Melissa Kuiper’s short story collection, The Whole Beautiful World, was published in 2017 with Brindle & Glass and reviewed in Image 99 by Samuel Martin. Melissa’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The Puritan, Ryga, Joyland, The Rusty Toque and Qwerty. She has an MA in Creative Writing from University of Toronto. In addition to writing, she also serves as Director of Family Ministries at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, ON, where she lives with her husband and child. Melissa was interviewed for Image by Olivia Vander Ploeg, a writing student a Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.
Image:Your stories have been said to be reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor. Is she one of the writers that influenced you?
Melissa Kuipers: Yes, definitely. There are so many powerful aspects to her writing, but for me two stand out: her unadorned attention to detail and her overt and yet nuanced portrayal of faith. With regards to her attention to detail, she points out these little gestures and physical details that are often grotesque but also very relatable. With regards to faith, she doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of Christianity, or humanity for that matter. She depicts a grace that breaks through in these unexpected, often unwelcome ways. And that’s what we see at the cross. Grace in the dark, violent acts of humanity, in the way that nobody wanted and expected, and yet there is God, naked and bloodied and humiliated, and still delivering forgiveness.
Image: Why are you drawn to unresolved endings, the ragged edge of experience, where problems don’t always get fixed?
MK: We long for resolution and repair, and sometimes we receive it, but never in full—there are always cracks and dents remaining. If we want to look at it theologically, I’d say we’re living in what George Eldon Ladd calls the “Already/Not Yet.” Redemption has entered this world, but it’s still broken, and the process is incomplete. I might argue that some of the stories do find resolution: Evelyn in “Your Best Self” grows comfortable with her body and stage of life; the narrator in “Mattress Surfing” finds peace with the words she has spoken (or hasn’t); I don’t want to spoil too many endings, but there are some subtle resolutions while characters also have to continue on with the broken, messiness of life while also gaining a little more peace or self-confidence.
Image:How do you decide where to end the story?
MK: I guess I decide a story is finished when the character has found the answer—whether positive or negative—to a main question posed in the plot. It’s often not a question the characters are aware of. For instance, in “Mood Ring” the question would relate to how the narrator can make life work with this charming roommate who she both admires and can’t stand; in “Happy All the Time” the question is how can Marcus prove himself to be a man of worth; in “The Whole Beautiful World” the question is how can Marty best serve and care for George. Sometimes the solution is not what the character would want, but they have learned how they will answer the question, or intentionally avoid the solution.
Image:How have you been able to know God better through your writing?
MK: When I started taking these stories seriously—really giving up control and allowing the words and ideas that wanted to come out to emerge—I struggled with what it meant to feel called to write. I don’t mean that the stories had a life of their own independent of me: I mean, rather, that these were words that were coming from an authentic place, rather than my trying to write what I felt I was supposed to write. When I was free writing and writing unencumbered by any agenda, similar subject matter kept rising up—religious manipulation, legalism, repression, social expectations, etc. These were not the things I wanted to write, but I felt they were the things I needed to write. I feared that I would offend good Christian people with my words, but I also felt I had to bring up issues we want to tuck away in the corner. I prayed a lot about what it meant to break my expectations of being a Christian and a writer, and felt I needed to surrender, to be willing to bring light to what was dark. I’m not saying by any means that this writing is prophetic, but I thought often about the prophets and the difficult burden of their words, of saying things that would make people uncomfortable, speaking words that call people to self-reflection and repentance. It also calls me to see the darkness in myself and draws me to seek forgiveness, to seek to grow.
Image:In “Bacon Bits,” you portray a beautiful relationship between two women and the comfort and support a girl finds in their home. Was it a prophetic impulse, like you mention above, that led you to write the story—an issue we need to discuss—or something different?
MK: I wrote “Bacon Bits” initially because of this idea of a girl who needs an escape from her dysfunctional family, who finds a mentor with whom she can be herself. The same sex relationship here developed later. So, no, I didn’t begin with the intention of raising my voice on this issue. I think it’s pretty difficult—maybe impossible—to write good fiction while trying to push a moral perspective. (Not that fiction doesn’t deal with morality, but authorial perspectives read as more authentic when our values arise naturally through our work, when they flow out of the characters or narrative tone.) But I did wonder how Christians would respond when I published it. The Church is at a point, though, where there are so many different perspectives, and I hope we can continue to keep talking about the things that divide us and the ways in which we too easily dehumanize each other. I think it’s far too easy for us to dehumanize people—in fiction and in life—to reduce their relationships to “issues.” What light and life-giving friendships do we miss when we do that?
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Olivia Vander Ploeg
Olivia Vander Ploeg is a writing student at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.