Kendra Fortmeyer: Telling stories worth telling

The author of "Hole in the Middle" on writing about the things that trouble her as a way to solve them


Kendra Fortmeyer won a 2017 Pushcart Prize for her story, “Things I Know to Be True,” which was originally published in One Story and reprinted in “The Best American Nonrequired Reading.” Her stories have also appeared or are forthcoming in  LeVar Burton Reads, The Toast, Lightspeed, Cincinnati Review and elsewhere. Fortmeyer is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and New Writers Project MFA program at University of Texas at Austin, where she’ll return as the Visiting Fiction Writer in spring 2019. Her debut young adult novel, “Hole in the Middle,” a magical realist tale about a teenage girl born with a hole in her abdomen, is available now from Soho Teen, an imprint of Soho Press.

She answered questions by email.

Thao Votang: Your book, “Hole in the Middle,” was a unique reading experience. I had never been so engrossed and enraged at the same time. Engrossed because I wanted so badly for everything to turn out okay for Morgan, the protagonist. Enraged because of everything you put her through that so perfectly mirrors the rage I feel as a woman in our world. What a feat! Did you feel anger as you wrote, and how do you shape that into writing (instead of, say, throwing furniture out the window)?

Kendra Fortmeyer: I write about the things that trouble me as a way to solve them — or at least, putting my own frustration into the world, and therefore to bed.

There’s an almost magical power in writing fiction about real frustration. Media affects culture just as much as culture affects media — which is to say, what you write is informed by the world, and what you write also affects the world. In “Hole in the Middle,” I wrote a character who was ashamed of her body and embarks on an arc of anti-patriarchal rebellion and self-acceptance (as informed by my experience of growing up female-bodied in a society that’s keen to control and punish female bodies). By releasing, into that same society, a narrative that offers the reader a model for bucking the oppression that inspired its writing, you’re giving that oppression a bit of a kick in the shins. It’s wonderful.

TV: I hope this isn’t giving too much away, but there is a part in the book called the “Merge.” It was shocking — almost too close. I’m curious what kind of comments you’ve gotten (if any) on it and if you’ve found that it helps people understand what our cultures put women through?

KF: I’ll be honest — not one person has asked me about that part of the book! I think it makes people squeamish; if there’s any part of the novel that goes full-on Katherine Dunn, it’s that. (No, reader, I won’t explain it; go read the book.) For protagonist Morgan in particular, it’s a collision point between medical horror, body anxiety, and her aversion to intimacy — none of which are given much regard when, as a hospital patient, you cease to be a human and begin to be just another body in a paper gown.

TV: And it’s not only the woman’s experience. The book chronicles the fear and unknown of medical procedures. You had a collapsed lung in the past and through that dealt with your fair share of doctors. I think most women’s annual check-up/get-prodded-and-scraped provides a great deal of discomfort and coldness. It made me wonder how you synthesize your lived experiences with the story you want to tell. When do you know it’s the perfect detail to draw in?

KF: The details I most love to put into fiction are the ones that surprise me in the real world. There are so many strange specifics in the medical world: the salt taste that haunts the back of your throat when a nurse hooks up a saline IV drip, or the paper sunshines and happy faces plastered on the door of the pediatric radiation room. Especially when writing strangeness and magic, there’s an urgency and power in grounding the work in the real.

TV: You mention in an interview in The Rumpus that you are obsessed with female friendships. One of my favorite parts of “Hole in the Middle” is how you describe a fight between Morgan and Caro. As a “level-headed” reader shouting to the characters, it seems easy to fix — just apologize! But the distancing and silence was excruciatingly exact and you kept it going for pages. In addition to that, you have these great scenes where Morgan is navigating her relationship with her love interest’s mom and his (female) doctor. Do you see writing about mature, evolving female friendships as an important part of today’s feminism?

KF: Yes! Absolutely. As we’re all aware, in the midst of the wonderful #ownvoices wave sweeping publishing, the stories we tell teach us about the stories we’re allowed to dream and live. In the same vein, the telling of a story indicates that it is a story worth telling. Telling stories that depict mature, evolving (and delightful) female friendships indicates that this is, and also helps further, a cultural moment where female friendships can be the center of the story. Which is to say, a story is still worth telling even if there isn’t (gasp!) a man on the page.

TV: “Hole in the Middle” was released in the UK before it came out in the states through Soho Teen. What was it like to release something abroad before releasing it in the states? How does that work in the publishing world, and how did you approach it as a writer?

KF: Publishing a debut novel overseas was extraordinarily surreal — like watching the greatest dream of my life unfold through a fogged window. I knew it was happening, and friends abroad were sending me photos from in European bookshops. But because the North American rights were still out on submission, my book couldn’t appear in libraries or bookstores here. Plus, the author copies of my UK edition got lost in the post and I didn’t receive them until several weeks after the book launch! So what might have been the biggest day of my writerly life turned out to be a very oddly quiet Tuesday.

To be honest, I think this was good for me. The quiet of it all cushioned me from the post-release crash that devastates so many new authors. It also made me fiercely hungry for the next thing – because I never quite had the sense that I’d arrived, it made me chase arriving harder.

TV: You’re incredibly active online, always seem game for an interview, work full time, write, and probably so much more! What helps you make time for writing while making time for marketing yourself — plus all that other life stuff!?

KF: There is no destiny: there is only the hustle. (This is not entirely true — success is equal parts luck, being visibly excellent, and not being an asshole.) But I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about work and energy and how to apportion it. I am an exhaustingly productive person; I have trouble relaxing. Recently, I did a month-long accountability experiment with some writer friends, with the goal to add pages to a novel in progress. I did meet my page count, but the most valuable thing I gained was a new comfort with what I can’t get done. If you ever feel you aren’t doing enough, write down everything you’ve accomplished in a day: you’ll be astounded.

TV: Twitter, as I have molded my feed into, is a wonderful place where lovely writers like yourself push and encourage other writers day in and day out. I’m eternally grateful for this and through it, I see that you are drafting. Are you working on the next novel, short stories, flash, or all of the above?

KF: I love literary Twitter! It’s such a font of encouragement and mutual admiration and extremely great writing. (Reader, if your timeline isn’t this, go unfollow some haters and download my entire following list.) I’ve made incredible friends and discovered great journals there.

Currently, I’m working on a new weird YA novel, dreaming of short fiction and flash. I’ve also got an idea for a middle grade fantasy series that I keep sneaking little moments to daydream about. Do you have any extra hours in your day? Send them my way, please; I’ll take them.

Thao Votang
Thao Votang
Thao Votang is a writer at work on a novel. Votang previously co-edited the online magazine Conflict of Interest and co-founded the Austin gallery Tiny Park.

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