Randall Kenan grew up in Chinquapin, North Carolina, surrounded by the eastern rural landscape of tobacco and pines that provides the setting for his novel A Visitation of Spirits (Grove) and his collection of linked short stories Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (Harcourt Brace). For more than seven years, Kenan traveled the U.S. from Maine to Alaska doing research for the acclaimed Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (Knopf). He has also written a young-adult biography of James Baldwin as well as the text for a book of photographs by Norman Mauskoff, A Time Not Here: The Mississippi Delta (Twin Palms). His work appears in the anthologies Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible (Free Press) and Racing Home: New Stories by Award-winning North Carolina Writers (Paper Journey). His novel-in-progress is currently titled “The Fire and the Baptism.” Having lived and worked for many years in New York City, in 2003 he returned to his undergraduate institution, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as professor of English and creative writing. He has also taught creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, Vassar, Columbia, and Duke. His honors include a Whiting Award, the Prix de Rome, and nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. He was interviewed by Sheryl Cornett.
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Image: Would you say that the lens of faith, as it formed part of your upbringing, gave you permission to write?
Randall Kenan: I’d say that I write out of a tension between rational and irrational ways of understanding. I see us as a nation dealing with this now. At some point in the educational system there is a breakdown among how one is reared, what one is taught at home and in church, and what one is taught in school. Now, when I first came to college I began by studying physics, so I’m not about to lampoon skepticism or rational thought, but science and faith don’t make very happy bedfellows. That’s really what A Visitation of Spirits is about: the collision of those two ways of thought, and how hard it can be to reconcile a rational view of the world with the irrational reality of lived, hands-on experience, where a lot of things don’t make sense.
Maybe these things will someday be explained by quantum physics that we don’t understand yet, but for now, there are a lot of unexplained phenomena. I’m not talking about the boogey-man. It’s little everyday things that don’t make sense, but that we have to make sense of. That’s the wellspring of the sort of writing I want to do: it’s mysterious and mystical at the same time, because that’s what everyday life is like.
Image: Your fiction is often associated with magic realism, a category that calls mainly Latin American writers to mind. How do you sit with that label?
RK: I’m flattered when I’m compared to writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, whom I adore. I came to the Latin boom writers at a very tender point in my life, and they’ve been a major influence. What I got from them was permission to look at the world with the eyes that I’d grown up with, as opposed to the rigid social realism that has dominated Southern literature for all of the twentieth century. Those writers weren’t cowed from writing in the way common folk talked about everyday existence—and that experience involves some nonrationalistic things.
But I’ve also been influenced by the modernists, in that I look at things subjectively: if you get into the head of someone who believes firmly in folk traditions, in ghosts, and talks to the dead, and you’re writing from their point of view, those things are going to be in there. Whether or not you advocate this view of the world, that’s what you’re dealing with in your characters.
That label, magic realism, seems reductive in a way. It implies that I’m being imitative, when in truth I’m just trying to be true to the people I write about.
Image: Your fiction involves the life of the spirit—prayer, talking to Jesus, hymns and songs. I wonder, for readers who are brought up outside any sort of religious tradition, if your imaginative and artistic rendering of religion makes them uncomfortable. Do you encounter that?
RK: Even outside of the South, in places like New England and California, readers seem to find a way in. I think people appreciate getting a view of the South that doesn’t conform to stereotype, to the Andy Griffith model. The South seems at once exotic and very familiar to them. In Minnesota, after I read at the Hungry Mind bookstore, people were coming up and telling me about the small towns their grandparents had grown up in, because they saw a connection there. Rural is rural. There are going be certain touchstones. Protestantism is Protestantism—and a lot of elements in Catholicism correspond as well.
Image: Would you agree that the fictional town of Tim’s Creek, the setting of your novel and linked short stories, illustrates the way that small towns have both of raising up extraordinary and visionary individuals—and, paradoxically, of snuffing them out once they emerge because they don’t fit in?
RK: I never thought of it that way, though what I’m writing now has a lot of visions in it. But in some of my favorite urban literature, those communities also have an ambivalence toward their visionaries. It’s an ancient community dynamic. We don’t often think of it as an urban phenomenon, because we think of the million-footed city, where people don’t know each other, but in truth, the city is composed of neighborhoods. You’ve got places in Brooklyn, or on the Upper West Side, in Flatbush or Queens, where people know each other, where there’s a local press, where you have tight-knit Indian or Salvadoran communities—and these neighborhoods function the way small towns do.
