profiles in linguistics: Kirsten Lunstrum


Kirsten Lunstrum


Gender dialogues differ and our conversational styles reflect these personas to the outside world. Seen as sexual entities,  this complicates how our message is received.  How does sexuality affect our action and intention?  In other words, how can we empower our bodies without defining the social markings of entrapment?

Kirsten Lunstrum’s short story “The Remainder Salvaged,” listed as a distinguished story of the year in the 2012 Best American Anthology cascades these remarks. The story is centered around a man Nils who experiences two different female relationships. Iris is a secular emotionally unavailable lover and Sister is a Catholic nun who wittingly permits non-judgement and peace. Nils is unable to deeply connect to Iris in a way because of their traditional sexual attachment and gender binaries. Sister and in this case his mother allow him a genderless report,  but why the double standard? This piece questions how we handle emotional “wreckage,” how we heal, and the relationships pursued in order to “[move] forward”. We acknowledge regret, anger, grief, and acceptance, of not the precise re-translation of the past, but of humanity’s ability to listen and take action.

Active listening transforms stuck emotive frequencies and dissipates dualisms. Community is necessary to this process, as we watch Nils, see the snow fall, and nurture self. In this story we encounter “a complex faith and a wide worldview,” behind the characters and also the writer; an “ability to see beyond [life’s] immediate circumstances.” This is how we fall into committed love regardless of gender stereotype. Lunstrum writes to teach, to connect, to recognize how others “recharge [one’s] own creative energy”. And also to remember as readers we, “can actually fall in love with a story.” What are the stories that we fall in love with? They are ones of time, of colliding concepts that interact in memory and intimacy. They are ones of sexuality and friendship. How do women affect this landscape as women and as writers? Lunstrum describes, “Obviously, I’m invested in this as a woman writer; but simply as a reader I feel strongly about the contribution women writers have made to literature, especially recently.” The women in her story here reflect this sentiment as well.

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum is the author of two collections of short fiction, This Life She’s Chosen and Swimming With Strangers (both published by Chronicle Books). She has been the recipient of two Pushcart Prize nominations, a PEN/O. Henry Prize, and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers Conference and the MacDowell Colony. Kirsten has taught writing at a number of colleges and universities, including Saint Mary’s College, the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, and Purchase College (SUNY), where she was a member of the Creative Writing Program faculty from 2008-2012. She now lives in the Seattle area with her family and is at work on a novel.

1.)      What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

My parents are both the kind of readers writers dream about, so I think credit goes first to them. My mother reads a novel a week (truly!), and when I was a kid we made weekly trips to the library. My father has shelves and shelves of books, and during the long and tedious summers of my adolescence he kept me from whining about boredom by letting me pick and read whatever I wanted from his collection. I was lucky to grow up in a house in which books were sacred objects and in which literature and the arts were valued, and I think that probably shaped my desire to write more than anything else.

And, of course, there are also particular books that caught me, that made me want to write. The first book I loved completely was Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and I still love it. I read it once a year and am always just as smitten with Cather’s stunning prose, her sense of landscape, her very real characters as I was when I first read the book as a girl. I could go on and on listing favorite books – The Great Gatsby is at the top of the list for me, as is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall, everything Alice Munro has ever written, John Berger’s To the Wedding, Gina Berriault’s Women in Their Beds…  And because I have a soft spot for the short story, I’d have to include several individual stories that have stuck with me and taught me about writing—stories like James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Andrea Barrett’s “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” David Long’s “Attraction,” Lauren Groff’s “L. DeBard and Aliette,” a beautiful story by Andrew Sean Greer titled “Darkness”… Again, I could go on and on. One of the things I love about teaching fiction writing is getting to make reading lists that allow me to share the fiction I love with other readers (readers who get that you can actually fall in love with a story).

