Kelly Luce & The One Violent Act
Talking uncanny realities with the author of Pull Me Under
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Before I set out to interview Kelly Luce — upon the publication of her debut novel, Pull Me Under, out now from FSG — I asked her: should I try to obscure our pre-existing friendship in the interview? I was worried that any praise from me would be read first through the lens of my having known Kelly for years and considering her a kind of big sister. She dismissed this, said, Of course not. I think this is because she knows — and knows that most other people know, too — that I can’t fake enthusiasm. I can love a person, not connect with their work at all, and find polite dodges and maneuvers around saying so if indeed my opinion is asked, but I cannot simulate admiration for that which I simply don’t admire. I sometimes wish I were a better bullshitter, but it’s just not in my genetic makeup. All of which is to say that, having absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she’s my dear friend, Kelly Luce has written a phenomenal novel in Pull Me Under, one that captivates and disquiets in its search for answers about the parts of ourselves that are unknowable. The novel tracks the story of Rio Silvestri, who, when she was twelve years old, fatally stabbed a school bully. In the twenty years since, she’s remade her life and herself in Colorado, but her father’s death, along with a mysterious package that arrives on her doorstep, spurs her to return to Japan. Luce maneuvers the reader through this story seamlessly, and, seeing as it’s Halloween season and all, I’ll say, too: she is a virtuosic jack-o-lantern carver, slicing and hewing away at her characters until their pulpy interiors are exposed. And from inside that space, she shines a light.
I was delighted to talk with Kelly — by email, by text message, and various other forms of communication — about Pull Me Under, the function of setting, the possibilities and limits of language, and what she’s working on next.
[Note — Kelly Luce is a Contributing Editor at Electric Literature.]
Vincent Scarpa: In Pull Me Under, as in your first book (the story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, released by A Strange Object in 2013), much of the action is set in Japan. I know you’ve spent a fair amount of time there, and I wonder if you could talk a bit about why that landscape, that culture, has proven generative for your fiction. Is there something fundamentally singular to Japan that you can point to, or is it that your fiction is precisely that endeavor: to at least sketch the contours of what that might be? I think of the poet Louise Glück who writes: “All you need to know of a place is, do people live there./If they do, you know everything.” It’s a line I’ve always loved — in no small part because of its reductiveness — so I wonder, too, if there are universalities you’ve encountered — on and off the page — in what seem, at least to this untraveled American, vastly disparate places with distinct ways of being.
Kelly Luce: I love that line. But it is reductive — just look at the current conversation about who gets to write what, and Lionel S’s pouty wanting-it-both ways: the writer’s right to imagination and the writer’s responsibility to not suck at imagining.
Of course there are human truths to be discovered, and travel is one way we can peek at them, given the variables removed from the equation of humanity: language, terrain, socioeconomics, culture, and other factors. Take away those commonalities and I believe you find, based on the traveling I’ve done so far, a baseline propensity for kindness, a desire to help and be of use, the need to identify and belong, and a desire for connection.
The years I lived in Japan, in my early twenties, felt like a second growing up in many ways. You learn a lot about yourself when you live someplace where you’re illiterate and unable to speak or comprehend the speech around you. Your senses recalibrate and you start to see parts of yourself that maybe aren’t as great as you thought. So that transformation, combined with the other-worldliness of living in a place that was, at times, incredibly foreign, does inform and “inspire” (ew) my writing about the place. There’s something about being just outside a place that creates the right amount of tension for creativity. In Hana Sasaki, this often took the form of a slipstream realism in which reality was mostly reality as we know it, but there’s maybe one element that’s a little uncanny. In Pull Me Under, there are no psychic toasters or haunted karaoke machines, but there is a sense of overwhelming un-reality at the violent act the narrator committed as a child, which she must live with for the rest of her life.
There’s something about being just outside a place that creates the right amount of tension for creativity.
