An Interview with Mary Kuryla
August 16, 2019
In Freak Weather: Stories, you won’t find women who make the safest or the most calculated choices. But they’ll make their own choices, and they’ll tell you why. Mary Kuryla is a master of narrative voice. The stories in this collection are built and undercut by the tough, unflinching women who tell them. Amy Hempel selected Freak Weather for the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. I spoke with Kuryla about her inimitable characters, her revision process, and why a snake had to be a snake and not a metaphor, and much more.
- The characters in your stories are tough, flawed, and often surprisingly hopeful. You capture their voices superbly, particularly your narrators. In fact, you use first person narration for every story in the collection. Did you play around with perspective before settling on first person for any of these stories? Was there a specific inspiration for any of these narrators?
The more you talk the more you give yourself away, as any good cop or analyst knows. All the stories in this collection are an attempt to let the narrator speak and, with luck, give herself away. At the same time, each narrator is constrained by the limits of her expressive abilities, not to mention her ability to put her feeling into words. And really, who of us is very good at that? As a result, the tension in Freak Weather Stories is often between thought and speech. I’m interested in how the narrators’ quirks of language both bind and liberate story; there is the story that the narrator wants to tell, and, at the same time, there is the wrongness of expression that periodically cracks open the story that actually gets told.
A third factor, of course, is the writer. I, too, had a story in mind, a story that I required the narrator to tell, which was rarely the same story the narrator wanted to tell. The final composition rose or sank based on my ability to play that gap. I like working with these formal constraints; I’m after trying to get something on the page that is at once awfully familiar, like that remote echo chamber of the conscience — often the guilty conscience — and at the same time strange, as the truth can often be. Given the choice between my writerly objectives and the narrating protagonist, I cast my lot with the protagonist; how she says the story, the rational of her syntax always wins. Best to listen to what the language wants. Language is a very pushy dame, and one will do well to get out of her way on the page.
I agree that all the stories in the collection read as first person. However, there is one story, “The Way of Affliction”, which is technically 3rd person, a very close third person. And in fact the narration in this story occasionally slips into 2nd person. Irina, the main character in “The Way of Affliction”, was based on a nurse I encountered when my younger son was bitten by a rattlesnake and spent a week in the pediatric ICU. The nurse on duty the first night was Russian. Her behavior struck me as insensitive to my child’s pain. I knew that I wanted to write about the trauma of my son’s accident, but I was also looking for ways to work around the inherent melodrama of the subject. I decided on the nurse’s perspective because I was interested in what makes a person so tough. Language, Russian language, proved the source material of the exercise because I had to get at how thinking in a native language frustrates thought and action when operating in the country of relocation. I’m married to a Russian émigré, but I do not speak Russian. However, I’m familiar with how he speaks English and the accommodations he makes between the two tongues; I used that as my jumping point. But once the story began to unfold, I got a surprise. The rattlesnake that bit the child in the story refused to stay in the long grass outdoors and instead followed the child and the nurse into the hospital. I say it followed the nurse because the nurse is the only character that actually sees the snake in hospital. The snake’s appearance in the story scared me. My first impulse was to ‘defang it’ by making it metaphor. Thanks to the sage advice of the writer Pinckney Benedict, I came to see that the snake had to escape the narrator’s dominion of thought and language and become real. Reflecting on this now, I also see that the play of perspective from close 3rd person to 2nd was probably an additional coping device for exploring a trauma that affected my son and my family so deeply.
- Your prose has been praised as “brisk, fresh” (Amy Hempel) and “muscular” (Aimee Bender). I couldn’t agree more. I was also struck by the endings of these stories. They were sharp and unforgiving. Sometimes they reinvented the story and prompted me to reread. Other times they made me feel like I was careening off a metaphorical cliff, right alongside the narrator. Would you describe your editorial process, on a granular level, with your prose, and structurally?
It was an honor to receive such generous descriptions of my sentences by two writers of fine-tuned and risky prose. I loved that Aimee Bender used the word “muscular” because I truly have a soft spot for language that punches. Whether it’s the witty and perfectly aimed strike of Grace Paley’s sentences or the more pugilistic word-work of Thom Jones or Barry Hannah, yeah, I want words to knock me out.
But to get that kind of impact, you have to do some fancy footwork between the language and the story. It’s often in the editorial process that I will wrest the narrator’s dominion of the page back to what the story needs in order to emerge as a journey that can take the reader along. The language is just one level of working the story’s development. There are others, the most obvious being plot. Yet, not surprisingly, it is by carefully examining the language that I usually find my way toward clarifying plot.
The story “To Skin A Rabbit” has an external structure that dictates how the events unfold. This structuring device is the present tense narrative of the girl skinning a rabbit and recording her activities in a log that her field biologist father has instructed her to generate when preparing a study skin. Then there are the past events that that girl recalls; these intrusive memories appear between notations on skinning the rabbit. The two stories meet in the end. In “To Skin A Rabbit”, the external demands of the log dictated the structure. These are the conditions of working in the epistolary form or what David Shields calls the fraudulent document.
