Monday, September 22, 2014

Why write at all? Kelly Luce's answer

Kelly Luce's first book is a collection of short stories: Three Scenarios in which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. I bought it because I have a consuming interest in Japan and things Japanese and because the book won the Indifab Editor's Choice Prize for Fiction, i.e., the best independently published book of fiction in 2013. (The publisher is Austin (Texas)-based A Strange Object; Three Scenarios is its first book.)

Kelly Luce
While not all the ten stories are equally engaging (what story collection has all winners?) they are all interesting in their own way. Most of the stories are told by or featuring Japanese characters who act and sound Japanese—not, I think, an easy thing to pull of. There is a tendency when Westerners write from the inside of a foreign sensibility (and the Japanese sensibility is very foreign) to impose Western assumptions, expectations, attitudes on the characters or to write as if they are incomprehensible exotics. Luce does neither. Her characters for the most part are recognizably human in a recognizable world.

To give you a sense of Luce's scope: Mrs. Yamada sees kanji characters burned into her toast and realizes they can tell how a person is going to die, which is not any more strange that seeing Christ's face on a piece of toast. Middle-aged Masahiro and his younger wife go to a seaside in for their honeymoon and begin to secrets about themselves and each other. A young woman goes to a temple festival while mourning her lover. A retired professor invites a former student to be tested by his "amorometer," which measures one's capacity to love.

To give you a sense of Luce's writing, here's the opening paragraph of "Ash": "The year we lived in Japan, the volcano at the edge of town hiccupped, covering everything in six inches of of heavy golden dust. The sky turned yellow, with clouds so low they were like ceilings. No one could remember anything like it." Although Luce is working on an MFA, her writing does not suffer from what I would call the MFA disease: overly sparkly writing, the kind of writing that calls attention to itself by its garish—if apt—metaphors and language.

Luce has a "More to read" section on her blog in which she has included several interviews about herself, her writing, and Three Scenarios. I was so impressed by the stories that I wrote her with my own questions, which she answered:

How did you happen to go to Japan? 
I went in 2002, as a teacher in the JET Program, which places assistant English teachers in public school classrooms alongside a Japanese teacher of English. I didn't know much about Japan, but I wanted to go somewhere different and far away--to get a sense of the world's bigness. 

What did you do during the three years you were there?
I worked as a JET teacher in Kawasaki for about ten months, then spent a week in jail, then moved to Tokushima City (Shikoku) for two more years, where I ran an English immersion program for children ages 0-10. In Tokushima, I joined a professional Awa Odori dance troupe, learned to surf badly, hitchhiked, developed a love for konyaku jelly and Chu-hi, and sang hours upon hours of karaoke (sometimes alone.) Tokushima's also where I met my husband. 

What stands out about your experience in Japan? Can you tell if that had any effect on you as a writer and if so, what?
My time in Japan was formative. The experience of living abroad, in a country where I was (at first) functionally illiterate, dumb and deaf, taught me to observe. Making my way through stressful and uncomfortable situation--culturally, linguistically, logistically--on my own taught me confidence in my abilities to learn and grow, which gave me the tenacity to keep writing even if I failed. Japanese art, music, philosophy, and the notions of subtlety, the beauty of the ephemeral (mono no aware), and wabi-sabi sunk deeply in as if they belonged there.

Why did you go for an MFA? What do you think was the major benefit of the MFA experience/expense?
I almost didn't. I went to my first MFA program right after I returned from Japan, in 2005, simply because I didn't know what else to do with my life. I dropped out after a semester because between teaching, classwork, and the part-time job I took to supplement my stipend, I wasn't writing. What I really wanted was to live someplace beautiful, and write as much as I could until I either got better, or got sick of writing. I moved to northern CA and got a part-time nanny job and lived in a cabin in the woods for about seven years. While there I joined a writing group, read a lot, and went to writing conferences. It was a piecemeal self-education. I don't have teaching aspirations, so I figured there was no point in getting an MFA, especially if it would be costly. There was one program, though, that I occasionally applied for because of the generosity of its support. After three attempts and ten years, I got in.

I am incredibly lucky to be at the Michener Center for Writers, which not only gives its students three years to write, but also pays them to do so without requiring them to teach. It's impossible to exaggerate the benefit of this. On top of that, there's the friends I've made, and the opportunity to study with Elizabeth McCracken and Michael Adams and Rachel Kushner, and being involved with the very active wider Austin literary community. 

What is the first thing (or among the first things) you ask another writer?
Who's a woman writer you've discovered recently whose work you admire? 

Do you have a regular writing schedule? If so, what is it?
So much of writing is thinking, incubating. In that sense, I suppose I do write every day. I observe, mull, take notes. It sounds trite, but it's a way of life. So, no, I don't have a set schedule, and I don't write fresh words every day, unless you count tweets and emails.

Do you keep a journal?
I keep notes that I add to daily--scraps of conversation, funny sights, intriguing news stories--and I keep a journal when I travel. I also write a lot of emails, all of which I save, and which serve as something of a record of my thoughts and feelings. I haven't written a daily journal strictly for myself in a long time.  

What book(s) have you read recently that you think others should try?
So many great books have come out recently! Thunderstruck, by Elizabeth McCracken, is an exquisite story collection, and just nominated for the National Book Award. Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is strange and unique and beautiful. Nina McConigley's Cowboys and East Indians is a wonderful story collection that just won the PEN Open award. And I've read two of Rose Tremain's novels recently--The Road Home, and Sacred Country, both of which were stunning.

Why do you think you do it—write at all?
It's the only way for me to know what I think. 

I recommend Three Scenarios to anyone who is interested in reading a new, original voice.

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