Starving Interview: S. K. Kalsi, Author of The Stove-Junker

Good morning, my fellow literary diners!  Today, I put forth my menu of questions to S. K. Kalsi, the chef of today’s Starving Review subject, The Stove-Junker.  Let’s crack open the questions and see the why’s behind the what’s of this ‘maximalist’ author.

  1. Please introduce yourself to my literary foodies!

    I’m an author, married to a professional chef who loves to cook and hates to read! I live in northern California with my son and two dogs. I love vintage motorcycles and performance bikes, and I enjoy beautiful things: Expressionist art, “heavy” music, exotic cuisine, good conversations, good wine, and good Scotch. I like a cigar now and again.

  2. Do you do any work outside of the writing kitchen? Any non-work interests?

    Reading and writing, expanding my knowledge and deepening my relationships with people and nature, animals are what I live for.

  3. What is your latest dish to be served up?

    I am the author of The Stove-Junker, a novel exploring my three favorite themes: time, memory, and identity. The novel is about seventy-nine year old Somerset Garden, a retired appliance “junker” (one who refurbishes antique stoves), and who, at the end of his life, finds himself reflecting back on his tortured past and his history of violence.

  4. Are there any past pieces of literary cuisine you think we should take a bite out of?

    My short story “Nocturnes” is available through The Gettysburg Review, Spring 2015 issue. I quite like that story. There is also an experimental piece called “Kuchaji” in Glint literary journal (online), which is told from the POV of a little Indian girl. It’s dark and quite powerful. That story is up for a Pushcart Prize.

  5. What made you want to put on the chef’s hat and whip up your own books?

    Since a very young age, about twelve or so, my interests in music coincided with a love for poetic musings. I would sit alone by the banks of a creek not far from my house and write poems, awful little poems about love and death and nature. I wrote throughout high school, short stories mostly, and served on the school paper, writing articles on music. After receiving my degree from Cal State Long Beach in Creative Writing, I put off writing for a decade or so, believing I lacked the experience and knowledge and depth to tell the stories I wanted to tell. It was only after receiving my MFA from the University of San Francisco that I developed my voice as a writer, but that progress is ongoing. With each new story I find new challenges. And I welcome those challenges. They are all part of the writer’s process of evolution and growth as an artist.

  6. Do you have a genre of specialty or do you dabble?

    I am a literary fiction author, but my writing introduces various genre elements, such as mystery, horror, and other literary arts, such as drama, poetry and philosophy. My work tends to reflect my interests. I find I cannot write anything that does not have multiple layers, and great depth, and precisely where I find that depth varies.

  7. Why?

    Back when I was learning to write, I discovered that I was drawn into stories that involved psychology or philosophy. I am thinking of Camus’ The Stranger, Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. I therefore turned to thinkers who influenced my favorite authors and found they had read Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Sartre. When I discovered the works of Wittgenstein, he seemed to turn philosophy on its head, forcing a discussion of our greatest metaphysical and existential, epistemological and ethical mysteries into questions of language, yet still holding out for the possibility of mystery. That naturally led to my interest in the Transcendentalists–Emerson and Thoreau–whose work I love very much. I believe all these writers attuned me to a particular way of thinking about the world.

  8. Style! Every literary chef aspires to have their own unique one! What do you think sets yours apart and why?

    Style and substance are inseparable. My stories seem to relate the lives of ordinary people whose intense, ceaseless self-exploration comes from having made the wrong choices, or the right ones that turn bad, in a manner that express the depth of their being. No, you cannot have style without substance, otherwise the style is just decorative. So coupling the substantive with stylistic via lyricism is my way of doing it. No one can teach one one’s own style, unfortunately, it must evolve out of one’s deepest, most authentic self. At most one can point the way and let style evolve naturally. Reading my stories you get a sense of the hidden structure of musical language akin to poetry, a musicality, a beat: phrases, rhythms, cadences that sing to the reader’s soul as music does.

  9. Even the best of us find inspiration in the dishes of others. Do you have any literary inspirations, heroes, and influences?

    I mentioned those poets and philosophers before, but my literary mentors are Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Herman Melville, and Emerson. My James’s: James Agee, James Baldwin, James Joyce, and James Salter. I also love Paul Harding’s Tinkers, which left a deep impression on my work, and the short stories of William Maxwell. As far as poets go, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and I am awed by Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry, whose words speak to me in a way few other poets do. Oh yes, and my lovely Alices: Alice Munro and Alice McDermott. Honestly I could keep adding to this list as I love so many different writers.

  10. Let’s get into the meat and potatoes: the art and craft of writing itself! Do you have a preference of points-of-view when you write?

    I love the 1st person POV but enjoy challenges. I tend to break rules quite a bit so my latest novel The Stove-Junker plays with the expansion of the 1st person POV; I segue into 2nd person, 3rd person limited, 3rd person omniscient and even 1st person omniscient, which is evident in one of my favorite novels by Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping. The concept is expressed wonderfully by St. Augustine and reiterated by Emerson: The nature of God whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.

  11. Sparse or wordy, how do you like your descriptions served up?

    Lyrical. I am a “maximalist” writer, so I tend to be effusive, but not “purple.” I love the power of literary tropes and modifiers, the power of syntax to shift and alter and guide meaning.

  12. Are you a Hemingway man or do you like some saucy adjectives with your nouns?

    The spicier the sauce, the greater the heat in a scene.

  13. Picking off the menu of base literary conflicts, what’s your favorite and why?

    Man vs. himself is an eternal conflict that leads to so many others. Man as his own enemy. Man as the architect of his own and others’ demise, like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick.

  14. What do you think is more important to your recipes, plot or characterization?

    No plot without a well defined character. All plot, no matter how thin, grows from character in conflict with himself and others.

  15. Why?

    For me plot is an organic process that grows from character, as it should be. If there is no character in conflict with self and/or others, then the story falters. But I also love plot-less stories, but reading them provides other pleasures than an evolving storyline. Mostly I read for style, the way sentences grab you and how that style evolves out of substance. I read for the nuances of language, for poetic description, for revelation into some hidden aspect of humankind that a plot driven story cannot express. It’s all permissible! As a rule of thumb, if I read a story too carefully plotted, it hurts my brain, then character becomes a tool for rising action and that just feels false.

  16. We all know that the first taste means the most! What do you do to get that first bite hook with your readers?

    Start with a compelling “ground situation,” reveal inner conflict early, establish the rules of the story without overtly stating them, reveal slowly, methodically, at a leisurely pace. When the great conflicts in a story arise, I hope the reader is both surprised and sees it as a necessary growth of the character’s deep-seated conflicts. But a POV must fit what you are trying to say with the work, how much psychical distance are you looking for, how close or far from the narrative do you want to get, who gets access to the characters’ thoughts and feelings and who doesn’t? These are all questions that must be answered when undertaking a work.

  17. The most important of questions: Cake or pie?

    Let them eat chocolate cake with a side of vanilla ice cream. But I am a diabetic, so my cake and pie and vanilla ice cream days are in the past.

  18. Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to aspiring literary chefs out there, what would it be?

    Like Hemingway once said, “Write hard clear about what hurts.” And I’ll add to that this: Read. Write. Re-write. Repeat. Also this: Use your time wisely for it is short, so put all your heart and mind and soul into your stories. Go beyond what you’ve done before. Experiment. Test. Erase. Forget. Remember. Keep your heart open. Let no experience remain unclaimed. Mine yourself, mine your own past, extract from the great injustices and conflicts of your own life and discover the seeds of your stories. Harm no one, except the characters in your stories.

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