Ten years ago, Kirsten Lunstrum was leading a life many young writers would kill for. Having published two well-regarded story collections before she turned 30, Lunstrum landed a tenure-track teaching job in the creative writing program at State University of New York at Purchase, the arts campus of the SUNY system.
But in 2012, homesick for her native Seattle, Lunstrum and her husband Nathan, also a professor at Purchase, chucked it all and moved back West with, she says, “no jobs, no real plans for how to make life in the Seattle area work.” For nearly two years, the couple and their two children lived at her parents’ home as Lunstrum took adjunct teaching gigs at local colleges and her husband left academia altogether to become an electrician.
Six years on, the move seems to have paid off. Lunstrum, now 39, teaches at a small, progressive high school near Seattle, and this week she’s published her third story collection, What We Do with the Wreckage, winner of the 2018 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.
In an exchange of late-night emails, Lunstrum talked with The Millions about her loyalty to the short story form, the strains of writing while parenting, and the many ways her experiences as a mother of small children informed and deepened her fiction.
The Millions: You published your first two story collections, This Life She’s Chosen (2005) and Swimming with Strangers (2008), while you were still in your 20s. Now, a decade later, you’re publishing a third collection. So tell us first: What have you up to during those 10 years? Have you been writing all along? Did you stop for a time?
Kirsten Lunstrum: The most succinct answer to that question is that I was simply living my life.
Like a lot of people, the period of time between my mid-20s and mid-30s was a radically turbulent (but great) stretch of years. Between my first two books and today I finished a graduate degree, held something like 15 different jobs, moved house eight times, and became a parent. Of these changes, parenthood was probably the biggest. Actually, my son was born just three weeks after I turned in the final edits on my second collection—a well-timed entrance into the world, for which I thanked him in that book’s acknowledgments. Three years later, my daughter was born. It makes me laugh now, 12 years into parenting, but before my son was born I had a vision of myself writing away the long hours of his infancy while he napped in a baby-wrap on my chest. I had no idea (clearly) how all-consuming parenting would be.
As I say this, though, I’m feeling aware of the flak I’m likely going to get for acknowledging that parenting played a role in the long silence between my books. There’s been a kind of literary applause recently for those mother-writers who refuse to discuss the effect parenting has had on their writing, and—to be honest—I find that refusal endlessly frustrating. The fact is this: Motherhood is life-shattering. I don’t feel it diminishes my voice as a writer or necessarily narrows others’ respect for me if I say those things out loud in a conversation about my writing life. Writing around the demands of my children’s needs—and my own desire to be with them (because I love them and enjoy being part of the daily and familiar routines of their childhoods)—has slowed my production of new work more than my pre-parenting self could ever have imagined. But being a parent has also completely reconstructed my sense of wonder, my sense of attention to the world and its details, my understanding of relationship and identity and vulnerability, and all of that shows up in my work now. I write less than I might have if I hadn’t chosen to become a parent. That’s just the truth. But my fiction has deepened because of the experience of raising other humans.
To be fair to my kids, though, the other love competing for my time and slowing down my fiction writing has been my work life. I’m not a writer who can just write. I need to work a day job. I didn’t always know this about myself, and for a period I believed that what I really wanted most of all was the luxury of devoting all my working hours to my writing, but that was a misunderstanding of myself. I love to work. My work is teaching—which I did at the college level for about a decade, and then six years ago I became a high school English teacher at a progressive, independent school near Seattle. Being in the classroom gives me a sense of clarity and purpose and connection to community that writing doesn’t, and I’m daily happy to go to school and see my students and colleagues. But between teaching and parenting, my time is pretty fully consumed during the academic year, and so I get very little writing done during those months.
This is all to say that it took me a long time to get this book written because I was busy (and happy) living. I never stopped writing, but I did write inconsistently, fitting my writing hours around my other responsibilities and loves. The stories in this collection were written in the very early hours of morning, before the kids woke up for the day. They were written late at night, in my dark bedroom, after everyone else in my household was asleep. I wrote these stories sitting in the backseat of my car during piano lessons, perched on the top bleacher at the natatorium during swimming practice, and locked inside my own bathroom (where no one could bother me). These stories feel hard earned in a way that those of my first two books didn’t, and I’m kind of proud of that, actually.
TM: I’m interested in this idea of a writer’s role as a parent enriching his or her work. Can you point to an element from a story in the new collection—a scene, a character, a plot point, whatever—that you couldn’t have written before you had kids?
