Leyna Krow’s debut story collection, I’m Fine, But You Appear to be Sinking, was published earlier this year by Featherproof Books. Krow’s stories track parents and children, squid and astronauts, and operate in worlds in which, as the publisher puts it, “the strange collides with the mundane: close to home and far from it, in suburban neighborhoods and rural communities, with cycling apocalypses and backyard tigers.” Among other things, Krow and I chatted about the energy animals bring to a story, the difference between getting feedback from a group of writers versus a single editor, and the challenge of describing her fiction in traditional genre terms. —Dan DeWeese
Propeller: Story collections of course take time—a writer has to accrue a number of finished pieces over years of work. When did you first start working on the stories that are in I’m Fine, But You Appear to be Sinking, and how did your feel for—or sense of—what a story is change over that time?
Leyna Krow: The oldest story in the collection is the title story, which I started working on in the fall of 2010. I didn’t have a vision for a collection at that point—I was just writing stories. Later that year, I started grad school at Eastern Washington University for my MFA. That, more than anything, shaped my writing and my feelings about the sort of stories I wanted to tell. About half the pieces in I’m Fine were part of my graduate thesis. The rest were written after. The title story is the only one that survived from my pre-MFA time. I knew once I’d finished my degree that I wanted to put together a manuscript collection of stories...but it still took another couple years for me to figure out what those stories should be and how they would all live together. In hindsight, I wished I’d spent more time thinking about that earlier on, but really I was just writing stories I felt like writing, hoping eventually some sort of theme or arc would emerge in enough of them that I could group them together.
Propeller: How did the MFA program shape your feelings about stories? And how did you eventually discover a theme or arc for your work?
Krow: I’d say going to EWU for my MFA did two big things for me in terms of figuring out what I wanted the stories I was writing to look like. First, it gave me words and structure to go along with ideas I was already having, but couldn’t really make use of. I was already reading and writing a lot before I started school...but in grad school, reading more deliberately and picking pieces apart for craft, figuring out how they work—that helped take away a lot of the mystery of writing to me. It also helped me focus in on what I like about what I like. I’m drawn mostly to stories outside the bounds of traditional realism, and that’s what I tend to write as well. So reading stories like that in school and then having instructors and peers to help sort through how those stories work, what makes them believable and compelling even when they aren’t grounded in reality—that was super helpful. The other big thing for me was working closely with faculty members who would, basically, call me out on the bullshit in my stories. Fiction is such a free and unconstrained genre that there’s really no excuse for writing something that doesn’t work. Like, you can just change it. You can change it to anything. I got a lot out of having people around me question the parts of my stories that didn’t make sense or didn’t serve the overall narrative and then basically just telling me to figure out a different way.
In terms of figuring out some sort of thematic connection for the stories in the collection...basically I just kept writing stories until I felt I had a group that sort of lived together. The main threads I see in each story in the book are the juxtaposition of the every-day with the odd and bizarre, and then also characters who are somehow really isolated or adrift in their situations. As the title of the book suggests, everyone in it is sinking in someway, whether they recognize it or not. Then, there are a lot of repeated images and ideas throughout the stories, as the “Index of Things to Come” at the beginning of the book suggests, but that’s just for fun, just something I thought would be cool.
Propeller: That index includes entries for “Dogs/Dog-like-animals” and “Unidentifiable animals,” among other animal-related items. You mentioned repeated images and ideas, and the presence of animals seems to be one. What kind of energy or effects do you feel the presence of animals—and animal consciousness—brings to the stories? Do you have a sense of why this interests you?
Krow:Well, I think first and foremost, the reason animals end up in my stories so frequently is just because I like animals a lot. I enjoy thinking about them and writing about them. But I also think they can be a really interesting presence in a story. They are characters, but they can’t speak. So they can play sometimes really important roles in a piece...but it’s up to other characters to interpret why they do what they do and to make sense of their actions. Like in “Excitable Creature,” the animal is so central to the narrative, but the only way the reader knows anything about the animal is through the protagonist’s view of it. And she might be totally wrong in what she thinks the animal is thinking or why it does what it does. To me, that makes for an interesting dynamic on the page. Then there’s all the squid in the book...I don’t know about them. It’s like once I started writing about squid I just kept going, kept putting them in stories because they are just so weird. No one ever expects a squid, right?
