The fifth volume of our anthology, with stories selected by Amy Hempel, published on October 1, and is now available for purchase. To celebrate, we are running a series of interviews with each of the ten wonderful authors whose stories are featured in the collection. Today, we talk to Katie Young Foster, whose story “Alkali Lake” stunned us with its expertly crafted and carefully researched prose. In this tale, Eva is caught off guard when her two estranged granddaughters appear at her front door. It is impossible to track down their mother, and the rambunctious girls won’t tell Eva anything. Eva decides to take the girls ice fishing, a family tradition. Just in case (but mostly to help keep them in line) she ties each of them to a tree beside the lake, allowing enough slack for them to play on the ice.
“Eva tethered her granddaughters to two trees on the banks of Alkali Lake. She fastened the eleven-year-old to an ash tree, and the ten-year-old to an elem.”
We always like to ask our authors: what inspired the idea for “Alkali Lake” and how long did it take to develop? Did you outline first, do research, etc.?
At eighty-seven years old, my grandpa still drives the thirty miles to Merritt Dam in the Sandhills of Nebraska on mild winter days to go ice fishing. There is a spot on the lake the locals call “Hoffman Flats,” which was named after him. That’s where he drills his fishing holes. In the past, he’s tied a rope to his waist and looped it around a tree on shore in case he falls through the ice, because he doesn’t know how to swim. This particular anecdote, which came to me as a family aside, inspired the first line of “Alkali Lake.” The story came out of me very quickly, which is unusual, because often I sweat through each line. I’ve written about Eva, Lauren and Kathy before, so their personalities were very clear to me from the get-go. Once I started, the story took several months to develop, though I chiseled away on edits for over a year.
You grew up in Nebraska, where “Alkali Lake” is set. The story includes many very minute details, from the particulars of ice fishing to the specifics of the landscape. Did you do a lot of research for this story, or was much of it based on personal knowledge and experience?
Much of the story is based on my own knowledge of the Sandhills. I did, however, consult my dad on various fishing terminologies. We went back and forth on whether walleye or crawpee would be more abundant in an alkaline lake, and I ended up looking it up in this great old tome called The Nebraska Sand Hills: The Human Landscape by Charles Barron McIntosh. The region itself is very pristine and vibrant—hundreds of miles of grass-covered sand dunes, constant wind, the bones of dead animals, barbed wire fencing. The town I grew up in is two and a half hours from the nearest Walmart. Most people only experience the I-80 portion of Nebraska, which I hear is monotonous. I like to tell people to head north. We have rivers and hiking and solitude, and several great waterfalls. It’s the best place in our country to see stars because of the absence of light pollution. There’s a Star Party every August.
How many drafts did this story go through? Were there any huge changes from the first draft to the last?
I originally wrote “Alkali Lake” as a ghost story, which, as you can imagine, got silly really quickly. Now, I think, Archie haunts his wife in quieter ways. My revision process almost always occurs on the sentence level, which means I go through what feels like hundreds of drafts. One of the biggest changes late in the game was tracing out Eva’s first week with the girls. Watching them sway in the parking lot, seeing them unravel—I think it helps readers empathize with, and relate to, their family dynamics.
What is your writing process like? (Do you write at a specific time of day / in a particular setting / on the computer or by hand, etc.?)
I had my first child in May—a loud, squirmy, happy girl. She’s almost five months old now and no writing gets done at home, which is okay with me. I have an office at The Curb Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and that’s my space for writing. Having a baby really instilled me with a “now or never” mentality. I write on the computer and black out the words I’ve already written in order to resist my (strong and annoying) impulse to revise. I do love writing in coffee shops—the noise! the aromas!—but I can only manage that when my baby is napping.
What are some of your favorite stories?
“The Forgotten Songs Incident” by Matthew Baker
“The Tail of My Heart” by Claire-Louise Bennett
“Elijah” by Anna Silverstein
“Nave” by Rita Bullwinkel
“Waterborne” by Josh Weil
“Proving Up” by Karen Russell
“August” by Bruno Schulz
“House Heart” by Amelia Gray
“After Dreamland” by Edward Hamlin
Katie Young Foster grew up in the Sandhills of Nebraska. She is an MFA candidate and the recipient of the 2016-17 Creative Writing Fellowship at the Curb Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2015, her work received the Honorable Mention from the Zoetrope All-Story Short Fiction Contest. Her stories have appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Cowboy Jamboree, and elsewhere on the web.