On Constraints and Vibrancy: A Conversation on Writing Kill the Mall with Pasha Malla and Adnan Khan

by Adnan Khan

Adnan Khan has written for Hazlitt, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, The Awl, and others. His first novel is There Has to Be a Knife.

Kill the Mall is Pasha Malla’s sixth book, following two books of poetry, a short story collection, and two novels. His oeuvre is marked by its formal ambition—each work considers questions of plot, character, and narrative fresh, twisting traditional techniques into new ways of seeing. His last novel, Fugue States, warped the realist diaspora novel onto itself while investigating memory and nostalgia. People Park, shortlisted for the Amazon First Novel award, is a sprawling examination of urban experimentation gone haywire, and The Withdrawal Method, which won the Trillium book award, is a wide-scope collection of stories that introduced readers to his precise syntax and sly sense of humour. 

I first met Malla in 2010, when he came into the café I worked at. I made him a free cappuccino, and confessed my admiration while he slowly reddened, plainly surprised at my fumbling appreciation. I met him again properly six years later, under a summer tutelage that would deeply shape my first novel, There Has to Be a Knife. That afternoon he confessed that he had walked into the café hung-over and exhausted from a morning of pickup basketball—wishing more than anything none of his neighbours would be there; talking to an exuberant barista was low on his list of priorities. Still, he took the time, even then, to ask me if I wrote and speak to me about work while his cappuccino cooled. 

Kill the Mall was being written the summer we worked together, and I remember Malla telling me about his “weird little book.” It is a bizarre, slippery, and visceral work, like a dream wrangled into language. The plot is straightforward: a writer applies for, and is accepted into, a residency at a shopping mall. The location— country, or otherwise—is unknown.  The book is his reflection on his residency. His motivations are obscure and the strength of the work relies on its voice, which is supple and conniving, straitlaced and playful. It is a slim work, with the power of a shot—many of Malla’s obsessions and themes refined down into a burst of story.

Malla continues to write for magazines and newspapers, and is at work on a new novel. He teaches Creative Writing at York University, and on RateMyProfessor.com, he is described as a “really sweet and caring prof.” We spoke over webcams in the winter of 2021, one year after the book’s release had been postponed.

Adnan Khan: We’ve talked about Cesar Aira’s “flight forward” technique influencing Kill the Mall—a method that involves no revision or editing, but allowing the work to take you where it will, and following that instinct only. It comes through in the plot of KTM, which seems like it relies on how successive images allude to each other over traditional narrative causation. I know you mentioned Ghosts and Shantytown as models; Ghosts set in a condo development, Shantytown mostly in a slum. Can you talk about that relationship between form, craft, and influence … if there is one?    

Pasha Malla: I think there’s a relationship. The initial impetus for the book was People Park, which took eight years to write. Fugue States took six years. But I just wanted to write something quickly, and to force myself to write something in a year. I set up this structure where the book was going to be 12 parts and like it was a 12-week residency. Each week was going to be part of the book. I’d write each part in a month. In 12 months, I’d be finished. It was a time constraint, a structural constraint that I thought would force me to do this thing in a way that would maintain that flight forward energy.

And also just force me to write something that prevented the laborious processes of the previous two novels. I had a set of conceptual considerations—theoretical considerations; some stuff I wanted the book to be about. But I didn’t want to get hung up on that like my last two novels where every paragraph in some way is speaking to the central themes of the book. Both projects were very meticulous in their approach to cohesion around themes. This one I wanted more of what the book was trying to say to be an aesthetic experience, like a kind of destabilized, and somewhat uncanny positioning of the narrator.

I just like constraints. I like a lot of the Oulipo constraints and the books that have come from that practice. It forces one to think a little bit more imaginatively. And the book becomes kind of a problem to solve.

I really wanted to focus on the idea of having one character in one location doing one thing in a whole city I had to make up after People Park, which had 36 main characters and Fugue States, which travels to another continent. All my stuff is a reaction against the previous project. 

I just like constraints. I like a lot of the Oulipo constraints and the books that have come from that practice. It forces one to think a little bit more imaginatively. And the book becomes kind of a problem to solve. Each day I would write and I would find myself just coming up with stuff and the next day I would have to deal with whatever I had come up with.

There was something about a residency, and this need in a constrained amount of time—this requirement of productivity that I find interesting. You’d never do a residency where you’d just go somewhere and think. You have to produce. Which, one should; if one is being paid and has a free place to live, why not? It was fun. Super fun.

Adnan Khan: Similar to that, you’ve talked a lot about how teaching creative writing should involve play, which is what constraints are, like rules for a game. How central is that to your own writing practice?

Pasha Malla: In the writing of this book I came to re-appreciate play. I think there are playful elements—I do try to be funny—to the earlier books. This was more like a kid’s imaginative play. Like making up stories and worlds. There’s a kind of irrelevance to causality and sequencing and all the things we think about how narrative should be put together. It’s more like a dream logic. That is liberating.

I’m writing a new book now, the middle section of which I returned  in a very different way—I wanted it to feel more playful. It’s a story about someone traveling around Italy, but there are like 3000-word movie reviews in the middle of the novel. It just sort of completely shifts tone and voice and goes into reviewing movies. I wanted to go wherever the writing took me.

