by PAUL BLOM, Fiction Co-Editor
Kathleen McNamara is the first-place winner of the The Carolina Quarterly’s recent fiction contest, “Wake, and Dream Again.” Our editors here at the CQ selected the finalists, and among those finalists, author Daniel Wallace selected the contest winners. Kathleen was gracious enough to grant one of our fiction editors, Paul Blom, a remote interview to discuss her story, her writing process, her life, and even her opinions on Bigfoot.
Kathleen’s story, “Cryptozoology,” will be appearing in print in our upcoming fall/winter issue, to be released on November 1. The following are some excerpts from the interview. Be sure to listen to Episode 2 of our podcast, CQ Speaks, for the audio of the complete interview and to hear Kathleen reading a few excerpts from her piece.
PB: What were your thoughts or expectations when you submitted your story to the contest?
KM: Well, it’s funny. I had had this story around on my computer for about two years, and I had never really pinned it down, and around February I saw the contest call, and I thought, “This is a good deadline for me to finish the story” because it seemed like a really good fit. It had been kind of germinating and marinating for a long time before I saw the contest, and that was sort of the impetus to finish it, especially because I was pregnant at the time, and it was hard to balance everything. It was nice to have a set deadline to say, “Okay, I’m going to submit this to this contest. I think it actually might fit the bill pretty well.”
PB: I was just going to ask about your writing process in general. You mentioned this story was kind of just sitting and germinating for a long time. Is that how you usually work, or is it more sporadic?
KM: I think it depends. There are stories that just sort of strike you and you’re able to write a draft really quickly. I think Murakami says that he writes a draft of a story in a week. And sometimes I get lucky, but a lot of the time, it’s something that I really have to work through over and over again until it seems like I have the right combination of things. This story, for example, it sort of started as two different stories, and then I realized that they were all tangled up together and I was able to get through it over time, letting it sit in the back of your mind for a while and not pushing it. I think my writing process changes depending on the type of thing it is, but in general, I’m somebody who will let it sit for a while before I feel like it needs attention again.
PB: So sometimes our literary influences are not necessarily the same as our favorite writers to read, so I’m just kind of curious about who you would name as your influences or people you emulate and/or just the writers that you just enjoy the most.
KM: The first person that comes to mind is Bolaño even though it’s kind of hard to have him as someone you’re trying to emulate because he’s so idiosyncratic, and he’s so dreamlike. But I love his really expansive novels like 2666. Another person that comes to mind is Silko. The Almanac of the Dead is kind of like 2666 in this really dreamlike, almost seemingly formless type of narrative that totally transports you. It’s the type of thing where, when you’re reading it, you’re like, “I’m not sure if I’m retaining everything.” But then, you know, a year later, some of the images and moments are still so vivid in my mind that I think I would be remiss not to mention those types of books.
I should also mention George Saunders because I think, in this story in particular, his work in Tenth of December really helped me capture the type of voice I wanted. In terms of short stories, I think Lorrie Moore is really, really skillful. It’s such a hard question because there’s just so many. I feel like everything you read has an effect on how you perceive the next thing that you write.
PB: Your story involves a lot of instances of the unspeakable or the unspoken. There are these incomplete communications: questions people want to ask, but they don’t; or questions that are asked, but they’re left unanswered; or just all these failed attempts with communication or connection. I guess I’d be curious if you want to speak to that issue of the unspeakable. That’s something that really jumped out at me, even from my first reading of it: the unspeakable, in this piece or just in your writing in general.
KM: Sure. One thing that I find myself coming back to when I write is the tension between your inner reality and the one that we all participate in outwardly. And I think some people might be quick to say to this character, Sullivan, in this story has PTSD—and I’m not saying that he doesn’t—but I think that it’s a lot more complex than that. The relationships that we have to trauma and to our collective traumas, like war—I feel like we’re always grasping at something and never quite getting there, and I think that’s something that’s true with writing and with language, that you’re always sort of trying to reach for something that’s slipping out of your hands.