VS: I’d love to hear the origin story behind this novel. It doesn’t read at all like how one might expect from a debut novel; one always feels that you — the writer — are doing things correctly. Are there other novels in a drawer somewhere in your house? If so, I wonder what it was about this one that roused you to keep following it.
KL: You know, when I read that word, correctly, I shudder and feel embarrassed. Because I have this expectation that a good book, at least a good book to me, is somehow incorrect, somehow…pushy. And yet I know that’s a compliment.
There are no other novels in my drawers. I’ve been doggedly chasing this one down for eight years or so. I had to grow up to be able to finish it and see its shape, get the characters and emotional truths right. Chizuru/Rio was so hard to pin down. She’s sneaky as hell.
As for the origin of the story: when I living in Japan, I learned about the phenomenon of kireru, which means “to snap.” The concept of snapping and committing violence under pressure isn’t foreign to us, but the people who were snapping — namely, young children, including girls — surprised me. I was teaching junior high at this time, and I wondered whether any of my students, cheery or well-behaved on the surface, were capable of this. So the book was born from a question: what would have to happen in a child’s life for her to do this? And as I started to answer that question, Chizuru (Rio) was born.
VS: We both studied with the benevolent genius Elizabeth McCracken at the Michener Center, and in reading Pull Me Under I thought of two things Elizabeth said that have always stuck with me as irrefutable rules for fiction. One is this idea that there’s a bomb in every story, and the writer’s job is not to diffuse it, but rather to let it go off and then examine the damage. Which could probably be a kind of synopsis for what Pull Me Under is doing. But the thing I want to ask you about has to do with another piece of McCracken wisdom: never let the bad habits of the characters become the bad habits of the work. You have, in your narrator, Rio, a character who has cultivated what she perceives to be a necessary amnesia. She’s learned to perform a self to others that’s entirely divorced from her past, and in doing so she’s become a kind of mystery, a kind of lie, to herself, too. To quote her from the text, (and I don’t think I’m giving anything away): “That night in bed I imagined my body as a subdivision. Here was the community gym, here the in-ground pool. The girl who killed Tomoya Yu. Nurse. Wife. Mom.” She is, quite literally, walling herself off, and yet never does this behavior disallow the reader access or entrance into her interior; we’re always able to see through whatever guise or mask she tries to hide behind. Can you talk a bit about the challenges I imagine this must have presented, and the choice to take on those challenges — maybe even amplify them — by writing Rio in the first person?
KL: I wish Elizabeth McCracken would write a craft book. And I say that as a person who believes that no one should ever write a craft book.
A big part of why the novel took so long to figure out was precisely the point you bring up here: Rio’s psychological slipperiness, even and especially to herself. One of my struggles with the novel was conveying her emotions in the moment. I always felt like I was being too obvious or resorting to cliché. Racing hearts, hot faces. Emotion has a physical component, of course, and I wanted Rio to be a very physical character. I don’t like when fiction removes characters from their bodies in favor of floating them vaguely in some ethereal jelly-plane of Ideas. So Rio inhabits her body more than most people do, as an ultra distance runner, and in her awareness from childhood of the “black organ” inside her. It was grueling to go through the novel and make sure each emotional reaction on her part felt fully inhabited and unique to not only her character but the setting and environment around her.
I don’t like when fiction removes characters from their bodies in favor of floating them vaguely in some ethereal jelly-plane of Ideas.
One huge breakthrough in this area came from a recommendation by Jim Crace, who visited the Michener Center my first year there. He noticed my emotion-immediacy problem (Me, paraphrasing him: “This is a hugely powerful premise for a novel and a great character — so why the hell do I feel bored?”) and suggested I rewrite the novel in the present tense. Just to see what happened. I tried it, and was immediately more engaged myself, more able to feel in the moment what Rio was noticing and how her feelings tinged her perception.
