(Note: I originally did this interview almost a decade ago. In addition to being an excellent writer, Kellie was also my teacher and knows me fairly well. It shows in the interview)
C. Derick Varn: How would you like to introduce yourself and your work?
Kellie Wells: Hi, Derick. I guess I would simply say I’m a fiction writer, a novelist and a short story writer. And that I think my name–Kellie Wells–and my book titles–Compression Scars and Skin–have mistakenly attracted consumers of pornography to the website, to their great disappointment. Apparently there’s a porn star named Kelly Wells.
C.D.V.: That’s a strange fluke of naming, and I have to wonder why Compression Scars would attract pornography consumers. That is a little creepy. You also teach, am I correct? Does this effect your writing life at all?
K.W.: Yes, I teach full time. I’m not very good at dividing my attention and so don’t get a lot of writing done during the academic year. I write catch-as-catch-can, but a novel requires a certain single-mindedness, so I usually work on shorter pieces until the summer break.
C.D.V.: I suppose I should ask a question that gets redundant for writers to answer, but what are you reading these days? Does any of it inform what you are writing?
K.W.: The reading I’ve been doing recently is rereading for a craft class I taught on fabulist fiction–Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan, Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Under the Glacier by Halldór Laxness, Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, Minor Angels by Antoine Volodine, and others. These are writers and books that have surely left a mark on me, though I couldn’t tell you how exactly. They are all books that, to varying degrees, throw off the constraints of mimesis in one way or another, and it has certainly been instructive to observe how each writer walks the tightrope between the familiar and the invented.
C.D.V.: Reading your fiction, which is often very quirky, seems to be pulled together by this really interesting way that language can cement a character’s… well.. character. It does, however, lead to some very interesting vocabulary that sometimes comes out of really young characters. So I think I am asking is, what voice do you feel you are portraying, an inner voice of a character or an outer one?
K.W.: This is a very interesting question, and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about because it’s something that has occasionally been objected to, incongruity of diction and character, and not just in terms of
age, also gender, class, geographic origin, education, etc. That is, sometimes people will say that characters who are this age, that sex, from this place can’t plausibly speak in the way that I have them speak, wouldn’t
use language in that way, wouldn’t use elevated (especially when combined improbably with demotic) speech, wouldn’t swing so hastily from high to low, and if I were aiming for mimetic fidelity, if I were a strictly realist
writer, this might be concerning, but I’m not, so, well, it’s not. I like your suggestion that what I’m trying to represent is a character’s inner voice. I’ve always thought of myself as trying to get at some emotional truth that only a very consciously constructed relationship to language will help me to inch toward. And I have to say that it’s very liberating not to be straitjacketed by narrow ideas of what constitutes linguistic verisimilitude for this or that sort of character. This doesn’t mean that I eschew mimesis entirely, but I take liberties that allow me to write in the polyglot manner that comes naturally to me. And of course my interest in language has everything to do with sound. For me, sound is every bit as important, and *moving*, as sense.
C.D.V.: Have you ever written a character that was particularly difficult to find a voice for?
K.W.: Since character for me is often largely derived from voice, that’s how a character comes to me, with certain linguistic predilections in tow. What I thought a lot about while writing my novel Skin was how I wanted the voices of those characters–the book is narrated from a variety of points of view–to be very similar but also distinct. I conceived of those characters from the outset as part of a community, and so if I can be said to be representing an inner voice, it would perhaps be the voice of this place, where place and character are one and the same. And I don’t mean by this that I was trying to mimic a specific geographic idiom. It’s more a voice of the shared vexations of these characters, place as an emotional or psychic state rather than a landscape, though there’s that too of course. So the characters share language and imagery but then put something of their own
stamp on it.
I’m working on a novel now that features a character who isn’t God, but might be, and this is affording me, in the way that I’m thinking about her,a capaciousness that allows me to exploit this maximal tendency. After the
gluttony of this voice, after having licked the platter clean, I wonder if I’ll have no choice but to write a Jack Sprat sort of prose.
C.D.V. Do you think maximalism has gotten a bad rap in American fiction?
K.W.: I don’t know, has someone been badmouthing it lately? Are you thinking of that essay about William Gaddis by Jonathan Franzen (to which Ben Marcus later responded)? I suppose high style is always a hard sell these days, but anything worth your time will provoke someone somewhere to spit.
