29 March 2010

Interview with Charles Kovich

This is the first interview of the ”Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. If you would like to suggest someone for me to interview, please leave a comment below or email me at I would especially appreciate information on how to get in touch with the artists you recommend, especially if you can introduce me (virtually) and serve as an initial liaison—or I would love to hear from you if you are in the arts and can offer yourself for an interview.

Interview with Charles Kovich
at the Conference on Christianity and Detective Fiction
Pace University, NYC, NY
6 March 2010

IA: Good afternoon, and thank you very much, Charles Kovich, for taking this time to talk to me about your own writing, your own detective fiction. And then we’re going to generalize out into anything you want to tell me about what you know that’s going on in the field in general. So you are a professor of literature?

CK: Yes. A professor of English at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri.

IA: And you’re one of these delightful academics who takes forays into fiction for your own pleasure.

CK: Oh yes. Yes, well, both for my pleasure—actually, when I first came to the Department of English, the number of English majors was declining and I saw that we really needed to think about remapping the English major. So I proposed a three-track English major. The traditional literature track: we did Faulkner Melville and Shakespeare and everyone. And then I did a writing track, so that’s where some of this is coming from. I myself do courses in playwriting, screenwriting, sometimes novel writing, creative writing, we do business writing, we do all sorts of other writing. Memoir writing, all sorts of other things. And then we have an education track for those who want to teach high school—which is, by the way, only about 12% of the students. Most English majors go out and do other things in the world. So it led me to think more about writing and I started teaching playwriting, I started writing plays: I’ve had six plays produced. And then I got into writing novels and I was particularly interested in detective fiction and in detective fiction with a Christian background, so I got into that and I started writing these novels. I actually coauthor them with a friend of mine, Curtis Hancock. It’s really very interesting. We set up the Father Shrader series: this kind of polymath detective who knows all: you know how Sherlock Holmes solves through deduction and induction. We decided that we needed a hook. And so the hook would be that this detective would be a philosophy professor at a small Midwestern religious school, and instead of using deduction and induction, he would instead apply a philosophical principle to every murder. And so the first is called The Case of Ockham’s Razor after William of Ockham, a wonderful Medieval philosopher. The second is The Case of The Muse of Madness, which is after Plato’s Phaedrus where he says the Tenth Muse is the Muse of Love, which is a madness. And then the third one that I’m working on now (those two are published in hardcover) is The Case of the Owl of Minerva, which is not only the icon of the owl on Minerva’s shoulder, but also a philosophical principle from Hegel’s philosophy of Right. The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk, he says. So that got into those and then I put in a heavy dose of academic satire—very easy to do in these days with what’s going on in academia! And I modeled it on the Holmes-Watson relationship. I think that’s maybe the most successful detective series of all time, although it lacks a little something in the characterization sometimes—although I’m not… because Watson is the stand-in for the reader. We perceive as Watson perceives, and that’s why (I think) they have been so popular. You have your in: you can look at the story as Watson, trying to figure out what Holmes is doing. Now, there are two stories that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote with Sherlock Holmes narrating. They are just awful. Awful! Holmes sounds like a supercilious prig! He’ll say: “And then, dear Reader, I bent down and sniffed the glove—but oh! I can’t tell you what I gleaned from that or it would ruin the story, so I’ll save it for the end.” And you’re going, “Oh, thanks a lot!” you know, whereas Watson would have said, “I wonder what Holmes was sniffing and what was going through that great mind,” etc. So my narrator is Father Gerard Channing (it’s a religious school). I invented an order of the Catholic Church: The Order of St. John of the Cross (Compania de San Juan de la Cruz). Their nickname (you know how some attached the nickname of Jesuits to the Society of Jesus which the Order then adopted) is The Cruzites.

IA: Very nice.

CK: Father Gerard Channing has just come to this school to teach in The Department of Classical, Arcane, and Modern Languages, and he meets our polymath professor of philosophy who will be the detective, Father Dietrich Shrader, called Dietz for short. And so that has proceeded very well. It’s been a lot of fun doing the satire, doing the murder mysteries, bringing in a little cultural background, academic satire—it’s been a lot of fun.

IA: Very good! And you started from that premise of writing about what you know and so you’re able to bring this closed society, the academic society, so that gives you I would imagine a very good parameter for a murder mystery as well, because you have your locked room, as it were: the campus or the office or the classroom.

