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The Toast Always Wins: An Interview with Kelly Luce

Kelly Luce’s debut collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, published in 2013 by A Strange Object, is an imaginative delight, unpredictable, amusing, and frequently heartbreaking. Set in Japan, Luce’s stories bring the reader into a world that’s slightly askew yet still familiar. They tickle the mind and touch the heart while lingering in your consciousness; these are stories you’ll remember long after the book is returned to the shelf.

Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s, and your local independent bookstore. Her first novel, Pull Me Under, will be published later this year.

PULL ME UNDER book cover

Luce recently shared her thoughts with Cease, Cows.

Chuck Augello: When did you first start writing stories?

Kelly Luce: I always wrote, from childhood, but I didn’t think of writing as something one could do as a career until my mid-twenties. Funnily, it wasn’t until I dropped out of an MFA program that I started writing fiction seriously.

CA: How did your time in Japan influence your writing? 

KL: Moving to a country where I couldn’t speak the language, couldn’t even begin to decipher the written language, was humbling and an incredible mind-fuck for a person to whom words and the intricacies of language are part of how I organize and process the world. I’m sure being rendered functionally deaf and mute made me more observant, and possibly observant in different ways, which probably continues to affect my sensibility. Add to that being immersed in a culture very different to my own. Everyday life felt like magic. Going grocery shopping, doing laundry, interacting with strangers—experiences were heightened, and I think that sharpness was what drew me to set so much work in Japan.

In my daily life in the States, I’m not always fully engaged like that. I miss it. Every time I travel to a new place, I get a burst of energy and hope. I dislike the word “inspiration” but that’s really what it is. I love that moment when the plane leaves the runway.

CA: The book’s first story, “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster,” features pieces of toast that can predict a person’s death. Some want to know; others don’t. Which would you choose? Would you want to see your piece of toast? 

KL: Oh, definitely. But I wouldn’t be like the characters in the story who try to find ways to cheat death. I’m sure the toast always wins. In a way, knowing would be a comfort. For example, if I knew I was fated to die in a car wreck, I would get SCUBA certified and chill with electric eels because while I love swimming and sea life, the bends freak me out.

CA: My favorite story in the book is “Rooey,” a first-person narrative about a young woman dealing with her brother’s death. Can you tell us how this story came to be? 

KL: This was the hardest story to write in the collection. It took about eight years.

The first seed of it came from the title of a White Stripes song (that I don’t even really like but was in my iTunes for a while) that I won’t name here because it spoils the ending. And then a young person I knew, a dear friend’s brother, died tragically. He was only 20. I started to write about the unfairness, the anger, the senselessness one feels when something like that happens. It was a failure. The story sat in fragments for years, and then another friend, the wife of one of my best friends, died in a terrible, surreal manner.

I thought a lot about grief, especially what’s known as complicated grief, as I watched my friends and their families struggle through the days and years after these losses. I wanted to capture the way that grief is transformative and difficult and often contains no silver lining, that there is no “getting over it,” even if there is acceptance. Sometimes there is just no comfort to be found. I pulled the story back out and was able to find its shape and finish it. It was rejected 53 times before Minna Proctor at The Literary Review pulled it out of the slush. I love Minna Proctor. (It’s also the story people most often claim is their favorite from the book, which means a lot to me.)

CA: Several stories in the collection, like “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster” and the title story contain elements of magical realism. Others, like “Ash,” are grounded in reality. When you begin writing do you already know if the story will contain magical elements, or do they sometime emerge unexpectedly? 

KL: Usually, the magical elements are part of the primordial story soup in my mind before I write anything down. What if an appliance had a superpower? In what circumstance might a person grow a tail? But I also don’t necessarily feel like a story needs to contain what we’d call “scientifically impossible” happenings to be magic realism. Being arrested on a false charge and jailed in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, for example, is just as strange and unreal, in a way, as a death-predicting toaster.

CA: Your first novel, Pull Me Under, is due out later this year. How would you describe it?

KL: It’s part mystery, part adventure story, part meditation on the darkness we each carry inside.

It’s the story of a Japanese-American woman who, as a 12-year-old child in Japan, snapped and killed her bully. She goes on to start a new life as an adult in Boulder, Colorado, and tells no one—including her husband or daughter—of her past. Her estranged father is a mythological figure, a virtuoso violinist who is a Living National Treasure in Japan; his death spurs her return to Japan for the first time in twenty years.

I wanted to write about the phenomenon of kireru, which in Japan means “to cut or snap,” and is the term used to describe young kids, often under the age of 13, committing horrifically violent acts for no apparent reason. And not just boys—girls, too. I wanted to answer the question: what could push a child to do this? Why does this occur in Japan, an otherwise peaceful and crime-free country? I also wanted to explore the point of view of a mixed-race narrator in Japan, one of the most homogenous countries on the planet.

CA: How did you manage the transition from writing stories to writing a novel? What was the biggest challenge?

KL: The hardest part was the middle. I had a solid beginning, and I knew where I wanted to end. The last page of the novel has hardly changed a word from the first draft. But damn, a lot of stuff has to go on to get from here to there. There are more plates to keep spinning in a novel than a story, and each needs to serve up a dose of plot and emotional deepening and layering without being confusing or boring. It took a lot of experimenting to sew it all together. Or fit it all in the dishwasher, I guess, if we’re sticking with the plate metaphor.

CA: Name one thing about the world that really gets you mad and one thing you absolutely love.

KL: 1. My dad says he’s voting for Donald Trump. 2. My dad.

CA: Who are some of the writers who’ve inspired you over the years? What was the last really great novel or story that you read? 

KL: Louis Sachar and Lois Lowry are writers I read as a kid who I still go back to. Stephen King made me fall in love with storytelling and taught me to prioritize the evocation of visceral, physical feeling in the reader. The work of Italo Calvino, Shirley Jackson, Stuart Dybek, Ruth Ozeki, Joy Williams, Marguerite Duras, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, and the early novels of Murakami were all influential. Lucia Berlin is the latest addition to this list of writers I place on a pedestal.

There was a story in Orion last year by Geetha Iyer called “The Mongerji Letters” that I found while reading for the O. Henry Prize anthology. It’s incredibly moving, and has a delightful sense of play and charm to it—not to mention magic—that just blew me away.

I’m also super into the new series of novels by Lian Hearn, The Tale of Shikanoko. They’re historical fantasy set in medieval Japan and they move like lightning.

CA: Do you have any current projects underway? Stories? Another novel?

KL: I just finished a story for a great new lit mag called Territory; they ask writers to respond to maps. My story is about an old love affair getting stuck inside a bad tooth. It’s in response to a gorgeous Alexander von Humboldt map. And I’m in the incubation stage of another novel that will be about a homeless woman, children born in prison, and prenatal memory.

CA: Finally, if you could climb into a time machine and jump back ten years, what would you tell yourself? 

KL: “Everything you want is going to take way longer to achieve than you feel it ought to, but if you keep busting your ass and paying attention and having fun and helping out where you can, you’ll get there.” (Wait, maybe I did go back in time and tell myself this.)

Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.

Kelly Luce is the author of Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, which won the 2013 Foreword Review’s Editor’s Choice Prize in Fiction. She is a Contributing Editor for Electric Literature and will be a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies during the 2016-2017 academic year. Her debut novel, Pull Me Under, is due out November 1, 2016 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She hails from Illinois and lives in California’s Santa Cruz mountains.

Lead image: “Toast” (via Flickr user