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Litro: You open Gods Without Men with a short chapter reimagining a coyote myth in a modern idiom, which sets the tone for much of the book. Did you set out to tackle desert myths in this way, or did it arise from your experiences?
Hari Kunzru: I got interested in Coyote during the process of researching the book. I’d started reading about the Chemehuevi people who inhabited the Mojave (and are still to be found on the banks of the Colorado) and they tell many Coyote stories. Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book, The Trickster Makes This World, was also an influence. For me Coyote represents an opposing pole to all the Gods in the book – instead of the transcendental organizing principle, he’s immanent to the system, messing with the works, connecting things together in ways that are ‘illegitimate’. Coyote’s mistakes are creative. He suffers the consequences. The trickster steals fire for humans from the realm of the Gods, an illegitimate connection that starts civilization. Coyote is all through the book, making things happen.
Litro: The ‘alien’ passages also seem to be placing a modern spin on mythology, in the sense that alien sightings and alien abductions feel like a modern cultural myth. Do you see them in this way? Where do you think our fascination stems from?
Hari Kunzru: UFO’s are indeed a modern mythology. If you look at the first generation of contactees in the late 40’s and early 50’s, many of them had a prior engagement with Spiritualism. Their UFO stories seem like earlier stories about angels and spirits, given a technological sheen. As the Cold War progressed, these stories became more complicated, and in some ways darker (abductions, etc.), a way for people to process hopes and anxieties about otherness. The UFO period is more or less over now, since other geopolitical issues have taken over, but there’s no reason there shouldn’t be another flowering. In the years before the First World War, as anxieties about aerial bombardment began, there was a spate of alien airship sightings. Before that, even, there were alien balloonists flying over Midwestern farms.
Litro: To what extent do you still feel like an outsider in New York, now that you’ve lived there for a number of years? How does this outsider status affect your writing?
Hari Kunzru: In some ways I cultivate it. I like it that I’m not entirely part of the culture I live in, though in other ways my rootlessness is entirely typical of a whole class of New Yorkers. This is a city which has always attracted cosmopolitan intellectual types, so in that sense I’m just following tradition.
Litro: Along with David Mitchell you’ve been tagged as an author who isn’t afraid to move in and out of historical periods, and across genres. What appeals to you about this style? Why do you think literature is starting to take this direction?
Hari Kunzru: I find historical perspective a useful way to organize the world. I don’t like the idea of ‘the historical novel’ as a genre. Agreed, there is such a genre, which uses ‘history’, and the distance from the past, as a way of generating romance, or putting a superficial sheen on stories which otherwise would be banal. But the contemplation of time, of distance, and of cultural change seems to me like useful work for the novel, and my enjoyment of archives and libraries makes such work congenial.
Litro: Memory Palace and Twice Upon A Time both explore the ways in which writing can interact with a specific location, and both use a multimedia element. Why do you think it’s important for literature to not just be about the written page?
Hari Kunzru: I think it’s time to expand our thought of what literature can be. At the moment, my biggest formal limitation is the production process imposed by the publishing industry, and the lack of distribution (and indeed archiving) of other kinds of work. There are huge opportunities for writers now, in terms of formal exploration. Sadly, that’s accompanied by the collapse of our ability to make a living. At a certain point, when publishers can no longer pay, then there will be no further reason to process text in the way they dictate – delivered in a certain way, with a certain number of pages, cover designs that have little to do with the writer, and a lot of blurbs and other garbage on the front. None of my books have ever looked like I want them to look – some editions are nice objects, others actively repel me. I dream of having the formal and visual control that my artist friends have. Of course, the price of that would probably be a day job, and I’m not quite there yet.
Litro: And finally… what can we expect to see from you next? What’s inspiring you right now?
Hari Kunzru: I’ve become very interested in the Blues, particularly the culture of pre-war blues collecting, and the taste for authenticity and outsider status among white bohemians. I’m writing a novel about authenticity, appropriation, cultural ownership. It’s a sort of ghost story.
Born in London, Hari Kunzru is the author of the novels The Impressionist (2002), Transmission (2004), My Revolutions (2007) and Gods Without Men (2011) as well as a short story collection, Noise (2006) and a novella, Memory Palace (2013). In 2003 Granta named him one of its twenty best young British novelists. His short stories and essays have appeared in diverse publications including The New York Times, New Yorker, Guardian, London Review of Books, Granta, Book Forum and Frieze. He was a 2008 Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library and is a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. He lives in New York City.