I'm Just Here To Not Get Fined With Kevin MaloneyT.L. States | January 18, 2023
We took an early hibernation this year, but our autumn of discontent has given way to the beauty of winter, and an interview with Volume 1, Number 1 contributor, Kevin Maloney! His new novel, THE RED-HEADED PILGRIM (Two Dollar Radio, 2023), is out now. His short stories always kill, and his first novel, CULT OF LORETTA (Lazy Fascist, 2015), is a stone-cold classic. Next year will see the release of a story collection, HORSE GIRL FEVER (CLASH, 2024).
We corresponded over Twitter DMs last summer, in July and August, so you'll catch glimpses of things that were still to come, but have now passed us by. Kevin is a deeply personal writer, and a thoughtful conversationalist. We get into a little Denis Johnson, Red Hot Chili Peppers, living in a state of awe and appreciation, and crying. And other things. Many other things.
Earlier today I was on your website to try and determine when your first story was published, and I saw your bio picture which reminded me of a grown up, somehow-he-became-cool Napoleon Dynamite. First, have you seen that movie, and second, do you have a history of playing tetherball?
Ha. Yeah, Napoleon Dynamite is amazing, and I’ll totally take that comparison. I was a huge nerd in middle school, but then in high school I started smoking a lot of pot and grew my hair long and was in a few bands. I was still a nerd, but I was a sort of confident nerd who made peace with my awkward, lanky body and nervousness around girls. I fully embraced my status and leaned into it, and I think that’s kind of who Napoleon Dynamite is. A fully actualized nerd. I still feel that way. I don’t think I’m cool. Just a 45-year-old nerd with a mullet who has found his weird path in this world.
As for tetherball… I mean, Jesus, was there a more profound game in grade school? Dodgeball was barbaric, and wallball (did other schools have wallball?) was for dilettantes and showboats. But tetherball was pure grace. At my elementary, the girls ruled the tetherball courts. They invented a whole language surrounding the game as they threw the ball in beautiful arcs over each other’s heads, winding the rope tighter and tighter. The boys stood at the periphery with our mouths hanging open. My first crush was in the 2nd grade… a girl named Jill. She was a tomboy who’d mastered tetherball. I watched her knock that yellow ball around in circles and trembled.
I’m glad you mentioned the grace involved in tetherball, because it naturally moves us to basketball, and I know you’re a Portland lifer. When did your Blazers fandom begin? Sam Bowie? I know so many Blazers fans look back fondly on the draft that brought Sam Bowie to town.
Ouch. Going right for the jugular on that one. Yeah, “Sam Bowie” is the Voldemort of Portland sports, "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." Also, Greg Oden. In general, don’t say the name of any 7-footers in Portland. Around here, we’re obsessed with time travel because we’re always imagining alternative universes: Michael Jordan in a Blazers jersey, Brandon Roy and Kevin Durant winning the finals in the late 2000s. Instead of multiple titles, Blazers fans have a freakish understanding of human leg anatomy: broken tibias, fractured patellas, meniscus tears.
I came of age in the Drexler, Porter, Kersey, Williams, Duckworth era. That was an incredible team. Their Finals appearances came in ‘90 and ‘92. In ‘90 they lost to the Pistons, and in ’92, to the Bulls. Those losses were brutal. Like—you put all your heart and soul into a team, they get right to the end, and then… wham, Michael Jordan waves his hand and reduces them to ashes. Nirvana’s Nevermind came out between those two Finals appearances, and I think I pulled back from sports a little. Every time I put on a Nirvana album, I won. It was like sports without the heartache.
Man, one of the things that must grate on Blazers fans is how Sam Bowie was the #2 pick in that draft, Michael Jordan was #3, and the guy that went #1? Another all-time great, Hakeem Olajuwon. Then when Jordan "retired" for a couple of years and gave the rest of the league a chance, Olajuwon's Houston Rockets won the title in both seasons, '94 and '95. I know you had moved on a bit from sports during that period, but when Clyde Drexler was traded to the Rockets and won a title with them in '95, the Blazers were the only pro team in town. Did the fans in Portland feel cursed?
