The Big Idea: Kirsten Kaschock
Author Kirsten Kaschock didn’t make things easy for herself in her novel Sleight. In it, she creates an all new art form, and then, having created it, she has to describe it to her readers — who have never seen of heard of this new art form before its appearance in the book’s pages. How does one do that? And why would one make that much work for one’s self as a writer? Kaschock has her reasons, and here she is to explain them.
Sleight is the name of my novel; it is also the art form that is central to the world the novel describes, and in some ways it is the main character. Sleight combines elements of dance, circus performance, poetry, and sacred geometry. It is one hell of a chimera to get onto the page.
Art forms don’t monologue about their identities (at least not by the rules of my novel), and art forms made of transmuting parts that don’t and probably can’t exist are difficult to picture. Sleight is impossible to fully describe because it reaches into the sublime—the peak experiences that all art strives for—those moments of absolute transcendence when you are no longer thinking about what you are hearing or seeing but only experiencing it.
This book is about that, about the people whose lives revolve around those magics—its creators and performers—and how their art is like a drug to them. But how do you give a form to something that is always just there at the edge of your peripheral vision? How do you make the ineffable visceral? Sleight needed a body. And I had to be the Frankenstein who would provide it.
I used footnotes. I used play-dialogue, some poetic language, obituaries and reviews and letters: I used the kitchen sink. I also used people: Lark and Clef Scrye are semi-estranged sisters brought back together by a pregnancy, by their love of sleight and their need of each other; Byrne and Marvel Dunne are two brothers drawn to the visual and verbal elements of the art and warring over their different understandings of their father’s death; West is the svengali-like director of one of the sleight troupes, and he orchestrates the collecting of human talent and pain that drives the novel to its inevitable end.
I have reasons for chronicling artists. My four siblings and I were all trained in ballet, then I left that world to study literature and write poetry. I entered fiction. I returned to modern dance. I married a molecular geneticist and became the mother of three young boys. I know now that I can never not make. But I also like to be engaged with the world in a way that all my disparate identities somehow weave together to make sense. There are elements of Sleight (as I imagine there are in every novel) that are autobiographical, and probably the biggest one is this: the book unabashedly pieces together ideas of family, spirituality, history, artistic responsibility, and the daily horrors brought to us through our various screens. I admit to large ambitions, and that containing them requires a science fiction sensibility I’ve had since childhood, thanks to Saturday morning Star Trek reruns.
When I was first drafting this book, I was in school in Athens, Georgia with a kindergartner, a toddler, and an infant. During the day I discussed literary theory and aesthetics, and at night I swum among the bodies of my boys—feeding, cleaning, swaying, bathing, burping, lullabying. My life affected my studies and my fiction profoundly: no theory, no novel that could not address my whole world was going to resonate with me nor tap itself into existence across my keyboard.
Sleight grapples with grappling, with making sense of things in the midst of chaos, and sometimes letting the chaos wash over you until, nearly drowning, you finally catch a glimpse—and the invisible web of connection shimmers out over the waves. What could tie the never-quite-gone images of the confederate south to the crescent smile of my infant to the alien grace of a dancer exiting a tour bus at the alley backdoor of hundred-year-old theater to the clean elegance of an Erlenmeyer flask brought home from the lab and filled with daylilies? If I could tell a story that connected those dots—that would be something.
Sleight is my chimera. Speculative fiction, familial drama, and serial killings all wrapped into the plot of one of the old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movies: let’s put on a show. This is its Big Idea: if looking for meaning is a profoundly human experience, then creating meaning out of shards of a broken world must also be—only even more so.