Blake Kimzey’s chapbook Families Among Us (Black Lawrence Press, 2014), is a collection of stories about transformation. Six stories nod to the magic of the natural world though surreal changes in its characters. “The boy grew like a regular boy… though each successive year his back curved more noticeably and his wings became stronger and his appetite larger.” Kimzey’s changelings sprout wings, slither on ringed bellies, grow snouts, claws, and fur; they carry full galaxies in their cheeks. His stories have been called, “beautifully written universes” and they are exactly that. We spoke with the author about his collection, below.
Author Interview: Blake Kimzey
My first introduction to Families Among Us was “The Boy and The Bear,” which we published in May. It’s a story (on the most basic level) about a boy who turns into a bear. At the time I didn’t know about the other stories, but “The Boy and The Bear” is part of an incredibly cohesive collection. I’m curious: when did you write this piece? Which story in the collection was first? And when did you begin to recognize these stories were part of a larger whole?
Thank you for such kind words about the collection, Kim. And thank you for publishing “The Boy and The Bear” as part of Short Story Month earlier this year. The stories in Families Among Us are close to me, the kind of stories I write when I want a break from the longer, realist fiction I normally write (splitting my time between dark comedy and fiction about the Iraq War). With each of the stories in my chapbook I started with an image, which is not the way I usually begin (with a character or a premise). For “The Boy and The Bear” that image was simply a boy nose-to-nose with a bear. When I zoomed out they were lost somewhere in a winter-crisp forest. And then I simply wanted to know how the boy and the bear ended up like that, and I wanted to know what their relationship was. As with all writing, it became an investigation. Image led to premise and then I felt comfortable. I tried to rewind the story from that moment and I found the boy in a village and then locked in a cellar. As it turns out, this was the fifth piece I wrote in the collection, giving me a handful of stories that felt connected. All of them are set in what looks and feels like the real world, but the characters give it a magical quality. I wrote “Up and Away” first after re-reading Metamorphosis when I was waiting to hear back from grad programs spring 2011. A bit of anxiety made my writing feel stale and I needed to change things up, and so I wrote fully into a new kind of imagination for me, and it has been the best thing for my writing practice, to have this outlet. All told it took me two and a half years to write these six very short stories. They take longer for me to imagine and write than the fiction I tend to write, and are influenced by Kafka, Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Aimee Bender, Roald Dahl, and Angela Carter. I don’t know what is going to happen anytime I sit down to write, a feeling that is doubled when I can’t shake an image that begs investigation. Writing a short tale reminds me you can do anything in fiction, magical realism or otherwise. I wrote “And Finally the Tragedy” last and when it was complete I knew I had a short collection I could send out to chapbook competitions.
Lets talk about some of the elements that tie these stories together. First, none of your characters have names. Instead they are the mother, the boy, the man, the girl, etc. Where did that choice come from? To me it contributes a fable-like quality to these stories, and allows characters to be any person for any reader. At the same time it develops a purposeful distance. How did you intend for the not-named characters to be received?
I wanted to keep a healthy distance from the characters in each of these stories so that the audience would actually feel closer to them. That makes no sense, but I wanted to give the reader enough room to make part of the story their own, to cede some of the imaginative work to the audience. When I encounter a character with no name I feel that gives me license as a reader to make a few of my own determinations about who/what they are within the context of everything else the author gives me. And for me the best way to do that as an author was to keep the cast nameless. It also felt like a directive for the audience to read the stories as tales, and maybe even to shoulder more of the emotional freight as they read along. This was a story-by-story decision that gathered into a meaningful choice for the collection as a whole. I wanted the characters to feel particular on the physical level and within individual family units, but I also wanted them to feel unconstrained by the specificity that naming brings. One of the things I love most about writing a great character is choosing the perfect name. A name can take a character all the way to the end, but in these stories it felt like the absence of that particularity was an essential component to sparking the emotional charge in each story. For me, the absence of a name also contributed to the sense of timelessness I wanted to convey in each story.
In every story a change occurs. In “A Family Among Us” a family loses their gills and goes to land. In “Up and Away” a boy grows beetle-like wings. In one of my favorite stories “Tunneling,” a boy’s deformity allows him to slither. Your characters don’t grow extra limbs or grotesque warts, but always transform into (or away from) something animal. What were you thinking about when you incorporated these metamorphoses? What did this allow you to explore?
The one constant I know can be found in the stories collected in Families Among Us and the other stories I write is my great interest in the reasons people are accepted or rejected, most often within the laboratory of the family unit (dynamics that always spoke outward into the world at large). Often these reasons can go unnamed or get lost in relational silence, and so I wanted a physical manifestation through which to investigate the competing desires for different characters to accept/reject their own circumstances or those of a family member. A metamorphosis that can’t be ignored. Through no fault of their own, the boy and girl in “A Family Among Us” lose something essential to who they are and don’t like who they become. The parents in “And Finally the Tragedy” are fearful of who/what their son is and it destroys them. Change is the hardest thing to survive in relationships. I tend to write into things that upset balance, create conflict, and force characters to act. And so the metamorphoses in the collection presented an opportunity for me as a writer to create emotional and thematic connectivity that unifies the stories.