I do think my reading tastes have changed over time. When I was a teenager I pretty exclusively read mysteries—and the trashier they were, the better. Now, because I’m a mother to two young children, one of whom has just learned to read himself, a good portion of my reading is kids’ lit. My son is obsessed (obsessed!) with the Harry Potter books, and I have to say they’ve pulled me in too. We’re on our third go through the series right now, and I’m still enjoying it. Beyond that, in part because I have even less time for reading than ever before in my life, I tend to be fairly finicky about what I read. I just don’t have time for something I’m not going to love. I still go to the library weekly, and I always come home with a huge stack of books, but I probably only finish a book every month or two. I’m a sadly slow reader these days. I still read more short stories than novels, and I spend a lot of my reading time re-reading, trying to figure out how a writer accomplished something, or just seeking comfort in a book that I’ve read so often it’s become a kind of home.

2.)      Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

I’ve had some fantastic teachers. Rich Ives was my first creative writing teacher, and he really shepherded me when I was still very young and not at all certain that I should pursue writing as a career. My wonderful undergraduate literature professor at Pacific Lutheran University, David Seal, encouraged me and challenged me. And then, when I went to graduate school at UC Davis, I was so lucky to get to work with Lynn Freed and Karen Joy Fowler and Pam Houston—women who mentored me as I wrote my first book, and who still serve as the models, in my mind, of what it is to be a successful woman writer. I owe Pam, in particular, a huge debt of gratitude; my first book would not have happened, I think, without Pam’s guidance and insights into my stories. She changed me as a writer and gave my book its chance in the world. There’s always among writers an argument about what the value of attending a graduate program in writing really is, but for me it was the community I got at UC Davis. Many of the writers I look to for encouragement now that I’m out in the world, writing on my own, are those I met there—both the faculty and my fellow students. That community shaped me when I was just getting my feet on the ground as a writer, and it sustains me now.

3.)      How has your own work changed over time and why?

I look back at the writing I was doing in my early twenties, and it’s all very imitative—and though I think that’s okay (imitation is part of how one learns to write) and I’m not embarrassed by that early work, it’s very different from what I’m writing now. I feel like as I’ve grown up and seen more of the world and of life, I’ve become a little more confident in writing what and how I want to write, and I’m grateful for that. I think being a writer makes aging easier, actually. Writers tend to only get better with age.

But I’d say the biggest change in my writing has actually come about as a result of becoming a parent. For a long time after my first child was born (he’s six now) I couldn’t write. It wasn’t exactly that I couldn’t write, now that I’m thinking about it—it was more that I didn’t care to. I’d sit down to work in the brief windows of time I had free, and all I felt was ambivalence about fiction. I was so wrapped up in living fully in the real life happening in front of me that any time spent in the imagined world of a fictional narrative felt thin. I just couldn’t get invested enough to care. And that was difficult. I worried that I’d never write again, that I’d never want to. I worried that I’d killed something necessary for writing by choosing to become a mother. But, happily, all of that eased with time, and when I eventually got back to writing I found that the experience of parenthood had taught me things that were important for writing too. I have more patience, for one thing, since becoming a mom, and I’m better able to let go of control in a narrative, which is something that really scared me for a long time. I’m better able to wade into a story without knowing where it’s going or how it will develop than I was before I had kids, and I think that must be directly related to learning to live with the risks and uncontrollable variables that are part of parenting. I feel hugely thankful to my kids for helping me grow in that way.

4.)      Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

A couple of years ago I went through another phase of disillusionment with fiction, and in the midst of that I started reading literary nonfiction—a genre I hadn’t read much of before. It was like opening a door in my mind! I suddenly felt freer to explore different narrative structures, to push at the boundaries between what is imagined and what is not, and I came back to writing fiction with a very different perspective on process and form. I owe a lot of that shift in my thinking to the students in a class I taught on literary nonfiction in the fall of 2010. I taught the class right in the thick of my own little literary depression, so the class might have gone terribly. But I lucked out and had some of the best students I’ve ever had in that class. Their questions and creative leaps challenged me and reminded me what I had loved about writing in the first place. I always left class feeling stirred, still thinking… It’s another testament to the value of having a writing community—people invested in the process of writing to talk to so that you can recharge your own creative energy.

