Kelly Luce talks makeshift workspaces, tricking oneself into writing via hourglass sand timers, and listening to a narrator’s voice with social media manager, Nicole Pagliari
Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail and the novel Pull Me Under, a Book of the Month Club selection and one of Elle’s Best Books of 2017. She is a three-time MacDowell fellow and has also received fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation, Art Omi, VCCA, the Tennessee Commission for the Arts, the Michener Center for Writers, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her digital short story “Between the Lines” (CODE Lit) went viral in 2022. She serves as editor-in-chief of The Commuter literary magazine at Electric Literature.
Nicole Pagliari: I love your office space; it looks so cozy!
Kelly Luce: This used to be a shed out in the backyard, but during COVID I realized I didn’t have an office in the house, so I was like, “I need a place that’s not in the house to be.” So my partner and his father insulated it in here and put in a window and even a tiny wood-burning stove so I can get real toasty in the winter.
NP: It has sort of a rustic, lodge feel to it with the wooden walls.
KL: Totally. I was like, “Maybe I’ll paint the plywood white or something.” Then I was like, “No, I kind of like feeling like I’m in a sauna.”
NP: I heard a lot of people turned their sheds or backyard structures into insulated, little annexes to get their work done.
KL: Yeah, open floor plans are such a trend in houses these days and then Covid hit and everyone was like, “I need walls. I need a door.”
NP: Haha, I totally get that! Thank you for taking time out of your day to visit your workspace and chat with me! I want to focus on the story you just published in Colorado Review, “The Ugliest Girl at Marcy’s Wedding Pavilion,” which I was absolutely enthralled by. I am a sucker for standout titles. I can never title my own work, so this story immediately grabbed my attention. The piece is also so efficient and economic from start to finish. We cover so much ground, and you give us so much information about these characters. Can you talk a little bit about how you developed the idea for this piece? What was that nest egg and then what did the writing process look like once you had it?
KL: I collect ideas in my notes usually. So, like anecdotes or bits of conversation. I don’t usually know where they’re going to go, I just collect them. And then I’ll read through those notes every so often, and I’ll start to hear a narrator’s voice, so I’ll comb through the notes more closely and I’ll realize, “Oh, that’s something that narrator would say, or that’s something that would be useful.” Things start to coalesce out of years of experience, and then I collect them on the page, and start shaping them into scenes or little moments in a story. So usually what comes first is the narrator’s voice and then maybe a situation. I had a friend who got divorced and moved into an apartment above a church event hall for some kind of extreme religion. She told the funniest stories about what she would hear through the floor, or she’d come home from work and there would be people having an event and sometimes she’d go in and steal cake. And I realized that was a great premise. There’s a character that is in a situation that’s darkly funny to me, and there’s loneliness and sadness that you can explore from that. And so, once I had that situation, I was able to comb through my notes and pick things. I wanted to have a list. I love the idea of found text in stories whether that’s horoscopes or grocery lists or someone’s marginalia—I love putting that in a story as a way to build characters. That’s always fascinated me.
NP: Do you ever find it difficult when you’re going through your notes, and you fall in love with a bit of dialog or bit of thought, but you know it just doesn’t fit your current narrator?
KL: Yes, but it can always go in another story! Once I have that narrator’s voice—and I think there’s a subconscious part of me that’s thinking about theme at that point, but it’s just a gut feeling—if there’s a line that doesn’t fit, I know it’s okay because there’s another project where it will.
NP: It doesn’t just go in the wood-burning stove. You can save it for later.
KL: I mean, sometimes it does. You’ve got to have kindling to get the fire going!
NP: That’s true! This story in particular features a character with an unusual hobby. I’m wondering how much you personally knew about this hobby prior to writing the piece. How much do you think a writer really needs to know about a topic that’s foreign to them before including it in their work?
