AUGUST 21, 2013
JUST ABOUT ANY writer who has been working for more than a half century will have had their moments in and out of the spotlight, but very few have had the consistent and subtly influential presence of Kit Reed. In a career that now spans 22 novels, nine story collections, a Guggenheim fellowship, a YALSA Alex Award, and publication in every outlet from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to The Yale Review, Reed has tackled the major subjects of our time with insight, irreverence, and a healthy sense of the absurd.
She’s enjoying another big career moment this year, including a glowing piece in the New York Times Book Review and the publication of a new novel, Son of Destruction. But the focus of much of this attention, and maybe the best place to start (or reacquaint ourselves) with Reed’s work is The Story Until Now, a magisterial collection gathering the best of more than fifty years worth of short fiction. The book begins with 2005’s heartbreaking “Denny,” and ends 455 pages later (and 47 years earlier) with Reed’s first published work, “The Wait,” from 1958. In between are stories dealing with everything from a self-destructing beauty pageant winner, to a disastrous storm at an old age home, to a maximum security high-rise where exasperated parents stash their troubled teenagers.
Critics often discuss Reed’s transcendence of (or ambivalence toward) literary categories, but they rarely talk about her sense of humor, which is the driving engine of the collection. Reed’s stories are bursting with her sharp, pitch-perfect wit, and it’s her humor (and deep empathy for her characters) that enables readers to follow her into the darkest patches of American life.
Widely admired (Kit Snicket, in Daniel Handler’s Series of Unfortunate Events was named after her), and long unclassifiable (she calls herself “‘trans-genred”’), Reed’s stories are just as comfortable on the SF shelves as they are alongside the work of George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Jim Krusoe — writers who also defy categories and expectations, pushing the boundaries of our belief in how the world really works.
Our conversation took place online and in person, during one of Reed’s visits to Los Angeles.
Scott O’Connor: Tell me a bit about your pre-writing life.
Kit Reed: My pre-writing life ended when I was about four and a half. I dictated a “novel” to my mother and when she read it back, I made her erase the aside I’d made — it wasn’t part of the story. So okay, before that: my mother was Lillian Hyde Craig, whose family lost it all in one of the early Florida land crashes. She taught primary school, although “ladies don’t work.” She married John Rich Craig, Ensign, US Navy. He was[k1] skipper of a submarine that vanished in the Coral Sea.
I was an only child. Read a lot. Wrote and drew a lot. Moved a lot so the first thing I learned was how to find my way back from anywhere. Always the new girl in school, you know, the one nobody likes?
We lived variously in San Diego, Honolulu, New London, Honolulu, Washington, D.C., New London, Panama, New London, St. Petersburg, Parris Island, and Beaufort, South Carolina in two consecutive years; Washington, D.C. again, all before I was 18.
The thing about moving a lot is that first you scope the territory, then you have to suss out the other kids. You have to learn how to talk like them, walk like them and dress like them or they’ll swoop down on you like a flock of birds on the wounded one and peck you to death.
SO: What were you reading at the time?
KR: The Oz books, which my father read to me until I learned to read, which disappointed him a lot. The Pooh books. For bizarre reasons I read Beowulf in the bathroom in second grade because it was the only way the babysitter would let me stay up. What could she do to a kid who said she had to go?
To be honest, I read whatever came into the house or whatever existed in whatever house I happened to be in at the time. In college: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Waugh. I learned comic timing from Evelyn Waugh. Cheever, I think. Graham Greene, John Collier in paperback handed off by a cousin. Some science fiction. E.C. comics before they got banned.
I never didn’t think seriously about writing. I was writing Harbor (the heroine of my first ‘novel’ was Harbor Wilson, a stand-up bunny rabbit) books until I was 12, along with a radio play, a comic, aborted stories until I was at Beaufort High School and more interested in boys. I had my book jacket copy pre-written: “Kitten Craig is 12 years old and has her own horse.” In college I had the wits to convince one of the (yes) nuns to let me do short stories instead of a research paper as a senior thesis, only partly because of an innate hatred of research, and she had the wits to let me do that.
