Ken Kalfus is the author of a novel, The Commissariat of Enlightenment, and the short-story collections Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, all of which were named New York Times Notable Books. His writing has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Harper's, Tin House, and Bomb. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter.
Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.
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My computer runs on Windows, but for my work I still use the DOS-based program XyWrite, a stripped-down Ascii processor from the 1980s. All my books have been written on XyWrite. It's the best writing program out there.
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In the fall of 2006, fiction finalist Ken Kalfus took some time to talk with us before the National Book Awards ceremony about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges -- These stories gave me confidence that the things I cared about -- the riddles of existence, the ephemerality of dreams, combinations and permutations of words and lives, books written and not written, read and not read -- were in fact worth caring about.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I'm hoping this list won't be brought up in a court of law: I'm sure I've left out at least 100 books that I like much better than these. But these are the ten that come to mind today.
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges -- For reasons mentioned above, these stories about the nature of reality continue to inform my imagination and my journey through life. By the way, I much prefer these translations over the ones in Collected Fictions.
Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino -- Someday, a few billion years from now, I hope to grow up to be like old Qfwfq.
If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino -- You have just begun reading Ken Kalfus's list of favorite books posted on the BN.com website. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Tell them to turn off the TV in the next room. No, better yet, shut down the computer and instead read this novel by Italo Calvino on the pleasures of reading a novel by Italo Calvino.
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov -- The best memoir of the 20th century.
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov -- "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/By the false azure in the window pane."
Rabbit, Run by John Updike -- The entire Rabbit series stands as a monument to a certain generation, living a certain way of life in a certain country, and is one of the greatest achievements in American literature. Rabbit, Run, the first of the series, redeems tragedy through language so beautiful that it elevates the reader beyond the hindrances of his own existence. I once heard a radio show, with Updike, in which two readers called in and said Rabbit, Run actually saved their lives.
The Fermata by Nicholson Baker -- Either the most pornographic comedy I know of, or the most comic pornography, and a tender meditation on human apartness as well.
Rates of Exchange by Malcolm Bradbury -- Welcome to Slaka.
The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth -- This slim book is the key to Roth's oeuvre, best articulating his questions about individual identity and ethnic allegiance that he has explored in his subsequent masterworks, including Operation Shylock, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America.
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban -- End of the world, in futurist cockney: "Walker is my name and I am the same. Riddley Walker. Walking my riddels where ever theyve took me and walking them now on this paper the same."[sic]
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?A Night at The Opera -- "There's no such thing as Sanity Claus."
One, Two, Three -- "It looks like a '39 Nash!"
The Front Page -- "The son of a bitch stole my watch."
Bull Durham -- "Cute? Baby ducks are cute."
Casablanca -- "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country is a helluva book, Sam."
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Listen to music while I'm writing? What, are you kidding?
When I'm not writing -- that is, when I'm not trying to hear the music in my head -- I listen to what I think is considered alt-rock (WXPN, in Philadelphia), classical (WRTI) and American standards (as apotheosized by the late WNEW-AM in New York). I prefer radio over any other music-delivery device.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Big chewy books with lots of ideas: The People's Act of Love by James Meek; Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Novels, mostly. Everyone needs a new novel, whether they know it or not, and if it's a novel I've admired or had some deep personal response to, then it's kind of an intimate gift. Not as intimate as underwear, but at least you don't have the size issue.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I perform a single ritual that I perform every time before I write: I crawl under my desk and disconnect my DSL.
What are you working on now?
The most moving, searingly honest response to an author questionnaire that the world has ever seen. When I finish, I hope to move on to a little short story I've been noodling with.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Actually, I was an overnight success, a real prodigy. The only problem was the cold, dark night lasted about 20 years -- I had my first book of stories published when I was 44.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Do you mean besides me? Because I'm fairly unknown. In fact, you probably reached this page in error.
But if I would choose a single writer who I think deserves a wider readership, it would be Peter Rock, author most recently of The Bewildered, a novel, and The Unsettling, a collection of stories. Over the years -- and he's still a young guy -- Rock has built up an impressive body of work around disturbing ideas, alienated characters and America's most marginal landscapes. His writing is sharp and unforgiving, but his outlook is entirely humane. For introductory Rock, i would suggest his novel of devilishly linked stories, Carnival Wolves, and also The Ambidextrist.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Stay engaged in the literary enterprise. Care about literature and care about discovering good writers yourself.
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