Interview with author Gwendolyn Kiste

Authors Farah Rose Smith and Gwendloyn Kiste will be my next guests at Night Time Logic on April 24, 2018 at KGB Bar in New York. Recently I had the opportunity to ask Gwendloyn about her work. We hope to see you there. Here is a start of what we will talk about for the panel discussion part of the event.

 

MONSTERS IN PLAIN SIGHT

Speaking with author Gwendolyn Kiste about her short fiction.

DB:     Your short story “Reasons I Hate My Big Sister” from the Nightscript 2 Anthology reminded me of stories from one of my favorite writers, the great Kelly Link. Your story plays with an unconventional structure, presenting the section headings as numbered items from a list of slights, told from the perspective of a young girl whose older sister is turning into a scaled lizard creature. The voice is effortless and convincing which works perfectly with the magic realism of how the transformation is presented. The tension of the progression of transformation plays with our expectations, fears, and shines a light on societal expectation of girls. What inspired the story? What inspired the presentation and unique structural choices for the story?

GK:    First off, thank you so much for that Kelly Link comparison! Those are some serious shoes to fill, and it’s an honor even to be mentioned in the same sentence!

 I wrote “Reasons I Hate My Big Sister” a few years ago, so I actually had to go back to my notes on it to be able to remember the exact inspiration for it. The way I thought of this story for a while—and this is literally written in one of my notebooks at the time—was “The Virgin Suicides meets Cronenberg’s The Fly.” This is also similar to how I’ve described my forthcoming novel, The Rust Maidens. There is definitely a similar through-line to both “Reasons I Hate My Big Sister” and the novel, primarily the themes of body horror and coming of age. It’s a natural combination in many ways, since adolescence is a terrifying and transformative time, even under the best circumstances.

 While I saw the film version of The Virgin Suicides when I was in high school, I didn’t see the remake of The Fly until about five years ago, mainly because I knew how it ended and I didn’t feel like putting myself through that emotionally. Of course, afterwards, I was glad I did, since it definitely affected me creatively in ways I hadn’t expected. This idea of loving someone and watching them disintegrate into a monster before your eyes was so terrifying and yet very profound for me, and I wanted to explore that, albeit in the context of a non-romantic relationship. I’ve always had a fondness for stories about complicated families, in particular the bond between sisters, which is where at least a little bit of The Virgin Suicides inspiration comes in. In particular, how the Lisbon sisters seem destined for a terrible fate in a house that’s locked up from the outside world.  

 As for the structure, I love list stories, or works told with some kind of sectioned or unusual format. In this case, the narrator is trying her best to process what’s happening to her family by keeping this running tally of grievances. She tries to make it seem like she genuinely dislikes her sister, but as the story unfolds, it becomes more apparent that the relationship between them is complicated but also very loving, and that the narrator is frustrated and scared and unsure of how to deal with what’s happening to her sister. This increasing sense of isolation leads her to blame her sister for everything, while secretly just wanting to be close to her at the same time. Hopefully, the structure enhanced what the narrator was going through rather than serving as a distraction or being gimmicky somehow. I’ve found, though, especially when you’re trying more experimental approaches, that the reader experience can vary wildly. I always like to fall back on the old adage, “your mileage may vary.” Some readers will like it, some won’t. So goes the life of a writer.    

DB:     “Reasons I Hate My Big Sister” ends with the confirmation that the narrator sister is also going through the monstrous transformation. This subversion of our initial expectations operates as both the horrific revelation at the end of many horror stories but also carries additional weight to this reader with the empowerment implied in the last lines. What went into your choice of this ending and what do you want readers to take away from the story?

GK:    Looking back, I don’t remember coming to a specific moment in the drafting process of the story when I specifically decided on that ending. It just felt like the natural place that the story would go. That’s probably in part because my favorite endings, both as a writer and reader, are the ones that are unconventionally happy. Sure, something terrible has happened, but the protagonist has come to a place of peace with it. Horror seems like the perfect medium to explore such endings, too.