When I was a kid dumped [in Florida] at nine, it was bleak and weird as the surface of Mars. It never snowed, it never got cold, there was sand in the dirt which made it all grey and there were sandspurs where you wanted to walk barefoot. Lawns were spongy with Bermuda grass, which people had trucked in and rolled out in sheets. The houses in our neighborhood were inhabited by the old, and I mean old. Silverbugs gnawed the pages of your books and lived in the spines. There were scorpions and the roaches were huge. My soon-to-be-widowed mother made friends with the local gentry via friends-in-common. I went to 7th, 8th, and 9th grade cotillions in the old Coke plant … left at fifteen. Lived there again in senior year in college, by which time I was seeing the guy I was going to marry — a St. Petersburgian who refused to go to cotillions, escaped via Yale and never looked back. At 21, I knew two societies — the local one with bridge club and the newsroom at the St. Petersburg Times, where I worked my way up.
SO: How long did you work as a reporter?
KR: Five years, with six months off where I edited The Right Angle for the District Public Works Office in Great Lakes, because when I got married I lost my job, and until we moved to New Haven, I couldn’t get another reporting job.
SO: Do you miss it? Did you ever?
KR: I missed walking in and sitting down in the middle of a bunch of guys all typing at the same time. What I didn’t miss was being terrified that I’d misquote somebody or get something in the story wrong. Every reporter’s nightmare, really. That is, every responsible one. Very liberating writing fiction. You can make it all up.
SO: At what point did you know you had a story you wanted to publish?
KR: I sent my Harbor books “illustrated by the author” to the publishers of the Oz books when I was 12. They wrote me nice refusal letter. I sent the best of the senior thesis stories to The New Yorker when I was 21. They sent back my first-ever rejection slip. At The New Haven Register, inspired by a woman I interviewed who had worked 8-hour days for 15 years and made her first sale to Mademoiselle, I pulled out “The Wait,” and sent it to Bob Mills at Venture SF. There were zero sci-fictional elements in it so he referred me to Anthony Boucher at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, who snapped it up. Which, for a writer, is like the first shot of whatever to a junkie. What a rush…you’re hooked.
“Momma, see that place? Would you mind if I worked in a place like that?” They drove past the drugstore, a chrome palace with big front windows.
“Oh, Miriam, don’t start that again. How many times do I have to tell you, I don’t want you working in a drugstore when we get back.” Her mother made a pass at a parking place, drove once again around the square. “What do you think I sent you to high school for? I want you to go to Katie Gibbs this summer, and get a good job in the fall. What kind of boyfriends do you think you can meet jerking sodas? You know, I don’t want you to work for the rest of your life. All you have to do is get a good job, and you’ll meet some nice boy, maybe from your office, and get married and never have to work again.”
— from “The Wait”
SO: What were the concerns and obsessions you were working through then?
KR: To be perfectly frank I never think about why I’m doing whatever I decide to do. I just do it, so I can’t begin to tell you what preoccupied me then, only that I’m probably about as crazy as I ever was and that I never wanted to write like a woman. I wanted to write like a witch. Drowned ships are a constant. Animals. Mothers are often around. A brilliant friend wrote me about “The Wait” from Shepherd Pratt, where he was committed the first time he tried to off himself at 19: “You’re very brave to write about your mother like that.” I was like, What? If I thought too much about what I’m doing, I probably wouldn’t do it at all.
The kid editor of Yale Lit, an undergraduate review, asked me for a story and as I’d seen people spin off novel chapters in The New Yorker, I wrote one about a girl and her grandmother getting on the Eastern Seaboard coach headed South and for the author bio I said it was “part of a novel.” Kid editor’s uncle was a publisher and wanted to see more, so I wrote five chapters and an outline. I can’t remember what happened with kid’s uncle, but I entered them in the Houghton Mifflin first novel contest. Robert Stone won that year, but on the basis of 30-some pages plus outline, I got actual money to finish the book.
SO: You’re one of what I think is a relatively small group of writers known equally as novelists and short story writers. Have you ever considered yourself one over the other?
KR: I remember Judith Merril informing me (after, I think, my third novel) that I was primarily a short story writer. It’s hard to explain why I prefer believing I’m a novelist who also writes stories. There should be a noun that covers both.
SO: Is it a time thing, maybe? The amount of your life you have to commit to a novel?
