Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Interview with E.M. Kahn, author of Deep Water, A Sailor’s Passage

I recently reviewed a book – a Deep Water, A Sailor’s Passage – and I so loved the book that I contacted the author, E.M. Kahn. We exchanged emails and I found him utterly charming. He agreed to be interviewed, and the result of that interview follows:

AC: When did you start writing?

E.M.K.: Hard to pinpoint but I read a lot as a lonely kid, and especially the New York Times. I was pretty good in school with reports. By college I wound up as the editor of the school paper. I was the only one good a both writing clever headlines and counting picas, the old typesetter’s unit.

AC: Your book, Deep Water, A Sailor’s Passage, was so well written and so moving that I’m guessing you write all the time. Yet, I was only able to find one published book by you. Other than Deep Water, have you published any other books?

E.M.K.: I was writing a newsletter for a gay sailing club, KSA. I was among the founding members back in 1995. I wrote a short story about a trip the club took from City Island through New York Harbor and out to Sandy Hook, NJ. That formed the initial core to build the book around. Actually, that became the closing chapter called “Estuary.”
Remember, I went into carpentry after a few years as a newspaper reporter back in the 70s. It was a more reliable profession and I’d be on my own – which I needed. Writing took a back seat, after Bard College, where I did nothing but write. This book has brought me back full circle in a way to where I began.

AC: Was there someone in your family, a teacher, or perhaps a favorite book, that inspired you to begin writing?

E.M.K.: Family, not really, though my mother read “Wind in the Willows” to me and I loved it. Teachers profoundly helped and encouraged my nascent talent. As for a book, probably Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel.” I still re-read the poem at the opening of the story, “…a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf a door. And of all the forgotten faces.” I also start sentences sometimes with just “and.” I love the rhythm and the sense of longing. It stuck deep in me.

AC: Who are the authors who most influence you today?

E.M.K.: Well, I am still an old newspaper man, I like a story that moves along with emphasis on good strong verbs, and of course I look into underlying motivations. I like my work to move towards some kind of revelation, usually an inner discovery. Right now I am re-reading “The Catcher in the Rye” and can’t stand it, now. But as a kid, I was taken by Holden’s disgust with all the phoniness he sees around him. I guess I was taken with that sense of having too much insight, a vision that sets you apart.

AC: Regarding Deep Water, A Sailor’s Passage, what made you decide to write about such a tragic and personal event?

E.M.K.: Simple. Kevin died in my arms, in my own house. I was awestruck that amidst so many just awful AIDS deaths, so much heartbreak, here I was given this unimaginable insight into the passing of another’s life in my hands – exactly as I had planned when I brought him home less than a week before from Lenox Hill Hospital. Who was I to be able to orchestrate another’s life to the very last breath? Why should I have been given such a responsibility and such a gift? It’s all in the book, just like that. I was a glorious summer morning. I could hear birds singing in my backyard. It broke my heart to lose him, at the same time I felt I had been singled out, that I had been chosen to become a conduit of some kind. Yeah, one of those Burning Bush moments some of us are stuck with. This was a story that had to be shared.

AC: It’s been 10 years since the publication of Deep Water, A Sailor’s Passage. Are you working on any other stories you hope to publish? If so, can you tell us about them?

E.M.K.: Very much. I have a complete MSS for a book called “Jesse’s Key” a novel that deals with a sexy but very screwed up young gay guy stuck with a hopeless sex and crystal-meth addiction. I send him trekking one night halfway across Brooklyn as a kind of wandering in the bleak desert of his life. Eventually he is taken in by and elderly and very compassionate black woman, Jesse, a housemaid to an Upper West Side white family. It’s through her open arms that he hits bottom and just maybe can begin his recovery. It’s a very graphic story, I’ve walked every street in it. The writing here is much stronger, more mature, more consistent than “Deep Water.” No one gets shot but there’s a lot of emotional turmoil – the real stuff we all struggle with. Now help me find a publisher, or at least an agent.

AC: Do you enjoy writing, I mean, do you find it fun?

E.M.K.: It is work, intense focused stuff that I still can only do at night, late. I wrote almost all of “Deep Water” after 11 pm at night. There are no distractions at night, and I don’t watch much TV or films. Another part of my brain takes over, a free flowing creative part that I am too frantic and busy all day to let loose when I am busy with carpentry work. I write fast and don’t go back. I write like a newsman on the run, cranking out the meat of the story fast. But I do read my work out loud to see if it rings authentic. In the end, it is the only thing that I do that is uniquely mine and the only work I produce that I feel justifies my time here.