CK: Exactly. It’s just what you need. You need that kind of closed-in atmosphere, as you’re saying, for a mystery like that. I don’t think you could have it would be a good mystery if they were world travelers or something like that.

IA: You have to have a limited number of suspects.

CK: And as you say, too, I have all my degrees from religious schools, so I just know that atmosphere really well: what the people are, how they act and how they interact, and a lot of people have mentioned that they thought the atmosphere of this school was really good. The religious school has been somewhat gentrified and they really do like that a lot. I really did work on that, so I’m glad they noticed it.

IA: I think it was one of your reviewers that I saw online who said that in the academic world there are lots of motives for murder!

CK: Yes, exactly!

IA: The chair of a department or a colleague or so on—or a student, occasionally.

CK: But you know what Henry Kissinger said: Academic battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small.

IA: But not to us!

CK: No: to us they’re really important.

IA: So then, is your reading audience then primarily academics or students?

CK: Oh, no. I get a big chunk of those, but just people who like murder mysteries, too. Because I try to develop characters and ideas that would go off to the world. Because you have to set your novel someplace, and most people have been to school, so they’ll know the what students interact and whatnot. No, I have a wide variety of readers.

IA: So your readers don’t have to be very familiar with all the details of the Muses and of Minerva and so on?

CK: Part of what I was hoping to do was maybe to bring a little of that in so that by the time you finish the novel you will be. I bring in all the Nine Muses and of course explain the philosophical principles and also Gerard being a Classics professor constantly puts in little Latin phrases into the novel (which he does translate for you) but he just loves to do this as an illustration of what he’s thinking or meaning. And so I’m hoping maybe people will get a little of that too.

IA: So you’re educating in your favorite subject.

CK: Teaching to delight. Why not?

IA: Are you familiar with Umberto Eco? The Name of the Rose?

CK: Oh, yes, I love that book.

IA: Would you compare your work to his?

CK: He on purpose wants to be very dense. His goal is a little bit different—it’s a very dense work—but nevertheless The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum and all of those are very wonderful works. But he does unravel things in a closed setting (a monastery or whatever) as I do, so he has that sensibility.

IA: And he packs in the academia; sometimes to teach the reader, sometimes to make the reader feel less educated than he.

CK: Right. He goes off in that direction sometimes.

IA: Now, what is the process of co-writing like? How does that work?

CK: We just got together and brainstormed about what we wanted to do. There are various ways you can do it. You can actually sit and try to write together, you can—well, what we do a lot is we’ll decide who does what chapter, because we’ve got the book outlined (because a murder mystery, that’s one thing: you must outline in advance. You have to know who the murderer’s going to be, what the red herring’s going to be, what the clues will be. You have to drop clues along the way. If you’re really, really, really observant, you might find out who the murderer is!) But what we’ll do is we’ll write the chapters and then trade them and kind of revise them so it’s virtually impossible to find out who wrote which chapter first. I don’t think you could stylistically find that out at all—which makes the novel seem coherent and unified—which is very good.

IA: Does either of you identify with one of the characters?

CK: Oh, I don’t think so. Father Shrader is so overwhelming—he’s one of the Holmesian overwhelming characters. I’m an English teacher and my co-author’s a philosophy professor. But I’m an English teacher, not a Classics or Arcane Language teacher. And Gerard (who is the narrator) has just come out of graduate school. This is his first appointment and he’s just so naïve and wonders about what’s going on. I find him a lot of fun—I don’t know, maybe I’m remembering what it was like to be a new teacher. No, I think I’m quite a bit different from him. I like the idea of making a new character, creating a whole. Just as God creates with molecules, an author creates. It’s like Coleridge says: There’s a kind of god-like quality to this. You create with words and characters. And I like to build a character rather than to just model a character: to actually build the character up from scratch and make him a character with his own personality, his own reason for being.

IA: Let me make sure I understand what you said about the narrator standing in for the reader, because I really like that. The idea is that there’s a brilliant mind and then there’s a less brilliant mind observing. As readers, we’re generally less brilliant.

