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Kim Magowan

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) is out now from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Smokelong Quarterly, and many other journals. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). Her story “Surfaces” was selected for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2019. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.

Blurbs

"…these delicate, thoughtful stories are devoted to unpacking the intricacies of infidelity…"

– Kristen Roupenian, The New York Times Book Review on Undoing

"A deeply honest, emotional powerhouse of a debut by Kim Magowan, The Light Source is told through the individual voices of boarding school friends whose lives and relationships interweave and unravel by turns. At its core, two women share a fragile, complicated love marred by denial and betrayal. It is because Magowan's people are so real, so flawed and funny and smart and hurting, that they compel us so. This novel brilliantly and movingly demonstrates the power of forgiveness and self-acceptance, and that which we so often forget: How by opening the one door we've always stubbornly refused to, we are at last rewarded with light."

– Kathy Fish, author of Wild Life: Collected Works from 2003-2018

"In stunning prose that renders time s passage with the fluidity of sand slipping between hourglass chambers, Magowan follows smoldering affairs over several decades, moving seamlessly between different characters' lives to explore the conflicting demands made by love in its many forms familial, sexual, sororal. Indulging in neither cynicism nor sentimentality, Magowan explores the sacrifices, even the price, demanded by relationships confronting social sanctions and past hurts; and the ways we flourish when we are willing to grow and change, and, above all else, to take risks."

– Alice Hatcher, author of The Wonder That Was Ours

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The Light Source

The Light Source: An Interview with Kim Magowan

10/10/19

I met Kim Magowan in late 2014. We both entered a Sixfold fiction contest. If you don’t know it, it’s a contest in which the winners are selected by the various writers who enter work into the contest. Stories are submitted anonymously, and voting takes place over three rounds, each writer randomly assigned six stories per round. Kim was assigned my story during one of those rounds. Kim was one of the few readers who left me detailed feedback, and her comments were insightful and generous. If you’ve never submitted to Sixfold, let me tell you, this is a rarity. Somehow, despite all the voters who said things like, I kid you not, that they wished the protagonist of my story would drive off a cliff and die, I ended up winning that contest, and I emailed Kim after to take her up on reading an edited version of the story. We hit it off, and we’ve been sending each other our drafts ever since. Since July of 2017, we’ve been collaboratively writing a short story collection together.

The story Kim submitted in that Sixfold contest was the opening chapter from her debut novel, The Light Source (7.13 Books). Kim is also the author of the short story collection, Undoing, which was winner of the 2017 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her stories have appeared in Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Indiana Review, New World Writing, SmokeLong Quarterly, and many other venues. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). Her story “Surfaces” was selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2019. She is fiction editor of Pithead Chapel. She lives in San Francisco, where she teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. www.kimmagowan.com

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Michelle Ross: The Light Source began as a few individual, but linked, short stories and at some point you made a conscious decision to expand the grouping with the intention of shaping them into a novel. Which stories/chapters had you written already when you made that decision? What was the first chapter you wrote after you decided you were working on the novel? And how did knowing it was now a novel change the writing process or did it?

Kim Magowan: I feel like my process with the novel is textbook “what not to do”! I wrote the book all out of order. The first section I drafted was the Beth chapter, Chapter 3, when I was in graduate school, around when the chapter takes place (1994). I saw it as a stand-alone story. Soon after, I wrote the Heather chapter (Chapter 2). In 2011, when at long last I became serious about writing, I dusted off those two stories and substantially revised them. That same year I went to my 25th high school reunion, and afterwards wrote the Mamie chapter (Chapter 6). Once that was drafted, I wrote the Porter chapter (Chapter 4)—he was my villain, he needed to tell his side of the story. All this time I believed I was writing a bunch of linked short stories, along the lines of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, but I was becoming increasingly uneasy. For one, both the Mamie story and Porter story are really long, and for two, the Porter story was too profane to publish. It was my favorite thing I’d written to date, but I knew it didn’t really work as a stand-alone story. Around this time (2012), an agent contacted me to ask if I was working in a novel, and I realized (duh!) of course I was—kicking and screaming, denying it all the way. So in the next 5 weeks, when I was in New Orleans with my family, I slapped together a first draft of both the Julie chapter (Chapter 7) and the Ian chapter (Chapter 1). It was the most intensive writing experience of my life—I wrote about 70 pages in 5 weeks. In the next few years I added material, mostly to the Julie chapter. I cut a chapter that seemed too Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the others,” though that’s the opening story to my Undoing collection (and if you read “When in Rome,” you’ll see I never bothered to change the character names, so Julie has a cameo appearance). The Pam chapter (Chapter 5) came last. Unfortunately I suspect the only way I can write a novel is in this Homer Simpson “Doh!” backdoor way. I am too intimidated to write a NOVEL (oh my) unless I fall into it accidentally.