However, “Animal Control”, another story in the collection that ended up with an overt external structure, did not start with one. I wrote “Animal Control” out of a fascination with how people’s jobs seep into their identity, in particular people who wear uniforms or work in law enforcement. In the beginning of the story, the animal control officer Deedra Stero deploys her profession’s jargon with studied determination. She explicitly enumerates the rules of conduct when going on call. However as the story unfolds, and the reader begins to sense the jargon’s failure to shield the narrator from the effects of a triggering situation with an animal hoarder, we learn that Deedra has had a terrible loss.
The story went through a lot of revision, mostly because I kept looking outside the story for solutions. I relied too much on workshop feedback. In almost all cases, fellow readers’ suggestions served only to temper or domesticate the strangeness in the story. Thankfully the story resisted domestication (which is funny since it’s about hoarding dogs) and I think it resisted because of Deedra’s jargon. Deedra had deployed the jargon of animal control rules so forcefully that she built a shield around her and the story.
On a literal level, and equally defiant, was the fact of a basement that Deedra needed to inspect in order to resolve the main question of the story. Yet, in revision after revision, I kept sparing Deedra those steps down into the basement so she never faced what she most feared. Finally, after a long time, I followed the advice that Lucy Corin gives so generously in her essay “Material”. Time to make “Animal Control” more of what it was, not less. I was immediately struck by how I had totally ignored Deedra’s numbering of the rules of animal control. In the beginning of the story, she states quite clearly: stick to the rules and everything will stay under control. Yet, things don’t stay under control for poor Deedra. At the same time, I now understood that I had not given her a decent shot at getting things back under control. Why? Because I was too protective of my character. She needed room to go to a place that could get very out of control. How else would she break free of her own suffocating rules? Next, I explored where else numbering figured in the story. I now saw that the story naturally broke down into three sections. Or, rather, Deedra broke it down. And, of course, Deedra would. She would break things down into smaller portions so that she could manage her feelings and get control of them. I was at last prepared to take Deedra down the stairs into the basement. By supplying Deedra with what she needed (to pin everything down with numbers), Deedra finally felt safe enough to take those horrible steps that could lead to her lost child in this man’s basement.
- What was it like to assemble a short story collection?
Assembling this collection just took a long time. The earliest stories were generated while I was also occupied with making films and working as a professional screenwriter. In fact, a few of the stories that ended up in the collection were adapted into films in this period. I then had the luxury (or obsession, depending on your point of view) to revise the stories again after seeing them dramatized in another medium. Another factor in the process was the challenge of compiling enough stories that would share a common theme and attitude to form a collection. Last, compiling enough pages to make a collection; the stories in this book are whittled to their core. Those were the practical delays. Then there were more, uh, emotional ones. I kept thinking: who wants to hear all these female narrators behaving and narrating in such an ornery and unapologetic manner. To clarify, the book was slated for publication a full year before #metoo broke loose. Fortunately, what had seemed like a deficit quickly got converted into the collection’s greatest asset once five of my stories were performed by talented actors as part of the LA New Short Fiction Series. The response to my stories was a punch in the skull. My head spun. The audience was quite moved by the sort of stalwart bravado rumbling beneath these women’s narratives of transgressions and misbehaviors.
I have always only been interested in flawed characters, great and small, and female in particular. But I had come to believe this was just my ax to grind. Yet here was evidence that these women narrators could be cherished for their refusal of the expected. Not surprisingly, the performances led me back to the language, back to what was disobedient, antic, and unexpected in the prose. The process of collecting these stories together between covers meant embracing the flaws of the characters, which included the flawing of the sentences and the flawing of the narratives.
- We encounter quite a few dogs and other animals in Freak Weather (some with better fates than others).Was there a real life inspiration for any of these creatures? Or a particular incident?
The Jungian analyst and writer James Hillman says, “Each animal is a psychopompos, leading human consciousness to yield its theriophobic exclusivity, restoring participation in the animal kingdom.” Hillman is arguing that the function of animals in our consciousness, whether through dreams, stories, or ceremony, is essential to restoring our ancient connection to our animal selves, restoring the connection that our ancestors severed when they first represented animals by rendering their images on cave walls.
Animals were essential to me as a child. I gathered and collected them from the outdoors and pet stores, I was rarely allowed to keep them, I disobediently hid them in drawers and closets. I probably should have been a biologist studying animal behavior, but my sole talent as a kid was in reading books, so I transmuted that calling into stories. Animals in novels that appear in transgressive ways, like the cow that Ike Snopes falls in love with in Faulkner’s The Hamlet, Melville’s whale, or Angela Carter’s company of wolves, absolutely held my attention.
