Once in a great while, a novelist comes along with the ability to dazzle the crowd with their own taxonomy-defying creation. In her debut novel, Fire Season, Leyna Krow deftly weaves together elements of magical realism, historical fiction, and traditional westerns to make something so much greater than the sum of its parts. Fire Season is a propulsive story of three scheming opportunists—a banker, a con man, and a woman with an extraordinary gift—whose lives collide in the wake of a devastating fire in the American West. Author of the short story collection I’m Fine But You Appear to Be Sinking—a Believer Book Award Finalist—and the story “Sinkhole,” which was optioned for film production in collaboration with Jordan Peele and Issa Rae, Krow is poised to teach the world that genre is merely a construct.
We spent an afternoon in her home office, talking about scammers, coping with the real world, and encountering marmots on the street of her adopted town, Spokane, WA.
The Rumpus: Your novel Fire Season is based in Spokane, WA, where you currently live, and is inspired by a real fire that devastated the city in 1889. How did the idea for this book evolve?
Leyna Krow: I started writing Fire Season while I was working as a tour guide in Spokane. It was compelling to me to have this story that I was telling over and over but with no answer to how the fire began. I intended for it to be a short story, which turned into Barton’s story, or the first section of the novel. When I got to the end of it though, I was pretty unsatisfied, so I thought if I could add other characters, then perhaps it could be expanded into a novel.
Rumpus: There are these interludes that disrupt the narrative arc of the novel reminiscent of your short-fiction style: populated with characters that have magical qualities and are trying to exist in a society that doesn’t understand them. How did these stand-alone sections evolve for the novel?
Krow: My hope is that they stand alone and when I was writing them it felt like they came together really quickly, which was actually frustrating because I wish I could write all of my short stories that way. Fire Season is written in three sections: each character gets one section, so it becomes this three-act movement. The problem is Roslyn, who has the third section, is a magical person. My dilemma was, how do I indicate to the reader that the world these characters live in isn’t quite “real”? After I finished the first draft I added a prologue that shows the reader that some people in this world have magical abilities, particularly women. When working with my editor at Viking she wanted that amplified even more, and wanted there to be ways in which we see Roslyn and magical women more consistently and earlier in the book, which motivated me to add the interludes as well.
Rumpus: While this book is definitely populated with magical people—women who can fly, start fires with their minds, communicate with animals—it also reads like straightforward historical fiction. What role did research play in your process of writing Fire Season?
Krow: I wanted the book to feel historically accurate and I had some information based on my tour-guiding days. When I decided to develop Fire Season into a novel, I wanted to do a little bit of a deeper dive. I was fortunate enough to be employed by a couple of community colleges at the time and used their academic resources and history archives. I also read old newspaper clippings and used the Spokane Public Library’s Northwest Room, which has a tremendous archive of historical material. But I was cherry picking. There was also a lot of Googling, “How much is one dollar worth in 1889?” Or, “When did Spokane first get electricity?” in order to get details right. But at this point there is stuff in the book where I have trouble remembering if I made it up or if it is true.
Rumpus: This novel is filled with scammers and people who are con artists. I know you are not much of a TV or movie watcher so I am going to give you a little dispatch from the pop culture world: People are obsessed with scamming right now. There are Netflix series and podcasts dedicated to understanding the modern day scammer. What is compelling to you about scam artists?
Krow: I did not realize how much of a moment “scamming” is having until I did an interview with Good Housekeeping and the interviewer was like, “This is so relevant to today.” Barton would totally be selling NFTs, by the way. The most intriguing stuff I took from my research were the ways in which there was no oversight during the pre-statehood era. Prior to the Civil War, people were just counterfeiting the shit out of all kinds of goods, services, and money. People were like, “This is money because I say it is money.” So, when thinking about the fire and who might be attracted to disaster, I imagined Barton as somebody who was going to take advantage of this situation.
Rumpus: Your blend of historical fiction, magical realism, and absurdism is often difficult for people to categorize. In fact, that seems to be the most frequent question you’re asked in interviews—what is your genre? Why do you think people are so concerned with defining your genre?
