Empathy and Perspective: A Conversation with Kathy Flann by Elizabeth Gentry


kathy-flannKathy Flann’s short story collection, Get a Grip, won the George Garrett Award and was released by Texas Review Press. It was named a top book of 2015 by Baltimore Magazine and Baltimore City Paper, and it won the short story category for the 2016 National Indie Excellence Awards and the International Book Awards. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in England, where she created mini-courses for the BBC’s Get Writing website and served on the board of the National Association of Writers in Education. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria, and Le Moulin à Nef in France. She is an associate professor at Goucher College in Maryland.

Elizabeth Gentry: Having just finished reading your new collection of stories, Get a Grip, I’m struck by how empathy is so central to the experience of each story—each story moved me. My favorite was “Heaven’s Door,” and I loved that the story that most impacted me—the one about the Meteorite Man chasing the meteorite—was one that you’d clearly researched so well, since we often unthinkingly characterize research as about the head rather than the heart. Where does your empathetic sensibility come from, or where does it come from for any of us, in life or art?

Kathy Flann: What a great question. I honestly believe, and I think there are studies that back this up – people who read a lot of fiction develop a stronger sense of empathy. It’s different from movies because we’re in the mind of the character, processing the world, understanding it as that person does. If someone backs a car over the character’s dog, we readers can see the thoughts the person has and whether or not these get said out loud. We can compare this to how we might react.

As writers, we can’t compose successful stories if we don’t give ourselves over to the characters and let them think for themselves. This means we have to “get” at a deep level that each brain has its own way of operating. The Meteorite Man, of all my characters, might be the one whose personality differs the most from mine, which made him fun and challenging. I got the idea when a meteorite fell near where I live, and meteorite hunters descended, flying in from all over the country to try to beat each other to the prize. As someone who has spent her life devoted to pursuing a passion (writing in my case), I could relate on that level.

The research, though, helped me figure out why meteorites fascinate this particular character so much, both in a scientific and a personal sense. Why is his focus always on space (instead of Earth), and particularly rocks in space? Why would you live for this? Also, what effect would it have on a person to spend a lifetime doing what is, in effect, a competitive treasure hunt? Since it’s a race against time, I figured he’d be short with people, impatient. It was kind of fun to write a character who didn’t censor that part of himself. I always worry about other people’s feelings, but he really doesn’t. Part of the fun of being a writer is having the chance to say, “What would that be like?”

I always tell my students, “Even if you never write again after this class, fiction writing can teach you empathy, which is something you’ll use for the rest of your life.”

EG: I was flipping through an old notebook recently, and came across a couple of quotations from Thomas Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes that made me think further about the role of research in your fiction. I didn’t record who is speaking these lines of dialogue, but they go like this: “You should write a novel. The regular resource of people who don’t go enough into the world to live a novel, is to write one,” and “[I]t is only those who half know a thing that write about it. Those who know it thoroughly don’t take the trouble.” When I read Get a Grip, I thought, Kathy’s getting out into the world! Is this an illusion created by the research, or should we assume you are doing a bit of both—getting out into the world and being curious enough to learn the other half of things through research?

KF: I love research so much. It opens up possibilities that I haven’t considered, and it trips my imagination. Most stories are a mix of my lived experience, my imagination, and my research. For example, I got the idea for the first story in the collection, “Neuropathy,” when I saw an ad from Craigslist for edible American flags. What? Edible American flags? Are you kidding me? Who would buy something like that? I couldn’t stop wondering. So I started to create the character I imagined would think they were just the perfect product. Someone with a slightly misguided sense of patriotism, maybe? The character that materialized loves to watch a shopping network on TV, so I did a bunch of research on the products one might see. The products in the story are a mix of real things and things I made up based on getting the gist of it. I made up the Reverse Racism Dolls that she likes so much – to underscore that her perspective is a little askew. As the result of an accident, she has a hand that she can’t fully use and that hurts a lot of the time. I didn’t know what kind of condition this might be, so I asked my husband, a doctor, and he explained the condition known as neuropathy. After that, I could research it on my own. The symptoms it causes and her refusal to treat them seemed metaphorically perfect for her other struggles – a literal being “out of touch.” Without research, this story could not have become what it is.

EG: Speaking of getting out in the world, you’ve been traveling quite a bit this past year to promote your new book. Any favorite anecdotes from the readings you’ve given? What’s it been like to connect with readers?

KF: Well, one of the notable moments was when another Baltimore writer and I (shout out to Jen Grow) flew to Boston to give a reading in February. There turned out to be a blizzard, and about five people showed up. It was in a very bohemian art gallery, and in the middle of my reading, the gallery owner came in with his dogs, who started running all around barking. They dashed across the stage repeatedly, just barking and barking. You have to picture that these dogs had long hair and that someone had sewn very long pastel feathers into their fur (pink, light blue, etc), making the hair seem much longer. These feathers were blowing backwards, trailing the dogs like wild wings, because they were running around so fast.

