A CONVERSATION WITH CLAIRE RUDY FOSTER
author of I’ve Never Done This Before
The KLEN+SOBR Interventions, 78 pages
interviewed by KC Mead-Brewer
Claire Rudy Foster’s short story collection I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE made its official debut just this week from KLĒN+SŌBR Interventions. It’s a tight collection with six stories’ worth of addiction, struggle, pain, and grit. Foster’s critically acclaimed short fiction has been nominated for an AWP award, a Pushcart Prize, and a Best of the Web award. Foster will be giving her first public reading from the collection at The Alano Club of Portland this upcoming October 22nd.
KMB: I love the title of your collection, all the different ways it applies (and perhaps sometimes doesn’t, perhaps only as a lie or a trick or a wish) to your various characters. How did you go about deciding on the “I Never” premise of these stories—was it like playing a much grittier, more intense version of that old childhood game “I Never,” or did the connection between these stories arise of its own accord? Something else altogether?
CRF: The title is a line from [a story in the collection] “Runaway.” In many ways, the main character of that story walks a narrow line. Is she guilty? Innocent? To what degree is she participating in her own exploitation? When she says, “I’ve never done this before,” it’s a transparently untrue statement, and one that she’s used throughout the story to disguise herself as a victim. Elsewhere in the collection, my characters experience their own firsts, or revisit choices that they lived to regret.
For people with alcoholism or addiction, it’s said that there are a lot of “yets.” I haven’t done that—yet. In active addiction, bad decisions and trouble are always around the corner. Someone may say, I’m not a thief, I don’t tell lies, I would never sell myself. But in reality, it’s really just a matter of time. My characters inhabit that space, the “yet,” and I think the title of the collection speaks to the condition of being in limbo, waiting for the next big wave to hit.
KMB: In “Fidelity,” your protagonist has these tremendous lists of things she is and isn’t interested in—being a widow, acting out her grief, getting a cat, etc. Do you create these kinds of lists and details for all of your protagonists, regardless of whether or not we readers ever get to know them?
CRF: As a writer, my practice is to be so intimate with my characters that I feel like I could zip myself into their skins. I don’t believe in writing “relatable” or “likeable” characters—there’s a lot of pressure to do that, but the results are bland, as though the character was a Frankenstein created by some kind of focus group. Instead, I look closely at my character and try to imagine what he or she would do or say. In “Fidelity,” the protagonist is profoundly lonely. Her husband’s overdose has stranded her on the island of their marriage, all alone. She struggles to relate to new people, and when she finally meets someone who speaks her language, it becomes apparent how isolated she’s been.
I don’t create lists and details, but it’s easy for me to see my characters in my mind’s eye. I want to know everything about them—from what kinds of shoes they’re wearing, to why their parents gave them such a silly middle name. Just as with acting, even if these details occur offstage, they’re still critical to the development of the character.
KMB: You write very bravely in your introduction (as well as in your stories) about your struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, in particular how it made you feel as though you were “part of a long, sodden [literary] tradition.” In my own writing, I often find myself meeting characters who struggle with severe depression, yet I am constantly concerned about romanticizing this disease, knowing all the ways it has insinuated itself into various artistic traditions over the years. How do you approach this conflict in your own work?
CRF: Sickness is in the eye of the beholder. When I was in active addiction, drinking and getting loaded, of course I romanticized that. It kept me from loathing myself: I felt powerful, mysterious, complex. Like a real writer, whatever that is. Even as my drug use destroyed my brain and my body, I held onto the idea that I was part of something meaningful. I put my pain on a pedestal and worshipped it.
When I got sober in 2007, my perception towards addiction started to change. I saw that what I’d done was harmful to me, and had damaged the people around me, too. For me, there is no conflict in that. A reader or writer who has faced issues like addiction, depression, loss—she knows the reality of it. I try to represent my characters’ truths, and leave the reader to decide how honest they’re being with themselves.
KMB: Your story “Runaway” has a truly fascinating protagonist, a woman known to others as “Zombie Girl,” a woman with a “small black thing…crouched, waiting” inside of her, a woman who—even in her prettiest fantasy of being a girl who’s loved by her father, whose father would pamper her by letting her fly first-class—would compare herself to “a princess in a coffin that flies [to her love] over a blackened sea.” How did you approach a character like Zombie Girl? What was it like tackling a character like her, someone others would call “brain dead,” from first person point-of-view?
CRF: Here’s a joke. What do you get when you sober up a horse thief? A sober horse thief.
