The Rumpus Book Club chats with Kimberly Lojewski about her debut story collection, Worm Fiddling Nocturne in the Key of a Broken Heart (Burrow Press, September 2018), her love of folklore and oral storytelling, and why adolescence is a great jumping-off point for the imagination.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Nicole Chung, Idra Novey, Tom Barbash, Esmé Weijun Wang, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Kimberly Lojewski!
Eva Woods: I’m early because I am so excited to get into this book. Kimberly, when you log on, know you’re dealing with a total fangirl.
Kimberly Lojewski: Haha. Yay, sweet! I have never, ever had a fangirl before, Eva.
Eva Woods: Kim, I loved the book. I texted a friend saying “this is what I am going for.”
Kimberly Lojewski: Thanks so much!
Eva Woods: Okay, let’s crack in!
Marisa: Kim, can you start by talking a little about how the collection came to together?
Eva Woods: What made you choose short fiction? The thesis of these stories could have been (much worse) essays (that I would not have loved this much), and I’m really curious how you figured out exactly the way these feelings should be communicated.
Kimberly Lojewski: Sure. But I don’t have a super cohesive answer. It was my MFA thesis, basically. I wrote all of the stories in the same period of time while I was kind of exploring writing. Obviously they are all a bit random but with some similar themes. I love short stories. And magical realism gives you so much room for creativity when you’re writing. It was kind of a freshman effort that I didn’t overthink too much. Just a lot of different characters and situations that resonated with me at the time.
Eva Woods: It didn’t feel freshman or un-thought-out to read! What was your thesis, as an MFA scholar? What made you want to be a storyteller?
Kimberly Lojewski: I have always been so obsessed with storytellers! I’ve been a crazy reader since I was a child as well, but I really love the oral tradition. I used to spend a lot at Jonesboro, and up in L’Anse aux Meadows where they do a lot of oral storytelling.
Marisa: Were you reading other writers who use magical realism while you worked on your thesis?
Kimberly Lojewski: Kind of. I’ve been writing for a long time, but I always had trouble finding my footing. Honestly, when I read Karen Russell’s first book of short stories several years ago it completely opened a new world to me. I try to only read her new stuff when I’m not writing much, because I get so obsessed with her voice. Hard not to want to copy it, you know?
Eva Woods: I’ve never read her, I’m embarrassed to say! But I know the feeling of “I want to do THIS but ME.”
Kimberly Lojewski: Yes, totally Eva! It’s difficult to really love other writers and try to keep an autonomous voice. But, really, you have to read her. She’s amazing.
Eva Woods: I’m so on it. A big part of why I love this book club is because I get to ask these questions, and get really informed answers.
Marisa: Your settings are so vivid; are they informed by your real-life surroundings at all?
Kimberly Lojewski: Yes. So, the Florida ones, obviously, because I am from Florida. Swamps are my jam. And then a lot of the other ones as well. Except for maybe the Himalayas. I’ve never been there. That was just some imagination and research.
Eva Woods: Marisa, that’s a great question! The settings are almost sci-fi in their specificity but they aren’t the focus. I loved it.
Kimberly Lojewski: Aww, thanks. I usually do take something familiar and just change it up a bit.
Marisa: I also really loved the titles of the stories! Any secret method to how you generate those?
Kimberly Lojewski: Haha! I am so bad at titles! I used to get made fun of for how bad at titles I am. I just pick things at random that I like.
Eva Woods: Kim you’re my kind of writer, I’ve got to tell you. “I suck at this? Watch me suck MORE!” LMAO.
Eva Woods: This will go long but—every one of these stories felt like it talked about a very common emotion that we all experience at some time: liking a boy who doesn’t like you back, feeling alien in a new environment, etc. But you presented these emotions in a new way that made doing so feel fresh. How did you walk the line between familiar and interesting?
Kimberly Lojewski: Well, I think writing is always finding that mix between the familiar and the unfamiliar, right? That’s the way I try to do it. The familiar element makes stories relatable to us. I always think of fairy tales and folktales. Those same tropes being told and retold in different ways, but changed by different storytellers in order to make them their own. That’s how this collection was for me. I didn’t go crazy with “plot.” Most of themes are very ordinary, but with that as the hinge I could be very inventive with the other things. I guess I’m lucky it turned out interesting. I mean, I think hot air balloons, worm fiddlers, and carnies are interesting, but they are not everyone’s cup of tea.
