Interview with Kendra Fortmeyer

By Liz Blood

Liz chatted with Kendra last week about multiple topics: sentence-beefing, magic and misfits, the creative process, and a slew of excellent writers. 

LB: What are you currently reading? 

KF: I'm always juggling a couple of things, usually in a few different genres. I'm currently working my way through Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist (as one does), and I've just started Margo Rabb's Kissing in America. On the children's side (I'm an aspiring youth librarian) I just finished listening to Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan and, oh man, I am destroyed like the sweater in the Weezer song. It was perfect.

LB: Do you typically read a lot of children's or YA writing? 

KF: I do! I try to keep an even balance though. They feed different hungers. It's hard to read just one kind of writing. Am I allowed to ask what you're reading?

LB: Agreed. And, sure. I’m reading Against the Country, by Ben Metcalf, which I bought because a review of it said he writes 1100-word sentences. So I’m studying how to beef up my sentences.

KF: I love the idea of sentence-beefing.

LB: What kind of writing or specific writers do you find feed your writing? 

KF: I'm always drawn to magic—not fantastical wands and lightning bolts, but stories that allow us glimpses into the strange and sad and wonderful weirdness that hovers just on the edges of everyday life. Stories like that make me want to plunge into my own writing and see what I can discover there. My go-to writers are Aimee Bender, Miranda July and Sherman Alexie. Kelly Link is also super bomb!

LB: I noticed a couple of lines in your short story, “The Girl Who Could Only Say sex, drugs, and rock & roll”: "an endless kaleidoscope of human detail" and "the small and multitudinous weight of existences." Is there magic there? Sounds like it.

KF: Absolutely! Those are the exact ways in which magic appears in our everyday lives, as the narrator of this story is at pains to learn. Every single person you interact has a life as rich and varied as yours. Magic! And you get to interact with that person and the whole world is filled with them! And then an entirely different, perhaps more insidious magic exists in pushing that wonder to the back burner just so you can function. There's an incredible disconnect between the things we intellectually know to be true about one another and the things we allow ourselves, or are able, to experience. I love to dwell in those gray areas and try to poke at them with fiction.

LB: Sue Silverman, a writer I admire is fond of saying "the universe is in the details." 

KF: It's so true.

Just this morning one of my professors referenced a novella by Nicholson Baker called "The Mezzanine." It's 150 pages of a man traveling from the bottom to the top of an escalator in a shopping mall. As she reports: no stream of consciousness, no wandering thoughts, just what is witnessed on that ride from the bottom to the top. 150 pages of detail!

LB: Sounds like ol' Virginia Woolf!

KF: I'm definitely interested in reading it, and definitely afraid I've misrepresented it here. Noble readers, go forth and Google. Don’t take my word for anything.

LB: In your own writing, are there problems you're trying to solve or things you want to uncover? If so, what are they?

KF: I feel like I'm always writing about magic and misfits. [“The Girl Who Could Only Say sex, drugs, and rock & roll”] in particular was challenging for me because I wanted to write about the (or, at least, my) experience of adolescent love in the most authentic manner possible. I’m not a big writer of love stories and I wasn't prepared for all of the baggage that comes with writing one. How can you be realistic? How can you avoid cliché? How can you avoid predictability and not just be depressing? How can you avoid creepiness? Should you avoid creepiness? The more I worked on the piece, the creepier the concept of being in love seemed. Looking at a crush from the outside, where you're safely immune from all of the hormones and stomach-tingles yourself, makes it clear that when you've got a crush, you're kind of a crazy person. But it's wonderful, right? It's the best (and worst) thing ever when it happens to us.

LB: Ha! I guess it is a bit creepy sometimes. And baggage is an interesting word. What is the hardest part about writing for you?

KF: Usually, it's making myself sit down to do it. I'm a terrible hypocrite—I teach a novel-writing class to high schoolers and whenever they're despairing or feeling stuck, I tell them "Go write. It always solves the problem." And it always does. It's just so hard to do it! The internet is full of shiny things, and also, the shower is, like, really dirty, and now would be the perfect time to clean it, and boy, I haven't been to the gym in a while, et cetera. True confession: I finally broke down and installed the Freedom app, and it has been a complete godsend.

LB: Freedom is one of my favorite inventions of all time. When you're not taken by cleaning the shower or shiny internet objects, what are you currently working on?

