It is a month after the twin towers disappeared from the New York City skyline. The American people are still in shock. TV specials and news reports begin profiling the mothers, fathers, uncles, sisters, and friends who lost their lives in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Each seems a more incredible person than the last. Ken Kalfus, a fiction writer, is as horrified about the attacks as everyone else, but he doesn’t let this stupefaction affect his perception of reality.
“I felt the weight of the story…was becoming more and more distant from what actually happened,” Kalfus says. “Everyone was a martyr who died: great fathers, great husbands. I felt that was distant from reality…whenever that happens a novelist has an opening.”
So he wrote a short story that no one would publish. But he persisted, and in 2006, he produced A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, a novel about a couple in the midst of a bitter New York City divorce when the attack occurs. Both of them can’t help but smile at the thought that the other may have died in the attack, and they feel disappointed when they discover each other alive. The issues that plague this couple become a microcosm for the problems facing the nation.
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. Kalfus clearly struck a chord with his readers. He may have made up the people and their words, but he didn’t make up the feelings. He used his characters to say real thoughts that real people wouldn’t say. “Narrative,” he asserts, “is an intense human artifact. It’s how we make sense of the world.”
Four years after the release of this book, Kalfus sits outside Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania. He is there to do research for his latest novel, but he is just as intent on studying the personas of the students rushing by. His ears are tuned in to everything around him, and he leans forward with eyes wide open while I tell him about life at Penn. He synthesizes everything I say to report back to his daughter, Sky, a high school senior.
Kalfus resembles a younger, more cheerful version of Woody Allen. His hand gestures seem to stutter along with his words, but he still manages to sound eloquent: “Being part of literature is part of being a writer…[we need to] keep an open mind about what writing is.” To do this, he reads as much as he can.
Kalfus’s fiction is constantly fashioned from real life events. The Commissariat of Enlightenment, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, follows a propagandist who alters video in early/mid 1900s Russia. Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies—also a New York Times Notable Book and which Milkweed Editions is re-releasing in February—is a collection of short stories dealing with a variety of events in Russian history. The title story also inspired an HBO film.
For Kalfus, the primary goal in writing is to fill a page as fast as he can; anything is better than a blank screen. A “vomit draft,” he calls his first outpour of ideas.
The worlds that Kalfus fashions from these outpours may stem from his observations of reality, but his characters come from within. He believes that every author’s characters are essentially alternate versions of themselves. It is impossible not to place yourself in the mind of the character whose experience your words must embody.
Early in his career, Kalfus also worked as a Journalist. But he found the job too focused on accuracy and facts. “Fiction,” he says, “gave me the possibility to fantasize about things.” But, as seen through his daring commentary on the September 11th attacks, Kalfus uses this fantasy to confront genuine issues facing our world. He uses this fantasy to make his stories real.
Through this fictional fantasizing, Kalfus says what we only wish could stay safely tucked inside the pages of his novel.