Kim Fu in conversation with Kailee HaongSpring 2022
Kim Fu is the author of the story collection Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century. Fu’s first novel, For Today I Am a Boy, won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards. Fu’s writing has appeared in Granta, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and BOMB. She lives in Seattle.
Kailee Haong is a writer with work published in Split Lip, The Inlander, and elsewhere, as well as a contributing editor for Moss. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University.
As with any story collection I come across, I’m always curious as to how an author decides to organize and order the stories. In your collection, did you immediately know the order in which you wanted them to appear? Was there any reasoning in starting with “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867” and ending with “Do You Remember Candy?” What, if anything, did you take into consideration when arranging the stories?
As I was writing the stories, I had a general sense of where they would fit into a collection. Certain stories felt like early ones, middle ones, late ones. Certain stories felt like they should be grouped together, that they were thematically in dialogue with each other. “Do You Remember Candy” wasn’t the last story written, but when I hit upon its final image, of a mother watching her daughter through the window, I knew I wanted to end the book with it.
The exact order of the stories was heavily influenced by my editor at Tin House, Masie Cochran. It was her idea to open with “Pre-Simulation,” which had never occurred to me, and now I can’t imagine it any other way. Written entirely in dialogue, as a computer-transcribed conversation without speaker tags, it’s the only story not written in conventional prose. It throws you into the mechanics of a speculative world and technology with no lead-up. She thought it was attention-grabbing, the right story to set the tone of the book and the expectations of readers. I think I thought you had to ease readers into weirdness, where she—correctly—thought you should draw in the right readers immediately. Like, “Hey! Weirdness over here!”
I love that thought—“Hey! Weirdness over here!”—because the stories are indeed strange, and so idiosyncratic and fun to read. Are there any particular stories, books, or authors that have influenced you as a writer? Maybe others that also delve into this totally cool weirdness?
Absolutely! I recently did an event with Zach Powers, who described writers who work in the uncanny and fantastical as “team weird.” For me, team weird includes Karen Russell, Kevin Brockmeier, and George Saunders, but also writers who infuse a sense of strangeness and magic into seemingly realist stories, like Heather O’Neill or Elizabeth McCracken. Ted Chiang’s books were a huge influence on Monsters, as were Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell, and The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I just finished Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller, and the simmering unease and slow-building gothic horror were extremely inspiring to me, a feeling I want to evoke in my own writing.
Perhaps one of my favorite things about speculative fiction is this ability to write in a place that feels both futuristic and far-off, yet also so close and attainable in a scary-realistic way, as if tomorrow we could very well wake up, connect with an operator, and begin our first simulation. How do you walk this fine line of reality and unreality in your writing? I’m thinking also of books like 1984 and Parable of the Sower, now past or nearly past their settings, and how our world has conformed to some of those shapes and ideologies put into place in these novels, or bent in different ways. If we revisit Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century in a decade, will the concepts you’ve dreamt up feel even closer to reality?
A decade? I wonder that about tomorrow, or next week. For me, one of the challenges of writing speculative fiction is that technology outpaces the speed I can write, let alone publish. Actual technologies, but also just whatever nonsense comes out of the mouth of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. Last fall, I wrote 20,000 words of a novel that I ended up throwing away, because what was actually happening with Meta and NFTs and Web3 was more ridiculous and surreal than anything I could invent. I hope that focusing on the smaller, more human stories within these worlds will make something within them more timeless, regardless of how history unfolds. I recently read Erin Swan’s debut, Walk the Vanished Earth, which is both speculative and a bit of an alt-history, a family lineage from a frontiersman in 1873 to a post-human creature on the moon in 2073, centered on an apocalyptic flood in 2018. Obviously, in our reality, Earth wasn’t submerged in 2018, but the book nevertheless speaks to my own feelings about human ambition and frailty, my own fears and dreams.
Place is so influential in most authors’ workers, whether obviously, by establishing cities, landmarks, or other blatant geographical mentions, or in more subtle ways, like describing dense forestry, towering mountain ranges, or, like in “Bridezilla,” the small mentions of “wildfire smoke,” “waterfront homes,” and the “harbor cruise.” How does the Northwest play a role in your writing? You’ve lived in different places in the Northwest, including Canada. Do you feel a stronger pull toward any specific place in your writings?
