Magical Truth: A Conversation with Chloe N. Clark

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Chloe N. Clark’s debut short story collection, Collective Gravities, situates characters on shifting ground or inside space vessels, beneath or within wide-open skies. Blending elements of folklore, science fiction, and horror, the twenty-six stories in Clark’s newest book ultimately offer hope within strange but familiar worlds.

Clark’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Booth, Glass, Little Fiction, Uncanny, and more. She is the author of The Science of Unvanishing Objects, Your Strange Fortune, and Collective Gravities, as well as the co-editor-in-chief of Cotton Xenomorph. You can find her on Twitter at @PintsNCupcakes.

In early May, Chloe and I spoke via Zoom and what stood out most was her enthusiasm. Clark delights in exploring how things—especially our brains—work and how disparate ideas and forces connect, often in ways that turn the mundane into the magical.

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The Rumpus: In “This Is the Color of Your Eyes in the Dark,” the narrator says, “My mind was always grabbing my heart like a hand and pulling me down foolish alleys.” What alleys—not necessarily foolish—was your mind pulling your heart down as you wrote Collective Gravities?

Chloe N. Clark: Sometimes it can be a foolish endeavor to write hopefully, because it can lead to sentimentality. But I’m naturally a very hopeful person. I call myself an optimistic pessimist because I see things as they really are, but I’m also very optimistic. I always want to be kind to my characters and write with a hopeful mindset where they’re concerned, even if the world around them is cruel or apocalyptic.

Rumpus: Many of the stories use elements of horror, but sometimes they turn somewhat away from horror in the end. I’m thinking specifically of “See Sky Sea Sky,” where everyone thinks that there’s a serial killer, but the ending complicates this and makes it more a question of agency and choice. Hope comes through in surprising ways. You also use elements of folklore in your work, and you’re a poet. I’d love to hear more about how these various modes of storytelling informed this collection.

Clark: For me, folklore is present in just about everything I write. I’m fascinated by the stories we tell over and over, as people. I also love the way that orally told stories differ so much from how we write stories and I always want that to bleed into the way I tell stories within stories.

Poetry helps my fiction immensely, and vice versa. I think I focus on sound and rhythm much more in fiction because of this. I also tend to describe senses in much more metaphorical imagery than I might otherwise do because of this.

Rumpus: A lot of these stories focus on longing and vast distances, such as outer space. In “Palm Line Constellation,” it hurts more that the narrator’s mother is in Minneapolis than if she were on the moon. What does distance mean to you? How does it inspire you?

Clark: Distance is something we all struggle with. We’re all feeling especially isolated right now, but we’re always isolated in some way. You’re isolated from other people and from what you want, your dreams. We’re always feeling that sort of distance or separation from our sense of self, our sense of hope, who we want to be with, or who we want to be. That’s one of the great driving forces of being human. Often my stories start out with the question of what sort of distance the character is struggling with. Then I try to pair that with a physical, perhaps impossible, representation of that distance, like space or the bottom of the ocean. That physical distance mirrors what they’re going through emotionally. Those distances can also be in opposition to each other, because a physical distance might be fine if a character is dealing primarily with a mental distance. I always want to play with distances.

Rumpus: Do you think that your sense of distance is influenced by the Midwest?

Clark: I grew up on a farm surrounded by a lot of land, where it took fifteen to twenty minutes just to get to a very small town, so I definitely have distance instilled in me. In the Midwest, that’s common. People don’t often talk about distance in miles or minutes. Instead, they use bigger units, like “it’s the third town over.” That kind of language creates distance and has definitely influenced the way I look at and write about landscape.

Rumpus: The way you write about the sky brought me back to my years in Iowa, where the sky is so big. I’m interested in the ways that you zoom in and out in these stories. We have these vast distances, but many of the stories are also tunneling back through the personal memory and experiences of one character.

Clark: The lazy answer is that’s the way my brain thinks. I think in the order of how things make sense emotionally rather than chronologically. So, on one level, that’s the way my brain works and what makes sense to me. On another level, in the revision process, I try to think about how we create memories for ourselves, or how we try to remember things versus how we actually remember them. Memory can play against us in a lot of ways, because we remember something at the moment where it’s least helpful. I try to bring that aspect in, too, because it raises character stakes, but it also feels truer to how people actually remember things and how those memories might help or harm us.

