Realism’s Inability to Portray Reality: A Q&A with ‘Man & Wife’ Author Katie Chase

Katie Chase (photo by Calvin Eib)

Katie Chase (photo by Calvin Eib)

An internal refugee crisis in the United States; a modern America that tolerates decades-old, interfamilial vendettas; a city that keeps burning down year after year—these are the kinds of warped worlds captured in Katie Chase’s story collection, Man & Wife (220 pages; A Strange Object). Within these surrealities, Chase exaggerates societal traditions into distended proportions, focusing on the experiences of women at pivotal moments in their youth, examining their family dynamics, and, concurrently, their strange societies’ shifting norms. What’s even more unsettling is how eerily similar these worlds (and all the dramas that exist within them) are to our own.

Chase—a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who’s published in ZYZZYVA, the Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies—grounds her tragic tales of the intricate burden of tradition through the first-person perspectives of her unforgettable characters. Her sentences roil with every moment’s uncertainty, continually rending open the perceived gap between tradition and freedom, the collective and the individual, to peer closer at just how enmeshed those binaries are.
We talked to Katie Chase via email about Man & Wife, and about how language is inextricable from story, how the political is the human, and how to maintain “the play of writing.”

ZYZZYVA: Tradition, in its many forms, seems to stand at the center of Man & Wife; its push and pull, its polarity with complete autonomy, and individuals’ battles to find where they reside between those two extremes. It’s a nondualist view that you exemplify spectacularly in your story “The Hut,” which made me wonder, where do you think your fascination with tradition stems from, and how has writing this collection developed it for you?

Katie Chase: While my upbringing was not particularly conservative, I would say that it was largely “traditional,” in that I was raised by parents who were married—a father who worked and a mother who stayed home—in a small suburb where the norm was to stick around and repeat: find yourself a practical profession and a spouse, buy a house, have kids. My parents made the conscious choice to raise me and my siblings outside of a religion, but we observed Christian holidays in gatherings with extended family members whose rituals and beliefs bound them in actual and symbolic ways from which we were excluded, albeit proudly.

In pursuing writing, I’ve followed a path I had no models for until college, and I’ve never really stopped holding my life’s trajectory against what might have been expected. I cherish outsider status to the extent that I have it, yet at the same time I see in freedom loss as well as gain. Writing this collection made these preoccupations more conscious and allowed an exploration of them that was vicarious. We’re living in a time that is probably not so different from any other for its concurrent progress and clinging. I feel more softness now toward the latter. The clinging and the contradictions strike me as deeply human. I think a lot of people of my generation feel a sort of horror—and absolutely a restlessness—at the range of possibilities; anything is supposed to be possible, yet it still isn’t, and no one can have, or see, or do, or taste everything. I take great, tongue-in-cheek pleasure in nondenominational annual activities such as eating Thanksgiving dinner and watching the Academy Awards simply for the sense that so many other people, with a wide range of feelings, are at the same time participating.

Z: In an interview with Missouri Review you said that when you look back at Edith Wharton, her society’s constraints on women made for excellent storytelling because they provided ample opportunity for conflict. But that while those conflicts have become more subtle in today’s society you like the idea of making your writing “big and obvious and literal.” What is it about bigness, obviousness and literalness that appeal to you as a writer?

KC: In part, my affinity for a “big, literal” approach to narratives comes out of a reaction against the kinds of stories—however many of them I admire—that depict a quiet despair and little epiphanies, and in which not much seems to actually happen. It comes from a desire to shake up the genre and the form, to entertain (as that component of writing can so easily be forgotten), and to wake up readers (and myself). It can be difficult to look at ourselves and recognize the extent to which larger forces affect our lives and lives around us, if our dramas, on the page or otherwise, appear as small. It comes from a dissatisfaction with the ability of realism to portray reality—our experience of reality, which can amount to the same.

Z: In 2007, your first story, “Man & Wife,” which is the title story of your collection, was published. What’s the process of putting this collection together been like? How did you approach selecting the stories that made it in?

KC: The process has been both fast and slow. First, if not foremost, it was one of dismantling and reconceiving, as my agent had shopped around an earlier collection not long after “Man and Wife” was published. After spending some years on a novel, I wanted to return to stories and revive the idea of a collection with new material. I was approached by A Strange Object when in the midst of this fertile period and shared with them basically everything I had and thought was strong. They narrowed in on a core of stories, new and old and middle-aged, that we all instinctively felt cohered, and which were in fact my favorites, the ones I found to be the most “me.” From there, it was easy enough to fill out the shape—we added two more stories, one drafted just before the editing stage. The instinct for what cohered, I would say, had more to do with the expression of a vision than a desire to demonstrate range or variety. For instance, no concerns were voiced for the fact that all of the stories are told from the first person. This collection, as compared to the first, feels looser in its conceptions and more cohesive in tone and approach. It’s stronger for all that time grants, and for, I think, eschewing concerns for the marketplace.

Z: George Saunders had an email conversation with Jennifer Egan in the New York Times where he said his stories always start from language, from single sentences or even phrases, which is a sentiment you mentioned sharing in an interview with Portland Monthly. Your stories strike me in similar ways as his, where you both plant characters and scenes that are grounded in reality inside of larger, tilted worlds. I was wondering if you might touch on the origins of your stories, where it is you tend to find them.