Marisa: They’re certainly my cup of tea!
Kimberly Lojewski: We’re kindred spirits!
Marisa: Eva, that’s a great question about walking the line between the familiar and the strange. It somehow heightened the emotions to the exact fullness they hold in reality. Kim, was this something you were doing intentionally?
Kimberly Lojewski: I really didn’t do it intentionally. I didn’t realize it until after I finished the stories. But I have spent a long time studying folklore and oral storytelling principles, and that’s a big one, so I think it just worked its way into my writing. And, those “familiar” things that the characters were going through, I’ve felt most of them.
Marisa: I also noticed a recurring theme of younger characters who are orphans, or otherwise separated from family. Can you talk a little about why you’re drawn to these characters?
Kimberly Lojewski: Again, I think partially I’ve experienced some of these things. As for the age, adolescence is such a great jumping-off point for the imagination. It is literally the beginning of self-discovery when you can become whatever you want. So it is such a fun age to write. And they can be surly and strange as hell. Which is also fun to write.
Eva Woods: I have an adolescent who lives at my house that I gave birth to, and she read the title story, “Worm Fiddling Nocturne in the Key of a Broken Heart “ She loved it. It’s an unusually relatable story of love.
Eva Woods: I feel like we don’t have the frame to talk about unrequited or less-than-requited love. You wrote about it specifically and movingly; is there a reason?
Kimberly Lojewski: Unrequited and less-than-requited love is my other jam, aside from swamps. In all seriousness, though, it just seems to come to the forefront a lot when I’m writing adolescent characters. That has to be one of the keystone moments of every kid’s life. And I LOVE that your daughter liked it. That makes me so happy!
Eva Woods: Dude, unrequited love is a swamp!
Eva Woods: There seems to be a theme in (especially women’s) short stories, of the folklore or fairy tale being the core. Is that something that you work off of generally? There isn’t a single story that I could point to and say, “that’s Goldilocks” or “that’s Bluebeard,” but at the same time, I can see the thread. Did you feel you were a part of a zeitgeist while you were writing?
Eva Woods: Because, like, Carmen Maria Machado jumps to mind, reading these, but your tone and voice is so different than hers.
Kimberly Lojewski: I haven’t read a ton of contemporary fairy tales! Some, but I like the traditional ones, and actual folklore. More Zora Neale Hurston kind of stuff. I’ve read a lot of the theory, but I’m not all that current on what’s happening in fairy tales these days. Maybe women are drawn to them because we’re weaned on the stuff. I got into it because my grandparents would tell me old Polish tales. I loved the weight and the creepiness of the characters. Like Rusalki.
Eva Woods: Adding Rusalki to my Google list.
Marisa: Kim, Burrow Press is a wonderful small indie press—how did you come to work with them?
Kimberly Lojewski: So, yes, Burrow Press is absolutely amazing. I love Ryan Rivas with all my soul. I sent them a story (“Worm Fiddling Nocturne…”) at the prompting of one of my professors, Jeff Parker, who is a friend of theirs. And the rest is kind of history. If you ever want to meet some people with a genuine and unpretentious love of the literary arts, those folks are the ones to know. Seriously. Can’t say enough kind things about them.
Eva Woods: God bless editors.
Eva Woods: Can we talk about when you were thirteen? When you were a teenager, were you writing? Were you wanting to? You got into some very young character’s heads so well, and I find that fascinating.
Kimberly Lojewski: Oh my gosh, Eva, totally. At thirteen I was writing a few things. A story about a girl named Dew Rain who ran off to join the Medieval Festival. It never quite took off. Also a terrible copycat series of Sweet Valley high that featured brunette twins. And finally a novel about a girl who fell into a magical portal that led to Ireland where she met a lot of friendly leprechauns. They were all a bust. Who knew!?
Eva Woods: AAAAHHHH! I love all those. My kid is doing similar stuff now and I am beyond into it.
Marisa: Kim, I want to read those stories!!
