Street Talk

Kellie Wells

Kellie Wells is the author of a collection of short fiction, Compression Scars, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award, and two novels, Skin and Fat Girl, Terrestrial. She teaches in the MFA programs at the University of Alabama and Pacific University.

"We're Not in Kansas Anymore": A conversation between Kellie Wells and Catherine Gammon.


Catherine Gammon is the author of the new novel, Sorrow, from Braddock Avenue Books. Her fiction has appeared in many literary magazines, including Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Other Voices, and The New England Review. Awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Corporation of Yaddo, among others, Catherine is a Soto Zen priest ordained in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi by Tenshin Reb Anderson in 2005. She divides her time between Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in California and Brooklyn, New York.


Catherine Gammon: Fat Girl, Terrestrial seems to be among many wondrous things a chronicle of evolutions, evolutions of a kind we’re used to in fiction, how a character grows from childhood to womanhood, for example, or how events and actions taken come together to shape a human vocation, a career, but also evolutions of a less familiar kind for fiction to investigate, planetary evolutions of landscape and geology, and most extraordinary in its plurality, evolutions of God. All this leads me into curiosity about the evolution of the book itself, its first germ, or germs, and how they came together to take the shape they finally do, the steps of growth and shifts and evolutionary redirections along the away.

Kellie Wells: Thinking about the various evolutions the book tracks or invents or speculates about allows for a different sense of narrative movement, and so I like that question a lot. Something that has always been a challenge for me in writing a novel is the representation of time. In my mind everything occurs simultaneously, not because I don’t believe in cause and effect, but rather because I believe that relationship to be so intricately complex, everything, life forms, events, relationships, planets provoked into existence by evolving and shifting circumstances, the world forever in motion. I have difficulty making the world sit still for the sake of narrative order and linearity, much as I admire those things.

Here is one of the catalyzing ideas for the novel—I started with a giant woman, a small giant, one that would fit, if she hunched, in the cab of a pickup, one that stumbled about in the (more or less) familiar world. In graduate school, I’d made a study of the figure of the female grotesque in literature (which I defined for myself as any female character who posed a significant challenge to a narrow and traditional notion of the feminine ideal), and I came up with a kind of taxonomy of types that was determined by the degree to which the character was discomfited by her grotesque status, so the types of female grotesques I identified were desolate, ambivalent, and celebratory. I wanted Wallis to be mostly desolate, to feel her size was a burden and inconvenience to the world. And I was thinking of her as an allegory for the plight of God, whom I thought of, as a child, as a substance that must have felt a little abject about being the largest, most powerful and ubiquitous creature in the universe. I liked stories about mice and the idea of God, especially a God that chose not to end suffering, made me feel such pity.

CG: I have a feeling that part of the magic here is the mixing of the comic and the tragic by way of the grotesque, and this seems to me to connect also with the children’s stories and fairy tales at large everywhere in this landscape. I saw—well of course The Wizard of Oz and the Pied Piper of Hamlin, but also Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, maybe Sleeping Beauty, definitely Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and Peter Pan. I’m sure there are many more. Would you say something about how this use of childhood images, childhood stories and models, works together in your imagination with the very adult and timely realities that the novel also faces.

KW: Childhood is full of everyday traumas, which are terrifying in a way that the most difficult vagaries of adulthood are not, because the everyday traumas of childhood have no precedents; they’re all inaugural. Likewise delight, but that gets more lip service, that “visionary gleam” of childhood. The world tilts slightly and the child brain furrows with new knowledge. There’s very little stability when there’s everything yet to know. As adults we become, maybe necessarily, amnesiac when it comes to the many terrors we experienced in childhood. Perhaps we think those terrors, comparatively, are frivolous. We can no longer really appreciate the potency of the routinely unsettling nature of innocence. And then there’s the unthinkable, which is the child that experiences an adult trauma, something thought to be destructive and grievous by even the most seasoned measure. The everyday traumas of childhood, while momentarily very powerful, often give way to hilarity, desolation transforming quickly into delight. Deeper traumas are more abiding, their consequences more complex and far-reaching, and one of the central problems of literature is how to word the ineffable. How do you get readers on the inside of something unimaginably tragic rather than simply pantomiming it for them, which allows them to hold the pain of it at arm’s length? How do you get readers to willingly participate in that devastation? In many of the books I love and am moved by, the comic appears to have a leavening effect at first, provides some relief, but such laughs always exact an emotional toll and end up deepening the wound of the tragic. They do so partly by contrast and partly as a testimony to our true helplessness, which leaves us with no adequate response. Fairy tales and all the best children’s literature it seems to me know exactly this, know that the best way to arrest the reader and then produce the most exquisite terror and the deepest sorrow is to get the reader to laugh just before she gasps. You work the lungs to get to the heart. That’s one strategy.