KL: I’ve actually always been interested in astronomy and the possibility of life beyond Earth. There’s so little we understand about physics and what’s possible in the universe. When I was a freshman in college, I wanted to be an astronomy and physics major. I found fiction writing eventually, which I think is a much better match for my skills, or maybe lack of calculus skills . . . . But anyway, I think that maybe you write about what you’re obsessed with or write about what fascinates you and what you’re trying to understand. So, physics and astronomy tend to creep into my work a lot. I did actually participate in SETI@home when I was in college in the early 2000s, but, like the protagonist says in the story, it’s a passive thing. You’re basically letting them use your computer processor to search the skies. So, I certainly don’t think a writer needs to be an expert. I just did a Google search for what the next step beyond SETI@home would be and what that would look like for people. I think what you really need is, that if you’re not a member of that community, you have to truly, genuinely respect that community, otherwise it might come across to your readers that maybe you’re making fun or that you’re using that specific hobby for yourself, rather than as something that’s genuinely interesting about humanity and what people do and what truths they’re trying to find.
NP: You’re so right. It’s such a niche of humanity and what we do, but it felt so genuine on the page. I loved the scenes where SETI@home came into play, and I was so fascinated. As somebody who found out really, really early in life that calculus and anything related to it was absolutely not for me, I had no knowledge base coming into the piece, and yet I wasn’t confused or unmoored. One thing I also really admired is the way that you weave in the back story of the protagonist. We start at such a particular place, and so much has happened to her before we get to meet her, before the actual inciting incident of this party going on below her. There’s a lot of personal history that happens off the page. I’m wondering how you decided where to drop the reader into the world of the story? And do you have a rule of thumb for where a story should begin to really grip the reader?
KL: No rule of thumb at all. I think that’s why it’s such a fun and sometimes frustrating process. I don’t write linearly. I never write the first line of a story first. Rarely does that ever happen. It usually comes much later, when I have discovered more through the process of writing about the character and the situation. So, I think if there’s any rule of thumb, it’s to cut out as much as you can. I think a lot of us have an instinct to create a sense of mystery for the reader and hide things from them so they’ll be tempted to read on. But after reading and studying so much writing and doing so much of it myself, I’ve come to buy into the opposite way of starting a story, which is to tell the reader everything you know. Tell the reader absolutely everything you know about the mystery of the story, hint at the larger themes or ideas, all your deaths, divorces, illnesses. Put all that information up front and hint for the reader where you’re going to take them because that builds trust. People read literary fiction for the journey. It’s fine if they know where you’re going because it’s more about how the character gets there and those little moments of grace where a character is up against the wall and then something out of the blue but somewhat magical happens. I think of this story as one about profound loneliness, and those little moments of grace for lonely characters are extra special because you feel at one with the universe in those moments—like coincidences or moments of beauty. Suddenly you feel like, “I’m not alone, the whole universe is here with me.”
NP: That was so the perfect answer. I feel like I need to sit and let all of that sink in. I love the idea that you’re not trying to hide the destination from the reader. I feel like most writers try to force the ending that no one saw coming, which can sometimes lead to sacrificing those little moments of grace or peculiarity along the way that make short stories so special. But this story refuses to sacrifice those moments, and I think that one of the things I absolutely adored about this piece, and that allowed me as a reader to read it repeatedly, are those twists and turns and the way that you get something different every time you revisit those little moments. I think it’s interesting that you noted that a piece’s themes come to you a little bit later in the writing process, and also that one of the main themes of this story is profound loneliness, because, at least for me, I was thinking a lot about the ways that this story circles around the validation that women seek, especially from men, whether those men are romantic partners, family members, or father figures, and the resulting complications for one’s own ego and identity. Do you feel like that’s a fair assessment of the piece’s themes? If not, what other themes were you thinking about?
