Why is it that I think of Kelly Luce as wearing cowboy boots? Is this because, during the brief but tempestuous period during which I taught her, she was continually hog-tying me after class and kicking me in my ass with Tony Lamas while I sang Jewish folk songs?
Actually, I’m not going to speculate on that.
Whatever the reason, she’s there in my brainpan, wearing boots.
Perhaps for this reason, I was not entirely shocked to hear that she had a collection of stories coming out with the Austin-based press, A Strange Object. It’s called Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail.
If it weren’t such a goddamn cliché, I’d write something snappy like: “Luce is attempting to reinvigorate magical realism by launching a full-scale invasion of Murakami’s homeland.” But I’ll keep it simple: the book is totally weird and totally enthralling.
After politely requesting that Ms. Luce remove her cowboy boots, we sat down to discuss where it all comes from…
The Rumpus: Please offer some brief words that will help the reader understand how profound a literary influence I’ve been. (Limit: 2000 words).
Kelly Luce: I have a notebook of Almondisms from our Tin House workshop. A line I use a lot, usually without giving you credit, is “build the ramp, then slow the fuck down.” In other words, resist the urge to rush through a story’s big, emotional moment(s). You can make a reader feel something by lingering in an uncomfortable place, just noticing. But it’s hard because you have to go through the discomfort yourself, on top of the general discomfort of writing.
Your insistence on clarity in story setup also stuck with me. You got extremely pissed when a story withheld important practical information. In a story about a pregnant woman, you argued that we needed to know who’d knocked her up. “She didn’t just trip and land on an ejaculating dick!” you shouted, slapping the table. [Author’s note: I slapped the table with my hand.] Or remember the story from the POV of an omniscient sperm? I forget what I learned from you on that one; I just wanted to say “omniscient sperm.”
Rumpus: Yes, you’ve said it twice now. But tell me this: the last story I saw from you was a pitch-perfect rendering of Chicago tough guys at a racetrack. I loved the stories in Hana Sasaki, but I couldn’t help noticing that they are set in Japan and do not involve racetracks. What gives?
Luce: People have been curious about this. My basic answer is that, for the themes I was writing about—death, magic, nostalgia, impermanence—Japan felt like a natural setting. I think it’s accurate to say that Japanese people are more comfortable with ambiguity than Westerners—or maybe that they’re comfortable with a type of ambiguity Westerners are not. Setting stories there let me examine those themes through the lens of a totally different worldview. That was my way in; it brought the spark. And it probably led me to be more imaginative than I would have if I’d set the same stories in Illinois.
They say you write your first book about your childhood, whether you mean to or not. In obvious ways, a Jehovah’s Witness with a psychic toaster or a Japanese gardener who can hear strangers’ wishes don’t have much to do with my early life. But as I get older, I realize what an insular kid I was, a happily self-absorbed only child who didn’t notice what was going on around me because I was preoccupied with the imaginary, fantastical world in my head. I moved to Japan right after college and spent three years there—years that ended up being a second, more permanent, growing-up. When you arrive some place functionally deaf, mute, and illiterate, with no friends, you have a lot of time to notice things about yourself that suck and need work. But on the flip side, you have this distance from reality that makes everyday stuff—learning a new phrase or going to the fancy laundromat—magical and interesting and inspiring. So maybe this first book is about my childhood, sort of.
This is a long way of saying that I have no idea why I wrote a book of stories set in Japan or why I’m writing a novel partially set there, too.
Rumpus: Given your tremendous range as a writer, I’m curious about your influences. Though this will be difficult, please don’t include me.
Luce: It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between what a person consumes and what influences them. Growing up, I was addicted to The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High series, among others. When the new Babysitter’s Club book arrived, the bookstore would call and my mom would take me to get my fix immediately. But the first book that made me anxious to write was Lois Lowry’s The Giver. I love stories about the nature of memory. Our ability to forget (or lack of ability to forget) makes us human. That book—god. It’s highly imaginative and entertaining in terms of world-building, but it’s also stocked with these characters who love and fear, and there’s an eeriness to the atmosphere that made me feel like I was in on a secret. Yeah, I cried at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows, but the emotional place Lowry tapped was different. It felt almost dirty, a feeling not unlike sexual discovery.
For a while I tried to write like Aimee Bender. (I know this is not very original.) I diagrammed the stories in Girl With the Flammable Skirt and then plugged in my own details, thinking maybe I could transpose her brilliance with plot, character, observatory details, onto my dumb ideas. It was reading her and Calvino and George Saunders in my early twenties, that I began to see how you could talk about serious things through fantastical means. Stuart Dybek also influenced me tremendously, both as a writer and a teacher. His stories and poems have so much heart. People revere him for many reasons, and deservedly so, but for me, his most impressive feat is the way he pulls off nostalgia without sentiment. There’s that line in “Blight” where a group of street kids are drinking beers and cruising Lake Shore Drive, and one of them is overcome with the excitement and energy of the city and blurts out, “I dig beauty!” You know he’s gonna get shit for that for the rest of his life, and the fact that he can’t stop himself breaks my goddamn heart.
As for non-literary influences, my undergrad education in cognitive science definitely affects my writing. Maybe not the sentences themselves, but the bigger ideas. Cog sci is the study of how brains do their thing. And what is fiction if not a witnessing of that process? Doing science and writing fiction come from the same impulse: to pick at truth.
Rumpus: How’d you come to publish this collection with A Strange Object? They seem like a super cool press.
Luce: They are super cool. When Jill Meyers and Callie Collins were running American Short Fiction a few years ago, they published a piece of mine. I corresponded with them on edits and this fun map-a-story project Callie put together. When they started A Strange Object last year, they e-mailed and asked if I had a book-length manuscript they could see. I waited as long as I could after receiving their e-mail—maybe seven minutes—before sending them the collection I’d been submitting to contests for two years. They took it a few months later, and I drank my body weight in cheap champagne.
A bonus is that, last year, I happened to move to Austin, where A\SO is based. So I get to see them in person sometimes, which is great because they know all the best bars. It used to be that you had to live in New York if you ever wanted to see your agent or publisher. That’s changing.
Rumpus: Aside from the requisite memoir about having been a student of mine, what’s next on your dance card?
Luce: My most urgent goal is to finish revising my novel, which I’ve been revising for a couple of years now. It’s about a Japanese-American woman who, as a child in Japan, murdered her bully. In the present, she’s settled in the States, has a career and husband and a kid and a Volvo, but has never told anyone her secret. Her estranged father dies in Japan and she decides to sneak back into the country, and things unravel from there.
I have two more years of grad school, a.k.a. security. One of the things about the UT Writing Program is that you have to study a secondary genre. So I’m also learning screenwriting, which until recently was totally foreign to me. It’s a great counterpoint to fiction writing—novel writing, in particular—because a screenplay is considered a blueprint, not the finished product. You can write a screenplay, sell it for half a million dollars, and if it’s actually produced, a team of other writers are going to rewrite it. Just imagine if you could sell an outline of a novel for half a mil and then someone else would finish it.
I’m also doing fiction editing for Bat City Review, and I love it. We already have one with an omniscient sperm narrator, but other than that, anything goes.
Photos courtesy of Kelly Luce.