Kellie Wells is the author of three books: Compression Scars, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Prize, Skin, and
Fat Girl, Terrestrial. She is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Award, the GLCA New Writers Award for Fiction, and the Baltic Writing Residency. Her fourth book, God, the Moon, and Other Megafauna, received the Sullivan Prize and is forthcoming next fall from Notre Dame. She is an associate professor at the University of Alabama and teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University.
Kellie Wells is a phenomenon. Her language is unparalleled. She takes leaps on every page. Her characters are eccentric beauties who are powerful, fierce, vulnerable, and yes, outsiders, but outsiders who don't see themselves that way. Therein lies the life blood of these splendid beings. All who are outside their universe, don't understand them, are empathized with but sadly non-visionaries. She is at the top of my list right now of writers who rock the orbit of language with brilliance and hilarity and my LOVE for these characters she creates couldn't get any deeper. Some quotes:
"The sun is a mouth rounded in terror."
"The world is an abbatoir, and we all await the final hook we will hang from."
"You can't ask the night to stop falling once the sun slips from its perch."
"One thing that comes from reducing the world is that you uncover all the smallnesses that skitter about in the dank culverts of the human heart, get to look into the yellow eyes of those gluttonous rats that gnaw on the endless store of human disappointment and loneliness. I was always on the hunt for a soul smaller than my own."
Wells is a master at bringing the cosmos in through the looking glass of her creations. Her collections are not made for the five-star category of ratings on reviews. Wells deserves as many stars as I can see out here in the desert tonight and that's an infinite blaze of light. It’s no surprise that each of her collections have won innumerable prizes. I have to quote some more because her work speaks far better than any synopsis or review possibly could:
"I lived knowing I made myself up. You dreamt I was real. The story ends here where I am a hole you look into to see yourself. Because I am nothing, I can make you believe."
"...a braid of bodies across the continent spelling out, with twisted limbs, a language I hoped my country would not have to speak."
"bodies quaking and rolling like coins in the Sunday plate."
"The summer the bats came, Duncan began wearing blue and my breasts grew a whole cup size as if I were feeding them better."
"My mother says I had the airy beauty of something fleeting, features smeared hastily across a face soon to expire, and I waved my arms about in what seemed to her the hurried delight of a short lifespan."
"It's always the heart, isn't it, even when it's not?"
I am absolutely intrigued by your language. I have been a fan since the first sentence I read of yours. Can I ask what your process is as a writer? Do you write at the same time and are you an everyday writer? Do you have expectations of how much you will produce?
I wish I had an orderly process that would be interesting to describe, but my method is chaotic and variable. I can say that I sometimes begin with a voice or a kind of diction. I try to shake a story out of language that interests me. Other times, I begin with a more concrete idea, like, say, conjoined twins who are brother and sister. I have a story in a new collection called “The Sorrows” that imagines a world in which each birth year has its own collective identity, its own defining characteristic. Everyone born in 1962, for example, eventually commits suicide. Sometimes I begin with an outcome, and the story is the figuring out of the path that leads to it.
No, I don’t write every day. This used to make me feel like a bit of fraud, but I’ve since found so many other rich sources of self-doubt that I’ve been able to let this one go.
I live sort of provisionally, startled and tentative. I am always surprised to wake up. Living this way has its challenges, but one thing this persistent skepticism prevents me from being overly burdened by is expectation. It makes it easier for me to write if my main ambition is to get to the end of the sentence, if I don’t get overwhelmed and spook myself into paralysis. I do hope they are good sentences, though. I also think a lot about characters, about the very complicated, often unknowable nexus of things that motivates their actions. People are so compellingly contradictory, self-sabotaging, irrational. I could think about that all day long. I’m hoping this counts as writing.
I am intrigued by your use of philosophy and religion in your work. What texts in those spectrums have most inspired your writing? Do you collect old thesauruses and dictionaries? I am in love with your language and the exquisite cadence of your writing. I love reading lines from your work aloud. Do you look for strange old books to inspire you?
Thanks, Meg. I do love and collect words grown dusty from neglect. There are so many strange ones with weirdly specific meanings in English. It seems a shame never to use them. We could be so much more semantically meticulous if only we wanted to be, though I understand the appeal of all-purpose imprecision too. I guess I feel about words the way some people feel about Hummel figurines or Pez dispensers or ceramic bluebirds. Why settle for just a few when you can hoard them and dedicate a whole room to them?
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming collection in 2017, from the University of Notre Dame Press? I cannot wait!
It’s called God, the Moon, and Other Megafauna, and the stories are loosely grouped by theme, in five sections: Moon, God, Kansas, Fauna, Apocalypse. I had my doubts that this collection would ever find a publisher, because, aside from some shared thematic compulsions, the stories are distinct from one another. Some of the stories are fabulist, some realist (more or less), there are fairy tales, a couple of retellings. It’s a roomful of voluble guttersnipes that ended up at the same orphanage.
Here’s the jacket copy for the book: The stories are populated with the world’s castoffs, cranks, and inveterate oddballs, the deeply aggrieved, the ontologically challenged, the misunderstood mopes that haunt the shadowy wings of the world’s main stage. In these stories, you will find a teacup-sized aerialist who tries to ingest the world’s considerable suffering; a lonely god growing ever lonelier as the Afterlife swells with monkeys and other improbable occupants; a father fluent in the language of the Dead who has difficulty communicating with his living son; and Death himself, a moony adolescent with a tender heart and a lack of ambition. God-haunted and apocalyptic, comic and phantasmagorical, these stories give lyrical voice to the indomitability of the everyday underdog.