I mean… I think Blazers fans absolutely feel cursed. I was six months old the last time Portland won a title. I’m 45 now. I think part of the problem is free agency. No player asks to be traded to Portland. Even though this city is a darling to coffee lovers and indie bands, most people think we’re just a bunch of lumberjack poets up here, crying in the rain. Which we kind of are. Anything good that’s going to happen to the Blazers is going to come out of the draft. I think Lillard getting drafted in 2012 lifted the curse a little. It was around then that I was getting back into the Blazers again. Tiptoeing back into fandom, knowing it would only break my heart.
You mentioned Nirvana, and how they gave you something/someone to pull for without it coming down to a last-second shot, or a heartbreaking loss in the playoffs. Living in the Pacific Northwest when the music scene exploded in '91, how connected did you feel to it? More to the point, since everyone associates that moment in history with Seattle, and you were/are in Portland, did you feel like it was yours, or like something far away that just blew up on your radar in the fall of '91?
As for the grunge thing in Seattle, I was just a few years too young for that. Nirvana was playing small Portland clubs like the Satyricon in 1990. But I was 13 and living in the suburbs. My parents weren’t going to let me go into the city for that. And I was probably still listening to MC Hammer. When grunge blew up, they started playing huge venues. I saw Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains at the Portland Meadows racetrack, but that didn’t feel like “ours.” It already belonged to everyone. All my friends went to see Nirvana in 1993, but I couldn’t go because I was grounded. Kurt died not long after that. So, I’m kind of cursed too.
When I was 17 or 18, I started going to an all-ages Portland club called La Luna. The band Heatmiser played there quite a bit, so I got to see Elliott Smith at the very beginning. So musically, I was kind of caught between the grunge and the indie thing. But my heart will forever be with grunge. Pearl Jam Ten is the album that blew up everything for me. It still sort of defines my entire aesthetic. And even though I was a little young and it came out of Seattle, it still feels like mine. Sad, beautiful, long-hair lumberjack rock.
Pearl Jam seems like the band most likely to be the gateway to grunge. I’m basically the same age as you, and I had an older brother that got me into hard rock & metal in the late 80s. Pearl Jam’s sound was different, but not as much of a leap as Nirvana’s.
If only for the cover of your next book, THE RED-HEADED PILGRIM, “Long-hair lumberjack rock” sounds like it could be the name of a playlist for the novel. It doesn’t come out until January of next year, but it looks like a bit of autofiction. What’s your process like, as far as deciding how deep to go into the autobiographical vs. the fiction?
Yeah, Pearl Jam was the gateway drug. There was something so innocent and wholesome and earnest about them. They sounded like Led Zeppelin for Value Village skate rats. Nirvana scared me the first time I heard them. A buddy played Bleach for me when I was 13 or 14, and I felt way out of my element. There was so much rage and violence and power. You could hear Kurt’s agony in every chord.
And yeah—there could definitely be a Long-hair Lumberjack Rock playlist for The Red-Headed Pilgrim, but maybe only for the first handful of chapters? The novel takes place over a period of about 16 years, from 1991 to 2007, so there’s some Pacific Northwest grunge energy for sure, but then it switches to Vermont and a late-90s, college-dropout, bohemian vibe. The music for that period would be a lot of John Coltrane, Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, and Nick Drake. And then the protagonist re-enters society after living in isolation for a period and has to confront a new generation of early 2000s hipsters that kind of look like him, but are listening to sad, crooning indie music. So, it’s all of that.
In terms of “autofiction”… I feel like that’s become a loaded word these days? But people have been writing novels that draw from real life, while also deviating from real life for hundreds of years. Maybe thousands. I don’t know much about Cervantes, but probably when his friends read Don Quixote, they were like, “Oh, I know who that is!” In The Red-Headed Pilgrim, I used some basic geographic and life markers as starting points for my writing to give it the feel of real life, but within those bounds, I made a lot of shit up. My narrators are always a little more adventurous than me, take more chances, make bigger mistakes. And the friends and girlfriends are mashups of real people.
There’s a term Werner Herzog uses—“ecstatic truth.” I could be misquoting him, but I think the gist is that facts are dead and the only way to give an honest account of something is to make up events that convey the spirit of truth. In that sense, I think The Red-Headed Pilgrim tries to capture the ecstatic truth of my life, meaning it’s mostly invented and full of scenes that didn’t happen and people that didn’t exist, but maybe gives a more honest account of my late teens and 20s than if I’d tried to write a memoir.