Krow: Yeah, I expect that question now. And I don’t know the answer because I am by no means the only fiction writer who is blending realism with either magical realism, fabulism, or sci-fi. I feel like there are quite a number of us, but people are very into categorization. I will say with Fire Season the blending of historical fiction with magical realism is less-trod territory. When I started to look for agents they would often say, “I don’t know what section of the bookstore this goes in.”
Rumpus: I think you’re going to have to teach people how to read you. You’ve said Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, and Don DeLillo are in your writing lineage and those writers certainly defy genre as well. We don’t quibble over what genre Vonnegut stands in—we say, “That’s a Vonnegut story.” Do you see that as a path for yourself where people just say, “Well, this is a Leyna Krow story?”
Krow: I think that is the dream—to have such a strong voice that people know your work as your work. I would love that, but I don’t know that I will attain that.
Rumpus: How do you see yourself expanding on the tradition of these writers?
Krow: My team is pitching Fire Season as a western and I didn’t think to claim that tradition until I saw it from their perspective. I like calling it that though because it moves the needle forward in that it is also a feminist western set in an urban area. Before Washington was a state, it had cities and people lived not too differently than we do now. The magic in Fire Season is not incidental, nor there to be weird. It’s there to open a doorway to what the female characters, and Roslyn in particular, were going through in that era.
Rumpus: I do believe that the ghosts or vibes or whatever you want to call it, from that era, still permeate contemporary western states. Does living in the Inland Northwest reinforce your desire to write oddities into your fiction?
Krow: I grew up in the suburbs of Orange County where everything’s the same by design. There were like three versions of houses in my childhood neighborhood. Spokane is very much not that. It is a city that grew over time and brings together all sorts of different people. It is unapologetically itself. My husband Scott and I were out on a date recently and we got burgers and we didn’t get ketchup and we got tartar sauce instead. They were like, “Here is your effing tartar sauce and don’t ask any questions!”
Rumpus: Even though there is no fish involved.
Krow: And we are not close to the sea whatsoever. But you don’t question it. You don’t question that there are wild turkeys and marmots in the street. You don’t question that every man pops his shirt off in spring, and a boat car drives down the street in the summer. Every city has its oddities, but Spokane embraces them, and that’s the vibe that I wanted Fire Season to express.
Rumpus: There is a low-level feeling of natural disaster and danger in this place. If you piss off a cougar on a hike, good luck to you. And that’s something you just accept in exchange for living in a beautiful, natural place. How has living through fires in the west shaped your writing in Fire Season?
Krow: I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to explain the tone of Fire Season in relation to the real fires because it is sort of a light and funny book but deals with a situation that has become very life and death for us here. Fire is something that has always been with us and we’re fortunate to have mostly moved beyond urban fires because of building materials and how we fight fire. We do still contend with wildfires. And that problem is getting worse and worse. Every summer people try to figure out how to live with unbreathable air. In Fire Season it felt like I was writing both the present and the past. I used the conversations between Quake and Roslyn about the 1889 fire to explore how I feel about what we are going through today. Quake takes this perspective of fire as a tool for change, for rebirth. Fires are an important part of the ecosystem. We can’t do away with them, but we’ve reached the point of too much. The west isn’t supposed to burn the way that it does now, and Roslyn speaks to that. I wasn’t writing a climate change novel, but there was this impulse that maybe I should be? Maybe we all should be? Maybe we should all just stop writing and just fight climate change.
Rumpus: But then there is no place to break or breathe. Quake and Roslyn’s response to fire is very different. Quake is going to take advantage of the situation—he’s going to go out and better himself by scamming and Roslyn wonders how she is going to support others. The big question of climate chaos is not how are we going to stop it, but how are we going to support people without additional violence and scams? It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around everything that is happening concurrently right now. Do you feel like you cope with the absurdity of the real world by writing absurd fiction?
Krow: Absolutely. I feel like I am not great about realism because I don’t totally understand the real world. I can’t present the real world in a way that is convincing to other people because I don’t live in it very well, but if I add these other elements then I can say I’m in control. I have the utmost respect for people who write realism well because it seems so much harder than what I do.
Rumpus: The MFA debate—whether or not one is necessary to becoming a writer—is one that seemingly won’t go away. How do you approach teaching in an MFA so that it is valuable for an emerging writer?
