The stories in Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum’s Flannery O’Connor Award-winning collection, What We Do With the Wreckage, are about what happens when life doesn’t look like it was supposed to, when all we’ve been working toward suddenly seems meaningless or broken. And yet they aren’t nihilistic. Lunstrum lets the personal disasters linger in the background while her characters exhibit real triumphs of determination and strength, even if those triumphs are not exactly wins, and whether or not their strengths lead her characters astray.
In “Endlings,” the stunning opener, an anorexic teen’s fierce strength might lead to her death. In “The Woman in the Red Scarf,” Lunstrum leaves her characters in what seems like their fantasy of a happy ending, though the reader suspects they stand on the edge of a cliff. There’s a wistfulness for what we wish could be and what we know, most likely, never will.
“Blessed with a tongue as sharp as her eye, Kirsten Lunstrum is an astonishingly mature teller of tales, keen to both fair and right about our tribe between margins, sensitive to subtlety and nuance, and unafraid of the dark truths that must be brought to light,” said series editor Lee J. Abbot of Lunstrum’s O’Connor Award win. “You will not read a smarter, more stylish, or more fetchingly well-told collection of stories this year.”
Lunstrum’s short fiction has previously appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, the American Scholar, Ploughshares Solos, and Willow Springs, as well as other journals. She has been the recipient of PEN’s O. Henry Prize and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Jack Straw Writers Program. Her two published collections of short fiction are This Life She’s Chosen (Chronicle Books, 2005) and Swimming with Strangers (Chronicle Books, 2008). She teaches high school English at an independent school near Seattle.
She spoke with Good Letters editor Jessica Mesman about her complicated faith, her love for the Pacific Northwest, and her commitment to the short story form.
Image: Tell me about your faith background and how it shaped you as an artist. What’s your relationship with faith like today?
KSL: I’m the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, and growing up in a clergy family was certainly influential in my development as a writer—both because it trained me to be a careful observer of other people, and because it filled my childhood with the narrative, metaphor, and lyricism of scripture. My father left a career in finance and went to seminary when I was nine, and from that point on my family moved every year—or every couple of years—until the time when I left for college. My adolescence was spent as a chronic new girl in school, a perpetual outsider, and the only way to survive that was to learn to be a good observer of social nuance, to listen. That’s a solid foundation for a writer.
Bigger than that, though, I’d argue that I owe my way of seeing and being in the world (which tends to favor metaphor and to view story as an avenue into empathy and love of the other—and therefore an avenue into experiencing the sacred) to having grown up in a household where questions of faith were discussed openly and broadly. My sister and I were encouraged by both our parents to intellectually challenge ideas, to read widely, and to practice our faith less as rote devotion to a particular dogma than as an expression of commitment to the central values of Christianity—compassion, empathy, grace, love. And while I’d say that being a clergy daughter has made my relationship with my own faith (and especially with the church) complicated and often strained, ultimately what I believe about literature—that it (like all art) is a means of better understanding those same central values—is connected to that upbringing.
I’m still an active member of a Lutheran (ELCA) congregation, but I wrestle with my participation in the church—especially now, as I feel less and less aligned, culturally, with other Christians. What brings me back each week?It’s a question I can’t simply answer. I’ve been reading Thomas Merton as a daily practice to begin this year, and yesterday I came across this line: “Sunrise demands this rightness, this order, this true disposition of one’s whole being.” Thinking about that statement is helping me unravel my own reasons for maintaining my relationship with the church. I’ll have trust in the ritual, in other words. I’ll keep placing myself in the path of beauty, of compassion, of grace, and at some point maybe I will understand more than I do right now.
Image: What does winning the Flannery O’Connor Award mean for you as a writer? Has she been a particular influence on you? The main character in “Endlings” seems like she’d be at home in an an O’Connor story.
KSL: Winning the Flannery O’Connor Award was hugely meaningful to me. I didn’t read O’Connor’s work until I was a graduate student, but her stories stunned me. I hadn’t read anything before her that so fully realized both failure and grace in the human experience, and I love the way in which her fiction makes no room for relationship or identity or faith to be easy or straightforward. A reader doesn’t get out of an O’Connor story without a fairly scouring self-examination, and that was a revelation to me as a young writer.
Separate from the honor of having my stories associated with O’Connor’s name (which is humbling and wonderful, and still kind of unbelievable to me), the award has been meaningful to me because it specifically recognizes the value of the short story as a form in fiction, andI have spent my career writing stories. What We Do With the Wreckage is my third collection, and when I finished the draft I was flatly told that a third collection would be unsellable. The assumption in publishing is generally that a writer completes a short story collection as training for writing a real project—a novel. I am so grateful to the University of Georgia Press for continuing to recognize the independent and inherent value of the short story through the O’Connor Award. As a reader and a writer, I love the elegance and bladed urgency of the story’s compressed form, and I’m happy for any opportunity (like the FOC Award series) to see stories get a little more space on our collective “shelves.”
Image: I saw so much of me and my contemporaries reflected in the characters in What We Do With the Wreckage. We wish we could direct and control our lives, steer ourselves toward happiness through whatever means we have–control of our bodies, control of our spirits, control of our lovers. Maybe it’s simply the realization of adulthood–this deep anxiety that nobody is steering the ship but us. And too often we are steering for the cliffs.
