The Rumpus Interview with Tom Kealey

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Tom Kealey’s short story collection, Thieves I’ve Known, won the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award and has just been published. A powerful collection, mythic in feel, Thieves I’ve Known is a book I’ve long anticipated from a writer I’ve long admired. I’m not alone. The Rumpus founder Stephen Elliott considers Kealey possibly his “favorite short story writer.”

Well-known for his pioneering MFA book and blog (whence the invention of the Kealey-scale), Kealey was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford—which is how I know him—and has taught in the undergraduate creative writing program ever since. He has a wonderful, instinctive feel for stories, and after having read the collection, I wanted to get his thoughts as writer and teacher—or maybe as a writer versus a teacher—on these stories, and stories in general.

First, a few accolades: winner of the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for fiction, Kealey’s stories have appeared in Best American Non-required Reading, Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, Glimmer Train, Indiana Review, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.

In this interview, we speak of assembling a collection, adolescence, and the trickiness of even saying the words “feminine perspective.”

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The Rumpus: First off: congratulations on winning the Flannery O’Connor Award. That must have been a happy day.

Tom Kealey: It certainly was. And thanks. I got the e-mail, and yelled something, and the person in the house with me thought I’d been stabbed or dropped something heavy on my foot. It was great news. Thieves I’ve Known had been a finalist or runner-up for prizes—The Iowa Award, Drue Heinz, and the like—a number of times, so it was a blessing to finally break through.

Rumpus: It’s a really great collection, and I’m so glad to see it get its just attention. I wanted to ask you a little about the book as a collection. How did you organize the stories? Do you think of it as a whole in some way?

Thieves I've KnownKealey: I eventually began to see Thieves as a whole. I originally had about fifteen stories for the collection, and they covered a wider range. But after a while, I liked this focus on this particular age group, adolescents, so I trimmed the collection down to those stories.

As far as organizing them went, I tried to place myself in the shoes of the reader. Some stories are dark, some lighter, some funny. I tried to get a good rhythm going, almost like a consistent longer work, like a novel or film. There are also some characters who reappear, such as Omar, but particularly Merrill and her brother, Nate. They appear in three stories. The collection starts and finishes with those two characters.

Rumpus: There almost seems to be a symmetrical arrangement—beginning and ending with Nate and Merrill, but then also with Shelby in position two and eight.

Kealey: Hmm, you’re right, but I don’t think I noticed that about Shelby, to be honest with you. If I were to break the collection down: “Nobody” introduces this “type” of character and also introduces the idea of storytelling and narrative. The next three stories are darker. One is about a visit to prison, and the two following take place over one evening. They focus on things that have been lost and may not be able to be regained. Though I think there are very humorous moments, too. The middle stories open up the collection. The two altar boys in “The Boots” are funny, and seem often oblivious to the danger around them. Then there’s a good old-fashioned circus story. And then “Groundskeeping” is about baseball. And the stars. The final two—you’re right—help us come full circle.

Rumpus: Your main characters are mostly adolescents or teenagers, but more than that they’re usually poor and—how do we say—under-parented. Is there something about this constellation of characteristics that provokes your storytelling urge?

Kealey: Yes, though I can only take a turn at what that is. I originally came up with the idea of “From Bremerton” when I heard a radio program about how the ferry line from Seattle to Bremerton was being cut back and might actually end. That really caught my attention. I’ve always been interested in things that are disappearing, or are in danger of doing so. So, I wanted to capture one of those ferry rides, and the types of kids, as you described, who live in Bremerton, and how they contrast with this larger world of Seattle. And of course they cross water. Always crossings in my work, it seems…

Rumpus: Adolescence is a type of crossing.

Kealey: Yes, adolescence is a crossing. Some of us stayed caught in mid-stream though!

On a more specific note, one of my professors in graduate school, John Edgar Wideman, turned me on to the nonfiction writing of Jonathan Kozol, and that turned me on to the photography of Helen Stummer. Both chronicle the lives of teenagers (and younger) in the poorer neighborhoods of the United States. I just feel like those stories, in the larger picture, aren’t told very often. And I suppose I was also interested in how children are children (and will play, etc.), even under dire circumstances.

Rumpus: It’s interesting that the ferry on the radio made you think about the kids it was affecting—rather than the adults.

Kealey: True. Scott, you’re seeing lots of things that I’m not seeing. I suppose I do have a natural focus on that age group.

Rumpus: Speaking of teachers, you’re a famous teacher in Stanford’s creative writing program. How does your teaching influence your writing?

