Kathleen Founds Guest Edits July 6-13, Gives Books to Lucky Readers and Talented Writer

by Megan Giddings See all Guest Readers
story art

Kathleen Founds is giving away three copies of her critically-acclaimed book, When Mystical Creatures Attack! One copy will go to the author of the story she picks during her week. Kathleen will also be choosing two other winners. If you don’t have a 1,000 word or less story to submit this week, but still would like a copy of the book, you can enter via Facebook or Twitter.  Here’s how to enter via Twitter: 1. Follow @SmokeLong. 2. Tell us your favorite mystical creature and why you like it. 3. Include hashtag #MysticalSLQ. For Facebook, you just need to comment on our post about the contest with your favorite mystical creature and why you like it. We’ll be accepting contest entries until 11:59 PM EST on July 13th.

One of my favorite things about When Mystical Creatures Attack! is how it feels not just like a story collection, but a collage. Can you talk more about the process of building several small stories to create a much larger narrative?

When I was twenty two, I went for a run through an industrial graveyard in Houston after a heavy rain. The expanses of damp pavement somehow made me envision the arc of a novel about a teenager named Janice Gibbs. I’d written several stories about Janice—a smart, angry girl stuck working in a nursing home—in college. After my run, I scrawled scenes from the larger story of Janice’s life in a spiral notebook until my manic enthusiasm burned off. Then the project seemed boring and doomed. I abandoned it. Years later, in graduate school, I was obsessed with revising a story titled Virtue of the Month. It was about a woman in her mid-twenties struggling with a family legacy of suicide. Each semester, my long-suffering fiction cohort graciously endured a new iteration of Virtue of the Month. The structure for a novel-in-stories emerged when I realized that the character from Virtue of the Month could be Janice’s high school English teacher. Then I went through everything I’d written and tried to work it into the story of Janice and her teacher. The challenge of connecting the dots between disparate stories generated an outline for the book.

A friend of mine was talking about how When Mystical Creatures Attack! also does so much playing (in a good way!) with form, genre, voice, and tone. When everything felt ready, how did you figure out where to send the overall manuscript and pieces of it?

When I had obsessively polished my book past a point that was healthy or appropriate (my husband likened my revision process to a crazy person washing her hands until they bleed), I sent it to George Saunders (who I’d been lucky enough to have as my thesis advisor at Syracuse). George had just met a cool agent at a party, and he put me in touch with her. I sent her the book, and she said it was heartbreaking and hilarious, but that it would be “difficult to place.” As in, impossible to sell. I got similar responses (or no responses) from other agents, so I gave up. (Resilience=not my strong suit.) I figured that maybe I would try to write something less weird, and then if Oprah made it part of her book club, perhaps someone would consider publishing When Mystical Creatures Attack!

Then I had coffee with my friend, the writer Vauhini Vara. I told her that I’d given up on publication after being rejected by five agents. Vauhini laughed so hard she got croissant flakes in her hair. She was like, “You’re being ridiculous! Send it to 20 more agents and submit it to some contests.” But then I had a baby and got a little distracted. A year later, my husband was reading Tobias Wolff’s collection, Our Story Begins. Tobias Wolff (who I was lucky enough to work with as an undergraduate) had inscribed it with the dedication, “For Katie, with great hopes for your work.” There was a big black and white author’s photo on the front where Tobias Wolff looked serious and thoughtful. My husband kept on leaving the book on the bathroom counter, so every time I brushed my teeth, I would look at the picture of Tobias Wolff and feel like his stern expression communicated disappointment in my total lack of a writing career. So I printed out a copy of my manuscript in the faculty workroom and entered it in the Iowa Short Fiction contest. To my great surprise, it was selected as a winner. Then University of Iowa Press published my book!

If you were teaching a class that focused primarily on shorter short stories, which five to seven stories would you teach?

My mixtape of short stories would include:

* “Bullet in the Brain,” by Tobias Wolff

* “The 400 Pound CEO,” by George Saunders

* “The Best of Betty,” by Jincy Willett

* “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” by Amy Hempel

* “The Depressed Person,” by David Foster Wallace

* “You’re Ugly, Too,” by Lorrie Moore

*A Good Man is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor

What was it like designing the cover for your collection?

When Mystical Creatures Attack!
Cover by Kathleen Founds

I made 100 terrible drawings, then made one kind of decent drawing, then uploaded it to Photoshop and spent approximately one million hours tweaking it there. Then I repeated the process with an alternate design. I sent both to Iowa, and together we decided we liked the design with a giant squid battling a unicorn more than the design with giant monster jaws chomping the title.

pink chompers jpeg 2.06.14
Draft Cover by Kathleen Founds

Thomas Merton once said, “What the world needs most is people who are fully alive in it.” I would submit that the second most pressing need in the world is probably depictions of giant squids battling unicorns. In that regard, I feel good about the design. On the other hand, I’ve had a lot of the following conversation:

Me: So, this is my book! (Proffers business card with picture of book cover.)

When Mystical Creatures Attack Cover Draft
Draft Cover By Kathleen Founds

Stranger: Oh! So it’s a children’s book.

Me: It’s actually work of literary fiction about failure, poverty, and suicide. Also unicorns.

Stranger: (Awkward silence.)

 

 

 

 

 

What does a story by a writer you’ve never heard of have to do to get your attention?

A talking animal or gun wielding madman would help. Failing that, it’s never a bad idea to go with an exquisitely crafted opening line.

What is your definition of story? 

Story: Something to the end of which you should try adding the phrase, “And then I found five dollars.” If the story improves drastically, it needs work.

About the Reader:

Kathleen Founds has worked at a nursing home, a phone bank, a South Texas middle school, and a Midwestern technical college specializing in truck-driving certificates. She got her undergraduate degree at Stanford and her MFA at Syracuse. She teaches social justice themed English classes at Cabrillo College in Watsonville, CA, and writes while her toddler is napping. Her work has been published in The Sun, Good Housekeeping, The New Yorker Online, Salon, and American Short Fiction Online. Her novel-in-stories, When Mystical Creatures Attack! won the 2014 University of Iowa Press John Simmons Short Fiction Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book.

About the Interviewer:

Megan Giddings was a former executive editor at SmokeLong Quarterly  and a winner of the Kathy Fish Fellowship. Her chapbooks, Arcade Seventeen (TAR) and The Most Dangerous Game (The Lettered Streets Press) will be released Fall 2016.  She has been anthologized in Best of the Net 2014 and in Best Small Fictions 2016.  Her stories are forthcoming or have been recently published in Arts & Letters, Passages North, The Offing, Pleiades, and Black Warrior Review. You can learn more about her at www.megangiddings.com.