KR: Probably the amount of my life that I’ve spent trying to write the perfect novel. One of my characters in Captain Grownup says, “If you don’t aim high, you’ll never fall short.”
SO: Do you write stories while working on a novel, or do they have separate spaces?
KR: I’m one of those who eats this thing on her plate and then that one. I keep my salad separate from my main course. Although if a novel’s in a hard place or if I’ve promised to write a story for somebody, I will take a breather and think only about the story at hand. It’s like a vacation.
SO: What do stories give you, or allow you, maybe, that novels don’t?
KR: A story is something you know you can finish in a few days — or weeks — a couple of months. Thing is, you know you can finish it. A novel? It’s something I’ll always know I can finish but I won’t always know if I can do it right. Novels are riskier, more accident-prone. So many, many more particles. Can I do this? Can I do this right? I don’t always know, even when I know the ending. It’s like tunneling into a mountain and not knowing whether you’re going to come out on a flat plane or fall off a cliff.
Stories … it’s hard to explain. It may be hard and getting harder — as they get denser, which they’ve done, they’ve taken longer to get done and get right — but I’ve had more than one busted novel and, I think, of the handful of unpublished stories in the bin, only two stories that I honestly thought WTF and threw away without finishing.
SO: Do stories ever lead to other stories?
KR: Not so much, I don’t think, at least I’m not aware of it, although I did a batch in the early ‘70s that morphed into Cry of the Daughter, my big old southern family novel.
SO: How do you write? Computer? Longhand?
KR: I type even sympathy notes. As a reporter, I had to scribble fast to keep up with whomever I was interviewing — and get back and transcribe my notes before my handwriting got cold. Several nuns and many Palmer books made me hate handwriting.
So computer. All of it except notes, if I’m someplace where I can’t type notes — or notes on a printout, but usually I stop handwriting them and rip open the file.
SO: What’s your writing schedule like?
KR: Back in the day, it was set by the babysitter, so it was Monday through Friday, 9-12. Now it’s Monday through Friday, 9:30-12, and, depending, 2-4 in the afternoon.
SO: Does it change if you’re working on a story vs. a novel?
KR: It changes according to what phase I’m in with what I’m doing. If I hit a wall, in the afternoon I may knock off and read.
SO: What do you look at when you’re stuck?
KR: Oh, out the window, good fiction, crap fiction, periodicals, the dog. But like the alcoholic who never drinks before noon, never, ever TV.
SO: Do you listen to music while you work?
KR: Nope. I can’t. Jerzey Kosinski used to listen to flamenco… Aieeeee! It needs to be silent inside my head.
SO: How many drafts will you do of a story?
KR: It’s never quite a draft situation with a story. I compose the way I did in the newspaper business, hammer at the lede until it’s right, hammer at the next ’graf until it’s right. I have to think it’s right before I can go on and even then I have to go back.
I did a how-to book back in the day and dug out what turned out to be 17 first pages that were the beginning of a novel. As it was typed, I’d crumple it up and throw it away and start over and at some point along the way I’d say the hell with it, rip the paper out again and start making notes between the lines. For me, things have to develop. If it’s a story, usually one complete take will do it. Novels, however, have to rearrange themselves.
SO: Was this a process that you came to over time, or have you always worked this way?
KR: Always, I think. Well, ever since I finished college and got the first newspaper job. I realized that if I got my lede right, I had my story, and the rest would develop as I put it down. The difference now is that with a computer, I start every day at the beginning of the file; the story morphs with the changes, but takes me just as long to finish because I think with my fingers and I can’t quit until I know it’s done.
SO: Do you ever revise a story before it’s collected?
KR: Nope, but today I did change a word in “Attack of the Giant Baby,” which is about to be in a Hits from Fantasy & Science Fiction anthology. I think it was a “the” to “his.”
SO: You may have shifted the weight of the whole story.
KR: As if. Giant baby pretty weighty already. Ginormous, you might say.
The wives spent every day by the pool at the Miramar, not far from the base, waiting for word about their men. The rents were cheap and nobody bothered them, which meant that no one came to patch the rotting stucco or kill centipedes for them or pull out the weeds growing up through the cracks in the cement. They were surrounded by lush undergrowth and bright flowers nobody knew the names for, and although they talked about going into town to shop or taking off for home, wherever that was, they needed to be together by the pool because this was where the men had left them and they seemed to need to keep claustrophobia as one of the conditions of their waiting.
