Kim Fu’s fourth book and first short story collection, Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, is truly a marvel. Her worlds are deeply grounded in the realities of this strange century and of living in human bodies coping with the joys and pains of everyday life, even as technological advancements attempt to alter and improve the human experience. Fu notes that she set out to inhabit speculative scenarios without a wink to metaphor, and she does so with breathtaking skill as ankles sprout wings, the entire world population loses its sense of taste, a married couple repeatedly kill each other before coming back to life through 3D printing, and a vendor sells cubes that can fast-forward or rewind through an organism’s life cycle. This is an incredible collection, one with sweeping variety that is unified by a singular vision of what it means to be human.
Fu is the author of For Today I Am a Boy, winner of the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her second novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award and the OLA Evergreen Award. Fu’s writing has appeared in Granta, the Atlantic, the New York Times, Hazlitt, and the TLS. She lives in Seattle, Washington.
I had the joy of speaking with Fu via Zoom, in a conversation offering keen insights into the craft of the short story, compassion for artists who are struggling to write in these strange times, and a call to celebrate the pleasures of the writing process, regardless of external goalposts.
The Rumpus: In an interview with Room Magazine, you discussed your inspiration for “Liddy, First to Fly” and recalled that a friend had to extract a piece of work glove from under their skin, and that the weird little kid inside them was excited about performing surgery on their own hand. You said the weird little kid you used to be would want to watch. How does inhabiting that weird little kid inform your writing life?
Kim Fu: One of the best things about being a writer is being able to slip into fantasy in the way that children do when they play pretend. There’s a terrible reckoning that happens to children at a certain age, where they’re like, “Why aren’t my toys fun anymore? Why can’t I enter this world anymore?” As a writer, you have a tiny crack in reality that takes you back to that place. One of the great pleasures of writing is still being able to create a whole world that you can choose to inhabit and hang the lights just so.
I had a mentor during my MFA who said he was lying on the sofa in his office, and one of his kids came in. He said, “Don’t bother me, I’m writing.” The kid said, “No, you’re not. You’re lying on the couch.” He responded, “This is writing.” There’s a part of writing that is daydreaming. It’s a space of play. That’s the best part, if you don’t get distracted by a rigid definition of productivity. A lot of the process lies in a childlike imagination.
Rumpus: For Shondaland, you discussed keeping the goals that you can control central to your process: things like playing, experimenting, and delighting in a great phrase. With this being your fourth book, how do you keep that delight as the central goal rather than focusing on external ideas of productivity?
Fu: The period around writing my second novel was the hardest for me in that respect. I had all these other voices in my head. I knew what reviewers sounded like, what editors sounded like, what my agent thought. I knew the market. I became convinced I could just sit down and write a perfect novel, even though that’s never how I’ve worked. I’ve always started out with scraps, single lines, little images, and characters that aren’t grounded in any particular place or story. They’re bits and pieces that I need to cobble together and play with, and 90% of it doesn’t amount to anything. A lot of writers I know and love talk about sitting down at a certain time and having daily word counts. I’ve never been able to work that way. I’ve always been a writer who throws the paint on the canvas to see what happens.
Recently, I heard a YouTuber say that you have to make your New Year’s resolutions actually achievable by you. Their personal example was not to set a goal of having a million subscribers, because they can’t actually control that. Putting out a video every week is something they can actually do, so that should be the resolution. That’s a useful reminder for everybody: I can’t control what happens to the work. I can’t control the response. So much of this industry is luck and serendipity and being in the right place at the right time, so that your work falls into the hands of the right person to champion it, and then they pass it on to another person who also just happens to be the right person at the right time. The terrible reality is that so many amazing manuscripts never go anywhere, so you can’t measure your value by external success. You don’t have any control over whether your book gets on a certain list, for instance. There are a million reasons why it does or doesn’t.
You have control over whether you wrote a sentence that made you feel really good. If you wrote one good sentence today, you made something out of nothing. Or if one person wrote you an email saying, “I really love this piece; it means a lot to me,” that means so much more than a number on a royalty statement. It’s really easy to slip into negative self-talk or move the goalposts again. Even if you did get what you wanted, you say, “Oh, but I didn’t get this other thing.” I’m always telling other people to celebrate their achievements. Buy yourself a cookie or something. I’m a big believer in celebrating everything, all the little things, and looking for every joy you can find, especially right now.
Rumpus: In working on this collection, what goals did you set for yourself?
Fu: The first stories I wrote were “Liddy, First to Fly” and “In This Fantasy,” which I wrote simultaneously starting in December of 2017. After that, l got a few solicitations from different outlets and anthology calls. I was writing a bunch of short stories, but I felt really nervous saying I was writing a book of short stories. That seemed really presumptuous, or even like a jinx. I did know early on that if I was going to write a short story collection, I didn’t want to go back through my files and find earlier works and put them together. I like that my previous books represent who I was as a writer and what interested me at a certain time. I wanted a story collection to feel the same way. I wanted it to represent who I was, and the kind of writer I was, in those particular years. I wanted to be able to talk about the stories without trying to remember what I was trying to do at twenty-three. Writing fresh stories was a goal I set right away.
I also wanted to take the speculative ideas very seriously and at face value. I wanted to inhabit those scenarios very honestly, asking what this character would do in this situation, without a winking eye to metaphor.
Rumpus: What were your greatest joys in the process?
