An Interview with Kim Fu

Nicky Gonzalez

I was drawn to Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century (Tin House, 2022), at first, by its cover, on which fragments of plants, creatures, and colors come together to create an eerie silhouette of a face. I was thrilled to find that the stories in the collection matched the cover: formally inventive and a little creepy. In this interview, Fu mentions how horror movies make the viewer “dwell in uncomfortable emotions.” That’s what I loved most about these stories. With lyrical prose, each story is so captivating that, after being lulled sentence by sentence into a richly imagined world, the reader looks up to find themselves faced with an uncomfortable and painful truth about being human.

NORTHWEST REVIEW
Your sentences are so dynamic, from the opening line of each story to its final moments. I think you could describe a character making a grilled cheese and it would be beautiful to read. Could you talk about the way syntax and language factor into your early drafts?
KIM FU
Thank you, that’s so kind! I used to be much more of a multigenre writer, where I wrote just as much nonfiction and poetry as fiction, and I would often write down images and lines that occurred to me untethered from any goal or specific piece of writing: phrases I liked for their rhythm, descriptions that felt fresh or precise, words that just got stuck in my head. Then I would see if that one line or metaphor grew into a poem, if that aphorism or memory or question grew into an essay. But for the last few years, everything has grown into scene, into narrative, into story. Even as fiction has become my primary focus, I think that love of language, that poetic impulse, remains.

There are a few pages towards the end of Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses where he includes a “brief style guide mostly descending from Western, Hemingway-influenced conventions,” that blew my mind a little bit. Salesses codifies much of what I’d thought of as being mysterious, intuitive, or my own personal preferences, in terms of the beauty and emotional valence of tenses, stresses, and sound combinations in the English language. It made me feel like less of a magician and more like someone who has just unconsciously absorbed the rules of one tradition. I’m still chewing on that.

NWR
Many of the stories in Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century take place in what seem to be quiet suburban neighborhoods. On its surface, these neighborhoods seem stable, but your stories often peel back this placid surface and show us the dark stuff that’s roiling beneath it. What do you think it is about suburbia that makes stories set there slip into such dark territory?
KF
Driving into an area with repeating, architecturally similar houses make me feel physically uncomfortable, a little claustrophobic. I’m obviously not alone in this feeling, as basically everything set in suburbia is about its underbelly, ennui, or psychic terrors. I think at this point most people, on some level, associate planned communities with racism, conformity, and petty bureaucracy. Lawns with drought, isolation and homogenity with a lack of empathy. But I also think there’s something viscerally unsettling about the way they look, the same way you can’t help noticing repetition in bad CGI. I think there’s an aesthetic human drive towards cleanliness, uniformity, and straight lines, and an equally strong pull towards organic shapes, liveliness, and maximalism, and too much of one makes us crave the other. The promise of safety and predictability, however illusory, makes us pursue chaos.
NWR
I love the speculative and uncanny elements in these stories, and they’re often a bit frightening and creepy–a haunted doll, the Sandman, a sea monster. “Liddy, First to Fly” is, in its own way, a creature feature. Are you influenced at all by horror films, and if so, were there any that were particularly formative for you?
KF
I’m not a deep-cut horror buff, but I like that in horror films, as in poetry, metaphors are literalized: a feeling is made into a literal monster, a concrete manifestation that we can look in the eye. But I also like when the metaphor isn’t a simple one-toone–when the scenario feels emotionally true, but with multiple possible interpretations or real-world analogues. Us and It Follows come to mind. I think there’s something to be learned, in terms of writing fiction, from the way horror films force you to dwell in uncomfortable emotions, the way they heighten the experience by purposefully denying you catharsis or relief, in knowing that moments of comfort or ease can’t last. I once put on 28 Days Later at a Halloween party and really brought down the mood. I’d forgotten how sad that movie is!
NWR
Are there any other artistic mediums or genres that inform your writing?
KF
Video games, dance, plays and musicals, definitely. I think all the art you consume informs the art you create. As a more out-there example, I was binging a Dungeons & Dragons actual play podcast called The Adventure Zone during the year I was editing this book, and some days I felt jealous of the complex, improvisational storytelling of the DM.
NWR
Are there any writers you admire for their playfulness and inventiveness on the sentence level?
KF
Heather O’Neill comes to mind. Her voice is often so delightfully odd, every sentence overstuffed with figurative imagery. I recently read a novel that comes out this year called At Certain Points We Touch by Lauren John Joseph–the voice of the first-person narrator is chatty and exuberant and expansive; there’s a great, gushing love for words that felt refreshing and fun.
NWR
Do you have any revision strategies that help you get to a place where every beat of a story is meaningful or surprising?
KF
Oh, I love to cut. I used to edit for magazines, and I think the page and word count limitations helped me develop a sense of how much you can remove from a story while keeping it fundamentally the same. The same emotional beats, the same underlying themes. My greatest pleasure as an editor was when, after cutting hundreds or even thousands of words, the writer themselves said they could hardly tell what was gone. It’s harder with your own work, of course, with your ego in the way, but I think it’s worth asking of every scene, every sentence: what would change to the whole if it were gone? I more often have the opposite problem, where beats are missing, where I think I’m conveying something but it’s not quite there yet, where a scene needs to linger a little longer to land. And for that, I usually need to take a walk, interpolate from what I have, daydream new possibilities.
NWR
The stories “In This Fantasy” and “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867” both have unique structures. Can you talk about the inception of these stories? Did the form come to you first, or did you try different shapes for these stories until you found one that fit?
KF
These stories both came to me in the form they would eventually have. Interestingly, I think the forms represent what is usually an earlier part of the process for me, typically just in my own mind and not yet on the page. Dialogue often comes to me first, two voices going back and forth, representing opposing viewpoints, suggestive of a relationship or a conflict; it’s often my first glimpse of new characters. But “Pre-Simulation” is the first thing I ever wrote where it stayed as pure dialogue, where the fact of it being floating, unattributed speech became central to the story as it went on. I’m sure I started out the first draft assuming I would build conventional prose around the conversation later.

