N.S. Koenings

N.S. Kroenings: Been caught Thieving…

( N.S. Koenings is the author of the novel: Blue Taxi and holds a BA in African Studies from Bryn Mawr College and a Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology from Indiana University, where she also completed her MFA. in fiction. She currently teaches at Hampshire College. She reads from her short story collection: Theft.)

Hidden in the red walls of the second-story bar, KGB, Koenings read from her new book, “Theft”, a short story collection evolving around the theme of Thievery.  T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Great writers borrow, good writers steal” and Koenings steals with the grace and poise of a republican running for the millennial election.  She commented before her reading, “Theft is a terrible thing, but a great noun.”

As she read from her book, I was overwhelmed with her style–one which combines the auditorially visceral poetics of W.H. Auden or Dylan Thomas merging with the contemporary conundrums of a Pensylvanian tourist too far from home and trapped on a bus in Africa.          I snuck up behind her in modest fashion as she espoused to her cadre recent passions until they gently pointed out that there was an impish fellow with a vodka-cran and a Dictaphone behind her.  She turned to me with the indifferent passion of a silver screen scene-stealer to say, “Pardon me, but do you smoke cigarettes?”  Of course, I threw my healthy armor on the floor and said, “I’ll meet you outside.”

We gathered outside, hunched over in our bundled coats, shivering out the last puff.  “Is it recording?” She says.

“Yeah,” I snarl, wishing for the confidence to have a photographic memory, “but I’ll keep it subtle.  So where are you from?”

Koenings lit her cigarette from one of my tawdry lighters, “That question always drives me crazy, because whenever someone asks me, I refrain from it.  I was born in Belgium and immediately afterwards–like a week later–I was taken to Uganda.  My father was working so I ended up growing up mostly in East Africa and a little bit in the U.S., mostly Greenwich, Connecticut and a little bit in Canada and then South Africa, which is where I went to High School.  So my father is Dutch, my mother is Belgian.  I’m very attached to the identity of permanent alien.”  A gaggle of theater people gather at our feet and fail to project.

I ask in our own little world, “So where are you residing now?”

“Sommerville, Massachusetts.  You can see Boston from my deck.  It’s just next to Cambridge.  It’s the last sort of affordable place in the area.”  she says, squeezing in a drag.

“So I have some stock questions that are kinda Proustian, though I really hate Proust…”

Koenings laughs, “Ok, go on…”

I continue, “So what is your favorite sound?”

Koening answers, “Wow.  I bet people have really stupid answers for this one.  Two things come to mind.  And the first is–some of it happened today in that reading in that bar and um someone started playing ’Rubber Sole’ the Beatles album? Which I love and I love it so much I sit on hilltops and listen to it and it always makes me feel so good and warm.  I guess my favorite sound is the perfect song coming on and you didn’t expect it…? And then my second favorite sound is the sound of rain on corrugated tin.”

“So what is your least favorite sound?”

“Helicopters.”

“Have you had a lot of experience with that?”

“Oh yeah.  That is probably my least favorite.  The sound of war is the most terrifying sound. I hate it.  I hate it.”

“Where did you hear war?” I ask.

“Well, when we were living in Uganda, we were not far from one of the killing grounds, so there was often gunfire and we knew exactly what it was.  I’ve done a lot of work for the human rights watch and political violence in Zanzibar.  I’ve been in Zanzibar when violence erupts and the army helicopters sort of bear down and people start dispersing and the sound of helicopters arriving and the people dispersing and the footsteps starting to get fast and it’s a really fucked up awful sound.”  Koenings says tossing aside a cigarette and lighting another.

“I could believe it,” I reply, feebled by my lack of genocidal innocence.  “So if someone wanted to be your friend, what should they know about you?”

Koening responds, “They should know that I value sincerity.  If they’re too ironic, I just wanna knife them.”

I laugh and move on, “When you die, what do you want god to say to you when you get to heaven?”

She angles an eyebrow at me, “These are your stock questions? Really? Did you come up with them yourself?”

Sheepishly, I confess “Some have been inspired by Proust’s questionaire, which is really the only thing I can stand by Proust.”  We laugh together at Proust. We should all laugh at Proust.

“Hm,” Koening says, “I don’t know about god.”

“Theological debates aside, of course.”  I say, trying to make a simple question easy.

“Do you mind if I tell you the truth?”

“Go ahead!” I reply.

“Well when my first novel came out, I was really nervous about responses because I think of writing as a kind of private disease and I feel really lucky that someone pays me, but I’m not really pleased by the fact that other people get to see what goes on…and I was preparing myself for really bad reviews.  And I thought ‘ok well now what do I do?’ What do I need to know about myself and what do I need to know about my work?  And I thought there were three questions I wouldn’t be able to answer.  The first is, ‘Did I do my best according to what I knew at the time’ knowing that what I know is always going to change.  ‘Is it hateful, in any way?’ If I could say ‘no’, then I’m ok.  Maybe just those two questions.  If I could answer yes to one and no to the other in my whole life, then I’m set.  So I’d be good in that respect. “

“What book do you wish you wrote?”  I continue, lighting up another cig.