But I do think that in fiction, community dynamics are more easily demonstrated in the small town. We have a national mythology about small towns going back to Washington Irving and Hawthorne, which people like Anderson and Faulkner inherited.
Image: Since you mentioned it, could you talk about forms of provincialism you saw during the thirteen years you lived in New York City?
RK: It’s an open secret, but I don’t think most people realize that New York is one of the most provincial places on the planet. If you look at New York and London, there’s no comparison. London is truly cosmopolitan, truly outward-looking. New York is truly, unapologetically provincial. New Yorkers are concerned primarily with New York. There’s a self-satisfaction to being the biggest and the best, so why worry about the rest of the world? There’s no pressing reason to look outward—whereas if you live in Toronto, it’s different. That attitude is reflected in the local media. The fact that so much of the national media comes out of New York perpetuates it. I don’t think even L.A. suffers from that as much, or Chicago.
Image: You yourself have been the visionary writer nurtured by the small rural town and close-knit family and church community—but who had to leave to flourish in his vocation. And still you have a clear affection for what was home. How do you reconcile that affection with having to get out?
RK: I can’t take too much credit, because there is an established cycle in both Southern and African American literature, certainly in the twentieth century, of leaving home, leaving the South, going north, and more often than not, returning home again. It started in the literature, and now it’s all come to life. After World War II, huge numbers of people left the South for all kinds of reasons, riding the Chickenbone Special in all those wonderful exoduses and migrations, heading north, heading west, going to Chicago.
In the wake of that, the literature shows an affirmation of the good that the South represented: the old world, the repository of truth and folkways and identity, a way to understand oneself. Look at Go Tell It on the Mountain, which, in truth, starts in the South, goes to the North, and comes back. They were looking for something in that last third of the book that they could only find by going home. James Baldwin was restlessly preoccupied with the South. What’s a guy who grew up in Harlem doing obsessing about the South? He was aware of this back and forth, which is as much city-country as it is North-South.
Image: Is that a pattern that still lives on for Southerners?
RK: Even more so now. It happened across generations before, and now it happens within a single lifetime. There are a lot of people in Atlanta, for example, who grew up in rural Georgia, went to college someplace like Morehouse or Spelman, moved to Washington or New York, and then found themselves back in Atlanta—in significant enough numbers to call it a trend. I don’t know if in the next generation people are just going to stay put—but that movement was certainly a defining part of the twentieth century.
Image: In Walking on Water you observe that individualism still reigns in this country. How do religion and mystery play against that backdrop?
RK: I see African Americans as the über-Americans. By that I mean that all the goods and ills of America are amplified in African American life. And I think many of the problems that recur in the African American community stem from this: how much have we internalized individualism?
How much are we declining to become part of the community, living within our own little bubbles in the suburbs, not taking part in the great organizations that people founded and maintained from the time of Jim Crow all the way up to civil rights legislation because they had to? Once was, you had to have black banks, black insurance companies, black charitable organizations, black neighborhoods where black doctors lived beside black plumbers. Now, like all other Americans, we can live in our little McMansions and not know our neighbors. We can bank wherever we damn well please. We don’t have to go to church. We don’t have to participate.
It would be hypocritical to point to these families and cluck disapprovingly, because they’re living the American dream as we’ve defined it. When I say that black folk are the über-Americans, it’s partly because they are coming a longer distance to reach that same goal, and achieving it with frightening voracity. Now the black middle class makes up fifty percent of the black population, which is wonderful, but at the same time it’s creating these disruptive dynamics.
And as a coda to that, I do see a lot of middle-class black people finding themselves in that isolated situation and becoming self-critical, and as a result joining organizations. They’re finding their own ways of connecting. One of the first and most delicious is through book clubs. And they are going back to church. I don’t know where the trend will go; it’s still volatile. But I don’t think isolation is the end of the story—though it’s where we are at this point.
Image: Your stories are rich in place, in the culture of place. I wonder about the role of travel in developing you as a writer. Has travel contributed to your ability to pay attention?