KL: I think you’re hitting on something that’s absolutely in the piece. The story is about being seen, which is a form of anti-loneliness. We all want to be seen. And you’re using the word “validation,” but that’s the same thing, right? When you see someone, you’re validating their existence. This narrator has a physical injury and isn’t feeling confident about herself as a romantic prospect, she’s going through a divorce, and has recently relocated. It wasn’t purposeful that the way the women in this story are or aren’t getting validation is through men, but that’s definitely there. It wasn’t intentional, but that’s why it’s so interesting to talk about work with readers. They bring stuff to the table, and they see things I don’t. That general searching for someone to see and be seen ties into the way she’s searching the sky, looking for a sign that she’s not alone. She has these moments of power in the story with Ray, like when they’re having sex, when she’s finally being seen. For example, she doesn’t want to change positions because he’s really staring at her, maybe for the first time she’s been seen in years. I wanted her to have that power in that sex scene where she has that realization of: “This is what it feels like to have that control.”
NP: I’m so glad that you touched on that scene. In workshop we so often talk about how difficult it is to incorporate physical intimacy in a way that conveys what you want to the reader and doesn’t feel inorganically posed and doesn’t make you hate yourself when you’re writing it. And I love that the scene you’ve included in this piece has so many layers. The next thing I wanted to chat about is the process of publication, not only for this piece, but for all the writing you have out there. Starting with this piece though, can you talk about the process of taking it from a draft to something publishable? What kind of edits did you make alongside the CR team? What feels important to you to preserve from draft to draft?
KL: For this piece specifically, I think the first thing was the situation: a woman alone, moving to a new place and into this sort of odd apartment. And then I remember writing the first draft and the line “And there was room for my equipment” came out. And I thought to myself, “What’s her equipment?” I didn’t know what the equipment was for a long time. And I also didn’t realize that she’d had a traumatic, catastrophic accident. But that stuff came out the more I wrote. I could feel these things about her that were deeply buried. I could feel that she had a niche hobby, and I knew she had some sort of limp, but I didn’t know what happened. It took a few years for the details to come out and to connect to the other things that happen in the story. There’s a line at the end that I only wrote right before I submitted the story for publication. “How tiring it is to want so much from a universe that has no stake in us.” Actually, do you want me to tell you the story of that line?
NP: Yes, I 100 percent do.
KL: This is my coolest writing-student experience. Denis Johnson came and taught in my MFA program, and I got to do a workshop with him. We mostly chatted. He didn’t have any formal lesson plans, but one thing he said, that I scribbled in my notebook and will never forget, is that sometimes you have to stop telling the story and just say what the story is about in your own voice. And I wanted to try that in this ending. I decided to almost break point of view. It feels more like a detached, omniscient narrator, but that’s what Denis Johnson does in his work, so I thought: “Why don’t I try it?” I wasn’t sure I’d keep it, but it helped me understand why I was writing the story. Once I was able to write that line, it felt like the story was done because I knew what it was about.
NP: I love that anecdote and I love that line. It breaks voice, but it’s so worthwhile to do so.
KL: My teacher Elizabeth McCracken would say, “You’ve earned one sentence of breaking the rules after twelve pages of following them.” I like to think she would tell me that I’ve earned that. It took probably three or four years of working on the story on and off. I’ve also been working on a novel. A lot of times I’ll put drafts away and they’ll incubate, or I’ll need a break from working on my novel, and I’ll think: “My novel’s horrible, let’s look at that old short story and see if it’ll cheer me up because I think I forgot how to write.” And inevitably there will be something in the short story that will pull me back into working on it for a little bit. With the team at CR, there were very few edits. Mostly section breaks, and one clarifying dialog tag.
NP: That’s got to feel good as a writer!
KL: I’m a literary magazine editor myself, and I do a lot of editing work, so that’s kind of the writer I am. I obsess over the editorial details. I was a little bit secretly proud, but I’ve also had plenty of experiences where editors accept something and then send back their version of the story and it’s half as long and essentially rewritten, and it makes me wonder why they accepted it in the first place.
NP: Have you ever been tempted to walk away in those moments?
KL: I’ve only had one instance where it was really drastic. We went back and forth over months. I accepted some notes, and they accepted I wasn’t going to take others. But that’s that magazine’s process, so I knew it wasn’t just me. And I was really happy with the product at the end. I think it was the strongest version of the story.
