The following is an interview with Kellie Wells conducted November 26, 2002, not long after her collection, Compression Scars, was published. Later today, some follow-up questions will be answered by Kellie and posted in a separate post.
Hello Kellie, thanks for taking some time out of your schedule to answer some questions.
Hi, Dan. My pleasure. Thanks for your interest.
Where do you believe your interest in reading and writing stems from? Are your parents and sister big
readers as well?
My parents were readers of news magazines and newspapers, but they weren't big readers of fiction
particularly. They did always encourage me to read. Yes, my sister Jane is a voracious reader, always at the library.
My father owned and oversaw every aspect of a small-town newspaper, THE SILVER CITY RECORD, and he wrote a weekly column called "Small Talk." I imagine seeing him at his desk each week writing the column made an impression on me. As did his old linotype machine--he also printed the newspaper himself. As a child, I was fascinated by the letters knocking into one another, sliding down chutes, forming words, sentences. Words have always seemed almost like physical objects to me.
Can you describe what you did while working for Arts & Letters?
I was the fiction editor, so I read, solicited, selected, and edited Fiction manuscripts. I also
helped with the layout of the journal. Ruth Knafo Setton is now the fiction editor.
Can you remember a story by somebody completely unknown to you just demanding to be published? Also, who was the most responsive to a solicitation from yourself and Arts & Letters?
The majority of the stories we published while I was there were like this, actually. We were lucky to get really interesting submissions over the transom. I know readers look first to see whose work they know and admire in a journal, and I'm always pleased when established writers are willing to send good work to literary journals, but it was especially rewarding for me as an editor to find interesting work by writers just starting out or writers who didn't yet have books. We published a wonderful story called "St. Francis's Chain Gang" by Lisa Sutter. That was her first published story. There's a story called "The Shark Swimmers" by Melissa Fraterrigo. It's a great story from a young up-and-comer. I met her at a reading recently, and she said she'd had a difficult time getting that one taken?it was always a near miss--so I found it gratifying to have had a part in getting that story into print. There's a very funny story called "The Retort of the Bad Tipper" by Ben Miller, fellow strange and quirky writer (see below).
I must confess that, because our slushpile submissions were so good, I wasn't as diligent a solicitor as I should have been. Gail Galloway Adams, also a Flannery winner incidentally, was the fiction editor at A&L before I came on board, and she was better about this than I was. But we did get a really interesting story from Brett Lott a few issues back. He has been one of the featured writers at the May Workshops at Georgia College. Since JEWEL was chosen by Oprah, his career has, of course, really taken off (not to suggest that it was ever sluggish), so he certainly could have saved the story for a large circulation magazine, but he's a really nice fellow and was supportive of what we were doing at Georgia College.
You spent this past summer teaching in Prague. Besides creating a hectic summer for yourself, what
was the experience like?
I was very fortunate to get to teach in the Prague program for the last two weeks of July, and it was a
wonderful experience. In addition to teaching a mixed-genre workshop, I got to sit in on lectures and
readings by Czech writers and also had time to experience the city, which is beautiful and
interesting and felt a little unreal to me. There was a wonderful exhibit in a gothic church of the work of
the German artist Otto Piene, which included giant chickens made from parachute material; they inflated and cackled menacingly as you walked by them. There aren't enough inflatable chickens in the world if you ask me. The students in the Prague program were great, undergraduate and graduate students from various creative writing programs throughout the States.
Your short story collection, "Compression Scars," won the 2001 Flannery O' Connor Award for Short Fiction. How did that particular award garner your interest? Did you attend the reception and if so, what was that like?
Once I had finished a short story collection and discovered agents and trade publishers were unlikely
to be interested in that by itself, I looked into the various short story collection contests that exist out
there, and the Flannery O'Connor prize, along with the Drue Heinz, Iowa, and AWP prizes, seemed to be the most well-known and established of such contests, and they all publish consistently good collections and launch careers. My collection, in another form, was also a finalist for the Drue Heinz prize some years ago, but because of my abiding affection for the work of O'Connor and because I was living and teaching in Milledgeville at the time, winning this prize in particular seemed auspicious (no doubt winning any prize seems so for the winner).
I did attend the reception. I was living in Milledgeville, Georgia at the time, coincidentally, and so was already in the neighborhood (it was very difficult, by the way, to impress Milledgevilleans, many of whom had known Flannery O'Connor and have long seen her name attached to this or that thing, with my having won this award). The reception was, as my mother would say, swank, very nice.
You've also recently won a Rona Jaffe Award for Emerging Women Writers - the only fiction writer to do so this year. Could you explain this award and how it, and awards like it, can affect a writer's life?
