A Conversation with Kim Magowan
author of UNDOING from Moon City Press
Winner of the Moon City Short Fiction Award
Interview by Yasmina Din Madden
If you’re a fan of short fiction, it’s likely you’ve come across Kim Magowan’s witty and layered stories in one of the many venues her work has appeared in. I met Kim a few years ago, and since then she’s become a go-to writer for feedback on my own work. Additionally, Kim’s innovative flash stories, particularly those that experiment with form and structure, have been an invaluable resource in the flash workshops that I teach. Last month, Kim’s collection, Undoing, winner of the Moon City Short Fiction Award, was published by Moon City Press, and next spring her novel, The Light Source, will be published by 7.13 Books. Magowan’s female characters, who often engage in what many might consider taboo behavior, are complex, intelligent, difficult, and compelling women. Recently we bonded over our mutual admiration of writer Ottessa Moshfegh, whose work often centers on the lives of unconventional female protagonists. At the AWP conference a few weeks ago, between panels and a drink or two, we had the chance to discuss flash fiction, novel writing, and our love of strange, smart, rule-breaking women in literature. —YDM
Yasmina Din Madden: You have a collection of stories and a novel coming out within a year of each other. Could you talk a bit about how your writing approach or writing practice changes depending on the form?
Kim Magowan: It took me forever to realize The Light Source was a novel—for the longest time I thought of it as a set of linked stories, like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I wrote first drafts of the second and third chapters when I was in graduate school. The germ was a story a friend told me about a bride canceling her wedding because she had caught her groom in bed with her maid of honor. That intrigued me: why on earth would someone have sex with their best friend’s fiancé? The explanation I arrived at was the seed for the whole book. So, I wrote what I saw at the time as two “stories” back in the 1990s (when the novel is first set). When I seriously returned to writing, back in 2010, I dusted those stories off, revised them substantially, and wrote two more linked stories. Then in 2012, an agent who had read my story “Version” in the Gettysburg Review got in touch and asked if I was working on a novel. He was not interested in a story collection, which is a common procedure with agents. That was the incentive I needed to realize (duh), my increasingly entangled “stories” were a novel. My family was in New Orleans for five weeks while my partner was researching a project, and I spent that time in a writing fever. Bryan dropped the kids off at camp while I sat in the kitchen, typing madly. By the end of those weeks I had finished a complete draft. That agent ended up passing on it, but I will always be grateful to him for making me realize that this unwieldy monster was a novel, and I had simply been too terrified to see it as such (because who has time to write a novel!?). I continued adding to The Light Source, particularly the Julie chapter, over the next couple of years, and sent a bunch of queries to agents. A few were interested, but they all wanted me to turn it into a more conventional book than the one I had in mind.
During the same time, I was writing short stories. I wrote drafts of several of the stories in my collection when I was in my twenties and thirties. But the vast majority of them are from 2010 on, when I seriously buckled down to writing and turned it into a passion, instead of a sidelined hobby. Especially after I had my novel in satisfactory shape, by 2015, my attention was on short stories, both reading them—I have read well over 100 story collections in the last five years—and writing them. I also became increasingly interested in flash fiction, paring stories down to the bone. Novels permit a lot more leeway than short fiction. You can be digressive, you can plummet into rabbit holes of flashbacks. Short fiction has to be disciplined and crystalline.
YDM: What drew you to the flash fiction form? You’ve written and published a lot of flash in the last few years and I’m wondering what you think the form allows for or allows you to explore in your writing that a conventional short story doesn’t.
KM: There is a practical response to that question and an aesthetic response, and I’ll give you both. The practical response is that I have a full-time job and two kids, and flash fiction is the only writing I can reliably get done when the semester is in progress. I can write a draft of a flash story in a sitting, and revise when I have time. I have to be very efficient as a writer. I reserve my summer and Christmas breaks for writing longer stories (though of course it isn’t always clear to me at inception whether a story will end up being long). When the semester is on, I write flash, or collaborate with Michelle Ross, or revise and edit. So that’s my nuts-and-bolts pragmatic answer.
But I also truly believe that writing flash has made me a better writer. It’s so disciplined. I think of novels as soup and flash fiction as a bouillon cube. There is no waste. Of course, this is generally true of short stories: you have to be compact and precise. You have to work out, if your character is a collector, for instance, exactly what she collects—what item will reveal that essential quality you need to expose about her. But flash is that efficiency, times ten. I could never write poetry—my poems always sounded like bad Eric Clapton lyrics—but flash is as close as prose comes to poetry. The skills that writing it has made me hone are portable. I carry them into my longer work.