Kealey: I suppose you can become somewhat famous if you stick around long enough. But I truly love teaching. After my first day at the University of Massachusetts, I thought, I’m not very good at this, but I really love it. I’m going to work at getting better. I think it’s an interesting line to walk, as you know of course. When you’re thinking and talking about writing all day, it’s hard to go home and write some more. On the other hand, there’s a constant source of inspiration from students and colleagues about the power of storytelling, and the importance of it. So, that always charges the batteries. And getting to teach stories like “Sonny’s Blues” or “The Things They Carried” or “Who’s Irish”—those stories that reward us for reading them for the fiftieth time—that impacts my way of seeing my own stories.

And then, of course, not only are the students at Stanford incredibly talented and motivated, they’re also really, really, really sweet people. The students we teach just seem to want to learn and grow. And that’s contagious.

Rumpus: What about the opposite direction—did any of the platitudes of the workshop (show, don’t tell, etc.) fall under the knife while writing this book? What I mean is, did these stories require you to rethink how one can write?

Kealey: I’m a big believer in understanding the rules in order to break them. There are plenty of perspective switches, and, notably, tense switches in the stories. And of course, those things are done for effect. I sneak from the past tense to the present tense in the opening story, “Nobody,” at about the three quarters mark, right in the middle of a paragraph, and stay there ’til the end of the story. Something is transformed during the story, and so I want the language to illustrate that transformation.

Rumpus: Is there any autobiography in these stories? I mean, there seems not to be, but I wonder if you work at all from life–even in odd or off ways?

Kealey: I think there is a lot, though it is disguised. As you know, I’m working on a novel called The Winged Girl. Natalie is fifteen years old, has wings like a bat, and has these incredible feelings of being a freak and definitely an outsider. I find that she’s incredibly autobiographical to me. I don’t know what it’s like to be a fifteen-year-old girl or to have wings, but I do know what it’s like to feel incredibly uncomfortable in my own skin.

Rumpus: Ah! I thought you really had wings.

Kealey: I always regretted lying about that. I was trying to impress you, I suppose.

As far as Thieves I’ve Known goes, I think the sensibility of these kids is very autobiographical. I don’t ever doubt my comfort level with their world (and local) view, though the circumstances may be different. Other times I feel completely at home with the circumstances. I believe in getting a good entrance point to the experience, and then letting the imagination take over from there. As always, the trick is convincing the reader.

Rumpus: Interesting that you would bring up The Winged Girl, a novel I read in draft form during an ill-fated writers’ group with you, me, and Skip Horack. It has a female main character, and many of these stories have girls as their central characters. Is there something about the female experience (if I can be daft enough to use that term) that you want to illuminate?

Kealey: The only ill-fated aspect of that writing group is that I’m still working on my novel; meanwhile Skip published The Eden Hunter to rave reviews, and your rave-reviewed A Working Theory of Love is now being published in what, its seventh language? I definitely got screwed, but I only have my own slow pace to blame.

Rumpus: I just remember the terrifying waves of prose coming from Horack’s pen. I shiver to think of it.

Kealey: I know. Horack is terrifying in a variety of ways, but literary talent is definitely one of them.

Rumpus: But back to the feminine perspective (is that term any better?).

Kealey: This came up for me in a workshop at Stanford, when I was a Stegner Fellow. I workshopped what would later become “The Lost Brother” from Thieves I’ve Known. The general consensus was, “These two brothers are incredibly three dimensional, but this woman in here is a completely flat character.” I think they added “a stereotype, too.” I was offended, of course, but almost all the women in the workshop were of this opinion. It revealed a real blind spot in my writing. I returned to the works of Louise Erdrich and Alice Munro, and I just studied and studied.

Rumpus: There would have been some wonderful writers—female and otherwise—at the table.

Kealey: Katharine Noel was always, always so helpful for me. And of course, Elizabeth Tallent was the workshop leader. Malena Watrous and Kaui Hart Hemmings were also in there. That’s a lot of talent in one room. The guys were no slouches, either: Stephen Elliott, Lysley Tenorio, Andrew Altschul, and Eric Puchner among them. Everyone in there was incredibly talented, generous, and motivated. In addition to Elizabeth, my teachers those years were Tobias Wolff, D. R. MacDonald, and of course, John L’Heureux. There was no shortage of wise counsel.

Rumpus: You’re from North Carolina, and go back there frequently, but this isn’t a “Southern” collection. Some stories are in Massachussets, some in the Pacific Northwest. How does place work in your writing?

Kealey: You do have to know place as a writer. At least I do. I can’t just set something in Toronto and hope for the best. For whatever reason, certain places stick with me. I haven’t spent all that much time in Puget Sound, but it had a big impact. The first time I ever saw it, I was coming to the end of a cross-country train trip, and we rounded a corner, and wow, there was Puget Sound, just a half-hour after sunrise. I can picture it now.

Though that reminds me to get to Toronto, which is long overdue.

Rumpus: Toronto has a very exciting mayor, right now.