RK: I think travel sharpens. When you go away, paradoxically, home gets sharper. I didn’t appreciate the beauty of eastern North Carolina until I went away. I thought it was dull, and you couldn’t have told me when I was in high school that it was a beautiful place. But every time I would go away and come back, I’d appreciate it more and more. I studied in England and years later in Italy, which changed how I saw this country. The architecture there, when you look at it you understand how new everything is here. This is all frontier.
Image: In reading—and especially in re-reading—Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, I get the sense that at its core this is a book about being human, and about balancing compassion and passion. Would you agree?
RK: On some level that’s what the whole project of writing fiction is about. But if you sat down at your desk and said, “Okay, I’m going to study what it is to be human,” you wouldn’t get much done. That goal is in the deep, deep, deep background. In the foreground is a particular character, a situation, having fun with the drama, and being clear about what it is you see.
When I’m reading other writers, when I’m not the one doing the heavy lifting, that thread of humanity becomes apparent. And the writers I love most are the ones who put that to me. When I first read writers from other cultures, I appreciated them because they kept showing me that in Poland, in Japan, in Africa, human experience is the same. I never understand when people are put off by writing that seems foreign to them: “Her name is Buchi Emecheta. I can’t pronounce that.” What is that all about? I say, just read it and you’ll find out that the life of a young Ibo woman is not that different from yours. That’s what makes the experience of reading extraordinary and wonderful.
Image: What can you tell us about your childhood, boyhood, college, and coming-of-age reading?
RK: Victoriana. I’m a closet Anglophile. Robert Louis Stevenson. Jules Verne—he was actually French, but he was a Victorian. I was so attracted to The Swiss Family Robinson, something about that utility, the challenge of being thrown back into the wilderness. (I recently devoured Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man, about Eustace Conway, a guy who’s lived off the land in the Appalachians since he was seventeen.) I read more Dickens after I got to college than I did when I was a kid, but I had those books they always give you, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol. Before I was ten, I got in the tradition of reading A Christmas Carol every year. I can still quote the first page.
Image: You open A Visitation of Spirits with the line: “Are spirits’ lives so short?”
RK: A Christmas Carol is one of the greatest stories ever told. Another great underestimated Victorian novel is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He was a sub-par writer, but I think sloppy writers can talk to us. He gave us a wonderful sense of place. I think one of the reasons I was stuck on Victoriana for so long was that it makes the texture of the world very palpable in a way that more contemporary literature doesn’t. I would secretly read Dracula every fall all through high school. It was a guilty pleasure until I read an interview with Gabriel García Márquez in The Paris Review where he said it was one of his favorite novels. Then I felt justified.
Image: How about high school and college-age reading?
RK: Starting at around ten or twelve I got into science fiction and Stephen King. I’m an unapologetic fan. This was in the seventies, when ’Salem’s Lot came out and he was new and fresh. I still think it’s a good book. I was reading Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert. You read those books when you’re young and they never leave you. And when I started to write, in high school, I was writing bad, imitative science fiction.
When I got to college at UNC Chapel Hill and met Max Steele, he challenged my taste. I’d read a little bit of Baldwin, but I wasn’t that interested in black writers per se. I didn’t know much about them. I think young people now are probably more aware of black writers than we were in 1980. Then you had to go out of your way to find them, whereas now you have Nobel Laureates and bestsellers, and the media is more aware.
Image: How did you make the switch in college from physics to English and creative writing?
RK: Changing majors felt torturous at the time, and I look back now and it seems like no big deal. Nobody cared. I realized that I didn’t like science as much as I had thought. I liked reading about it—I still do—but once I started working in laboratories, I couldn’t keep going. It started when I was a freshman, and I had a work-study job in a lab. I loved the people. I loved the idea. I was working on lipids and naga naga venom from Latin America. The venom simulates a heart attack by breaking up the fat in your body so that it clogs your arteries. Here I was working on original research on naga naga venom with Barry Lentz, and I just got bored. The guy I was working with said, “You’re not doing these experiments very well.” The change took three years. I went through nearly all the classes for a physics major, advanced calculus and the theory of relativity and electrodynamics and all that stuff. But my science advisor saw what was going on. He said, “You want to be a writer. Why are you putting yourself through this?”