CG: One of the many extraordinary moves the novel makes, and this rather late in its development, long after it has fully accustomed us to the fabulist world of giants and investigative miniatures, unaccountable vanishings and cosmic coincidences, is to give us a fable within the fabulous, the story of the Rabbit Catcher of Kingdom Come, with a fictional-within-the-fiction Willow standing in for the now familiar Wallis and Willow’s fictional brother Ogden standing in for Wallis’s lost brother Obie, a fairy tale version of the Kingdom Come we’ve been persuaded to accept as the novel’s ordinary reality, a world itself laden with fairy tale figures and imagery. The chapter (more accurately perhaps a fiction outside the fiction than within it) is itself a miniature relative to the giantism of the book as a whole, and I am struck by the brilliant intentionality of this move and its placement, and at the same time by its subtle refutation of any expectation a reader might still be harboring that this narrative is or should be linear. What we have instead of linearity is something like a torus turning itself inside out, collapsing or contracting into a black hole. I can’t find a question here, but maybe you could speak to what I’m bringing up.

KW: You are clearly the reader whose eyes I hoped this book would one day meet! Thank you for your attentive and generous reading. I especially like the image of the torus. As I’m writing, I always know my novels and stories are assuming specific and, I hope, meaningful shapes, but I’m also aware that those shapes aren’t narratively conventional, and therefore it’s difficult even for me to articulate what the contours are and how exactly they work. Obviously not everything is conscious or premeditated in writing and so you sometimes have to trust your instincts, shudder! I understand the shape to which I’m most attracted to be some version of spherical, but not simply or not exactly, so the image of the torus is very helpful.

I arrived at a point in the writing of the novel when it became clear to me that I needed to find a compelling way to represent group trauma, collective suffering, because the book is set in a community that experiences a shared tragedy. Although I examine in my work the psychologies and lives of individuals, I’ve also always been as interested in the group, because unless a person is completely hermitic and off the grid, nothing ever affects only one individual. I thought for a long time about how I could get at the experience of the group, could get at the quality of the collective injury, and could do so most meaningfully and efficiently. Fairy tales and fables seemed to me to be ideally suited for this because readers are automatically inclined to read them as parables rife with subtext and these tales can therefore communicate a lot in a small space (not that my fairy tale is so small, mind you—it consumes a good chunk of the book—but even this seemed efficient given the general enormity and seeming ineffability of what I wished to plumb).

But the other thing that struck me as useful about the form of the fairy tale is the way it uses flat characters and types, just the opposite of psychological realism. This demands that the reader think more abstractly about the resonant effects of any event depicted. That is, since the characters can be seen less as specific people with whom we’re asked to identify, they become receptacles for ideas, for example the rhizomatic nature of collective suffering, the idea that suffering has roots that spread out from that originating node of pain, touching people across time and space. The fairy tale is also, to my of thinking, very hospitable toward any kind of woolly invention, so it’s a natural place for this book to have pointedly arrived at. As I was mulling over all this, I thought: the Pied Piper, of course! At the heart of the Pied Piper tale is an event that’s very like that which sets into motion my giant protagonist’s outsized sorrow, so when that similarity finally broke loose from my unconscious, I realized it was the place the novel had to go and it seemed to me to provide the perfect vehicle for examining the group experience of tragedy.

CG: The Crucifixion chapter knocked me out. I was in tears almost from the beginning, all the way to the end. When I went back just now to look for the place where my tears might have started I found myself in the fairly early paragraph in which “the man” is contemplating his pain and his human body, the disappointments and surprises of it, and what I found again there was an extraordinary compassion in the writing—not just the thorough empathetic evocation of his suffering, but the deep deep wanting this suffering not to be, which belongs to all of us—and the terrible sadness in the line, which feels to me like a great sigh of surrender, “This is how it would all conclude, his gospel of inexhaustible love…” And we’re only at the beginning here—the chapter just keeps unfolding, with Wallis on scene to miniaturize and investigate. So here is this most stunning portrayal evoking the tragic heart of human (not just Christian) faith and compassion, and it comes to us in the midst of one, as you say elsewhere, comic apocalypse after another. You addressed earlier the way the wildly comic and profoundly tragic work together in your imagination and for a reader. Can you also say something about how they work together (or not) in your sense of reality?