VS: There’s much to be said about the role that language — its possibilities and its barriers — plays in Rio’s life. As a teenager, she wills herself to become near-illiterate in reading kanji, and, to a lesser extent but still with purpose, to unlearn the Japanese language itself, so that she might not speak it. This is a strategy of isolation, a conspiracy to shed herself of herself. But what she can’t disremember is music — a universal language one becomes fluent in regardless of will, but especially so for Rio, whose father is a renowned violinist, given to assigning people their own musical intervals as a means of both trying to understand them and trying to reduce their fundamental unknowability. What were you trying to coax out — about language, about relationality, about contact — by weaving this thread throughout the book?
KL: I’m not sure. It wasn’t intentional, that’s for sure, but if I look at it from here, analytically, I think what I came to understand was how powerfully language is part of our identity. Native languages, languages learned as an adult, language forgotten, intentionally or not. Language is how we communicate our deepest selves, how we come to be known. And we all yearn to be known. This is true of music as well, as you point out.
VS: I recently read an interview with the writer Paula Fox in which she says something that, I think, crystallizes so beautifully the question contemporary fiction should be asking — a question that feels central to Pull Me Under, and one which you masterfully render Rio seeking an answer to: “How do we stay neat in a cyclone?” Maybe what I admire most about Pull Me Under, then, is that it doesn’t purport to offer a solution — because, of course, there isn’t one; there’s no such thing as staying neat in a cyclone. By the end, Rio has come to reconcile — as best she can — certain aspects of her past and herself, but you show us — expertly, without a trace of didacticism — that such reconciling does not constitute repair or restoration. The rejection of that kind of moralistic ribbon-wrapping seemed to me the best demonstration of your striking gift for restraint; a restraint that characterized the stories in Hana Sasaki, too. Have I arrived at a question here? I guess what I’m wondering, as it pertains to restraint — is it instinctual, or is it the product of revision? Is it intrinsic to your writing practice, or is it a muscle you’ve trained? I wonder, too, which writers you’ve felt most instructed by in this regard.
KL: It’s instinctual. And it’s not for everyone. Some people tell me they read this or that story in Hana Sasaki and say they “liked it, but…what actually happens at the end? Was X or Y really real?” As if I’ve laid out a math problem but forgot to write the answer at the bottom. But I like to leave a space for the reader. Reading, like listening to music (or watching excellent TV or film or looking at art) should be an active, creative experience. Not a passive one.
That’s not to say there’s no place for directness, for telling-not-showing. You need that, too. In fact, the more of that you employ, I think the more inviting that creative reader-space becomes. Kawabata was a master at this. Read “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket” and you’ll learn everything you need to know about narrative restraint (which is very different from descriptive vagueness.) Stuart Dybek does this incredibly well, too, as does our mutual hero Joy Williams. She has this line in one of her stories; the scene is so mundane, just two people chatting about nothing, being boring like people usually are in their daily lives, and out nowhere we get this line…help me out here, VS, I don’t have my books with me; I’ve mentioned this line to you before…
VS: It’s that scene in her story “Lu-Lu,” right? “Heather scratched her shoulder. The sun beat down on the crooked part in her hair. Why has love eluded me, she wondered.”
KL: Yes! I fucking love that tag.
VS: OK. Two final, less verbose questions. The first: which writers should we not fail to read? The second: now that the novel is out in the world, what are you working on next?
KL: I’m super into the Icelandic writer Sjön right now — he writes with such magic and subtlety and almost this stark lyricism that is just brilliant and strange and great. And Laila Lalami, whose The Moor’s Account I will never forget till I die. And everyone should read Steinbeck for his tenderness and humor, both of which I wish were still considered cool elements to include in one’s fiction.
I’m working on my next novel. It’s still early in the process, but it involves female homelessness, prenatal memory, the so-called conflict between science and faith, and a Franciscan brother who is an astronomer at the Vatican. (Yes, the Vatican has astronomers, and quite an amazing observatory!)