I also truly believe that writing flash has made me a better writer. It’s so disciplined. I think of novels as soup and flash fiction as a bouillon cube. There is no waste.
YDM: Your story “Squirrel Beach” was published in this magazine and is part of your collection. The narrator’s detached critical tone, as she contemplates her sister-in-law and her brother, is both funny and brutal. In fact, a lot of your fiction is brutally funny—I’m thinking of “Be Good” for instance, a story written in list- and second-command form that chronicles a husband’s cheating. How do you see humor informing your work?
KM: Thank you! I like “Squirrel Beach” a lot too—that was one of what I think of as my “angry drinking stories” I wrote in 2016. “Brutally funny” is a lovely compliment. I gravitate to funny writers. Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore were revelations for me, that you could be a “serious” writer who was also funny, and that jokes did not have to be one-note. One of my all-time favorite novelists is Jane Austen, who is cruelly hilarious. A recent story collection that makes me laugh out loud is Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow—it’s full of these perfectly turned zingers. The writers I love best are adept at shuttling between funny and sad, even combining the two emotions, like Kazuo Ishiguro does in The Remains of the Day. So I admire humor, and I often wish my stories were funnier: it’s one of my 2018 ambitions, to lighten my writing up. Some of my stories I like best are ones where the humor works (I hope, anyway) to illuminate characters. For instance, the protagonist in “Family Games” connects with people, both her estranged husband Phil and her new friend Angie, through jokes. She and her husband hand each other set-up lines. Their mutual, twisted humor is one of the reasons Phil is hard for Mel to leave, despite all his flaws.
YDM: Is there a story in the collection that came particularly quickly or easily? And what about its evil twin? Was there a story that seemed impossible from beginning to end?
KM: I’m not going to count the flash, because I always write flash quickly, but the story in the collection that was most an unanticipated gift from the sky was “Family Games.” I had to write that story under the gun. I had submitted a story to Sixfold for their contest that got accepted elsewhere, and I had three days to come up with something new—all of my other stories were published or forthcoming. I stayed up all night cranking out “Family Games,” sent it in the morning to my first reader Michelle Ross, revised it the next day, and submitted it. It’s one of my favorites in the collection, and I have never written a story that long so painlessly. Its evil twin, strangely enough, is a story that it shares many affinities with, “Version,” another story about a writer couple who play word games. “Version” was a headache and a half to write!
YDM: Could you talk a bit about the title of your collection? There’s clearly the tension, in many of these stories, of relationships or families unraveling, but undoing is different. I’m curious about how you came to this title, which I love by the way.
KM: Right—undoing is not the same as unraveling. It can be—certainly “undoing” has negative connotations that I wanted to draw from (“he was my undoing”)—but I like the ambiguity of the word. It also can connote undoing a problem, undoing a knot. When we play Four Square with our daughters, they’re always calling “Re-do-sies!” I intend that facet of undoing: the longed-for second chance. So, “Undoing” was the original title for the opening story in the collection, “When in Rome,” and comes from two uses of the word that occur at the end of that story: undoing a memory through a fantasy, and undoing someone’s buttons. I had a hell of a time coming up with a title for the collection. I’m terrible at titles, and I also didn’t want to spotlight any single story by titling the collection after it. Michelle Ross, title queen, suggested I use Undoing, and it immediately clicked. It encapsulated, for me, the self-sabotage thread, but also the nostalgia. So many of the stories feature characters who long to move backward, to recapture some since lost moment of connection and peace: sitting on a stoop licking ice cream cones, the future unmarred.
YDM: You’ve co-authored several stories with writer Michelle Ross. Could you talk about how this process works and what you see as the advantages of co-writing stories?
KM: Michelle and I have been collaborating on stories since July; it’s a blast. One of us will start a story—say, write the opening paragraph—and then lob it at the other person, who writes some more, tosses it back. We decide when it’s done and revise together. There are so many things I love about the process. It’s very freeing for me, to have to incorporate some left turn, some unforeseen element. I used to act, and collaboration reminds me of improvisation. All of a sudden your Improv partner has hands that are melting, or is blind, or has grown antlers, or thinks you are a sandwich, and you just need to adapt and go with it. I can get very finicky and prissy with writing. Collaboration pushes me to be speedy, raw, messy. Plus, Michelle is so damn good, partnering with her is like rallying with an excellent tennis player. She ups my game.