The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Awards program was established in 1995 and has awarded grants to 56 women. According to the NYU press release, "It is the only national literary awards program dedicated to supporting women writers exclusively." It's a wonderful prize because not only does the foundation give the winners money and bring them to New York to fete them, but they also arrange a reading for the winning writers at NYU and generally spread the word around with the hope of stirring up interest in the winners' work. I've had editors approach me directly now who would otherwise probably never have heard of me. It's weird to labor in complete obscurity for a long time, and then suddenly be doubly acknowledged (upgraded to relative obscurity). It's reassuring. On the other hand, there's a lot of amazing work being written that's not being awarded a prize or even getting published, because it doesn't necessarily square with what publishers imagine the appetite of the reading public to be.
According to some of the literature sent out with your book, you are finishing up a first novel, as well as working on a second. Anything excited readers should be looking for anytime soon?
I've just finished revising a novel called SKIN, and am, theoretically, working on a second one tentatively titled FAT GIRL, TERRESTRIAL. No news to report about if/when you might see SKIN on the shelves of your local bookseller, but thanks for asking.
How would you describe the differences between writing short stories and a novel?
Well, generally, the breadth and complexity of a novel require, for me, longer stretches of time that I can devote to immersing myself in the cosmos and language, characters and events of the novel, whereas stories I'm a little better able to write somewhat catch as catch can, during the academic year, while teaching.
I found it interesting that you would win the O'Connor Award as your writing reminds me of hers,
probably more than any other winning collection I've read - the frequent combination of religion, and a
sort of beautiful grotesque, submerged in black humor. Do you get comparisons often? What similarities and differences do you see between your writings?
That's a thoughtful observation, and I'm pleased to hear you say that. I seem to remember Stu Dybek, who was my teacher at Western Michigan, seeing similarities between SKIN and the writing of Flannery O'Connor. She's a writer whose work I love, so I was especially honored to have won this prize.
I find that combination of things you mention really moving; I'm flattered that my stories would evoke her for you. When I was teaching at Georgia College in Milledgeville (her alma mater in fact), the resident O'Connor scholar, Sarah Gordon, asked me to contribute a personal essay about O'Connor's influence on me as a writer to an anthology of such essays commemorating O'Connor's 75th birthday. I hadn't yet published the book then, so I was grateful to be included. And Sarah told me that several writers she'd asked had turned her down, saying they had begun to find O'Connor mean spirited. I was kind of flabbergasted by this. I'm not Catholic and my religious upbringing, although brief, is too strange and long a story to go into here, but I think I've always been drawn to that notion of grace
in her writing, which is, I gather, what some readers might find mean spirited in her work. True, it's
always hard won and frequently violent, but if it were less so it seems to me that, like the story of the
crucifixion itself, it wouldn't be nearly as affecting. And to O'Connor, I think that self-knowledge her characters typically get is a real gift.
Maybe one place where O'Connor and I might be said to differ can be found in the fact that I'm just as
interested in the body as the spirit. I think as much about the splintered bone of the wrist that's staked
to the cross as I think about the sacrifice. Of course, there's no shortage of deformity of one stripe
or another in O'Connor's fiction, but it seems more a vehicle for her to explore the failing spirit.
I was born to older parents and became acquainted at a young age with death and infirmity and so have always been intensely interested in the failing body. On the other hand, perhaps if I myself were suffering from lupus or some other degenerative disease, the scales in my work would also tip toward spirit.
Nearly every description I've read of your writing tosses in the word strange very early on. Your
stories concentrate however on the stuff that pushes all of through our daily activities: fear of our
mortality, desires for love, needs of acceptance, etc. As your stories or characters veer off into some
uncharted territories, do you worry that the concentration of readers will focus on that territory
and not the more mainstream message that you are delivering?
Quirky is another adjective that has affixed itself to the stories, ack. Used pejoratively sometimes. I
agree that the concerns of the characters in my stories are, fundamentally, pretty commonplace. I look
for the best way to plumb some hopefully complex and/or morally ambiguous emotional truth, and, for
whatever reason, verisimilitude has never served me well in this endeavor.
There's an interesting essay by the French writer Nathalie Saurraute called "What Birds See" in which
she basically objects to a static and monolithic notion of "realism" that is dichotomized against any
kind of writing that is formally challenging (and I would also include here fiction that "veer[s] off into
some uncharted territories"). She suggests, among other things, that what strikes one reader as "real"
will strike another as a kind of reductive short-hand for experience that is reassuring to some for having
certain superficial identifiable elements that establish its realness--this, she suggests, is itself
more a matter of form than hewing closely to some recognizable reality. For other readers/writers,
getting at "the real" requires, perhaps, seeing it in all its strangeness, honoring that. She's defending
her own work, of course, which is nothing like my own, but, still, I stopped sweating the so-called
strangeness of my writing after reading that essay.
