Caroline DeBruhl: Pull Me Under is your second book but first novel. Previously, you published a collection of short stories. What was the process for Pull Me Under? How did this story find itself to be a novel as opposed to a short story?
Kelly Luce: It always just felt like a novel. The question the story posed needed an entire book to answer. Short story ideas feel very different. I’ve never understood how people can write a great short story, then turn it into chapter one of a novel. To me that’s like cooking a perfect omelet and then deciding that it’s no longer going to be an omelet, but a full Thanksgiving dinner. That simile doesn’t really make sense. But you get the idea.
It took about eight years, on and off, to finish the book. In between I wrote stories, which are satisfying for many reasons. The biggest is that I can hold a short story in my head all at once. The novel was too big and overwhelming. Every character needs an arc, and motivations that make sense, and the plot needs to weave together, and you need to maintain tension. It was a lot of trial and error.
CD: Several of your short stories in Three Scenarios in Which Hana Saski Grows A Tail and your novel, Pull Me Under, take place in Japan. What about Japan draws you creatively to it?
KL: I moved to Japan after college and worked there for three years. That period was like a second childhood in many ways. I learned a new language, a new culture, and, being so far from home and everything familiar, I had the freedom to reinvent myself a little bit. I was also forced to really get to know myself due to being rendered functionally illiterate, mute, and deaf. Being unable to communicate with the outside world fine-tuned my internal world, my observational skills, my sensitivity to subtlety, my sense of curiosity. It was an incredibly intense and magical and difficult time. So Japan imprinted deeply on me.
CD: Are there any Japanese myths or superstitions specifically that have influenced your work?
KL: I’ve referenced myths and superstitions in my writing, but in terms of stylistic influence, it’s tricky to tease out cause and effect. The Japanese have concepts like mono no aware, the bittersweet, nostalgic beauty of the ephemeral (cherry blossoms being the most common example) or ichi-go, ichi-e (one meeting, one time, meaning that no moment is ever repeated) that resonated with ideas I’d always had in my heart but didn’t have words for. A certain plane of subtlety, simplicity, and sensitivity that felt at home to me. So I think Japan made me conscious of, and gave me language for, ideas and aesthetics I’d have otherwise struggled to articulate. I’m sure this influenced the way I craft stories and sentences.
CD: There is an element of ritual in Pull Me Under: Chizuru cleaning the bow, the Shikoku pilgrimage, the ritual of ‘closure.’ Was that something you were interested in exploring? If so, why?
KL: It wasn’t something I was consciously trying to do. But considering that I’m very interested in the concept of faith and its influence (one of the themes of the novel I’m working on now), this observation makes sense! Ritual and faith go hand-in-hand. In each of your examples, Chizuru/Rio gets to decide how well to perform the ritual, or, in the case of closure, whether she wants to perform it at all. Which points at her faith, or the places in which she feels she might find some grace.
CD: Are there rituals you hold when you’re writing?
KL: I always have a drink at hand. Usually green tea or bubble water with lemons in it. I keep adding lemons but am lazy about taking out the old ones and eventually I have to get up and clean the glass out because there’s no room for water anymore. It’s a fine way to procrastinate.
CD: In your short story, “Rooey” there is a character who wrangling with a sort of emerging identity. In Pull Me Under, Rio creates and attempts to keep her two very different identities separate: Chizuru Akitani and Rio Silvestri. What is it about identity that attracts you as a writer?
KL: First and foremost, identity is emotional. It’s one of the biggest ways we create meaning in our lives.
The psychology of identity attracts me. How does one define themselves? Why do we feel the need to do so—to create a “brand” and cling to it? There’s this struggle between being a complex, evolving being with conflicting desires, and the desire to feel like one has a specific place and purpose in life. There’s also the desire to be known and understood—but can we truly be known or understood, even by ourselves?
My friend, the brilliant story writer and novelist, Mary Miller put it perfectly in an interview: “I’ve always thought that was the most horrendous advice—just be yourself. As if the self is some static thing that a person can just be.”
And yet, we do somehow feel like we have a core self.
The role culture plays can create tension with regard to identity. In Japan, for example, group identity has traditionally been more important than individual identity. It’s a homogenous country, racially, but more and more mixed-race children are being born, and it’s challenging some peoples’ notion of what being Japanese means—to the point where they’re so upset, they’re suing to remove the title from the first mixed-race Miss Universe Japan.
CD: What sort of letter opener do you have?
KL: No one’s ever asked me this before! I’m so glad you did. I have a gold (plated?) one with a little pearl on top that was given to me by a student of mine named Shinobu—the namesake and inspiration for the character of the same name in the novel. And the letter opener/murder weapon in the novel looks like the one he gave me.
Kelly Luce is the author of Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail (A Strange Object, 2013), which won Foreword Review’s Editor’s Choice Prize for Fiction, and the novel Pull Me Under, out November 1, 2016 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She grew up in Brookfield, Illinois. After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in cognitive science, she moved to Japan, where she lived and worked for three years. Her work has been recognized by fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Ucross Foundation, Sozopol Fiction Seminars, Ragdale Foundation, the Kerouac Project, and Jentel Arts, and has appeared in New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Salon, O, the Oprah Magazine, The Sun, and other publications. She received an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin in 2015 and lives in Charlestown, MA. She is a Contributing Editor for Electric Literature and a 2016-17 fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where she is working on her next novel.
Caroline DeBruhl is a writer from New Orleans. Her work has appeared in Antigravity Magazine, Neutrons & Protons, The Poor Horn, Umbra, and The Redlands Review. She lives in Austin and is third year fiction MFA creative writing candidate at Texas State University.