Interview w/ Lenya Krow

By Alison Brimley

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Leyna Krow

Leyna Krow has an MFA from Eastern Washington University. Her work has appeared in Santa Monica Review, Sou’wester, Ninth Letter, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. Her first collection, I’m Fine but You Appear to Be Sinking, was published earlier this year by Featherproof Books.

The stories in I’m Fine but You Appear to Be Sinking veer back and forth between ones that seem pretty rooted in the real world and ones that are less plausible, at least for the present moment. Do you think of your work as straddling genres? Is genre a valuable concept for your collection? What is accomplished, in your view, by juxtaposing these different modes in a single collection?

I’d call the genre of the collection “domestic fabulism.” Each story has people who are either dealing with a very strange problem in a very normal environment, or the opposite. So it’s this blending of realism with the bizarre. I’m a big fan of magical realism, but I know my writing isn’t quite that. It’s not so much magical as just slightly otherworldly. Things are always familiar, but also always a little off. It’s just that strict realism isn’t all that interesting to me as a writer (though I love it as a reader). I’d rather play around with other possibilities, just outside of reality, but not so far afield as to be totally impossible. 

Would you characterize any of your stories as science fiction? Are you a science fiction fan, and if so, what do you see as the value of this genre which tends to be marginalized in the literary world?

I don’t really think of my stories as science fiction, although I don’t totally reject the label either. I’m not actually a big sci-fi fan though, and so maybe I’m just hesitant to call myself a science fiction writer because I don’t know that much about the genre. Another writer friend of mine termed my work as “fiction science” (as opposed to science fiction), and I think that’s actually a more accurate term since I like to play with concepts in science and nature, but the stories aren’t so rooted the realms of traditional sci-fi. “Fabulism” is actually the word I use for my own stories. They’re askew from the real world is someway or another.

There’s a common theme throughout these stories of people at the mercy of uncontrollable forces, whether a magical button that makes everything fall off your shelves or a wild animal in the neighborhood. Talk about that.

All of my stories are, first and foremost, written with my own entertainment in mind. I like to put characters into situations that I find compelling, or funny. And yeah, uncontrollable forces are a big part of that for sure. You could almost call it a device, I suppose. Like, what if I take this person and then all of a sudden this strange thing happens to them? What are they going to do? It’s like a puzzle or a game, but one in which there’s no right way to go. I can spin the scenario out however I want. It’s a fun way to write.

Animals, specifically, appear as major figures in several of the stories in this collection. Are you an animal person?

Absolutely! I love animals. Animals are also another great example of an uncontrollable force. Humans don’t always have the best understanding of animals, even when we think we do, and so they are sort of inherently unpredictable. I like that. I think animals make great characters because they can act and they can influence event and cause trouble, but you never get any interiority from them. They just barrel in and mess things up, or set them right.

This collection also seems to set a lot of people adrift, literally in outer space or on the sea. Do you find yourself drawn to these kinds of unmoored settings, and if so, why?

Yeah, definitely. All of the protagonists in the collection are sort of unmoored in their own lives in some way. There are a lot of really lonely people in the book. I like to think the settings match that.  

Tell me about the book’s “Index of Things to Come.”

While I was in the process of revising the manuscript, a friend of mine lent me Ander Monson’s short story collection Other Electricities. That book relies a lot on repeated images and ideas, just like mine, and in it there’s an index of all that stuff. I loved it! So, I poached the idea for my own book. Monson’s index is more involved than mine—there are actually additions to the narrative in it. And it comes at the end of his book, as is of course more traditional of indexes.

Mostly, what I wanted the “Index of Things to Come” to do was to signal to readers that there was going to be all this stuff in the book that comes up over and over and over again. And also just as a way to say, “Hey, you’re about to read something odd, with a bunch of astronauts and squid. Get ready for that.”

One of my favorite stories from the collection is “End Times,” which is unique among the other stories in that it plays with chronology, premonitions, and utilizes endnotes—in short, it looks and feels less rooted in realism. Do stories like this come naturally to you or do you feel you have to push the story out of its natural state and play with modes to come up with something less conventional?

“End Times” was perhaps the most challenging piece in the collection for this exact reason. Ideas like this come naturally to me, but the execution of a piece that plays with chronology . . . that’s not really in my wheelhouse. I felt like I was in over my head, and I still feel like there are elements of that piece that still don’t really add up in terms of the rules of the world. I got a lot of help through workshopping with “End Times.” I was in grad school for my MFA at Eastern Washington University when I wrote it and fortunately was able to get a lot of feedback from my peers and my thesis advisor on what made sense and what didn’t. Otherwise I’m not sure I could have made it work even as well as it does.