CK: Well, nobody is a brilliant as Father Shrader and Sherlock Holmes. And so, yes: even though you may be very smart, and see things and understand things, not as well as this polymath mind can. And so as Watson does, so my Gerard Channing does. You see, he’s the stand-in for the reader. We are that character as we’re trying to figure out along with him. Remember they’re narrators too, so we hear them in the first person. You can think of yourself in that situation, too. And it works really well. It’s been one of the wonderful little pieces of the book structurally. I think.

IA: Does this tie into your own theoretical perspective? Are you particularly interested in reader-response theory?

CK: Well, I’ve met Stanley Fish. In fact I even took a seminar with him. I’m not so much of a theorist as I am a “literaturist.” I just love literature for its own sake. Art for art’s sake. And I think the theory comes along as you work through it. I would prefer to get the theory inductively rather than deductively, actually. And so it fits in what I think makes a good novel, let me put it that way. That’s why I’m writing it that way. The reviews have been very good, I’ve given a bunch of readings all over the country, I was on NPR in Lancaster for a time and Kansas City and other places. When I teach creative writing, the first thing I write on the board in capital letters is ENTERTAIN. If you’re not entertaining people, you’re not doing it. I teach a Shakespeare class. That’s the first thing Shakespeare does. That’s why his plays have lasted 400 years: not so much because they’re insightful, or because of the depth of characters. Remember that he bought stock in his own company, and so he didn’t make money unless his plays were packing them in. They could seat the house up to about 3000 people in the Globe theater. Some of them were paying a penny, so he wanted to pack them in there. I think it was Sam Godwin of Metro Goldwin Mayer who used to puff on his cigar and say to his screen writers: “Look, if you’ve got a message, try Western Union, not my production company!” But if people are entertained, I’m delighted. If they get a little more about philosophy, the classics, my sense of the order of the world, a little religious viewpoint in there, I think that’s a little extra, like the French say, a lagniappe, a little extra added on the end. I think that’s wonderful. I hope I am entertaining them. People who like to read detective fiction and murder mysteries are really doing it to be entertained. And if they get the other things in there? I think that’s just wonderful.

IA: I would imagine that there are an awful lot of those things because this is a religious school, they are philosophy teachers.

CK: Required philosophy and theology courses.

IA: Required courses at the school. What, something like 15 credit-hours of required philosophy?

CK: Yes, that’s right.

IA: Well, until the new administration tries…

CK: That’s the whole second novel; they’re trying to redo the whole curriculum, yes.

IA: So we’ve talked about some of your specific techniques that you use, both with your co writer in outlining, kind of working backwards when you’re writing a mystery, and narrative techniques and so on. Now, let’s broaden out a little bit and compare. Do you see what you’re doing as typical of contemporary detective fiction? Are you doing something revolutionary?

CK: Well—revolutionary? I think I’m unique. This is a unique little kind of hook: something different and something interesting to the readers. People have gone off onto all sorts of interesting hooks. There’s the feminist approach (Amanda Cross). There’s Joseph Hansen who his detective as the hard-boiled gay detective. I find that what’s happening in this kind of writing today—mystery writing, detective fiction—is that it’s various diverse. And that’s what people are doing: trying to find a niche, a hook, or something special rather than painting a broad canvas with just one type. And readers seem to be responding. This is a really, really big area today that people love. The nice thing that I love about fans of murder mystery (this is true of me, too: I just read out the public library in murder mysteries one year—I just had to read everything) is that these fans are very loyal. I think Christie published 68 novels, if I recall, and I’m sure that people have read all 68 novels. They just love them. Murder mystery fans are very loyal fans. I like that about them. They just want more and more and more and more and if you are willing to give it, they keep loving it.

IA: So you have a good niche. You’ve got your series detective as well: the personality to carry it through. What you’re saying about the variety of mysteries is often predicated around the detective. The person of the detective, whether it’s a black woman who is a single mother cop downtown or whatever the particular niche may be, the variety of the fiction is often built around the personality of the detective.

CK: Yes. I think it has become more character-driven today than in the past. I think that we like good, strong characters. Look how much people like Shakespeare’s play Richard III and it’s not the greatest of all plots: but what a strong character who’s on stage almost all the time. And I think that’s what’s happening too. The best of these, especially detective fiction and murder mysteries, are those that have a very strong character with something special about them, as you say: something unusual, and something that we haven’t maybe seen before, as well.