Propeller: No, I don’t think I know many readers who sit down with a story and think, “Well, I don’t know much about this story, but I assume at point there will be squid.” But in “Excitable Creatures,” we’re almost dealing with the opposite effect. When you write “squid,” a reader has an immediate image. But “Excitable Creatures” starts with these lines: “The animal sitting in the middle of your backyard is not a dog. It is also not a pig, or a bear. It has a wide, muscle-y body, a pushed up nose, and big, sympathetic eyes.” We never determine what the animal is. You’ve said the protagonist might be wrong in what she thinks the animal is thinking, but it seems to me that you’re working with something even more indeterminate than that—this doesn’t appear to be an animal that exists in our world. It’s the concept of an animal, if that makes sense. Why do you think it was useful, in “Excitable Creatures,” to have a not-dog/not-pig/not-bear rather than a dog, pig, or bear?
Krow: Yeah! The creature! It’s probably my favorite animal in the whole collection. First off, I think it’s essential to that story that nobody knows what the animal is. Because if it was just a big, bad dog...the piece wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. I guess it would be kind of cool if it was a bear, because a woman finding and domesticating a bear would be neat. But so much of that story hinges on the animal’s unknowable-ness. Because the protagonist can’t identify it, she gets to let herself off the hook for not knowing anything about it, or what it might be capable of. And it gives her this sense of power—of having something others can’t identify, either. Those are such key elements to that story. I really don’t think it works without them. Also, it’s been fun for me to hear from readers how they imagine the animal. I think of it like a wombat with the head of German shepherd. But other people see it quite differently.
Propeller: That’s not surprising, and in fact strikes me as one of the strengths of the technique—you’re enticing the reader to project their own shape and meaning onto that creature. A difference between readers’ imaginations and the author’s imagination is of course a fundamental part of reading or writing fiction, but while some writers try to reduce that difference, you seem intrigued by the possibilities of working with it. Is there a story—or stories—in the book, though, in which unknowable or speculative material was particularly difficult for you to work with in a way that worked for readers? What kind of challenges came up, and how did you work to resolve them?
Krow: Absolutely. I think the most significant example of that has to do with reader perceptions of what’s “real” in the stories versus what’s metaphor or imaginary or hallucination on the part of the characters. For me, all the weird stuff is really there in the worlds of those stories—the squid, the tiger, the exploding kitchen, etc.—they are all meant to be taken literally. But I know not all readers take the pieces that way. They assume the characters are concocting these elements in their minds, rather than living in worlds where such things could actually take place. That’s okay. I don’t think that interpretation ruins the stories...but it’s not what I intended. Though I don't think I’d change anything about the stories to make the reality of those elements more explicit, even now that I know how they sometimes get read. I like them the way they are.
Propeller: How did your work find its way to Featherproof Books? To what degree did working with an editor contribute to your sense of how a collection of your stories might best be presented?
Krow: The manuscript ended up with Featherproof through nepotism, for which I am quite grateful. Featherproof’s editor in chief Jason Sommer and I went to Eastern Washington University together and became friends there. He’s been a reader for my stories ever since. After I finished the manuscript, I sent it to him and he said it was something he thought Featherproof would be interested in. I sent it around to other publishers and contests as well just to cover my bases. It was a finalist for a few things and I did get an offer on it from another press, but once Featherproof said they did for sure want it, I knew I was going to go with them, because I wanted to work with Jason. He’s a fantastic editor and he did a lot of work to help me shape the collection into what it ultimately became. I replaced a couple of stories that were originally in it with others on his advice, and he was also the one who devised the book’s structure. It was his idea to break up the story “Spud & Spud II” into semi-freestanding sections to live between the other stories in the book. As soon as he suggested that, I thought it was great, because I’d never seen it done in a fiction collection before. But I never would have thought of it on my own.
Propeller: Did taking what was once a single story and breaking it into freestanding sections affect the way you thought about the story? What kind of changes did you have to make to make the story work as sections that pop up between the other stories?
Krow: Absolutely! It was actually a really gratifying process because it forced me to dig into the story and get it to do new things. I think the version that’s in the book is considerably stronger than the original. Most of the changes I made where in service of the sections having some connection to the pieces before and after them, and then also for them to stand on their own somewhat—so that it would hopefully feel okay for readers to get the story in little bursts without it being frustrating to have to keep leaving that world and then coming back to it. Although I’ve heard from some readers that they got impatient and read all the Spud sections together and then went back to the other stories. And I’m cool with it being read that way too.