 In the final transformation scene of “Reasons I Hate My Big Sister,” the narrator feels powerful and connected with her sister. Gone are those feelings of isolation and fear that had plagued her until this point. She’s clearly going to have a rough road ahead of her, but she feels ready for it. To her, it’s better to become a monster than to be like the people who have hurt her and her sister. If I had to pick one takeaway message from the story, that would be it: to embrace what makes you different rather than become like those who ostracize you or the people you love. Being different is certainly not the worst thing in the world, especially when the alternative is to be cruel. This is the devastating lesson the narrator learns, as everyone, including their own parents, shun her older sister as she transforms. By the end of the story, the two sisters have seen the world and the people in it for what they truly are, and even though it’s crueler than they expected and not at all what they wanted, both of them embrace their monstrous qualities as a way of rejecting the status quo. This is a terrifying prospect to the people around them. Consequently, even though it’s rather horrible and distressing, the narrator’s final line of the story, “And I wait to hear their screams,” always makes me smile. She’s figured it all out, even if it’s not the “right” way.      

DB:     “Reasons I Hate My Big Sister” operates as an excellent introduction to your work. I feel it delivers both the theme of empowerment and shines a light on the horrors that the world inflicts upon girls; both prominent elements of your collection And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe.

The title story features a narrator in love with a horror movie heroine who appeared in five movies, the fifth the snuff film where she was murdered.

“You don’t want to see what they do to her, those monsters hiding in plain sight.”

Can you tell me more about this line from the story? What went into choosing this story as the title to the collection?

GK:    I believe that line came together in the final draft of the collection. There was a variant of it up until then, but it wasn’t as succinct, and I remember knowing I was either going to have to cut it completely or figure out a way to make it pithier. Now, rereading it, I can’t imagine that sentiment being expressed in any other way, since I think it works better in such a seemingly simple statement. For me, what I was trying to get at is this idea that we rarely know or understand the motives of those around us, in particular strangers. The monsters in this story are not actually supernatural beings, but instead are merely flesh and blood. However, sometimes, humans are the very worst monsters, and that’s so much of what the title story is about.

 Even before the first draft was done, I knew it would be the title story. This was before I knew the name of it as well, so choosing the title became particularly daunting at that point. But I had a very strong feeling it would be the right one to have as the title story. The mood and the theme were a synthesis of everything I wanted to encapsulate in the collection.

 That being said, this was almost certainly a backwards way of doing it. When I was a guest on The Outer Dark recently, Scott Nicolay pointed out quite rightly that authors usually use a previously published story as the title of a collection. At the very least, it helps raise recognition, since readers might already be familiar with that particular story. It was interesting because I had instinctively realized that, but never gave it much thought when I was naming my own collection. I liked the idea of the title of the book being something unique on its own. Perhaps that was beginner’s luck, but I’ve gotten a lot of comments about the title, and almost all of them have been very positive, so I guess it’s worked out!

DB:     “The truth no one openly admits is that murderers are always more interesting than victims.”

The above is another powerful line the title story. In a book full of stories featuring the crimes, horrors, tragedies, and dangers that are visited upon young women and girls the stories emphatically transcend being tales of victims. What went into the choices of your protagonists, and their journeys and fates you present? Of particular interest is the arcs of the characters in the short story “The Tower Princesses”.

GK:    That line in particular was an incredibly difficult one for me to write, and I almost cut it right before I sent the collection to my editor, because it distressed me so much. That’s because obviously, I don’t feel that murderers are more interesting; in fact, I would instead say that my entire body of work asserts the opposite. But when you look at the world and where our attention too often focuses, it seems like the people who do the worst things tend to get the most attention. That’s something that’s bothered me ever since I was a kid, and I wanted very much to write about it. At the same time, though, speaking that truth aloud—or even just typing it into a story—was a painful admission about the way I see humanity.

That being said, even if humans can be quite terrible, I’ve always worked very hard not to give up hope. As a writer, I’m constantly trying to find those paths less taken, the ones where people discover a better way. I want to believe there’s a way out—or at least a way through—the chaos and cruelty of the world. It’s this hope that has always kept me going, and that hope has definitely translated into the arcs for many of my characters.

