A writer's transition from short story to full-length novel is often tricky. No less than Alice Munro, a master of the short form, has for years declined to switch gears for longer prose excursions. Ernest Hemingway's legacy as a short-story writer would remain intact if he'd never even bothered to write a novel.
Salt Lake City writer Kirstin Scott's stories have been published in Western Humanities Review and Hayden's Ferry Review, among others. Not content to sit on short laurels, the Montana native and graduate of the University of Utah's MFA program in creative writing stretched her writing legs with Motherlunge, a novel about a young woman caught between the tumultuous family life of an unstable mother, a reckless sister and her own emotional yearnings that begin with her sexual education and end in childbirth. Between those two points teems, as the book jacket puts it, "the fear of inheriting a disappointing life."
Scott's book, published last month, won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs' 2011 novel prize. Currently living in Mexico with her family, Scott works as a medical writer in the fields of obstetrics and pediatrics. She took time out to answer a few questions between poker games with her photographer husband and their two children.
What were your motives or general inspiration for writing this book? How did it first take shape?
I began with a few older stories I'd written pieces that had an energy and voice that I liked and that dealt with things that still interest me: sex, death, illness how people think about their possibilities and responsibilities in relation to the people they love. I sort of pinned these stories up in the sky (actually the wall behind my computer) and then began writing new stuff between and around them like sailing around in the constellation to find the novel's shape. Eventually there was an actual outline. When I began the book, I hadn't written fiction in a long time. Years. So I was inspired by the inexorable passage of time, an awareness of death's inevitability, an irritation with self and a surplus of metaphorical thinking.
A lot of your chapters begin with discussions of human physiology or anatomy, working forward and/or outward to scenes of human interaction. It seems a "physical" novel in some sense. Was this a conscious decision with a detailed plan in mind, or did it arise naturally because it fit your plans for the narrative?
It wasn't a conscious decision to move in this way, from the body outward. It's probably an instinctive way of presenting thoughts and emotions, which to me are often felt, physical things. It's maybe also a way of acknowledging that social interactions occur in the haze of our own personal chemistries. … [It fits] with the book's concern with heritability, with the power of shared genes to determine your nature, your sorrows and your future.
The story seems bookended by scenes in which a young woman first has sex and then first gives birth. Is it a "gestational" novel in some sense?
I guess so, mostly because the idea of gestation is rich in the contradictions and tensions the book explores: beginnings and endings; how purpose and accident combine to create a life; hope and fear, the blurred boundaries of the self.
You've got at least a few nods to local Salt Lake City institutions, e.g., The Republican. Was this for convenience sake, or is Motherlunge something of a "Salt Lake City book"? Were you raised in Salt Lake City, or some other region of the United States? Does that matter in terms of your writing?
I grew up in Missoula, Mont. that's the basis for the fictional setting of Supernal, Mont. The nameless big city in the novel is loosely based on Boston, where I lived for a couple of years after college. There are a lot of Irish bars in Boston, as you can imagine; I'm sure one of them is called The Republican, like the Salt Lake City bar near my house. The places I've lived do inform my writing, but for this book I chose not to give real names to any of the settings. It's hard enough to start a first novel, and I didn't want to feel responsible for getting a place "right." The book I'm working on now is set in Salt Lake City and will probably be named.
Stylistic flourishes abound throughout, that sometimes spin off in poetic directions. Did you sometimes find it difficult to limit this particular talent and pay more attention to other elements of the book?
I was aware of the danger of getting precious with all that, too wrapped up in lyricism or abstraction. (What seems terrific in a 10-page story can, in a novel, make you want to stab someone.) So I thought about the complaints people tend to have about literary fiction that I have, too, in some cases and I tried to be less elliptical and more … entertaining.
Were any of your friends or family sometimes put off by the book's frank and honest discussion of sexual matters or themes?
Among my family and friends, it probably fails to shock.
New Issues Poetry & Prose
Pages • 248
Price • $15