In terms of your question about genre, I’d also add that while I don’t write poetry, I do read it pretty avidly, and that, too, influences my fiction. I tell my students that prose writers must read poetry—and read it often—because it reminds us to pay attention. Poets are excellent and careful observers, and they listen to the sound of language in a way prose writers often either forget to do or dismiss as unimportant, which is a shame.

5.)      What are your plans for the future?

Hmmm. Golly. Hard question. I don’t know. I’ve just completely uprooted my life, left my teaching job, and moved across the country—in part for my family and in part to nurture my writing life more fully—and I’m not entirely sure yet where all of those changes will lead me. I’m trying to be open to possibility right now, both in life and in writing. I’ll have to get back to you on the end result.

6.)      What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

Like a lot of women writers, I’ve been paying close attention to the discussion happening regarding American literary culture and women writers. The women at VIDA have done us all an incredible service by opening up that conversation, and I’m hopeful that the process of talking about the ways in which women writers continue to be marginalized will mean more opportunities for literature written by women to be published and seriously considered by the larger community. Obviously, I’m invested in this as a woman writer; but simply as a reader I feel strongly about the contribution women writers have made to literature, especially recently. Women like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Lydia Davis, Marilynne Robinson, Anne Enright, Yiyun Li, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, and Joyce Carol Oates have changed the shape of literature, and it infuriates me that their contributions and the contributions of other women writers are often ignored or dismissed primarily because of the (female) name on a book’s jacket.

My feeling is that pointing out the inequities in publishing and criticism is essential, as is speaking loudly and positively about the good work women writers are doing. I’m hopeful, too, that as the publishing industry undergoes the kind of massive changes we’re beginning to see happen now, independent presses will flourish and accessibility to a wider ranger of literature will be possible.

7.)      Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Jodi Angel, Alix Ohlin, Lauren Groff, Laura Van den Berg, Julialicia Case, Lauren Gordon, Jennifer Chang, Robin Elizabeth Black, Allison Amend, Halina Duraj, Monica Ferrell, Jacqueline Kolosov, Karen Russell, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Jessica Griffith, Hannah Tinti, Lily Hoang, Frances Hwang. These are off the top of my head, but I could probably come up with a list a mile long. Elliott Holt has a book coming out that I’m very much looking forward to reading, and I loved Catherine Pierce’s recently released book of poetry, The Girls of Peculiar.

8.)      If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I’m laughing here at home about this question. I’m not sure about a label. My first book was marketed to fit solidly in the “literary chick lit” category (it had a pink dust jacket), and that label really never sat well with me. I don’t know. My fiction is all primarily interested in the domestic. It’s been called “quiet” on a number of occasions, and though that used to worry me, now I see it as a compliment (most of the time). And I hope it’s accurate to call it “literary” fiction.

I think what I’d really like is what all writers want: to write work that readers feel is true.

9.)      The main character Nils in the short story “The Remainder Salvaged,” listed as a distinguished story of the year in the 2012 Best American Anthology, vacillates between two female relationships. One with Iris, an emotionally passive and removed lover, and Sister, a Catholic nurse who is potent in her philosophical exigency and listening ear. These characters exonerate character weakness and strength in Nils through their relationships. My first question pronounces Iris as trapped in the “mess” of her life with a dead husband whom she hates. Her inability to forgive the domestic traction of her past tangles her inability to physically connect with Nils, and she ultimately leaves him because he “[needs] too much”. From the perspective of Nils, Iris is “running from her dead husband.” Nils works for a search crew who sifts through the snowfall of winter searching for the dead bodies of an overturned train. In the stenciling of these parallel interactions can you delineate your intention behind femininity as it is projected through Iris and Nils? Do you believe that forgiveness is achieved in her ultimate departure from Nils? Or is it perhaps Nils who is the one ultimately seeking a way out of his own patriarchal sense of masculinity as he arbitrarily chases and dismisses his relationship with death?