KW: I’m grateful for your reading and for your having brought up this chapter in particular. There are various fears I grapple with as I write, all related to the question of whether I can get language to hold the shape of that vision that seems so compelling to me in my mind, compelling enough to get me to break the silence so as to ask vexing questions. As it turns out, I can never quite get language to speak my ideas in a way that’s as exciting to me as they are when they’re still jumbled, unformed, and seem luminous with potential. There’s always a gap, a stutter, disjunction between imagination and expression, owing I suppose to that problem I said I thought literature is always wrestling with. We’re trying to give voice to experiences and ideas that language, as rich and complex and moving and musical a communicative medium as it is, simply isn’t up to the task of. It falls short and that fills me with despair. But I know and accept this now and have become more or less philosophical about it and continue to strive in the face of certain failure, which is, one might say, all that living is after all, persisting in the face of mortality. The pursuit of any artist just puts a fine point on that foregone quandary.

But back to the Crucifixion. This particular story is one that has compelled and devastated listeners, Christian or otherwise, for millennia, and so I knew retelling that story and trying to honor and capture the power of it was an even more impossible and arrogant challenge than I usually set for myself. Because it is a story of great violence and agony, violence both supernatural and mundane, by even alluding to it a writer is in danger of seeming sensational or exploitative. I was so angered by the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ because I thought it jerked from the viewer all the wrong emotions—or perhaps they were the right emotions put to the wrong use—in fetishizing the violence rather than asking unanswerable questions about how that violence and cosmic victimization might have been experienced by this particular human being, a man with nerve endings and human longings. It’s a story of unimaginable suffering that the film, for all its epic posturing, trivializes by making too conventionally imaginable. It’s a story that is meaningful for humanity not because it happened to a mythic figure but because it happened to a person who, like us, spills lymph and blood onto the ground when stabbed, and it should alienate us utterly. So when writing this chapter I was keenly aware of how quickly and easily any description could become nearly pornographic. There can be a fine line between honesty and obscenity, but it’s a line I thought I had to risk crossing in order to be truthful, so that’s something I was grappling with in composing this chapter, which, as you can imagine, was very difficult to research and write and left me feeling so sad and weary at the end of each day.

Another concern I had in writing this chapter was that the sudden gravity of depicting the Crucifixion within an (albeit darkly) antic novel might seem to the reader a betrayal of the rules and the tone upon which they’d come to rely. I worried that the comic nature of the book to this point might give the reader an excuse not to engage with the unremitting darkness and seriousness of this chapter. In general I worried that both the humor and the linguistic capering of the book as a whole might allow the reader to keep the novel at an emotional remove, though I hoped these things would act more as lures. I suppose this is how the wildly comic and the profoundly tragic seem to me to work together in my experience of the world. I naturally gravitate toward the comic, thinking it will provide some relief from the ponderousness of the human condition, but the comedy I’m often attracted to has sharp teeth, true frivolity being very difficult to achieve or sustain, and I realize that what the comic actually does is give me deeper access to those things I might prefer not to confront.

CG: Our conversation would be incomplete without a mention of "The Karmic Misadventures of Blunderbuss & Mugwump," a delightful set of drawings that in their comic apocalyptical themes seem to be cousin to Fat Girl, Terrestrial. [link to Tumblr] Can we look forward to an illustrated Fat Girl one of these days, subversion disguised as a book for children? What comes next?

KW: Funny you should mention a subversive children’s book. I was talking to a writer of children’s and young adult fiction recently and mentioned to her that I’d always wanted to write a children’s book but felt my sensibility and vision might be too dark to foist on impressionable children, and she disagreed and urged me to give it a whirl, so I do in fact have a children’s book in mind, and I would love to illustrate it (though drawing is very new to me, and it’s also liberating because I have no illusions about what I’m capable of—the bar is delightfully low!). The project I’m about to turn to now, though, is a novel for adults about a circus funambulist who is also a sorrow swallower (try as I might, I seem unable to outpace my thematic compulsions).

Thanks so much, Catherine!