LUMINA Journal in Conversation with BASS 2018: Part Four

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To read the Best American Short Stories annual anthology is to be exposed to an echo-chamber of contemporary American fiction; stories that span a variety of voices, styles and forms. This week, LUMINA Journal is in conversation with the writers of BASS 2018, so our readers can get to know the people of this project a little better. Check out yesterday’s interview here.

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KRISTEN ISKANDRIAN – Good with Boys

Kristen Iskandrian’s debut novel Motherest was published by Hachette Book Group’s Imprint Twelve in 2017 and was chosen as a monthly pick by Shondaland, Vanity Fair, The Millions, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as being named Best Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly and Lenner Letter. Her short fiction has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014, Tin House, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, Joyland, and Epoch, among others. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama. For more information, visit kristeniskandrian.com

LUMINA Journal: What does your writing process look like?

Kristen Iskandrian: It varies, depending on the day and the project. I love to write early in the morning, before the rest of the day can drag me under its heels. But when that's not possible, I focus on trying to eliminate other distractions as much as I can for the time that I have. With short stories, I feel an urgency. I don't like to drag them across many weeks and months, although I certainly have done so. I like a short story that feels shot from a cannon, even if it took ages to write. I'm working on a novel now and my process is to go scene by scene. It sounds basic, but it works for me. I'll have a sense of what I'd like to accomplish in the amount of time that I have – an exchange between characters, a description of setting, a moment of conflict – and I'll just worry about that one thing. If I complete it in a way that feels satisfactory, I'll keep going. Research happens either separately or concurrently, and often haphazardly. I'll need to look things up online or schedule a trip to the library. When I'm not at my desk, if I'm walking or cleaning or driving or whatever, I'll sketch out the shape of the narrative, the broad strokes, my sense of how the characters move through time and space, where they are and where they need to wind up. That way, when I sit down, I can do the sentence-level work I love.

LJ: From the first sentence in “Good with Boys,” I was charmed by the narrator and her grown-up yet childlike tone. I’m curious what came first: the story or the voice – or were they birthed into the world at the same time, inextricably linked?

KI: Thank you! I'm tempted to say voice came first, as it generally does for me. I'll hear a character long before I'll know what they look like or what the hell they're doing in the world. In this case, though, I knew that the museum would be a foundational element of the story. I know that sometimes people – both readers and writers – struggle with the idea that a child narrator can have a grown-up-sounding voice. But a voice is also a consciousness. And the world of the story allows us the opportunity to move through time in a non-linear way – not just in terms of narrative pacing, but in terms of how wisdom is accrued and expressed.

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MATTHEW LYONS - The Brothers Brujo

Matthew Lyons is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Black Dandy, Kzine, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. His work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and more. Born in Colorado, he lives in New York City with his wife.

LUMINA Journal : How much behind the scenes world-building do you do when working on a new short story? “The Brothers Brujo” exists in such a full, vibrant, terrifying reality. What kind of brainstorming and writing exercises do you practice to make sure you are creating a believable and layered setting for your characters?

Matthew Lyons: So, a lot of the world-building I do tends to be spun out of a great mental image that I try to then fill in all the blanks around. These images don’t always end up in the piece either. Sometimes I leave them on the cutting room floor, having assembled all the necessary pieces together without them. In the case of “The Brothers Brujo,” that image was actually twofold: the funeral in the opening passage and the scribbly X tattoos carved underneath Skeet’s eyes. It was important to get the funeral right, since it sets the tone for the rest of the piece – the town, the townies, and their ostentatious pageantry. I must’ve gone through fifteen different versions of that opening until I got it close to right, adding detail after detail until I had a description of the townies that was probably five handwritten pages long. Then I distilled those pages down to their purest essence: a single paragraph potent enough to set up everything that comes after it.

Skeet’s tattoos were harder, because they say so much about the family at the center of the story; the father and his two boys and the fragile, damaged relationship that exists between the three. They had to be present in the story, and in a lot of ways a driving element of it. I couldn’t focus solely on them like I did the funeral. I gave myself a single short paragraph to nail down the important details and focused on underscoring them in small, organic ways through the rest of the story.

LJ: On your website, you describe your work as “weird fiction.” What does that mean to you?

ML: To me, weird fiction has always had one foot planted firmly in the speculative and the other in the transgressive, but thankfully, that label stretches to cover a ton of other really lovely sins – western, horror, tragedy, action, thriller, mystery, the list goes on and on. Weird fiction is awesome in that way: you can get away with doing a ton of interesting slipstream stuff that really highbrow “serious literary writing” can’t (or won’t). It also sets up a kind of expectation for your audience, too. By labeling a piece weird, your reader already knows they’re getting a bit of a head-trip before they read line one. I’ve worked in straightforward speculative fic before and I’ve certainly written my fair share of purely transgressive fiction, but I’ve figured out that the place they intersect is the sweet spot for me. I think it’s fair to say that “The Brothers Brujo” has both in bucketloads.

LJ: Can you tell us more about the symbols Skeet was working with in the opening scene in “The Brothers Brujo” or is that a secret only he holds? I’m dying to know more!

ML: Well, I wouldn’t dare spill all of Skeet’s secrets, but what I can tell you is that there’s a moment about a quarter of the way into the story where his father asks him if he was down by the river playing with the old language. He tells the old man no, of course, but we all know that’s a lie. There’s a lot of power in ancient eldritch magic and in things best left forgotten, and Skeet knows that. It’s obvious by the end of the story that Skeet’s learned a lot more than he’s let on and that he’s been using it to communicate with old horrors far greater and infinitely more grotesque than his broken, desperate, meth-addled father. It’s certainly possible that he brokered himself a deal.

The other cool thing about the concept of this old language is that while Skeet’s using it to further his own ends, he’s also creating it as he goes along—just like all of us, all the time. That’s maybe my favorite thing about the concept of language, it evolves and moves forward as it gets pushed and pulled and stretched in different directions as necessary. That the core of the magic at work is, despite all the violence surrounding it, a kind of language – that was always a critical part of the story for me.

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Visit the Lumina Journal blog tomorrow to learn more about BASS 2018 contributors!

Interviews by LUMINA staff member Vanessa Friedman.