In this month’s “What’s Next?” feature, we are highlighting an author from each of our base cities: Philadelphia and Atlanta. Today we welcome Philadelphia’s own Ken Kalfus to the blog. He is the author of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, and A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, a National Book Award Finalist. His upcoming novel, Equilateral, will be available on April 16th. Ken was kind enough to answer a few questions about his book and writing career. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy!
Congratulations on the upcoming release of your third novel, Equilateral. This novel is about a 19th century astronomer who tries to communicate with Martians. Can you introduce us to your characters and share their dilemmas?
In 1894, with the support of Britain, Germany and the other Great Powers, my astronomer, Sanford Thayer, has organized a vastly ambitious project to send a signal to the planet Mars. Money has been raised to bring 900,000 Egyptian peasants out to the Western Desert, where they will dig an equal-sided triangle, 300 miles on a side, that he believes will be seen by his colleagures on the fourth planet as proof that there is intelligent life on Earth. But the peasants can’t comprehend the grandeur of this endeavor, political and religious dissent roils the desert outposts, and Thayer must fight for his dream and for his life.
Much of your writing has been influenced by both the places you’ve traveled to and the places you have called home. How long have you been living in the Philadelphia area? How has Philadelphia influenced your writing?
I’ve been living in Philadelphia off and on since the mid-1980s, and this is where I’ve met many of the people who’ve shaped my adult life, read the books that have invigorated my imagination, and written most of the words that comprise my career. I’ve never actually set any fiction here – an omission I hope to correct shortly.
Equilateral is your third novel, but you have also written two collections of short stories. What is it about writing a full-length novel that appeals to you? What kind of advantages does it present to you as a writer? Disadvantages?
I like short stories as well as novels, and I’m working on a new collection to be published next spring. You write short stories because some half-baked ideas are better off staying half-baked. You want to experiment, you want to play, you don’t want to make the commitment that a novel requires. The short story gives you that freedom. But an idea like Equilateral required a full novel to capture the drama and comedy that I envisioned for the story.
Equilateral has received much advanced praise, including a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. Publisher Weekly describes your book as a “slyly satirical novel.” Humor is an important part of your writing. How does humor play a role in this new novel?
I’m not always a ha-ha writer: in this novel, the laughter skitters beneath the surface of the story. Equilateral’s basic premise is absurd and the humor the reader may find in the book derives from the premise.
Philadelphia has a rich literary scene. Traci enjoys going to First Person Arts Story Slams and visiting Big Blue Marble Bookstore. Do you have a favorite local indie bookstore? What is your favorite literary venue?
My favorite independent bookstore is the brilliantly curated Joseph Fox Books on Sansom Street. Whenever I go in, I encounter titles that I didn’t know about that seem written specifically for me. The last book I bought there was for a little boy, On the Day You Were Born. I also like the Penn Book Center at 34th and Sansom. And I understand that a new bookstore is opening this spring on South Street, around 19th Street.
The Philadelphia Free Library’s Author Events program is one of the city’s most exciting cultural institutions, and one of the best literary venues in the country. As part of the library’s spring book festival, I’ll be reading there April 16 with the great James Salter. And a new literary venue will be opening this spring at Metropolitan Bakery’s new cafe on 19th at Rittenhouse Square. I’ll be inaugurating their reading series May 6, squeezed in among the croissants.
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