Rumpus: There’s a lot of associative logic in the stories, where people are reminded of things that happened years ago, often at inopportune moments. I know that you get a lot of inspiration from reading scientific texts. Has being a writer changed the way that your mind associates factual information with emotional information? Or do you think a tendency to associate disparate information helped to make you a writer?

Clark: It’s probably a combination. I’m sure it’s gotten worse, the longer I’ve been a writer. But my mom has stories I wrote when I was four, so my brain was always leaning towards writing. I was very interested in gathering information as a child. I was the little kid who would go up and talk to people and try to dig in and get some little nugget of information from them. Even as a kid, I wanted to learn people’s emotional truth and how that connected to the stories they told. Then I’d go and read a related book if something in their story caught my attention. That tendency has definitely gotten worse. As an adult, I’m obsessive about information. I try to dig in and figure out how to connect to facts—on the level of a personal emotional connection, but also in terms of how other people are processing information. This is a good thing in a lot of ways but can also lead to information overload. It’s a challenge to organize it all. Plus, I’m thinking constantly about everything.

Rumpus: What’s your very favorite, most wonderful and strange, grabbed-you-and-wouldn’t-let-you-go research rabbit hole that you went down for this collection?

Clark: Oh, there are a lot. I love falling into rabbit holes. For the first story, “Balancing Beams,” I got really obsessed with the idea of proprioception. I had a scientist friend who was telling me about it—the idea that we have to have a “sixth sense” to tell us how big we are—and it blew my mind. I was thinking of Alice in Wonderland, when she grows bigger and grows smaller, and my brain went off in a variety of ways. I was looking into psychedelics and brain trauma that can mess with that sense. I read a lot of medical journal articles before bringing that in as the central creepiness in that story. That’s one of the big ones. But each story has its own rabbit hole because I get very obsessive when I find a scientific idea that interests me.

Rumpus: Do you ever find that this interest in information forces you to write into a certain type of character, like experts? How does that influence—or not—the types of stories that you’re telling?

Clark: It definitely does in this collection somewhat, but even more so in the one I’m working on now, which features a lot of characters who happen to be scientists and experts in their fields, because it makes sense for them to pull up an obscure fact about plants or something that I wanted to write about. That definitely influences me. But I also like scientific brains a lot, so I might be drawn to writing those characters regardless. Sometimes I’ll read something and it’s so fascinating to me that I want everyone to know it. Then I’ll write a story that makes that a big central element so that I can tell other people about this fact that excites me. I don’t really have another way to share it. I teach English, so my students are not going to be as interested if I start going off on the history of oak trees. Being able to bring that into a story is maybe a little nicer to my students.

Rumpus: There can be something grounding as well as ironic about dealing with the emotionally unknown, and how that’s juxtaposed and in conversation with having this vast body of expert knowledge, which can’t actually help you decide who you should be with or how you can get over somebody you’ve lost. It’s an interesting interplay, having experts deal with big human questions.

Clark: I think that’s a good way of putting it because we’re all experts in something, but none of us are experts in ourselves.

Rumpus: There’s a line in “Between the Axis and the Stars” that speaks to that: “We can send people to the stars, but we can’t understand their brains.” That’s an interesting conundrum.

Clark: And one that bothers me.

Rumpus: Did you have any “Aha!” moments as you were working through conundrums with these characters?

Clark: There are definitely a couple of stories in the collection where I was trying to think through a memory and the way that I perceived it versus what might have actually been the case. Sometimes writing a story that deals with a similar memory through the perspective of a character who’s completely unlike me helps me realize, Oh, this might have actually been perceived x way, or, This is probably what happened if I was looking at it logically, like this character. Often the “Aha!” moments come from working through a memory or a situation from a completely different perspective.

Rumpus: In “On the Point Between You and Infinity,” the narrator says, “it was easy to say what a cloud might look like, much harder to figure out what it could never look like.” We’re wired to see strange possibilities. We’ve discussed different possible interpretations of memories. On a practical level, how do you work with memory as a generative process?