IA: How does that compare to what’s going on in other genres? In other genres in literature, or possibly even if you want to comment on the other arts as well?

CK: In other genres I think the great explosion is in minority literatures, which were ignored in the past and really kind of repressed. People just weren’t interested in them. And that’s what we’re coming to see now: Leslie Silko, with ceremony and so on. Really interesting novels that really were not, but now are coming into the mainstream. Toni Morrison is another. I just quoted Toni Morrison earlier: I said one of the reasons I decided to write these novels is from a quote by Toni Morrison. She said: “If there’s a story that really needs to be told, then you’ll have to go ahead and write it.” And I think she’s right. I think that lot of people are seeing that. So that I think is one of the biggest things coming into regular fiction today: that we’re seeing a lot more from minority voices that we just never saw in the past because they weren’t allowed to really speak in the past. And of course there’s almost been an explosion. But it’s giving a whole new perspective on things, which is great, and which is what I like about the murder mystery, too: it starts giving you a new perspective. What a murder mystery does is to provide a narrative that helps make sense of the world. And these other voices, minority voices, are helping us make sense of a world that is larger, with more depth, than we ever saw before because we weren’t looking at those things before. And I think that’s part of what fiction does and one of the great, great advantages of something like the novel is that it helps put order in our world as I think art does. One of my good friends at school is a visual artist. She paints (watercolors and oil paintings) and she does really unusual things: body parts and things like that. But if you talk to her, she’s doing that, too. She’s trying to organize the world around her visually. I’m doing it verbally. It’s very interesting. I’ve sort of developed, by talking, an aesthetic of the arts. You can look at a painting and what happens? Within two seconds you say, “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” But with verbal art you can’t do that. You may not know if you really like my novel in the first two seconds or two pages or twenty pages. There’s a kind of interesting time compression and time extension between the visual arts and the verbal arts. I find that just fascinating. I should write a paper on that or something someday.

IA: Absolutely.

CK: It fascinates me because you have to grow into a novel. You have to start to like Gerard Channing as the narrator. And although Father Shrader, Dietz, my detective, is kind of overwhelming (just because he can do it, he still smokes cigars—he’s not P.C. That’s his one little thing. He smokes cigars)—but you grow to like him, too. He’s got a good heart; he wants a sense of order and justice in the world. That’s why he goes around, sometimes even risking his life, to do this. At the end of every novel (I think it was based on or I must have been thinking about Reichenbach Falls and Sherlock Holmes confronting Moriarty in “The Final Problem.” You know that short story where supposedly Holmes is killed, but we find out later that he’s not. Although it seems certain he was killed from Watson’s description!) But I decided at the end of every novel I would have this tremendous confrontation between the murderer and Father Shrader. And I couldn’t say any more about them, because you can’t tell people who the murderer is of course! But they’re very good. One takes place in a biology lab, with all sorts of spiders and snakes and things and the other takes place, actually, in the chapel. There’s a big question of identity, which is a big theme in the second novel besides curriculum innovation: What is your identity, how do you find it, how is that a part of you?

IA: Now, pulling those themes from what you’ve just been saying (identity, curriculum changes, the body part paintings from your friend, and the minority literature): this is fascinating because it seems kind of counterintuitively that you/we/contemporary arts are making a meaning from disparate pieces rather than from a Medieval cosmology that’s holistic or from an Enlightenment Rationalist picture of the world—and at the beginning of the 20th century even the Christian apologists were using a rationalist approach to the world. So we have to wrestle with what has gone on in thought for the last sixty years, which has been fragmenting.

CK: Right. “The center cannot hold.” I think what we’re doing is something different, because they were doing that deductively. Here are the general principles, whatever philosophical system you want. And now Oh! Here are the gaps. Let’s start plugging our pieces of information in there. I think we’re looking at this more inductively today. Here are the pieces; what structure can you build with these that will allow them all to fit in? They have to fit. And what I think we found to our amazement is that we’re much better at doing this than we thought we could be. I think we are starting to build those edifices. That’s why some people are coming with these various theories (literary theories, other theories). I find theories of narratology very interesting. But I think we’re doing some of these things that in the other system we didn’t think we could do. We had to come up with this overarching system and then you had little slots to put things in. And we say no, we’re going to build our own slots. And then construct the system. I actually think it’s a better way. To me it’s a more fascinating way. It allows you, then, to be more diverse, to find more depth, and to be broader—more, really, open-minded. I think it’s really the difference between openness and closure really in these two big models. Because we’re open we can go in any direction. We’re building our structure but we can go right or left or up or down, whereas in the old way the structure was there. It was the cookie-cutter approach. If something didn’t quite fit in, you had to cut the edges off. And I think that was probably not the best idea and we may have lost some things there that we didn’t realize we were losing, because they all fit into the structure so nicely. We said, “Look at this beautiful structure; it’s all working!” On its own terms it was, until you look at all the pieces that were cut off and lying around and then you say, “What was the value of those pieces.” And they’re very valuable in our society and our culture.

