Post-Mortem: I Held My Breath as Long as I Could in Review
Maybe you’re one of the people who wondered why I Held My Breath as Long as I Could started off with one of the worst stories. Maybe you want to know more about why someone would self-publish. Maybe you’re just bored and have nothing better to do. Whatever the case, the following is an interview examining and explaining the thoughts behind the stories included in an admittedly strange collection.
**** SPOILERS FOLLOW ****
John Mandler: So let’s start with a soft-ball: why did you self-publish this collection?
Kristopher Kelly: I was tired of reading about the success others were having with independent publishing while not trying it myself. I didn’t see any reason I couldn’t have something out there, as well. Given that I was struggling with the editing of two novels, it also seemed a good chance to develop editing skills on shorter pieces. Also, I knew no one else would let me get away with the kind of collection this is, combining fiction and nonfiction, genre and non-genre, etc.
M: Will you do it again?
KK: Probably not. Unless something changes, I feel like it’s simply another giant slush pile. The goal is to get out of the slush pile, not live in it.
M: A lot of readers complain about the strength of the first story, “You Know What Your Problem Is?” Why did you start with this arguably flimsy piece?
KK: Ha, well, first of all, I didn’t think it was that bad. Secondly, enjoy its place now, because it’s getting moved in future versions of the book. Yes, it was a mistake. But I wanted people to get a good sense of what they were going to find in the book, and I thought that one, even if it wasn’t the strongest, was somehow representative of everything. What is my collection if not gruesome, sad, and allegorical? I don’t know. I thought it was a good way to not false advertise. I do plan to move “This is All My Fault” to the lead-off position in the final update to the book.
M: Why did you include nonfiction pieces in what is ostensibly a horror collection?
KK: Because I’m dumb? Okay, seriously, I was trying to say something about where horror fiction comes from, what monsters really are, and how they’re born–be that in my mind or in a more “real” world. The title of the collection comes from two stories, “Dogs of Nashua” and “Grim Remains.” In both, characters feel polluted by a monstrous world. It’s my feeling that we live in a really rough world, and most of us, I feel, are fighting the good fight to not breathe it in and to stay better people than the world might make us.
M: So this whole book is about your anger surrounding your divorce?
KK: It’s my criticism of myself and, if there is a message in all of it, it is to not let bad things turn you into a bad person. You look at the regret apparent in a story like “Radiation,” for example, and I think you see a protagonist who wishes he’d turned out to be a better person than he is. Granted, it’s all exaggerated, because horror allows you to do that kind of thing, but the emotional truth of the story is that the character regrets his own hate. Contrast that with the stories in the Odds, Ends portion of the book, where there’s a more hopeful message to the pieces. In “The Side-Effect,” there’s a silver lining to a zombie apocalypse. In “When You Have to Go,” a place that seems terrible to the main character ends up being a place filled with love–get it? The two nonfiction pieces, placed together, are trying, in my foolish way, to show love, not hate. That’s why “King to E1” is placed first, to establish that, after everything, I still loved my ex-wife’s family and I am fine with the way things have gone. I truly wish her the best. And in “Knife in Hand,” you see an example of a guy realizing that even if efforts end up not accomplishing much, even if things don’t go the way he wants them to, life, as a whole, is still good. Tim ends up wishing good things for his ex, and that’s really the closest echo of my real feelings.
M: Oh, so “Doggie-Style” isn’t? Because I thought …
KK: Yeah, it’s hard to defend that one. But if it helps, I’d like to say that I wrote it before I was ever married, and that it was actually inspired by an Alice Walker short story, “How Did I Get Away with Killing One of the Biggest Lawyers in the State? It Was Easy.” The character told a story about horrible things, but the tone was so detached. I’d been trying to come up with a villain with a strong voice who people wouldn’t feel comfortable liking but who was still vaguely realistic. I was looking to write something really disturbing, but before I found Joe Beldon’s voice, the whole story was, frankly, really unpalatable and unwritable. So … thank you, Alice Walker, for pointing me to a solution. I’m sure everyone’s grateful.
M: Let’s talk more about The Beldon Variations. What was your goal with these stories?
