Even As Christian Kiefer Unveils His Latest Book, The Animals, He’s Already Hard at Work on His Next
I didn’t think Newcastle was a real place. I figured Christian Kiefer didn’t want me to go to his house, so he made up some fictional land as a way to tell me to fuck off. But not only is Newcastle a real place, it’s really close to Sacramento.
On the way there, as the scenery turned from strip malls to pristine megachurches and finally to layers of thick, healthy trees, it sort of made sense that Kiefer would want to get as far away from the city as possible. Not that Sacramento is some major metropolis, but he’s a busy man and probably doesn’t need any more clutter to infect a mind that’s always trying to think.
And when I say busy, he’s busy. He’s a father of at least 400 children (OK, maybe like 5), a husband, a musician, a professor at American River College, a writer and, for some reason that I don’t fully understand, he has a bunch of sheep. Plus, he built a back patio on his house. I don’t know what else he does, but I didn’t want to ask. I felt bad enough about my life as it was.
But, of all those activities, Kiefer probably loves writing the most. (Sorry, kids.)
Even when he’s teaching, hanging out with his understanding wife or tending to his children and sheep, he’s constructing new narratives that start as little seedlings in his brain and bloom into real books that are adored by masters like Denis Johnson and T.C. Boyle.
His 2012 debut The Infinite Tides, a novel about a perpetually bummed out astronaut caught in a suburban labyrinth of grief crafted by his own bad decisions, garnered excellent praise, including a Publisher’s Weekly review that called the book “an astute, impressive and ambitious debut.”
His second book, The Animals (out March 23), is about a man who is trying to correct his troubled past, which comes speeding back, threatening to derail everything he’s been so careful trying to rebuild. The book (which Kirkus Reviews called “Eloquent and shattering”) is thrilling, especially compared to Tides’ occasionally plodding introspection, yet it retains Kiefer’s curiosity with language and with the world around him with poetic writing that entrances the reader completely. The Animals is dark, but humorous exactly where it needs to be. One of my favorite scenes is a flashback where the villainous Rick is trying to get his buddy Nat laid in a bar:
“She might have been forty, although she wore so much makeup it was difficult to tell, eyes wiped with turquoise as thick as paint and hair like a bundle of blond wires. She licked her lips. He had seen animals in nature documentaries perform similar actions while feeding on carcasses in the plains of Africa.”
With The Animals still fresh in the world, Kiefer works on his third book, Kingdom of Wolves, which seems to be pushing back a little, giving the author a bit of trouble. Still, he invited me over to his countryside home for a little chat in his writing studio, a big shed full of books and instruments that sits behind his house, next to the trampoline where his little blonde children bounce and scream in exhilaration.
When I exit the freeway and follow the signs to Newcastle, I know I’m close to Kiefer’s house because:
a) It looks like the end of civilization
b) I have to drive down a dirt road
c) I have to stop my car to wait for some asshole turkey that’s waddling in front of my car like it owns the place.
Why do you live all the way out here?
I’ve always lived out here. I grew up in Auburn.
You like it out here because it’s away from things?
I’ve never lived in Sacramento. Sacramento is just the town that’s in the way when I’m going to San Francisco. I’m not a city kid. It’s too much stimulus or the pace is wrong for me or something. When I visit town, I have fun, but I’m ready to go home.
To your nine children?
Yes, to my 50 kids.
My mom swears you’re a Mormon.
I’m just overpopulating the earth. I can’t imagine raising the kids in a city. I remember walking around Chicago or Boston or something and realizing that all the schools were totally inside, even the playgrounds. That’s weird. I just need to be out with the birds and the trees. And the monkeys.
I don’t understand how you do all this. You write. You teach full-time. You do music. You build shit. You have a family.
My wife and I have a very clear division of labor. She does all the in-house stuff. I do all the out-of-house stuff. So I do all the shopping, oil changes, anything that involves driving anywhere, I do that. And she handles all the bills and the food preparation and that works out pretty well. I run the errands on the way home, and when I’m home I have no homework. I’ve also gotten pretty good at not bringing my ARC work home.
You got amazing blurbs for The Animals. Whenever I read that Richard Ford one that calls you a “rare young stylist” I picture you as a flamboyant hairdresser.
I wrote him and said, “You know I’m 43, right?” and he wrote back and said, “Yeah, I’m 70.” That these guys—Richard Ford, Denis Johnson, T.C. Boyle, Pam Houston—I can’t believe any of them even talk to me at all. What’s in it for them? Nothing. But I have a relationship with all those guys that they’re willing to suffer my communications and why I’m lucky enough to be treated like that I have no idea.
I’m a mailer out of fan mail. I do that all the time. I’m reading at Book Passage next month so I wrote a letter to George Lucas and just said, “If you wanna come, man …”
What? Do you just send the letter to their agents or whatever?
Or sometimes you get an address. A lady that interviewed me about The Animals for The Nervous Breakdown…was asking me about Van Halen in the book. She goes, “By the way, my boyfriend is David Lee Roth’s personal assistant. If you want to get a book to him, I’ll give you his address.”
So right now David Lee Roth is reading The Animals?
He has a copy of The Animals. Who knows if he’s reading it. I know he’s a reader, but who knows. I hope my phone rings at any moment—“I gotta go, it’s Diamond Dave!”
Do you think of being a local journalist as a shitty time in your life?
I think of it as something I did wrong.
Why do you say that?
I was writing mostly about music and I am a musician, and I wrote about music as if Sacramento could handle it. I wrote about music in a very critical way. I was very hard. Not harsh, but hard to please. People like Jerry Perry would get on my case a bit about shooting fish in a barrel. And at the time I didn’t give it much credence but now I wonder if that argument isn’t right. Maybe I should have written about architecture or something else.
What about reviews for The Animals? Any bad reviews?
The thing about a bad review is even if they didn’t like the book, it takes eight hours to read a book, so even if they didn’t like it that means they spent a whole day with you. I still have to give them credit for doing that work. I’m really curious to see what The Animals does in the world because it’s so different for me. When Tides was hauling ass it was going like 5 miles per hour. When this is hauling ass, it’s actually hauling ass. So I’m curious what the bad reviews are going to be.
Can you anticipate them?
Maybe that it’s obvious or something. The setup is pretty obvious—the bad guy is coming back and at some point they are going to start fighting. But I wanted it to have a sense of real narrative clarity because Tides doesn’t. And Kingdom of Wolves is just a total clusterfuck of plot.
Is that how you’re going to market Kingdom of Wolves, as a giant clusterfuck?
I’m going to have Morgan Freeman say that. Every time you open the book, he’ll go, “A clusterfuck of plot.”
Weird, man. You’re a weird dude.
Yes, I am. Yes, I am.
Stop by Time Tested Books in Sacramento (1114 21st Street) as Christian Kiefer reads from The Animals on Thursday, April 2, 2015 at 7 p.m. This is a free event.