by Susan Mase
Kelly Magee’s story “Nobody Understands You Like You” was published in Nimrod’s Spring/Summer 2016 issue, Mirrors & Prisms. She is the author of Body Language (2006), With Animal (2015), co-written with Carol Guess, and, most recently, the story collections The Neighborhood (2016) and A Guide to Strange Places (2017). Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, in print and online, and she teaches writing and literature at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
Susan Mase: During the past four months alone, you have published two short story collections, a story in Granta, and an online essay, among other things. How does this much great writing get completed and published in such a short time? How do you work on several projects at once?
Kelly Magee: First of all, thanks for the compliment! Some of these things are connected, like the story that appeared in Granta was from one of those collections you mentioned. And really, the timing of all of this was mostly luck. I’ve been working on the story collections off and on for many years, and they just happened to be released for publication close to each other. But I do usually have several projects going at once. It makes me happy to have lots of things in progress because then I always have something to pick up again. Like many people’s, my writing time is really limited, and it helps me to be able to pick up a piece and work on it a little at a time, then switch to another piece when I’m in a different mood. I tend to make fairly steady progression on several things at a time, which means I’ll have nothing finished for long stretches of time and then several finished pieces all at once. I used to try to be more methodical about it, but over the years I’ve learned to honor my process and not try to fight it.
SM: You describe The Neighborhood as “a collection of fairy tales and retellings.” The stories in A Guide to Strange Places give point of view and voice to eight different American cities. What inspired these diverse themes and structures? Did the stories in each develop from an initial plan to create a thematic set?
KM: A Guide to Strange Places began as an experiment in point of view. I’ve long felt emotionally connected to various places I’ve lived, to the point where they seem like members of my family. I was thinking of that workshop advice to “activate your setting,” to have location be more than something the characters walk around on, but I wanted to go a step farther to try to give places I loved their own point of view. The result is that I turned them into these kind of monstrous beings composed of part-landscape, part-voice. This did start as a thematic set, based on that premise.
The Neighborhood had a much more loosely constructed plan. I taught a class called “Recycled Writing” in which we read very old fairy tales from around the world. I’d been writing stories in the magical realist vein for a long time and am a fan of fabulist writers, but reading those old stories was thrilling in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. I started incorporating small details from them into stories I was working on, which led to the tales playing a bigger and bigger role in my own work. So in The Neighborhood, you can see that variation—some of the stories have only nods to fairy tales or fabulism, and some are solidly in those categories; some have recognizable fairy tale characters in new roles, and some borrow the fairy tale form but not the content. The description of the book as “fairy tales” is the easiest but not entirely the most accurate. Part of what fascinated me about the fairy tales was their treatment and depiction of mothers, especially evil mothers. If I had to describe the book, I’d say it’s about what it is to be a nontraditional parent.
SM: The story published by Nimrod, “Nobody Understands You Like You,” is skillfully crafted and a lively, provocative read. The central image of a wolf, or the idea of wolf, and the animal’s presence in the story, add multiple discursive layers. How did this idea guide the story’s development?
KM: Thank you, and I was so glad to have this story appear in Nimrod, especially as part of the Mirrors and Prisms issue. Wolves appear in several of the fairy tale retellings, and I was interested in both the metaphorical use of the wolf and the physical aspect of it. In other stories, the wolf is symbolic; in this story, I was interested in looking at the wolf purely as an animal. The wolf isn’t good or bad, intrinsically; it’s just itself. It’s the humans around it who invest it with meaning (in the story, the neighbors think the wolf is dangerous, evil, practically criminal). The trick of the story is that the narrators are unreliable, and there’s no real evidence that the wolf isn’t a dog, as Jamie insists. I had a lot of fun while writing the story, playing with that ambiguity. I’m also interested in unpacking the ways in which people create narratives that justify atrocities, the way these narrators created a story to excuse their violent act.
SM: The unreliable storytellers here are Greg and Linda, the married couple next door who speak in a collective “we”—except for the transformative moment in the story when they address each other. Many stories in The Neighborhood use plural points of view. And, again, you “experiment” with points of view in A Guide to Strange Places. How does the first-person plural operate in this story, and how has the use of plural points of view interested you and informed your recent work?
