“Kisser” is such a beautifully written parable on values and how our fixation on the external can be so detrimental. Tell us how this story came about.
Thank you for these kind words and your careful reading. The genesis of Kisser is a recurring dream of mine: my teeth crumbling out of my mouth like castle wall bricks that decide to call it quits. I’ve had this dream most of my life. A few years ago, I learned this is a pretty common dream that gets interpreted as a whole swack of things related to self-esteem or lack of control. I’m always relieved to wake up from this dream and find out my teeth are indeed where they are supposed to be once I press my tongue to the ones I’m worried about, but for “Kisser’s” main character Bragg, I didn’t want it to be a dream. It’s happening. There are parts in the story where Bragg wants it to be a dream, or thinks it’s a dream, and later, hopes it’s not a dream, but damn if it’s not really happening to him.
Only because I think this might be helpful to other writers, but I want to mention that “Kisser” is a reclamation project. I first wrote a version of it, gosh, fifteen years ago when I was still a creative writing student in Victoria, BC. I wasn’t really working on this story all that time so much as I remembered it in late March 2020. It was early lockdown, my brain was all over the place, and I couldn’t really read, let alone write anything. So I started visiting older work to take the pressure off of having something new or profound to say about the present we’re all going through. The process of looking at old writing put me in touch with a more innocent creative and personal self. Insomuch as I can claim I’m coping with the state of the world, I found this process helped the early fumbling around with living in a pandemic, and in a month, I ended up rewriting two old plays and one old story. That story was “Kisser.”
Bragg is such a well-drawn study in contrasts. He’s equal parts vain, self-conscious and lonely. Can you tell us about how his character developed during the writing process?
I do think revisiting Bragg’s vanity and loneliness during this period of pandemic-related isolation gave this story the extra little push over the finish line it needed, but yeah, this self-consciousness thing goes back a way for me.
When I was a kid, I jumped on a hockey net, and it flew up into my mouth, smashing out a bunch of my permanent teeth (so that explains the recurring dream, right?). They popped the teeth back into my gums, but obviously, my mouth was altered. So I had what was essentially the scar of that event on my teeth through some oh-so-delicate high school years. I seldom smiled in photos, and I was terribly self-conscious about showing teeth. A crush of mine once asked if I had a gold tooth, and I knew I was being teased. Anyway, once I was old enough, I was fortunate enough to get dental implants, but I still find it hard to show a big toothy smile.
So I wish I could say Bragg is entirely fictional. He’s a concentration of all that self-consciousness I’ve just described. He compares himself to everyone, and so he feels like he is no one. Vanity is a really lonely state, isn’t it? A mindset where you’re alone in some perception of yourself. Bragg thinks invisibility is a practical solution to this vanity. And he isn’t mean about others’ appearances. In fact, he fixates on physical beauty in others. In a moment of crisis, he notices his dentist’s lovely complexion. But he is never pleased with his own physical presence.
Bragg first suggests he’s evolving in Section II, but quickly dismisses the idea. Later in Section 9, the thought takes hold. What’s changed for him?
Bragg doesn’t trust his inner voice. He thinks Zen is impractical because he only has a surface awareness of what it means. An earlier draft of this story was really a conversation between him and this voice, but that’s faded a bit because it felt derivative of other stories where everyone had their Tyler Durden from Fight Club or whatever. But for Bragg, everything is on the surface. He trusts mirrors. Strangers. A man named Brutus over the phone. Old encyclopedias. A somewhat trite message on a birthday card. He hasn’t cultivated self-knowledge. Even early in the story, when he has these semi-philosophical realizations relating to things like romantic love or traffic, his mind isn’t ready to trust its wisdom. He’s always one step forward, five steps back when it comes to intellectual confidence.
So when he’s forced to sit with thoughts (and a few more teeth are gone), the molt is truly on. He looks for heroes who overcome their physical disruptions. He searches for purpose and confronts new activities. Obsessive reading. Ships in bottles. Jumping jacks. Certainly, he’s delirious when he resolves not to sleep, having connected sleep to teeth loss. In a sense, he starts developing the inner life he never had before. In trying to keep his teeth, the rest of his body grows in some places and decays in others. It’s rather adolescent. I hope that by the end, he’s addressing the growth rather than the decay.
It is only after Bragg begins to heal himself that Minnie comes into his life. Is this by design?
It’s important to me that Bragg is not some tragic hero who is saved by Minnie’s love, but their burgeoning romance is a bit of a fairy tale, pulling little inspirations from things like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Beauty and the Beast, etc.
He thinks about an ex-girlfriend he’s had. Still, it’s later revealed that he’s never even kissed a woman, so he’s someone for whom sex and love have never quite been available, a definite consequence of his inability to offer that to others. In his first contact with Minnie as his dental hygienist, he feels her warmth through a rubber glove, and instead of applying anything romantic or professional to it, he thinks she’s got a fever. Because Bragg doesn’t know emotional warmth. He equates it with sickness.
Eventually, he accepts Minnie’s help even if he still doesn’t know how to trust it. I don’t even know that Minnie’s his one true love or anything. But if Bragg and Minnie are to live happily ever after, good luck to them. She’s really just an example of the type of person that can enter your life when some barriers come down. Or when the barriers are ripped away. This idea of fantasy and intimacy intersecting has been a theme of my theatre and opera work over the last couple of years, genres that by their very nature create fantasies in intimate settings.
What are you working on now, and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
It can be so tough to be motivated during these times, and I know the notions of productive or creative can be barriers to everyone right now. We’re all adjusting our pace, practice, and tolerance for creation, and I’m fortunate that a lot of pre-pandemic work is coming around now, where I can edit and advocate rather than feel the pressure of new ideas for an uncertain future.
It’s helped to have a co-writer to keep motivated, and I’ve been working on a screenplay for the last couple of years with Mike Haliechuk from Canadian hardcore band Fucked Up. The script accompanies his band’s new EP Year of the Horse, and it’s currently in pre-production. The film will be a fully scored and full-length ballet-western based on the medieval epic of Perceval. It’s called Perceval. The main character is a horse. There are dancing cacti, constellations that come to life, an evil poet-sorcerer, and a bandit posse chasing our horse across the desert.
I’ve also found it important for my own sense of well-being to cultivate a daily writing practice. Usually, that means 100 to 500 words a day. But it is indeed every day, so I guess I’m working on a novel. I’m not sure what to say about it right now since I’m smack dab in the middle of it and trying to let the process be more important than the product. It’s skewing high fantasy meets historical fiction, and I’m currently chasing an ending.
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