A writer I was reminded of while reading your work was T.C. Boyle. His is the only vocabulary that I can compare yours with, and like his writing, nowhere do any of your five dollar words leap out as something I believe you used a thesaurus to include - they always come across as something you'd use in your everyday discussions. When you re-write stories, do you ever consider dumbing down any sentences?
Ha, that's a funny question. Thanks for your characterization. When I was studying German, someone
told me this, that German is difficult to learn in the beginning but gets easier as you go along, whereas
English is easy but gets more difficult, meaning that German grammar takes some work to master but the vocabulary is manageable, knowable; English grammar, on the other hand, is comparatively simple, but there are so many words, the vocabulary's infinite seeming.
I figure why not take advantage of what English has going for it? Why not use those words? There are so many mellifluous words with interestingly nuanced meanings and fascinating etymologies. Who cares whether they're used in casual conversation? Those words are meat and drink to the maximalist stylist. Anyone can pick up a dictionary and look up a word she doesn't know. I do it all the time and find it very pleasurable. I love writers who inconvenience me in that way.
Was Biology ever considered as something for you to major in? Your stories bring forth organisms and bodily descriptions frequently, and in much greater detail than one usually reads in stories that are not concentrating on such topics.
You're a careful reader. No, I never had any leanings toward a career in biology, but science offers
wonderfully odd details, language, and metaphors, so sometimes I wish I led a double life as a fiction
writing physicist. I had this idea for a story recently about how I wanted to sort of investigate, by
way of this character who is part owl, part woman, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, not that I
understand it except in the most superficial terms, mind you. But then after I get these ideas, I always
imagine that it must be really nettlesome to real scientists to see their very complex ideas
appropriated, oversimplified, and bastardized by creative writers, so once that story's finished mum
will be the word about its origin.
You received your PhD at Western Michigan University. What was it in, and how has that extra work affected your writing?
It's a PhD in creative writing, with a concentration in contemporary fiction. I had a very good experience
at WMU. I got to work with extraordinary writers and teachers like Jaimy Gordon and Stu Dybek. It was one of those times in my life when everything I was reading and thinking about seemed interrelated and relevant to my growth as a writer. I can't tell you how happy I was to read TRISTRAM SHANDY and discover how long ago Postmodernism actually began.
Your story "Secession XX" is a fascinating piece of work in all aspects - the idea, the writing, and the
form (it tells of the life of two opposite sex, conjoined twins from both viewpoints, concurrently, in
column form on each page). Were you worried at all that a journal or eventual publishing company would balk at the form of the story with the two columns of paragraphs per page?
Thanks. Yes, I did think readers might groan at the form of the story, because you have to think about how you're going to go about reading it, so I figured the split-narrative form would be off-putting to some
readers, seem like a tedious experiment. That was the last story to be added to the collection, and I sent the story off to McSWEENEY'S, thinking they might be willing to take a chance on it, but I never heard anything from them one way or the other, so I thought it clearly had no future and would probably be singularly responsible for my collection not being a contender for the Flannery O'Connor Award. Then later Nancy Zafris, fiction editor of THE KENYON REVIEW (whose wonderful novel THE METAL SHREDDERS everyone should read), asked if there were any unpublished stories from the collection that they might consider for KR, and that was the one she seemed most interested in reading, so I sent it to her, and, to my surprise and delight, they liked it and accepted it. And the great thing about that story as it appears in KR is that they left in this small graphic of a periodic chart that appears on the brother's side of the story. I was so happy they didn't balk at that.
Personally, I think there should be more graphics in fiction, or other sorts of formal play. The fiction
writer Janet Kauffman once said to me that she thought the page was a very conservative space, and I have to agree. Anyway, it turns out that this story isn't as alienating as I'd imagined it might be.
You currently teach at Washington University in St. Louis. Do you see many Engineering students dabbling in Creative Writing?
Hmmm, no, I don't think I have any engineering students this semester, though creative writing
classes, the introductory classes especially, can attract an interestingly mixed group.
As this is being done just prior to Thanksgiving - white meat or dark (or no meat at all - is there white
or dark tofu?)?
Uh, er, well, I haven't gotten around to buying a Tofurkey yet (no doubt to my husband's great relief).
If you were a character in "Fahrenheit 451," what work(s) would you memorize for posterity?
Jaimy Gordon's BOGEYWOMAN, James's PORTRAIT OF A LADY, Celine's JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT (controversial figure though he is), John Hawkes's SECOND SKIN, Ingeborg Bachmann's MALINA, and on and on. Would I have to memorize both the original and the English translation? We can only hope that posterity never has to rely on my memory for the preservation of literature.
Thanks again for taking the time to do this - have a great holiday!
Thanks, Dan, you too, and thanks so much for your dedication to promoting the work of emerging, and