“The Tower Princesses” has one of the more complicated arcs I’ve ever written. The narrator, Mary, survives a series of horrible crimes, and she proves to herself and others how resilient she is. But at the same time, she becomes emotionally damaged in ways that she doesn’t realize until it’s too late. By then, she’s pushed away the only person she truly loves. This story was my way of taking on the idea of victim blaming and also the concept of a “good victim” and a “bad victim.” While I hope this is changing in society, there remains this idea that if someone is a victim of a crime, then they must conform to certain ideals of “goodness” (e.g. acting the “right” way, wearing the “right” things). Otherwise, they’ll be told that what happened to them was their own fault and even that they were “asking for it.” That’s a huge issue to take on in a single story, but it was important to me that Mary wasn’t one-dimensional and “perfect.” Instead, she’s human and flawed like the rest of us. I wanted to show her in this way while also stating emphatically that she was not at all to blame for what happens to her. No one needs to be some impossible paragon of goodness for us to be able to empathize with them and believe them.

Because it was important for me to say that someone can endure these things and still rebuild their lives afterwards, there is a bit of a coda in this story, which follows Mary beyond what might be the obvious ending point of the story. I wanted to give her a path to a happy ending, so to speak. This ending—and this story in general—has been polarizing for some readers, but I’m still very happy with it. It’s not an easy, straightforward ending, but that’s what makes me most proud of it. Life isn’t tidy; why should our stories always be?

DB:     Recently you asked me about the story choice and sequencing that goes into a collection. I noticed all but one of the stories in Smile are stories of women told from a female point of view. The combined weight of their experiences and points of view, one after another as presented I found to be profound. The final story in the book “The Lazarus Bride” I found to be a powerful break of this sequence of stories. The 2nd person point of view story is told from the point of view of a man. A man engaged in a supernatural cycle with his bride. The power was not in the male point of view but in the introspection and choice resulting in the breaking of the cycle. This choice and presentation resonates not only with the sequence of stories but with current events and this time in history. Can you speak about what went into this choice of stories and sequence? What were some of the challenges presenting some of the horrors your characters experience?

GK:    Putting “The Lazarus Bride” as the last story was all the work of my editor, Jess Landry. I originally wanted the title story as the final piece of the book, but Jess was the one who pointed out how the death and rebirth themes of “The Lazarus Bride” would make it the better final story, and I realized she was completely correct. She also moved “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” as the first story for the same reason, since it also features themes about a life breaking down and then the protagonist being reborn in her own way. So I have to defer to Jess on that choice, because I think it was a great one. It was also a moment in the editing process when I remember feeling so blown away that an editor I respected so much had appreciated and dissected my work enough to see those themes and connections in it. I mean, you would of course hope that an editor working with you on a collection loves your work that much, but I remember feeling so humbled over that experience. It was one of many really, really wonderful moments in working with Jess to put together the collection.

In terms of challenges, I find it’s always difficult to balance the horrors of real life in a way that respects those who have been victims. There are some weighty moments in the collection, including murder, suicide, and sexual violence. I always want to handle these issues with as much care and respect as I possibly can. I never, ever want my work to feel exploitive, or as if I’m using these themes for no reason except to evoke a quick emotion. That’s so profoundly unfair to do to those who have either gone through these experiences or have people close to them who have experienced them. Other people’s suffering should never be treated as a throwaway plot device. This means I have to be sure that I’m depicting the horrors in a way that is honest and respectful, and that every aspect of the horror has to be there. Those difficult moments must be integral to the story. Otherwise, it’s cheap and even potentially cruel, and those are descriptions that I hope will never apply to my work. 

 DB:     You speak about Outsiders in the introduction of the book. Can you share any of your experiences as an Outsider? What does being an Outsider mean to you and how has this inspired the stories in the book?

GK:    This question took me some time to answer, because it’s hard to isolate a single experience of being an outsider, mostly because I never really felt like I fit in. I suppose in general, I’ve always been rather headstrong and had a strange way of looking at the world. I don’t see magic as that far removed from our daily existence as maybe other people do, and I’ve always been drawn to horror and the weird. That often isn’t “allowed” in a small town, especially if you’re a girl. Most of my experiences fall under the common things that happen to bullied outsiders: being screamed at and berated in the hallways at school, being threatened, being told I was less than. Most of the bullying came from other students, but some of it, in particular the bureaucratic ways of excluding and ostracizing people, came from a few of the teachers as well. That hurt the most, especially since I was a straight-A student who did my work and participated in class. I was just a little odd, but sometimes, that’s enough for people to dislike you. It’s interesting, though, because when I was young, I always held on to the idea that being a good student should have protected me from bullying teachers; now years later, upon reflection, that mentality seems even worse to me. No matter what a student’s grades, they should never feel excluded just because they’re different. Of course, this makes my entire growing up experience sound terrible, which isn’t true, and I still give thanks regularly for the teachers who were amazing (and I had a number of them). They’ll never truly know how important they were to me, especially in the worst times of being bullied.

