Colorado Review Associate Editor Lauren Gullion interviews Katherine Hill, winner of the 2010 Nelligan Prize for her story “Waste Management” (selected by Andrea Barrett).
Lauren Gullion: What inspired your story “Waste Management”?
Katherine Hill: My boyfriend (now husband) and I had just moved into a new apartment, and you know how it is when you move. You’re suddenly aware of how much stuff you have—in closets, in drawers, under beds. You have to get all these boxes to put it in, and then when you’re done you have to throw all those boxes out. So much packaging just to get yourself from one side of town to the other! We’d moved for happy reasons but I kept looking at those boxes and wondering how someone who was moving for unhappy reasons might feel. I imagined she’d feel incredibly overwhelmed, and the story developed pretty quickly from there. I started writing it before we’d even fully unpacked.
LG: Your protagonist in the story is charmingly pitiful. How did she first appear to you? In other words, what helped you tap into such an intriguing narrator?
KH: Like many first-person narrators, this one originated as a voice. She started talking in her batty way and I knew I just had to follow her.
LG: Were there multiple drafts and/or any major changes that really made that story click into place?
KH: After I drafted the story, I had to put it aside for a while to work on other things. It’s possible I even forgot about it. I came back to it over a year later when I was asked to give a reading and was casting about for something fresh I felt comfortable sharing. I tend to be pretty harsh on my own writing, so when sentences I’d written months and months before actually made me laugh out loud, I knew I had to pursue it. The long gap really helped though. It was as though someone else had written it and was now asking for my advice, so it was (relatively) easy to see what needed cutting and what needed expanding.
LG: What is your favorite aspect of fiction writing?
KH: Wow, where to start? Of course I love inhabiting someone else’s life and mind for a while. Striking upon the perfect word or phrase is a great feeling, too. But I could probably get both of those pleasures elsewhere. I think what I love most about writing fiction is the opportunity it allows for candor. Our culture is full of conversations that are managed in one way or another. There is this very strong sense that certain words, ideas, and feelings are appropriate and certain others are not—even among supposedly free-thinking people—to the point that much of our public discourse is about judgment and order, about policing uncomfortable ideas and keeping them in check. For me, fiction is an opportunity to explore many of the things we’d rather not admit about ourselves. That we are selfish or manipulative or powerless or whatever. I like characters who bump up against the invisible walls of judgment and order and who are as a result engaged in some kind of elaborate self-justification. Because, really, aren’t we all?
LG: You also publish articles and reviews. How does writing these compare with fiction writing?
KH: The articles and reviews keep me reading current fiction and thinking about the wider literary world. Of course I’d do this anyway, but it’s nice to have concrete assignments that force me to articulate my perspective as part of a larger conversation. Reviewing others’ work also helps me better understand my own. Truthfully, there’s probably some element of self-preservation here, too. Writing fiction is an often bruising odyssey that can leave me feeling pretty inept, so these other assignments give me an opportunity to feel like a competent writer every now and then.
LG: In addition to the Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, your fiction has also won the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction. What plays into your decision on whether or not to enter a particular contest?
KH: I ask myself, “Would I be happy to be published in this magazine?” If my answer is “Yes—God, yes!” then I enter.
LG: You’re currently at work on a novel. What lessons from your experience in short fiction are you applying to your longer work? What new lessons are you learning?
KH: Writing fiction of any length is an exercise in patience. Whether I’m working on a single sentence in a story or a character who develops over hundreds of pages, it always takes longer that I want to get it right. So in both forms, I’ve learned to give myself time. Having published a few stories is very encouraging—proof that patience pays off in short fiction. I have to keep reminding myself that the same is true for novels.
LG: What advice do you wish you’d been given five years ago?
KH: I guess I’m pretty fortunate in that I’ve never really lacked for good advice. The trick is remembering it at the right time. The best I’ve ever gotten about writing I’ve gotten many times over. And that is to read. Just read. I’ve learned so much from my teachers and family and friends, but I’ve definitely learned the most from other people’s books and stories. I could’ve thrown myself into writing without an MFA, but I never could’ve done it without Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster or Lydia Davis, Aleksandar Hemon, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Lorrie Moore. Sames goes for all the wonderful writers I’m just discovering now. Their talents depress me sometimes. It’s like, “Great. Here’s another incredible book I didn’t, and can’t ever, write.” But mostly, it’s exhilarating. They teach me what fiction can and should be. They show me how it’s done.
LG: You’ve recently joined Barrelhouse as an assistant editor. How does it feel to be on the other side of the submissions queue?
KH: I spent some time in the editorial department at HarperCollins so it’s not an entirely new experience for me, but I do love it. It’s my little window on the writing that’s happening all over the country.