And then there was the burden of being this illegitimate black kid from the country who got into a good school: You want to do what? Be a writer? Are you insane? My family didn’t know what a physicist was, but there was a big nuclear power plant near by, so they figured, okay, you might be able to do something with this college education. I’d made more of it in my mind than I wanted to. By the time I made the decision to switch majors, I had taken so many English courses that I graduated a semester early. So, it wasn’t as traumatic as I’d thought it would be—but I was wedded to that idea of becoming a scientist for a long time and felt guilty for years afterward.
Image: What are some of the books that have changed you?
RK: A book that got me thinking about religion was The Color Purple. Shug gives a speech about God that really provoked me to think. Frank Herbert’s Dune had huge effect on me at sixteen. I think when you’re young and you haven’t read a whole lot, a book can have a greater impact on you than when you’re, say, thirty-nine. It was Churchill who said, “You should never read too many great books too young, because you might not understand them.” And it’s true. You only read a book for the first time once.
Image: You’re also a reader of comic books.
RK: Yes. The first comic book I ever bought was Avengers number 129. Thanks to the Comics Code Authority, this offered a very idealistic picture of the world. Nowadays the artists don’t have to adhere to a code anymore, and they sell comic books by tying them in with video games, and there’s a different kind of violence in comics. It’s not that comics weren’t violent back then, but they weren’t cynically violent or exploitatively violent.
Image: I know very little about comic books. What was the Comics Code Authority?
RK: During the early fifties, there were congressional hearings in response to comic book characters doing all sorts of wicked things. The industry had no standards, and the congress overreacted. So, rather than being shut down or put under congressional control, the industry self-imposed a list of things they couldn’t show, and created a body to oversee the code. They couldn’t kill anybody. There was no blood. The bad guys always had to be locked up or brought down at the end. The good guys always had to win. It’s a very broad formula, and it created a world in comic books that endured for over thirty years. But by the seventies this started to change, and the changes were going full tilt by the late eighties and nineties. And the whole landscape has changed now.
But for my generation, I think comics probably did more toward bringing us up to be upstanding citizens than even religious institutions did. They got to young boys, and a small number of girls. I bought into Superman and Batman and all those characters, and their ideals of hopefulness and humanity.
Image: You grew up in a family of storytellers. You probably heard family stories over and over again.
RK: Well, you would hear the gist of the stories more than once. You’d never hear the same story twice.
Image: And in church, you’d hear the Bible stories over and over.
RK: Sunday school was a huge part of my overall education. I went every Sunday. My teacher was my Uncle Roma, who was also a high school social studies teacher and ran his father’s farm. He was a huge influence. He taught Sunday school the way he would teach social studies class, bringing in current affairs. He was one of the people who kept me interested in reading the newspaper and watching the news. And it all became part of this fabric.
The Baptist convention we belonged to produced a guide for the Sunday school, which they sent out quarterly to all the churches. They would take a Bible story and have it broken down, with questions as a guideline for discussion. And he who controls the agenda…controls. I valued the booklets not so much for any intellectual grist they had in themselves, but for the conversations they got going—there were some deep philosophical and moral questions there.
And the parables, my God! They’re still with me. I think all the time about the story of the Prodigal Son, where the older son is galled because he’s stayed home working for his father all along, and it’s the younger son, the one who’s gone away and squandered everything, who gets the welcome celebration. It’s a complex question: what about the people who stay? You’re happy that the younger son has returned, but it’s a complicated kind of happiness. There’s a related parable about two sons who are asked to do a job for their father. One bitches and moans but does it, and one pays lip service, but doesn’t do it. And Jesus indicates that the one who bitches and moans but does it is the better son. You hear these things when you’re young and you think about them for the rest of your life.
Image: Did your family read aloud to you when you were young?
RK: My great-aunt did. She taught me to read before I went to kindergarten, and she gave me these Great Books in simplified language for children. I remember the edition of Moby-Dick, and the picture of the whale. Even in that form, I think I got Moby-Dick on some level. When I finally read the real thing, it was familiar.
Image: In the anthology Killing the Buddha: The Heretic’s Bible, you have a piece, “The Gospel,” which I found wonderfully funny. What were you doing there? What was the assignment?
