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Coming to the Festival of Books

A conversation with Rachel Kushner

April 12, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Novelist Rachel Kushner, photographed at her home in Los Angeles.
Novelist Rachel Kushner, photographed at her home in Los Angeles. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

A few weeks ago, I visited Rachel Kushner in her Angelino Heights home to talk about her second novel, “The Flamethrowers.” Taking place in lower Manhattan and Italy in the late 1970s, “The Flamethrowers” is an inquiry into art, politics and identity, set against a pair of landscapes defined by turmoil. Kushner is smart and deeply thoughtful; her reflections on the book, and the issues it raises, appear in this Sunday’s Arts & Books. Here is more of our conversation.

How did “The Flamethrowers” come about?

This book developed first as a kind of idea — not as an ideas novel, but I had a sense that I wanted to do something with a period of time in New York City, that period being the mid-1970s, in the art world there. I didn’t know what the story was going to be, but when I sold “Telex from Cuba,” my editor, Nan Graham, asked about my next novel, and on instinct, I said, “It’s going to be about the New York art world in the mid-1970s.” Then I encountered this set of materials that had to do with the politics in Italy at that time. I encountered them through my husband, who writes about left political theory in France and Italy, and socially I encountered that world because we’d go to Italy and we met some people who were of the generation that had been actively engaged with that, and also the younger generation for whom that set of references, what’s called the Movement of ’77, is very much on their horizon, socially and politically.

It continues to resonate?

Right now it’s kind of a big deal. Here also, because of Occupy. And people in Greece, and in the anti-austerity movement … everybody looks to Italy and what happened then. So I started thinking about it in connection with New York. I’m not a novelist who wants to force things into a series of plot points, but I sensed there was some linkage between them, even if I just put them in contiguity in a book. There’s the blackout of 1977 in New York and there’s this famous march in 1977 in Rome. They mean very different things but I thought that by contrasting them, I could produce a synthesis of meaning. At the same time, it all comes down to the voice of the narrator, and I needed to develop the right tone. I wanted her to speak in first person but not be a voicy kind of narrator. I wanted her to be impressionistic, someone young who’s an outsider to this milieu, just as I am and would have been. It took two years to key her voice properly. It took two years to write the long first chapter where she is riding the motorcycle.

Where did this interest in motorcycles come from?

I know a little bit about motorcycles and motorcycle riding. My father was interested in motorcycles. He always had a Vincent Black Shadow, which is a very rare and coveted British bike, and we would go to vintage British motorcycle rallies with him. My brother developed no interest in cycles and machines, but I developed a strong interest although I was forbidden from riding them myself. When I was old enough and just graduated from college, I got a Moto Guzzi. These are very temperamental bikes and require a little bit of mechanical ability. I lived in San Francisco at the time, which had a big motorcycle scene. So I had that bike, and then I had a Ninja 600 and I raced it in this crazy road race where you go from San Diego to the very end of the Baja Peninsula in one day. It’s hard to imagine. It’s like driving from here to Denver. It’s 1,160 miles, a completely crazy thing. It doesn’t exist anymore. It was an illegal, non-authorized road race that a lot of people did. Eventually, I grew out of my interest in motorcycles because they’re quite dangerous. I don’t ride them anymore. But I have this history. I don’t think of myself as a gearhead or a motorcyclist. I’m not that young, and this is like another life of mine. But the people I know from that era think of me that way. So it’s sort of amusing to me that I’ve circled back around to it now.

What about the 1970s New York art world drew your interest?

First of all, it seems to me — and maybe I romanticize it — but it seems like an era in which almost no one had any money in the art world. You could live in Manhattan; you could arrive there from art school on a Greyhound. I remember spending a summer there in 1980 and there was a garbage strike. I lived with my best friend and her mother, who worked for Donald Judd, and so I was sort of exposed to that world. All the artists were eating jalapeno peppers for dinner and smoking cigarettes because they had no money to buy food. And if they did have money, they would spend it at the Shark Bar because they wanted to be seen drinking there and hopefully meet some more famous artists who might help their career.

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