KC: Yes, I love that conversation—Saunders and Egan are both writers I deeply admire. Typically, my own stories originate with a premise, an idea for some tilted world and/or heightened situation. A world is never enough on its own; a situation will contain the suggestion of a character or characters, for it isn’t much of one without a human in conflict or some emotional plight. But I absolutely cannot gain traction in the actual writing until I have some of the language, which hones in on everything: character, tone, emotional conflict, plot. I often need a first sentence, whether or not it stays as one, that is in some way propulsive, suggestive of what comes next, both on the micro level (of the next sentence) and the macro (of the story’s general shape or direction). By that I mean not just content but the sound of the language and the structure of its sentences. What is most magical to me in writing is how content and form work hand in hand—the times I sense the rhythm of a next sentence but don’t know quite yet exactly what it is supposed to say. I’m not, as Saunders often is, necessarily trying to create a new language, but I do very much work line by line. With the first person point of view, especially, language feels inextricable from story.

Z: In that same interview with Portland Monthly, you mentioned yearning to wake up your readers in some way. It may not have been your intention, but stories in the collection such as “Refugees” and “Creation Story” helped me, as a white, male and upper-middle class person to better understand my privileges, and what it means to live within and without those privileges. Yet your stories aren’t overly political—you avoid condemning any one tradition or group or set of societal relations by making your societal exaggerations square one, a stepping-off point, a lens. How did you approach balancing the politicized issues your stories rest on with the heartbreakingly human stories themselves?

KC: Fiction, or at least the kind of fiction I’ve been most interested in reading and writing, is a representation of an experience, one that is immersive for both reader and writer. It’s not possible to write such a narrative if your attention is floating out toward big ideas instead of focused on the physical details of the world you’re creating, the particulars of what your characters are doing and thinking. So while a story by its very premise and parameters might be set up to explore a particular issue, those concerns must be set aside. I have to trust that if a story is coming from me, and I am writing in a way that is true to myself, some of my preoccupations will seep in naturally. But I would also say the two are not as separate as the question implies: the political is the human. Such issues don’t, in actuality, float around outside of us; they are based in the facts of our lives and lives around us; and at play at the same time are our most basic desires: to be loved, to be happy, to have a sense of autonomy. It seems natural that the political and the emotional should collide in a story.

Z: While many of your stories deal with fictional societal customs, others, like those in “Every Good Marriage Begins in Tears,” seem like they’re pulled from other real societies (though the country that story takes place in is left nameless). Which made me wonder if you do research for your fiction.

KC: If any seems necessary. For the story that you mention, which is based on events in Kyrgyzstan, I read a few articles and searched the internet for images and descriptions that would allow me to passably portray the setting, as I have never been there myself. It seemed important, for that particular story, to stay true to a specific time and place. But ultimately my allegiance was not to a strictly accurate depiction; I don’t mind if I’ve gotten a lot wrong. As George Saunders said in that New York Times conversation with Jennifer Egan, it doesn’t interest me to simply “get it right.” The fun in many of the stories in this collection was that they could come directly out of my own mind and imagination. For other writing projects, I have done a lot more research, and found myself a little lost within it. Research can so easily become a form of procrastination and serve to mount the task ahead, rather than provide the tools to mount it. There is so much one doesn’t know, and ultimately doesn’t need to; you make your own world on the page, but a small part of the larger. It ought to reference the larger world, but your first allegiance is to making your own hold together. It’s very freeing to let go of the idea of getting things exactly right, and create on instinct.

Z: Another recurring stylistic choice of yours in this book is the perspective of a woman looking back on her childhood. How intentional were those narratorial choices? Did the story “Man & Wife” spark that style for you?

KC: Yes, “Man and Wife” is the oldest story in the collection and one of the first times I employed a retrospective narration. I wrote that story early in my career, just before going to graduate school, so the choice in that instance was not so consciously intentional. Workshopping it with Kevin Brockmeier called my attention to the approach and the process of revising helped me to smooth out its execution. So many of these stories are interested in coming of age, specifically those moments where the world seems to open up and some understanding is sparked both of the greatness of the possibilities and of the larger forces coming to bear. Even if the story is focused in time entirely on adolescence, as with the story “Bloodfeud,” some amount of narrative distance is implied by the very presence, however an inkling, of that understanding. The stories focused on adulthood feature characters who are wrestling to some extent with separating from their childhoods and families; a portrayal of where they are now would not be complete without some looking back. So that approach is very much tied with subject and theme, and as intentional as anything in writing—so often less than conscious—can be.

Z: Lastly, what’s next for you? In a few interviews you’ve mentioned working on a novel. How has that been going? And would you say your process has evolved since completing Man & Wife?

KC: The novel that I worked on for several years is currently in the proverbial drawer. I put it aside when I realized that to continue pursuing it, at that time, would only be to “save the stories.” I may return to it, but either way I do not see that time as lost. In grad school, I was certainly taught the “write every day, as though it were your job” approach, to dismiss the need for inspiration as a crutch. But I’ve come to believe that to bring a project to fruition I need passion at least as much as I need perseverance, and maybe more—the perseverance isn’t possible without the passion. For now, I am content not to name or commit myself to a “what’s next,” but to write only what feels fun or urgent, to maintain the play in writing, and see what builds.

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