So I think one way that the Sasquatch comes into this story is through this personification of the things that we don’t say or the things that we can’t say but that still influence and affect us all the time even when we don’t want them to. I think that a lot of what this story is sort of tangled in is this idea of trying to keep something in and yet finding that it’s always looking for avenues to come out.
PB: There are these strange interplays in this story: the title of the piece itself, “Cryptozoology,” aiming to prove the existence of creatures like the Sasquatch or the Bigfoot. And I kept thinking about that title and these failed attempts at communication or bringing things to the surface like you said, the things that keep coming up even if we don’t want to speak of them. And that made me think, too, about the issues of Sullivan’s tumors manifesting themselves in these symptoms. So all of these things, I guess, just arising to the surface.
KM: Yeah, I feel like, especially with any type of trauma—obviously this character has endured something unspeakable, as the story says, but I think that we’re kind of—with this seventeen-year-long war that we’ve had in Afghanistan and the way that we treat war in the country, there’s this sort of dual approach. We ignore it. As someone who’s in my thirties, many people my age are veterans and fought these wars, but the rest of us at home were kind of going through our lives as though we were not engaged in this type of global conflict. We sort of repress it, and yet we also mythologize it in a way.
And I think that tension of the cryptid, or the Bigfoot—we build it up and it becomes this sort of holy figure, this myth that we are all kind of worshipping. And yet at the same time, the actual trauma is really repressed and really unspoken, and then it finds its way to express itself. In the case of this character, it might be nightmares or disease, actual disease. So I feel like there’s this tension between the way we glorify trauma and the way we mythologize it and also the way that we hide it, simultaneously, if that makes sense.
PB: You mentioned too—and we’ve talked about this—that ultimately, if we boil the plot down, it’s a story with a character dealing with—to risk being reductive—it’s a character dealing with this genetic disorder, right? A battle within his own body. So I was curious, too—and we’ve kind of touched on this a bit—about the role that embodiment plays in this piece or in your fiction in general as well.
KM: Sure. Well, you know, I think that there’s a really interesting tension just in our daily life: how connected are you to your body and whether ailments of the mind can be connected to the body. For me, both my parents happen to be physicians, so I feel like my childhood was just a lot of discussion of disease, like it was a constant feature of the dinner table conversation, and I think that it is something that is really engrained in my system, trying to understand how we relate to our bodies because we take them for granted until we can’t, basically.
At the risk of sounding “New Age,” I think there is a relationship between your emotional and your psychological health and your physical health and how you grapple with the world. It’s the temple that you have to interact with the people around you, but it’s also sort of this sarcophagus of all the things that you’ve done in the past. And the sort of muscle memory of things that you won’t consciously deal with stays in your flesh in a strange way. I think it was something that was really on my mind as I wrote this story because I was pregnant the whole time writing it, and the relationship with your body was really forefront in my mind because of that strange interplay between the interior and the exterior.
PB: Yeah, definitely. And like you said, it’s easy to take for granted or forget our embodiment until either something is wrong or at least something unusual is happening, and that idea of what we carry within kind of manifesting, tying into either trauma or the unspeakable or the character’s genetics.
KM: I should mention, all these details about Bigfoot are actually stories I’ve heard from people who really think that they’ve seen Bigfoot, so this idea of Bigfoot singing at a funeral was a story somebody told me about a Bigfoot that they claim to have encountered here in Arizona.
PB: That reminds me, actually, of one question I can’t believe I almost forgot: do you believe in Bigfoot? I have to ask that.
KM: Well, do I believe in Bigfoot? I’m not going to rule it out…. Yeah, you know the interesting thing about cryptozoology—obviously it’s a pseudoscience—is the cryptid. You know, for a long time, things like the Komodo dragon was a cryptid or the giant squid was a cryptid. Obviously, we know those things do exist.
