Much has already been said about the confidence with which Rachel Kushner writes. Her novel The Flamethrowers covers an uncommon milieu and is written in uncommonly graceful prose. When asked via email about how she comes by such confidence and authority in her work, she responds that she had strong examples of powerful women in her family. “My parents were civil rights activists and beatniks and iconoclasts, so I have the example also of primary models of how life is lived: without conformity, never by anyone else’s idea of how it should be lived,” Kushner says. “That has given me, for better or worse, the kind of permanent mentality of an alley cat or something, a confidence in myself that is not based upon my comparison of myself with anyone else, or a need to place limits on myself that are set by anyone else’s standards.”
And as for authority? “Authority is perhaps different,” Kushner says. “It is humility of a pervasive kind, I think, a deep and even alarmed feeling that one does not know enough, that drives the hard work that can possibly result in occasional authority.” But The Flamethrowers feels as though Kushner knows more than enough about motorcycles, about the 1970s New York City art scene, about, as she says, the “revolutionary foment ” in the 1970s in Italy.
While Kushner did ride motorcycles all through her twenties—“I crashed going almost 140 mph on a highway in Mexico”—and did study abroad in Italy, she was there in the ‘80s, not the ‘70s. Still, she says, she didn’t do much research for the book. “I wrote about worlds in which I have a natural interest and so had picked up some knowledge of them along the way,” she says. She had been introduced to the 1970s Autonomist movement in Italy through her husband and through friends in Italy, and she had started The Flamethrowers by writing about the downtown 1970s art scene. “It was an immediate instinct to put the two worlds into one work,” she says.
Another instinct tells Kushner to keep relatively private about what she’s working on now. But, she says, Robert Stone, “who was nice enough to endorse The Flamethrowers, said very generously that I was a writer ‘for the hard times to come.’ This next one seems to be my novel about those times.”Jaime Netzer is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. Her fiction has been published in Twelve Stories and Corium Magazine and is forthcoming in Parcel. She’s at work on her first novel.