Q+A with Kevin Maloney about The Red-Headed Pilgrim
I first encountered Kevin Maloney’s writing after picking up his novella The Cult of Loretta at an AWP conference several years ago, probably in Los Angeles. The prose was vibrant and hilarious and pulsed on the page; I remember tearing through the book on my flight home, and immediately recommending it to friends. In 2017, The Cult of Loretta was one of a handful of books that I imagined as a touchstone of what we would stock at our bookstore/café that we were about to open, alongside titles like Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Michael Bible’s Sophia, and Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier — under-appreciated gems and books that I believed were worth discovering.
You can imagine how giddy I was when I had the good fortune to encounter a new novel submission from Kevin. I haven’t laughed as much or as hard while reading a book as I did while reading The Red-Headed Pilgrim. The fact that the protagonist’s journey through marriage, fatherhood, and divorce proceeded to move me to tears is a testament to Kevin’s incredible dexterity in juggling humor and drama.
While riotously funny, The Red-Headed Pilgrim (out January 24, 2023) is an extremely touching story of a young red-head struggling to find his way in the world, and to hold on to the people he considers most dear. What begins as a coming-of-age story emerges as a raw portrait of adulthood, the tribulations of parenting, and the heartbreak of divorce. With a lot of humor and a ton of heart, The Red-Headed Pilgrim highlights Kevin Maloney as a magnificent talent.
You can read some of the truly incredible love the book has already received, from the likes of Jami Attenberg, Chelsea Hodson, Bud Smith, Gene Kwak, Arthur Bradford, and Jon Raymond, on the book's webpage.
Following is an interview conducted by editor Eric Obenauf with author Kevin Maloney about his forthcoming novel, The Red-Headed Pilgrim:
Question: I feel like the opening prologue states how this book came to be, which was in fits and spurts while working in an industrial park in the suburbs, while reflecting on working there with the person you once were. How did you know that the story of The Red-Headed Pilgrim was the story that you wanted to tell?
Kevin Maloney: I’ve always wanted to write about the time in my life when I was a 25-year-old dad, trying to be an artist while changing dirty diapers and only sleeping 2-3 hours every night. The logical thing would be to focus on one or two years of my life and tell that story, but as I was writing, I couldn’t stop thinking about a certain type of book, not really in vogue anymore, about the travels of a naive character on their journey to find the meaning of life. I wanted to write something that belonged to that tradition, but also made fun of it, so that by the time the protagonist becomes a young dad, you really understand how completely unprepared he is to take on the responsibility of raising another human being.
Q: You say in the prologue that it was tremendously difficult for you to write. Why do you think that was?
KM: I feel like so many novels and memoirs these days jump around in time as a way to disguise the boring parts. I think a lot of my struggle was having the confidence to tell a mostly linear narrative that covers more than a decade and moves from one scene to the next without jumping around. I wanted the book to feel like Don Quixote or The Odyssey but with the humor of Journey to the End of the Night by Celine. So I was struggling from an artistic perspective, but also I was kind of just reading the news on my phone every day after Trump got elected, asking myself, does art even matter anymore? What the hell am I doing? I guess I had to make peace with the fact that no matter how bad this world is, my role in it, for whatever reason, is writing comic fiction. It’s the one thing I really know how to do.
Q: You really have amazing comic timing with your prose. Were there any polestars for you, so far as humor writing goes?
KM: Thank you. I mean… Denis Johnson is my guy when it comes to comic timing. I have Jesus’ Son on audiobook, and I’ve listened to my favorites – "Emergency,” “Car Crashing While Hitchhiking,” “Dundun,” and “Work” – literally hundreds of times. I listen to those stories the way other people listen to music. The actor Will Patton does the audiobook, and his voice now is kind of the voice I have in my head when I write. Other comic writers I love: Chelsea Martin, Miranda July, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Charles Bukowski, Celine. Also, my wife is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Her voice moves through all my writing because she constantly makes me laugh.
Q: Music is a big part of the book as well. If you could choose one member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to blurb your book, which would it be?
KM: Oh man, that’s tough. I mean, I’ve been obsessed with John Frusciante since I heard his solo album Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt at a Blockbuster music listening station back in 1994. For me, that album’s on par with all of Van Gogh’s paintings as the greatest art ever made on Planet Earth. But asking Frusciante to blurb my book would be like asking the wind to blurb my book. Like, it just doesn’t even make sense. Flea seems way more approachable and also super nice, so probably Flea. I just want Frusciante to keep being a dark wizard making his impossibly beautiful music without having to bother with things like blurbs.
Q: Parenthood is hard. Making art is hard. Writing about the two is hard. How did you approach writing about two universal topics in a way that made them approachable while also fresh?
KM: I think writing about parenthood is actually pretty easy, only because most people lie about it. Our society is obsessed with babies, but very few people talk about what it’s actually like, which is that you go insane and for a while you hate your baby. Their shit is yellow, and sometimes it shoots up the back of their diaper into their hair, and as you try to clean it, they dip their fingers in it and put it in their mouth. And you’re like, “Oh my god, you’re fucking disgusting,” and then your baby floats up to the ceiling like a balloon and you’re like, “Wait what?” but it’s just because you’re hallucinating because you haven’t slept in three days. That’s parenting. I just tried to tell the truth. But writing about making art is hard because it’s kind of stupid and indulgent. I had to flip the switch in my brain that said it was stupid to OFF and just sort of trust that if I thought this book was good, somebody else would too.
Q: Travel and wanderlust is a big part of the book, and in the coming of age of the protagonist. How do you think travel and place affects our development as individuals?
KM: Some people I went to high school with never left our hometown and they’re totally happy, and that’s wonderful. But most of us had this idea that Beaverton, Oregon, was the spiritual anus of America. So we all moved somewhere else and for a while it was glorious, but eventually we realized it was pretty bad there too. And so we moved again and again and again, always thinking the next place would save us. Maybe it was a Gen X thing, and kids these days put their brains in their phones so they don’t have to move across the country for no reason. I don’t know. But eventually the challenge is to stay in one place and put down roots and just live somewhere. I’ve been in Portland for fifteen years. But here I am, 45, and I kind of have the itch again? So I don’t know. I think we’re all trying to do whatever it takes to push our brains to the place that magic mushrooms and near death experiences take us: awake, looking around at the world as a miracle.
Q: A big part of the maturation of the protagonist is a result of making what some might consider to be poor decisions. How do you feel that mistakes and risk-taking affect our development as individuals?
KM: I’m a huge coward, but I’ve always had this vivid understanding that the clock’s ticking and Death’s ready to pluck us any second. So that makes me do stupid things just to feel alive. And stupid things are good for us, as long as they don’t hurt other people. Thoreau has a quote: “If I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” I genuinely believe that. The things that keep me awake at night aren’t my dumb mistakes, it’s when I’ve been too careful or cautious or fearful and played it safe. I regret that constantly.
Q: If present-day father/husband/author Kevin Maloney could give the character of the flailing father/husband/aspiring author Kevin Maloney in The Red-Headed Pilgrim one piece of advice, what would it be?
KM: I don’t think he needs advice. I think he needs a hug. A long hug with lots of tenderness. Because most of us know the absolute truth at all times. We don’t need advice, we just need recognition that what we’re going through is hard and that we’re loved.
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