Regarding Bigfoot, I think that it is unlikely, but it’s interesting—you know, a lot of times we imagine Bigfoot as this sort of primitive creature that lurks in the woods, particularly in the Pacific Northwest or whatever, that’s basically monster-like, but I think one thing that really struck me about this particular rendering of Bigfoot that I have in this story is that the character, the chiropractor, envisions Bigfoot as basically some kind of inter-dimensional magical being that doesn’t really operate by the same rules that we do. So I guess, if you’re somebody who believes that those types of inter-dimensional beings might exist, then perhaps Bigfoot is one of them? I’m not sure if I am one of those people, but I like to imagine that it is possible just because I think, “Why not? What’s the harm?”
PB: Well, is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience about your thoughts on this piece or writing in general or just anything else?
KM: I’ll say something else about this story. It sort of came to me when I went to Alaska a couple of years ago to visit a friend of ours that was living on an Army base up there near Fairbanks. I think, at the time—in 2016—you know, it was really easy to feel like it’s an “us versus them” type of America. And one thing that I really wanted to do in this story was to try to inhabit the mind and the position of somebody who had lived a very different life than I had, just as an exercise in empathy for me because, I think, especially in 2016, it was easy to feel resentful or horrified by the way people were reacting to the political climate.
KM: I’m somebody who grew up in Los Angeles and spent quite a lot of time living in Brooklyn, so to be on an Army base in Alaska was definitely a departure from my typical milieu. And it was really interesting to see the way that people on the Army base interacted with this idea of war, especially these young people who were not older than my students and were totally divorced from the actual aftermath of it, and then people like my friend and other people his age who obviously have been through a lot and had a different way of dealing with it. But then, at the same time, it was all sort of unspoken, and instead everyone just played softball.
So that was sort of the initial thing that drove me to write this story, to try to—just as an exercise in empathy—to try to see something from a person whose perspective my kneejerk reaction might be to say: “I don’t know how you think that,” or “Why do you support this?” or “Why do you think that?” And just trying to live that other mind. And so I think that’s why I included a lot of things that I would never do, like as a thirty-one-year-old woman and mother, I would not go to a strip club. Not to say that I’ve never been to one, but I’m not trying to go to strip clubs and I’m not trying to—I don’t have an American flag decal on my truck, you know?
These little things that I think it’s really easy to reduce people to these sort of cartoon moments, and I just want to—for myself—humanize it because, as I mentioned, I live kind of in the middle of nowhere, and I encounter a lot of these trucks with really strange patriotic decals, and there’s a lot of visits to strip clubs and similar types of places without much thinking about it. You know, in Arizona, we’ve got a lot of those Bikini Beans coffee shops where these girls just wear these tiny bikinis and serve coffee in the mornings—those types of things that are just totally normal to some people and, for me, seem kind of horrifying. So I was trying, I guess, to live someone else’s life, and I think those are the most fun stories to write, the ones where you can really be yourself in someone else’s narrative.
PB: Definitely. I find them very challenging, but that’s a great challenge to have, and what a great tool in terms of, like you said, an intellectual exercise to build empathy. I mean, that’s one of the reasons I love literature and writing in general, right?
KM: Yeah, me too…. Going back to your question about how the genetic disorder fits into the story, I think Sullivan has this fear that he is trying to avoid confronting—the fear that he is monstrous for what he has participated in overseas, and that there is something wrong with him at his core because of his willingness to take part in this type of war. His deepest fear is that there is something inherently broken about him, and in a sense, that fear turns out to be confirmed by the news that he has neurofibromatosis—that there is literally a misstep written into his genetic code. But I think in the story, that news sets him free, and his acceptance of it means that he is able to see his demons and himself more clearly. Like the Bigfoot, Sullivan is just a bit misunderstood.
Born in downtown Chicago and raised in southern California, Kathleen McNamara now teaches writing at Arizona State University. She is a graduate of Barnard College and earned an MFA in fiction from ASU. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Border Crossing, Sierra Nevada Review, and The Tishman Review. She lives near Sedona with her husband, their newborn son, and a cat named Luna. Her story, “Cryptozoology,” can be found in the upcoming fall/winter issue of The Carolina Quarterly, to be released on November 1. The full audio of this interview can be heard in Episode 2 of our podcast, CQ Speaks.