Sandra Arnold Interviews Kathleen McGookey about her work in NEW MICRO (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018)
SA: Kathleen, when I read the first sentences of Another Drowning, Miner Lake in New Micro, I was pulled right into the centre of the story through a series of stark images: flashing lights, a police car, the helicopter, cars backing out of driveways. The title suggests drownings in the lake are so common as to be unremarkable to the narrator who quickly focuses on the beauty of the sunset and the promises of a new day. The friends return to their routine of swimming in the lake unconcerned about danger. On another level the story could be read as a metaphor for lack of concern about others, self-insulation, and what lies beneath an apparently calm surface: ‘We hadn’t known her and still we swam…’ ‘no one can blame the lake…’ Could you tell us something about your intentions for the story?
KM: Sandra, I’m so glad my story drew you in quickly. I like what you noticed about it. At the time, I was writing because I was shaken by the second drowning in the lake where my husband and I were renting a cottage. The way I worked then was to quickly free write three single spaced notebook pages, and then go back and pick out the most intriguing images, details and phrases and create a story out of those. I didn’t purposefully set out to tell the story of a drowning, but since it had just happened, I couldn’t ignore it. I was also experimenting with collage, with telling a story by using only a few details, and leaving a lot out. I think I was trying to convey emotion through imagery without a lot of outright statement. If possible, I always prefer to let an image communicate an idea or an emotion.
SA: Your micro implies so much in just a few words and left this reader, at least, reeling. Did you set out to create it in this way or did it find its own size?
KM: The piece found its own size. But most of what I was writing then (and am still writing now) is about that length.
SA: Your first sentence shows the danger of the lake through the repetition of the word ‘drowning’ and the last sentence shows it ‘as polite as any gilded mirror.’ There’s a lovely synchronism in this beginning and ending which also implies deceptiveness in appearance. Did you intend this? How important do you think first and last sentences are in micros?
KM: That’s a great point about how the story works. I did not set out to do this, but I’m glad the story works like that. First and last sentences are enormously important in micros. First sentences that start at sixty miles an hour and plunge the reader into the heart of the story are terrific. And whatever the writer puts in the last sentence–an image, a scrap of dialogue–might resonate and linger in the reader’s mind.
SA: You have published collections of prose poetry. Does this form influence your writing of micro fiction? Do you have a preference for one form or the other, or do you find the boundaries between them are blurred?
KM: Labels for these short forms are tricky. When I sit down to write, I don’t think, now I am going to write a prose poem and tomorrow I’m going to write micro fiction. Pretty much everything I write turns out to be a paragraph or two long, about 250 words or less. After I send a piece out and it gets accepted, the question of genre comes up. I definitely think the boundaries between these very short forms are blurry. And labels aren’t always set in stone. I’ve seen Russell Edson’s prose poems included in anthologies of micro fiction. I’m more interested in what a piece is doing and the pleasures it offers, rather how to categorize it. That said, I’ve always thought of what I do as prose poetry. Probably by default, because early on, when I’d send my work to journals looking for flash fiction or micro fiction, it would always get rejected. Over and over. Journals looking for poems or prose poems, on the other hand, would sometimes accept my work. I once heard an editor speak about the distinctions between micro fiction and prose poetry. He said that micros always contain a fictional element–setting, dialogue, conflict, and above all, a character who longs for something. This bare bones definition (though definitions are risky too) made sense to me. I also thought, well, what I write doesn’t always have those fictional elements. I was astonished and amazed when my work was selected for this anthology. Truly.
SA: In recent years very short forms have increased in popularity with both readers and writers. To what do you attribute this interest? How do you see the short form evolving?
KM: Whether it’s true or not, people feel like they have less time. A very short piece is approachable, possible to read and delight in, within the space of just a few minutes.
SA: Are there any writers who have influenced your own work? Do you have favourite journals to send work to?
KM: I love to read anything by Nin Andrews, Killarney Clary, Russell Edson, Mary Koncel, Gary Young, Charles Simic, Naomi Shihab Nye and Marosa di Giorgio. My current favorite journals are December, Glassworks, KYSO Flash, Sweet, Cloudbank, and Columbia Poetry Review.
SA: This story felt as though it might be based on a childhood memory. Does your own life influence the way you write? Are there any particular themes that feature in your work? Where do you draw your ideas from?
KM: As I mentioned earlier, I wrote this story because a woman drowned in the lake where my husband and I were renting a cottage. We could see unusual activity on the other side of the lake, but we didn’t know exactly what was going on. Later, I felt uncomfortable and sad that we were so oblivious while someone was dying not even a mile away. I wrote about it to try to make sense of it. So yes, my own life influences what I write. Things I see, read about, or that happen to me, or things my children see or say regularly show up in what I write. I write because I want time to stop a little. I write a lot about grief and loss and absence, but also about surprising daily moments, and a little bit about joy. I wish I could write more about joy.
SA: Do have a disciplined writing routine? Can you tell us something about your process?
KM: I feel sadly undisciplined. I wish I were the kind of writer who wrote every day. I used to do that. But after I had children, I found striving for that kind of routine frustrating because I couldn’t always do it. Now I take a more seasonal approach to writing: during the school year, while my kids are in class, I block out time to write a couple times a week. A piece, when it’s going well, usually takes a few hours and about ten to fifteen drafts to finish. During the summer, I get far less written, but I can read more. And I experience more. There’s not much quiet space in my brain for my writing amidst the noise and unpredictability of my days when my children are on summer vacation.
SA: For those writers just starting to write micro fiction what would be your best piece of advice?
KM: Find writers you like and read their work. Don’t worry if you don’t like what everyone else likes. Schedule time to write. Don’t give up. Keep at it. If you practice long enough, you will eventually get better.
SA: Do you have any new projects you can tell us about?
KM: I just had my work included in a new anthology from Wayne State, called Elemental: A Collection of Michigan Creative Nonfiction. It’s another anthology I was surprised and delighted to be included in, and it also made me think briefly about the issue of genre. I’d call my essay a collage of prose poems and I was happy the editor wanted it. Also, my work was just selected to be part of the Visual Poetry Project. A filmmaker is going to create a short film based on one of my poems, which will be released in April 2019. I’m really grateful to be part of that project and I can’t wait to see what the filmmaker does.
Kathleen McGookey’s most recent book is Heart in a Jar (White Pine Press, 2017). She is also the author of Stay (Press 53, 2015), October Again (Burnside Review Press, 2012), Whatever Shines (White Pine Press, 2001). In 2011, Parlor Press published We’ll See, a book of her translations of contemporary French poet Georges Godeau’s prose poems.
Poems, prose poems, and translations by McGookey have appeared in more than 50 literary venues, including among others: Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Epoch, Field, Indiana Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Rhino, Seneca Review, The Antioch Review, The Laurel Review, West Branch, Willow Springs; and in these anthologies published by White Pine Press: Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence (2016), The Best of the Prose Poem: An International Journal (2000), The House of Your Dream: An International Collection of Prose Poetry (2008), and The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry (1996).
McGookey has received grants from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, the Arts Fund of Kalamazoo County, the Sustainable Arts Foundation (2014), and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She has taught creative writing at Hope College, Interlochen Arts Academy, and Western Michigan University.