MR: Probably my favorite chapter is the Heather chapter. A lot of that chapter is Heather strolling through memories—of Julie over the years, but also of Heather’s family and her own life—but at the same time, the chapter/story feels grounded in the present because Heather is physically strolling around Amsterdam as she broods and you do such an amazing job of bringing that place to life. Writing that particular chapter in the way you did seems now like such a natural, inevitable choice. How else do you pull off so much meandering into backstory unless the character is presently meandering through space, right? Is this something you were thinking about as you wrote the chapter?

KM: Thank you! I like that chapter too. Heather is my favorite character. She captured my imagination early on. I got loads of nice rejection letters for that story before The Gettysburg Review published it, and I think it kept getting rejected because nothing really happens—Heather writes a letter and ruminates. Amsterdam, for me, is the perfect setting for deep-dive introspection that isn’t necessarily productive. It’s a beautiful city and also a decadent city. My memories of Amsterdam are a weird combination of precise and smeary. I needed Heather to be in a place where she felt lost, far away from Julie, trying to get her bearings, sifting through a past made complicated because of Julie’s denial and Heather’s collusion. Heather feels alone, even when she isn’t physically alone (she makes a friend but a friend who doesn’t speak her languages). A lot of my novel is about watching—characters are always watching each other, particularly observing Julie. Amsterdam for me is the essence of a voyeuristic city.

MR: There is a lot of voyeurism in your novel, but it’s largely a kind of claustrophobic voyeurism in that this is a group of friends studying and commenting on each other over the years, much in the way that families often do. There are quite a few moments in the novel when one of them says something about Julie or Heather to others in the group along the lines of “You know Julie…” or “You know Heather…” There can be something comforting in people thinking they know you, but on the other hand, it can be stifling and annoying as hell. While this novel is on one level a love story between two people, on another level, it’s a story of the dynamics between a large group of friends, the kind of group that operates much like a family, yes?

KM: Yes, absolutely—when I (inarticulately) describe my book, I say it’s about love and friendship. I went to boarding school, and your point feels absolutely true to me—one’s friends are like family, in both positive and negative ways. There’s this kind of intimate knowledge boarding school friends have of each other, and like family members, they know exactly how to wound. Beth refers to this precision wounding in her chapter as “many small splinters that embed themselves under our skin.” I tried to capture their intimacy by shorthand—for instance, through the obnoxious ways they “tease” each other, and the nicknames they have. They love each other but annoy each other. They think they have each other entirely figured out; they get a lot wrong. In different ways Heather and Julie both experience that group knowledge as stifling. Heather is regarded as the cavalier slut (for years none of them realize she’s deeply in love), and Julie is the good girl/ homecoming queen (if boarding schools had homecoming queens; they’re too patrician). It’s very hard for outsiders to break in to this kind of closed loop. Porter legitimately sees Julie’s friends as exclusionary.

MR: The Pam chapter is another favorite of mine. It’s tiny compared to the other chapters/stories, but Pam is no less realized than other characters in the novel, and it’s a perfect little story that reveals much about Heather. In choosing peripheral characters for the novel, did you plan out in any way what you thought these chapters needed to accomplish within the novel? Or did these characters and their stories come about more accidentally?

KM: I wrote the Pam chapter after I cut the Emily chapter (and threw that one into my Undoing collection). I decided Emily was too peripheral, but I wanted to insert a character who was an outsider, not part of this incestuous, warm knot of boarding school friends. Also, I wanted a tempering perspective on Heather. Mostly the reader experiences Heather as lovelorn, so I wanted an example of her treating a partner cavalierly. Heather is honest with Pam, but nonetheless she hurts her badly (even if Heather points out later that heartbreak is an inevitable risk of falling in love). Pam is my way of showing that Heather also has some blood on her hands.

MR: Was any particular character easier or more difficult to inhabit than the others?

KM: Strangely enough, Porter was very easy for me to inhabit. He’s the bad guy of the novel, but I felt like I completely understood him—I was channeling his voice. That chapter was the most fun to write. I needed to lay out clues that Porter was ignoring or misinterpreting. He’s a smart guy, but he misconstrues what he sees.

MR: We don’t hear Julie’s voice until the end of the novel. All that time we’ve gotten all these different characters’ versions of Julie, so when she finally speaks, it’s a little bit startling, in a good way, to finally get into her head. What’s more is that you do something different in Julie’s chapter with time. The other chapters in the novel move chronologically through time, each chapter occupying a distinct moment in time somewhere from 1994 to 2013. Julie’s chapter is composed of slices of 1994, 1997, 2006, 2012, and 2013, so we’re not only getting a present-time Julie, we’re getting the various Julies of the past as well. Would you talk about this choice to break the pattern of time in this way and to save all of Julie’s sections for last?

