Thursday Dec 13

ErikaKrouse Erika Krouse is the author of two books: Come Up and See Me Sometime (short stories), and Contenders (novel). Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, One Story, Ploughshares, and other magazines and anthologies. Erika currently teaches at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, and works part time as a private investigator for Title IX and sexual assault cases.
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Erika Krouse interview with Karen Stefano

Contenders is one knockout of a novel. The beautifully lost and flawed heroine, Nina, takes the reader on a fast paced journey that is equal parts brutality, hilarity, and fragility. Here are just a few lines from the excerpt we are honored to include in this month’s issue of Connotation Press:

“Fighting was the passion. She never stopped, never tried. During dry spells, she missed it like it was lost legs or a drifting lover. She knew what she loved.”

“Besides the first strike rule, she didn’t fight kids, women, the homeless or elderly, gangbangers, and crazy people. For practical reasons, she also avoided drug addicts and her neighbors. Basically, she tried not to fight anyone she wouldn’t have sex with.”

“She heard the bones crack like small thunder, and still he cocked his fist again, a blinking robot.”

“Men on meth were the worst because they felt no pain, had no morals. She tried to avoid them, but you couldn’t always identify them if they bathed.”

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Erika, tell me about Nina. Where did she come from? What inspired you to make her a fighter?

I was practicing a lot of martial arts during that period, and I was confused about how I could hate violence but love punching people so much. I was training mostly with men, so it was also bewildering why I kept doing something where I was so obviously and constantly outmatched. All I did was lose. I wondered what it would be like if I were any good at it, and if a woman could ever be a contender, and what kind of woman she would be. I started imagining a woman who was part sociopath, part predator, part prey, part idealist. She would see everything through that primal filter we all have but ignore.

It’s such a vicious thing to stand up with someone and try to hurt them, but it’s also how humans evolved into our “civilized” state of being. I think that’s pretty interesting. Most books talk about fighting as an evil element that must be rooted from humanity. But actually, it’s one of the most human things a person can do.


Have you ever been in a street fight?

No! I probably wouldn’t survive a street fight. I’m a terrible fighter. And street fighting is its own animal, very different from martial arts, which is part of the fascination for me. At some point in training martial arts, it becomes academic, because the knife coming at you is made of rubber.


In what ways is Nina similar to Erika Krouse?

Like Nina, I suppose I often feel disconnected from the world, and have trouble relating to people in a normal way. I’m tempted to break bad, because there’s something free about that. I’ve invaded some areas usually dominated by men—P.I. work, martial arts, writing fiction.

But in all the factual ways, Nina’s completely different from me. I’m not good at the things she’s good at, or bad at the things she’s bad at. I’m a pacifist, and boring. I mean, I’m a creative writing teacher—I spend my time reading books and talking about character motivation and shit.


Do you have any experience with loneliness? If so, would you be willing to share something about that experience?

Sure. I felt very lonely growing up. I didn’t have a good home life, and was one of those brainy underachievers who wandered around the fringes with a book hidden in my jacket. Most writers I’ve met experience some kind of existential loneliness. We’re constantly writing love letters to the world, and the world doesn’t write back.


The New York Times Book Review called you “close in spirit to Lorrie Moore.” That’s a pretty tremendous compliment in my book. Do you agree with that statement? Are you influenced by Lorrie Moore? What other writers have influenced you?

Lorrie Moore is a genius and I’m a great admirer of her work. But I came to her stories later in my life, so she didn’t directly influence my work. I was more influenced by books I read as a teenager, inside and outside of English classes: Henderson the Rain King, The Stranger, Middlemarch , Wuthering Heights, The Catcher in the Rye, As I Lay Dying, The Great Gatsby, and this odd first effort by Margaret Atwood called The Edible Woman . Even before that, there was Harriet the Spy and Anne of Green Gables and The Diary of Anne Frank . I remember asking, Can you really do that with a story? Is this really happening?


You interviewed one of my literary idols, Kazuo Ishiguro ( Remains of the Day ) this last year. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like. How in the world did that come about? How did you feel talking to him?

Kazuo Ishiguro approached the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver to do an event on his tour for The Buried Giant . I teach with Lighthouse, so they knew I’m an Ishiguro fan, and that I lived in Japan growing up. I think I scored the interview because I was the only one who could correctly pronounce his name. Which is funny, because when he showed up, he insisted that everyone call him “Ish.”

I felt like a blathering idiot talking to him (especially in front of 500 people) but I mostly got to shut up. Mr. Ishiguro is such a veteran, he pretty much interviewed himself. I had about 35 questions for him (pared down from the 78 I wanted to ask him), and I think we covered four. He’s gracious and funny and brilliant and gentle. Everyone wanted to connect with him. During the audience questions, half the people just narrated their life stories into the microphone and asked him, “So what do you think about that?”


You work as a private investigator. Tell me how this job has influenced your writing.

With investigation, you follow subtext, not text. For example, if I ask a witness, “What did you see the attacker do that night?” she might say something like, “Nothing specific.” Then you have to ask, “What did you see that’s not specific?” or “Are you afraid to say?” or if she’s nervous, maybe even, “Did the same thing ever happen to you?” That’s fiction for me—following the thread past the surface of the story to the tangled connections and motivations underneath.

I specialize in rape by college athletes, so I’m dealing with brutality, misogyny, corruption, celebrity, greed...It’s very dark. I think the work has discouraged me from writing social novels, because I get enough of that already. I avoid writing about what’s in the newspapers (and also avoid newspapers).


What’s next for you as a writer?

I’m working on two books right now, which feels somewhat schizophrenic. One is another novel, and the other is another collection of short stories. I never was able to write across both genres before, but now it feels good, like when you’ve been drinking coffee and then you have a cocktail and then back to caffeine again...


What’s next for you as a human being?

Eating this donut. After that, remorse about the donut.


Erika, you slay me! Thank you so much for sharing this piece of Contenders with Connotation Press!

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