“I don’t think I feel jealous or envious of anybody.  I feel most admiring of people who have been on their own trip and their own belief and who were straight with themselves about what that was.  And that is what I want to be.  So…I wish I wrote my best book.”  I took a moment to apply this to myself and continued.

“So, what is your favorite curse word?”

“Fuck me Jesus,” Koenings says with a wry smile, “Because he was my first love!”  We laugh, “I’ll be frank with you because I’m a little wasted right now, but when I was a kid, we’d go to Belgium every summer where my mother’s from.  It’s Catholic country and I went to many a Catholic mass and there was a time where they would take Jesus down from the cross and he’d be walked down the aisle and we’d all have to kiss Jesus’ wounds.  And he was life size and beautiful.  And he’s in pain, you know?  So he was my first guy so it was very beautiful and sexy and all that stuff.”

“He was an attractive man.” I reply with nearly homoerotic undertones.  “As for my next question, declare a guilty pleasure,” I ask, with a hint of blasphemy.

“I don’t feel guilty about pleasure,“ Koenings responds.  “I just feel a little bit mad at that question.  I love mystery novels.  I love comic books. I’m not ashamed.  I’m also a college professor.  I feel like I’m supposed to be ashamed, but I’m not.  I’m not ashamed about pleasure, and I don’t think people should be.”

“Amen.” I respond, moving off script, “So…Where do you get your ideas?”

“Huh.  Wow.  From a faraway place somewhere inside me and it takes a lot of fucking work to get to.”  This makes sense to me.  Too much sense.

I ask her “How do you stay disciplined?”  She laughs.  I laugh.  We laugh, tossing our contraband drinks to the sidewalk

“You know I don’t.  I spend months not writing a thing.  I just trust it all.”

“That’s how I think it should roll.  Did you ever read Stephen Kings book on writing?”

“I began it, but I don’t like books on writing.  It’s such a private, slightly dirty pleasure.”

I respond, “Well one of the things that he says in it is that a novel is a lot like archeology…”

“Sure.”

“And you find one bone and you keep digging and you keep digging and digging and digging and you find more bones.  And you don’t know what you’re going to get at the end but if you have a little bit of faith in it, you end up with a full skeleton.  So what got you interest in writing?”

“There’s an image of me at age two trying to wrestle a pen from my father.  I dunno what it was, but it’s always been there.  I guess I love the words.”

“I noticed that.  You have a very poetic quality to your work.  You know, I got into this huge argument with a coworker who loved Charles Dickens and I didn’t know he was a writer, too.  But I told him that I don’t trust anyone who gets paid by the word–”

“I Know! Fuck me!”  Kroenings says as we barrel over in laughter, “It’s exhausting to read!”

I slur out, “If Hemingway got paid by the word, he’d be broke all the time!”

She give a Dietrich smirk, “I totally agree.  I like you, man.”

“I like you too!” I respond before be burst into laughter again.

“And he told me ‘You’ve sullied the quill!” I say as we burst into laughter again.

“You know who I love the most?” Kroening teases.

“Who?”

“Jean Genet. Do you know him?”

“Oh absolutely.”

“and Jean Genet loved words and he read Baudelaire.  And he read true crime fiction like a junkie.  And he read hi/low and didn’t care what anyone thought about him.  And he wrote a book called “the thief’s journal” which makes me really happy that my book is called ‘theft’.”

“Ah!  So it comes full circle!”  I respond.  “So do you have any hobbies aside from writing?”

“Uh, I think this goes back to the question of loving words.  I don’t think of myself as a writer, I think of myself as a maker.  I love making stuff.  If I’m making a pie or I’m making a picture or I’m making a creature out of sculpey, embroidering which I do obsessively, and I just–I really love my hands and I love to do things with them.  I don’t distinguish.”  Kroening says.

“So how many languages do you speak?” I say, smoothing out.

“I speak three.  Swahili was my first language and I soon learned to speak French from my aunt.  And then I went to kindergarten at an English school.  My favorite word was ’cardigan’ and I said it all day long’.   But I speak three languages and I feel like that’s really important.  I just had an eye test and they told me that in my reading one, I can’t see anything. And It’s true in whatever I was reading in.  Whatever zone that is, I just see white, I can’t see anything.  She felt very sorry for me because I’m a writer…this is tragic…but what I realized was that writing for me was not about the two dimensional site about the page.  I have so many languages kicking around in my head, and I love music so much that It’s all about sound.”

I interject, “And it totally shows because during your reading, because in a post-millennial world, I fell that prose gets no recognition when it should be absolute.  I feel that the only way that literature can transcend the doldrums of humdrum bestseller moorings is to accept the poetic and phonetic craftsmanship that prose offers, much like your work.”

“It’s a rough ride.”  She replies, “you know, I tap my feet when I read.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“I can see how that works.”  I reply, “Eh, I’m gonna turn this off now before this ends up being…”

Koenings replies, “Oh? Well it was good to talk to–”

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