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Lindsay Hunter: The Short Form Interview

I remember being told boys are ‘different’ and that's why my brother didn't have to make his bed.

Author of the short story collections Daddy's and DON'T KISS ME (to be released this July).

The Interview

It’s nearly impossible to not wonder about an author’s upbringing. Say author ‘X’ is from the east coast, so she writes all these WASP-y stories. And then author ‘Y’ is from a remote town in Sweden with no sun, so he writes all these bleak stories. To be blunt, then, where are you from? What kind of humor was going around your house that led to your writing?

I’m from the tank top’s paradise, Central Florida. I spent part of my childhood in a little town called Ocoee and part of it in Orlando. You just pictured Mickey Mouse, right? It’s cool, most everyone does. But as a native I always picture the creamsicle sky in the evening, the palm trees even in the junkiest parking lots, a 7-11 on every corner, all the lakes and moss and the heat so close it’s like a layer of your skin. Even now from where I sit in Chicago, I can smell the orange blossoms and the B.O. and the furred shock of air conditioning.

I love Florida, in case you can’t tell. It’s home, and it’s one of a kind, and it’s so ugly and so pretty all at once.

Humor was and still is prized in my family, and humor at your own expense is king. I’d say even more than that, though, my parents love to read, they love words, and that really soaked into our brains growing up. If you could combine some shit-talk with a really unique way of talking that shit, you were as good as gold. My sister in particular can have you rolling. So I think that really stuck with me—that obsession with finding the exact right word or expression that I could use to simultaneously impress and enrage my family member.

I think growing up in Florida gave me my voice, because Florida doesn’t tend to mince words; it shows you its ass pretty quickly and it doesn’t try to help you accept it. But my family helped me find the words to use. 


What was the younger Lindsay Hunter writer like? Have you always been fixated on the embarrassing or intimate aspects of a life? There’s a dirtiness or lack of shame in what you explore in your stories, and I’m interested in when/what guided you toward your current style.

I went through a phase, I think most writers do, of trying to write exactly the same stories and prose that my favorite authors did. Or, if I’m being brutally honest, I’d try to write exactly the same as the authors I knew about at the time. So I’d kill myself trying to write like Alice Munro or Raymond Carver, because those were the writers we were reading in undergrad, so to me that meant those were the writers worth reading. And it was torture! I had things to say but they didn’t fit into those molds. I didn’t even know where to begin. I took 3 years off after undergrad and hated myself for not taking a chance. But taking a chance at…what?! I started scribbling out a novel in those pretentious composition notebooks, but then I applied to like 8 schools for poetry. My favorite professor in undergrad was a poet, so that meant I must be a poet, right?

I didn’t know shit. I got rejected by all 8 schools. Now I see more clearly what I was thinking—I prized words over plot, so to me that meant I was a poet. I got a postcard in the mail one day inviting me to come check out the writing program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a school and city I’d never even considered. A writing program at an art school? What? I visited, I applied, I got in, I moved to the Midwest.

And even then, for the majority of grad school, I labored over a plodding bore of a novel, I tried to write long short stories that went anywhere at all, I farted out some poems. I still couldn’t trust myself. I remember thinking, “I don’t deserve to call myself a writer.” I was carrying all these rules with me that I’d been told in undergrad, things like “You can’t write from an animal’s point of view.” “You can’t write from a dead person’s perspective.” “Every story must have an easily identifiable narrative arc.” I recited these for an advisor, the poet Dan Beachy-Quick, who gently stopped me and said, “Lindsay, you can write whatever the fuck you want.”

Slowly, that sunk in. Towards the end of grad school, I had this amazing semester where I had a class about writing in Chicago, and another class about avant garde detective fiction, and another class about writing with constraints. One morning before class I sat down at my desk and didn’t think, I just typed. I read what I’d written to my class, and they liked it, and I didn’t even care, because I liked it. It was mine. It felt real. And that story is the first story in Daddy’s. My process today is pretty identical to that first early morning: I start with a sentence, and I follow it like a road.

What were those three years between undergrad and grad school for your writing life like? Were you fielding incessant questioning from family members and what pushed you to go back to school (or had that always been on the horizon)?