Clark: Memory is very important to my work. When I was a child, I had a perfect memory. I could read a book and remember word-for-word what was on each page. My memory still easily categorizes and clumps information, so I have a big bank of memories to bring out for writing, which is valuable because memory is so important to character. I often ask myself what a character’s incentivizing memory is. Which memory are they searching for or dealing with? It might not even be something I write into the story, but finding that memory tells me what they view as the central tenet of themselves, and then I explore why it is so important to them. Or it might be that they don’t even know. It might be that they saw somebody, and for some reason, the memory triggered something in them or holds onto them.

All of us probably have memories like that, too. Some purely visual experiences, like seeing a person across the way do something, have stuck with me. “Where God Suddenly” actually came from a memory like that. I was on the bus with a friend, and we saw a girl trying to get onto the bus. She looked bewildered and lost, and for some reason, that memory stuck with me for years until I wrote that story and wanted to get that in there. I’m interested in what that memory is for my characters, and I’ll try to find that. Sometimes I put it into the story, but oftentimes, it’s just between me and the characters. It helps me understand them better.

Rumpus: It’s interesting to explore those seemingly random memories and try to figure out why they’re so powerful. What’s in them that connects to my questions about the world?

Clark: Maybe that’s a writer thing, too. I’d be interested to know if other people get so drawn to individual characters out in the world.

Rumpus: On walks, I’ll notice tiny, tiny things and start to unspool possibilities for why a person is doing something, and my partner will say, “Oh, I didn’t notice that person.” Maybe deep noticing like that is a writerly thing. Another thing you seem to deeply notice is taste, an often-overlooked sense in storytelling. Which writers incorporate taste really well?

Clark: That’s a hard question because a lot of writers really don’t dive into taste. Helen Oyeyemi does a good job of talking about spices and flavor and weaving that in. Her most recent book is called Gingerbread, so definitely she’s working on food and spice in her work. I feel like poets often deal with taste a little better; it seems to play a bigger role in their work. Taste is probably my biggest thing. Whenever I’m teaching writing I always remind my students not to forget taste; you’ve got to bring taste. I get a little obsessive about it.

Rumpus: When I’m working on a story, I often listen to one song over and over again. Or I’ll be working at a café, and then that story for me always triggers that moment in the café, with those tastes, smells, and sounds. Are there any stories in the collection that are really linked to a taste that you were experiencing as you were writing that story?

Clark: Definitely, there are a couple like that. “Dropping Dimes” is linked to bad fast food in my head. I even have the characters stop at Taco Bell. It’s not even something I tasted while writing that story, but I have very physical memories of being on car trips, and smelling fast food grease, and that triggering a taste sensation in my head. I used that in the story—that feeling of being in the car too long, with that greasy smell, which makes your tongue feel oily. So that story is very directly linked to a not-as-good taste. That’s the feel of that story in my head.

Rumpus: You take things that are mundane or habitual and find the strangeness in them. For instance, in “Where God Suddenly,” Rivka takes the bus home at night, and it’s so strange compared to during the day. Does writing the mundane as strange affect how you view your daily habits? Do you have a stronger sense of the stories that might be hiding behind everyday events?

Clark: On some level, it makes me think a lot more when I see somebody do something habitually. It makes me wonder how they view their own actions. But also, I think everyone tends to live in a strange reality, so the mundane is really strange and beautiful. The mundane takes on special meaning because of the perspective we’re bringing or the slight changes we make to it. I’m really obsessed with pareidolia—seeing shapes as other shapes, like when people see shapes in clouds. You see something that’s completely illogical, but it’s got kind of a magical truth to it. You see a dragon in the clouds. Obviously, it’s not a dragon. It’s not shaped like a dragon. But the fact that our brains can do that is strange and wonderful in itself. We all deal with the mundane like that.

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Photograph of Chloe N. Clark by Chloe N. Clark.


Kate Finegan is editor-in-chief of Longleaf Review, novel/novella editor for Split/Lip Press, and author of the chapbooks Ablaze (Sonder Press, 2020) and The Size of Texas (Penrose Press, 2018). She lives in Toronto. Find her at http://katefinegan.ink and on Twitter at @kehfinegan. More from this author →