Fu: The book is dedicated to my friend Andrea. When I finally said I was writing a short story collection, I encountered some subtle pushback from people in the industry. There’s a funny bias against stories, a belief in some circles that they’re not as serious or ambitious or marketable as a novel, that I found discouraging. I sent Andrea the stories as I went, and they cheered me on. They really got the stories and understood what I was trying to do. I couldn’t have kept going without them. The greatest joy was knowing that one person gets it, one person is waiting for it, one person loves it. That brought me a lot of joy, and it truly kept the lights on.
Rumpus: Did Andrea offer editorial feedback on the stories?
Fu: Andrea and I have had an editorial relationship during other projects, but with this collection, their role was mostly to say, “It’s great, keep going.” That’s what I needed most, for where I was psychologically, and in terms of process. But I’m really, really grateful to my editor, Masie Cochran at Tin House, for her insight and enthusiasm. She had a great impact on many of the endings, in particular. She saw that in my original versions, the story was one page shorter or longer than it needed to be. She saw that I needed to stretch out or pull back in that final beat, and we talked through what that could look like. I look at the endings of many of these stories and think, “Thank goodness for Masie.”
Rumpus: In her blurb, Celeste Ng says, “Kim Fu skillfully measures how long and loudly one formative moment can reverberate.” Many of these stories aren’t driven by conventional ideas of conflict. How do you approach finding the driver of a story, whether that’s conflict, tension, or something else?
Fu: I love reading fiction that works in unexpected ways. For instance, Ted Chiang’s stories often seem like thought experiments. Especially in his first collection, some don’t have the conventional elements of a story at all. I also love stories where nothing happens in a conventional sense, but the writing is so heightened that you feel intensity and tension.
“Scissors” is a story I specifically wrote to have no conflict. It came from an anthology call for Kink, edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell. The call was for literary stories about sex and desire, kink and BDSM. My first instinct, my safest instinct, was to write a story about interpersonal conflict and pain, a negative experience. The idea of a purely joyful story that is supposed to be erotic was so scary to me. Failing at that would be humiliating. With the first draft I submitted, Garth and Reese felt I needed to amp it up. It was a little bit quiet. Again, my instinct was to introduce external, interpersonal conflict between the two characters. Then I realized that wasn’t serving the story. What I needed to do was increase the tension in the game that they’re playing, and for that to be the driver. I wanted the reader to inhabit that space and mindset where there is tension, and there is danger, but it’s all in play, and there’s a baseline of trust. That story was a conflict-free experiment that I found very challenging to write and very scary to release into the world.
Rumpus: What other stories felt particularly risky to write?
Fu: Out of all of them, “In This Fantasy” took the most work: so much tweaking, so many iterations. I was worried it would make sense only to me. There’s something at the core of it that’s very clear to me, but it took a lot of work to make that accessible to other people.
I wrote “Do You Remember Candy,” where the whole world loses their sense of taste, in 2019. After the pandemic hit, I worried that the story would be painful or offensive in a way I didn’t intend. Again, I tweaked a lot, and I wrote a lot of drafts. But I didn’t feel entirely comfortable until someone read it who actually had lost her sense of taste to COVID. She said that she personally, as one individual, felt that the story took her pain seriously in a way she hadn’t seen before. That’s a comfort to me, and I hope that’s how people receive it.
Rumpus: “Do You Remember Candy” pays close attention to all the sensory details that go into taste, including sound and temperature. You’ve said before that you’re inspired by sensory elements, especially as they’re experienced by the body. The opening story, “Pre-Simulation Consultation, XF007867,” is quite pared down in terms of sensory details. How did you find the appropriate form for that story?
Fu: That story is entirely dialogue, a conversation with no narration around it. To explore new ideas, I sometimes play out a dialogue in my head, with people taking conflicting positions, to find where in the space between these opinions my truth lies. Writing pure dialogue is a natural way for me to draft or to think through scenes, but it’s very rare that I would want to keep any of it as a finished piece. It’s easy to remember how I wrote the first draft of “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867,” but it’s surprising to me that that’s the final form it took. But it encompassed everything I wanted to say, and I felt like the reveal at the end of that story is dependent on the form. It started out as me just talking through a philosophical idea with myself, and then these two avatars grew into fuller and fuller characters in my mind, and then the world around them took shape in a particular way that needed nothing more. So I wanted to stick to this form when I went back to edit and rewrite.
In teaching, there’s this common advice that you should go out into the world and listen to people talk to develop your ear for realistic dialogue. I don’t love that advice, because if you actually do that, you’ll find most human conversation is purely communicative. It’s mostly utilitarian, and the way people naturally speak is elliptical and repetitive. But in fiction, you often want to pare down to the things that are the most vital and that reflect voice. You often don’t need the rest of that dialogue. You can summarize or gloss over it. What you need are the parts of the conversation that hit really hard, where the language is really specific. Every now and then, someone does say something hard-hitting, and shaping the conversation around that is what you do as a fiction writer.
Rumpus: What advice would you offer to people reading this interview?
Fu: I want to tell everybody to be kind to themselves. I think artists of all kinds, and maybe writers in particular, need to hear that. Even if you were the luckiest, most untouched person in the last couple of years, it has still been an enormous and transformative trauma that we’ve all gone through collectively. If your process changed or you’re going through a long fallow period, that makes total sense. There’s no reason why you should beat yourself up about it or feel defeated by it. It’s a natural part of the cycle. It’s completely understandable. Breaks are part of the creative process. Times when you’re taking in art and not making art are part of the process. I find I’m reading a lot more slowly now. A book that would’ve taken a weekend to read before now takes me weeks. This time has changed my brain, and that’s broadly true, and that’s okay. You will change as a person, and you’ll be changed as an artist. You can grieve for the artist you were, but be kind to the artist you are now.
Author photo by L. D’Alessandro