C.D.V. I got that feeling that it was frowned upon during Graduate school, but I was also thinking on Franzen’s article. Do you find that teaching writing and being involved with writing academia makes you more aware
of these kinds of the debates that probably bore many non-writers to death?
K.W.: Well, realism, as you know, has been the reining mode in American letters for a while, so I’m sure you can run into frowners easily enough, but whether a maximalist aesthetic is embraced or reviled in academe depends on the writing program. No frowners we here at Wash U, where I teach. And, sure, I wouldn’t bemoan the plight of maximalism in mixed company, among unsuspecting civilians.
C.D.V.: In writing Skin, is there anything you actively tried to avoid?
K.W.: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. What was I trying not to do (other than, you know, produce drivel)? Of course I’m sure there are many things writers strive not to do when writing, though it seems to me we are more inclined to speak affirmatively, to talk about what it was we were attempting to accomplish. I can’t think of anything I was actively,consciously avoiding, except for perhaps certain words that I know are fond tics of mine. This is a list that changes with each story, each book though. For example now I know I’ve got to inoculate myself against the word ylem, which I keep bandying about. It’s such a useful, lovely word, but it’s a little too showy to use habitually, however delicious. A student pointed out to me recently that I have a lot of affection for the word onus. It’s revealing, isn’t it, the words we love too much, words we make mantras of?
Well, apropos of our conversation about maximalism, I guess I’m always thinking about, perhaps to my own detriment, the consequences of reduction or oversimplification (which I think is sometimes mistaken for economy). As Stanley Elkin said in the defense of excess: “I don’t believe less is more. I believe that more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin thin and enough is enough.'”
C.D.V.: Do you have a story that you are particularly attached to that you have written?
K.W.: I have a story about opposite sex conjoined twins, called “Secession, XX,” and I’m still attached to that one, maybe because I’m not really finished telling it. That piece, that relationship, sort of birthed the novel I’m
writing now, though not in a direct way.
What stories and poems of yours do you remain attached to? I still remember a really terrific story you wrote about a couple sitting in a car awaiting the end of the world. What was that story called?
C.D.V.: Yes, that story was exhibitionism, and I am still pretty attached to it. I write more poetry now and non-fiction, in fact, I hide a wall with my fiction when I felt I was no longer creating characters but merely dealing with myself, and so I backed away. There’s a poem about Susan Atefat-Peckham that I really like, but I don’t think I’ll ever publish it. Most of the poems that I have published or won awards for, I actually come to hate. That ever happen to you?
K.W.: Yes, with alarming regularity! I don’t know, I think it’s probably a good thing when the honeymoon is short, so you don’t grow too complacent or too smitten with the look and sound of your own voice. On the other hand, I do know writers who genuinely love their own work, and not in a fatheaded or self-aggrandizing sort of way. They just have a strong sense of what they’re doing and take pleasure in it, and I admire that.
Why do you think you won’t ever publish the poem about Susan Atefat-Peckham? You feel like you’re “merely dealing with [your]self” in the poem, your feelings about her death? Isn’t that a legitimate subject of inquiry for a
poem? Do you have a measure of when a poem or story, to your way of thinking, is too autobiographical?
C.D.V.: Self-dealing is legitimate for an artist who wants themselves to be part of their art in an explicit way. I, however, am some private, almost obsessively so. So its not so much an illegitimate choice in general, but perhaps it is one for me. As for my grieving with death, I don’t know exactly why it feels distasteful, but somehow it does. Perhaps I am clinging to a self a bit much.
That, I suppose, leads to a question that I always ask fiction writers–how much of yourself do you find in your work after you write it that perhaps you didn’t think would be there?
K.W.: Hmmm, that’s hard to answer. It depends on what you mean by finding yourself in your work. Do you mean how much do I later realize is autobiographical? Or do you mean how much of the work do I realize I have a sincere and intimate connection to? Or something else? If you’re asking about the autobiographical aspect of the work that reveals itself only later, I never recognize this until my sister tells me that she remembers this or that
event or this or that person, and then I see that what I thought I’d cleverly invented is just a dusty memory.
C.D.V.: Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
K.W.: Thanks for reading, thanks for your interest.