Kiese Laymon does nothing by half measures. He’s perhaps best known for his nonfiction, which has appeared on the Web sites of ESPN, NPR, and Gawker, where his unflinching essay “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” has been read by nearly a quarter million. But he’s also been working on a novel—a labor of love since college 15 years ago, when he wrote, “I’m a round, runaway character,” and wrote a book about a young man running away from his own narrative.
But the course of true love never did run smooth. “A book like this was supposed to come out a long, long time ago,” he says. After what he terms an artistic “standoff” with a publisher who’d signed his novel, he pulled it without knowing if it would ever see publication.
This June, Agate will publish Long Division, about 14-year-old Citoyen “City” Coldson, who’s sent to his grandmother’s to escape a spelling-bee meltdown that’s turned him into a YouTube celebrity. He’s soon caught up in the disappearance of a young girl, the sudden possibility of time travel, and an authorless book titled Long Division.
“I wanted to play with the idea of a character trying to run from the narrative. There is a narrative the character is in and the narrative the character wants to avoid,” he explains. In fact, the duality of the work provided both a challenge and the basis for a second novel: “The question was, did I need to write both, and how both books could fit together.”
“I didn’t do it right,” he says thoughtfully, “but I’ll get better.”
That’s only the beginning of the story.
For Laymon, underneath the trappings of his time travel tale are much deeper and more immediate stakes: though he points out that honesty has entertainment value, and draws a line between fiction and nonfiction, his reasons for writing both are the same. “You know when you read novels or essays or just sentences that you can’t escape from? When you read or watch or consume something, and the sentence sees you.... That’s the kind of art not just that I want to produce but that saves lives.”
And if its author’s passion is any indication, Long Division offers a similar challenge to its readers. “If the book has a signature, it’s that it’s a time travel book, but we’re all time travelers—what we’re doing today is going to affect tomorrow somehow or other. Are we going to make tomorrow better, more compassionate, more thoughtful, more present, or aren’t we?”
Laymon is signing today at Agate’s booth (1330A), 1–3 p.m.