Interview with Kelly Daniels

KDanielsAuthorPhotoCloudbreak, California (Owl Canyon Press 2013) begins in Kelly Daniels’ ninth grade speech class in Redlands, California. Unlike the self-conscious Daniels, the kids in his class have never lived in their family’s van, their fathers don’t deal drugs and their mothers don’t join religious cults. Daniels frets the inevitable doom of giving his speech in front of the “regular boys and girls,” but the real speech—the one of consequence—is the one Daniels’ father delivers to him after yanking him out of school: After hours of drinking in a bar, he’s shot and killed his cocaine-dealing cousin. One other thing his father tells him, the cousin’s son may seek revenge on Daniels. “I’m sorry to lay this on you, but I’m not going to be around to watch your back,” he says. “You’re going to have to look after yourself.” Two days later Daniels’ father kisses him and his younger brother on the cheek, drops them at their mother’s home, and promptly flees the country.

The book flashes-forward ten years. Daniels hasn’t seen or heard from his surfer-bum father but learns from his grandmother that the jig is up. His dad’s been caught in the Philippines and is now in jail in California. Having romanticized the idea of being the son of a “mythical fugitive,” fantasizing the two of them reuniting in a tropical paradise, Daniels isn’t sure who he is anymore. He sets off on a quest for identity that lands him in Central America, traveling by foot and bus through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico. He takes any work he can get and sleeps wherever he can find, sometimes on a beach in a small Honduras town, sometimes in a haunted, bat-infested El Salvadorian “resort,” meeting local characters and other drifters along the way.

Despite the welcomed distraction of his travel adventures, Daniels ponders “What to do?” with his life and never gives up the dream that he and his father will reconcile and catch the perfect wave. Cloudbreak, California is a lively, well-crafted travel-memoir, and the descriptions of the places Daniels visits are so vivid, so artfully constructed that they deserve several reads so that the reader can soak in the tropical climates with him. Daniels’ frank honesty about his struggle for identity—as a man and as the son of a killer—makes for a riveting and memorable read.

Kelly Daniels teaches at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where he lives with his wife and young son. A recipient of the first prize in Creative Nonfiction at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference, his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many journals including Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol, South Dakota Review, Sonora Review, Orange Coast Review, Eyeshot, Third Coast, GSU Review, and Santa Clara Review.

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Jody Keisner: How did the writing of Cloudbreak, California begin?

Kelly Daniels: I didn’t originally set out to write a memoir, but this material kept creeping into my fiction. After a while, it became invasive, and then irritating. All my main characters ended up dealing with a disappointing father in one way or another. Eventually I gave in and decided to write the thing straight, see what came of it, if only to get it out of my system. At the time I was lucky enough to be invited to the MacDowell Colony for a six-week fellowship. I wrote a furious—and mostly unreadable—300 pages during the residency. It took me two more years to get it into shape enough to send out, and then another several months after the book contract to edit it into its present form.

JK: What does a typical writing day look like for you?

KD: This question scares me a little because I’ve never been good at forming and following a routine—even on the rare occasions when I actually have enough free time. I think I’d be more productive if I checked into a consistent writing zone, an office of some sort devoted only to serious writing, from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, or whatever. That’s what I did at the MacDowell Colony, but I haven’t done it since. The reality is that I constantly try to fit writing into the rest of my life, and not the other way around. I’ll jot notes in a notebook during lunch, or sketch a chapter during a flight. I’ll carve out four hours in my school office, hoping no one will come knocking. I’ll take my laptop to a coffee joint or a library, or I’ll work from home when the coast is clear. Ideally, I start early, settling into a computer with a travel mug of good coffee by 8:00 or 8:30, before I’m 100% alert, Internet disabled. I write until hunger pulls me out of the story. After lunch I tend to feel too sluggish to write for a while, and then I’ll get a second wind around 3 or 4 if I haven’t gotten sucked into some kind of household or teaching or book promotion duty. I don’t tend to write after dinner, unless I get a sudden idea, which I’ll write down longhand. I’m sharpest in the morning.

