Smart Girls, Weird Magic: Talking with Kendra Fortmeyer


Kendra Fortmeyer is no manic pixie dream girl—although she has been known to rock a pair of fairy wings every now and then. You could easily be forgiven for thinking she might have some kind of magical powers: she’s a gorgeously original writer with a talent for genre-crossing, a seemingly endless supply of lyrical prose, and an impressively charming Twitter account. Most of all, she’s a writer eager for new challenges: in her career thus far, she’s leapt gracefully from short fiction to novels, from realism to speculative fiction, and from adult readers to young adults.

After meeting Kendra at a workshop during the summer of 2016, I had the immense good fortune to read her first novel, Hole in the Middle, which was released last year by Little Brown UK and makes its US debut with Soho Teen this September. Hole brilliantly blends magical realism with the conventions of young adult fiction to tell the story of Morgan, a teenage girl with a literal hole in her abdomen. In the face of Internet harassers and uncomfortable medical procedures, Morgan passes through hospitals, art galleries, and night clubs in a journey of self-discovery and acceptance that reads like a mash-up of Aimee Bender and John Green.

An alumna of the New Writers Project at the University of Texas at Austin and 2017 Pushcart Prize winner, Kendra has published fiction in One Story, The Toast, Lightspeed, and elsewhere. We spoke recently about her obsessions, how writers are creating feminists, and whether or not YA should be taken seriously by adult readers.


The Rumpus: I wanted to start with a question inspired by our shared teacher (and de facto coven leader) Kelly Link: what are your obsessions as a writer?

Kendra Fortmeyer: My obsessions as a reader and writer are happily the same: Smart girls. Weird magic. Labyrinths. Choose-Your-Own-Adventures and footnotes; time travel; quests with elaborate clues. Games/movies/stories within stories. Ghosts. Forgotten spaces. Woods and beautiful sea-women and gems where they aren’t supposed to be. And the post-apocalypse. Obviously.

Rumpus: Diving into the book, I’m reminded of what Samantha Hunt said about teenage girls and their emotions. Paraphrasing, she asked why, instead of belittling these young women, we don’t celebrate their ability to feel deeply—I think she called them “superheroes of feelings.” Am I right to guess that’s an idea that might resonate with you?

Fortmeyer: Yes! Young women and teens of all genders. They are such powerful and creative feelers, and as a society, we don’t honor that the way we should. Teenhood is such a brief and specific time of life that it’s easy to forget—and hard to respect—how unique and beautiful and painful and all-consuming it is to be inside it. But we do our teens a great disservice by forgetting—and we do ourselves a great disservice by belittling and distancing our younger, non-mortgage-paying, unabashedly obsessed with [show/band/movie] selves from who we are now and how we move through the world.

We are quick to dismiss teen feelings as the result of hormones, teen romance as “puppy love,” teen ideas as pretentious or misguided or deluded. It’s worth examining the voices we ignore and the people we dismiss. Systemically, we dismiss people and subgroups that threaten the power of our comfortable worldview. And isn’t that, in itself, worth a good hard look?

Power dynamics aside, there are so many reasons adults read (and write!) YA. These are stories about a time of changes so intense and emotional truths so deep that they’re easier to flinch away from than face head-on. Teens deserve to be taken more seriously; as a teen, I was perpetually frustrated by the voicelessness I felt on the precipice of the adult world. It’s immensely cathartic to revisit and voice it.

Rumpus: Hole in the Middle is also an unabashedly feminist book, which speaks directly to issues like body image and sexuality. How do you think about the intersections between feminism and your writing life?

Fortmeyer: In Texas, we have what are called feeder roads—roads that run directly alongside and parallel to major highways, allowing drivers to enter and exit freely. This, for me, is feminism and my writing life—less an intersection, and more a free-flowing superhighway.

In 2017, I saw a fantastic panel at SXSW, presented by The Moth and neuroscientist Alexander Huth, about the power of fiction to create empathy. Essentially, when someone tells a story, the brain activity in the listener begins to model that of the speaker, such that their minds become temporarily aligned. By extension, when you tell a story, you are literally (if temporarily) changing someone’s mind—seeding them with new (your) emotions, new reactions, new possibilities.

So by telling feminist stories—creating fictional worlds in which girls realize that their bodies don’t define them, and that they own their sexuality—writers are creating new spaces in readers’ minds for these possibilities to exist. And our beliefs about what is possible shape our entire world.

I’m honored to be able to tell these stories, and grateful to be both a feminist and a writer. This power—this potential to create potential—elevates fiction writing for me from hustle to mission.

Rumpus: You speak to the particular issues facing women in one of my favorite first lines of yours, from the story “Octopus vs. Bear,” which was published at Lightspeed this past year: “You woke up female this morning, so now you have a choice: do what other people want, or be a bitch.” Is that something that you wanted us to see Morgan grappling with in Hole in the Middle? 

Fortmeyer: Absolutely. Realizing that this choice—”Do what other people want, or be a bitch”—would be integral to the daily experience of moving through this world in a woman’s body was a distinct and uncomfortable part of my adolescence. A question that, thankfully, the #metoo movement has thrown into clearer relief for all of us. But just because we’re identifying it verbally doesn’t mean we’re not still fighting it.

