The Writing Life in Stockholm with Kevin Lee Luna: Old Swedes, Cheap Copy Machines, and Amazing, Romantic Things

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Kevin Luna is a writer and filmmaker from Half Moon Bay, California. For seven years he put out the fiction zine Petbooks, a compilation of which is being released by No Nothing Publishing. Elsewhere, his stories have been published by Islet Magazine, Deadbeat, Sleet Magazine and Runaway Parade.

These days, Kevin lives and writes in Stockholm, Sweden. I interviewed Kevin over email, at the beginning of this year, just after his book of collected stories, Petbooks, was released.

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What is Petbooks? When, how, and where did Petbooks materialize? 

Petbooks was basically a front for my fiction output. It started when I was 18. I was studying film but had been writing stories in my free time. I had seen zines and whatnot in bookshops and stores like Needles and Pens in SF or Rock Paper Scissors in Oakland and it just sort of clicked for me that I could make these little chapbooks with my writing and put them out and feel like I was “doing something”. Of course, crawling around some of those zine libraries you can start to feel the uselessness because in all likelihood no one is ever going to read them again. But at the same time, whoever made those zines, they gave them to their friends or left them at some bookstore or a DIY shop and just in that act, they’ve done something. They’ve taken their ideas and put them into the world with no regard to the publishing industry or making any money or getting famous or a degree or whatever. There is a great and complete freedom there. Granted, for the potential reader there is a lot of chaos because suddenly you have hundreds of handmade books staring at you, that you will have to open up and actually read or look at to see what they’re about because there is no blurb on the back or table of contents or about the author. And none of the stuff is edited or proofread. But if anyone ends up reading your zine, that doesn’t matter so much as the fact that you’ve gone and done it and fuck all. Later on, Petbooks became more of a blog because I was living in Sweden and they don’t really have cheap copy machine places there.

And you’ve just released a collection of your fiction, through No Nothing Publishing, with “gracious financial assistance from The City of Stockholm.” Tell me a little bit about that process. 

One of the nice things about Sweden is they’re still supportive of the arts. Old swedes will complain about how much less supportive they are now than they were back in the 70’s (moderate government, weapons industries, etc) but for an American state grants are like an impossible dream. There is a cultural arts grant they give to young people who want to do things and appear to have their shit together. I had gotten this grant twice as a filmmaker, making music videos for Swedish bands and I figured might as well try and get one to make these books. So one day I went down to the culture house with a little write up saying how I had been making these zines and I wanted to make a bigger compilation of them and the lady I met with took my info and put it to the “board” to decide and a few weeks later they sent me an email saying that I could make my books.

I’m curious about your life as an American writer living in Sweden. One of your narrators, also an expatriate writer, describes his daily work with these words: “I’m like a sad housewife, alone all day with no one to talk to.” A great many writers feel that way. Where do you work? At a desk, in your home, out in the world? 

Sweden is a very strange place. It takes a long time to meet people I think, or at least it took me a while. I moved there quite suddenly, crazy in love, following a girl, and for about a year and a half I only really knew her and our cat. People think that when you just pick up and move across the world it’s this amazing, romantic thing, which it is, but it’s also completely terrifying and for the most part it isn’t very “fun”. You’re constantly wondering if you’ve made a huge mistake. If you’re being irresponsible to the point of no return and if it’s ever going to level out again. You’re feeling stupid, or at least I was, because no one was making me do it. The only good reason that I had to throw around was love and nobody gives a shit about that when the money runs out.

Anyways, It took me a while to get my papers to be able to get a job and in the meantime, every day while she was at work, I would go to this cafe near our apartment to be a spoiled bum and sit there and write. It was quite lonesome but it was also an incredible situation to be able to be in. Writing for me, at that point in my life was the only thing that I felt I could hold onto. That sounds kind of corny when I say it but it would be like, waking up in cold sweats in the middle of the night, realizing how small and uncertain and weird my life had become and then taking comfort in writing a story, in that I could create something and have control over some aspect of what I was doing.

Have you found your literary brethren in Sweden? Do you have any favorite bookstores in Stockholm? 

I’m very slow when it comes to taking in content. I’ll find a writer I like, usually someone who is dead because their books are used and cheap, and then I’m very loyal to them, re-reading, searching for more of their work, hijacking their style for a few months or years. In Stockholm there are a few good places to find used books in English. Larry’s Corner, where I have a little office in the back. Alpha Books near the city center and lots of the thrift stores. One nice thing about looking for English books in a foreign country is that you’re forced to read what is there and go outside of your snobby box a bit.

Many of your characters seem to negotiate the tension between desire and distraction. We’re often given momentary clarity of vision, and then a series of lovely distractions. I’m thinking here of your story “Out There,” in which the narrator wants to see a blue whale that’s washed up to shore, but misses his opportunity. Even though the whale never materializes in-scene, readers are given a vivid image of the whale, when the narrator imagines “detailed footage,” of the whale, in the “macro lens, crisp HD focus” of a local reporter.  In “Then You’ll See the Glass, Hidden in the Grass,” an urgent journey down the California coast in a horse-driven carriage is derailed by a longing to admire a dark forest. “People are patterns,” you write in “Cars and Telephones, Part Two.” Do you think most minds constantly shuttle between the poles of shiftlessness and decision? 

For me the most exciting time is right before you’re about to do something. When you know it’s going to happen but before you have to deal with it. There is only potential there. I can be pretty indecisive about things in that way. I’ll spend a long time wandering the aisles of the grocery store, considering all the things I could eat when I know I’ll just buy a frozen pizza in the end. I try and sit with those “before” moments for as long as I can because I know whatever it is that I’m expecting to happen, it won’t really be like that. It’ll be something unwieldy and different and potentially awful.

