When I first read Kevin Mandel’s The Filmmaker, I had just come back from a bar where a pretty good band was playing for free. The drummer favored her striped bass drum with a delightfully heavy foot and the singer sounded like Jeff Buckley; every song was memorable. I left the bar excited—for what, I’m not sure. I was full of a thick sweet energy that made me want to make something.
Which meant I was primed to love The Filmmaker, Mandel’s funny-yet-dead-serious short story about a family man with a comfortable sales job at “one of the country’s most formidable wholesale gravel distribution firms.” Despite the apparent orderly perfection of his life, this man, Kozak, has a dream. And that dream is raised from the dead by—wait for it—a mediocre cover band. Mandel’s writing flies off the page, and yet it’s not light, exactly; each word is weighted and carefully selected. There’s no fat here. And yet we get emotional richness and descriptive fireworks in every paragraph, not to mention a picture of a marriage that feels as real and complicated as any in short fiction.
I asked myself: Who is this guy? What’s his story? How have I not read anything by him before? And, a little later: How do I introduce someone I’ve never met? But of course, if you’ve read a person’s fiction, you do know them—at least a bit. You understand their concerns, get a whiff of an obsession or two. And after reading his piece on Geezer Punk and his homage to Leonard Cohen, I feel fairly confident in saying that Kevin Mandel is a writer who, like myself, likes to dig deep into the power of music and art in general—an obsession I endorse wholeheartedly.
Mandel graduated from University at Buffalo with a degree in Management and studied creative writing, art history and literature at the New School. In addition to short stories, he also writes essays and plays; his work has been staged at venues across New York City, where he lives. We chatted via e-mail.
I found The Filmmaker such an easy story to fall into as a reader. What was the story-seed or backstory behind it? Did it come out fully formed, or did you have to scrape away at revisions?
I owe it all to the Grateful Dead, or at least their bassist Phil Lesh and a concert he and his band performed a couple of years back in Central Park. Standing in the audience, I had an idea for a story about a guy at a concert who has a powerful and life-changing experience. And because my experience was also powerful and in a small way even life-changing, I suppose there was something “meta” about the whole thing. Though of course the truth is at any given concert—rock or otherwise—the audience is chock-full of people having powerful and at least seemingly life-changing experiences. Concerts are just perfectly suited for such a thing. Anyway, from there, that is the Phil Lesh & Friends concert I attended, the narrative evolved, including through a bit of revision.
Ooh, your experience at the Phil Lesh concert was “in a small way even life-changing”? What happened? How did it change your life?
Just that the experience provided the impetus to begin a new writing project. And in this regard—especially considering it’s a project I saw through to completion—the experience, in a small way, changed my life.
For fun: What was your first concert?
The Charlie Daniels Band at the (now defunct) Nassau Coliseum.
The Filmmaker is a story about serious issues—finding meaning in life and work, whether we can know if our decisions are good ones—but there’s a decidedly humorous and self-examining tinge to the narrative tone here. Kozak has his grand revelation not kayaking down rapids in Chile or while meditating, but at a tribute-band concert. That he has this sacred experience in such a mundane setting feels innately comical, and I wondered: Did you purposely decide to play with the idea of stereotypical midlife crises?
No, I certainly wasn’t trying to play with the stereotypical idea of midlife crises. In fact, while working on the piece I don’t think I ever even considered the term, though I suppose what Kozak goes through would certainly qualify. As for any comical aspect of the story deriving from the mundane setting, I do believe you’re onto something with that. No doubt there’s some kind of relationship there. But then again, I’m a big fan in general of artists of every stripe utilizing the quotidian as creative raw material; or, as John Updike put it, of “giving the mundane its beautiful due.”
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a sense of play here, a sense of fun in the writing and the events of the story. I admire this and sometimes feel like contemporary writers (I include myself here) have a hard time getting back to that childlike, playful creative instinct when writing. Do you find yourself having fun when you write?
Writing is many things for me, most of them positive, but ‘fun’ in any traditional sense of the word is not one of them.
Hmm, that’s a tough one. I’d love to sign off on the word fun, but I’m having a hard time! Writing is many things for me, most of them positive, but “fun” in any traditional sense of the word is not one of them. But more to your point, the playful quality you bring up again, which I’m flattered by, I consider more a matter of aesthetics than anything else. Funny, playful—these are things I enjoy and value in narrative art, so these are things I try to include in my own. As for the psychic state that might produce these, what comes to mind is a quote attributed to the artist and teacher Thomas Hart Benton, who apparently told his students (Jackson Pollock included) that their futures depended on an ability “to get tight and paint loose.”
We’re in Kozak’s head throughout the story, and the story is undeniably his—and yet one of the most powerful moments comes not in his head, but via the action of his wife, Penelope. You’re married to writer Emily St. John Mandel. How has being married to a writer shaped the way you think about living an artistic life, yourself?
Well, mostly I’d say that being married to another writer just reinforces the normalcy of the project. Because let’s face it, for many people it’s anything but normal to sit in a room by oneself for long stretches writing sentences or, for that matter, instead of just living life, dwelling upon and trying to represent it on the page. There are practical benefits as well, such as having a person nearby from whom you can reliably steal a good pen.
That’s quite a perk. Good pens are hard to find—and easy to lose. Do you guys read each other’s drafts?
Yes, we do. I know the notion of a couple engaged in the same kind of work can fall into the category of “how the hell does that work?” But with us it really (mostly) does.
I’m curious about your playwriting. What have you worked on recently in that realm, and what relationship do you see between writing for the stage and writing short stories for the page?
Playwriting is a form I was just very naturally attracted to when I began writing, and I’m still attracted to, which is to say I love theater, and when it’s really good I’d argue there’s little that can compare for the overall effect and impact it can create. This said, I haven’t written a play in something like four years. The challenge really has to do with other people and the fact that as a playwright you need them (producers, actors, directors, etc.) to realize your work. Gaining opportunity in the professional theater scene is a long-term project at best. Which is why for the time being I am more than content to be working in fiction, wherein with the same tools of words and imagination the writer renders, metaphorically speaking, not just the blueprint for the house, but the actual thing.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a long short story basically about a group of suburban teenagers. And the hope is it’s something that will lend itself to a cycle of short stories, following them as they get older.
Kelly Luce is an award-winning writer from Illinois and a contributing editor for Electric Literature. Her debut novel, Pull Me Under, is out this month from FSG. Follow her on Twitter: @lucekel.