Propeller: That story—“Spud & Spud II”—covers a lot of ground, material-wise. It features astronauts and the issue of human cloning, but also has sections that are about how family members view each other or think about each other, how teens search for identity, and so forth. When you’re working on a story like that, how do you think about the issue of what the story is doing in terms of genre? Do you think of “Spud & Spud II” as science fiction? When you’re introducing speculative elements into a story, do you have strategies for how you like to treat those elements? I ask only because some stories in your collection would qualify, technically, as science fiction, though they also operate in the spirit of closely observed literary realism.
Krow: A friend of mine—the author Sharma Shields—gave me the term “fiction science” to describe my stories, and I’ve really embraced that. I do think there are sci-fi elements in “Spud & Spud II,” but of more interest to me than that genre specifically is a re-manufacturing of how the world operates. Like, creating a new, slightly-altered reality and then getting to explain how it works. To me, that’s fiction science—stories that come up with new rules for nature and the environment and human technology and then sorting out how those changes might play out in people’s lives, like the clone in “Spud & Spud II,” but also the families in “End Times” and “Habitat” who are being impacted by bizarre environmental catastrophes. I don’t mind the label “sci-fi,” though. It’s just not what I set out to do intentionally.
Propeller: Well, you’re very skillfull at this “fiction science.” There’s a particular balance you hit on in these stories—a productive tension between the realism of the altered reality—that I found incredibly engaging. What other authors did you look to when thinking about how to create these productive tensions? What were you able to learn from other writers’ work?
“I was totally obsessed with Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins. They were the first authors I read whose work goes big in terms of weirdness, but is also really grounded in realism in the ways that seems to count.”
Krow: When I was in high school and college, I was totally obsessed with Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins. I think they were the first authors I read whose work goes big in terms of weirdness, but is also really grounded in realism in the ways that seems to count. Like, their characters always feel very real to me, and the emotional resonance of their narratives. So I think they were both a big influence in showing me the kind of freedom a writer can have to move between worlds, as it were. I’m also a big fan of Aimee Bender and Kelly Link, who are so great at pulling magical and fantastical elements into their stories and making them work really well. All of those authors, they’re so much fun to read because they are willing to take these outlandish leaps, but at the same time you know as a reader you are in good hands—you’re not being shown something weird just for weirdness’s sake. There’s always more to it—a real story to connect to. That’s what I want my own writing to do.
Propeller: You first published a number of these stories in print magazines. How did you go about the process of deciding where, when, and what to submit? How did the experience of working with literary magazine editors differ from the feedback you get in an MFA workshop?
Krow: When I first started submitting work, it was mostly on the recommendation of my professors and friends at EWU. Someone would suggest a couple magazines that they thought a story would work well in and I would try them out. I was fortunate to have some success that way and then I started reading more lit mags and got bolder about sending stuff pretty frequently. Almost everything I’ve had published has just been pulled out of slush piles. I get solicited occasionally, but not that often. Working with editors of magazines is a way different experience than being in a workshop setting. In an MFA workshop, you get feedback from a bunch of different readers who all have different takes on the story and what it should be doing—which is cool to hear—but maybe twenty percent is actually useful to what you are trying to do, so you use what you want and disregard the rest. With a magazine editor, the notes are much more targeted, usually. And if you want the piece to run in that magazine, you make those changes. It’s much more straightforward. My work has benefitted from both kinds of feedback, without a doubt.
Propeller: And then publishing a book and seeing it go out into the world results in yet another kind of feedback. You’ve already mentioned some thoughts about how readers respond to your stories and to the book, but how has publishing the book changed your sense of yourself as a writer and your goals when you sit down to work?
Krow: It hasn’t really changed my goals as a writer, or the kind of writing I want to continue to do. But in terms of how I see myself...it has, for sure. Getting the book published was very validating. Like, I no longer feel as if I have to justify the time I spend writing. It’s not a hobby. It’s not some pipedream I’m hoping and praying works out someday. It’s the real deal. It always felt that way to me, but now it’s much easier to explain to friends and relatives who don’t know much about the writing world. People used to ask what I had written and where they could find it and I’d have to explain what literary magazines are. Now I can just say I have a book and you can find it at Barnes & Noble. That’s a big deal to me.
Leyna Krow lives in Spokane, Washington, with her husband, a small baby, and a medium-sized dog.