I hesitated to type "autofiction" because, like you said, it's such a loaded word. It's polarizing, like everything else right now. I don't know if you've read BODY HIGH by Jon Lindsey, but I loved reading that book. So much fun, and I've seen people dismiss it because it's associated with that term. If you like the writing, then who cares?
Sorry to meander a bit there, but one thing I wanted to bring up was, maybe about a year ago, you tweeted something like, "I've got a story collection, but no one wants it. Anyone know of any cool presses that are open right now?" I put that in quotes, but I'm paraphrasing (who knows, could be 75% made up), and I was honestly shocked. It blew my mind that you were either having a hard time finding a press that would be interested, or that you were having a moment of insecurity, that maybe your stories weren't good enough. Me thinking that kind of robs you of your right to be a normal person and have insecurities, but you ended up finding a home for the collection, HORSE GIRL FEVER, over at Clash Books. THE RED-HEADED PILGRIM is coming out with Two Dollar Radio, and your first book, CULT OF LORETTA was published by Lazy Fascist (RIP). These are three killer indie presses, with both Clash and Two Dollar putting out awesome work on a consistent basis, and Lazy Fascist was doing the same before closing down. My opinion means very little, but I think of CULT OF LORETTA as a classic of this era. Absolutely love it. Can you talk a little bit about the path of working with Cameron at Lazy Fascist for that book, and when did he get involved? I know the story first showed up in Monkeybicycle back in 2013, and then the book came out in 2015. Were you working on it as a book the whole time?
First of all, I loved BODY HIGH. Jon Lindsey’s a genius. Up there with Bud Smith and Chelsea Martin and Juliet Escoria in terms of my favorite weirdos making amazing art right now. He’s also a wonderful guy. I met him at AWP in Portland. We had an immediate redhead connection. The very first words he ever said to me were, “I stole this for you.” With that, he handed me a copy of CHERRY by Nico Walker. I’m not sure if that’s true, and I might be remembering wrong, but it made an impression. CHERRY turned out to be one of my favorite books ever.
As for my story collection, HORSE GIRL FEVER… at the time I wrote that tweet, I hadn’t submitted it to anyone. I think I just felt a void when Lazy Fascist closed because I really trusted Cameron (Pierce, founder and editor of Lazy Fascist). I thought he ran Lazy Fascist with a lot of integrity, and I thought HORSE GIRL FEVER would be a great fit there, but then it was gone. My stories don’t feel like New Yorker stories, so I didn’t want to waste time chasing an agent or trying to get the attention of the Big 4 or Big 5 or whatever. Luckily, I’ve always been friends with Christoph and Leza, and I really like the direction they’re taking CLASH, so when I sent them the manuscript, they were they only people I queried. And I think it’s a perfect fit. They’re keeping that spirit of Lazy Fascist alive in terms of taking a lot of risks and being bold and weird, so I think they’re a perfect fit.
The way CULT OF LORETTA came to exist is totally crazy. I’d published a story by that name in Monkeybicycle and had two other unpublished stories. Just fragments. And I looked at these fragments and they were each about a strong, mysterious woman. One day I changed the name in all three fragments to Loretta and something just clicked. Ten days later, I had a finished manuscript. At the time, I was reading a bunch of Lazy Fascist writers, and Cameron had published a short story of mine in his literary journal, so I emailed the manuscript to him. He said it was one of the worst queries he’d ever read, but the book blew him away. We spent a few months editing it, and then it was out in the world. The whole thing happened so fast.
Two Dollar Radio puts out really cool stuff, too. It's almost August and we're not that far away from your pub date. Where are you in the process right now, and how did the project come together with them?
Two Dollar Radio has been a dream press for me for a long time… I think since I read CRAPALACHIA by Scott McClanahan. I love their whole vibe: the covers, the amazing list of authors, and the way they keep it small and DIY while also having the reach and impact of a much larger press. The first time I met Eric Obenauf, I just had this feeling that my next novel would be a Two Dollar Radio novel. Maybe that was even in the back of my head as I was writing it. I knew that Eric had read and enjoyed CULT OF LORETTA, so I thought there was a decent chance he’d dig it. I submitted it to their slush pile, but then I hit up Brett Gregory, one of the owners of Two Dollar who I’d met at AWP, and was like, “So… um… not to cut in line or anything, but heads up, I dropped a novel on you guys.” I heard from Eric a couple days later that he was stoked to read it, and they accepted it a few days after that.
