Swimming with Strangers
November 6th, 2008 | Hannah Cox | Entertainment
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A Q&A with author Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum
Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, author of Swimming with Strangers
Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum is the author of the newly released book of short stories, Swimming with Strangers. This is the second time Chronicle has published stories by Kirsten. Her first book of short stories, This Life She’s Chosen, was called “an impressive debut” by “a promising young writer” by The New York Times Book Review. I asked her a few questions.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I always tell people that I became a writer because I’m too clumsy to be a dancer. Until I went to college, I hoped to make a career as a dancer, and I spent most of my teenage years in a dance studio working toward that goal. As it turns out, though, I’m terribly lacking in physical grace! (Honestly, I’m the sort of girl who regularly trips over sidewalk cracks and walks into the metal newspaper vending machines that line curbs.)
I started writing not long after giving up my dancing aspirations. I signed up for a college writing class my freshman year, and the instructor was a novelist. He is still one of the best teacher’s I ever had. He encouraged me to write short stories, lent me his copies of Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and helped me send out my first story submission. He was the kind of mentor every young writer should have, and after his class, I knew I wanted to keep writing.
What is your writing process like?
I wish I could say that I keep regular writing hours and meet a particular page count each day (doesn’t every writer want to be one of those writers?). As it is, I’m a fitful and tediously slow writer, and there are often long spans of time between projects for me. I used to feel guilty about these fallow periods, but have come to see them as a necessary and useful part of the process—time to read and think and read some more, so that I can return to the page later with a better sense of craft and, hopefully, a slew of new ideas, too.
When I am working, I write around the other demands of my life as a teacher and a mother, which often means writing on the train on the way to work, or getting in an hour or two during naptime or after my son has gone to bed for the night. I am a bit of a perfectionist, and so tend to pick at and revise each sentence several times before feeling satisfied with it and moving on to the next. The drag with this method is, of course, that it takes me a long time to complete anything. But, on the other hand, on a good writing day, the two or three paragraphs I end up with are usually pretty clean.
Is writing a solitary act for you?
As solitary as any act is for the mother of a toddler! I used to think I needed complete silence for work, and would hole myself away in the back of a library in order to get work done. Motherhood has changed me, though, and now I take what I can get when it comes to writing time. I often work sitting on my bed, computer perched on a pillow on my lap, while my husband and son play (not always quietly!) in the next room.
Beyond that, once I move from draft to revision, writing is certainly not a solitary act for me. I have a group of really wonderful women writers with whom I exchange work, and I am indebted to them for their insights and feedback on my writing. I am a big believer in the value of the workshop (whether that workshop meets in a classroom or a living room).
Where do your characters come from, and do they stay with you after you’re done writing a story?
My characters are all rooted in real people. By that I mean not that I am writing my mother or my uncle or my friend, necessarily, but that my characters turn out to be like the people I grew up with and know. They are good, but flawed, and usually both reticent and resilient.
Some characters definitely stick with me. I still—five years after writing them—think about Otto and Ilsa from the story “The House on the Lake” (This Life She’s Chosen, Chronicle Books, 2005). I really came to love Otto and Ilsa as I worked on the story, and later as I re-read it. I can imagine them beyond that story, too, and sometimes consider going back to them and writing other pieces of their life, which still seems very vivid to me. I feel the same warmth for Alma from “Familial Kindness” in the new collection, Swimming With Strangers. And Graham, from “Carmel,” also has stuck with me, though for different reasons. Graham isn’t a character I’d like to have dinner with, but I feel a certain amount of sympathy for him. He so wants his wife to love him as he has loved her, and though he’s self-centered and a little pedantic, I feel compassion for his loneliness.
What authors do you admire?
Too many to list! At the top of it, though, is Alice Munro, whose short stories take my breath away on the first reading and on the tenth. They just get better and better with each read. Also on the list: Willa Cather, Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Gina Berriault, Katherine Anne Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anne Enright, Margot Livesey, Michael Ondaatje, Edith Wharton, Alice McDermott, David Long, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Carole Maso, Louisa May Alcott, Ron Hansen, Andrea Barrett… I have been lucky to have some really wonderful teachers who are also authors, and they, too, have to be on the list: Pam Houston, Lynn Freed, Karen Fowler, and Rich Ives. This list is too long already, but I could go on and on.
Favorite book of all time?
Tough question. Maybe Alice Munro’s Selected Stories. And, if I can cheat and name two, The Great Gatsby.
Favorite short story of all time?
I’ve always really loved Fitzgerald’s “Babylon, Revisited.” It’s such a tragic domestic story, and the prose is so shining, so beautiful.
I just learned the word “pelagic” the other day. It’s got my vote at the moment. I love that you have to use your whole mouth to say it.
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