Author Q&A: Kim Fu
By Anna Bowen, May 2018
Kim Fu is the author of For Today I am a Boy, which won the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her debut poetry collection, How Festive the Ambulance, was published in 2016. Also a nonfiction writer and essayist, Fu has published in Granta, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Hazlitt.
I spoke to Kim on the phone from her home in Seattle about her new novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore (HarperCollins, 2018).
AB: Who are some writers or mentors that have influenced your work?
KF: I did an MFA at UBC and Keith Maillard there was huge for me. He led our poetry workshop and he was really great at seeing where people were coming from or seeing what the work wanted to be, as opposed to imposing his own aesthetic on top. He ended up being my thesis supervisor and that thesis ended up being my first novel.
AB: How does your nonfiction writing and poetry relate to fiction writing?
KF: I enjoy the process of writing poetry quite a lot, whereas for fiction and nonfiction it is a lot more about the final product for me. I find writing them a lot harder and I draft like crazy. It’s very consuming and it’s a little bit painful and it’s a lot more workmanlike at times. It is … other peoples’ reactions and the conversations it starts—that’s the exciting part for me. Whereas if I were the last person alive on earth I think I would only write poetry. It’s about the pleasure of creating it in the first place.
AB: Can you talk about getting to that sweet spot of doing the original creative work of writing the novel… do you have an alchemy to get that started?
KF: Ninety per cent of the time for me you have to be making yourself do it a little bit … and ten per cent of the time you enter that state where you are just following the story and you are in it really deep … you reach that kind of flow. Something I forget and have to relearn over and over again is that I have to go through that 90 per cent phase, sit down and go through the work and follow ideas and write a lot of stuff that ends up in the trash.
AB: What was the catalyst for the Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, the moment that developed into the kernel of a story for you?
KF: For both of my novels and the way I write fiction generally, the characters come first. A long time before I had anything that ended up being in the book, I had this group of girls or women and their dynamics, their personalities and their general interests, and I didn’t know what connected them.
Then I went to do the Burton House residency in Dawson City in the Yukon and that was really the moment. I went from October to December in 2015 and that was during the freeze up, when the town shrinks from 2,000 to 800 and the river freezes over, the temperature drops to minus 40 and the nature of life changes quite a lot there, and the people you meet and their concerns and the kinds of things they are thinking about. I was meeting and talking to people who were survivalists … and then I was spending a lot of time out by myself hiking in the snow and I found myself thinking a lot about outdoor survival and the skills that I don’t have.
Then the image came to me of the girls in the kayaks and it kind of cracked the book open and I knew how they were connected.
AB: I heard you say that you chose this age because it is such a dynamic time of change for these girls, aged 9 to 11.
KF: I know that girls that age are interesting to me. One of my nieces was about that age at that time and I could see in her, even though her experience at that age is so different from mine, it did bring back all these memories…I feel like It is a very chaotic age that feels like the end of the world when you are going through it. Then I also think, but they are still children, they don’t have context for this, they can’t see it as a stage… so I definitely was fascinated by that age group… they are developing a different internality. You get a sense that there is a storm happening inside.
AB: How did you decide to write about trauma and how that is processed?
KF: One thing that interested me is the subtlety and diversity of response. It seems to me a lot of what we read falls into one of two categories: a clinical perspective on PTSD, a clear set of immediate symptoms and triggers related to the original incident, and then on the other hand, a narrative of forgetting, of being over it completely. With children especially … there is an impression that things that happen to children they forget, and they get over it and they grow up. Maybe less so now, but definitely 20 years ago, for these characters. I think instead what happens a lot of the time is that people have much stranger and subtler responses that they are not even themselves aware of.
One influence was definitely, on this topic, Linda Barry’s book, One Hundred Demons, it is a graphic novel, and she definitely addressed some of her own trauma in this way, acknowledging it in its affects instead of what actually happened.
AB: What were some of the hardest scenes for you to write? Spoiler alert!
KF: Isabel’s husband dies, and not only her husband, she goes through a series of deaths that are in their way not extraordinary I think. You know, it is the nature of any life that you will love people and lose them and everyone has an inventory like this – all the people they’ve lost and the ways that it affected them, and the way they have experienced death. Parts of her experience with death and with grief, I couldn’t get at in a conventional fiction way, or rather in the same mode of fiction as the rest of the book.
There is a part of the book where she goes into such a deep state of grief she is kind of disassociating, she doesn’t make sense of place and time, where she is and what has happened because her grief is just so overwhelming and so intense, and this is how I have experienced grief. I was using more my poet brain and trying to elucidate an emotion rather than a series of events … so that was hard to write because I had to write it in a certain way that was a leap, and I wondered if readers would take that leap with me.