They’ve been amazing to work with. Like, I feel like I’m in the hands of some wildly talented people doing incredible things on my behalf. I keep pinching myself. They’ve sent out ARCs to a bunch of reviewers and blurbers, but we’re still making a handful of tiny tweaks. I’m literally obsessing as we speak over the last handful of super tiny edits that feel incredibly important to me. Like… switching around the word order on page seven, and probably no one else cares, but I’ve been working on this book in one form or another for six years, and I’m about to take a step back and never touch it again. Which is terrifying and thrilling at the same time. I’m super proud of it, and all the people who’ve had a hand in editing this book are amazing people.
I can only imagine, but hopefully someone reads it and says, “man, Maloney sure worded the third sentence on page 22 in a compelling way!”
I want to swing back to 2014. Your story, “No No,” which is a classic example of the type of story we love here at W&S, was published in the Hobart baseball issue (and later in W&S Vol. 1, No. 0). Was that your first time in Hobart?
My first time in Hobart was actually a story called "St. Rudolph." It was way back in 2013. I think there was a Friday the 13th in December that year and Aaron Burch put out a call for Christmas-themed horror stories, and I ran with it. I was a big fan of Hobart, and in a lot of ways, that was first story where I really leaned into the humorous / psychedelic thing. It got a bit of a response, and so I pushed it even further in "No No" about Dock Ellis' LSD no hitter. I've always been a basketball guy, but I thought it would be fun to write something for Hobart's baseball issue that combined psychedelics and sports. I spent five minutes reading the Wikipedia page on Dock Ellis and just went for it. There was already a pretty famous animated short about it, but I thought I could do something new and fun by pushing the story into first person present tense and making it feel like Dock just woke up suddenly in the middle of a baseball game, confused about how the game even worked. Because I guess that's how I used to feel when I took psychedelics... like my brain just clicked on for the first time in my life, and I'm like, "Oh hey. Look at this motherfucking mailbox. Dear god! People put letters in it. What the hell?" So, I guess that was the premise. For the language, I just tried to rip off Denis Johnson's Car Crash While Hitchhiking.
If you're going to rip someone off, it might as well be Denis Johnson. When he passed, I remember reading a remembrance from one of his former students. They wrote about how he would sometimes start crying in the middle of class. Not all the time, but out of the blue it would happen, and he would say something like, “I do that a lot.”
How important is it for you to be emotionally vulnerable in your own life, with yourself, in order to pack the proverbial punch in your writing, to create something that reverberates in the reader's skull for a while?
I love knowing that about Denis Johnson. I don’t think he could have written those stories without being an incredible human being who felt life very intensely. That’s what I love about JESUS’ SON… his characters are living these dark lives of crime, drugs, and depravity, but the stories are primarily religious. Not parables or morality plays, but like… Fuckhead is reckoning with God on every page. Who am I? Is there hope for me? Am I a good person? Will I be judged? Am I having a vision that explains the meaning of the universe, or are the drugs kicking in?
I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Not just vulnerability, but like, living a life full of wonder and awe. It takes decades to become a good writer… to write concise, alive sentences. But if you only do that, then what have you really done?
The best artists have an entirely unique way of seeing the world that they’re desperately trying to communicate. It has to do with feeling extreme pain one minute and seeing unfathomable beauty the next. I think, as a writer, you have to work on your prose in this extremely disciplined way, but you also need to find the thing that makes you almost unbearably raw and human if you want your art to matter.
I’ve been thinking about Vincent Van Gogh lately. Frida Kahlo. Jason Molina. Flannery O’Connor. These incredible humans who were almost too vulnerable. Like… they couldn’t live long lives because their art was burning them up.
It really resonates with me. I've found myself just taking pictures of the sky, thinking about how amazing cloud patterns are, or looking at the colors created by a monsoon rain here in Tucson. Equally as amazing, to me, is when I'm at home and I'm getting frustrated about something. Maybe my kids are making a mess, or life is just pushing down on me. We have twin three-year-old boys and when that's happening, and I’m feeling that pressure, one of them stops what he's doing, walks over to me, and tells me he wants to give me a hug. Even if I just have my head in my hands and don't say anything, he knows something is going on. There's so much in life to be grateful for, and to be in that state of wonder and awe that you're talking about.
