Kirsten Lunstrum, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, sits down with us today to explore themes, style, and inspiration for her newest book What We Do with the Wreckage (available October 15, 2018). Kirsten’s characters reveal survivors’ instincts when placed in situations of intimate crisis. Their choices echo throughout each story as snapshots into people’s regular lives. Through this Q&A, Kirsten shares her perspective on the gifts of short stories and her influences in art and writing.
Lunstrum is the author of two collections of short fiction: This Life She’s Chosen and Swimming with Strangers. Her short fiction and essays have appeared widely in journals, including One Story, the American Scholar, Willow Springs, and Southern Humanities Review.
These stories are quite personal and highlight domestic dilemmas of regular people. How much or how little of the book is inspired by your own life?
This is always a tricky question for a fiction writer to answer. Every story in this collection is absolutely fiction, but every story here does also draw in some way (overtly or abstractly) from my life. I am the mother of two young children, a wife, a daughter, and a sister. These identities inform my stories in that I write about the challenges of relationship–particularly familial relationship–but I never enter a story with myself in mind. I never enter a story thinking, “I’m going to veil this autobiography as fiction.” My stories always begin in imagination.
I will say, though, that fiction does often give me an opportunity to dig into the questions and challenges of my own familial life in ways I could not access with nonfiction. It’s one of the beautiful mysteries of fiction that in working to understand a character, I also come to understand more fully my own thoughts and experiences. Most of this is intuitive or subconscious through the drafting process, of course, and only in revising a story do I pick up on the bits of myself that have appeared in the fiction. In that sense, though, the fiction becomes autobiographical even if it didn’t begin with me.
Here’s one tiny deviation from that: The first story in this collection–“Endlings”–began with research I pickpocketed from my then-first-grader when she was writing her annual school interest project on Tasmanian tigers. I would never have stumbled onto an interest in Tasmanian tigers on my own, but in listening to my daughter share her excitement about the animal and its history, I became curious about the tigers too, and from that interest my story was born. I love it when fiction is informed by life in this way–when some small detail crosses my horizon in the midst of daily life and I can’t let it go until I write it. That’s the best, the most fun.
The short story form can be very specific, and there are many writers who only write short stories. Who are some of the writers that you look to as influences? What draws you to the medium? Do you see yourself exclusively as a writer of short stories or do you have plans to expand and write novels?
There’s a lot of pressure on writers to see stories as “smaller” in consequence than novels and to view writing them as training for the real work of a writer’s life–the novel. It’s also, of course, much harder to find publishers willing to buy short story collections, especially collections that are not a writer’s first book and especially collections that do not come with the promise of an accompanying novel manuscript. Readers, too, tell me all the time that they “just don’t get short stories,” and so the audience for story collections is smaller.
But I don’t think writers view stories in this way. I think there are many of us out there who are devoted to the story form in particular and who prefer it–both as writers and as readers. Stories require an attention to language and space that is unique to the short form. There’s a precision and an urgency in a story that is rare in longer works. And, for me, the endless possibility the story form offers for experimentation with structure and voice and image and style is still so exciting. I think, too, that I have a short attention span. I get bored quickly, but the story form permits me that boredom. I can skip from curiosity to curiosity when writing and still finish stories, still be engaged when I get to the last page of a draft. Beyond that, on a more practical level, stories fit my life. I am a full-time high school teacher/administrator and the mother of two children. I don’t have the mental space or physical time in my life (at least not right now) to hold a novel. Maybe this isn’t something I should say aloud, but I appreciate the story’s accessibility as well as its artistry.
The story writers I love–and whose writing has shaped me–are Alice Munro (she’s the matriarch, for me), Willa Cather, Mavis Gallant, Flannery O’Connor, Tillie Olsen, Gina Berriault, Andrea Barrett, John Cheever, Chekhov, James Baldwin, Lorrie Moore. I’m in awe of the current work Lauren Groff and Karen Russell and Anthony Doerr are doing as short fiction writers too.