Krow: I think that the MFA was tremendously valuable for me. It moved forward a lot of my ideas. I was already reading and writing quite a bit, but it helped distill ideas about craft. Also, it was justification—I got to enter the program and call myself a writer. It made it real for me. This is my first quarter teaching in the MFA program [at Eastern Washington University] and I hope to keep teaching there. I want to help my students find their agency—agency in their work, an ability to talk about why they want to pursue their projects—and develop a realistic view of how books are written and sold. When you’re a student, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees and what to do with the work that you’ve done. When I do talk in class—because I’m not all that talkative—it is to offer insight into how these stories develop for publication. It feels important to clarify what it means when people say it takes ten years to write a novel.
Rumpus: What are some things you wish you had known about the publishing world before you entered the process?
Krow: I think that it is easy to mistake writing as a meritocracy because certainly we do reward good writing, but there are so many good writers and so much good writing and so much of that depends on being in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. I used to think of networking as gross, but actually it means fostering genuine connections with people who move your career forward. I keep telling students you already know the person who is going to publish your first book. And that’s what I wish I knew, so much of the writing world hinges on luck and then people.
Rumpus: How did you keep the flame of your writing alive when you were waiting for that combination of luck and connections to manifest in your career?
Krow: I wrote for a long time without a tremendous amount of success and then had an incredible stroke of luck when my short story “Sinkhole” was optioned by Universal Studios. Afterwards, people came to me asking questions like, “Do you have an agent? Do you have a manuscript?” And the answer was, yes, I have Fire Season and all of these other stories, and so you know, I was in a fortunate bit of timing, but I also had projects to offer. I had enough success early on in terms of getting things published in journals and then the publication of my first collection I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking, where I knew there was a path forward, even in the span of years where I wasn’t getting anything published and I was struggling to know what to do with Fire Season and trying to get an agent unsuccessfully. But I worked long enough that I knew not writing was very unhealthy and so the only thing I could do was move forward because I hadn’t made another plan.
Rumpus: Can you say more about what you mean when you say, “It’s unhealthy to not write?”
Krow: When you have a passion and decide to pursue it, if you don’t do it, then you’re disappointed in yourself and not happy. Writing is such a satisfying thing in ways that almost nothing else is, so I felt that if I wasn’t doing it then I was sort of letting myself down, personally.
Rumpus: When “Sinkhole” got optioned you immediately deleted social media. How did you decide on that relationship between your work being in the public eye but keeping a lower profile personally?
Krow: I was never very good at social media but prior to “Sinkhole” being optioned I thought that it was a necessity to be a part of some conversation, that it was a way to make connections with people. But then all of a sudden there were people who wanted to have conversations with me and I realized I didn’t want that. I wasn’t going to do myself any good, it was going to be time-consuming in a way that was not productive. It was sort of a tipping point for me to say it’s best that I remove myself entirely. If people want to find me, they can. I’m findable in the world but there’s no benefit to me being a part of every conversation that goes on about me.
Rumpus: There are a lot of lonely writers out there and I think social media exploits that. It’s a medium that makes people feel like they are not alone, but then there becomes, as you say, an opportunity to be in contact with people who are not invested in your well-being. Can you expand on that notion of loneliness as it relates to your creative life?
Krow: The film side of it—I’m not sure lonesome is the word—I feel very disconnected from it. It’s a world I know almost nothing about and I’ve had very little agency over. I’ve had a lot of good luck and so it is almost embarrassing to talk about it. When people want to know about how I accessed this industry, I fear that I sound like Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons [affects Ralph voice], “I write short stories.”
Rumpus: Your response to good fortune is embarrassment?
Krow: We should all be embarrassed by luck. In fact, we should all be embarrassed by most things.
Rumpus: I’m tempted to end it there: We should be embarrassed by most things. But it’s not like you could have predicted any of this when you were a younger writer.
Krow: People ask me in interviews if I could go back and give twenty-year-old Leyna any advice, what would I tell her? But because I stand in a space and time where I feel good about where I am, I would tell my younger self the same thing I tell anyone else: “Work hard and be quiet about it.” Because ultimately, that is what I did. So you did fine, kid-Leyna.
Author photo by Murray Krow