They were scary! I've always been the type of person to wake up in a cold sweat with a voice yelling YOU'RE WASTING IT ringing in my ears. And during that time I heard that voice a lot. So I had these urges and this ambition but I wasn't sure where to channel them. I was also in a period of settling down, as my boyfriend (now husband and baby daddy) and I had just moved into a house with our dog and were working 9-5ers. So I was in this weird purgatory of being very young in terms of where I was professionally but very settled in terms of where I was personally. I felt like my life could go in one of two directions: down this path, I was a writer. Down the other, I had five kids. (Hilarious to me now that I believed you had to choose between motherhood and professional satisfaction–guess there's that pesky gender stereotyping again!) I started a blog, I started a novel, I grasped at any and all straws. I started another blog called “Trying to Finish Before I'm 25” in which I told myself I'd post daily portions of a novel. (Abandoned that pretty quickly.) I nearly flew to New York to interview for an internship at Entertainment Weekly, until I realized that'd mean leaving my boyfriend, which, nope. I applied to grad schools as a poet. What finally happened was, my boyfriend's mother started encouraging me to take grad classes in writing at the local university, and everything kind of snowballed from there. Once you surround yourself in the kind of space you've been yearning for, doors begin opening. My boyfriend's mother told me to go check out SAIC, and the rest is history.

Fear is a huge motivator for me. Huge. That's why I say yes to most everything, because it fills me with fear and thus forces me to work.

One of the more frustrating things within the literary world is our expectations of a writer based on gender. And seemingly anytime a woman isn’t writing a simple relationship story, anytime a bodily liquid or violence enters the page, we say, “Oh but she doesn’t write a like a female.” I could be completely off, but it seems no one has bothered to talk about you as a female writer, rather you’re just a writer. Do you think that is a reflection of the community in which your writing exists or are you confronted with gender-based expectations?

I think most writers in the community I’m in today don’t consciously consider gender, but it’s definitely there! I’ll read reviews of my stuff where the reviewer has assumed the character in a story is female simply because I’m female. For a long time I thought about identifying as L.D. Hunter, so people wouldn’t know if I was male or female. Then I thought, Fuck that, I’m a writer, why would I hide? 

I do wonder if as many reviews would use the word “grotesque” if I was a man. I’ll never know! But I would love to know if a man could write what I write and be called something bullshitty like “primal” or “raw” or even “real” rather than “grotesque.” Does the fact that a woman uses the word fart or jizz or titties make it grotesque? Or is it grotesque because those are slang-y words that middle class adults don’t generally use?

And you know, here’s maybe the sickest part: when someone says I write like a man, I feel a perverse sense of pride. Like it makes me more of a badass because writing like a man means I’m fearless. Someone at the dog park the other day asked me if I write “chick lit” and I openly laughed in his face. But why does that phrase even exist? And why was I so quick to show my disgust for it?

I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’m thankful for the conversation, and I’m thankful that I never stop myself from writing what I write just because I’m a woman.

Nicki Minaj actually had a great response to some inane questioning that parallels your “grotesque” vs “raw/real.” She was asked if she would call herself a diva, and she just shot back with, “Would you call Lil' Wayne a diva?”

THANK YOU, Nicki. Exactly. I remember being told boys are “different” and that's why my brother didn't have to make his bed. SMDH, Mom and Dad!

This also reminds me that when my editor and I were going back and forth about the cover for DKM, she explained that she had doubts about the lipstick because she didn't want men to see that and think “this book is for chicks,” but that the metal lettering would help counteract that. And I guess I don't really want a man who'd see a tube of lipstick on my book and back away to read it anyway. So eat that, world.

Featherproof put out Daddy’s, and with the nature of that press and your proximity to them, I assume you had an integral hand in all parts of production. FSG is now putting our Don’t Kiss Me. What kind of differences have their been between the two books in terms of it coming to existence as a product?

Featherproof, by design, wants every part of making a book to be collaborative with the writer. I think that’s because Zach Dodson is both a writer and designer, and he wants to make things that are more than just something to read and more than just something pretty to look at it. They should be both, and the writing should inform the design. I really loved working with them because of that.

Since this is my first time working with a “big house,” there are differences, but since I’m working with Emily Bell/FSG Originals, it feels like the chasm isn’t as wide. For one thing, I was just as involved with editing as I was with Featherproof, and I was able to push back when it felt right, and I was heard. With Featherproof, Zach had an idea for the design of the book, and I had an idea, and we ended up with my idea only because his idea would have cost an arm and a leg. With FSG, my editor sent me a design, and we worked on refining that design together. I tossed out an idea (I wanted the cover to look like a Garbage Pail Kid card), and my editor deftly swatted it to the side, and thank God, because I couldn’t be happier with the final cover.