KF: I've got a few flash pieces that I'm fiddling with, but sadly, the answer is mostly grad school. I'm a full-time library science graduate student working two part-time jobs. Today I ate a vegetable! It was a victory.

LB: That's a full plate! Good thing there was a vegetable on it.

KF: Ideas keep peeking into my peripheral vision. It’s miserable to have to push past and ignore them. I'm looking forward to UT’s absurdly long winter break. I’ve got a half-finished novel I'm antsy to get back to.

LB: Are there other forms of art, in the meantime, that you find inspire ideas?

KF: Not especially. Musically, I prefer dead silence when I work (also sobriety—I’m a dreadfully boring writer). I love art, especially big installation pieces, but there's already enough of someone else's intention in them. It's easier to find inspiration in nature, where I can occupy a mental space without clashing with somebody else's concepts. How about you? It's an interesting question.

LB: I'm inspired by visual art, though I can't always say how. I like art that is dark and disturbing because I feel that it gives me some sort of permission to do the same. Really, I'm inspired by people who are just doing their creative thing.

KF: It's wonderful the way great artists can give you permission. That's exactly how I felt about Aimee Bender the first time I read her! "I can do that? That's allowed?" It's marvelous.

LB: Do you have favorite part of the creative process? 

KF: Yes and no. Everything but editing. But, sometimes, even editing. I love when a story comes up and taps you on the shoulder and says “ME,” and when it pulls you out of bed because you know what comes next. I love the sense of everything coming together, and the feeling of being finished (that tiny moment where you get to think “I am a genius!” before you reread and end up in the slough of despond).

LB: Ah, the I-Am-A-Genius moment! If only it would last. Of all your writing, what are you proudest to have created?

KF: It's like choosing a favorite child! To pick one: I wrote a novel for my graduate thesis and spent about a year revising it. Hundreds of hours went into it. At the end, I printed it out to turn in, and felt like I was standing on a mountain. Then, a few months later, I completely revised the mountain. It taught me an enormous amount about writing and what I knew of myself as a writer. Writing a novel takes a terrific amount of determination and sheer narcissism--you've got to suspend some disbelief about yourself. Of course people will read this thing I'm spending my entire life working on! Of course it will be great! Then, the editing process is all about taking that newly minted pride and severing it. Understanding yes, I wrote this, but man it's not that good, and that whole chapter really is kind of fluffy, and even though I am a great genius who everyone will want to read, I have to let some of this go. It's not just about applying your butt to the chair. It's this insane, grueling (and rewarding) emotional process that makes you grow a lot as a person.

LB: I'd like to return to another line from your short story that I mentioned earlier: “A cup of coffee cooling on a desk; the itch beginning, just now, inside the bank teller’s left elbow; the cancer inside the cat that would break the child’s heart...” Those are very detailed, nuanced things that your protagonist notices. What is behind those? Do you think the small is worthy of attention?

 KF: I absolutely think the small is worthy of attention. Or, perhaps, everything is worthy of attention, but we tend to overlook the small more often. It seems unreasonably generous of the universe to imbue every single object with a scent and temperature and texture and particular way of looking at dusk. I've written elsewhere that falling in love is allowing yourself to really notice a person, and notice everything about them, and find it beautiful. Noticing the small is a kind of way of being in love with the universe. Even if you're having the worst day in the world, that leaf over there that you don't notice smells like tea, and somewhere there are stones dappled by sun through water. Isn’t that a miracle? I think so.

LB: I am right there with you. I'd love to have some parting words of wisdom from you, or thank-yous, shout-outs, record corrections, what have you. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

KF: A huge thanks to Amy Gentry for curating this series, to Wendy and the good folks at Awst for supporting my story, “The Girl Who Could Only Say sex, drugs, and rock & roll,” and to Tatiana for her editing services.  These women are incredibly hard working and talented in sixteen different ways, and it's been amazing to work with them. And also you! Thank you so much for chatting with me!

Meet Kendra at The Volstead 10/17/15 at 8:30 where she'll be participating in Lit Crawl Against Humanity. Awst Press will be tabling at TBF (#315) this weekend—come pick up a copy of Kendra's chapbook, Amy Gentry's entire curated series, or any of our other excellent series.