— from “Pilots of the Purple Twilight”
SO: How early do you know the setting for a story or a novel?
KR: It’s all of a piece. I see the person; I’m inside the person’s head. I look out of the person and see what the person sees. That’s the setting. I was lucky that we moved so much. I have a couple of favorite locations, one of which is Beaufort, South Carolina, where I lived when I was 15, 16. I’ve used it in a number of stories. Another one is St. Petersburg, Florida, which is a town I knew maybe a little too well, which is where I set Son of Destruction — but I call it Fort Jude. I fused the society I knew with spontaneous human combustion to make the book.
SO: How do you get from personal experience to turning that into fiction?
KR: I don’t think about it that way. It starts … I hear things. I get into that head, and once I have heard that person coming and I know who that person is, when I’m inside that person, I see what that person sees, and they might have some characteristics of somebody that you knew.
SO: So it’s all in hindsight…
KR: Usually other people see this stuff before I see it, if it’s even there. And so when I looked at the stories for The Story Until Now, I thought — oh, right, I’ve always been obsessed by that… I realized that there are patterns, there are things that recur in what I’m doing. But I can’t tell you why that is.
SO: To an outsider, it makes sense. Like you’ve said, shipwrecks are a theme, and you look at your history … or that there’s an interest in, not only the military, but as in “Pilots of the Purple Twilight,” waiting for someone to come home.
KR: And the people who are left behind.
SO: When you’re writing, you’re not necessarily making those connections, but for a reader who might know some of your biography…
KR: You get into those heads and you know what it feels like, and you don’t think about how you know this while you’re working on the thing, you just want to make it true to the characters…If you look at the women in “Pilots of the Purple Twilight,” a couple of them were probably friends of my cousin, who was a Marine. She was a Marine! That was pretty cool. The rest of those women, I don’t know where they came from.
Experts warn parents to watch out for signs, and it hurts to say, but we’ve seen plenty. Day and night our son is like an LCD banner, signaling something we can’t read. If he implodes and comes out shooting, the first thing to show up in the crosshairs will be us.
— from “Denny”
SO: You make a brief note at the beginning of The Story Until Now that the order of the stories is subjective, rather than the standard chronological placement in collections that span great lengths of a career. Then you start with the most realistic story (‘Denny’) and follow it with one of the most fantastic (‘Attack of the Giant Baby’). It comes off to me that you’re letting the readers know right off the bat where the boundaries of your work are, and that, in fact, there are no boundaries. Is this intentional? Subliminal? Random chance?
KR: I do it all by instinct. I was explaining to a kid friend with a first collection that I used to lay them out on the floor and walk around them and see what went with what and what went where. Now I do it in my head, and I can’t for the life of me tell you why I know what goes where in terms of this collection, I just do. It really is a feeling thing — the way you know what looks right in a given room, colors, which rug, which piece of furniture goes where, down to placement of small objects — what belongs and what doesn’t.
SO: What was it about ‘Denny’ that made it feel like the right piece to start a collection that was going to span your career so far?
KR: I don’t know if I read or heard or just intuited that there were parents out there who were afraid of their kids, but I knew I wanted to write a story. I think it started with the first line. Then I did a lot of trawling the internet and discovered all these terrible things. From there, it wrote itself — with, believe me, plenty of suffering along the way — but at a certain point it told me there was only one way it could end. I think I put it first because I was proud of it — and to make clear that I don’t ever, ever want to be the kind of writer who only does One Thing.
SO: Have stories ever been shaped by events, or by what was in the air at a particular time?
KR: “Songs of War” was my response to the women’s movement. My novel, Armed Camps, was my: Why are We In Vietnam? @expectations grew out of conversations I had on LambdaMOO [an early online community] and Thinner Than Thou popped up in the early oughts, when weight control became the national obsession and everybody started treating the gym like a great, holy church. I could go on…Everything’s made out of something.
SO: “The Wait” and “Songs of War” are about women with nothing but bad or limited choices.
KR: Yeah, and the interesting thing was that I never really thought about it, I just wrote what I thought was the way things were at the time. Never thought of myself as a feminist, exactly. Just a writer, which is what I am.