NP: You talked about this idea of cycling through your work, and having multiple projects on different burners, which I think is really helpful for the creative brain. Can you talk about the differences in process between writing a short story and writing a novel?
KL: I think the biggest difference in those two forms for me is that I can hold a short story in my head, but I can’t hold a novel in my head all at once. And that makes the practice of writing very different. It’s scary for me to write a novel. I start to wonder if what I’m writing will make sense in the big picture: Do I know enough? Do I have the right to be writing right now? If I’m at a writing residency or something where I can really immerse myself in my project and I’m not talking to anybody else, I can get there, but that’s not how everyone lives all or even most of the time. Deciding on themes and ideas happens a lot more quickly in a short story because it’s tighter, more efficient. In a short story there isn’t a ton of room for digressions. Everything should serve the story that you’re telling. In a novel you’re still telling a singular story, but the form allows and demands for so much more, so you can go in so many different directions.
NP: You mentioned the struggle to hold the bigger picture in your head with a novel. When you open your laptop, how do you get yourself back into that world on a day-to-day basis?
KL: To be honest, since becoming a parent I don’t write my novel every day. I sometimes don’t even write at all for days at a time. I think about my novel, and sometimes I’ll make notes on my phone. But, in terms of actually opening my laptop and diving into revision, it’s been super hard with parent brain and Covid brain, where everything gets fragmented. I heard about it before I became a parent, but it’s so real, the amount of multitasking your brain gets used to doing. And I could even feel it when I went to a weeklong writing residency when my daughter was two. I just sat there in this beautiful cabin. There was no internet. It was just me and my brain and my brain went blip. It took a day for me to wind down and be able to focus. I guess it’s about finding a work-life balance. Having this space out here, where I’m physically separated from the house and any chores, has been helpful. But I do have some tricks. I have these hourglass sand timers. Five minutes and fifteen minutes. When it’s a really hard day, I’ll tell myself, “Kelly, you have to write for five minutes.” And by then, I’ve usually gotten over the hump, and I can write for five more minutes. Another trick is that I tell myself I’m just going to revise a couple sentences, and sometimes that’ll get me sucked back in. But it’s a daunting thing to tell myself, “I’m going to work on my novel a little bit.” The barrier to entry is sometimes very high.
NP: I’m going to order some egg timers when we get off this call, because I love that idea. The last question I have for you is what projects are you working on currently that you can tell us about?
KL: There are two things I’m really excited about. The first one is this magazine called CODE Lit. It’s a magazine of digital literature started by Matthew Baker. The idea behind this journal is that it engages with the online medium. Text can appear, disappear, move around. Anything that you can code onto a screen. Matthew does the coding. It’s an interesting way to explore literature. I wrote a piece for that magazine, and it’s an email that writes and deletes itself in real time, so you feel like you’re looking over someone’s shoulder as they’re writing an email to their ex. You can see what they say and don’t say. I’m obsessed with coming up with more iterations of digital literature. And then the other thing I’ve been working on for a long time is another novel. This one is . . . let’s see if I can spout out the synopsis for you. The working title is Eden. It’s set in modern-day California and Rome at the Vatican Observatory. The Vatican has an astronomy observatory—see, astronomy again—where astronomers take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but their job is science. They just happen to work for the Pope. It follows three characters. One is a Jesuit Vatican astronomer, one is an incarcerated woman in California, and the third is a teenage adoptee climate activist also in California who goes to a private high school. And all three characters’ paths weave together against the backdrop of the worst wildfire season in California history. One discouraging thing about writing this book is that every time I open it I have to make the fictional fire worse. The seemingly incomprehensible death toll that I put in my novel for this fake fire has to be made way worse because reality keeps scooping me.
NP: Reality is hard to come to terms with these days. I feel like we could spend another hour and a half talking about all the nest eggs and notes that led to such a complex story, but I don’t want to take up your entire day, so I guess I’ll just have to wait for it to get published!
Nicole Pagliari is a third-year MFA candidate in fiction and Gill-Ronda Fellow in creative writing at Colorado State University, as well as the social media manager for Colorado Review.