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.