I think working on a flash fiction collection is much different than working on a novel (I’m finding that out now, actually), because the “big picture” isn’t as enormous. So maybe Emily and I will get in lots more fights when we start getting our hands dirty in my novel, but I doubt it, because she is dedicated to preserving my voice, and I trust her.

A lot of the stories for Daddy’s and DON'T KISS ME were published in journals previously? Were you ever writing with the intention of a collection? At what point, if at all, do you start to think about a group of stories existing together? Daddy’s doesn’t explicitly define a location for all the stories, but when bound in that tackle box, they do all seem to be neighbors. Is the same effect present in Don’t Kiss Me?

I think all but maybe one or two of the stories in each collection have appeared in journals. Most of the stories in Daddy’s were read live, and then I’d send them out to journals after the fact and cross my fingers. With both, I wasn’t writing toward collecting them, but as you said, the place feels similar, so the relation between stories is there. I think my problem is that I never write something with any intention for it, like if I claim it for something bigger I’ll jinx it and suddenly I’m selling water bottles at a highway exit.

I think the stories in DON’T KISS ME feel of a larger piece, but the effect is different. Daddy’s, to me, was about adolescence, and DON’T KISS ME feels like it’s about the loneliness of being an adult. Like oh shit, you know all that yearning you did as a kid? It doesn’t go away. It stays with you, it shapeshifts.

I think that goes back to growing up, too—I was always fascinated with my parents’ adult lives. My dad seemed like a very unhappy person, and even now I’ll go down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out why. What went wrong along the way? What could he have done differently? (If you’re wondering, “Finding There” in Daddy’s is my ode to him.) My mom, on the other hand, was and is a person determined to be happy despite the hand she’s dealt. That is also fascinating: what do you have to tell yourself, ignore, do, in order to forge ahead in a glow despite the mud at your ears? (“Brenda’s Kid” in DON’T KISS ME is my ode to her, and maybe the story I’m most proud of.)

In your readings you commit to a role, a performance which enhances the reading. I'm wondering, then, does the act of reading live have any impact on the final version? Does being in front of people, engaged with the story give you a different view on what is and isn't working?

I hate admitting this, because it's more evidence of my hackery, but once I've written a story, I rarely (if ever) go back and revise it. I think I've come to a point where I am done torturing myself and I feel comfortable trusting the words. That is not to say that I believe what I write is “perfect”–far from it! But I do believe in done-ness, and when I write the final sentence in a story, it often feels “done.”

As far as the role I play when I read, I have no idea where it comes from or why. The few YouTubes I've seen of it embarrass me. I can only guess: it helps my nerves, it gives me power, it makes people listen. My favorite type of crowd is the crowd who is so bored with the reading that they've turned their backs and are chatting with a stranger in order to make it through. That's when I like to get on stage. It's a challenge to get them back, and I dare myself to holler them into paying attention. I will say that, even now as I'm reading from the finished collection, with every reading a new flaw is revealed. 


There were reports of a novel in progress at one point in time, but now we’re gifted with your new short story collection this summer. Is the short story a form with which you feel more comfortable?

I’ve got a novel coming out in the fall of 2014 with FSG! Boy howdy, it is a different animal. I started out in grad school thinking I was a novelist and kind of stumbled on flash fiction, so it’s been interesting/strange/humbling to circle back to that kind of consciousness. I feel more comfortable with the flash form for sure, because it’s what I’ve been doing for years, and I’ve got two books to show for it, but my dirty secret is that I read mostly novels, and rarely a short story collection. I feel like such a shithead admitting that, but it’s true! So continuing along in the vein of writing what I’d like to read in a novel has been a fun and worthy challenge.

That said, my imminent failure keeps me up at night. That and my 5-month old.

Tell us about your story recommendations.

“The Victim's Body” by Mike Meginnis: I saw Mike read this live and I remember thinking 1. wow, it perfectly conveys people's obsession with crime and cold distance from the victim and 2. WHY IN GOD'S NAME DIDN'T I WRITE THIS?!

“Saturday” and “Don Johnson is Not Your Man" by Kara Vernor: I wish I could just say “any and all by Kara Vernor” because this lady rules. I get a rush from pretty much every sentence.

“The Fan Explodes Before We Get to Chicago” by Lex Sonne: Lex is a master at ambiance and casual pain and wryness. In this story, the final sentence is badass. Do NOT skip ahead and ruin it for yourself, though.