There’s also something wild and unmooring happening in your management of time in your work. In “Repeating Planets,” “cars continue across a length of infinite smallness,” and time and space recalibrate and telescope as two images, one dark, one bright, take focus. Yeah! What’s happening here? 

I really enjoy thinking about physics and astronomy. I like to watch all those cheesy documentaries about infinity and string theory and spacetime or cruise through the wikipedia pages. Trying to implement those ideas and theories, if only vaguely, into my work and into how I deal with life can be quite comforting. I like to look up at night at the vastness and the darkness and it gives me a bit of relief. That there is something more than all the bullshit people put themselves though. That there are these humongous, slow moving stars and galaxies and nebulas all being governed by subatomic particles and strange “forces” and, as far as I know, none of it cares much about my drama.

My last two questions might just have been a long way of asking if you ever write poetry, or consider poetic influences? 

I don’t really write poetry, or read it. Maybe some really bad poems when I was younger but I haven’t really broken into that world. The closest I get would be the prose poems which maybe is cheating a bit. I really like Max Jacob who was a cubist prose poet and Kafka’s shorter stuff, as well as Borges who I think I was having a thing with when I wrote “Repeating Planets”.

This is probably a dumb thing to say but I’ve always assumed that poetry is meant to be read out loud and I have a hard time listening to someone reading out loud. I can never follow it. I always get distracted by my own thoughts or some bugs flying around or whatever. I can’t read out loud myself and I feel like I write things to be read not spoken so maybe that’s why.

How did you think about sequencing the pieces in this collection?  Can you talk about the connective tissue between the hyperreal short pieces and the more realistic fictions?

Ordering all the stories took a while. I had forgotten about a lot of the older ones. I tried not to think too specifically about each story. Instead I would make these lists, quickly conjuring the feeling or shape from a story and then trying to match them up based on what combinations felt good. Sort of like a mix-tape. I think they all connect in the fact that they’re all very personal. They zig zag between the longer, more auto-biographical and maybe a bit emotionally distant works and the shorter pieces which I would write quickly and only later understand why I wrote them and how they were representations of what I was feeling at the time.

What were you reading when you first started writing?

I was very obsessed with Salinger when I was younger. I went to the Princeton Library once to read the stories you can only read there, about Allie’s death and some of the war stories. I’ll still re-read Catcher or Raise High the Roofbeams every so often but there was a whole series of stories which are not in this collection, that I had written about this family, and going back and reading them now, or while I was trying to compile these books, I see they were so obviously influenced by the Glass family. It was bittersweet to read them, to see if I could just maybe sneak one into the collection. There was a tenderness there, regarding the characters and the things they felt or said that I don’t quite believe in anymore, or maybe I’m afraid of them, I don’t know.

What are you reading now?

I’m kind of floating right now, looking for my next main squeeze. I think the last discovery I was excited about was William Saroyan and before that Carson McCullers and Sherwood Anderson. I’ll re-read a lot because the way I find a book and start to read it is usually a pretty random, in the moment kind of thing and it can be months between new fixes. I used to like to steal books from Barnes and Nobles and then I’d feel almost obliged to read them but they don’t have those big chains in Sweden. The most recent book I finished was the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos which I enjoyed but was not very inspired by its prose. P.G. Wodehouse and Mark Twain are two authors that I’m continuously reading because they help me to fall asleep.

What do you think of fiction these days? How do you feel you or your work fits into that scheme?

I’m pretty confused by fiction these days. I go into a bookstore with new titles and I feel completely overwhelmed. It doesn’t help that most of the newer works that I’ve tried to read have left me feeling a little bored and uninspired, not just about writing but life in general, which is sad because fiction has a lot of power to really knock you out when it works. I don’t want to sound like a dick saying that. I’d like to believe that there’s a lot of good work being made right now and I just don’t know about it. I’m fine with not knowing. I’ll know one day. I did buy a book of short stories a few years ago by an author named Sheila Heti which I enjoyed. But that’s about it. As far as myself and my work, it’s not in that scheme. I put it out there, it’s been published by a few online magazines and by my friend Brian who’s starting this publishing company. But outside of my friends and the handful of random people who have bought my zines or chanced across the blog, it doesn’t exist. I’d like feel more involved with some kind of writing/reading/publishing world but as of now I am not at all.

The preface to Petbooks says you have stopped writing. You have also said that this is the last Petbooks. Why? Or is it just a clever marketing ploy? What’s next? 

I haven’t been writing very much lately because I’ve been pretty engrossed with doing film again. After my time alone in the wilderness of Stockholm I started to meet people at the cafe I was always going to and one thing led to another and I had a life again and I was doing things with real people. I’m sure I will write stories again. I feel guilty that I’m not because I’d gotten into a good rhythm before I stopped. I felt like this was the right way to end Petbooks, it being published by someone else and getting the grant and all. When these books finally got printed I sort of felt like I could let go of those stories and those parts of my life, which was more intense than I expected actually.

Currently I’m working on a short film and trying to write a feature script about how I got married and what a strange day that was, so I guess I’m still writing but not with such great attention to the prose and the style and the fury and everything. I’d like to try and write a novel one day. We’ll see.

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kevin luna author photo

Photo Credit: Sean Monaghan

Here’s an excerpt from Kevin’s story, “Trams and Things (Goteborg)”:

They have electric streetcars here and the urban livestock ride them all the time. The old man explains this from across the table. He is propped up in a way so as to have complete expression with his long and wrinkled hands. They are the only part of him that really moves. The pale fingers expand and contract with lightning speed as he describes the local tradition. His eyes flash in his rotting head as he slowly outlines each passing point.

I am skeptical but let him embark on the story anyway.

 

Find out more about Petbooks here.

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