All this is to say that I am a devotee of the story–as a writer and a reader–and I see myself as a career story writer, at least at this point.
Do you draw inspiration from other mediums like art or music?
This is an interesting question. I know some writers are more directly influenced by other mediums than I am, and I’m intrigued by that connection they feel to visual art or music when they’re making their own stories. I appreciate other art forms, of course, and I love a whole afternoon spent at an art museum or an evening at a concert, but I don’t think I feel a clear line of influence between my writing and other artists’ work.
My husband actually trained as a visual artist, and for a long time he worked as a photographer/sculptor/printmaker and a professor of visual art. He eventually left teaching for an entirely different career, but in his off-hours he now builds wooden boats, and they are objects of real beauty and artistry. I don’t think he would ever put it this way, but I see the creativity and care he once spent on sculptures and prints channeled into his boats now. I think watching that boatbuilding process has been an inspiration to me, at least in terms of the work of creating something. It’s fastidious and slow, and it requires a patience and a focus on the construction rather than the finished product that I find instructive, really, for my own writing process. And, of course, the boats themselves have found their way into my stories too. I’ve always written about and around bodies of water, but more and more I’m finding myself writing its sailors!
The cover features a picture of the Tasmanian tiger, which is mentioned in the first story of the book. (The Tasmanian tiger officially went extinct in 1933 when the last known member of the species died in a Tasmanian Zoo. However, recent reported sightings and other circumstantial evidence have renewed debate over whether the animal really is extinct.) Should we confine the tiger to the first story, or does the symbolism of this animal lend itself to the stories in your books as a whole?
As I said above, the Tasmanian tiger in the story “Endlings” came directly from the research my daughter did for her first-grade school interest project. Together, we watched the YouTube video that my character Katya watches in the story–a short black-and-white film clip taken at the Hobart Zoo, featuring Benjamin, the last known Tasmanian tiger in captivity (or anywhere). I was so moved by the video. The tiger paces in a concrete paddock, opens and closes his incredible jaw, and for a moment stares right at the camera. He looks restless, and there’s a poignant sense of his frustration and isolation and yearning clear in the footage. I read later that he died from exposure to cold weather, which is just impossibly sad.
What most stuck with me about the tigers, though, was that their extinction came about largely, it seems, because of human recklessness and human misunderstanding. The tigers were believed to be responsible for the deaths of ranchers’ sheep and so were hunted. They may also have suffered as a result of population growth, loss of food sources and habitat, and the introduction of disease. Their extinction seemed to me, as I read about the tigers, to be entirely preventable–a loss (a disaster) that was predictable, really, and the result of human miscalculation and mistreatment of natural resources. I think this is how my tiger works as a symbol beyond just the first story in the collection. All of the stories in What We Do with the Wreckage, in one way or another, deal with the aftermath (the wreckage) of some miscalculation or misunderstanding that results in a kind of disaster–either personal and emotional, or societal and physical.
I think it’s worth adding that I wrote these stories over the space of a decade of my life–my thirties. For me, that decade was largely about destroying all of the institutions and structures I had built my adult life on in my twenties. I abandoned the career for which I’d spent years in school preparing (and by which I defined myself); I left the East Coast, where I’d been carefully constructing a grown-up life, in order to do what I never thought I would–move “home” to live just half a mile from my parents’. And as happened to many of us in recent years, my faith in the larger cultural and social institutions that defined my childhood sense of the world and its order also crumbled because of events far beyond my control. I also became a mother during this period, and I was writing these stories in the midst of the (sometimes) crippling fears that come with parenthood. When viewed through the lens of my motherhood, the world seemed suddenly prone to chaos and disaster at any moment. I found myself much more anxious about the large and small darknesses of life the moment I became responsible for seeing two little people through them! And all of that found its way into the stories, not directly, but in this near-obsessive exploration of what we do when we’re faced with the worst–what we do when we find ourselves that tiger in a cage, the last (in one way or another) of our line.