Cesar Aira has what—a 30-page essay on modernist architecture in the middle of Ghosts, right? That’s like a little nod, or I was inspired by that. The novel doesn’t have to exist in one way. It can contain all sorts of different tones and modes and whatever else. I really enjoyed writing it, the process was really fun.

The spirit of playfulness is something that I really found so valuable and now I’m trying to incorporate a little more into my process.

AK: How do you reflect on the line going through your work? I think you can see that formally each new work contains a refutation of the previous, but consistent themes are being developed.

PM: The writers I admire seem to be learning things as they do it. You can sort of plot their trajectory through their work. Marie-Claire Blais, who is maybe my favourite Canadian writer, has now a 60 or 70-year career. There’s a very clear trajectory of her work that is culminating in her novel she’s writing now. Her first novel, which she wrote when she was 19 in the ’50s, is incredible. You can see her projects sort of crystallizing through the ’70s and ’80s and now she’s basically operating like Virginia Woolf of The Waves. Which I think is incredible. To see someone in their 80s push their projects into more and more challenging realms and do more interesting things with form and experiment. I find that really inspirational.

AK: How does engagement with models influence work? Is it that you see something and deliberately pull from it? 

PM: The stuff that I find influential is osmotic. There’s the kind of influence when you’re starting out as a writer when you imitate and mimic. I think eventually you get away from that as you gain more confidence in your own craft. I think one’s approach to one’s own work is not an act of mimicry, but it’s this kind of porous thing where influence kind of seeps in a way that is kind of cumulative.

AK: Do you think you can pull it out of the work? Can you recognize it in the work?

PM: I definitely know when I started the book I had the voice of Jakob von Gunten in my head, but this character isn’t that. The concerns of this character are not  the same. There was a tension in that voice between what’s being described and what’s actually happening that I really liked. A kind of naivety, and a kind of innocence, but also a formality.

I was also thinking of H.G. Wells, with the first person narratives; how there’s this string of Victorian, aristocratic events that are bewildering. This kind of tension between logic and illogic—so the tone of the book tries to be logical while the events are not. And I like that as well. I think there’s just a bunch of things.

The stuff that I would consider influential is so disparate. Everything from Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Anne Radcliffe. I would like to think that because it’s so diverse and dispersed that the influences kind of get thrown into a blender and become something else entirely.

I feel like in this book some of that stuff was explicit and some of it just found its way in.

AK: In KTM, the narrator is describing the events in a standard, first-person style, but we’re also seeing the Progress Reports he files as a requirement for the residency; which are reflections of what he has just described to us as they are happening. They’re distorted “fictionalizations” of the fiction, where the narrator is creating his own reality. What was your thinking behind the relationship between the Progress Reports and the narrative?

PM:  They’re a reimagining and sanitizing of what’s actually happening for the record. The fulfillment of the residency is meant to be these recaps of what is actually happening but in a way that is much stranger.

AK: There’s a very dark undercurrent to the progress reports.

PM: There’s this tension between this jovial tone and what’s happening emotionally for the character which is rage, confusion and disempowerment.

AK: The most fucked up one is the one about milk.

PM: Yeah, I mean … I was just trying to make myself laugh. There’s just strange—such a skewed understanding of basic and banal things of what happens in a day. What a haircut is, or what it is to go to dinner. It’s not an attempt to make a statement about social media but obviously I’m thinking about the ways in which people present themselves and their lives in a documented way.

AK: What’s the relationship between that and the quotes that are often around words? Quite often it’s a phrase or a word that has a specific connotation to it, and so it feels like you’re quoting things and bringing attention to the meaning of the phrase.

PM: For this narrator, scare quotes or ironic scare quotes is a concept he’s familiar with but doesn’t quite understand. It’s like a nudge, or what he’s trying to do is nudge the reader, like “we both know what I’m talking about here.” But then the way he unpacks what’s in the quotation marks is completely skewed.

AK: He seems to almost understand them and I thought that he wasn’t, maybe, a native English speaker, or at least a Western oriented author. You brought that idea home when you mentioned Anand was the choice of audio-book reader and you gave him the instruction of speaking with that Oxford educated Indian accent—that upper-class “Rushdie” accent of so many Indians. 

PM: I hate to pin this on Rushdie, he’s not the person I have in mind, but he’s the most famous person I can think of. You’ll see these intellectuals that they bring on Indian current affairs talk shows or something and they’re very formal and they call everyone Sir/Madam and they say things like, “Be that as it may, madam” or “Since times immemorial.”

It’s always like, “Yeah, you’re kinda doing it right.” I can’t remember which post-colonial theorist has written about it—it might be Homi Bhabha. There’s this kind of South Asian mimesis of Western…

I mean if you go to a mall in India, it’s clearly an attempt to replicate the Western mall, but it’s just a little off. Which makes it awesome. It should be a little off. But it seems to me inadvertent. The last time I was in Gurgaon visiting my aunt, she said, “Come look at our malls,” and I thought, “Why the fuck would I want to visit a mall?” but you go and it’s like “This is amazing.”