The animals in my stories may serve, if I’m to believe Hillman, as something more than a double self. They offer a kind of linkage to language and being liberated from the hierarchies of signification and meaning.
Hayden Carruth’s poem, “No Matter What, After All, and That Beautiful Word So,” suggests the larger function of the animal in human consciousness. In this excerpt of the poem, the narrator is lying in bed attempting to describe the call of the geese flying overhead —
…Talking in the sky,
Bell-like words, but only remotely bell-like,
A language of many and strange tones above us
In the night at the change of seasons, talking unseen,
An expressiveness—is that it? Yet we respond,
Our minds make an answering, though we cannot
Articulate it. How great the unintelligible
- Which authors inspire you most, past or present?
Emily Bronte. Robert Penn Warren and William Gass for their linguistic and narrative experiments, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner for everything. Angela Carter for taking back the fairy tale for her own bloody purposes, Daphne DuMaurier and Shirley Jackson and Kelly Fink for being so tough and grimly imaginative, Joy Williams for her courage both between sentences and juxtaposing sentences, Noy Holland for hers, Laurence Sterne for his vision of what the novel could be, Nabokov for his demonstration of the elasticity of structure, and Nikolai Gogol for the story “Diary of a Madman”. For pure linguistic mettle in beginning a sentence, James Kelman, and for Mr. Toad-like ability to take a sentence (and therefore a story) where you never saw it going: Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Thom Jones, Ali Smith, Grace Paley.
- What was your experience like publishing a first book? Did you encounter any unexpected obstacles, thrills, or hopeful moments?
It was an incredible honor to win the Grace Paley Prize for Fiction through the AWP. It’s hard to express how encouraging it was to be selected by Amy Hempel and receive her comments about my work. Suddenly work that I had written and fashioned simply out of a grimly joyful determination to give voice to these female protagonists was material that actually registered with another writer that I deeply admired. My work was given a greater context between these two essential literary voices. The AWP treats its award winners exceptionally well. They’re first-round readers are serious. Publishing this collection has been good for my writing because it forced me to speak about my work in interviews such as this — there is good reason to flesh out what you’re up to and there is equally great relief in knowing that a good amount still resists articulation.
The support from the writing community has been otherworldly. It was writer friends who helped get the word out on my book — because, let’s face it, when you publish with a university press, it’s an uphill battle getting attention for the book. I will be eternally grateful to all those folks who braved criminal LA traffic to show up for a terrific launch of Freak Weather at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. The biggest learning curve: a first-time short story collection published by a small university press is not unlike making and promoting a low-budget indie film. Hire a publicist. You and your book are worth it.
- What advice do you have for emerging writers?
There is huge emphasis right now on content, on brevity. Within this context, I would urge writers to entertain the complete opposite: take a turn around the floor with formally baroque, innovative, complex, meandering sentences, with sentences that command attention and surprise us in their unexpectedness, with sentences that kick the legs out from under all our very important and very newsworthy content.
Genre boundaries are certainly more fluid these days, a reflection perhaps of an equally fluid expression of gender and racial and sexual identities; nonfiction is inflected with memoir, memoir with theory, theory with poetry, poetry with fiction, fiction with reality. It’s marvelous to witness all this play. Yet, there is a shadow side to this blurring of boundaries, and I believe it manifests especially in fiction in pallid interest in and tolerance for formal innovation, irreverence, provocation — all that unfashionable avant garde stuff. Content is not king, at least in my queendom. Great flawed characters, that’s where the drama is. So there’s my soapbox. Now for my advice: learn dramatic structure, whether by studying playwriting or screenwriting. No matter how far you go out to sea, dramatic structure will ensure you do not sink.
- What are you working on now?
A novel that takes place in Northern Michigan in 1929 called The Onawayans. It’s based on a document that my stepfather recorded about a murder that implicated his father. The story concerns the murdered man’s widow, Lottie Ulrich, who attempts to bring the high-status killer to justice. When Lottie fails to get justice, her husband returns in a variety of supernatural forms to demand that Lottie avenge his murder. The novel unfolds in a series of documents written by the residents of Onaway, Michigan. I like the constraints of the document. I like how the person employing a proscribed form, such as a diary or taxidermy log, will push against the form to reveal a deeper motivation. I also like engaging the reader in making meaning of the text — an approach employed by both Frankenstein and Dracula, for example. The boundaries of the individual documents quickly dissolve in this kind of story. Lottie is one of the rare women characters I’ve written who is both noble and a victim of injustice. However the more she resisted her husband’s demands for revenge, the more I was able to tease out the fatal flaw at her core. Unlike King Hamlet’s son, a wife receives a request for revenge with instant ambivalence. That very real emotional complexity that comes with marriage is what grounds the stranger devices employed by the plot. With luck, the reader will navigate this impossible request right along with Lottie.
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Celia Blue Johnson is the Creative Director of SLICE.