Five Questions for Walter Kirn
Name: Walter Kirn
1.Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?
I grew up in a couple of tiny towns along the St. Croix River in Minnesota, towns so small that the summer tornado sirens were practically the only entertainment other than waiting each evening to see the fireflies. From there I went to Princeton (see my book) and then on to Oxford University, where I took a stab at becoming a playwright. A year in London, failing, ended that dream, so on to New York to work in magazines, the last of which was Spy, the late great humor rag. By then I was writing short stories, had a book on the way, and knew that i couldn’t make it economically in the big city without a straight world job. On a freelance assignment in Montana (I was covering a survivalist cult here that thought the world was going to end) I found a 60,000 dollar house, plunked down a small down payment, and here I’ve stayed. I like it because the lines for stamps are short and I don’t have to comb my hair that often.
2. Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?
John Berryman’s Dream Songs, a cycle of poems; Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited; and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. All these works had Minnesota connections and proved that art could come out of my home place, which I hadn’t believed early on while growing up there.
3. What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?
I wish I could maintain a decent filing system and fill a single notebook from start to finish rather than living in a cyclone of clutter and scrap paper and scribbled-on matchbooks. That way I wouldn’t lose so many ideas and doing my taxes wouldn’t take a month and fill me with dread that eats into my writing.
4. What do you do to make a living? Describe a normal day.
I make a living writing for papers and magazines rather than teaching, which many of my friends do but strikes me sometimes as a fraudulent activity, since nothing I’ve ever learned as a writer has come to me in a classroom. Quite the opposite. The lessons I learned in school had to be unlearned, programmatically, before I could communicate in English. In school, and especially at princeton, I learned an entirely different language founded on words like “hermeneutics” which are meant to keep readers out, not draw them in.
5. Have you ever had to make a choice between work and art? What did you choose, why, and what was the outcome?
I used to think that work and art were opposed somehow, like marriage and true love, say, but over the years I’ve come to see that keeping work out of your art and vice-a-versa impoverishes both of them. At Oxford I learned that our language’s greatest writers, from Shakespeare to Dr. Johnson, collapsed this distinction, singing for their suppers without apologies. The notion that mere toil and fine expression are separate activities is mostly propounded by wealthy amateurs.
Walter Kirn’s memoiris Lost In The Meritocracy. He was recently reviewed in the NY TIMES (where there is also a podcast) and appeared on The Colbert Report.
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