in bars and rode motorcycles. That’s San Francisco in the 1990s, where maybe lifestyle took precedence. I was also interested in machines. Cars, motorcycles, and the people who worked on them garnered respect from me. In high school, my best friend was a fanatical rider who had motocross bikes and dune buggies and Vespas and I was just around all that all the time. He now races dune buggies professionally. About riding motorcycles, or ski racing, I really don’t know how the physical aspects translate into writing. The cultural aspects, though, make it into the writing for sure. The narrator in my novel The Flamethrowers (2013) is a former ski racer; it is a world that was fun for me to include a bit of, because I know it well. She also rides motorcycles. We both crash at high speed, and since I know what that’s like, I could describe it. In this essay, for me, the real emphasis is the people and the culture, or subculture, of that illegal road race. Someone just wrote me out of the blue to thank me for mentioning Sean Crane, who later died, and was a roommate and daredevil. An unusual spirit.
The essays in the collection give us a sense of the evolution, range and dazzle of your writing that follows The New Journalism’s defining tradition of living hard, keeping one’s eyes open, and putting ‘I’ on the page. How is the process of putting the ‘I’ on the page for you? What have you learnt from New Journalism and its practitioners, including Joan Didion, Hunter S Thompson and Truman Capote?
I did notice there was a review in The Guardian by Olivia Liang where she suggests I’m taking up the mantle or tradition of New Journalism. Honestly, it had not occurred to me. Perhaps in part because I think of myself as a novelist, and not a journalist, but then again, I am interested in the world around me, as evidenced in some of the pieces in the book, and I’ve certainly learned from many of the writers considered part of New Journalism, and especially Didion, who is a serious writer, obviously, of both essays and of novels (Democracy (1984), for me, is a favourite). She often takes a distance from her non-fiction subjects. There’s a coldness, even a bit of arrogance, and it’s infectious: the reader takes it on, wants to share that perspective. She gives the sense that she has ideas about what’s right and proper and what’s vulgar and compromised. I think that’s not true of my own outlook or tone. It works for Didion; I’m not criticizing it, just noting difference. Also there’s the fact that I mostly write about worlds in which I participate — with some notable exceptions — instead of this gonzo Hunter S approach, where you live it temporarily to immerse yourself.
In these essays, you also reflect on writers like Marguerite Duras, Denis Johnson, Clarice Lispector, and Cormac McCarthy, and artists like Jeff Koons, Thomas Demand, Alex Brown, Jack Goldstein and Gabriele Basilico. Do you see these writers, including many others like Steinbeck and Nelson Algren, and artists as collectively influencing your own artistic sensibility?
Definitely. The writers you mention are all people I read and re-read. My essay about Cormac McCarthy is about The Border Trilogy, it was a preface for a new UK edition, but my real love is for McCarthy’s first five novels: The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, Suttree, and Blood Meridian. But especially those first three, which are ferocious and biblical and funny and original. Steinbeck is a California author in a way that interests me. Algren was important to me when I was much younger. But I draw from all over. Looking at art is crucial, not just to writing but living. I just saw the Alice Neel show at the Met in New York City and felt graced by her expansive approach to people, to urban life, to love, and children, and suffering and humour. I side with the artists, whether they work in words, images or ideas.
Your own novels — The Mars Room, The Flamethrowers and Telex from Cuba — and a book of short stories, The Strange Case of Rachel K., show how art and revolution, besides bikes and cars, have been your recurring preoccupations. They are all suffused with insights into arty types and their relationships to the wider world. They also show how you have been particularly invested in the stories of women who left the free world as children to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Have you consciously worked on the broad thematic structure of your books?
The narrator of the Mars Room, just to say quickly, isn’t a child when she goes to prison. She’s an adult, in her 20s. I do have a friend in prison who has been there since she was 15 and is serving two life sentences plus an enhancement of six years. I don’t know if she’ll get out, but I hope she does. What can I say about art and revolution, except that I’m a child of the twentieth century, and these are big themes of that century? I don’t approach theme so consciously, though. I start with something that’s mysterious and that interests me, an impression. It’s only through the writing that patterns start to appear. A lot of what a writer might later call theme is unconscious, but the unconscious mind is recording all along and one might even argue that the structure of historical time and of cultural evolutions is all in there in a person’s psyche, accumulating what we’ve read, overheard, lived through, and that the novel is where it will all be sorted.
You have expressed your admiration for Proust and how he brought into being the writer in you. Could you talk about his influence?
I really can’t say how or if Proust has influenced me, but I love his work. I don’t write like him. But maybe an early realisation mattered to me, my work, which was that Proust isn’t gratuitous, long-winded, or excessive in his grammatical structure. He’s actually concise. What’s long-winded and excessive are people’s psychological interiors, their social selves and aspirations and hidden recesses, the latent content of their speech and actions. And so form and content match perfectly in Proust.
How did growing up in San Francisco, and your beatnik and hobo-living background, transform you?
My parents always say they were too young to be beatniks, and too old to be hippies, but their lives, and by extension mine and my brother’s, were informed by both. I was born in Eugene, Oregon, which in the early 1970s was kind of the hippy capital of USA. My parents moved there in a tricked out school bus, in the era when the Merry Pranksters were living just outside Eugene, having arrived also by tricked out school bus. I really can’t say how my background has informed who I am, because what am I, apart from it? Perhaps one thing I’ll say is that Eugene, Oregon, was sweet and innocent: nature, idealism, low stakes. Everyone was poor, pretty much. Everything was home-made. Kids had basically limitless freedom. I moved to San Francisco at age 11, and it was exciting and what I wanted, to be metropolitan, as I saw it, a city girl. But it was a slap in the face, in a way. Harsh. A different world. I’m shaped by both. I haven’t written much about Eugene at all but someday I probably will.
In your novella, The Mayor of Leipzig, which also released recently, an unnamed American female visual artist recounts her travels from New York City to Cologne and Leipzig. Your three novels have each been densely descriptive — offering us precious vignettes of US history and life — in the late modernistic tradition of a John Dos Passos or a William Gaddis. That’s spiced up with your take on the notion of national identity and events, as well as a blend of the specific and the mythic. The novella seems to be a departure since it’s about non-events and suspended in an uncertain time. What conversation around art do you wish to have through it?
The Mayor of Leipzig is structured around an event! At least to me: the moment when the narrator sees this man in a hotel room, the lights blazing, the curtains pulled back as if he were onstage in a theatre, and viewable from every other room, and what he’s doing is a shock to the narrator. It’s “based on a true story”. The time is now, the present, as in recent and ongoing. The world is that of contemporary art, which is “global.” The tone is insincere, but also true. I had a lot of fun writing that, and also publishing it, which was something I did with this very cool bookstore and gallery Karma, that is also a prolific publisher. They let me do exactly what I wanted, and they also produced a beautiful object, pink, cloth-bound, with silver foil lettering. I plan to work with them again. I like the general idea of writing things and publishing them outside the literary/publishing world.
What are you working on? Has the new normal in the wake of the pandemic impacted the rhythm of your daily life or writing regimen?
I’m writing a novel. I was just in Wyoming working on it, and having so much fun. But then I was on the east coast sorting through my family’s personal effects, in the wake of the death of two family members - my aunt died of covid, and my uncle, her older brother, died covid-related. He was afraid to go to the emergency room, because he didn’t want to catch covid, and died on account of that reluctance. If this is a new normal, yes, it certainly impacted my writing regimen. But now, hopefully, we in the US are moving into a post-pandemic situation, even as my father has now lost both of his siblings.
Nawaid Anjum is a poet, translator, and independent journalist. He lives in New Delhi.