YDM: Talk to me about “Version,” a story in the collection that includes elements of metafiction, plays with structure, and centers on writers who are often talking about writing. It’s one of my favorites in the book.
KM: Ha, that is my evil twin story! So, the backstory of that story is that originally it stopped at the end of the first section, once Kate has her reading at the bookstore and David confronts her. I was in a writing workshop with three other writers, including my very talented sister Margot, and Margot asked, “So, what happens next?” And my initial thought was, But Kate’s story is over, and then I realized that the story was over from her POV, but not if I picked up another perspective, David’s. But as soon as I started working on David’s, I realized, well, his story is contingent on what decision he makes, whether he contacts Kate or wimps out, and then that following trajectory depends on whether Kate responds or ignores him, and… and…. Well, suffice to say, that story got very “Choose your own adventure” on me.
“Version” tends to elicit extreme responses. Several people have told me it’s their favorite story in the collection (indeed, one of the collection titles I was kicking around before settling on Undoing was a line from that story, This Version Doesn’t Belong to You). Others don’t like it. It’s very metafictional, as you say, plus many people are ideologically opposed to writing about writing. One of my most well-read friends said, “Make the characters something besides writers. Make them construction workers.” Which, of course, logically made no sense! But I get the bias against writing about writing. I received the same flak from Sixfold readers about “Family Games.” Personally, I think “Version” is one of my best. It’s a little chilly and cerebral, but I like all the games Kate and David play. My favorite bit is the box of staples David slips in Kate’s grocery bag of “staples.” Both of them get a kick out of wordplay.
YDM: I’ve just mentioned one of my favorite stories in the collection, so now it’s your turn. Is there a story or two in your collection that you feel a particular affinity for and why?
KM: Aside from the stories we’ve already mentioned, I like “Chin Chin Chin” a lot. I find it, for all its sharp edges, sweet and romantic—well, romantic for me; that’s as romantic as my writing gets! I also like the linked stories about Laurel (“Eleanor of Aquitaine,” “Warmer, Colder,” “On Air,” and “Pop Goes the Weasel”) and the linked ones about Ben and Miriam (“Brining,” “This Much”). Both of those sets of stories could easily have turned into novels—I know so much more about those characters than made it onto the page. They dug their hooks into my imagination. Except who, as I said before, has time to write a novel?
YDM: Who are the writers who have influenced or inspired you most and is there anyone new you’ve discovered recently whose work you find exciting?
KM: So many! I am a ranker, so you’re asking me a question that I could go on and on about. I’m going to be disciplined and just mention a few recent books that have blown me away. I love Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, how she plays with perspective and time. No current writer is as funny, original, and humane as George Saunders: Tenth of December is an all-time favorite collection, and Lincoln in the Bardo exploded my brain. Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation is the novel I wish I’d written. Reading it was an epiphany: there is an audience for smart books. I love how that novel toggles between the micro (a floundering marriage, molecules, floating passages of text) and the macro (outer space). Edward P. Jones’s The Known World may be the most important American novel of the twenty-first century—every writer needs to read that book. It’s astonishing. Finally, I’m obsessed with a writer you turned me onto: Ottessa Moshfegh. Her story collection Homesick for Another World is even better, I think, than her celebrated novel Eileen. It’s all thorns and prickles; it’s like holding a barbed fruit.
YDM: What are you working on these days?
KM: Two things: a second story collection, which so far is mostly very short fiction—I have about 16,000 words of that; and a collaborative collection I’m working on with Michelle Ross, that is twelve stories and growing. Also, there’s a novel I would love to write about my great-grandmother, who was an amazing character—a total scandal. Her father was a prominent rabbi in Vienna, a member of Parliament. Liza ran off with a Gentile musician when she was seventeen, had two children, returned to Vienna when she was twenty. Her humiliated father married her off to a much older rabbi (my great-grandfather) and packed them out of Austria. She wrote these wonderful, wild, feminist fairytales that were published in The Atlantic and Harper’s. She had two children with the rabbi, a longstanding lesbian relationship, and an affair with another Christian who likely fathered her youngest son. She used to make her husband the rabbi pork stew and tell her kids, “Watch him eat it.” She deserves a novel, if I can figure out a plot worthy of her.
Kim Magowan’s short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming in 2019 from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. www.kimmagowan.com
Yasmina Din Madden lives in Iowa. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in PANK, The Idaho Review, The Masters Review: New Voices, Word Riot, Hobart, CARVE, and other journals. She teaches creative writing and literature at Drake University.