43.1 Feature: An Interview with Kat Lewin

Oct 24, 2016 | Archive, Interviews

Kat Lewin earned her MFA from UC Irvine, where she was awarded a Henfield Prize for fiction. Her work has appeared in publications including Tin House‘s Flash Friday series, PANK, Word Riot, and Flaunt Magazine. She is currently finishing her first collection.

Interview by REEM ABU-BAKER

Black Warriore Review: The protagonist of your story conducts experiments on lizards in an attempt to cure her depression. Can we start by talking about those lizards? How did they find their way into this story?

Kat Lewin: Honestly, I opened the door for the lizards and the rest of the story crept in after them. (On their tail? Too much of a dad joke?) I always start stories with just one sentence, then turn on the voice recorder app on my phone and talk out the whole story, from soup to nuts. Sometimes the story comes, sometimes it doesn’t, every once in a while it turns into a novel draft—but they always come verbally, sentence to sentence. I write stories like climbing a rope ladder up into a moving helicopter: find one rung, grope blindly for the next, and keep going like that until I either get somewhere or plummet.

One night, I was falling asleep, and I had a mental image of a wall of clear plastic lizard pens, lining a wall like bookshelves in a study, and I thought: “Okay, cool, there’s my one sentence. Let’s go.” The rest of the story took longer to come. I must have about fifteen audio files of me talking about these lizards—collecting them, building the cages, the layout of the apartment—but I kept gassing out before anything happened. By the time an actual story got in the mix, the only thing I knew was that there were a shitload of lizards in this apartment, someone had gone to a lot of trouble to get them there, and I desperately wanted to know why.

BWR: “The Psychology of Lizards” explores mental illness and depression in such a fresh way. It’s very honest and upfront about these things, while managing to maintain both a sense of humor and a deep empathy for its character. Was this part of an intentional “project” for this story? How do you approach writing about a topic like mental health while keep such a balance of registers?

KL: I write a lot about mental health, and depression in particular is a real challenge simply because the day to day logistics of depression are so horrifically boring. You’ve got, on the one hand, this fundamental fiction law that all characters must want something—and then a character whose entire struggle is that they’re numb, just gutted. So how do you make a story about it? In a lot of my stories, I end up physicalizing the emotional struggles of the characters—lizards, blankets, sexy parrots, magical wolves, whatever—creating a situation that the character just can’t be numb to or shut out. Not that I realize it at the time. I’m super literal and obtuse about my own stories. If I’m writing a story about lizards or wolves or sexy parrots, then, in my head, I’m thinking: “Okay, there are 350 literal lizards here, and the character is going to deal with that very real situation,” and then way later I’ll show the story to someone and they’ll say, “That’s an interesting metaphorical manifestation of depression,” and I’ll say, “Oh, shit, that does feel like a metaphor, doesn’t it?”

But I think my literalism helps me connect with the characters. It upsets me when I read a story and get the sense that the writer is winking at the audience behind the character’s back, or deriving humor from cutting down the character. I take my characters very seriously, and love them, and try to look for how at any given moment, they are, in their minds, fighting to be the heroes of their lives—even if they might seem broken or delusional or ridiculous to the reader. I don’t think about how the reader is going to respond to the character; I just want to tell the character’s story the way that they would need it to be told. (Which is why it’s discordant to me when I give people stories and they say they’re funny. I think that’s great, but I’m never trying to be funny. I just have a weird-shaped brain and an affinity for crunchy words and phrasing.)

BWR: There’s a paragraph in this story that I was especially struck by. It starts: “The thing, ultimately, about this lizard scientist is that she isn’t crazy and she isn’t stupid.” It goes on to list all the “acceptable” ways this character has tried and failed to overcome depression and sadness, this long path that has led her to her lizard experiments. I find this moment heart wrenching, and it also feels political, bringing up all these issues of agency and health and gender. Do you often find these kinds of issues cropping up in your work?

KL: This story is part of a collection I’m finishing called Women Hurting Animals, and my working title for the collection has always been: “Big Sexy Stories for Sad Girls.” So, yeah, definitely issues close to my heart. I’ve got a pretty relentless case of sad-brain, always have, and I often read short stories with depressed women in them and think: “Yeah, but where are the women like me?” Sad-brain is, like, 15% of who I am. It’s as big as being a teacher or a native Californian: a meaningful part of everyday life, no doubt, but not everything. So when I read depictions of depression, particularly in women, I often find myself thinking: “Where’s the rest of you?” You look at women struggling with depression in a lot of fiction and it’s hard not to imagine being a career counselor for them: “Okay, well, here’s a list of the jobs available to you: Bad mother. Ethereal girlfriend. Ethereal girlfriend (recently deceased).” Where are the depressed women who invent things in their spare time, and tutor twice a week at the local library, and run small businesses, and do their own minor automotive repair? I just don’t think we can have enough women like that on the page.

