I Have the Answer

Interview: Writing Your Way to Understanding

June 1, 2020
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 Kelly Fordon’s latest collection of short stories I Have the Answer deals with the unexpected losses that life hands out; deaths of spouses and children, unwanted advances, family secrets, hidden heroism and love that takes surprising forms with insight and humor.

Her characters are usually smart suburban women who find themselves in positions they never imagined and seek unique ways to gain perspective. Fordon discussed the creation of the collection with Authorlink.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor at Queens or elsewhere who offered advice that has stayed with you?

“…I went back home and tried to figure out how I could begin to write more empathetically.”

FORDON: I had a lot of great mentors at Queens, among them Fred Leebron, Daniel Mueller, Naeem Murr, and Jenny Offill, but the piece of advice that has stayed with me came from Paul Harding who wrote Tinkers. I attended Harding’s Advanced Fiction Class at the Aspen Writers Conference in 2013 when I was writing my first novel-in-stories, Garden for the Blind, which was about white privilege and racism and how it affected the city of Detroit over a thirty year period. I handed in a story about Alice and Mike, two privileged white kids who pin the drug crime on an African American scholarship student and get him kicked out of their tony private school. Harding said that he liked the story, but he wouldn’t read a whole book about Alice and Mike, because they were so one dimensional. He said something along the lines of: “Anyone can write a monster.”  Tail between my legs, I went back home and tried to figure out how I could begin to write more empathetically.  Since then I have tried to look at all my characters as I would one of my own kids. Sure, they have faults and some of those faults are egregious, but let’s see where they’re coming from, and what makes them human.

AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do stories come from for you—image, first line, character?

“Normally I write stories to find out why people behave the way they do…”

FORDON: Normally I write stories to find out why people behave the way they do, or what would happen if I put them in a certain situation. Sometimes I will just see people walking around and wonder what their story is, and because I am shy and would never normally walk up to anyone and start a conversation, I’ll make up a story for them instead. Sometimes the story just keeps going and more questions present themselves. In the case of “The Shorebirds and the Shaman” I actually did attend a constellation work weekend, and personally I loved it, but I wondered what it would be like if someone very cynical showed up instead of me, so I wrote a story about that fictional character’s reaction instead. She’s just lost her husband and she’s filled with rage. It felt like the perfect confluence to place her in a setting filled with therapists and “alternative” treatment methods, so I could watch her blow her stack. In the end, I think she finds some peace from all of the woo-woo of the weekend. 

Honestly, it’s hard to figure out where the stories come from because every single story has a different trajectory, but most of them are motivated by curiosity. I spend a lot of time thinking about how easy it is to pigeonhole people when you don’t know them, and how the story behind their unusual behavior might be enlightening if we ever bothered to learn it.

AUTHORLINK: I see that you’ve attended several conferences and workshops. What role have these conferences played in your development as a writer?

FORDON: Conferences are an excellent way to meet other writers when you can only manage to leave home for a week or two at a stretch. I found this invaluable because some of those writers later became friends and agreed to exchange manuscripts for critique. I also met and worked with excellent teachers like: Chris Tilghman, Antonya Nelson, Paul Harding, and Joy Williams to name a few. I highly recommend Aspen Summer Words, The Bear River Writers Conference, The Key West Literary Seminar and The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop.  

AUTHORLINK: How did you know you had a collection? Did you write these with building a collection in mind or did you find you had a set of stories that belonged together?

“…almost all of the stories were about love and caretaking and how hard it is to negotiate the shifting power dynamics…”

FORDON: I started to realize that almost all of the stories were about love and caretaking and how hard it is to negotiate the shifting power dynamics and obligations intrinsic to any long-term relationships. “How then should we live?” is the question that keeps coming to mind for me. Recently I wondered why this question runs through my mind incessantly and I googled it. I discovered it was the title of a book that came out by Francis A. Schaeffer in the mid-70s. Perhaps, I was intrigued by the striking syntax or perhaps I just absorbed my parents’ dismay. The book is quite anti-Catholic and my parents were staunch Catholics. Who knows? Maybe they talked about it a lot when I was a kid. All I know for sure is that question has stuck with me all these years.

Personally, I am not religious, but I think it’s a good philosophical question to ponder when I write stories. My character in one story called “Where’s the Baby?” is chagrined because her older sister has been diagnosed with dementia and has no one else to take care of her. Her sister has been selfish and hasn’t been a part of the main character’s life at all, so she feels really put out. Why has this been dumped in her lap? How then should she live? Why bother caring for anyone? Why bother being nice to people who treat you like crap? When those moments happen in fiction, I always think well, what will they do now? Are they going to rise to the occasion? And if not, how will they live with that?  

AUTHORLINK: What authors and stories influenced your writing of these stories?

FORDON: Aimee Bender for the magical realist stories and especially “Marzipan” about a man who wakes up with a hole in his stomach. I figured if she could do that, I could have a character who wakes up one morning with a third arm.

Alice Munro because she writes short stories that are as full-bodied as novels.

Elizabeth Strout for the same reason. Elizabeth Strout somehow makes readers care about Olive Kittridge, who is ornery and passive aggressive and often downright mean. I have no idea how Strout accomplishes that, but I am grateful to her because she has set a high bar.

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris

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