JK: Reviewers of your book have remarked favorably on the narrator’s “tact and dispassion” and the “unsentimental” prose. Memoirs are sometimes criticized for being confessional or overly sentimental, while your memoir is neither. How did you accomplish this?

KD: I suppose my training in fiction writing helped, though I never intentionally set out to avoid these pitfalls. At some point in the revision process, the book started feeling less and less personal, and I began to see it much like I see a novel. During revision, I kept cutting out all the parts where the narrator waxes philosophical. I tried to stick to scenes and limit commentary. I’ve learned over the years that nobody appreciates a complainer, not really, even if the complaints are valid. The same goes for a pontificator. It’s hard to avoid complaining or lecturing in life, but in writing we can control ourselves better; we can revise it out.

JK: Because your younger self is a drifter, much of the prose is devoted to the environments you found yourself in. The scenic construction is incredibly vivid and poetic; these places become characters. What process did you use to recreate these scenes in such specific detail?

KD: I had to build these places brick by brick. Early drafts were all pretty sketchy, just outlines really, the idea of the place and not the place itself, as William Carlos Williams might have put it. In later drafts I forced myself to see the details more clearly, details that came from memory colored by imagination. I also wasn’t above looking at pictures on the Internet now and then, or a map, or whatever. Sometimes I drew little storyboard pictures of a setting, just to understand where everything was as I wrote. Mainly, it was a matter of going over it and over it, adding layers of sensual detail, removing redundant or clichéd descriptions, working it until the words created the scene without getting tedious or precious.

JK: The word that came to mind when I first finished your memoir is “masculine.” You’ve been heavily influenced by the men in your life and the choices they’ve made—Solter, your father, Ole, Gil. You were also affected immediately on a day-to-day basis by the men you met during your travels. The narrative persona and style are also masculine, at least to me, and I enjoyed having this experience via your book that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Booklist calls Cloudbreak, California “a young man’s book.” Do you think that gender influences storytelling?

KD: I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole all men and all women into separate camps of storytelling, but generally women and men experience the world differently, and so their manners of telling a story often reflect that. I suppose with this book I tapped into a tradition of booze-soaked male writers regaling us with stories of adventure and conquest. Hemingway, Kerouac, Bukowski…and dozens of more recent incarnations. An Amazon reviewer of Cloudbreak wrote about this, but felt that my narrator was more vulnerable than the typical hero of these kinds of books. Here’s what I think right now. The character, and thus the book, is post Hemingway. What I mean is that the book is the way it is, and I was the way I was, because I’d been influenced by these kinds of writers since my teens, and so I was consciously trying to live up to them. In this way, there’s something not quite sincere about my young self’s adventures and reckless bravura; there’s a sense of trying too hard and coming up short, and though this may be seen as a flaw to some, it also saves the book from being just another macho ego trip. I’ve never been as tough as I always wished I were and often pretended to be. I like to think this comes through in the book.

JK: It does come through in the book, and I imagine it makes you a more relatable, likeable narrator for your audience. Do you write for a particular audience? Whose critique do you hear in your head?

KD: I don’t keep a specific audience in mind, not a particular demographic or a real individual or group. Even when I was taking writing workshops, you could never please the whole group, and even individual responses were impossible to predict, so I gave up trying. I try to keep the whole process as simple as possible, though I’m sure I’ve internalized the idea that the reader isn’t privy to my intentions, only what’s on the page, and that probably protects me from too much self-indulgence.

I’ve heard of writers who hear voices of trusted editors or teachers as they work, but I don’t. My influences are so wide ranging, I could never listen to just one. Maybe I’m too greedy as a writer to allow anyone that much influence over the work. Bits of advice from dozens of sources emerge and submerge while I’m writing, but by this time I’ve come to claim the advice as my own, a kind of internal plagiarism. Hemingway said something about writers needing a “built in bullshit detector.” I suppose that’s the critic in me, advising me to delete this or that last line or telling me that the scene is just not working yet. One of my great motivations is the fear of humiliation. Writers can certainly embarrass themselves, and I’ve done it many, many times. I try to avoid looking like a jerk or an idiot.