SO: You never abandon complexity for the sake of ideology, though. You give equal time to all of the concerns, but you never let anybody off the hook.
KR: Yeah, it’s funny. I was asked to join women’s consciousness-raising groups at Wesleyan, but I was too busy. I had a mate, three kids, and a dog, and I was, for God’s sake, working. No time to sit around complaining about my life.
SO: But at the same time, there’s a strong empathy in that story with the feelings of inequality.
KR: Partly I think it was being educated by nuns. My friend who went to Radcliffe [and] Harvard for the PhD was told by her mentor that she could either forget about marriage or forget about a career. The nuns taught us that we could do anything we wanted to.
SO: That goes against what most people assume a Catholic education to entail.
KR: Interesting, isn’t it? I think people hear what they want to hear.
Looking at The Lot of Women, my mother bought into it. She tried to sell me but I was in rebellion by the time I was fifteen.
After everybody left that morning, June mooned around the living room, picking up the scattered newspapers, collecting her and Vic’s empty coffee cups and marching out to face the kitchen table, which looked the same way every morning at this time, glossy with spilled milk and clotted cereal, which meant that she had to go through the same motions every morning at this time, feeling more and more like that jerk, whatever his name was, who for eternity kept pushing the same recalcitrant stone up the hill; he was never going to get it to the top because it kept falling back on him and she was never going to get to the top, wherever that was, because there would always be the kitchen table, and the wash, and the crumbs on the rug, and besides she didn’t know where the top was because she had gotten married right after Sweetbriar and the next minute, bang, there was the kitchen table.
— from “Songs of War”
KR: I’ve worked all my life. I put together a panel for the Wesleyan Writers’ conference again this year — title: How Writers Survive. We all talked about our day jobs, because most writers, all but the most successful, need day jobs. I rewrote a child-care column for the Gesell clinic, wrote a Barron’s Book Note on 1984, taught…
SO: Have there been any times over your career that you’ve considered going with the other job, leaving writing behind?
KR: I’d rather die.
SO: Was there a moment when you knew you had the confidence to push forward as a writer, or is that something that has to be rediscovered periodically?
KR: I was too stupid to do anything but keep on trying. I can mail you a photo for a site raising money — notables wrote advice to writers on their hands. Mine? Never Give Up.
SO: How do you start on a project?
KR: To be honest, I don’t exactly know. I gave myself a couple of weeks off in June after crashing on a couple of things. Threw out two ideas over the next two weeks and driving back from Boston Sunday saw a mini bus with black windows; it looked hermetically sealed and I thought: right. Then I started to hear it.
SO: That moment when you know you have something… Is it different for a novel versus a story? Do you need more to get started?
KR: I hear stuff coming… Sometimes a story turns out to be me sketching for a novel. A novel is when you have more than you can — or want to — compress. I think writers reach a point in life where they have enough in them to make a novel. Some start right away, but I was 26.
SO: When do you know that it’s working? How far in is the point of no return?
KR: With a novel, you may end up thinking it starts here and in, oh, the first third, or after you’re finished, need to reorder it. I’ve had busted novels, but none I gave up on. It took me eight years to get Son of Destruction right. I’ve only trashed a couple of stories. Two, I think.
SO: There are some pieces in the collection — I’m thinking of “High Rise High” and “Songs of War,” a few others — that are more novellas than stories, and I may be projecting, but I can almost feel your joy in writing in this in-between length. You don’t have to compress as much as in a short story, but you’re not giving up a few years of your life to a novel. They sort of stretch out like happy cats.
KR: Yes, and I have no idea why they had to be what they were, they just did. As you’ve probably gathered if you looked at, e.g. “The Wait,” the stories used to be simpler — one-idea ones I could do in a week. Now both they and the novels seem to be bigger engines with many moving parts. Accident-prone, I guess, but much more interesting to me and more fun to do. The risk.
SO: “High Rise High” has such a wide canvas and large cast, and action that follows the arc of a novel rather than what we think of as a short story.
