Humor and drama on the journey to find the meaning of life
interview by Cathy Carroll
“This is the story of a pilgrim named Kevin Maloney,” we learn in the prologue to the novel The Red-Headed Pilgrim, autobiographical fiction by Kevin Maloney. Our hero hails from Beaverton, “a suburb of Portland the way the Monkees are a suburb of the Beatles.”
A twisted JV football drill sends him running for the forest, sparking an existential crisis. His parents line up a therapist who offers him a copy of Siddhartha, and his pilgrimage eventually ensues. Think On the Road meets Napoleon Dynamite in the latest from this Portland-based author.
You’ve said that half of writing is skill and half from how you live your life. Can you elaborate?
When I was younger, I used to be dazzled by fancy sentences in books. I still am, but as I’ve gotten older, I realize that the books that really stick with me change the way I see the world. I don’t mean ideas or politics—I mean the author’s vision of the world infects me and makes me set the book down and look around and notice things that I don’t usually see. Little details, like a bird splashing in a puddle or a kid standing next to his mom, playing with a piece of string.
It’s so easy in life to let yourself become bogged down by to-do lists and work stress. Great art has the power to lift us out of our daily brain and put us in a more cosmic frame of mind. To do that, a writer has to make a habit of being vigilant—paying attention to the little details in the world and their own mind.
What were the high points and low points for you in writing this book?
The high points happened when I was writing a scene and it worked the first try. There were sections where the dialogue and descriptions came together in front of me, and it felt like the book was writing itself. Those moments come after a lot of hard work and practice and mostly failing, so when the prose is flowing and it’s good, I just try to get out of my own way and let the words come out. That’s an incredible feeling.
The low points came after I had all these scenes, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to put them together. I’m a confident story writer, but this is my first full-length novel. A novel is an entirely different thing than a story. You can put twenty stories together, but that doesn’t make it a novel.
A novel—a good one—contains some kind of magic that I still don’t completely understand. I struggled with this book for almost seven years, trying to make every page feel inevitable and effortless.
Why did you choose to write autobiographical fiction rather than memoir?
This thing happens to me when I try to write memoir—I freeze up. I get so preoccupied trying to get the details of what happened just right that my writing comes out stiff and dull. But when I give myself permission to lie, suddenly I start telling the truth. When I decided to make The Red-Headed Pilgrim an autobiographical novel that adhered closely but not strictly to my life, suddenly it became fun. I quit worrying so much about what actually happened and started trying to capture the feeling of certain periods in my life.
There’s the added benefit that I don’t want to hurt anyone with my writing. I gave the protagonist my own name, Kevin Maloney, because I don’t care how I look in my book. But to the extent that other characters are based on real people, I fictionalized names and played around with facts and details, because the point isn’t to make anyone else look bad. I want to be the biggest idiot on the page.