KM: The plural point of view invigorated my writing for a while, and I think it initially came from attempting to write these fairy tales. After using the more common collective voice in a few stories, I began wanting to push against the boundaries and possibilities of the technique. This story uses the first-person plural, but it refers to two specific people, one of those married couples who are so close they’re nearly the same person. I like the plural as the voice of judgment, a chorus of people who have some authority to tell the story and are determined to tell it in a way that exonerates themselves from whatever trouble has occurred. So Greg and Linda, in this story, want to portray themselves as the victims, even though they committed the crime. They are safely ensconced in their house and marriage, watching as their neighbor (a single mom, a lesbian in an abusive relationship) falls apart. There came a point in the story, though, where I felt like they needed to lose the safety of their collective mindset—these are the moments when they separate, when they address each other, and even become dangerous to each other.
SM: Our call for submissions for the Mirrors & Prisms issue asked for work from writers who identified as LGBTQIA rather than for works dealing with LGBTQIA content. You wrote about our call on your website, your interest in thinking more about “the different ways attention to inclusivity and diversity is playing out in the literary marketplace.” How did your response to our call develop or change as you continued to think on it?
KM: In addition to creative writing, I teach queer literature at my university, and so questions of what makes a piece of writing “queer” or not have been part of my scholarly work for a long time. I identify as a lesbian myself, and that informs much of my writing—my interest in “evil mothers” from fairy tales arose, in no small part, from my history becoming a lesbian mom during a time of intense cultural restrictiveness around sexuality. When I became a mom for the first time, for example, it was not legal for gay people to adopt children in my home state. This was when the national debate over marriage equality included widespread arguments about “family values” that violently erased even the possibility of my having a family outside a heteronormative system. So I think that, even when I’m not writing queer characters, my writing is always informed by queerness, by my own sexuality, but also by my experiences feeling like an outsider, like my very existence was up for national debate. For this reason, I was glad for Nimrod’s call, which specified the identity of the writer without regard to the content of the writing. I write, and love to read, stories about GLBTQ characters, of course. But I also believe that the perspective of being part of a marginalized community is likely to inform the writing of anyone from that community, even if they aren’t writing about it directly.
SM: “Maybe there is something to this wearing language like clothes. Suits of armored words. Pronoun gowns. Adjective earrings and verb sneakers. Things crossed out and revised. The crossword-puzzle-Scrabble-game of us all.” So ends your recent online essay, “So Your Employer Offered You A Pronoun” (hobartpulp.com), a funny, witty analysis of the conflicts surrounding identity categories. Does this essay speak to your current thoughts on these issues?
KM: Language around identity markers and categories seems to be in a period of rapid change at the moment, and I struggle with changing my own patterns and habits. At the time I wrote this, I was trying to figure out the best way to both ask for and honor the pronouns of a class of seventy students. I was skeptical of what seemed to me an overly simplified solution—to just wear buttons. At the same time, I always try to challenge my initial reactions, to play devil’s advocate, to see if I can argue the other side. So that’s kind of where this essay lands, more with a question than a solution. How are we going to connect across this faulty medium of language?
SM: Before we close, please tell us what you are working on now.
KM: I’m doing 30/30 for Poetry Month: writing one poem every day during April. Only I’m not a poet but I am a cheater, so I’m writing tiny stories centered on the idea of definitions. The titles are Jeopardy-style questions, and the “poems” are stories that attempt to define a word or concept in an unusual way.
SM: What are you reading? Or what is on the pile to be read?
KM: I am always in the middle of reading many books (just like I enjoy being in the middle of many writing projects), and right now I’m reading Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays, Kazim Ali’s Fasting for Ramadan, and Randa Jarrar’s Him, Me, Muhammad Ali.
SM: Assuming Nimrod is #1, what other literary journals do you read?
KM: Not surprisingly, probably, The Fairy Tale Review is a favorite, as are Booth, Third Coast, Ninth Letter, and Monkeybicycle, to name a few.
SM: Thank you for your time, your story, and your dedication to writing.
Follow Kelly Magee on kellyelizabethmagee.com or on Twitter: @kellymagee.
Susan Mase is the Fiction Editor for Nimrod. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Tulsa Literary Coalition, a new non-profit presenting Magic City Books, an independent bookstore coming to Tulsa in fall 2017.