Spotlight: Karl Isberg, a chat with a writer and an artist

Photo courtesy Tess Wisher
Karl Isberg at his self-proclaimed peak, a third-grader at Lincoln Elementary School in Denver, where he was the acting safety and hall monitor.

By Tess Wisher
Special to The PREVIEW
Karl Isberg’s new play, “Cerebrotini: Stirred, But Not Shaken,” opens tomorrow, Friday, Feb. 8, with Thingamajig Theatre Company at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts.
This hilarious play takes you into the neurosurgical ICU, where Fiona lies as she reminisces about her time running a bar in the familiar town of Siberia with a View. Isberg writes the blog “Siberia with a View” and previously wrote the hit play “Welcome to Siberia, Now Go Home!”
I had the delightful opportunity to sit down and talk with Isberg about his writing, his process and his cocktails.
In case you’ve never met Isberg before, he is a gruff man with icy eyes that light up when mischief is afoot. He speaks clearly about his art and writing and never misses an opportunity to make a wisecrack. Each question I asked Isberg came with an answer that flipped my standard question on its head, but breathed in a far more interesting life than the question itself demanded.
How did you first end up in Pagosa Springs?
My wife, Kathy, got a job and I had lost most of mine and we said, “What the hell, let’s move.”
Is that when you started working for The SUN?
No. The first job I had was as a disc jockey at the then radio station and then as the manager of the radio station. Then, as I managed it into darkness, I went to work at The SUN. I had to work at something.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing since I was 18. Writing and painting. Everything I did was to try and contribute something to be able do that. And my advice to anyone who wants to write and paint is to marry well.
What was your jumping off point for “Cerebrotini”?
Two things: thinking about how the greater idea of death is funny. Not the specific instance, which damages all manner of people and things, but the overall idea being funny. And chatting with my youngest daughter about having been in a neurosurgery ICU with cerebrospinal fluid draining out of me and her coming up with the idea of making a cocktail using this stuff. So I thought, maybe I’ll write a comedy about someone who’s dying. The first one I wrote, Ivy said, “This reminds me of ‘Waiting for Godot.’ This is too ponderous.”
Where do you draw your inspiration? For your paintings and your writing?
I don’t draw inspiration. I work. The fastest way to end up with nothing is to wait for inspiration. It’s like taking a canvas and making a mark. Well, at that point, that starting point suggests what comes next. I don’t find it interesting to know what the final product will be. I find it interesting to know where the intersection between the thing and me take it, between the idea or the mark where it’s going to lead, and at a certain point the painting or the written piece becomes an entity capable of informing me as much as I am capable of informing it. And over the course of days, weeks, months, the thing in a sense becomes what it wants to be. It becomes an interaction rather than a dominant character imposing its will on something else. The thing has to take on a life, a will, a desire of its own.
To me, that’s the beauty of creating things. It’s not being intently controlling and knowing exactly where you’re going. Its starting and stumbling along until you see the thing start to take shape. A piece that starts with my cremated remains being made into diamonds 4,000 words later turns into me drinking my urine to prolong my life. Or a painting starts with five of my models and looking at them and drawing them and then taking them apart and putting them back together in a way that a person would say, “Oh, I recognize it,” but no you don’t, those parts don’t fit together like that. The thing itself says where those parts ought to be and how they ought to be put together and that’s what intrigues me about both of those things.
What is your favorite book?
Well, it would be silly to try and single out specific books. I know what I’m reading now and I know some authors I reread more often than others. I reread Nabokov and Joyce. But lately I’ve been reading essays. I reread all of Jim Harrison’s food essays because I’ve always found that we are simpatico in the way we look at things and write about it in a way. And I’ve been rereading Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis’ last collection of essays.
What’s pulling you towards essays?
I enjoy writing somewhat to the form and to that length. I like reading great essayists to analyze the manner in which they structure and pace the things in terms of the ideas, the rhythms and the manner in which they manage rhythms through their grammar. I like to see that and what sort of tendencies they have in word use. It’s all very technical stuff. I love the ideas, but I love even more seeing how they accomplish the transmission of those ideas. I like that simply because the form is harmonious with the kind of form I like to write. I don’t like to write terribly short pieces because you can’t be outlandish or you can’t exaggerate to the degree I like to. And anything longer than that if I write it, and I’ve written some very long things, I tend to get bored with what I’ve done so I like things between 1,500-4,000 words because it gives you enough room to distinguish what you’re doing to make it clear. Plus, I’m old. I don’t have a lot of time. I’ve got to get through these things. But I now have enough things to finish that I’ve got to drink my own urine to prolong my own life.
How do you like your martini?
With gin, tonic and lime.
Isberg’s “Cerebrotini: Stirred, But Not Shaken” opens tomorrow at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts. To get tickets for “Cerebrotini,” visit pagosacenter.org or call 731-SHOW (7469).
Thingamajig Theatre Company is a professional nonprofit 501(c)(3) theater in residence within the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts producing musicals, comedies and dramas year-round.

This story was posted on February 8, 2019.