AC: What do you like to do when you’re not sailing or writing?

E.M.K.: I am so glad you ask me that. I have become a complete maniac all over again with bikes, but in particular fixed gear bikes. It’s like I am 19 all over again, and the bike – this kind of bike with no gears and no brakes – is a rush and a real challenge. I don’t even walk to the corner anymore, I use the bike more now than I rode 20 years ago. It’s what all the kids and messengers ride, and the speed and nimbleness and responsiveness of the bike kind of makes you crazy; you can get away with a lot of dangerous stuff out there on this kind of bike. Other than coffee, it’s probably as close to an addiction as I would ever get. I’ve built two bikes already. I am doing stuff I was doing - working on light and fast bikes - when I was a teenager. Bikes changed my life, saved me from becoming a total sissy boy. I might be queer, but I am very competitive and still pretty fast considering my being 63 years old now.

AC: Do you still spend as much time on the water now, and if so, where do you sail these days?

E.M.K.: That’s a bit trickier. First, having been a skipper of my own boats for 28 years, I am used to being in command, knowing everything that’s going on all over a boat, knowing everything that’s going right and wrong. I was a very technical sailor, very performance and detail oriented. Second, it just brings up too many memories of my 13 years with Kevin. I’d keep thinking, “We were here, once before, Kevin and I, long ago.” Yes, I still feel totally at home with a moving deck underneath my feet, but I also feel too haunted. In the last chapter of Deep Water, I have recollections of not only Kevin – who is already gone – but of Kevin’s father, who died long before I knew Kevin. I recall long gone tugboats from once thriving railroad lines. Stuff like that comes up for me, a huge burden of memories that sailing and just the water brings up for me. And finally, third, stuff is always going wrong on boats. It’s just the nature of the beast. Too many headaches. Too much anxiety.

AC: What, more than anything else, fills you with rage?

E.M.K.: My own country’s stumbling arrogance. We are so naive at understanding much older cultures, like the Chinese, the Russians, the Vietnamese, the Afghanis, the whole Arab world. We are like the rich kid with all the best toys – and we think all these wonderful goodies we have inherently make us better people. Maybe a big turning point for me was Abu Ghraib, the whole prison and torture outrage of what we had gotten ourselves into through a conviction of our superiority. We still think we can change things, change people with all the incredible technical stuff we have, weapons, machinery, medicine, food, aircraft. All those thousands of twenty-year old soldiers, getting blown up over in the mid-east, what are they dying for every day?

AC: Can you tell us something about the place you call home?

E.M.K.: I love my little house in Brooklyn. Probably the best thing I have ever done. It is a refuge and also a source of security for me now. I love living in an older house, something close to 100 years by now. So many lives have come and gone before me, probably after me too. How many wars and recessions and depressions and booms have these little old brick row houses gone through by now? I’ve also been very lucky with next-door neighbors with whom I am very close. I have keys to both their houses. I feel very fortunate to have space, several rooms, a back yard, a basement for my shop and bikes. The neighborhood has also changed dramatically in 22 years. It’s full of kids and babies everywhere. I find that wonderful – even if these kids are too young to help pay my Social Security. While I don’t have the burden of being a parent I can appreciate just the sound and smiles of children everywhere. I find it very encouraging regardless of what’s on the news each day.

AC: Where can reads learn more about you and your writing?

E.M.K.: “Deep Water” really is an honest memoir of my life. Someday I’d love to put out a collection of short stories I have written. I recently wrote something for my college alumni about going back to Bard and realizing how much I had changed since I was back there at 19 or 20.

AC: Anything else you’d like to share?

E.M.K.: I keep hoping to find a new boyfriend, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. I wonder if in truth I am quite happy with my house, my two wonderful dogs – who do sleep with me – my bikes, my shop work. Maybe I am no longer quite so flexible to go through all the changes to accommodate a companion anymore. It’s a lot of adjustments that maybe are much easier when your 20 or 30 or 40 than for me now. I am told that all the connections now are on the internet, yet I find that such a sink hole of time and too much bullshit. Everyone lies about themselves. I suspect I am a bit too eccentric by now to get along with anyone full time. I do not quite fit any typical gay stereotypes. Then too, maybe I am hunting after much younger guys who really want their own kind to be close with. I’m still looking for queer young fixed gear biker.

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