KSL: It’s interesting to me that you’ve pointed out control as a desire evident in the stories, because that’s a conflict I’ve circled and circled in my life, and so it makes sense to me that it would be right thereunder the skin of my fiction too. As child I struggled with an unreasonable perfectionism, and as an adolescent that led to an eating disorder (“Endlings” draws pretty heavily from my own experience of inpatient hospital treatment for anorexia). In working to understand my own mental health I’ve come to see that, for me, control is a really primary desire. I’m an anxious person. I’ve spent a lot of my life being afraid of my own body’s fragility, of disasters (both the natural and interpersonal varieties!), of the ways in which I won’t be able to stop myself from failing to meet my own high expectations. Now, though, at forty, I also see that so much of navigating the anxieties and failings of life is not actually controlling or mastering them, but just carrying on. It has taken me a long time to see the virtue in that, but I admire the strength implicit in acknowledging the wreckage, if you will, that is just part of living, and of moving forward despite it. And narratively, that’s interesting to me. There’s a sense of redemption—of grace—inherent in making it to the other side of a particular darkness not because you are stronger than anyone else, but just because you persevere. Honestly, I often find narratives of big trauma and won triumph hard to believe, contrived. The stories I’m more invested in are those in which loss must just be lived through, and in which the change loss effects is internal, quiet, and real.
Image: You’ve written consistently for the last twenty years despite cross country moves, family life, marriage to another artist, job insecurities–those upheavals that can effectively silence a writer. What’s your method for doing the work when life seems like a perpetual state of emergency?
KSL: It would be a misrepresentation of the reality to suggest that getting writing done around my family and my teaching (I teach high school) is anything but a struggle. I wrote the stories in this collection by getting up at five a.m., or staying up until midnight; by writing in my car and relying heavily on the kind babysitting offers of grandparents and aunts; by “trading time” with my husband so that each summer, one of us could have a week or two of solitude at a residency. But there’s never enough time. There’s always frustration about the stories I can’t get to—or can’t get to soon enough or well enough to get them right. And there’s equal frustration at what I miss with my family because I’m writing. I dislike in myself the difficulty I sometimes have leaving my internal world in order to be present in our family life. The honest answer to your question about method, then, is that I don’t have one. I’m totally winging it as both a writer and a parent everyday, and most days I feel like I’m failing at one or the other.
Image: O’Connor was very much a southern writer. I don’t think of you as a regional writer, but I know you feel a deep connection to the Pacific Northwest. How has that shaped you as a writer?
KSL: I don’t have to step back that many generations in my family history to find people who left everything to move west, and I have sometimes wondered if one can inherit that kind of longing for a place. I have felt it all my life about the region around Puget Sound—first during the years of my childhood, when my father was in seminary in the Midwest; and then during my own 20s and 30s, which were largely spent living in the Midwest and on the east coast, following academic jobs. Eventually, though, I couldn’t ignore the pull, and in 2012 my husband and I left our teaching jobs in New York and drove west. We haven’t looked back. Though that choice radically altered our professional lives (my husband left teaching altogether and now works as a journeyman electrician, and I went from the college classroom to the high school), we both feel like we can breathe here in a way we couldn’t anywhere else we’ve lived. Part of that is the landscape, to be sure. We live between two stunning mountain ranges—the Cascades and the Olympics, and only a few minutes from the shore of Puget Sound. On a clear day, I can stand on my back patio and smell the salt water, hear the ferry’s whistle. We spend a lot of time outside as a family—hiking, skiing, paddling—and that has made our lives feel full and whole and very contented.
The influence of this landscape is everywhere in my stories, too, which often start with setting (rather than character or plot). Natural beauty here is overt and can be breathtaking, but it’s also not an easy beauty. In the winter, the darkness can seem endless. Leave a corner of your suburban yard untended for a month and it will quickly become wild again—overtaken with moss and wild blackberries. On the Sound, there are tides to be aware of, and the frigid temperature of the water. And any day now, we’ve been warned, the megaquake expected in the Cascadia Subduction Zone could shake us all loose from our lives as we know them. I say all of this to get at the complicated reverence this place inspires. One cannot live where I live and not be spiritually stirred. My stories reflect that, I think, simply because it’s whatI know, and I’m grateful every day to live here and to get to write from this place, which does feel sacred to me.
Image: Tell me a writer or artist I should know about now. Who is a voice more people should hear?
KSL: Oh, I could make a list a mile long here! This one’s not a secret by any means, but I just read Tana French’s The Witch Elm, and would read anything she put on a page. I also read a lot of children’s literature and YA, and the book I most loved from last year’s list was a novel for young readers—The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz. I read it to my children as our family book, but loved it so much that I then assigned it as a text in my high school “Hero’s Journey” class. The book beautifully addresses the complexities of faith and identity, prejudice and institutional power, justice and love. Reading it led to such rich conversations.
As for writers I’d like more readers to know, I recommend three Seattle-area voices. I so appreciate the work of the poet EJ Koh, whose collection A Lesser Love won the Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry and was published in 2017. Her poetry has a stripped, bare quality—nothing but the essential on the page, and her images are vivid and whole. Reading Koh’s work is meditative, and I always leave her poems feeling as if I am seeing the physical world with a more attentive gaze.
The short story writer Becky Mandelbaum won the O’Connor Award the year before me with her collection Bad Kansas (2017, UGA Press). Her stories are lessons in character development, and she has a sense of landscape and an ability to infuse her stories with humor that I really admire.
Finally, the other Seattle writer whose work I want to share is Kristen Millares Young. Young is a journalist-turned-fiction writer and personal essayist, and the work of her career in journalism shows in the clarity and precision of her prose. Her first novel, Subduction (2020, Red HenPress), is set on the Makah Reservation on the Washington coast, and I’m so looking forward to it.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.