RK: Killing the Buddha grew out of a website that offers a sort of hip view of modern religion and religiosity. The two editors invited writers to pick a book of the Bible and rewrite it for modern times. They didn’t put many strictures on it at all. Everybody wanted to do Job—they all beat me to it—but nobody wanted to touch the Gospels. I said, “Ho, ho! Give me Jesus!”—which was probably not wise. I had a hard time initially because I was trying to rewrite the life of Jesus, and everybody’s done that at some point. Jesus is the world’s most rewritten character. Joseph Campbell had already told me that, and I had forgotten. There’s Superman, there’s Spiderman, there’s Scarface. Anywhere you look, you’re going to find Jesus.
I wanted to break down part of the Gospel story. As I see it, it’s not just about the son sacrificing himself and all those dynamics that inform the biography. I wanted to look at the messages in the Gospels that haunt our lives. What would we do in this world with someone who could perform miracles—verifiable, right-in-front-of-your-eyes miracles? It would just blow the top off the joint. But at the same time, I’m sure we’d find some way to commodify it.
I also wanted to take the mega-church phenomenon and try turning it on its head. As soon as you start to play with that, people assume you’re going to be making fun, and I do start out that way, but later I end up suggesting that maybe there’s something to it.
Image: You have fun with the Judeo-Christian framework in that piece, but you’re able to master the cadence of the biblical language. The ancient biblical stories themselves are woven throughout your work. You describe yourself as being preoccupied, even obsessed with religious experience, language, culture, as you knew it and know it, yet you claim to be in an ongoing skirmish with Christianity.
RK: It’s true that there’s a struggle for me on a couple of levels. First, there’s grappling on an existential level with what one believes and how one knows things. The intellectual problem I could never really get over is the problem of birth. You are what you are because you’re born what you’re born.
The other problem is Christendom, the temporal church. To some of the things people in the church do, I want to say: “Don’t sit back and tell me that you’re doing this in Jesus’s name, because you ain’t.” Some bad things get done, politically, financially. And some very good things get done, too. I can point to a great many Righteous-with-a-capital-R men and women in the church who are doing the Lord’s work, as we would say back home. You can do great works in an organization like that; there are some things you can only do through a powerful organization. And if you know anything about the history of black folk, you know that there’s some degree of sentimentality toward the black church, because it worked wonders.
But, on those two levels, there is an ongoing struggle for me personally.
Image: Your next book has the working title “The Fire and the Baptism.” When can we expect to see it?
RK: I’ve gotten gun-shy about turning it in to the publisher. With Walking on Water I had this feeling of the book being ripped from the womb untimely, so to speak. I had a deadline, and my editor was writing me to say, “I’m going to come to Memphis and take this book from you if you don’t send it in.” With this one, though I might be overcooking it, I want the luxury of getting it exactly how I want it.
Kidnapping is a leitmotif throughout the whole thing—as part of the action of the story, but also for what it means in terms of history. Our entire country was founded on kidnapping. We hate it; it’s something we don’t want done to ourselves, as Lincoln said of slavery, but we’ll do it to other people if we have to.
Image: You’ve said that it’s more fun to write about sinners than saints. Why is that?
RK: Did I say that? I’m wondering if I agree with it now. I might be retreating from that position. I think of certain wonderful books like Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart, in which there are no cardinal sins—in fact I don’t think the judge sins at all—but he’s about as entertaining a character as you’ll get. I don’t necessarily think you have to have blood and love and lust to have good fiction. Though they do provide juicy material.
I like to approach sin in a nonjudgmental way, and as a way of telling the truth about what actually happens. I tell my students, look, you think you don’t have stories to write? Read the local paper. Look at the six o’clock news. There are Greek tragedies happening all the time. You just have to ask, what happens afterwards? The news story can give you this sensational beginning of the arc, but what happens next?
Image: Your story “Ragnarok! The Day the Gods Die” showcases that ancient warfare between the body and the spirit. The affair the Reverend Barden has with Louise is a sin, but that sin seems to be part and parcel of the man who can preach those sermons and can rally his parish the way he does. The story seems to explore passion as a necessary kind of energy.