JK: I was fascinated by how comfortable you were with a nomadic lifestyle and the accompanying risks, for instance, finding yourself alone with an armed male guard at La Libertad. Why is risk-taking important to the story you’re telling?

KD: I sometimes shudder when I think back on the situations I got myself into. Usually at the time I was too focused on surviving the moment to experience the fear completely, and so it hits me hard when I revisit it in memory. I included a lot of physical danger to make the story as exciting as I could. I tried to write the kind of book I like to read, adventure stories in one form or another. The more mysterious question is why I did what I did in the first place. I suppose I was trying to live a story that hadn’t yet been written. Ever since I began reading swords and sorcery epics as a small child, I’ve imagined my life as a story, or a series of stories, and because of that, I’ve been often been foolish enough to act like a character in a story might act, a hero the way Don Quixote is a hero.

JK: What was it about travel that made you feel as if you could “track yourself down, like a bounty hunter after a bail jumper”? How do you satisfy your nomadic impulses now? Does returning to these places in your writing help with the restlessness or bring it back into focus?

KD: I suppose I needed to define myself in some way, and travel helped do that. I’d been living in a fantasy world up to the point of my father’s capture, fancying myself a globetrotting citizen of the world, even though I’d not in fact done much traveling by then. The time spent in Central America and Mexico fulfilled an expectation I’d long held. I’d told myself this was the kind of person I was, and so I finally had to make good on the claim or abandon it. In the end, the identity was too precious to let go of, so I took off and tried to make it happen.

Luckily, my life as an academic, a writer, and a husband and father is sufficiently varied to hold my interest. I’ve recently been invited to teach a workshop at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference in Mexico this coming February, for example. My wife’s an Italian citizen, and so I spend a lot of time in that country; I’ve got dear friends and family in California, Atlanta, Colorado, even Fargo, North Dakota, and Kalamazoo, Michigan. I’m not picky when it comes to changes of scenery. I just like to get out there and go, somewhere, anywhere. Lately I’ve been getting into long-distance bicycling. This is all outside of a surprisingly satisfying domestic life.

Writing about my old wandering didn’t make me restless, or necessarily cure my restlessness. When I’m actually writing, and the writing is going fairly well, I’m content to be wherever I am. You know how it is. Five hours whizzes by in a moment. Look up from the keyboard and it’s a month later.

JK: You’ve said that Cloudbreak, California is an argument for aimless wandering. Yet you remember reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and finding it unsatisfying. Are you advocating for a particular kind of wandering?

KD: I was pretty cheeky criticizing a classic like On the Road, and I admit I haven’t read it since that time I recount, twenty years ago or whatever. I remember getting annoyed with the characters, how self-satisfied they were for moving back and forth between New York and San Francisco, as if that were some big accomplishment. It just seemed kind of silly. I think you need to read that book when you’re about sixteen. Otherwise, you’re likely to see right through it.

I advocate aimless wandering for those who aren’t sure what else to do, or for those who are too sure about what they think they want. I don’t necessarily recommend writing about aimless wandering. The hardest part about writing my book was structuring the wandering in a way that made it purposeful rather than aimless. I can’t say how successful I was, but I certainly tried.

JK: I’ve heard many writers express the idea that to write well, one must do some suffering first. Do you agree with this notion? What advice do you give students who want to write well?

KD: Yeah, I probably agree with that, even as it sounds a little quaint and romantic to my ear. On the one hand, I like the idea that we can use our imaginations to invent worlds we’ve never experienced. On the other, those who have done nothing in life apart from attending good schools and living in happy, prosperous homes may come up short as writers, even if their brains and techniques are solid. Fortunately and unfortunately, suffering will come to everyone eventually, no matter how sheltered or wealthy. I certainly wouldn’t tell students to go looking for painful experiences. Bukowski has this goofy poem in which he tells would-be writers to go out and have a series of disastrous love affairs and then become drunks. A better idea—and potentially more painful actually—is to earnestly search for true love, and chances are you’ll be disappointed more than once during the process.