IA: And those pieces are often the people that we’re been talking about.

CK: Often people who’ve been forgotten. Especially like minority voices, immigrant families, and so on. It’s easy to forget about people who don’t fit into your structure. I’m glad these people are giving their narratives out now so that we can see; they’re providing us with that understanding and insight.

IA: Would you agree that there is a shift of consciousness, a very large shift of consciousness, going on so that culture, civilization, whatever you want to call it, is moving—what from our perspective is—Eastward? That the arts and Christianity as well as economic strength is moving across the world to Asia and so we in the “Western world” are going to have to be aware of these artistic changes as well as these religious changes?

CK: I’m teaching World Literature now, and I’ve been reading more from the Asian, Russian, people like that. I’m just reading this wonderful book called Envy by Yuri Olesha right now, which is a fascinating book that mixes genres and all sorts of things together in ways that we don’t usually do. Yes, there’s always been this strain. In American literature it’s archetypes we’re looking back to. “There was an old man of Kouroo”—he has that wonderful story at the end of Walden you know. “Brahma built many things.” Beautiful story. Part of this gives us perspective. That’s what I was saying about openness. I think the more open you are to things the better you are. Openness is always better than closure. And so to be open to these things that perhaps we didn’t look at carefully in the past from the East. I don’t think you have to give up Western culture to do this. There’s one story, “The Talking Fish.” A biologist finds a talking fish and thinks he’s going to know all about water now. He asks the fish about water and the fish goes, “Huh? What are you talking about?” He says, “You know, water, humidity?” and the fish says, “What are you talking about?” Frustrated, he says: “You know: wetness, what’s all around you!” And the fish says, “What’s all around me is reality. What’s all around you?” A fish can never know wetness because it doesn’t know dryness. The reason we can call it day right now is because there’s night. We wouldn’t have a term like day if we did not have night. You have to know something through differences and through the Other and I think Eastern Philosophy, Eastern literature, Eastern culture, and Eastern ideas are helping us to (number one) see other ideas we didn’t have to have a new perspective. Does philosophy always have to be rigorously logical? Does it always have to do with entailment? Today philosophers say that’s what it’s about: “Entailment! Logically following!” Eastern philosophers would say, “What? What’s going on?” It’s helping us to know ourselves better because now we have something to compare ourselves with. I tell students: “If you want to be better at English, you should learn another language. Now you’ll understand more things about English.” And that’s the great thing I think about this look toward the East. It’s going to expand our own perspectives, which is part of how we grow intellectually and how we grow personally. But it’s also then going to let us understand more about ourselves and the culture we’re in. What we have and what we don’t have. That I think is the wonderful thing about it.

IA: So you agree that that is where it is going. Do you have any predictions that you want to make?

CK: Oh, I think we’ll all just muddle along as best we can. I don’t know, it’s hard to make predictions about these things. Most people I find who make predictions turn out to be wrong. I think something like 96% of the time. Well, I sort of take one day at a time and look at these things and try to do the best we can with what’s coming. And again, try to take whatever talents we have. Some people think I have a talent for writing mystery novels, detective fiction—I love that, with that kind of Christian religious background. I’m going to keep doing that and see where it goes. To me that’s rather fun. I don’t know if I want to know exactly what’s in the future. If I had a little time machine and could peer there. I think getting there, the journey, is where you’re going to learn the most, not necessarily already knowing the goal. Maybe the goal will change, because of the journey.

IA: Well, I look forward to reading—what is it--The Case of the Owl of Minerva.

CK: Yes, yes. When I finish.

IA: Well, thank you very much!

CK: Thank you, Sørina.

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