Oh man. I didn’t realize you’re in the southwest. The sky there is so amazing. I’ve been to New Mexico a handful of times and it just totally reorients my head. Like… we have rain and mushrooms and moss and evergreens in Oregon, but in the southwest… those pink skies and cactuses. I experienced a monsoon there once and it felt like a religious experience. I hope my wife and I can find a way to spend a year or two there and really live there and just drink in the beauty.
I just thought about the first time I saw B.B. King live. I've been a blues fan since I was a kid, but I saw him the day before my birthday in 2002. His band came out first and played for about ten minutes to get the crowd warmed up, and then they brought him out. He walked onto the stage, waving to the crowd, and I just started crying. Totally unexpected, but there was something about seeing him that made me lose it. I know you just saw the Chili Peppers a few days ago. Were there any emotional moments there? Any band/musician that has ever brought you to tears at a concert?
The Chili Peppers show was incredible. I’m a huge John Frusciante fan. I’d seen the Peppers play without him, and I saw John play a really small, intense, troubling solo show around 1997… I believe when he was still struggling with a heroin addiction. Seeing them all together as a band after so many brushes with death was really beautiful and uplifting. I’m 45, and I seem to be at that age where the bands of my youth are going on nostalgia tours. I’m seeing Jane’s Addiction and Smashing Pumpkins play later this summer.
I think the happiest moment I ever had at a concert was seeing Pearl Jam play with Neil Young in Portland in 1993. Pearl Jam was my favorite band in the world at the time and I was just stunned to be seeing them live. And then Neil Young came out and ripped my brain and my heart into little pieces. I’ve seen some absolutely incredible shows in my life, but that was the one where I was just shaking the whole time, feeling totally alive and grateful.
In terms of actual tears… I’ve never seen Bjork live, but I imagine if I ever get the chance, I’ll just sob the entire time. Hearing her on iTunes can send me into a crying fit… I can’t imagine what a concert would be like.
I’ve always thought John Frusciante is an incredibly interesting artist. Having to step into a band like the Chili Peppers when he was so young, and then not only fitting in, but making his own mark. I also really dig his work with The Mars Volta.
Not to make this too much about mid-life emotions/crying, but have you read Nick Cave’s email newsletter, The Red Hand Files?
Yeah… I mean it must have been such a huge blow to the Chilis for personal and musical reasons when Hillel Slovak died. But then the first person to audition to take his place is basically the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix. John was too young and raw for the fame that came with the band, and I think it messed with his head quite a bit, but I think he’s one of the greatest artists alive on the planet.
I wish I was familiar with The Red Hand Files but I’m not. Sounds like something I’d be into.
I’ve never really given Nick Cave’s music much attention, but that newsletter is fantastic. He answers a couple of questions, and he doesn’t shy away from the deeply personal.
I don’t want to take up much more of your time, but to wind things down, do you have anything else coming out while you work on edits for your upcoming book(s)?
Almost all my energy right now is focused on finalizing THE RED-HEADED PILGRIM for its January launch. There should be an excerpt coming out next month, I believe, as well as some podcasts where I talk about the book, so that’s exciting. Aside from that, I’m looking forward to jumping back into writing some new short stories, a couple of which might find their way into my collection HORSE GIRL FEVER, coming out with CLASH in 2024.
Last thing we like to end with is recommendations. Are there three writers out there, sports related or not, that you think our readers should be checking out?
The writer I’m most excited about right now, that I think your readers would really love, is Mike Nagel. His book DUPLEX is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Not a lot happens in it… it’s about a guy drinking too much while living in a duplex with his wife, which sounds sad, but somehow, it’s full of life and beauty. He also gives an extended shoutout to my favorite sports novel of all time, A FAN’S NOTES by Frederick Exley.
Two of my favorite novels that I’ve read in the last year have professional wrestling at the center of the book: Gene Kwak’s GO HOME RICKY and Jon Lindsey’s BODY HIGH. I highly recommend both.
On a note totally unrelated to sports, the novel I’m most looking forward to right now is Chelsea Martin’s TELL ME I’M AN ARTIST. Chelsea is one of the funniest, most talented writers in America. Her writing never misses and I’m sure this new one is going to be pure fire.