I love writing magical realism because it amplifies our reality, allowing us to access real issues and emotions from new and unsettling angles. The arguments this teen protagonist overhears and the ways strangers try to define her based on the shape of her body (she’s a slut, she’s a freak, she’s other) are an amplified version of the micro- and macro-judgments all of us experience on a daily basis. Consequently, one of the major arcs of the novel is Morgan learning to “be the bitch”—which is to say, to throw off the expectations and desires other people have assigned to her body and define herself on her own merit.

Rumpus: Another Samantha Hunt quote: “…the true love affair is the young woman getting to know herself.” Hunt is talking about her debut novel The Seas, but this rang so true to me in thinking about Morgan. Yes, there’s a love interest here, but the book is about so much more than that.

Fortmeyer: So much yes! I spoke with Lesley Arimah about this very thing for The Butter (RIP) in 2015, also in the context of mermaids and hauntings—”every woman’s romance is actually with herself.”

I’m a rotten writer of romance; as an ace person (who didn’t realize until extremely late in life that she was ace), I’m bad at it and it generally fails to interest me. Some of the original cover designs for Hole in the Middle (and its current German cover) depicted the book as a pink-hued, boy-meets-girl romance, which really threw me for a loop. My general description of the book tends to be a gush about body positivity and feminism and self-discovery, then winds down, somewhat halfheartedly, with, “…and there’s a boy, of course.”

But the romance feels peripheral to me. If anything, the boy in the book is a bit of a Manic Pixie Dream Boy—he shows the main character how to break out of the mental and emotional bubbles she’s been living in. Then he dies! (Just kidding.) (Or am I?) (No, I am; I hate sad endings.)

Rumpus: Hole in the Middle takes place in a very much recognizable version of our world, but also has qualities I might associate with fabulism or magical realism. What do you enjoy about moving back and forth, between and among genres? Is genre something you’re thinking about when you sit down to write?

Fortmeyer: I’m most interested in writing when weirdness is present. “Things I Know to Be True” is realism—written in the brief, post-college period of my life before I discovered Aimee Bender and thought that realism was the sole route to being a literary writer—but it, too, is a weird story, finding its weirdness in the nooks and crannies of a broken-down mind and its intersection with language. (A cheat by a magical-hearted writer struggling against the conventions of literary realism!)

I love magic. I love weird. I just threw out four years’ of work on a contemporary realist novel, added a ghost, and have been writing with a frantic obsession ever since. There are dual forces at work here—one is write what you love (because if you don’t, you won’t), and the other is write what gives your work wings. Speculative fiction allows us to open doors and find new access points for familiar narratives and emotions—it takes the power of all narrative to create empathy and adds a gut-punch of the strange. (It’s a different experience, for example, to learn in school that slavery is bad than it is to be thrown emotionally into it by speculative novels like Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.) Spec fic lets you open weird doors, then give the reader an extra twist as you push them through.

Rumpus: Let’s talk, too, about Aimee Bender, another fabulist writer whose work about girl and young womanhood is particularly close to my heart. Is she a writer with a place in your mental constellation?

Fortmeyer: Every writer has an author who cracked their worldview wide open (in an interview at Guernica, Carmen Machado reflects on initially encountering the work of another shared inspiration—Kelly Link—and thinking, “You can do that in a story?”).

Aimee Bender is mine. I picked up her Girl in the Flammable Skirt in my early twenties. At the time, I was very much of a rigid, Only Realism Counts As Literary! mindset—and struggling subconsciously with the nagging sense that what had drawn me to books as a child was the unreal, and that I wanted to be a literary writer but still loved fairy tales and magic and the unexplainable. Amy’s work simultaneously walks and troubles the nebulous line between the real and the weird. I fell through the crack she planted in the genre divide and fell in love with the possibilities there.

Rumpus: Aimee Bender is also Jewish—as, I know, are you, and as is the character of Morgan. How does that identity inform your writing?

Fortmeyer: Growing up Jewish in the Bible Belt contributed, to me, what is a vital experience for every writer: the sense of feeling like an eternal outsider. I had so many well meant, scarring early encounters with childhood friends who really wanted me to come with their family to church on Sunday. Hello and welcome to first grade, did you know you’re going to Hell?

What I wouldn’t have given to see more girls like me in children’s literature.

I wrote this to another of our Clarion cohort, Emily Cataneo, last year: Representation is powerful. Morgan is very nominally Jewish (the book contains a few scattered references to synagogue and sitting shiva, plus a guilt-provoking, all-caps text from her mother about attending Rosh Hashanah services), but even casual representation matters. Even the slightest hint that the world is not default straight-white-cisgendered-able-bodied-Protestant-male is a small revolution. If you’re a member of a minority, minority representation can remind you that you’re not alone. That you are worthy of subjecthood. That you have agency. If you’re a member of a majority group, minority representation can remind you to tread more carefully, to assume less, to open your mind more. It teaches us that the world can be more than what’s in our own heads—which, in an increasingly echo-chambered world, is more important than ever before.