Eva Woods: What is your driving force, as a writer? What makes you sit down and think, this is a story people want to read?
Kimberly Lojewski: I have never thought about what people want to read, with the exception of writing something to spec. I write things that I want to imagine. I love that when you are writing you are literally breathing something into existence. Even if you are the only person who ever knows about it.
Eva Woods: Can we focus on one story for a second? “The Ballad of Sparrow Foot” caught me sideways and made me cry at a party
Kimberly Lojewski: Really?! That is actually my favorite story.
Eva Woods: What was going in your head writing it? I felt so seen as an outsider and social climber and LA resident.
Kimberly Lojewski: What made you cry?
Eva Woods: The feeling of being examined and being found worthy of interest—and then realizing that that sucks. That I shouldn’t have to be weird to be a person.
Marisa: I was just going to ask if you had a favorite story, Kim. I loved this one, too!
Eva Woods: Marisa, I love that you connected with it, too! It very much told the story of being accepted as long as you were cool enough or interesting enough or weird enough, but really we just wanna chill and be people?
Kimberly Lojewski: So, without getting too in-depth, I was really struggling to fit in at an MFA program where I genuinely didn’t fit in. I never can figure out who or what I’m supposed to be. I never feel like I am what I’m supposed to be. It always feels fraudulent somehow. Sparrowfoot is the one character I have a close and personal relationship too. We’ve probably all been a Sparrowfoot at some point in our lives. Plus, I mean, she was a badass half-Great Potoo bird girl that brought down a Beastie Bazaar. I really love her. I’m so glad you liked this one!
Eva Woods: FYI I’m kind of tearing up that you felt that way about her, too. I feel in my day to day life that the strength of women is asked to recede a lot, and I suck at that, so I’m rejected sometimes. A lot of your characters, but mainly Sparrowfoot, really allowed me to step into that feeling and question it. Sometimes for the first time.
Kimberly Lojewski: Eva, I have never figured out how to do that either. Whoever or whatever you are, you are exactly who you are meant to be.
Eva Woods: Damn I didn’t know this was going to be a therapy session, but here we are!
Marisa: Kim, were all of these stories written before you put the collection together? The final story in the book, where you revisit a character from “The Ballad of Sparrow Foot,” had me wondering.
Eva Woods: Great question!
Kimberly Lojewski: Well, actually, I was going to do the entire collection based on “freaks” and carnies. There’s a place in Florida called Gibsonton, and it is full of retired carnies. Much like the last story. I met some people there and thought it was would be so fun to write different fictional accounts of different characters in the town that all kind of came together. But, I got tired of writing about the same place after a few stories. There were originally a few others in the collection, but we took them out.
Marisa: That’s super fascinating to know. I’d love to read those stories, too!
Eva Woods: Okay, Kim, I have to tell you this even though we are short on time: I used to work the carnie convention in Gibsonton!
Marisa: Eva, that’s so cool! Now I can pick your brain about this later.
Kimberly Lojewski: Stop it! Eva, you are so cool.
Eva Woods: Kim, I’m going to follow you on Twitter and hopefully this comes up more because it’s a fascinating community
Marisa: Kim, what are you reading right now that we should absolutely check out?
Marisa: Ooh I haven’t read either, and will definitely check them out!
Eva Woods: Kim, I would love to know how you manage your time as a writer.
Kimberly Lojewski: I’m terrible at managing time to write. I sleep very erratically. That’s basically it.
Eva Woods: Girl, we are going to get along! Thank you so much for your time tonight, and I can’t wait to read whatever you have coming up. This was a breath of cold, fresh air.
Kimberly Lojewski: I haven’t logged into Twitter since probably 2011, Eva, but thanks so much for all the kind words. (Facebook is about the extent of my social media!)
Eva Woods: I will follow you anywhere Kim!
Marisa: Thank you both for this awesome chat, and Kim, thank you so much for this completely weird and wonderful book!
Kimberly Lojewski: It was so fun. This is the first conversation I have had with anyone who has read the collection, and I so appreciate all of the feedback!
Marisa: Well, I hope there are many more conversations, and that the book gets all the eyeballs and attention it deserves. <3
Kimberly Lojewski: Thanks so much, Marisa!