I’m also intrigued by your story “Spud & Spud II,” which is a kind of serialized longer story told in chunks interspersed with other stories in the collection. Did you conceive of the story this way? Or did this organization manifest itself as you went along?

Not at all! “Spud & Spud II” was originally a single story, told through the point-of-view of three different characters. It was my editor at Featherproof Books, Jason Sommer, who suggested chopping it up into parts to go between the other stories in the collection. It took quite a bit of revision to make this happen—the different sections of the story did not stand on their own in the original version. But I loved the idea of having a sort of through line to the book—something that readers keep coming back to. There’s no great payoff the Spud stories in relation to the other stories—no big mystery or connection that gets revealed—and I think that could be disappointing to some readers. I like the structure of it though. I’ve never read another collection arranged in this way, so I wanted to try it.

In the first installment of “Spud & Spud II,” the main character is faced with the threat of annihilation in space, but comforts himself with this thought: “When they return home, it will be with tales of great heroism to tell their loved ones—like creating a rogue wave, or vanquishing a giant serpent. It will make a good story for the boy, when he’s old enough to hear it.” As a writer, do you feel this impulse in your own life—not the impulse to tell stories that prove your heroism, but the draw to value life’s experiences for what kinds of stories they’ll give you?

I do feel like I’m always thinking about how to retell events in my own life in ways that will entertain. But that’s mostly just for my family and friends. I like being a person who’s got something funny or clever to share. So, if I can spin a good anecdote, that’s fun for me. But it doesn’t really translate to my writing. I’ve never been one to subscribe to the “write what you know” school. I’d rather just make things up.

Are there real-life experiences that tend to appear again and again in your stories?

Not real life experiences so much as real-life interests. I don’t particularly like to write about things that actually happen to me, in a large part because I just don’t think my real life is all that exciting. Don’t get me wrong—I like my life; it’s really nice. But it’s pretty normal. I wouldn’t want to read a book about it. But I definitely do return to a lot of ideas and themes in my writing over and over just because they are things that I think a lot about. Animals, the environment, and the natural world, history, biology. Sometimes I write things about my friends but in very fractured ways. Otherwise, though, it’s all fiction for fiction’s sake.

Another of the common themes in the collection is parenthood—specifically the impossibility of doing the right thing as a parent. Is this something you’ve experienced or observed in your own life? How do you see yourself representing parent-child relationships in your stories?

I think I gravitate toward the parent-child relationship in fiction because of all the major relationships a person can have in their life, it has the possibility to be fraught in the greatest variety of ways. Romantic relationships are of considerably less interest to me because they just don’t have the diversity of angles. Or, maybe that’s a lack of creativity on my part. But it seems like in romantic relationships things are either going well or they aren’t. The question is always, are these people going to stay together? With parents and children, that’s a relationship you can’t get out of so easily, and there are just so many challenges it can pose on both sides, even if the relationship is, overall, a healthy one. Like, in my own life, I’m very close with both of my parents, but there’s still a lot of complexity there. My relationship with my own kid is simpler, but only because she’s still a baby and therefore can’t complain about my parenting yet.

On the subject of parents. I follow you on Twitter, and I had to laugh at one of your recent tweets: “Mom just called to say she read my newest stories & found the endings unsatisfying.” I found that delightful because when I’ve shared my stories with both my mother and my mother-in-law, they have that exact reaction. What do you make of feedback like that? Do you take it as a compliment? Is it just something about mothers?

Ha! Yes, I think it is something about mothers. I mean, it’s got to be tough for them, right? They want to be supportive of their kids’ art, but art is so often dark and sad and mean. Moms don’t want to know their kids have that stuff inside of them. My mom always wants to analyze what I write—searching it for symptoms of my personal despair, or something like that. When she told me she didn’t think my most recent stories felt finished, I told her what I thought she really meant was she just didn’t like them because they were sad. She didn’t want them to end like that.

What are your writing habits like? Are you a write-every-day person? Or a more sporadic writer? What do you wish your writing habits were like?

I wish I was an everyday writer. Up until recently, I was writing about three days a week, and that worked pretty well for me. My daughter was born in December, and I will be honest, she’s really thrown off my writing game. Now it’s sort of catch-as-catch-can. My husband and I keep describing the experience of having a kid as having to re-learn how to do everything in our lives. Writing is included in that for me. It’s been three months and I am only just now starting to emerge from the fog of new-parenthood and find my routine again.

Where does the germ of most of your stories begin—with a character? A premise? A climactic event? Do you ever have to force your stories to begin somewhere else?

I usually start with a concept and a first line. And those elements usually stay consistent through out the revision process. Most of my stories go through a lot of drafts, but the original ideas tend to stick. I think it’s because those elements become foundational quickly. If I change them, then I’m really writing a different story.

– Alison Brimley