1. Both your debut novel, Telex from Cuba, and the follow-up, The Flamethrowers, were finalists for the National Book Award. Writers often talk of success as both blessing and curse. What has been your experience?
Rachel Kushner: Most things turn out to be both a blessing and a curse, especially those things one doesn’t choose or have much control over. I don’t really think about success much. I care a lot about my immediate environment—my family and my extended family of friends and comrades. That said, I’m grateful to think anyone has read my books and gotten something from them.
2. You were one of those kids who entered college early, enrolling at age 16, graduating at 20 (in 1990). How did coming to Berkeley so young affect your sense of the world and your place in it?
I was absurdly young, but I was already strangely jaded. I’d already rebelled fully. College was my escape from that. When I was 16, the fall of my freshman year, I lived in Dwight Derby dorms. My specific building was for some reason where they put the “under 17” and the star athletes (Kevin Johnson, a.k.a. KJ, was two doors down on my floor). So we were the uncool nerds and the super-cool athlete celebrities. Weirdly, the other under-17 dorks all moved to Barrington Hall the next year, a foray into what seemed like nihilism to me, even if I went to parties there. I was into politics, and I think understanding the issues at Berkeley at the time—divestment from South Africa, the question of affirmative action, the various U.S. involvements in Central America in the 1980s—were a set of fascinating moral wars, and the way they played themselves out, each differently, probably had profound effects on me.
In terms of my place in the world, I think Berkeley made me somewhat tenacious, in terms of finding some unique place for myself that could be mine alone, because it’s such a huge school and the kinds of classes I took—history, economics, political science—had hundreds of students in them. Sometimes I’d get overwhelmed and just sit at Café Roma on Bancroft and watch people, and feel convinced that solitude in an environment teeming with people and ideas was the only way to go.
3. You’ve credited the novels of fellow Cal alumna Joan Didion as a major influence on your work. Most critics cite Didion’s nonfiction as her greatest achievement. The novels play second fiddle. What about her fiction made an impact on you?
I was just at a bookstore yesterday and overheard a customer ask about Didion’s novels and the clerk said, “She’s more known for her essays.” I was scandalized but of course I said nothing. I think her novels are all finely tuned constructions that reflect the very best of her powers of observation, her unique descriptive voice, and wry uses of silence. Fiction in her hands is serious business. I also admire her criticism a great deal, but one doesn’t have to choose. One can simply recognize her significant contributions to both forms.
4. While we’re on the subject, the author photo on the dust jacket of The Flamethrowers—you leaning on the trunk of a Ford Galaxie—is evocative of the famous portrait of Didion posing with her Corvette. Was it homage?
I was merely the reluctant photo subject. The concept was the photographer’s. Maybe she was consciously echoing the Didion image, maybe not. I didn’t ask or even think about it. I can see the echo now, and would be embarrassed to think anyone would construe it as a deliberate homage. Her greatness can’t really be mimicked, as a writer or photo subject.
5. Both your novels explore revolutionary politics and the epigraph of The Flamethrowers is Fac ut ardeat—“Make it burn.” Do you see yourself as a radical?
Fac ut ardeat is a phrase from a Christian hymn, “Stabat Mater.” It’s really about being ardent in love for Christ. But with Christ cut off from the phrase, it’s this ledge of passion for … what? Fill in the blank. But to answer your question, I’m not sure what a radical is. I’ve never used that term to describe myself. I associate it with a different generation, my parents’, for instance: the 1960s. I think I take issue with the term in contemporary usage, because if I were radical, that would mean extreme, or unreasonable in some way, when really the status quo of the world is so often those things, while I am just a mild, bewildered human. This week, Israel is bombing U.N. shelters in Gaza: Is it radical to criticize that? No, it isn’t. Is it radical to be concerned that we are by far the world’s leader in mass incarceration? The term radical aside, I will confess I have an interest in revolutionary transformation. In history, and maybe in the present too: Our global situation is marked by instability. Capitalism may or may not ultimately endure in its present form. That’s what I hear, anyhow!