Lindsay Hunter: Interview
The author of Don't Kiss Me discusses her enviably quick writing style and getting shit for being gross.
When I couldn't find a story I was working on about Chicago-based author Lindsay Hunter, I did the obvious thing and searched my computer for the word "booger." Whoomp! There it was. (Other words that would've helped me home in: "sick"; "barfs"; "bitch.") This is how three of the stories in Don't Kiss Me, Hunter's recently published flash-fiction collection (FSG Originals, $14), begin:
"You got a eye booger, Del tells me. I can't look at it, it's sick."
"At breakfast my kid practices his ABCS and barfs into his cereal bowl just before Q."
"Momma says Jean's just a imaginary friend, but I tell Jean Momma's just a imaginary bitch."
Set in places like Perkins, Ramada Inns, dumpsters and RVs, these stories feature flawed, fumbling characters with names such as Peggy Paula, Dallas, Hardy and Gin. Cringeworthy behavior parades across nearly every page, but Hunter—who previously authored another book of flash-fiction, Daddy's, and cofounded the popular flash-fiction series Quickies—is skilled at conveying longing, humiliation and the weirdest, rawest of human desires both succintly and with striking clarity. I spoke with her earlier this summer about her lightning-quick writing style, teenage poetry and more.
I've heard you talk about how you're an on-the-fly writer and the stories just kind of tumble out. Is that still the case and, if so, what's your editing process like?
Yeah. When I'm writing flash fiction, I sit down and write it all in one breath and rarely go back and change anything. I've come to a point, after torturing myself for many years, where I can trust what I'm writing and where I'm going with it. If I feel like I'm trying too hard or trying to force something that isn't there, generally I will stop. For flash fiction, it's very much about following from line to line and word to word and trusting it. Writing a novel is very different [Hunter has a novel coming out in fall of 2014 from FSG] because, obviously, you can't sit down and write it in one breath. Instead, I see it as writing little flash fictions of characters' lives. So generally, I'll write 2,000 words in a sitting and then be done for the day. As far as editing for the collection, [there were] just very small edits, since they're such short pieces—small tweaks and polishes at the word or sentence level.
Have you ever written poetry? I feel like flash fiction has more in common with poetry than with other forms. There's an economy of language and a rhythm.
In undergrad, my favorite professor was a poet, Terry Thaxton. I really loved her classes and loved writing poetry. That's basically what I wrote my whole life leading up to college. As a teenager, that's how you express yourself—you write these horrible poems where you call your mom a bloody fetus or something. [Laughs] So I thought I was a poet and after two or three years off, when I applied to grad school, I applied for poetry. In the meantime, I was working on a novel and working on these short stories, and I couldn't understand where that was going. I got rejected from all the schools I applied to, which was like eight schools. I'd read this article in The New Yorker about Arshile Gorky and so I was like, "I'm gonna show them how fancy I am and talk about Arshile Gorky in my cover letter!" It was very pretentious and ridiculous, and it was good I wasn't accepted because my heart really is in fiction. When I got in to the Art Institute, they don't ask you to identify as anything—you can write whatever you want and I think that's exactly how it should be. I don't know any writer who only writes one thing. At [SAIC], I could experiment.
Your stories almost feel like character studies. Even when they're a series of disconnected moments, they amount to this super visual, highly specific profile of a person.
I love exploring defining moments, even if they're tiny little things.
And you don't shy away from including the gross things people do.
I was talking about this with someone else. I feel like my characters can't help themselves. They are who they are. So their desperation—especially in "After," the apocalyptic story—affects what they do in those moments. I get a lot of shit for being gross or grotesque or disgusting, but I don't set out to be like that. I don't set out to be one-note or gimmicky, but I do see that it's there.
But there are occasional moments of empathy. Have you ever been in the middle of a story wanting to turn things around for one of your characters?
I always feel love for them and feel empathy for them. I guess I just want to show the human in the inhumane—that these people are people even if this girl is considering eating her brother's turd. I always want some sort of redemption…or not even redemption, but some way of allowing the reader to connect.
Has your experience with Quickies, or reading aloud in general, informed your writing style?
I don't necessarily read a story out loud before I read it at a reading, which can sometimes trip me up. But I think it goes back to my interest in poetry. I want it to be rhythmic and I want it sound fresh and really grab someone. My reading voice came about probably a year after we started Quickies. I can pinpoint it: I read this story, "Meat from a Meat Man," at the Dollar Store Reading Series. I had dinner with Mary [Hamilton, Quickies co-founder] beforehand, and I was like, "I think I'm gonna do a voice for this." So I went up there and it was a really crazy experience. And after that, I'd tell myself, "You're not going to do that stupid voice again. You're gonna read it like a normal person!" And it just comes out. I guess I want people to hear me and understand where I'm coming from.
Does your novel similarly follow people on the margins?
Yeah, it's about two teenage girls from the perspective of five different characters—each teenage girl, the mom of one of the girls, and the stepdad and then this man who's stalking both girls. But it's similarly set in the South; it's hot; people are lonely; they do crazy things; they're trying to prove things to someone. So it's definitely in the same vein but still so different.