RK: Growing up, I knew so many men like this, and knew them well. For a kid it was really confusing, because everybody knew these affairs were going on, but nobody talked about it. The wife knew it. They were good men in the classical sense, pillars of the community, but they had this lust. They were complex. This is not a black and white issue. You can be a good person and have character flaws.
Image: Is his affair with Louise necessary to his being the pastor he is?
RK: I think it’s more about him being a man of tremendous appetites, of an overall voraciousness. The appetite goes to a need, and that need is part of him being the human being he is.
Image: Do you see your stories as a form of preaching? I don’t mean in the sense of being a conduit for a message, but in terms of cadence, rhythm, urgency.
RK: Louis D. Rubin Jr., who was one of my honors professors at UNC Chapel Hill, accused me of preaching, much to my chagrin, after I graduated and published my first book. I was taken aback, because I certainly didn’t think of myself in those terms. But I think that if there’s anything to that, it’s because I probably have a strong point of view, personally. I don’t come out of the school of being deliberately obscure. I like life’s home-grown ambiguities. The writers I like are the ones with strong points of view about storytelling. This isn’t to say that you must see it the way I do, but I’m going to tell you the way I see it. I’m going to give you characters who are complex and aren’t easily explained or explained away. It’s unsatisfying to me if you can say of a character, “He did this because that was done to him, and that’s his key.” Once you can say that, the character doesn’t resonate with me anymore. I don’t drive down the road and wonder about him.
Image: What about writing that preaches in the sense that it sets out to move the reader to change the way she thinks about something? Is it fair to include your writing in that category?
RK: I resist that definition as it applies to my own writing, though I do have an attraction to writers like Flannery O’Connor or James Baldwin, who preach in that sense. And of course for an African American writer, preaching is part of the tradition. Look at someone like Amiri Baraka. He’s all about a message. Toni Morrison is a preacher, too, in a more subtle way. Alice Walker is somewhere in between; she was always on a mission, whether it was for feminism or civil rights or against vaginal mutilation.
Image: You’ve recommended Anthony Storr’s Solitude: A Return to the Self. Can you talk about the role of solitude in your writer’s life?
RK: I grew up with solitude. There were some old folk around, but even they were pretty far away. I spent a lot of time alone. And it wasn’t until the early eighties, when I heard Alex Haley speak, that he made sense of it for me. He talked about a study showing that of all the things writers have in common, the consummate one is that at some point in their lives they all spent a lot of time alone. That always resonated with me.
Storr says it’s essential—not just good, but essential—for creative folk to spend time alone, not only the time you need to write, but time with your own mind. And he points out how uncommon that is. The way most people live, they’re constantly engaged with something. I’m a huge music fan, so it’s rare that I will switch the music off and just be by myself.
It is uncomfortable to look at yourself and to deal with your thoughts. It’s something we prefer not to do—especially men. Men figure, if you don’t deal with it, maybe it’ll just go away. But a writer can’t—you don’t have that luxury.
Image: So, how do you create that solitude for yourself?
RK: It’s not all that difficult for me, because I’m basically a misanthrope. I get uncomfortable when I don’t have enough time by myself. When I’m around a lot of people for a long period of time, I get claustrophobic and feel suffocated. I was habituated to solitude at an early age. On the other hand, I have friends who can’t deal with being alone. I admire people who, if someone asks them to dinner, or to come over and watch a movie, can say no if it feels like a burden.
But if you look at someone like Merton, who incorporated solitude into his life, I don’t think seclusion and companionship necessarily have to be diametrically opposed. Solitude doesn’t mean that you have to be alone all the time. You want to be around people who can understand that, probably who have the same sort of need themselves.
Image: Do you need solitude for creative productivity?
RK: Yes. I’ve tried to work at my mother’s house, and I can’t write with all that interruption—and if anyone on the planet has a right to walk in on me and ask me a question or sit down and talk, she does. If you live with five or six people who have that right, you need to figure out how to remove yourself in order to write. Dickens apparently could do that. I can do it in a crowd, where I’m anonymous, but with people who demand and deserve my full attention, it’s not going to happen.
Image: One last question: what advice would you give to young writers?
RK: Read more than you write. Don’t be afraid of revising. Give yourself permission to write a bad first draft; the important thing is to write it. And learn how to punctuate.