I love that you noticed those details. I grew up in Vancouver, BC and have lived in Seattle for over ten years; the Pacific Northwest is my home and permeates my writing. Superficially, the stories in Monsters are mostly set in nonspecific every-towns, but you’re right, they’re backgrounded by the mountains and the sea, moody grays and greens, ancient trees and ash on the wind. My previous novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, was explicitly set along the West Coast, from BC to southern California. I sometimes think I’m drawn to a dream-version of the region, the way it feels as opposed to its literal geography. I find myself resistant to name, say, a Seattle street or landmark in a story, even as a local reader would recognize it in the details, the people, the energy.
You do a great job of conjuring this dream-version of the Northwest throughout your writings, even if place isn't something that's specifically called out or named, as you say. There's something so special about existing here, surrounded by the beauty of the region. Do you think you could imagine setting any future work in other places, or is there something about it here that will always be where your stories, essays, and poems call home?
Even as the Northwest has dominated my imagination, and I expect that will continue, other places and settings feature in my work as well. The story “June Bugs,” about a house infested by a surreal volume of insects, was partially inspired by a residency I did in a small town in Saskatchewan. I’m grateful that my literary career has taken me to South Africa and a subarctic town in the Yukon and all over America, and that it all feeds into the well from which my worlds and details are drawn. That said, I find it hard to predict anything about what I write in the future. My interests as a writer are constantly shifting and changing in a way that feels outside of my control. I’m pretty sure my next book is set in the Pacific Northwest, but if it ends up being partially in New York City or on Mars by the time it’s done, I wouldn’t be that surprised.
Many of your stories in Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century touch on death or the notion of death as an ending, both metaphorical and literal. I’m also interested in how this “death as an ending” concept is subverted, specifically in “Twenty Hours,” where death also marks a beginning. Could you talk about your relationship to death in writing? Do you find it more of an ending, a beginning, or maybe a mix of both?
People keep asking me about this! I think death is a preoccupation in my writing because it’s such a huge part of human experience, yet—at least in my experience of North American culture—we talk about it so little. We avoid talking about it, thinking about it, preparing ourselves and each other for it. All that suppression makes it bubble up in the writerly subconscious. I don’t think of death as just an ending, but a defining feature of life as we’re living it: grief for those we’ve lost, the everyday knowledge of its inevitability.
You’re absolutely right, death is so taboo. I recall losing my grandpa at a young age and the very respected, traditional Buddhist Chinese funeral processes that felt so natural to me growing up with immigrant grandparents, that maybe even desensitized me to death in a way that some cultures don’t quite do (like rituals, open-casket viewings, offerings and incense at gravesites, etc.). In that case, for me, growing up, it was so talked about that it felt normal. Will you continue talking (and writing) about death?
Yes, because it feels so fundamental to me. I wouldn’t know how to write the story of any life without it being touched by death—literal deaths, but also the fear of death, the desire for death, the beliefs around it, the question of legacy and what remains.
My parents were also Chinese immigrants, but I had very a different experience from what you describe. I felt disconnected from those rites when I was a child; my mother is a Baptist Christian, and traditional Chinese offerings and rituals were a site of confusion and contention. When my father passed away, I felt protective of my family’s privacy and his dignity, unwilling to talk about the most formative and painful experience of my life. I also quickly felt a lot of pressure from the outside world to pretend that I was okay, that I’d gotten over it, when I’m not sure I ever will. Fiction and poetry have felt like a safe space to explore those feelings more obliquely.
How do the current events of today play a role in your writing? I hate to bring up anything pandemic-related, but I couldn’t help but compare the loss of taste and the pleasure of eating in “Do You Remember Candy” to the very real situation many people have faced after COVID has drastically limited their abilities to taste and smell. Do you consider the things occurring in our world today in your writings, or are your stories, poems, and novels a way to escape those things, and to create worlds of your own?