It has been great to connect with readers, though, in general. I’ve done some book clubs, which is fun in a different way because people have already read the stories. It’s always interesting to find out what resonates (or indeed what doesn’t) because I think it will help me with future work.

EG: We met almost twenty years ago, and since then you’ve been working in both short and long form fiction and nonfiction. Having read your essay, “How to Survive a Human Attack: A Zombie’s Guide to Filling the Emptiness and Moving Forward,” and having read that you consider this essay to function as a story, it seems fair to say you’re also playing around with hybrid-genre work. How does your process differ from form to form, in terms of where your ideas come from and how you set about executing them?

KF: I usually say of the zombie piece that it’s not fiction but that it’s not not fiction, either. What is it? I couldn’t say, exactly. I have a series of these pieces, though the zombie one gets the most attention because of the popularity of zombies. Basically, it started because my husband watches The Walking Dead, and I found myself thinking one night, Boy, everyone has it out for the zombies. No one ever looks out for them. So I sat down and wrote them an advice column. I had to think about why zombies scare us so much. I was trying to help zombies understand humans and the frailties that underlie their hostility. I found it really funny to use self-help jargon, and I did a lot of research on self-help books to get the wording and tone right. A lot of those books talk about filling the emptiness and moving forward, which is so funny when you apply it to zombies (for those who don’t know – zombies are fans of eating and walking). I went on to write an advice piece for mummies and one for swamp monsters. I tried to structure each one to the particular audience. The mummy one is a decree because he’s royal and I figure that’s what he’d be willing to hear. The swamp monster piece is in the form of fashion magazine tips. They’re usually lonely and just want to be accepted by people. I also wrote “A Compendium of Human Repellants,” which is a guide for any creature being attacked by humans. It’s sort of in an encyclopedia or glossary format. All of these pieces are online.

On a less extreme scale, I go through this same process with my more traditional short fiction. Which point of view is appropriate for a particular character? What tense? I’ve always enjoyed pushing the envelope, using less common approaches like the second person, if it works for that story.

In some ways, my inclination to do wildly different things in different stories makes it hard to create a marketable book, though. In the first incarnation of Get a Grip, I had a magical realist story in there. Enough editors told me that I couldn’t mix a magical realist story into an otherwise realist collection that I eventually took it out. After I did, I found a publisher for it almost immediately.

EG: More generally speaking, how has your relationship to your writing changed over the years? Here I’m thinking less about genre or form and more about the fundamental question, Why write? In one interview I read, you reflected on feeling more free to play with humor in this collection than in your earlier collection, Smoky Ordinary; certainly the “How to Survive a Human Attack Series” reinforces the notion of play as an impulse for your writing. What are some of the central driving impulses, and are they different now from when you were just getting started?

KF: It’s interesting because it’s something I’ve been reflecting on lately. In a way, I feel like I’ve come full circle. I started writing as a kid because it’s fun. I didn’t care if anyone would read it. I just liked doing it. Then, as I got more “serious” about it, all of these other forces became part of the process. Would my mentor or workshop group like it? Was the work publishable? What kinds of things were other people publishing? These are not bad things to consider. I guess we really do have to understand them. But I feel like I’ve pushed to the other side of that now that I already grasp those concepts, and I am able to write because it’s fun and because the world is strange and delightful and horrible.

EG: I bailed on watching the television series The Walking Dead with my partner after three episodes because I started having nightmares, which didn’t keep he and I from having a prolonged and intense conversation in the middle of the Biltmore Estates winery in Asheville about whether suicide was an appropriate response to the Zombie Apocalypse (not hard to guess who said yes). What’s your current favorite apocalyptic scenario or dystopian narrative?

KF: I can totally picture you having this conversation, especially at the Biltmore, and not to be self-centered, but I think you and I could have a better talk about The Walking Dead with each other than with our partners... any place. (In fairness, our partners would probably enjoy speaking to each other about it more, too. I can just imagine.)

In the zombie apocalypse, I do worry about my chances. I do not have any skills to barter, unless someone wants editorial services on a resume for a job as a zombie-killer or food hoarder or something.

Like you, I have trouble with graphic content because I can’t stop picturing it. It’s funny because so many people have called my book gritty. But I don’t actually like post-apocalyptic narratives much, maybe because, in spite of the sometimes harsh veneer of some of my stories, I actually am (mostly) optimistic about people. So the idea of a total failure of our social fabric, even in grave circumstances, doesn’t dovetail with my worldview. I guess it also goes back to the idea of empathy and perspective. I don’t believe in total relativism, but it does seem possible that one person’s dystopia might be another’s paradise.