I mainly advise students to pay close attention to the world around them, and to explore it as much as possible. And they don’t have to travel far to do so. I wish I’d realized that early on. Lately I’ve been riding around in a little riverboat with a geographer whose work is to map the bottom of the Mississippi River around where I live. He knows this stretch of river intimately, the backwaters and the channels and the communities, wildernesses, and factories along the banks; I try to learn what I can about it when the opportunity arises. Maybe one day I’ll write a river novel. Who knows? I tell students to explore the place they happen to be, whether it’s urban, rural, suburban, or some combination. Writers should be opportunists when it comes to experience.

JK: Towards the end of the book, you finally surf with your father and bring your troubled relationship full-circle. You heal some part of it. How is your relationship with your father now?

KD: We don’t communicate. His cell phone number seems to change every few months, and so I don’t bother trying to call. He doesn’t call me either. Neither of us likes to talk on the phone, and neither of us is into big, heavy, emotional discussions in any event. He’s not online, which is the way I keep in contact with people who aren’t near me. We just don’t have a viable forum, and neither of us seems to have the stomach to force the issue. I heard second hand that he wasn’t crazy about my book, and I can see why. Of course, I didn’t write it for him, to hurt him or otherwise; in fact, I had to avoid imagining him reading it as I wrote, or I’d have been stifled. If I still lived at the beach, I figure we’d probably paddle out into the water together now and then to keep some kind of relationship going, but since I don’t live there, we don’t hang out, and that’s pretty much how things stand.

JK: Many years ago you commented that you believed that there is little difference between fiction and nonfiction. For instance, you said both genres use many of the same elements of craft: dialogue, character development, narrative persona, etc.  What would you say to a student who asked you the difference between the two genres? Do you have any rules or guidelines for writing nonfiction that are different from those you use to write fiction?

KD: I don’t necessarily stand by anything I said years ago. I’ve always tended to talk as a way to think. Many times I disagree with my own assertions even as I’m speaking them. I must confuse the hell out of my students sometimes. At any rate, I suppose a writer shouldn’t make too much of the difference between fiction and nonfiction. One danger is assuming that because something is true it must be inherently interesting, and this belief can allow a writer to be lazy in the execution. The storytelling techniques you mention are the same in both genres. The only vital difference is that nonfiction has to be true, and this of course is no small matter. Truth is a limitation, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. Truth for narrative nonfiction functions in the way closed forms function in poetry. The sonnet has to adhere to certain rules, and these rules force the poet to manipulate language in special ways. Likewise, nonfiction writers must sift through limited material to piece together a story. It often takes considerable invention to tease something out of existing materials, which may not fit together conveniently. Fiction writing is different. On the one hand, you often have to create the material from imagination, which can be difficult, but then, when things aren’t working, you can simply change anything that needs changing. In the end, the differences are subtle compared to the similarities. Many a published novel could easily have been called a memoir had the writer decided to label it that way. Many a published memoir turned out to be largely fictitious. When in doubt, call it fiction. You don’t get into trouble that way.

JK: Your brother’s most recent whereabouts are never divulged in the epilogue, for reasons that become obvious when reading the book, which reminds me of one immediate difference between fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction has the ability to affect its characters’ lives outside of the book in a way that fiction does not. What obligation, if any, do writers of nonfiction have to family members?

KD: Every writer needs to negotiate this for her or himself. I know someone who wants to write a memoir about a ribald period in his life but won’t consider doing it until his parents are dead. On the other extreme, Faulkner famously said something about a good story being worth any number of old ladies, as a way to justify injuring people in the name of Art. That’s a memorable quotation, though I’d call it nonsense. Faulkner wrote some pretty great stories, but it’s highly debatable whether or not any of them are “worth” a real, living person, with a lifetime of deeds and thoughts and loves and family and friends and work and a legacy that goes on for generations and generations. Writers are by nature arrogant and narcissistic, Faulkner more so than most. For me, I was willing to risk hurting certain people’s feelings, or embarrassing them to some degree, because I wanted to write and publish this book. It was a fairly straight-forward calculation. How much damage would be caused versus how badly I wanted to publish the book. If the story and the people in it were different, the calculation would also have been different.