I wrote “Do You Remember Candy” in 2019, and while editing the book in 2020 and 2021, I was really worried that it would come across as offensive or painful in a way I didn’t intend. I’ve since heard from a few readers who did lose their sense of smell or taste to COVID, who felt the story took their pain seriously in a way they hadn’t encountered before. I hope that’s how the story comes across in general.
This speaks to your previous question, too—why I write about death so much. I think most writers write about what’s happening in the world today whether we want to or not. Even if I were trying to write the most fantastical, escapist scenario, I live in this world, in the present moment, and so does the reader. The reader and I will both bring to the story our own experiences, our anxieties, our worldviews. The metaphors and parallels will be unavoidable. I think it’s important, while writing and especially while editing, to consider and hone those interpretations, rather than deny them.
I want to linger on the idea of both you and the reader bringing experiences, anxieties, and worldviews to whatever story is at hand. What do you hope readers might walk away with after reading Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, or any of your other work, for that matter?
While I think there are some obvious themes and satirical jabs in Monsters—for example, I think you can tell I’m both awed and disturbed by human resilience, how we can seemingly adapt to and come to accept anything—there isn’t any one big takeaway. I mostly hope readers leave feeling entertained, engaged, unsettled, provoked, full of their own new thoughts and ideas. Part of taking the reader’s experience into account is knowing that a work of fiction, while it’s being read, is a construction in their mind, and leaving space for that kind of collaboration. I love hearing from readers about their own interpretations and connections to the stories.
I'd love to hear a little about your writing process in general. How do you get into your groove to create these fantastical worlds that are so fun to exist in while reading?
I can’t start writing without a sensory detail, something I can see, smell, feel, taste, or touch. If an idea comes to me another way—as a scenario, a what-if, a type of person, an invention, a scrap of dialogue—it won’t go anywhere until I can find an image to let me in. My first drafts are an intuitive and messy process, not knowing where I’m going or what happens next, stacking images and seemingly unrelated scraps together, experimenting, writing non-linearly, writing whatever piece interests me in the moment. That draft just lets me see what the story even is, and then I start over again. I don’t plan or outline before I begin; if I outline, it’ll be between draft one and two. I throw away a lot of first drafts that don’t have that energy, where there isn’t something that draws me back, that makes me want to revisit the world and make it work. I won’t pretend this is an efficient way to write, but it’s the only way that works for me.
You’re a very busy writer, balancing book-related events and teaching—what’s the secret to carving out time to write or be creative?
I work best around other people, especially when I’m first starting something new, or when I’m feeling stuck or burned out. While I was writing Monsters, I was fortunate to receive a couple artist residencies, and I cultivated friendships with other writers who could meet up in coffee shops or each other’s homes, and I also went to writing groups that I found online, including one that met in the basement of the library. It’s easy to feel like writing new work isn’t as important as other gigs, as you mention, which have more immediate deadlines or paychecks. I love the energy of being with other people who are also choosing to carve out this time, who are taking their writing seriously, even for an hour or two. We don’t have to share work or even know each other. Just by showing up, we’re holding each other accountable. I get so much just from listening to their keyboards clack or their pens scritch across the page.
You are one of those do-it-all type of writers that I absolutely aspire to be someday, dabbling in just about every form of writing out there. Do you feel particularly called toward any one in particular—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or do you find yourself filling those buckets equally? How would you say your style and subject matter tend to differ when writing in different genres?
As I mentioned, my writerly interests seem to be constantly changing in ways I can’t predict. When I was doing interviews for my first novel, back in 2014, I self-described as primarily a poet. While I was promoting my poetry collection in 2016, I was working on a lot of essays and reported nonfiction. As I finished my second novel and started working on Monsters, I was thoroughly and exclusively obsessed with short stories. I wrote nothing else, and nothing else interested me. Right now, my attention is turning back to the novel, to its expansive possibilities, the slow layering of meaning, the long journeys to which I haven’t had access while working in shorter forms.
Are there any works-in-process we can look forward to reading in the future?
I’m working on a new novel. It’s in an extremely early phase, where even the basic premise is in flux. When people ask me what it’s about, my answer changes week to week. I’m still just playing with the characters, generating a lot of material that will probably all end up in the trash, letting it find its shape.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Seven.