“Rodent Sounds” by Amy Butcher: Amy surprises me with pretty much everything she writes. Her work feels close and familiar, like a beloved blanket, it lulls you, and you think "well, that was easy, I got out alive!" but then you're standing at your stove with a spoon in your hand and no idea what you were doing.

Recommended by Lindsay Hunter

Don Johnson Is Not Your Man
Excerpt

Stephan works at the cookie store in the mall. It's how he gets gas money and chicks. He has a Honda CR-X with a spoiler, but he almost never gives me a ride, even when mom tells him to. Sonny Crockett would not work in a mall, I tell him. He grabs me by the collar and rubs his armpit all over my head.

Still, I ask him questions when I have to because who else can I ask? Yesterday I asked about how you can't smell vodka on the breath. Myth or fact, I wanted to know. Today I'm thinking of asking if boys like to have sex with girls on their periods. But maybe I'll think of something else.

We read it in Wigleaf.

Saturday
Excerpt

Two outs, and On Deck becomes At Bat. She steps to the plate, raises her club, thinks Rover is coming over. Boys from her school play two fields away, as distant as taxes.

The pitch comes high, and she can’t resist, her discipline shot by Monday through Friday. The pop-fly arcs toward the shortstop, and the team is up, clutching the chain link, screaming despite the odds, “Run! Run!”

We read it in Hobart.

Rodent Sounds
Excerpt

This was how it began: they were first talking and then they were moving and then they were moving out of state. They fell in love. He found a job. What else is there to say? They lived in a pretty town with foggy lamplights and a white gazebo.

They had first one baby and then two and raised them in a country house with big, long looming windows that looked out on standing cattle and tall weeds that moved together, like pastoral brush stokes on a fresh, wet canvas.

It’s easy to be in love with that beginning, but still she imagines her parents met and probably never once did they think that this is what would happen–that this is how things go. But maybe that’s exactly how they go. Maybe love that seems so certain isn’t so certain when it starts. Maybe you fall in love with someone strangely.

Maybe they make rodent sounds that make you laugh.

And maybe you just don’t know and you move together until you do.

We read it in Necessary Fiction.

The Fan Explodes before We Go to Chicago
Excerpt

She said when she flew she didn’t know where she was. For a day or two she would be in two places at once or somewhere in between. She would not be in the place where she needed to be. Me, I had problems with packing and that morning we were leaving for Chicago and the night before we had talked about the baby. I said, “That’s crazy. You’re crazy. We have no money and you have six years of school. What about all that school?” She had this thing about being called crazy and when she came out of the shower with that white towel with the ivy around the edge wrapped around her body and tight at the chest, she stared down at my clothes stacked and folded there beside her bag. She hated the air conditioning, I already told you that, and it was on and making noise. She said, “Why didn’t you pack?” She said this with her eyes squinted like Animal. There was a box fan blowing the air conditioned air around. Outside there were Ethiopian kids throwing a Nerf football in the park. The football was blue under those big sycamores with their leaves with the pollen on one side.

I said, “It’s your bag.” And Anne said while clutching at the top of the towel around her body, “Don’t look at me. Don’t look at me when I get dressed.” I was feeling how much I hated packing. I was feeling it but barely knowing it and not understanding it one bit. I was definitely not understanding it.

We read it in Hobart.

The Victim's Body
Excerpt

This body's the body that went to the gym; that struggled with weight; that bought the ice cream; that wore the sweat suit; that ate the ice cream, plastic spork, television television; that chewed the ice cream with its teeth; whose teeth were numb of nerve and stripped of their enamel; whose teeth were soft things; that rode the exercycle till the exercycle broke; that went home without buying frozen pizza, but in its hunger ordered fresh from Domino's. This body's the body melted extra cheese over the pizza in its oven, which charred the crusts, the pepperonis.

This body's the body that pushed shopping carts through the Wal-Mart's side entrance.

This body's the body that ate the Frito Lays.

 

This body's the body that did not wash fruits. It collected all their stickers on the underside of its desk, where other bodies keep their snot.

This body's the body that loved a man's body, that kissed his body on its mouth.

The man's body was a veteran of a war. The man's body had lost several fingers and its only nose. It wears a prosthetic nose. It sells brooms on the corner, at the edge of the gas station parking lot, under shadow of telephone pole and electric line. The man's body has no alibi. The man's body was seen arguing with the victim's body two days before the body was found. The victim's body was not seen between this argument and its finding there, in the dumpster. It did not go to work at the Wal-Mart. It did not shop there either.

We read it in Red Lightbulbs.