KK: Again, it all comes back to monsters and monsters creating monsters and what it means to live in a monster-populated world. Setting up “Dogs of Nashua” with “Doggie-Style” really, I thought, gave so much more weight to what Jasper is going through. It makes the awfulness of his situation even worse, and it makes his treatment of the dog even more important, even more symbolic. But then the end is so tragic, there’s so little comeuppance, that I feel like, without “The Field,” it’s too unsatisfying. Not that there’s any great comeuppance in “The Field,” but I feel like it tears Joe Beldon down in an interesting way and strips him of a lot of his power. He’s really just someone else’s lackey, and his master doesn’t even like him all that much. I imagine that Jimmy Beetle would feel about Jasper much as he feels about Clyde–that he wishes he and his friends hadn’t destroyed him. Beetle really regrets what happens to Clyde, and he has really no one to blame but himself, for playing the part that he thought the world around him wanted him to play. He realizes playing that part only leads him to help to destroy things he wishes were still around. But another note on that: you see Clyde’s brief transformation also echoing the theme of someone letting a sad situation turn him down a dark road. Hence why he dies moments before lying about everything. He let things get the better of him, and that will always take you down a dark path. Even in “Doggie-Style,” you see that message. Joe goes completely off-the-rails after something terrible happens to his wife. Trauma always tends to lead to more trauma.
M: An interesting example of this is “Please Don’t.” You make the treatment of trauma into a traumatic experience in and of itself.
KK: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, the message is everywhere in this collection. Open to a random page, and you’ll find it. Even if the genre and lengths vary, I really tried to keep the pieces unified by that central idea. There are a few exceptions, I suppose. “This is All My Fault” and “Frosty Out There,” for example, but with those pieces I just fell in love with the monsters, even if they weren’t quite in the business of making other people monsters. What can you do? Not necessarily a good idea to be too matchy-matchy, as they might say on Project Runway.
M: Are you a Project Runway fan?
KK: Huge. I think it’s one of the most inspiring shows on television. I always wish Tim Gunn could come around and give me advice on what I’m doing wrong. He’s amazing.
M: What about “Brains,” the story of the couple in the car? I didn’t quite get that one.
KK: Oh, ha, yeah … my political story? I liked the claustrophobic nature of it–that here are two people, splitting apart, but yet they’re still contained by the car. I was also, yes, trying to mirror a bit of the polarization of our country with the disintegration of the couple, using the characters of George and Laura (who I started off thinking of as a nod to George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but ended thinking more of a twisted version of George and Laura Bush, hence the names) to reflect that.
M: Who are your influences?
KK: That should be obvious. I grew up forty miles north of Bangor, where Stephen King lives. I went to Bangor all the time. I had to go there every time I wanted to see a movie in the theater. It was my backyard, and Stephen King felt like my hometown hero. When I decided I wanted to be a writer in third grade, I thought that meant I wanted to be like Stephen King. Huge fan of his. Also Clive Barker. His Books of Blood were an obvious influence, I think. Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories was also big, because it uses a lot of mixed length stories and crosses genres. I wanted my book to be a bit of a dark mirror to that one, like what might happen if The Lottery and Other Stories and The Books of Blood had a love child, that would be I Held My Breath as Long as I Could. I also really like Raymond Carver, John Irving, and The Wire. I love The Wire. I probably shouldn’t say that, because it will probably expose “Grim Remains” as a fraud, but so be it. I’ll sacrifice that story to say that The Wire is one of the best stories ever told, period.
M: Do you have issues with women? A lot of these stories feature characters who are angry at women, or who do bad things to the women in their lives.
KK: No. I don’t.
M: Okay, can you elaborate?
KK: If I have to. I have a problem with people in general and myself in particular. I have issues with women insofar as I am a straight male who has had relationships that didn’t work out and has strong feelings about the failure of those relationships. But if you’re asking if I hate women, the answer is an unqualified no. I love women, especially the ones who are strong and smart and can kick my ass. Generally speaking, I’m far more critical of men, but even then I’d have to say that mostly I’m just at war constantly with pieces of myself.
M: Can you tell people anything about your upcoming projects?
KK: I have two novels to edit, Ed at Eleven and Daukherville. Expect to see Ed first. Other than that, I’ll be writing a new novel, Suspended, this November as part of NaNoWriMo, because I think it’s important to keep the creative juices flowing and to always be moving ahead. As far as the plot of these goes, Ed is a dark romance, Daukherville is an epic ghost story, and Suspended is a straight-up people-on-a-plane thriller that has nothing to do with snakes or terrorism.
M: Last but not least, is your middle initial K? Because …
KK: Ha ha ha. No, it’s not. My middle name is Albert.
M: But wait, that means …
KK: That my initials spell kak. Or ‘shit’ in Africaans. Yes, I know. Thanks for asking.
Got a question of your own about the collection? Feel free to ask away.
I get it, and I thought that it worked. Sometimes people miss the point because the world is going numb.