Robert Kanigel Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Robert Kanigel
Photo: Michael Lionstar

Robert Kanigel

An interview with Robert Kanigel

Robert Kanigel talks about is 2022 memoir, Young Man, Muddled

What, to you, makes a good story?

There has to be something beyond the bare facts, a larger theme, a natural flow with highs and lows, slowings-down and speedings-up. There has to be human conflict, people wanting something and not getting it, at least not right away.

Do you have any plans for a sequel?

Yes, it's something I've been working on for a while now. Right now I'm calling it Errors and Obsessions. The story picks up from Muddled in San Francisco, after my break-up from the woman I here call Maura. It's a tale of obsession, failure, and a kind of redemption, all built around a writing project I took on that I allowed to take me over, distort my life, and make me miserable, along with everyone around me, including my friends, my girlfriend, and my parents. I wound up in a psychiatric halfway house before finally deciding, quite consciously, that I would return to Baltimore. Baltimore had been so nurturing to me. It was the place where I grew into something like an adult, albeit a muddled one, and I needed to go back to it.

What is your writing process like?

Research the hell out of my subject, in every way I can imagine, then write. I usually try not to do any writing until I'm maybe 80 or 90 percent of the way through the research.

I have plenty of problems with the way I approach writing, but writer's block is not one of them. Because, I think, I'm completely tolerant of all the crud I write in first and second drafts. I'm not as focused on writing beautiful individual sentences as the best novelists, say, are. I'm a paragraph-oriented writer, always in search of a through-line that moves my story, and my reader, along; I want momentum. And to get it, I'm willing to forge ahead, let myself write all sorts of dreck, knowing that I'll be back, again and again, to try to make it good.

Are you an avid reader? Which genres do you read the most?

Everything. Except self-help, fantasy, and romance. More fiction than nonfiction. Literary fiction; mysteries, history, memoir, pretty much everything.

What does literary success look like to you?

Bob Dylan often writes one or another version of, Once you reach the top, you're on the way down, and of course he's right. I think many young people have dreams of a success where once you get to a certain point, everything is fine, that there's a place to get to. There isn't; you're going to encounter big disappointments all along the way and for the rest of your life. So get used to it. And what that means is that you'd better learn what really matters to you, and work yourself into a position where what you do, in work and otherwise, gives the deepest possible pleasure and satisfaction.

I think of my mother, who was a marvelously talented writer and person, and who was happy enough, I think, with her life as mother, wife, and homemaker. And yet, looking from the outside, I sometimes wished she had tested herself more against the world, though, at the time, being a woman trying to test yourself against the world was harder even than it is today. Would she have been more "successful" had she done so, or less? I don't know.

What prompted you to write this memoir now?

Well, I didn't write this memoir now. I wasn't even consciously writing it until a few years ago. I suppose it started when I was at MIT, in 2005 or 2006. I'd always known that "Maura" had been an enormous influence on my life back in the 1960s. I found myself thinking back to her, and about those days, and one day I just went to the computer and wrote some little fragment. Over the years, while I was working on other books, I would write down another little story, another little element. But I never had the intention of doing a book based on my life. Then, maybe five or six years ago, I guess I got more serious about it and thought maybe it could make a book. The idea crept up on me, and after long occupying a back corner of my writing life, it finally slipped into the foreground. Along the way, I showed drafts to some friends. They tried to be kind, but basically asked, Rob, what kind of a wretch were you to behave in some of the ways you did? That left me with a whole new set of regrets, and plenty to think about. Which I did, leading to fairly significant revisions. The whole thing took more than fifteen years, from about 2005 to now.

It is commonplace to note that, at a certain time in life, you find yourself thinking more about your past than your future; after all, there are more years in your past than there are in your future! I'm glad I did it. It was chastening, and fascinating, and rewarding to confront the me of my young adulthood, muddled though I was.

What about writing this memoir was different from writing your other books? What was similar?

The material I was working with was myself, so I was not "researching" the subject in my usual way, though over the years I had accumulated a fair cache of old papers, old letters, and the like. But, as with my other books, I had to find the structure to take the reader all the way through. A more or less linear structure is what developed, but only "more or less," as in numerous places I had cause to leap forward or look back.

You don't pull any punches when it comes to your portrayal of your younger self. How did it feel to write about yourself in this exposed and vulnerable way? Why did you decide to be so open about your muddled-ness?

That, I think, is in the nature of a memoir today. In order to be any good at all, the memoirist has to be as open and honest as he or she can be. Which, for a host of reasons, isn't easy. It used to be, way back, that a memoir meant some famous guy writing about his achievements and accomplishments, destiny in action. I think we expect more of memoirs these days.

Which scene was the hardest for you to write?

The hardest? The ones that showed me at my worst.

How did you decide what to include in Young Man, Muddled versus what to leave out?

That's Writing 101: What furthers the story? If what you're writing is "merely" interesting or significant, but doesn't move the story along, it's got to go. Many friends, lovers, travels, false starts, conversations, sorrows, and joys that were important parts of my life at the time aren't in my book. A book has to be at least a little less chaotic than life as you lived it, doesn't it?

Do you think your accelerated academic career contributed to or impeded your path to becoming a writer?

I wouldn't use the word path because I never planned to become a writer, never outlined a trajectory; I became a writer not because I decided to become one but because I began to write. I was a little younger than some when I got out of high school and got out of college, but I'm not sure any of that influenced my life as a writer. It did influence my social life and probably left me a little more clueless than I really needed to be.

If you could go back and do anything in your early adulthood differently, what would it be and why?

One day in college I ambled into a room full of cardboard models of buildings and streetscapes, all done by students. I was entranced. If I had been a little braver, I might have said, "I'm going to switch tracks, get out of engineering, get into architecture." But I was too chickenshit. That episode is not in the book, by the way, but should have been.

As someone who developed weaponry for the Vietnam War, what are your views on gun control?

I don't think you can ban guns. But I think it should be vastly more onerous and time-consuming to get one; you should really have to jump through every sort of hoop. I mean, today it's harder to get a driver's license than it is to get a gun!

Do you feel less muddled now after your many life experiences? If so, what helped you gain confidence?

I think you can be entirely confident, even too damned confident, and thoroughly muddled all at once. I plead guilty.

What advice do you have for incipient writers?

Just get hysterical and do it. Writing, that is. We live in a world of distractions. Hours and days on phones, tablets, TV, Facebook, and Twitter is the best distraction I can think of from the work of writing. You have to decide what's important to you.

What advice do you have for those who aren't writers, but who maybe feel like they are muddling their way through their young adult years?

Again, we live in a world of distractions; find a balance between surrendering to them and defying them. Good luck. Oh, and find out who you are.

What do you hope readers take from your memoir?

Readers will take from it what they will, but I hope they feel they've read a good story, and find themselves thinking about their lives in new ways.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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