KR: I’ve seen so many high school movies (probably beginning with Blackboard Jungle, going on up and through and past Rock & Roll High School, all of John Hughes, The Principal, and, for me, although it was made years before the year named in the title, the best of them all — the positively brilliant Class of 1984 (in which the shop teacher ends up head-first sliding into the blade of a table saw). I’ve seen so many high school movies that I wanted to write one, and “High Rise High” was born.
Of course it was a bitch to write — all the best ones are — but I saw and heard it the way it played in my head, all the cross-cutting and tight scenes, but I had the novelist’s flexibility, so I could give a little hell to the parents by looking them in the eye and going inside their heads.
Listen, you wanted it this way. The teen population is out of control, you said, and believe me, you came begging. You showed us your lip that he split when you wouldn’t give him the car and the bruises she left in the fight and you whine, “Our kids won’t do like they should,” when you meant, they won’t do like we say. Fine, we said. Let’s put them all in a good, safe place, with their dope and their dirty underwear and loud rock music, and let’s make the walls thick enough so their speakers won’t bother us and while we’re at it let’s make sure they can’t get out. We aren’t doing anything, we just want our children in some nice, secure environment where they can be happy, i.e., so if they smoke, drink, pop or snort, and exchange STDs and flaunt their tongue studs and anarchic tattoos, we won’t have to see.
— from “High Rise High”
SO: In Gary K. Wolfe’s introduction to the book, he discusses the various literary movements and genres of the last 50 years that you may or may not have been a part of. I think you’re asked about genre in every interview and profile I’ve ever read, probably because, although much of your work has appeared in science-fiction publications, it often doesn’t fit into that world. Have things changed enough that this isn’t so important anymore?
KR: If you look at who’s publishing in The New Yorker right now, Gary Shteyngart, Karen Russell, George Saunders, and look at what they’re doing, I think, as Gary [K. Wolfe] does, that the lines between the territories are dissolving — if they were ever really there. Good writing is good writing no matter where it appears.
SO: What’s making those lines dissolve?
KR: Maybe for the same reason that unearthly things and bleak futures turned up in the post-atomic years when there were gazillion mutant-whatever movies and EC horror comics were just right for the time. People have to express their anxieties somehow and are — okay, more open to work that diverges from reality. Worst-case scenarios. Imagine that there’s a difference between what we see and what may be. Oh, eek, that’s either garbled or pretentious.
SO: No, it makes perfect sense. I set Untouchable during Y2K because I was interested in that time. Right after the Cold War, it seemed as if we had nowhere to focus our anxieties. The villains were gone, suddenly. At least until 9/11. Maybe this was a moment where things opened up in the culture, as well. We needed zombies again.
KR: And, apparently, we love them. You’ve done a bit of — not stretching — expanding reality in both the novella [Among Wolves] and Untouchable and I think that’s a Good Thing. Kitchen-sink realism these days? Not so much.
SO: The world is a strange place.
KR: The kitchen sink is boring. It’s all about what’s under the sink, behind the sink and beyond the sink.
SO: Genre readership can be very welcoming. There’s an actual community there. You’ve had a pretty unique experience, I think, in that you’ve been part of the “literary fiction” world, and the genre world.
KR: SF people have an actual thriving community. I have a lot of fun with some of the brightest, funniest people I know — very lively minds, and so many of us are hanging in the blurred area between that and “literary” (which in hard science fiction, which I don’t write, is a dirty word). We flow back and forth pretty comfortably.
SO: Is there any fear of that going away, if genre continues to be absorbed into the mainstream?
KR: No…[There are] hard liners who argue that it would dissolve or dilute the community we have. It hasn’t and it won’t.
SO: You’ve said that there’s a drive in your work toward “worst-case scenarios.” Besides good conflicts for the stories, what do you gain from running toward rather than away from your fears?
KR: Back when I covered juvenile court, the social workers talked about kids ‘acting out’ their problems. Maybe this is just me acting out.
I never think in terms of theme of conflict, just the rhythms or cadences of the characters, what’s going on inside their heads.
SO: But isn’t there a power in taking things to the most awful extreme?
KR: Maybe it’s like diving into a wave. Or maybe — I’ve always been this protective pessimist. Always expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed. Sometimes you’ll even be pleasantly surprised. Never been able to think in terms of happy endings. Neither have you, in the two books I’ve seen. Maybe we’re under a curse.
SO: Who wants to read about happy endings?