“In This Fantasy” was built in the way I mentioned earlier, from lines and language first, images stacked together as I sometimes build poetry, connections and juxtapositions that make intuitive, emotional sense to me, to figure out more concretely later. But as the character at the center of the story, the one doing the fantasizing, revealed herself to me, I again found I wanted to leave it in its list-y, poem-y shape, as a series of fantasies. I edited and rewrote both stories extensively in other ways, but those initial structures continued to feel right.

NWR
In “Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867” there’s a wonderful contrast between the operator’s professional, stilted language and the client’s colloquial language. I’m interested in how you were able to switch modes while making both voices so convincing.
KF
Anyone who’s had a service job interacting with the public, or even just written a lot of work emails in a row, knows there’s this other voice you slip into, to get through the day–a voice that’s more scripted and repetitive, less genuine, at a safe remove from your true self. I think it’s startling and especially interesting when someone breaks from that voice, when you’re brought back from that role to yourself as an individual. A customer, on the other hand–maybe this is just a North American thing–tends to approach the interaction from a place of familiarity, entitlement, demand. The operator in the story is, at first, having a conversation they’ve had a million times, while the client is disoriented and self-involved. So I started out writing just that familiar dynamic between a customer and a service worker, which then escalates–in, I hope, a believable way–into a philosophical argument and then a moment of real human connection.
NWR
The endings to these stories are so memorable. Do you often draft several endings, or do you find that your first instinct is usually the most emotionally resonant? How do you know when an ending is right?
KF
I find endings hard! It’s sometimes not so much a question of multiple possibilities as it is a question of where to stop. Two strategies I’ve found helpful: one, look back at the beginning of the story, and consider how different endings feel directly alongside it. Does it feel cohesive, like they bookend something, like we have journeyed from A to B, like something has changed or progressed? Two, what ending does the reader want? What’s the happy ending, if they’re rooting for the character, or the ending where the villain gets their comeuppance, or the ending where the mystery is solved? What’s the effect if you give them that ending? What’s the effect if you don’t give them that ending–if you stop just short of it, if something happens to prevent it or take it away, if you continue past it, if you leave the mysteries unresolved? What hits harder, what feels truer?

The endings in this collection are where I most see the influence of my Tin House editor, Masie Cochran. She asked me to draw out some endings and shorten others. She pushed me to clarify where I’d been needlessly ambiguous or where I’d fallen for a beautiful but meaningless sentence; she reeled me in and told me to trust the reader where I’d overexplained. I’m infinitely grateful to her for it.

Kim Fu is the author of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century (Tin House, 2022), and For Today I Am a Boy, winner of the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her second novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, was a finalist for the Washinton State Book Awards. Fu’s writing has appeared in Granta, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Hazlitt, and the TLS. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

Nicky Gonzalez is a writer from Hialeah, Florida. She received her MFA in Fiction at the University of Oregon. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Kenyon Review Online, and The Massachusetts Review. She loves horror films, cartoons, and stories that defy genre.