I just really like that tension between this attempt/skewed mimesis, just getting it a little bit wrong. I find that ironic space that opens has a lot of potential for humour and interesting narratives. In this book I treated it goofily, but I think there’s a serious way to engage with it. And a lot of theorists have—the way they frame it as an undermining of the colonial gaze. Well, we’re gonna take what you did and we’re just gonna make it Indian.

It’s a kind of tension I find compelling and I wanted to work it in the book. It’s also the kind of tension between the voice of the narrator and what’s happening.

AK: At your launch you spoke a little about how listening to the audiobook, and particularly Anand Rajaram’s reading, was very different for you—like listening to someone else’s text.

Why would the default for any book be … if it’s a man, a white man? An unaccented North American speaker? There is this kind of need for racialized characters in fiction to be required identification in the way white characters don’t.

PM: I like that the audiobook becomes a different text. It’s this book illuminated in a different way. I sort of didn’t deliberately identify the narrator, a little bit facetiously,  sort of as a commentary. Why would the default for any book be … if it’s a man, a white man? An unaccented North American speaker? There is this kind of need for racialized characters in fiction to be required identification in the way white characters don’t.

Like I had a response to my first book of stories from publishers where they were like, “Why isn’t he writing more about Indian characters?” and I was like, “Oh, I am.” In my mind, all these characters—I would picture one character as Black, and I was like, why do I need to tell the reader? And I did it here a little bit more facetiously.

AK:  I wanted to talk about the language. It’s quite vibrant and the sentences have a snap to them. Is that purely from character?

PM: Yeah character, and tension between the formality of aristocratic and antiquated, definitely formal language and the nonsense that’s going on around this character.

I just find it hard to write things that don’t have energy in the sentence. The sentence as a unit should have a vibrancy to it that pushes to the next sentence. The whole novel, if the language doesn’t have that vibrancy and vivacity—and that doesn’t mean big, grotesque, baroque, over the top sentences because pared back language can have an energy to it, but I find I can’t read books that don’t have that. I can’t follow what’s happening. I’m completely disengaged if a book feels like it’s being written as the treatment for the eventual Netflix series it wants to be. I find that dispiriting and pointless. Like why would you want to write a novel if one isn’t going to write language? If one is using language only as a vehicle to convey plot, then just write a movie, not a novel. The books that I love, that I return to, that I get excited about reading—I’m reading All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews and there’s vibrancy in every sentence. It doesn’t have to be ornate, or excessively lyrical.

The sentence as a unit should have a vibrancy to it that pushes to the next sentence.

AK: I think that’s the lesson I’m learning right now. Lyricism and vibrancy aren’t related. They don’t have to be. I’ve been reading James Ellroy and his sentences are kind of crazily intense, but they’re not lyrical.

PM: I mean his language is like someone working a heavy bag. That has energy. Miriam Toews’ sentences feel like someone talking in your ear, and she’s a wonderful storyteller, and tonally, something that is utterly captivating. I couldn’t sit down and write something that didn’t feel like that.

AK:  And what’s this Moby Dick of yours, this book you’ve been working on since 2002?

PM: I wrote a grant proposal for this in 2002, 2003 … it’s about a physicist who went missing in 1938 and was a really compelling figure for a bunch of reasons. Enrico Fermi, who won the Nobel Prize in 1938 as well, was like, this guy is a genius beyond anything I’ve ever seen before. The lineage in science is Galileo, Newton, and then this dude, not Einstein, this guy first.

It’s quite a long story—but he went missing under very confusing and suspicious circumstances. And there are a number of theories about what happened and I’m following all the various threads of those theories. The book is an attempt to create a quantum super-position, where all of the possibilities are simultaneously, not just possible, but happening, and he is in fact, you know—he did in fact kill himself. He did in fact get kidnapped by the Nazis to build a weapon. He did in fact discover the secret of time travel and is going through alternate dimensions as we speak. The book it’s kind of this attempt to encapsulate all the possibilities as legitimate, concurrent storylines.

AK: The book brings this up, but I’m curious to know what your thoughts on public engagement are. Just if there is a call to duty beyond the book? Whether it’s teaching, talking about the work, being on panels. That sort of thing.

PM: I mean, I can only speak for myself. Unlike the narrator of this book, I really like people. The narrator is an introvert, I’m not really. I love teaching, I love students. I like chatting to people about books and writing. I like participating in the jurying process in granting organizations. I don’t know if it’s a necessity, and it’s not for everyone. I find it really fruitful. Writing is pretty lonely, you know? It is nice to have these outlets that are communal and social.

And I like residencies. There are fewer and fewer opportunities and spaces for what we do is even valued and to me it’s encouraging and re-energizing to have those conversations with people for whom it also matters.

Pasha Malla is the author of seven books, most recently Kill the Mall, a novel. His writing has won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, the Trillium Book Prize, an Arthur Ellis Award, and several National Magazine awards. It has also been shortlisted for the Amazon.ca Best First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Prize, and longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award. Pasha lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

Adnan Khan has written for Hazlitt, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, The Awl, and others. His first novel is There Has to Be a Knife.