I refuse to box you into any category, because your work is expansive and claims vast territory within its breath and characters, but most of your stories are set in the Midwest, which is very different from state to state and city to city, as well as the landscape. Flannery O’Connor was quoted as saying, “The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last the rest of his days.” Where were you brought up and did the place have an impact on your setting?
As O’Connor suggests, art is the one place where having had a shitty childhood is a real boon. Not to fetishize suffering, but I agree that art is a constructive thing into which you can transform the unbearable.
I grew up in Kansas, and when my fiction has a specific setting, it’s usually set in that pocket of the Midwest. My Kansas is, however, an invented place rather than empirically accurate. It’s a sometimes fabulist Kansas, occult and improbable. ?Nevertheless, I think the setting squares with my experience of having grown up there. The place I grew up had one foot in the rural and one in the urban, so its identity was in flux, or perhaps my identity was in flux as I travelled through it or as I performed it. Kansas is a place that is a punchline to a variety of jokes, about whiteness, convervatism, heartland humility, backwoods ignorance, plain-spokenness, bigotry, yokelhood, tedium, pragmatism, irrelevance, fundamentalism, etc. Not unlike Alabama, where I now live. During this election I frequently heard Alabama used, pejoratively, to describe rural parts of other states: “In Pennsylvania, there’s Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and in between it’s Alabama.” So at some point I became pointedly aware of how Kansas constructs itself and how it’s constructed by others, and I became interested in trying to unpack that, because that narrative has changed radically over time. At the turn of the twentieth century, for example, Kansas was one of the most thriving hubs of socialism in the United States, a fact that’s not really part of the narrative anymore. I’ve been trying forever to write about the abolitionist John Brown, because he’s a complicated and interesting part of that narrative, that place. In the state capitol of Topeka, there’s a wildly romantic mural of John Brown, painted by John Steuart Curry and entitled “Tragic Prelude,” in which Brown, twice the size of any other figure in the painting, stands with his arms thrown wide, a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, hair and beard a conflagration, “Old Testament eyes” ablaze with righteous ferocity, and this was a painting that deeply impressed me as a nine-year-old child on the compulsory fourth-grade field trip to the state capitol—I thought he must be the God of Kansas, conjuring tornados and standing above fallen men.? I'm interested in the various ways John Brown has been constructed over the years, folk hero, terrorist, holy man, madman, and I’m particularly interested in the role he has played in the history of Kansas and in the state’s sense of its own identity, its sense of itself as a once consequential place, an anticipatory battleground, a moral bellwether, a mythologizing that turns quickly to derision when you step foot outside the Midwest.
God, I LOVE YOU!!!
How does teaching factor into your writing?
Teaching forces me to form opinions (aesthetic and philosophical) about things I might otherwise be hesitant to pin down or commit to. They’re makeshift opinions, of course—mortality making all things provisional as it does—opinions subject to change at a whim. But I have found it sometimes useful, especially when writing a novel, to rein in my libertine tendency to believe everything about everything at once. It can be kind of liberating to claim stake, to say today I believe this about multiple narrators or autofiction or dialogue tags or the uses to which the figure of the female grotesque can be put, whatever the subject at hand is. It also forces me to compare my writerly opinions and values to the trends of the moment (backstory, say? dialect? omniscience? foregrounded language? for? against? indifferent?) and to think about where they come from.
Do you edit as you move through your first draft or let if free flow and then go back?
Drafting and revision are intimately intertwined for me. It’s often the reimagined sentence that gets me to the next one.
How do you approach a novel as compared to a short story?
With jubilant despair! I teach a year-long novel writing course, and what has become clear to me from that experience is that one of the hardest things about writing a novel is being willing to slop and bobble about in an unwieldy mess without trying to impose order on it prematurely, before you’ve even figured out what truly animates it. It’s hard to dwell happily in disorder and (albeit productive) ignorance and befuddlement for as long as the form of the novel demands. You have to learn to be content to grope, indefinitely, in a dark corridor of willful uncertainty. A story poses its own challenges, but you’re not suspended in impending failure for as long, so it’s a less fretful form.
Last question, I promise! One strange family story you can share?
My parents were the age of most of my friends’ grandparents, and family members began dying when I was quite young, so, growing up, I was keenly aware of my parents’ mortality. This kept me up at night, and I used to stand quietly beside their bed and watch them breathe. My mother had a genius for sleeping: she went to sleep at the same time every night, awoke at the same time every morning, and in the same position, the soundest sleeper I have ever known. She loved movies from the 30s and 40s and knew the names of even the most minor actors, and she would recount for me stories she’d read about them in Photoplay. I have a dog named Zazu Pitts, after a comic actress from Kansas. My parents were excellent dancers and would sometimes spontaneously foxtrot in the living room. My father eventually died of Midwestern politeness and humility, not wanting to summon an ambulance prematurely, in case it was only indigestion. My parents’ fondest expressions were from another era, and this may be where my love of antiquated language comes from.
Thanks so much, Meg, for your kind interest in my work.
Thank you so much, Kellie Wells, for your brilliance and LOVE of the language! You inspire me daily. You are my hope for 2017 as we come into another strange era. Keep the work moving. BIG HUGS, Meg