Theresa Holden Interviews Kelly Luce
KELLY LUCE IS often mentioned in the same breath as literary luminaries Aimee Bender and George Saunders. After reading her kickoff collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, it’s easy to see why. Luce’s writing delves into fantasy, toys with reality, and mines the magic of the Japanese landscape. With nine out of the ten stories set in Japan, Luce convincingly inhabits many mindsets: an American expatriate imprisoned for bicycle theft, a Japanese woman with a tail, and a grieving sister possessed by the spirit of her dead teenage brother. In 2013, Austin-based press A Strange Object chose Luce’s collection of stories as their debut publication. In this interview, Luce talks about Japan as a narrative locus, Austin’s literary scene, and her current novel-in-progress.
Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is one of the most cohesive story collections I’ve ever read. As a setting, Japan works as an organizing principle. But I’m curious about what else might’ve contributed to the collection’s ultimate arrangement. Were you purposefully writing toward certain themes or did the material just naturally emerge?
I wrote a few Japan stories and they featured an energy I liked, a magic that bubbled up while I wrote. So I kept writing Japan stories with the idea that they might form a book. I did not consciously try to write toward certain themes, but because of the focus on place and because I wrote them at a certain time and place in my life, themes did emerge. The cohesiveness is largely due to the editors at A Strange Object. They ordered the collection and cut two stories from it. I feel like ordering is best done by someone other than the author, someone who can look at a manuscript and see it as a whole—as a piece of work that’s doing something. Before Jill Meyers and Callie Collins got hold of it, it wasn’t truly a book.
I could easily see you having the literary equivalent of album B-sides, namely stories that are fully realized but don’t necessarily fit into the collection’s final vision. Is this accurate? If so, how might you characterize your other stories that fall outside the content and style of Hana Sasaki?
I think of B-sides as thematically similar, but maybe redundant to the album or not as strong as other tracks. In that sense, there were a couple B-sides to Hana Sasaki—the stories that got cut because another story was already doing what they were doing but better. In terms of non-Japan stories, some I’ve written are realistic stories about working class people in Illinois, where I grew up. Some are ambiguous about what’s real in the same way that some stories in Hana Sasaki are. I still write a lot about death and love and grief. I want to keep trying new things. So in my newer stories, I’m trying to write about friendships and sibling relationships, which don’t turn up too often in Hana Sasaki or other stories I’ve published.
You’ve studied cognitive science and that background can clearly be felt in the story, “Amorometer.” Can you offer any insight for writers wanting to depict science in their fiction?
Scientists and writers are both hunting for truth, but often in very different ways. Don’t be intimidated. Science is not scary; it’s just another perspective on the world, and isn’t that what fiction is all about exploring? Reading science blogs and magazines is a great way to get inspired. There’s some crazy shit being researched, and the discoveries get weirder all the time. Also, there’s some incredibly beautiful language in science that’s fun to incorporate into stories.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you’re also currently revising a novel. When you think about that project, what aspects of the narrative excite you most?
The protagonist of my novel, a Japanese-American woman, killed her school bully when she was twelve-years-old and living in Japan. I love writing from the point-of-view of a woman with a dark side, with a secret, someone who doesn’t fully belong anywhere but still must be. Her estranged father is a mythologized virtuoso violinist—A Living National Treasure in Japan—which lets me write about music and musicians, which I love. Music, like science, has its own particular lovely vocabulary.
You’re from the Midwest. You’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Japan. And you’ve been published by an Austin independent press. Do you align yourself with a certain region when it comes to your writing?
I don’t think I do. I write about all kinds of places. It’s hardest to write about where I came from, and my Illinois stories are some of the ones I’m most proud of. I haven’t written about Texas, but then, I’ve never been able to write about a place while I’m living in it. It needs to seep into the background before I can mine what’s creatively interesting about it. Drill for the oil, if you will.
You’re in the unique position of having a collection published while still being enrolled in an MFA program. What made you decide to pursue an MFA?
The Michener Center is a special place. They provide three things I was desperate for: a vibrant community, time + money, and extraordinary mentors. I didn’t apply to MFA programs so much as I kept applying to Michener until I got in. The collection was picked up around the same time I moved to Austin, which was a convenient coincidence.
How would you describe Austin’s literary scene to an outsider?
The scene here is varied, inclusive, and explosive. There’s something happening every night. The poetry scene in particular is just bustling. Austin’s an entrepreneurial city and that energy, combined with our resources, make it one of the liveliest—and most accessible—literary cities I’ve ever been in. We have the University of Texas and the Harry Ransom Center, BookPeople (Texas’s largest indie bookstore), other indie bookstores that all host readings, the Texas Book Festival, several independent magazines and presses (American Short Fiction, Austin Review, Bat City, fields, Litragger, NANO Fiction, Awst Press, A Strange Object), all within five miles of each other. Plus there’s Texas State’s amazing program down the road. A lot of well-known writers live here, too, and you see them out and about. Everyone’s supportive.
You’ve studied writing under the legendary Stuart Dybek. What has he impressed upon you that you still think about now?
I think of Stuart whenever I see a lime. He was trying to impress upon us the importance of digging deep for your images, finding the ones that sear themselves into your mind. His example was of a drop of blood in a pool of lime juice. I can’t remember what story he was talking about or why the blood got into the lime juice, but I remember that image and the way he talked about it—like he was telling us a holy secret.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
Every day is different. Some days I work all day with short breaks for chores or errands or a walk. Other days I am in TCB mode and don’t write at all. The only thing that’s really consistent is my need for solitude and the ability to reach for a beverage while I work: tea or coffee or Topo Chico or wine.
What was the last thing you read that knocked you on your ass?
Lucia Berlin’s new collected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women. It comes out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in August. Berlin has been around for a while but is relatively unknown, and I hope that changes. Her stories are like Joy Williams and Stephanie Vaughn skinny-dipping in a broth of Raymond Carver and Richard Yates.
Kelly Luce grew up in Illinois, has lived abroad in Japan, and splits time between Santa Cruz, California, and Austin, Texas. Her first book, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, was published by A Strange Object in 2013. Luce has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ragdale Foundation. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Salon, Electric Literature, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review and many other prestigious publications. Currently, she is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and serves as editor-in-chief of Bat City Review. Expect a novel from her soon.