OB: How did you come to start writing fiction?
JK: I know I began telling stories as a child – a way to guarantee invitation to sleepover parties. I told stories to girls about the boys they liked – about adventures we would have, the grown-up lives for which we prematurely longed. In the third or fourth grade I typed the entirety of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8 on my grandmother’s old Remington and presented it to my father as my own creation. I suppose in many ways I aped my childhood idols. I liked rewriting their worlds: Roald Dahl and Judy Blume and E.B. White. I presume it was sometime early in high school when I began my own work – creating my own worlds.
There’s a fantasy at the heart of this story which transforms a girl and her brother into husband and wife, and their sick mother into a child. Where did that come from?
I suppose the impetus was to explore the affects of young adults losing a parent to a degenerative illness over a long period of time. In many ways a role reversal occurs. In the best of all worlds, children become the caregivers – they couple up and work together. Their love is not physical, nor familial; it becomes intimate and based on responsibility, akin to a partnership. The fantasy honestly grew from the opening passage of the siblings driving their mother (crippled in the back seat) to the hospital, and the brother caring for both mother and sister as a father or husband would. In the early stages, I obsessed over a potentially disastrous misinterpretation of this as literal incest, though the more the extended metaphor grew, the less I worried. There is simply nothing about the relationship between these siblings that I ever felt was less than an exploration of great responsibility in the face of terrible loss. It made me love them as I wrote – forced me to try and understand them. To me that’s what imagination and character creation is about. They are married to their fate, which binds them as husband and wife, if not more, because they cannot divorce themselves from their grieving. I felt these siblings were in the trenches of loss and love and discovery – left only, in the final moments, with each other.
The incident with the man in the gorilla suit stands out. An episode from real life, or pure invention?
The gorilla suit is pure invention. The sign about the free soda for kids however is from real life. I saw it at a gas station in New Jersey as I was driving home to Vermont for a short visit. I stopped at that station with intent. Perhaps mere curiosity. Either way, I engaged with the nice man behind the counter who refused me a free diet soda. I didn’t need one, but I found the advertising absurd and potentially insulting. Height? I qualified. A daughter? Also qualified. Yet I was denied. I felt embarrassed for the owner. I invented the guy in the gorilla suit as another symbol of capitalistic desperation.
I can’t tell if this story is gentle or rather bitter. How does it feel to you?
Well, those are certainly diametric responses to the story! I can say that the tone of the story is not its heart- the characters beat it for me. I can also say that I didn’t intend to force a reader into a choice between the two. I’m not sure I chose as I wrote it. I’m also not entirely convinced it’s gentle, but I don’t think it’s overtly bitter or, at least, that was never my intention. Though I revel in the idea that a reader be allowed to feel empathy or regret or even bitterness from the narrator, surely it’s not a sentimental story, but just as surely, I find both interpretations plausible. I’d be flattered if readers felt differently. To me, even as I read it, I gain new sensibilities of the narrator. She seems torn between what is expected of her, and how her brother adopts a responsibility she’s incapable of or, in the moment, frozen from in fear.
What are you working on now?
I’ve completed a collection of short stories loosely connected by the theme of ‘Here Comes the Sun’, and now I’m writing a novel based on the Canadian Genocide of the twentieth century. It focuses on the inner lives of the children who were orphans during the time of Premier Maurice Duplessis – a time known as the ‘Great Darkness’ when Montreal could no longer afford their orphanages and so sent thousands of children to asylums where they were tortured, drugged and lobotomized. I’ve spent a year researching and am hoping to finish a draft this summer at the MacDowell Colony.