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"Misshapen, Distorted, Imperfect, Flawed": An Interview with Kathryn Scanlan

Kathryn Scanlan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in NOON, Fence, American Short Fiction, Tin House, Two Serious Ladies, Caketrain, and The Iowa Review, among other places. She lives in Los Angeles.

Her story, "A Deformity Story," appeared in Issue Seventy-Six of The Collagist.

Here, Kathryn Scanlan talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about first-person narrators, deformity, and wanting to tell an inappropriate story.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “A Deformity Story”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

The story began in a way similar to how it begins—a conversation I was marginally involved in whilst thinking of other things. I had a story I wanted to tell but it was unwieldy and without any kind of punch or pithiness to it, not something that would go over well in that particular situation. I stopped listening to the others and tried to figure out how to shape the story in a succinct and interesting way. Then the conversation changed topics and my window closed, but I was still thinking of my untold story, still trying to construct it, and after work (for this happened at work), I started a draft.

The reader learns very little about the first-person narrators biographical information (i.e., gender, age, occupation, etc.). As the author, do you need to know these details before you can create the characters voice? How much information about this characters life have you invented that the reader is not privy to?

No, definitely not. I’ve not invented anything the reader is not privy to, and in general I’d say I’m pretty wary of the idea of “inventing a character”—that has always felt fairly false to me. I like to narrate in the first person because it feels simultaneously intimate and secretive. And the “I” can be so all-encompassing—a roving, wild sort of thing that can go anywhere, be anyone.

The opening paragraph has a hook that really worked on me: “At lunch we were talking of hand deformities and I had a story I wanted to tell. I had half an ear on the conversation but mostly was thinking of how I would enter it.” I could relate to this feeling so much that I immediately sympathized with the narrator. Why did you decide to frame the story of the narrators encounter with the deformed cashier as a tale that s/he wants to tell his/her friends? How do you think that decision affects how the reader receives the story?

I became interested in the idea of a story that seems somehow wrong or inappropriate or not worth sharing in a social situation, and of how this is sort of the crux of writing fiction, at least for me. I wanted to write a story about wanting to tell a story. I wanted the telling of the story to fail in the fictional world yet still reach the reader more or less intact.

So lets talk about deformity. Why do you think this group of friends is discussing hand deformities in the first place? What makes physical deformity seem like the type of subject worthy of not only our attention but also the sort of competitive storytelling that these friends are engaged in?

Deformity became an idea for me that could inform not only the subject of the story, but also—in a broader, more general sense—describe its shape and intention, and the intentions of its narrator. Deformed as in misshapen, distorted, imperfect, flawed.

What writing (and/or art) projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a collection of stories and another book called Aug 9—Fog.

What have you read recently that youd like to recommend?

I’m reading A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. It is very grim and I am enjoying it! I also just bought Diane Williams’s Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine which I am grateful for, because her work revives me, always.

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