Best-selling author discusses recent novel

Rachel Kushner, author of “The Flamethrowers,” spoke at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts (CHAT) on Tuesday afternoon.

Kushner began by reading an excerpt of her novel, which focuses on the New York arts scene in 1975. The novel was selected as a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, named one of the top five novels of the year by The New York Times and chosen as the Best Book of the Year by New York Magazine, according to the CHAT website.

After the reading, Kushner discussed her inspiration for “The Flamethrowers.”

“I wanted the story to take place in the New York City underworld of the 1970s,” she said. “It’s an easy concept to pick up ideas about if you know where to look. [With so much] photo documentation, you can see a lot of where people lived and … the social fabric that was a whole part of what the art world was in the 1970s.”

Kushner explained that the near-penniless main character, Reno, travels to New York City hoping to succeed as an artist, symbolized what many people in this era went through.

“There was a time where people could live in New York for very little money,” she said. “The best art gets made when there’s the least amount of money on the market, it seems.”

Given her familiarity with the 1970s arts movement in New York, Kushner said her ideas for “The Flamethrowers” came fairly naturally and did not require much background research.

“I hadn’t seen that there were many novels written about that time,” she said. “I’d written on occasion about contemporary art just for fun … and I didn’t need to do any research. I just used what I knew and put it into a story, into context.”

Kushner said she incorporated elements from her experience with big city life, including her childhood in San Francisco, into the novel. She wanted to fully evoke the urban environment of the novel, down to the particular odors.

“The young people in the streets [in my novel] smell like gasoline,” Kushner said. “When you grow up in a world like mine, gasoline is like any evocative smell. People love the smell of gas – they associate it with fun and progress.”

Kushner said that she went on several walks around the parts of New York City where parts of the novel take place, in order to look for ideas.

“When I’m working on a book, I proceed through the world [I’m writing about],” she said. “When I see something, I’ll record it. Sometimes, I’ll forget where I took [my ideas] from.”

Kushner added that even though art is a centerpiece to her story, her descriptions of artwork were not as prominent as her descriptions of the city and of the characters. 

“I try to keep art to a minimum,” she said. “I have almost no descriptions of artwork – very few, in fact, because I don’t think they really work in fiction. If I’m reading a book, and reach a long, beautiful description of a painting … suddenly, I feel taken out of the scene. It feels arbitrary, so I tried to gloss over that to some degree.”

During the reception that followed the event, several members of the audience reflected on Kushner’s presentation and work.

“My [English] professor, Jonathan Wilson, highly encouraged the entire class to go,” senior Simone Backer, who attended the event, said. “I didn’t have time to read [“The Flamethrowers”] before I came, but now it’s definitely at the top of my reading list.”

Professor of Japanese Hosea Hirata echoed this enthusiasm for Kushner’s novel.

“It was a tremendously interesting and exciting book to read, and I would really recommend it, especially for female readers,” he said. “I think they could really identify … it’s a story of growing up and finding your own identity.”

Kushner’s fiction and essays have appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Paris Review and The Believer, according to the CHAT website. She is also the recipient of the 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship.