Rhizomatic: Knotty, Knotty, Knotty is incredibly bleak but also very funny, the delivery of the literal one-liners, with their repetitions, bringing to mind Vincent Gallo in Buffalo 66. I also thought of the Ned Ryerson character in Groundhog Day, that moment when he says, “Am I right or am I right or am I right? Right, right, right?” I also thought of classic film gangsters, like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. What inspired this voice?
Joshua Korneich: Ha. Buffalo 66. An underappreciated film if there ever was one. Wow. Never thought of that. If we’re talking about one-liners here, I’d have to tip my hat to the king of them all: my father. Not that the narrator talks anything like my father—not even close, actually—but I think the constant barrage of one-liners and off-the-cuff remarks have had an enormous influence on my sense of humor, both on and off the page. I tend to gravitate toward stand-up comics whose acts are based around one-liners: Dangerfield, Wright—those kinds of folks. And the repetition in this book and in my writing—repeating what’s already been said over and over in one’s head, analyzing everything to death, obsession—these are Kornreich family traditions. Same goes for the one-liners in my family: my father, he’s into repeating those one-liners of his. Sometimes you find that the very act of repeating the one-liner, not the one-liner itself, is what makes the biggest impact.
Rhizomatic: Reading Knotty, Knotty, Knotty, I often thought about the work of Gertrude Stein, particularly Three Lives and The Making of Americans. Were you influenced at all by Stein? In contrast to Stein’s work with its detached affect, though, Knotty, Knotty, Knotty with its conflicted narrator, feels anxious, however many dubious certainties the narrator makes.
Korneich: I’ve only read one book of Ms. Stein’s and that was Ida, and I never read a book that I so much wanted to put down yet admired as well; it was a syntactical symphony of sorts, and if you read it through that lens, you can get through it like I did and even, perhaps, enjoy it.
Rhizomatic: Speaking of repetition, you employ thematic and structural consecution throughout Knotty, Knotty, Knotty. How did you come to choose this way of forming a narrative?
Korneich: That’s funny, because I actually think, structurally-speaking, it has a sort of anti-consecution. There’s a consecution on the sentence level, for sure. But maybe there is this momentum to the whole “narrative” structure, if you want to call it that—narrative, I mean. Not a forward momentum, but more like an upward one. If I were to illustrate the book as a graph, I would probably draw a bunch of spirals moving higher and higher up the y-axis, with not much movement on the x-axis. The idea of the crescendo in music is a big one for me in my work. My favorite symphonies, my favorite rock anthems, build their way up and “end” this way. With the exception of maybe the first forty pages, which were originally written in longhand, the book was a hodge-podge of fragmented vignettes. The task for me, in the editing process, was to put these fragments in an order that would earn that crescendo.
Rhizomatic: Both The Boy Who Killed Caterpillars and Knotty, Knotty, Knotty present from the outset already-exploded nuclear families that are further destroyed as the narrative continues. What about the family, or Family, inspires such destruction?
Korneich: Destruction and dysfunction were not familiar themes in the household I grew up in, if that’s what we’re getting at. If there was a problem in my family when I was growing up, it was that it was hyper-functional. But perhaps that hyper-functioning had a somewhat debilitating influence on my own psyche later in life, and maybe some of my writing, in some unconscious way, grapples with that.
Rhizomatic: Would you talk about Peter Markus, how his writing affected you, how his teaching influenced your own writing?
Korneich: Peter was the first guy who transformed the way I approached the structure of the sentence and how it can be composed, and recomposed, across an infinite spectrum of permutations. He was the guy who got me to see that there were strange sentences lurking inside my body, just like they lurk inside his own.
Rhizomatic: Gordon Lish recently returned to teaching, and you were among his first new students. Would you talk about his lectures? What kind influence, if any, did it have on your writing?
Korneich: Well, I wrote The Boy Who Killed Caterpillars before I ever read one of his books, and I had already had it published by the time I stepped foot in his class, but I think his work and his lectures have given me this sort of permission to write in a way that many would deem idiosyncratic. Utterance borne out of subjective memory—that’s a big element for both of us when it comes to writing. I think he, more than anyone, got me to listen to sentences. He was somehow able to articulate why certain things work with sentences and some don’t, and once you understand what makes your own sentences work, once you’re able to actually articulate that in your own head, or out loud even, you can then manipulate the sentence in ever which way you choose. I think that constant attention to acoustics definitely trickled its way into the process, and into the narrative itself even, of Knotty, Knotty, Knotty.
Rhizomatic: What writers and other artists are inspiring you these days?
Korneich: I have to confess: I’m not reading a lot of other people’s work these days. I know many of my “peers” tend to walk and chew gum at the same time, but for me, reading fiction and writing fiction tend to go their separate ways when I’m deep in writing mode, which I now am with this third novel that I’m still working on. Not too long ago, I tried reading Hob Broun’s Inner Tube on my iPad—it’s out of print right now—but even his gorgeously complicated sentences are a tough read on such a device. I feel obligated to go back to it and start over with it at some point—especially since the book’s paralyzed author wrote it, letter by letter, by breathing into an apparatus of some sort. Just from what I’ve read of it so far, Broun seems to be some sort of predecessor of the style of writing we’ve come to recognize from Lutz and Lipsyte. But, hey, listen: I got two boys under the age of two in my home, so most of the reading I do, aside from reading all the various sections of the papers and trade journals, are the picture books I read daily to them. The repetition and rhythm of Dr. Seuss is something that I’ve really reconnected with. I swear, I read The Cat in the Hat sometimes and wonder if this somehow has shaped my writing in a subconscious way all these years later. Cat versus Caterpillar? A big mess in the home that needs to be cleaned up before the mom returns? A mom whom we almost get to see in the end but not quite? Makes you think, right? I mean, am I right or am I right?