In the addiction and recovery genre, the trope of transformation—how working the 12 Steps or getting into treatment changes a filthy, wicked addict into a good, moral, sober person—is very popular. I’m sure it’s a reality for some people, but for me, and many other people, it is not. When I got sober, I became more myself, and I learned to make friends with that person. In “Runaway,” I’ve got a protagonist who is a criminal, through and through. I loved writing from Zombie Girl’s perspective because she is impenitent. She acts without regret, without second-guessing herself. If anything, being sober makes her more dangerous, because she’s able to think clearly again. Her mind is gorgeous and twisted. I will be revisiting this character in my next novel, Two Graves.
KMB: In your introduction, you talk about growing up immersed in a wide array of voices, from Alice Munro to Stephen King. What writers have been of particular influence on your work? Your process? Is there any particular author or book that you turn to whenever you find yourself stuck?
CRF: I’m a habitual re-reader of books: a familiar book is a good friend. I have a personal canon of about 20 books that I have read dozens of times. Every new year, my resolution is to read books I’ve never read before, and every year I’m moderately successful. Currently, I’m reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, as well as a poetry collection by P.E. Garcia.
KMB: I was particularly struck by the story “Bereaved”—all those different ways to drown. I found myself wondering if the refrain of Danny’s constant phone calls was working as a sort of beacon or lifeboat for Angela, or as just another current dragging her under. Do you go into a story knowing what refrain you’re going to use (if any), or do you find that refrains are something that usually arise naturally, in their own time and space?
CRF: For Angela, Danny is a lifeline that tethers her to the shore. His presence in her life normalizes her: look, I have a boyfriend, we’re getting married, everything is fine. However, anyone could be in that role for her, and “The Bereaved” explores the relationships we have with people who are both interchangeable and irreplaceable.
My writing has been called lyrical. Protean. I’ve always been a language-driven writer, and played around with different sound patterns and sentence structures. Wordplay is really attractive to me, but I’ve also learned that it needs to be tempered with solid content. A plot, for example. The prose should be ornamental, not an obstacle to the reader’s pleasure. If I fall in love with a particular line, I listen to its music. I’ll let it hang in the air for a few paragraphs until its echo fades. Refrains work well in “The Bereaved” because my protagonist is going in circles, repeating the same choices. She’s the only one who doesn’t hear herself saying the same thing over and over again.
KMB: You wrote a (wonderfully honest and useful) article for The Review Review reflecting back on your choice to attain an MFA degree. Even with your ambivalence about the degree itself, did you find that there were some specific trick(s) or piece(s) of advice that you looked back to when working on this collection?
CRF: Benjamin Percy, who I met at this program, always told me “Keep hammering.” That’s really the best advice I got, or could give. Read a lot, write a lot, and keep hammering. As much as I regret going for a graduate degree in Creative Writing, the choice to make time for my writing was a big one. I wanted to get serious about my writing, and I did: I learned that a writer is someone who shows up to write, no matter what.
KMB: In your interview with SmokeLong Quarterly, you said that for you, “‘church’ is any place, emotional or physical, that we visit consistently because it feeds the sacred part of us.” Is writing a form of church for you?
CRF: Absolutely. A friend of mine says, “The end of your rope is a holy place, because that’s where you let go.” I feel that way about writing. To be immersed in words, whether I’m writing or reading, is total bliss for me. It connects me to my humanity by helping me forget myself. Everyone has a story—telling mine, or hearing yours, brings me closer to that holy place.
KMB: Superstition Review often asks their authors this question and I love it, so here, I’ve decided to steal it: What does your writing space look like? Do you find yourself generating new material in a different space than you edit in?
CRF: I’ve written in all kinds of places, with varying degrees of privacy. On some level, it doesn’t really matter to me—once I’m into the story, I’m gone. At this moment, my writing space looks like the bed my partner makes in the morning, with its flowered cover and dejected-looking pillows. It looks like a stack of books with a half-full water glass on top of it, a chocolate bar, and a window that looks out on my apartment’s parking lot. This is not a glamorous space, or a quiet one, but it’s mine. When you read “I’ve Never Done This Before,” my hope is that you feel enfolded, as though in bed, with each character whispering their secrets to you across the pillow that you share.
Claire Rudy Foster lives in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her critically recognized short fiction has appeared in various respected journals and she has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. Her short story collection I’ve Never Done This Before was published in 2016 by The KLEN+SOBR Interventions. She is currently at work on a novel.
K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Carve Magazine, Strange Horizons, Hobart, and elsewhere. As a reader, she loves everything weird—surrealism, sci-fi, horror, all the good stuff that shows change is not only possible, but inevitable. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her @meadwriter.