I’d say that it’s true that Nils, who is still struggling with the grief of losing Iris when we meet him, finds some sense of redemption (maybe not forgiveness, but definitely a kind of redemptive grace) through his relationship with the sister—as well as through the physical act of searching through the snow for survivors of the mountain train wreck. Iris leaves him because she cannot let go of her own regrets and losses, and at first it seems that Nils will suffer in the same way, unable to move forward with his life because of a need to hold onto his past. But over the course of the story he begins to let go. He begins to accept the wreckage—both the literal wreckage of the train, and the emotional wreckage of his lost relationship—as inexplicable and horrible, but not the end. And in accepting that, he’s able to forgive Iris at least a bit, which is necessary for his own movement forward. I tried to show that through his burial of the dog he finds dead in the snow. The burial as a kind of merciful and tender act.

9). “The Remainder Salvaged,” initiates a conversation with nostalgia. This nostalgia relates to our things, our pets, our past lovers, family members, experiences; these are the roots of our past. For Nils and Sister, this negotiation is settled in the frozen bodies buried in snow and secrecy. They find remnants of past lives. The last body found is a dog whose ear has been sliced off. One that they rebury after it reassembles Nils’ dead mother. Nils shares his past dissonance with spirituality and the priest’s failure to acknowledge his trauma at his mother’s passing as neglecting the importance of acknowledging the unsayable. Why is the mother-son relationship with Nils paired with nostalgia and regret, whereas his relationship with the sister, who is removed from the possibility of a sexual relationship, one of connection and acceptance?

Well, his relationship with his mother would presumably also be one devoid of sexuality, so in that sense it shares something in common with his relationship to the sister. My sense is that his mother’s death is relevant in that it is another loss (like the loss of Iris) that he hasn’t known how to grieve, how to let go. At the time of his mother’s death he began to express grief and was more or less shut up by the priest. When he recounts this to the sister and she expresses shock and indignation at the priest’s response, instead validating Nils’s sadness and doubt and anger at his losses, she offers him a way out of silence and withholding. She allows him his grief, and I think that’s where the graces comes into the story. I think that’s why with her he feels acceptance and connection.

10.)   Branching from this scene, Nils says, “It wouldn’t have made any difference. I wanted him to say nothing. I wanted every noise to stop without her there to hear it.” Admitting, “What you’d will doesn’t matter. There’s no stopping. And that’s all. I didn’t see it then, but now I do.” His fingers trace the found clock he holds in his pocket, he buries the dog. He asks the sister if she is okay. Time here is placed in a transformative landscape of the feminine alternative of spirituality. The Catholicism of the sister, who remains a compassionate friend, is juxtaposed to that of the priest, who speaks to Nils about his mother’s death and remarks in insensitive passing. The sister then prays, they walk away together in a solitude that has friendship and a sense of fragile closure. Can you please comment on the threads of religion, spirituality, masculinity, femininity, linear and nonlinear juxtapositions of time?

I suppose my answer has to do with the models for the story. Several years ago I taught at a Catholic women’s college, and during that time I led an autobiographical writing workshop for the retired sisters who lived in a senior care facility on the campus. I am not Catholic (I’m Lutheran, actually), and had until that point understood Catholicism as a fairly rigid kind of spirituality, with a very prescribed, black-and-white version of morality and belief. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As I worked with the retired sisters, listening to their stories as we workshopped their writing, my understanding of their faith deepened, and I came away from the experience with deep respect for them and for their faith. So, when I sat down to write this story and the sister appeared, I had a solid model on which to base her. I wanted to write her as a woman with a complex faith and a wide worldview. I think that because of her faith, she understands time more broadly than does Nils, who, in comparison, has fairly limited life experience and little ability to see beyond his immediate circumstances. When I wrote the story, I wasn’t honestly thinking about that as a commentary on the masculine or the feminine. I was just aiming to write believable, real characters, whose actions suited their backgrounds. I do hope, though, that by the end of the story the reader sees Nils as changed by his interactions with the sister, who I think helps him see a way forward through his losses toward a future less bound to doubt and regret.