Rachel Kushner’s most recent novel, The Flamethrowers, set in 1970s New York and whose protagonist is a young woman who is both an artist and a motorcycle racer, is etched out in exacting prose. Here, she reflects on the influences that have shaped her as a writer.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
Proust is a huge author for me. I’m teaching the first two volumes of Remembrance of Things Past and the Lydia Davis translation of the first volume came out when I was writing my first novel, Telex from Cuba, and opened up a lot for me. Celine, who is a completely different kind of writer, is also important to me, but there is an enormous gap between us. I’m a kind person, I don’t have a really nihilist streak in me, but I respond to that kind of humour. In terms of living writers, the novels of DeLillo and Didion are really important to me.
What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?
I don’t know. Prescription drugs? I’m hesitant to ever take on the crest of the veteran. So I don’t know who I am to warn the younger writer about the perils to come. I think maybe the most dangerous influence is to think you have all the answers and should be giving counsel.
Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?
There were things I read that helped me – Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. That book is doing something that I think you can find in an older, stranger, pre-modern sort of novel. Like Tristram Shandy. It’s a first-person narrated tale, and yet there is voluminous room in it for other speakers to tell their own stories. My book is told in first person, but there were many places in which the narrator is drowned out by other people… Savage Detectives is a book that I responded to, but I don’t claim kinship with it.
Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?
I don’t know, I’d like to think I have an idea of who I consider influential but someone else might not agree with it. Anne Carson is an important writer. In terms of novelists, Bolano still seems to be in a kind of ascendance even though he’s dead. I want to add that I’m very happy that Pynchon is still so influential. I haven’t read the new novel yet, but Inherent Vice is silly and expansive in wonderful ways, and it’s great to think of him being a “popular” and even a “best-selling” novelist. It makes me joyous to think this is the case.
Who do wish were more influential?
There is a writer called Curzio Malaparte, an Italian author. He is known for a book called Kaputt that he wrote about his travels during World War II. He has another novel called The Skin that he wrote about the American occupation of Naples at the end of the war and it’s being republished by the New York Review Books Classics – they republish really first-rate world literature. I actually wrote the introduction to The Skin , but I wrote it because I believe that it is a fantastic novel.
Among American authors, I think Katherine Anne Porter is under-recognized, for her precise and sometimes wicked prose. Her longish short stories, like Noon Wine, are near-perfect works of art, as is Ship of Fools.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
I like Baudelaire’s sentences quite a lot. I read and re-read him very often. Among American writers, William Gaddis, The Recognitions, there are some sentences in there that I remember verbatim and think about. And Nathanael West, the sentences in Miss Lonelyhearts. I think that that is one of the great American novels. It has a brutality to it that I really admire and that brutality is present in every one of the sentences.
When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?
No. I’ve heard people talk about that, but no, not at all. I’m always in a period of writing, insomuch as my life is an experience of filtering what is significant to my novel in progress and what isn’t. It’s just a modality of living.
This interview, conducted by Globe Books, has been condensed and edited.