Rumpus: Hole in the Middle also includes one of my all-time favorite fictional band names: Yum Yum Situation. Every time I read it, it makes me laugh. Do you consider yourself a funny writer? What does it mean to be funny in fiction? How does one go about it?

Fortmeyer: I don’t know if I’m a funny writer—there’s an enormous, all-encompassing sense of scene and timing in comic writing that isn’t in my bones—but I do think my characters are immensely funny people. (Think of this less as a woman writer refusing to take a compliment and more as a form of writerly psychosis. It leads to some very discombobulating dinner conversations—I’ll gigglingly report that Phoebe said this amazing thing to Bailey, and my [poor, patient] husband looks at me, like, one, those people are not real, and two, you made them up in your head and are laughing at your own jokes right now.)

I actually can’t take the credit for Yum Yum Situation! It was a phrase coined by one of my wonderfully goofy AmeriCorps teammates, Jason Eggleston, during a deep wilderness project in Idaho. He wandered into the kitchen where a few of us were prepping dinner and declared that “It smells like a yum yum situation in here.” Our little crew had a running gag of “that’s my new band name/that’s our band’s new single”-style jokes, and Yum Yum Situation was our fictional band from that day on.

This is one of the (many) cool things about writing fiction—you can take all those great business ideas or hilariously named barber shops and things you and your friends joke about but know you’ll never actually pursue in real life and grant them life in a new reality. (Someday I’ll write a book set in the world of roller derby just to home all the derby names I’ve dreamed up without the risk of personally tearing a rotator cuff.)

Rumpus: Similarly, you are the queen of snappy dialogue—and one of my absolute favorite aspects of this novel are the conversations between Morgan and her best friend Caro, which often read like the good-natured bickering of two of your cleverest friends. Is that something that comes naturally to you as a writer? Do you ever worry about writing characters who are “too” witty or clever? 

Fortmeyer: I’m obsessed with female friendships and am addicted to writing snappy BFF girl dialogue. I would fill whole books with it if I could, to the detriment of all plot and other relationships. I’m at a point in my current project where I really need to develop the romantic plot line—and I was a teen of endless hopeless crushes! So much source material!—but when I sit down to try, more pages of funny girl talk spill out. What can I say? Some loves are more compelling than others.

Rumpus: Like so much of your work, this novel is also filled with absolutely gorgeous, lyrical sentences. Can you talk about your approach to language? At what point in your process are you thinking deeply about things like diction, rhythm, and sentence structure?

Fortmeyer: That’s so kind! I think this is true for most of us—my writing is helplessly infused with whatever I’m reading. I wrote the original draft of Hole in the Middle as my master’s thesis in my MFA program, a time in which I was immersed in an enormous amount of poetry and short fiction, and the rhythm and language and sensibilities bled right into the manuscript. (Currently, by contrast, I’m obsessed with Netflix’s Queer Eye and our Clarion classmate Jordy Rosenberg’s fantastic novel Confessions of the Fox, and the protagonist of my WIP has become the sassiest, most neurotically academic little shy country girl west Texas has ever seen.) (I’ll tone her down in rewrites.) (Maybe.)

Rumpus: What’s something that you had to learn to write this book? Something that you had to unlearn?

Fortmeyer: Before this, I was a writer exclusively of short fiction, and my process was always extremely controlled—I wrote quickly and efficiently, with a clear sense of where each word was on the page. I also rarely edited anything. For a project the size and scope of a novel, I had to unlearn (and then learn) both of these skills—how to let yourself lose control, to let the novel expand and ramble and sag, and then to reel it back in (and cut and polish, cut and polish) in the end. It’s an immensely different skill set from writing short fiction; I love them both very much.

Rumpus: You’ve also published a great deal of flash. What draws you to that shortest of fiction forms?

Fortmeyer: There is a great deal of power in things left unsaid.

Rumpus: I always hate to generalize, particularly because you and I both have been lucky to know so many warm and open-minded people from the big bad world of literary MFA programs; however, I do think there’s this (deeply flawed) idea that books for adults must always be very serious—and similarly, that the only books worth taking seriously are books for adults. Can we agree that this is just silly? 

Fortmeyer: A million-damn-times-yes. To save us both the word count—lest you are in doubt (ye hypothetical skeptics), pick up Angie Thomas’s explosive YA novel The Hate U Give and try to pitch an argument that it’s not a book to be taken seriously.

I’ll be waiting.

Rumpus: If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear about what’s next. What are you working on? 

Fortmeyer: A contemporary YA set in small-town Texas, with sex and ghosts. (And girls being witty and tough-love-wonderful to each other, obviously.)

Rumpus: And to close, a question from New York Times’s By the Book feature: if you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Fortmeyer: Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay. Preferably read Clockwork Orange-style, with ears and eyes taped open.

Maggie Cooper is a fiction writer and maker of fruit pies. She graduated from the MFA University of North Carolina at Greensboro and attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop in 2016. You may follow her on Twitter @frecklywench. More from this author →