Rachel Kushner on Sharing a Car with a Stranger

Your story “A King Alone” revolves around a road trip that a country songwriter named George takes to visit his adult daughter, who is also a songwriter. What made you choose that profession for this character, and the particular landscape—in and around Tennessee—that he drives through?

I was already into the story when I realized that George was a songwriter. As he drove, the portrait of who he was and how he moved through this landscape became more vivid in my imagination. His habit of listening for vernacular truth, of kind of rag-picking from other people’s speech patterns, seemed right. He hears a man, walking into a dive bar, yell, “Honey, I’m home!” My husband had heard a guy shout this as he walked into a liquor store, while the cashiers, behind bulletproof glass, just stared at him, and I had been thinking about that scene, which was to me full of life and comedy. These tiny acts of genius are happening all the time. Who is collecting and making art from them? George, maybe. I think George would agree with what Bob Dylan says, in “Chronicles,” about being “equal to the situation”: in other words, hoping to make something that is worthy of what you see, what you draw inspiration from, what you steal.

As I wrote my own scene in which a guy shouts, “Honey, I’m home,” suddenly George was turning the phrase over in his mind, and adding a phrase—“Honey, I’m home, but I can’t stay long.” And I realized how George’s mind worked, how alert he was to phrasemaking and what I might categorize as folk poetry. I don’t know much about songwriting except that well-crafted songs show us guilt and regret and agony and all that stuff, but they do it in a way that is minimalist, almost anonymous, so that lyrics can take on the personal dramas and the acute feelings of the listener.

In terms of the region, it was a combination of things. I was thinking about this particular railroad crossing in Asheville, North Carolina, where the story begins, and where a guy I once knew really did lose his leg while crossing the tracks to get to happy hour, like the man in the story to whom George gives a ride. From there, George travels west up into the mountains, passes through part of Kentucky, and goes down to Nashville, then Memphis. I had him take routes I’ve taken, which allowed me to revisit my own past, and to give George an opportunity to think about what changes and what doesn’t. I was remembering my own experiences in Memphis, which aren’t many, but are indelible, and seemed to fit the moods and contours of George’s approach to this landscape, his desire to see places that look the way he remembers them looking.

The story pulls us into George’s internal monologue, and it’s a while before we understand that his relationship with his daughter, Jenny, is not what we assumed it was. How did you handle that gradual release of information—which allows us almost to feel that we are the ones uncovering the truth?

I wrote the story from George’s perspective, but I realize that, beyond the technical matter of creating and abiding by the limits of his point of view, I shared his point of view. I felt I understood why he sees his relationship with his adult daughter as this meaningful, if not exactly intimate, connection of like minds, and why he sees his distance from her as respect, as a kind of autonomy he extends to her, an independence that he himself would like to be offered. There are parts of George’s past, as a father, that he’s willing to look into, and others that he won’t. He’s not a masochist trying to feel bad or guilty, and he has a certain padding from drama and melodrama. He would never hold on to anger at his own parents, for instance, in the way that his daughter does with her anger at him. Since the story doesn’t offer access to Jenny’s thoughts, she is rendered in a more “behaviorist” modality: she goes and retrieves a hammer and smashes his windshield, or tries to. So we come to understand her anger only as she demonstrates it to George, who hasn’t anticipated it. What’s worse, George is very calm in his reaction; he’s unruffled, which gives her anger no good place to land. At which point, we suddenly see him from another point of view—hers.

George spends a lot of time drawing parallels between himself and Jenny—she dresses the same way, she writes songs, too, she fixes her own car, she appreciates the same eccentricity in others. He’s making a case for his closeness with his child, but for whom is he making it?

People portray themselves to themselves, if you will, and this is something that I believe can be replicated particularly well in fiction—the rationales, justifications, and myths. But, in this case, what George is telling himself about the ways in which he and Jenny are alike is probably true. They look alike and dress alike, and they both appreciate the candy store of their own Americana, the one they live in and draw from for their shared vocation. That she’s a tomboy allows him to comfortably assume a shared perspective on the world and an ease that comes with being a man. It could be that George’s insistence on their similarities is denial on his part, but it’s only at the very end of the story, as I see things, that George’s denial stops working for him. Suddenly, he might not be the person he thought he was, and the way he “portrays himself to himself” forms a crack, a fissure.

We get to know George partly through his exchanges with a series of hitchhikers he picks up. Did you know from the beginning that the story would revolve around those encounters with strangers?

Definitely. I had been thinking about the intimacy of a car, of sharing it with a stranger you’ll never see again. But, originally, I planned to write a more episodic story about a guy who picks up various people—in my mind, the encounters would all be of equal weight, a chain of them—drawing from experiences I’d actually had. My parents sometimes picked up hitchhikers when I was a child. As a teen-ager, I hitchhiked. Last summer, my son and I picked up a hitchhiker like the one in the story who is ex-military and going for the Triple Crown of hiking. The guy we gave a ride to was young, and possessed by his mission, and he seemed so alone. And then we dropped him off and went to a diner and there were, like, four guys eating alone, all Pacific Crest Trail hikers who looked exactly like him, and I thought, The land is full of people on these very intense odysseys.

As I was mentally plotting the story, when I got to the final passenger my character picks up, I realized that it was actually a story about this one interaction, between two strangers, and that the psychological implications for the driver, in the predicament that the stranger presents for him, were the entire point of the story. From there, the whole structure fell into place.

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