Looking into the darkest parts of humanity with compassion and honesty, the nuggets in Len Kuntz’s This is Why I Need You are keyholes into the quiet desperation of your neighbor, the painful tragedy of your lover, and the exquisite experience of being human: both pain and wonder, horror and redemption. Kuntz overturns the dark stones and pokes at the wiggling decay with a loving, careful, but unflinching bedside manner. He faces the wound of humanity, pulls out the poisoned arrows, and lets us see the rupture. And in seeing it, somehow, we are healed.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in six words.
Len Kuntz: Stories for broken and imperfect people
NS: I’ve read several of your books, including Dark Sunshine and I’m Not Supposed to Be Here and Neither are You, and they all have that searing “Len” quality: you love to break our hearts, and we love you for it. How is This Is Why I Need You different from your other books?
LK: Honestly, I think the only thing that is different are the stories. The voice is pretty much the same. People still struggle with their problems. Characters get hurt. The only slight difference is the last linked twelve stories are a little bawdier than I usually write.
NS: You have a character, Jess, that continues to show up in multiple stories but isn’t (I don’t think) the same exact character. Can you speak to Jess as a literary device? Is Jess more of an archetype or an everyman/everywoman?
LK: Names are important, and maybe even more so in stories. But they can trip things up, claim too much attention or even mislead the reader. I like Jess when you need a name for reader convenience, yet the name itself isn’t crucial to the story. I also like the quasi asexual quality of the name, how Jess/Jesse could be female or male.
NS: Many of these stories have a little thematic or imagery “hook” into the story before or after like literary chain mail. Were the hooks intentional in the writing or in the arranging process? Did you have to manipulate them or were they already apparent?
LK: I almost never know what the story is going to be about. I just start with the first sentence, and if I like the sound of it, or the weight or potential of it, then I move to the next sentence, then the next, and so on.
NS: The last 12 stories in fact are linked more overtly, like self-contained flash sequence connected by the 14th of each month. Any significance with the 14th?
LK: Yes, it’s a linked flash-novella. That was born out of a really cool project Matt Potter (PURE SLUSH) created where he took 30 writers and assigned us a date. Mine was January 14th. Then from there we had to continue through an entire year—Feb. 14th, March 14th all the way to Dec 14th. Matt is a terrific editor and all-around great guy. He published all of our pieces in an anthology through PURE SLUSH then separately printed each of our novellas into our own private book. He titled mine My Uncertain Search For Myself, which I thought was brilliant.
NS: Have you thought about writing a book that was more intentionally threaded, a flash novel or novella?
LK: I have briefly, but now that you’re bringing it up I’m thinking about it more. My best friend, Robert Vaughan and I spent a couple of months where we each challenged ourselves to write a poem a day, so we ended up with something like 120 combined. We’re going to paginate them into a manuscript and hopefully find a publisher.
NS: Your characters are often hiding secrets, summed up perfectly in this thought: “All your life you think you know someone and then you discover you don’t. That must be how it is when neighbors learn the insurance salesman in the rambler ends up being a serial killer.” Can you talk about this impulse in your work? Should all writing aim to expose?
LK: Secrets are fascinating, don’t you think? We all have them, and we all have secrets that are kept from us as well. As material for writing, secrets are brimming with possibilities. I don’t necessarily know if all writing should aim to expose, but it should jolt you in some way. When I worked in the corporate world, I used to say that, as a leader, when you’re through talking to someone you should leave that person feeling as if a warm mitt had been imprinted on both their head and heart. You should leave them stimulated, their mind buzzing, and their emotions stirred. I think that’s what any type of writing should do.
NS: This metaphor seems to describe your work perfectly: “…like those wicked weeds that look plain until you touch them and invisible needles sink into your skin.” Would you say your writing is like those invisible needles?
LK: Hopefully, and that’s nice of you to ask. I tend to write about the tough stuff in life because we’ve all been through our share of it, and if I’m able to portray things authentically, yet hopefully, I think the reader can identify with the writing, even when it hurts.
NS: You publish both poetry and prose, although this book is prose. Can you talk about your own crossover? Where are you most comfortable?
LK: I love writing anything short, sometimes very short. Novels, especially tomes, bogle my mind. I’m in awe of how an author can write about tedium without making it tedious.
Poetry is probably my favorite form. You can do so many things with it.
But mostly I just enjoy starting small fires, pieces that (hopefully) pop and spark and bring out some sort of emotional depth, then get out of the room.
NS: This is Why I Need You is published by Ravenna Press. Talk about your path to publication with this book and/or your experience with Ravenna.
LK: Kathryn Rantala runs Ravenna. I’ve still never met her yet I feel as if I have. She put out three books by Kim Chinquee, one of my idols and virtual mentors. On a lark, I sent Kathryn a note asking when their submission window would open because the site said Closed. She wrote back that they’re always open for writers they like and to send something, so I did that very night—a poetry manuscript and This Is Why I Need You. Kathryn was a delight to work with. She’s just a lovely person through and through. If I could, I’d put out all my books with her.
NS: Anyone who follows you or your work knows that you are incredibly prolific. What is your secret?
LK: Truthfully, I’m just incredibly lucky. I get to write full-time, every day. So many writers have jobs and have to squeeze in 20 minutes of writing here or there. But I do write really fast. Usually a story will take no more than 15 minutes. The other thing that helps so much is finding great authors who use language in surprising ways i.e, Sabrina Orah Mark, Steven Dunn, Heather Christle. I’ll be reading their book, and a phrase or certain word will spark an idea, and I’ll put the book down every other page, vomiting out piece after piece. Lastly, a bath with bubbles and wine works wonders. Really. I’ve written some of my favorite things in the tub.
NS: What advice would you give someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
LK: Of course, it depends where they’re at in their writing journey. For a novice, I would say, study the craft as if you’re studying to get a Master’s degree. Ultimately, write what moves you, what brings you joy after you’ve written it. Then get extra sets of eyes on your work before submitting. Plead for honest feedback and don’t be offended or hurt if some of what they say isn’t what you wanted to hear. Write you best book. It’s going to out-live you.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
LK: I love writing and I love writers of all kinds. I try to be a good literary citizen to my tribe. It all feels like such a gift.
NS: Links to buy the book or other promo links:
I have a blog where I post new writing, or something of that ilk, every M, W, Friday without fail. It’s at lenkuntz.blogspot.com. My last two books are on Amazon.
NS: Thank you for playing, Len!
Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State, and the author of four books, most recently the story collection, THIS IS WHY I NEED YOU, out now from Ravenna Press. You can find more of his writing at lenkuntz.blogspot.com