KM: Along with Heather, Julie’s the main character, but Heather is so open, and Julie is the opposite: closed and guarded. I needed her story to come at the end. I knew that choice was risky. She is not someone the reader is inclined to sympathize with by that point in the novel. My goal was not to make Julie likeable (frankly, I get very impatient with that adjective! I could give a crap about “likeable”), but to make her comprehensible. There are, as you say, various Julies, so I didn’t feel like I could write the 2012-13 version of her and leave it at that. I needed to show what she was thinking and feeling at earlier stages in the novel: why she chooses Heather, why she bails. The Julie chapter begins right where the Beth chapter ends—Beth sees Heather and Julie talking on the beach. I wanted to dramatize that conversation. Again, that was a chapter I wrote all out of order. I feel like I should attach a warning label: do not follow my madwoman, counter-productive process! The first part I wrote was the kitchen scene where Julie talks to Heather and their twins. Then I wrote the section where Julie has coffee with Porter, then a first section I later cut, then the ending. But I had to keep going back to that chapter and filling in more material, trying to flesh out Julie’s character, to clarify why she made her often problematic choices. I made her suffer more: the scene with her husband Rob was a later addition. So was the trampoline scene, because my novel was a love story missing a scene of Heather and Julie actually being a couple, in love, but struggling and at odds. The chapter originally began in 1986, when Ian, Julie, Heather, and Beth are in high school. I cut that section (it was leaden) late in my revision process, after Leland Cheuk had accepted the novel and I was doing a final tighten/ compression.

MR: Your story collection, Undoing, also contains several linked stories and you’ve written a few more linked stories since then. Why do you think you find yourself returning to particular characters again and again? Are you thinking about them between writing those stories or do they come back to you out of the blue?

KM: Ha! This goes back to what I said regarding your first question—the only way I can write a novel is to back into it, unawares. Either of those linked sets of stories (the Laurel ones, the Ben and Miriam ones) could have easily turned into a novel. This year I wrote yet another Laurel story and yet another Ben and Miriam story. Those characters have a hold on me; I know a lot more about them then I put on the page. But who the hell has the time to write a novel? And yes, I think about them in between writing about them, and I write about them when those thoughts get so brim-full they overflow. I may well end up writing a novel about them, but it will be entirely against my will.

MR: How would you compare the process of putting together the novel versus the story collection? Is there some metaphor that suitably encapsulates the different experiences?

KM: Oh man, the processes for me are so entirely different! With the short story collection, the big challenge was getting the story sequence right (though of course, as you and I have laughed and wailed over, no one seems to read short story collections in sequence, so so much for all those hair-tearing hours!). But I could yank any story I had doubts about, so the short story collection process appeals to the perfectionist in me. With a novel, you can’t just toss a chapter, because it holds up scaffolding. Revising novels is more frustrating and laborious. I kept imagining Tim Gunn from Project Runway, when he’s shaking his head over some godawful jumpsuit or ball gown and dictates, “Make it work.” A metaphor? I’d say putting together a story collection is like curating a museum show, figuring out which paintings belong in which rooms and how to light them. Putting together a novel is like being a 15th century cartographer who constantly has to adjust the map of the globe: “Oh shit, there’s a continent there. Must move everything around to make room for that new continent.” There are lots of smudgy eraser marks all over the novel map; it’s much less pristine.

MR: I asked you this question before in another interview when your story collection, Undoing, was published. Will you list ten words that encapsulate The Light Source?

KM: Friendship

Voyeurism

Denial

Betrayal

Trojan Horse

“Addiction”

Charades

Forgiveness

Circles

Light

MR: Why did you put addiction in quotation marks?

KM: I was thinking about one of my characters who identifies as a sex addict, and another character scoffs— she has no patience for that characterization, she believes it’s a way of letting himself off the hook. And I suppose the scare quotes represent for me a broader theme in my novel, a complicated relationship between abjection and accountability. Addicts are under a compulsion, whereas “addicts” persuade themselves they are under a compulsion. Sidenote: when you asked me for ten words, I resisted the urge to look up our last interview, but I bet Addiction was on my list for ten words about Undoing, and I bet there were no scare quotes around it. In an interview George Saunders said he consistently writes about class struggle, and that he doesn’t feel like he chooses that subject: it’s hardwired. There are certainly themes and plots I find myself returning to again and again.

MR: Finally, what's one of your favorite lines from your novel?

KM: The Heather chapter is the prettiest, I think—the most pull-quotable. This bit is the essence of that chapter, because it shows Heather’s longing for Julie but also her frustration: “Last summer I read my little cousin Lucie a myth about a Greek girl who, unable to settle for having her god-lover only at night, against his warnings burns his fur cape and consequently loses him. ‘Why are you crying?’ Lucie asked me, and I couldn’t say, because I know how Psyche feels; because I want to burn that fucking cloak of fur.” Sidenote: I’ve always been fascinated by the Psyche myth, because it shows what is sexist about quest stories. Male characters go on quests and receive a reward—the princess, the crown. Female characters quest to retrieve what has been lost or stolen from them. On that note, I also like this line from the Porter chapter: “To some degree, all lovers are time machine conjurers, seeking to recover and to repair the past.”

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