In the last story, “And Finally The Tragedy” the character’s change is more otherworldly. Was this specific for the last story? Was it meant to mark the end of a transition?
I think so. “And Finally the Tragedy” is the only story about return, while the five stories that precede it are mostly about flight. I realized I hadn’t written a story yet where the central character returns. And so the village in the final story goes in search of the boy and they find him. But he is no longer something they can understand. When I first tried to write the story it was more literal and I couldn’t end the story. I didn’t know how. It was a mess. And so this otherworldly quality finally emerged in the writing, an access point which I felt could attend to some of the same themes coursing through the rest of the book and be a fitting conclusion with enough room left for the reader to interpret what it all means. Here I was mainly interested in images, and as it turned out, a symbolic movement toward death.
The natural world has a strong role in this collection. Even the story, “The Skylight,” which takes place in Paris, contains a strong sense of nature. Did the presence of nature help incorporate the animal-like changes taking place in your characters?
When I took my first fiction workshop in junior college and handed in my first story, my teacher wrote at the top of the story dial back the Cormac McCarthy. At that point I wanted to be Cormac McCarthy but was mainly writing 10-15 page descriptions of scrub-brush with no story. But I was attempting scene and I was attempting setting. Another comment I got in that ju-co workshop was enough of the weather reports. Later on I would hear Ron Carlson say on many occasions in workshop nothing happens nowhere and I would shake my head wholeheartedly in agreement. Setting is central for me. Character rises up from it. Makes the world feel lived in. And so I’ve always loved writing setting, especially the natural world. Over time I think I’ve gotten better at layering. The first time I visited Michigan’s Upper Peninsula I had to write about it. The UP worked its way into “Up and Away” and “Tunneling.” For me, setting provides a strong explanation for who a character is and why they are who they are. Sounds obvious enough, but sometimes that gets lost. I’m drawn to stories with setting as character, and for the stories in Families Among Us I wanted to write into settings that the characters either found solace in or felt compelled to flee from. Pressurizing place amplifies tension. It creates a charge in each of the stories, and in this way the presence of nature helped incorporate the animal-like changes taking place in my characters. I’ve read “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” too many times to count, and I always take pleasure in that opening scene, the weak noon light, watching Pelayo clear the beach of crabs and happen upon the old man. It is a surprise every time. Sure, there is an old man with enormous wings face down in the mud, but there is also this great setting rendered from the first word that sets the tone. I thought about that a lot when I was writing these stories, how I’m interested in isolation pressurized by place.
When you are in a big city, are you looking for, or missing nature? Would you describe yourself as a country mouse or a city mouse?
I am definitely a country mouse. I grew up in a small Texas town of 1,200 people and spent the weekends visiting my grandpa in Farmersville, TX. My brothers and I spent our youthful summers in the woods carrying .22 rifles thinking we were alone in the middle of nowhere. We rode four-wheelers on county rock roads and let State Troopers chase us on Farm-to-Markets before making off-road escapes. I worked on a ranch in high school, let the sun burn my neck on a tractor all summer, moved livestock pen to pen, scraped and painted miles of fence line, bailed hay and stacked it to the barn rafter-joists. And so when I’m in a city I feel like things are too close together. But as luck would have it, the first city I lived in was Paris, France, after college. I worked as a bicycle tour guide for 15 months and out of all the cities I’ve visited Paris feels like a small town, and for that and many other reasons it feels like the only city I could ever truly call home.
You describe your settings so beautifully, and the stories in Families Among Us have a strong sense of place. I felt very rewarded as a reader when you were describing the various settings and locations, especially when it came to the outdoors. Is there any connection to the settings of your stories and where you were when you wrote them?
Wow, thank you, Kim. The only real connection is that with each story I wished I was with the characters as I set them in unnamed places I had been before: northern Idaho (“Up and Away”), the Upper Peninsula (“Tunneling”), Paris, France (“The Skylight”), Van Alstyne, TX (“And Finally the Tragedy”), Bled, Slovenia (“The Boy and The Bear”) and Lake Tahoe (“A Family Among Us”). I wrote these stories in my tiny living room in Iowa City, IA and then in a tiny living room in Irvine, CA and when I was imagining these tales into existence I got to spend a little time each day in the wilds of some of my favorite places.
What are you working on now?
I just finished and am revising my first novel (and MFA thesis), a dark comedy called Don’t Ask set in the frozen Midwest, heavily influenced by The Coen Brothers, Barry Hannah, Patrick deWitt, Denis Johnson, and George V. Higgins. I wrote it last year, my final year of graduate school at UC-Irvine after writing nothing but short stories. If I had to describe the novel, I’d say it is the movie Fargo meets deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. I also have a full-length story collection called Talking Past the Close that is finished. Once the novel is ready to go I hope to secure an agent and see these two books into the world.
Blake Kimzey is a 2014 graduate of the MFA Programs In Writing at UC Irvine and the recipient of a generous 2013 Emerging Writer Grant from The Elizabeth George Foundation. Blake is the author of the award-winning chapbook Families Among Us (Black Lawrence Press, 2014). His work has been broadcast on NPR, performed on stage in Los Angeles, and published by Tin House, FiveChapters, McSweeney