KL: I think the influence of my family is everywhere in this book. In a very direct (but significant!) way, the book owes its cover image and first story to my daughter. A couple of years ago, when she was a first-grader, she did her school “interest project” on the Tasmanian tiger, an animal most people (but not all—which is part of the animal’s intrigue) believe became extinct in the 1930s. In helping my daughter gather information for the project, my own interest was sparked, and I ended up reading several articles and a book on the extinction of the tiger, as well as sort of obsessively watching a YouTube video my daughter and I found—black-and-white footage of the last tiger (Benjamin) pacing his cage at the Hobart Zoo. In the video, Benjamin looks anxious and trapped, and the image of him circling his little cement paddock stuck with me for months. Then later, when I couldn’t get beyond the first couple paragraphs of a story I was working on, I remembered Benjamin, and the story (“Endlings”) came together. In the end, the story is about two characters who (like Benjamin) are “endlings”—the last of their line—and about how they navigate through the world carrying the trauma of that isolation with them. Like Benjamin, both of the story’s central characters bear their isolation very literally in their bodies, but their isolation is also defining in less visible ways—in how they see the world, themselves, and their relationships with other people.
In a less direct, way, though—and maybe more to the point of your question—there are so many moments in these stories that came out of my experience with the daily reality of parenting. The story “Matter” is about a woman who becomes a mother through an international adoption, and then brings her son home with her to California. When the story takes place, her city has been evacuated due to the threat of encroaching wildfires, and she’s wrestling with how best to protect her son—to evacuate with him, though she knows that doing so will upset the very fragile stability she’s just managed to create in their new relationship; or to stay in place, keeping the routines that have proved essential for them both, but risking their safety. I researched and wrote the story in 2009. My own son was 3, and I was pregnant with my daughter. I felt—to be honest—worried about how I’d manage life with two children. During those early years of my children’s lives there were definitely moments at which I felt totally ill equipped to mother. Periodically, I’d experience a little fit of terror over what I’d committed to in parenting. How can I manage this? I’d think, overwhelmed. How will we make it to the other side? These aren’t the sort of thoughts mothers are culturally allowed to voice, though, and so I had a lot of guilt about them. The complexity of that, then—the incredible, fierce love of parenthood lived side-by-side with the real fears I felt about successfully raising my children—was what became the heart of that story.
The other story I think of in response to your question is one titled “Tides.” It, too, circles the frustrations and—the word coming to my mind right now is suffocations—of parenthood and family life, but it’s actually about deep, committed love. And I suppose that’s really the best answer to what you’ve asked me here. What I could not have written before experiencing family life are these explorations of deep, committed love. I don’t think parenthood is necessarily the only entry point for writing the complexity of that love—not at all—but for me, motherhood has radically altered my identity and perspectives, and that’s been central to how I process everything, both as a person and as a writer.
TM: This is your third story collection without a novel in between. Do you see yourself as primarily a practitioner of the short story or are you drawn to stories because you can write them in shorter bursts while keeping all the plates in the air in the rest of your life?
KL: I love the story form above and beyond all other forms. As both a reader and a writer, I gravitate toward story first. I love the story’s ability to be precise, to push the boundaries of space and time and memory and point of view, and to lean a little closer (in its attention to imagery and use of repetition and play with structure) to poetry than a novel (with its heavier burden of plot) generally can. I love all of that. Stories are exciting reads—urgent and intense; and as a writer, stories never give me time to get bored (which I’m too prone to do).
In the back of my mind, I admit, I have a fantasy about finally finding that novel I just have to write and then sitting down to write it. In almost 20 years of writing I’ve never gotten around to doing that, though, mostly because new stories keep interrupting me, diverting me. And also because when I have attempted novel-length drafts, what I’ve really ended up with have been linked story collections. That might be a product of my limited writing time, but I doubt it; plenty of novelists write around jobs and families. I think I’m simply a story writer. I’m solidly in the middle of my career, and I’m no less interested in discovering new ways into and through story—no less ambitious about improving—than I was when I began writing, so I suppose that says something, too, about where my heart is.
TM: What a perfect segue to my last question: What’s next for you? What are you working on now that What We Do With the Wreckage is out in the world?
KL: Like a lot of writers, I stopped writing altogether for a while following the 2016 election. I felt as if the breath had been knocked from me, and I just couldn’t put words on a page for a long time. I got involved in organizing with the Seattle branch of Write Our Democracy and volunteering with a couple of social justice groups in my local area, and most of my creative thought and free time in the last several months has been directed there. I’m slowly coming out from under the shadow, though, and I’m in the very early stages of a new story collection. I’d love it if this one could come together faster than Wreckage did—under a decade would be great!—but I’m going to be patient and see how it unfolds.