JK: The sensual descriptions of food in your memoir are akin to the descriptions found in food essays. Why did the food you ate during your travels get such detailed narrative attention?

KD: Food is a way into a scene, into a place. I like to eat and I like to cook. Writing a cooking and eating scene can be as sensually exciting as a sex scene, without the attendant dangers. In this book, it started with one eating scene, and then another, until finally it emerged as a kind of motif, the way that looking for work is a motif. We have to eat, therefore we have to work. Ideally, we take great pleasure and satisfaction in both.

JK: Your younger self understands that freedom meant you “tended to avoid or shed every last encumbrance.” What is freedom to you now?

KD: Gosh, this is a hard question. Let’s say I have, of my own free will, given up most of the freedoms available to me. The human connections and contractual obligations I’ve formed over the years—to my family and my employers—have effectively bound me to a fairly narrow range of activities on any given day. Though I technically could, I certainly am not going to walk out the door one day and end up in Thailand with nothing but a backpack and a debit card—as attractive as that sometimes sounds. The reality of my life is that I don’t make important decisions without discussing them with my wife, and though this is a more cumbersome way to live, it’s ultimately more effective. She, and our daily life together raising a child, prevents me from making hasty decisions that I might later regret. There’s a checks and balance system at work in our household, as there is in most. So no, I’m not free to follow my whims as I once was, and that’s okay, that is my choice.

JK: One of the internal conflicts your narrator faces is that ever-present existential dilemma “What should I do with my life?” By memoir’s end, the narrator is on the path to becoming the professor and writer you are today. Are you satisfied with where you’ve landed?

KD: Beats the hell out of waiting tables or hanging drywall. Sometimes I yearn to live on the ocean again. Even a really big lake would do. Otherwise, I feel I’ve had better luck than I could have ever expected.

JK: Who do you read?

KD: I’m currently reading a long and slow but strangely engaging book called Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. I’ve got The Devil All the Time, a novel by a friend of mine, Donald Ray Pollock, next in the docket. I frequently teach the stories of Paul Bowles, and I feel like I should read all his novels—I’ve only read The Sheltering Sky so far—and write about him from a critic-writer perspective. He just seems like an increasingly interesting and important writer from that period. Having written a memoir has led me to read more memoir than I had in the past. I love The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and I’m considering taking on Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Charles Portis is like a god to me, and I’m slowly working through his novels for the second time. Deadpan humor is a kind of magic in writing, especially when combined with genuine sweetness and emotional resonance. There’s too much good stuff out there to keep up with, an embarrassment of riches.

JK: What are you working on now? What can readers look forward to?

KD: I’m working on a novel set in Guatemala, amid a “baby-snatching” panic that causes all kinds of trouble for my characters. Having read the memoir, you know that I was in Guatemala during a time like this, and though the baby-snatching scare didn’t affect me directly, I always thought it would be a fascinating backdrop for a novel. So now I’m writing it. I hope to finish in 2014.

Jody Keisner teaches at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Literary Mama, The Fertile Source, SNReview, NEBRASKAland, Women’s Studies, Studies in the Humanities, and elsewhere. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska, with her husband and daughter.

2 Comments Interview with Kelly Daniels

  1. Anna Redsand August 5, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    What a perceptive interview. Penetrating questions, wise and captivating answers. There was a lot to relate to as a writer. I had to laugh about your young self, Kelly, seeing your life as story, as I recalled telling fanciful stories about myself aloud in 3rd person, past tense, while I was engaged in chores and childish adventures. The two of you have made me want to read the book. Thanks, and thanks to Isthmus for including this. I hope to see many more great interviews here.

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