Interview with Lydia Conklin: “I’m more interested in how weird reality can be.”

Lydia Conklin is an Assistant Professor of Fiction at Vanderbilt University. Previously they were the Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Fiction at the University of Michigan.

They’ve received a Stegner Fellowship in Fiction at Stanford University, a Rona Jaffe Writers Award, three Pushcart Prizes, a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Creative & Performing Arts Fulbright to Poland, work-study and tuition scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, Djerassi, Hedgebrook, the James Merrill House, the Vermont Studio Center, VCCA, Millay, Jentel, Lighthouse Works, Brush Creek, the Santa Fe Art Institute, Caldera, the Sitka Center, and Harvard University, among others. 

They were the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in fiction at Emory University. Their fiction has appeared in Tin House, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming from The Paris Review. They have drawn graphic fiction for Lenny Letter, Drunken Boat, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and cartoons for The New Yorker and Narrative Magazine

Their story collection, Rainbow Rainbow, will be published in June 2022 by Catapult in the US and Scribner in the UK.

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Hi Lydia, great to have you here with us today! As someone who has been a fellow at many esteemed artist residencies, how do these environments help foster creativity and artistic growth?

I absolutely love writing at residencies. I love nature and the outdoors but am also a very social person, and it’s rare to find a space that satisfies both counts. Residencies are full of inspiring and creative potential friends and also are situated, for the most part, in remote and beautiful regions of the world, so I do my best work at such places. I also love the schedule of writing alone all day and having a social evening with other residents. 

You’ve had work published in American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, and The Gettysburg Review, among others. Can you talk about your writing style and how it has evolved over the years?

The main way my writing style has evolved has been in regards to the way I use interiority in my stories. I struggled to get close to my characters early on in my writing career, and over time I honed a style of rendering their interiority in such a way that I hope is neither oppressive nor obtuse, and hopefully also propulsive. You can still tell that some of the early stories in the connection, like “The Black Winter of New England” and “Pioneer” have a slightly lighter touch with interiority—though it also is camouflaged by the fact that those stories also have younger protagonists. Later stories, like “Sunny Talks” and “Laramie Time,” employ more immersive interiority. 

You’ve drawn graphic fiction for a number of publications, including Drunken Boat and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. How does your approach to visual storytelling differ from your approach to writing traditional fiction?

I find that, while I never use speculative elements in my prose writing—I’m more interested in how weird reality can be while still being believable—I do use speculative elements in my comics. My main comic, “Lesbian Cattle Dogs” is about lesbian talking dogs, and my current project involves a pair of breasts that chase a humanoid blob through the desert—an exploration of nonbinary identity. 

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Can you talk about your creative process for writing the stories featured in Rainbow Rainbow and some of the challenges you may have faced along the way?

My stories always grow from some kernel of truth—sometimes that kernel is an image, or an emotional question, or a set piece or whatnot—and sometimes whatever scrap inspired the story doesn’t even make it into the final draft.

I try to let the characters go their own way from there, without planning too much in advance, allowing the characters to spool out their own lives and surprise me. Once I have a draft, I go through a revision process that usually involves many years—sharing with trusted readers, putting the story in a drawer for months or years at a time, reading it out loud, printing it and reading it on the page—all different tricks to get my mind to see it with fresh eyes. 

I had some challenges with the endings of some of the stories in the collection, which me and my editor Leigh Newman handled in various ways. For one of the stories we just cut the whole ending. With another story I had to change the ending because it was too similar to the ending of a different story in the collection. For a third story my editor suggested I draw out an uncomfortable sex act for four or five pages, and then she chose the parts she liked the best. Every one was a journey. 

The book has been described as “hilarious and heartrending.” How do you balance the humor and heartbreak in your writing and what do you hope readers will take away from your stories?

Thank you! That is my main goal, to have my stories be both humorous and sad at the same time. If I can make anyone laugh or cry at any point, that is the achievement of my greatest goal, especially if both things happen in the same story.

It’s hard to achieve that balance, especially when I’m writing about serious things, and things that happened to me and that I can see the humor and nuance and complexity of, especially with the distance of time. “Ooh, the Suburbs” was one of the stories I wrestled with the most over the years, trying to hit that tone right—since it is such a hard and complicated issue that the story deals with. 

I hope readers will find in my stories the dignity of queer and trans people living real, nuanced lives, not being perfect, not being flawless, messing up in the ways everyone messes up, allowed to be alive and imperfect on the page. 

Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?

I start writing first thing in the morning, and I write until I have something else to do, which is the case most of the time these days, with a new full time job. If I don’t have anything else to do during the daylight, like sometimes on the weekends, I write until two hours before sunset, when I go exercise, which is an important part of my daily routine. An unusual aspect of my writing routine is that I write while I walk, using a treadmill desk. I’m a restless person so this helps me burn off some excess energy and also helps activate my mind so I can think of ideas.

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

I would like to talk to Carson McCullers. I would be interested to hear what kind of difficulties she faced as a queer writer writing in a time that was even more unfriendly to queer writers. I also absolutely love her (early) work, and am so curious how she managed to write such masterworks at such a young age.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite recent reads?

I loved Holding Pattern by Jenny Xie, which comes out in June—it was a joy to read, and so moving and lively and funny. I also loved Call and Response by Gothataone Moeng—a brilliant collection of short stories that recently came out. The most recent great thing I read was Daddy Boy by Emerson Whitney, which really blew me away (pun intended—it’s about tornado chasing!). 

What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are just starting out, and what do you think are the most important things to keep in mind when pursuing a career in writing?

The answer to both of these questions is I would advise people to try not to give in, as much as they are able, to the claws of anxiety. The writing and publishing world can be a bit brutal, and it’s a path rife with anxiety. I lost too much time and energy to anxiety over the years, and wished I could’ve kept up more faith that things would work out—one way or the other—for the best. 

What does your current writing workspace look like?

I have my treadmill desk, and my walls are a color green called Cliffside Park that I feel like no partner would have agreed to, but luckily I was making decisions on my own at the time I painted it! I also have a rubber owl from Norway and a very startled looking rubber bat hanging from the ceiling. 

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