BWR: There is a great moment in “The Psychology of Lizards” when the narrator separates from the third-person story and begins to address the audience in second person. Can you talk about this choice to destabilize point of view?

KL: Thanks for liking that moment, because I worked so hard to edit it out and just couldn’t. During my many failed audio drafts of this story, I tried every combination of point-of-view and tense that I could think of. Finally one night, I got angry at the story, turned on my voice recorder app, and started talking directly to God. I dug up the audio of that for this interview, and how I started the story was:

“Hey God. I tried to write a story but it was another one of those stories where there’s a woman trapped alone in her apartment with her brain, which is trying to kill itself. I think these stories lack traction because they make people feel claustrophobic and they’re uncomfortably close to diary entries, no matter what’s going on. […] So I’m going to tell you a different kind of story, and you can listen to it.”

The rest of the story came out almost exactly as y’all are printing it. I went through twenty drafts of tinkering before I accepted that the POV flaws are part of the story. That second-person moment, and all the weird conditional tense changes in the ending—that was just me talking directly to God into my little voice recorder and hoping he heard me. I think writing fiction is the only way I know how to pray or to ask for help making sense of the world.

BWR: The lizard scientist is a likable and relatable character, but what she does to the lizards is kind of sadistic, so I’m wondering: Do you have any thoughts on cruelty or sadism in your own work or in fiction in general?

KL: Man, it is pretty sadistic, isn’t it? I hadn’t thought about that until I read this question. I always struggle with giving my characters room to make bad choices. To have a really great story, I think you need to give your character a rock-solid reason to do the wrong thing—the illogical thing or the plain stupid thing or the hopeful thing or the cruel thing. I admire writers who can make their characters do stupid or illogical things without undermining our respect for those characters. Whenever I try to do it, I end up flattening my characters. I don’t have enough imagination. But it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how hope or self-importance or cruelty can make us behave dramatically, because we see those qualities all around us. I guess I’ve internalized that. Especially since my collection is called Women Hurting Animals. Oh god, brb, have to go write a check to the ASPCA.

BWR: What books or writers are you most excited about right now?

KL: She, by Michelle Latiolais. During my MFA, Michelle taught me how to really see women, and how to write about them—complexly, and particularly, and resisting stereotypes that you see so often you start to internalize them as truth—and this book just made me shiver. Every damn sentence is a master class. Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel, of course. I just want to hold her sentences in my mouth. She uses all your senses, constantly, and when I read her, I get this dual feeling of being deeply absorbed into the story but also thinking: “Oh my god, I’m alive. I’m here.” The next book on my bedside table is Kea Wilson’s debut, We Eat Our Own. You have to be excited for any novel whose voice is consistently described as brilliant and creepy.

BWR: What are you working on? Any current projects you’d like to tell us about?

KL: For the summer, I put my collection away and am up to my elbows in the first decent draft of a novel I’ve been working on for about eight years. It’s about depression and suicide. Although, to actually get myself to write the novel that I’d most like to read about depression and suicide, that means it’s really about: time-travel, competitive swimming, fashion, floating in the infinite soundless vacuum of space, road trips, and golems.

BWR: BWR’s editor once asked me about “small secret joys,” and I think it’s such a beautiful question that I’m going to steal it. So, tell me about some of your small joys.

KL: I love watching the way that interstates change color when you pass through state lines. I think they use different material to repair the roads, because the funding and materials come from the different states; they change color a bit. I was driving around the Four Corners area last week, and I was so happy, seeing the road take on the yellow sand of Arizona, the peachy pink of New Mexico sand, then a tinge of that shocking Utah red. I had to turn off my music and just giggle, it made me so happy.

I love looking for the green in the sunset. You forget that there’s a full spectrum in the sunset, because the reds and oranges are so showboaty. I was in Santorini a few years ago and the sunsets there are just ludicrous—they stretch up for absolute miles, and you can pick out every wavelength. When I see a sunset now, I always look for the little smudge of green, and I’m in Santorini again.


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