Kealey: I hear that. Let’s go.

But, back to your question: I’m definitely not a Southern writer. My family and I moved to North Carolina when I was seven, and we’d lived in New York before that. So, there’s always the sense of being a transplant there. In my own writing, I think place works locally, not globally. I’m interested in this specific grocery store, this church, this trailer park, this ferry boat, this baseball field, this circus. I suppose I come back to the epigraph for the book from Mario Buatta: “Many of my favorite things are broken.”

Meanwhile, something like “No problem, everything’s fine here!” is not a great opening for story, nor is it a good setting for fictional characters.

Rumpus: Actually, the line “No problem, everything’s fine here!” might be the beginning of my next story.

Kealey: True, we don’t tend to trust statements like that. But, I don’t think that’s your kind of line. Your characters, as I know and love them, are often haunted, yet hopeful people.

Rumpus:  Craft question: your stories never have what is called, in the biz, “a hook.” There are no ticking time bombs or other devices. Or at least rarely. And yet they really accumulate narrative power over the course of the telling. Do you set out to do this on purpose? How?

The Creative Writing MFA HandbookKealey: Wow. I hope my students never read this, because I think I’m often saying to them: “What’s at stake in this story? Make this clear and direct.” And don’t get me wrong, I think that is an important and oftentimes crucial element. But it’s not always necessary. In “The Lost Brother,” we find Albert and Daniel taking a midnight drive to visit Albert’s girlfriend. There’s no stated, direct question. Though hopefully we get this sense of Daniel’s fear about his brother’s state of mind. And, of course, by the end of the story, a fear about his own sense of security and sanity. On the other hand (the more concrete and “hook” hand), in “The Boots,” we get two altar boys who set out to find a pair of boots that were stolen from a priest. We ask, Are they going to find the boots? So, that’s actually a helpful hook.

Rumpus: Yes—“The Boots” works a bit more traditionally.

Kealey: I think if I have a hook, then I’ve set it on purpose. “The Boots,” or say, the robbery in “Coyotes.” But when there’s no hook, it’s probably because I’m so focused on the character element that I forget. In defense of my advice to students, the stories of mine that have not worked (meaning that readers, and I, find them boring), have not worked because there’s nothing clearly at stake. By the way, did I tell you what happened to me over the weekend?

Rumpus: No!

Kealey: Ta-da! That’s a hook. And you fell for it. “What happened over the weekend?” It creates a question, and we need this type of question for stories. Unfortunately, nothing super interesting happened to me this weekend. I suppose that’s why I’m a fiction writer, not nonfiction.

Rumpus: I feel deeply and personally betrayed.

Kealey: That was pretty rotten, I admit. I’m sorry—but not completely.

Rumpus: What are you reading right now?

Kealey: I’m actually re-reading The Things They Carried. I keep coming back to the story where the former soldier drives around the lake, thinking about the war and how it has changed him.

Rumpus: You mentioned Alice Munro earlier—her stories often work in such a way. Hookless, but with enormous power that comes from the clarity of characters and their thoughts and desires.

Kealey: Most definitely. I think in Munro’s stories, the hook arrives later. Or rather, the hook is planted early, but we don’t see it until she chooses to reveal it. She’s a master.

Rumpus: Any final words of advice for aspiring short story writers (such as myself)?

Kealey: Well, I’m going to give you your own advice, that you shared with me last year: “Just write the scenes that you’re interested in, and then figure out how to link them later.” Did I get that right?

Rumpus: I never remember my own advice. But that sounds good!

Kealey: Good thing this interview will be on The Rumpus. We can refer to it later when we’re stuck.

It’s important that I catch a story idea while I have it. My “genius thought” doesn’t seem too intriguing three weeks later when I sit down to write it. I like making a mess first, and then seeing what to do about it later. The answer to “how can I link these scenes?” tends to appear later. It reveals itself. And that’s part of the thrill of writing fiction.

I’d say that when I look at these stories, and how they were created, I’d first say what I hope most writers of any experience say about their stories: “Wow, I made this. Way cool!” It’s a nice feeling to bring characters into the world, especially characters that we are invested in. Second, I’d say that I’m always interested in relationships, and what I’ll call the sticky way that certain people impact and keep hold of us. Sometimes the contact stops (through death, or someone leaving), but the relationship always continues.

But advice? When I’m stuck, I want to ask the question, What has this character lost, and what is this character looking forward to? That actually gives us three points on the continuum. Past, present, and future. And of course, if you’re not stuck, then you don’t need my advice, but my advice is, “Keep going!”


Scott Hutchins is a former Truman Capote fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University. His debut novel A Working Theory of Love has been heralded by the New York Times as "charming, warm-hearted, and thought-provoking," and was a Salon.com and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2012. ScottHutchins.com More from this author →