 That last paragraph probably answers a lot about my writing already, but I would say that the idea of outsiders trying to figure out a way to live in environments that are hostile to their very existence is a pervasive theme for me. Virtually all of my stories involve someone, often a young adult, being ostracized for what others deem to be monstrous, and then that protagonist figures out how to make their own way. That’s been my goal for most of my life, too. When I was young, I promised myself I would somehow make a place for myself in the world and that I would do everything I could to help make a place for other outsiders like me as well. That’s a pretty big order, and not something one person can truly accomplish in their life, but I guess it’s a good goal regardless, even if it is unattainable. So with my writing, I figure if I can make even one outsider feel a little less alone in this world, then I’ve accomplished something worthwhile in my work.

DB:     On April 24, 2018 you and author Farah Rose Smith will be panelists and readers at the Night Time Logic series that I host. What insight into Farah’s work can you tell us? What is unique about her work and what do you look forward to discussing with her?

GK:    First off, Farah is one of my very favorite new writers out there today in the speculative fiction world, and I’m beyond thrilled—and even a little giddy—to get to share the evening with her. She has such a powerful voice and vision, both as a writer and an editor. The latest issue of her publication, Mantid Magazine, just came out, and I’m so honored to have a story in there alongside talented writers like Carrie Laben, Nadia Bulkin, and Brooke Warra. Mantid is always put together with such care that it’s like a work of art unto itself with the way that Farah designs it. I just feel lucky to be along for the ride. 

 Also, right now, I’m reading an advance copy of Farah’s forthcoming novella, Eviscerator, and it’s seriously blowing me away. The prose is razor-sharp, and all the emotions in there are so raw and real. It’s truly some of the most powerful writing I’ve come across in years.

 For the Night Time Logic series, I’m honestly looking forward to discussing almost anything! Every time I talk with her, Farah’s perspective on the world has consistently been so unique and illuminating. In particular, it would be very fun to discuss her process as an author and how she incorporates her own experiences into her fiction. I always love talking about how other writers work, and the specific ways they create (e.g. where and when they write, or how long they tend to toil on pieces before submitting them), but it often isn’t a topic that comes up in casual conversation, so I would love to delve into that with her. I think her insight would be incredible.

 DB:     Please tell us what you are working on now, what releases are coming next, and give us links to where readers can find all of your books.

GK:    As I mentioned briefly already, the next book will be my debut novel, The Rust Maidens. We don’t have a firm release date yet, but it will probably make its way into the world this fall. I’m very excited about that one. It’s always an incredibly thrilling moment for an author when their first novel is set to debut, so I’ll be very eager to hear what readers think.

On the short fiction horizon, I have stories coming out in a number of venues this year, including Chiral Mad 4, Suspended in Dusk 2, and The Wicked Library, along with a couple others I can’t quite announce just yet. I’m also working on a few other stories and have one or two tales sitting in slush piles right now, which is always exciting. I love that feeling when you have a story done and it’s out there circulating in the world. It’s out of your hands at that point, and on its way to (hopefully) seek its fortune.   

Finally, I’m working on the earliest stages of another novel right now. This one has been swirling around me for almost six months, which is a shockingly long time for me. So far, I’ve been the kind of writer who either gets an idea and writes it out right away or else the idea just flits off or fades away completely. This one sticking around for so long has been interesting, almost as though it’s waiting in line for the right time. So I should probably give it its due and put it down on paper, at the very least to see where it ends up. It deserves that much.

For anyone who wants to look into my work, you can find me at my author website: gwendolynkiste.com. Also, feel free to head over to the JournalStone page for my collection (http://journalstone.com/bookstore/smile-will-untether-universe/) as well as the page at Broken Eye Books for my novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row (https://www.brokeneyebooks.com/store/p45/Pretty_Marys_All_in_a_Row_(paperback)_.html).

Thank you so much for this interview, Daniel! These questions were fantastic and very much appreciated!

DB:     Thank you, Gwendolyn. I look forward to speaking with you and Farah on April 24th !

Here is the link to the event page.

https://www.facebook.com/events/207534209988969/

 

 

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