An Interview with P.F. Kluge

By Megan Neary

I spoke with author P.F. Kluge over the phone while he sat on his porch at Kenyon College enjoying Ohio’s first day of Spring weather. Kluge is the author of several novels, including: Eddie and the Cruisers, The Day that I Die, Final Exam, and Biggest Elvis. He has also written numerous nonfiction essays and articles, with many fine examples collected in the  books, Keepers, Alma Mater, and The Edge of Paradise. Here at Flyover Country, we’re interested in highlighting authors who give voice to the lives lived between America’s coasts. Though he’s from New Jersey and lived in New York City for years, Kluge has made Gambier, Ohio his home. He first went there to study at Kenyon College sixty years ago and he’s been leaving and coming back ever since. In his novels, he captures the sound of Ohio and the complicated feeling of loving a town while wondering if there’s somewhere else you should be. Interestingly, Kluge’s works regarding Micronesia–where he served in the Peace Corps–reflect an atmosphere not unlike that of a small, isolated college and he captures the voices and stories of the people on those small islands, bringing to life a place many readers may just be discovering. 

Today, Kluge lives within walking distance of his freshman year dormitory, which he returned to for a year during the writing of Alma Mater, a nonfiction account of a year in the life of Kenyon College. The book was somewhat controversial, according to Kluge, “some people said it was an act of revenge, some people said I should not have written it, but, generally I think people understood that it was a fair shot at this place.” The book weaves together history, autobiography, and journalism to provide a beautiful, complex portrait of the college. 

Kluge first left Kenyon for graduate school at the University of Chicago. After graduating,he joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to Micronesia, which wasn’t his first choice, or even on his mind as a possibility. But, once he got there, he fell in love with the islands. His first novel, The Day that I Die, was inspired by his time there. The novel tells the story of a murdered war hero turned actor who returns to the islands where he once fought. 

While on the islands, Kluge became involved in politics, befriending a man named Lazarus Salii who would later become president of Palau. Kluge stayed on the islands after his term with the Peace Corps ended to write speeches for Salii. Later, he would write the preamble to the nation’s constitution. A nonfiction book, The Edge of Paradise, speaks to this friendship with Salii, as well as his love for the islands themselves. 

After returning to the United States, Kluge worked as a journalist, publishing stories with Life Magazine and the Wallstreet Journal. He also wrote and published several novels. He was invited back to Kenyon on a temporary teaching assignment and is now the college’s writer in residence. 

To Kluge, “reading is the breathing in and writing is the breathing out.” He cited Philip Roth, John Updike, and Alice McDermott as favorite recent authors. Currently, Kluge is working on a book called Wordman about writing and teaching. The title is a callback to a character in his novel, Eddie and the Cruisers. 

Kluge began writing early, working on grammar school and high school newspapers and holding summer internships during college at newspapers and Life Magazine. His interest in writing comes from his belief that “it’s your responsibility as a human being to leave a record behind.” He has always felt, “that something hasn’t happened until it’s been written down.” So it comes as no surprise that Kluge is still writing five days a week. He writes in longhand with paper and pencil, going back to the beginning and reading through the whole manuscript every thirty pages or so. In his office, there’s a shelf that holds his published books. He glanced at it and said, “you know, I like them all–I really do– and I’ll keep writing, that’s for sure.”

About the Author: Megan Neary is a teacher and writer from Columbus, Ohio, and a contributing editor at Flyover Country. Her fiction can be found in Near Window and Rejection Letters, and is forthcoming in The Amethyst Review, and Schuylkill Valley Journal. Her journalism can be found in The Record Herald.

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