Of Birds and Lovers (Corgi Snorkel Press, 2013)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
I am ashamed to admit that I don’t read a whole lot of chapbooks, though I do love Matthew Salesses’ fiction chapbook Our Island of Epidemics that was published through PANK. I also have loved Victoria Lynne McCoy’s homemade chapbook, A Name for This. She’s a fantastic poet who doesn’t have a book out yet, so I was lucky enough to snag a copy at a reading she did many years ago.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one story that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest piece from the book is “Long-Distance Lover,” which I wrote in a response to a favorite poem of mine, Jeffrey McDaniel’s “The Quiet World.” The original poem is about someone who lives in a world where each person is only given one hundred and sixty-seven words per day. The narrator saves all the words to tell his/her long-distance lover “I love you.” I thought a lot about this long-distance lover, and what it was like for them. I wondered why the long-distance lover might not have saved their words the way their lover had done for them. The other thing is, in a story about being intentional about words and only having a certain number of words to work with, I wanted to also limit myself. 167 is kind of nothing for fiction though, so I gave myself an even 500 to work with. The story is 499 words, I think.
What’s your chapbook about?
The book is really about relationships and perception. The ways in which perceptions and misperceptions can shape the way we interact with others. It’s also very much about longing.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?
Corgi Snorkel approached me to put together a chapbook of short shorts after reading my short story, “The Emperor’s Malady” (which is in the book), so I put together the ones that I had. There were a couple that didn’t make it in, because the editors felt that they carried a different tenor than the rest of the pieces. I did want the book to alternate between the ones that were rooted in realism and the ones that felt more mythical, so I took that into consideration as I put the book together. As for the title: I hate coming up with titles, so I felt iffy about everything. I offered my editors either Of Birds and Lovers or Murmurations of Flight. They took the former.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
As I said, this chapbook was solicited, so no. In fact, it had never occurred to me that my short fiction could live in a chapbook form until I was approached to put it together.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I had nothing to do with the design of the chapbook. Theresa Beckhusen over at Corgi Snorkel designed simple ink print covers for most of the chapbooks, and she did these cool handmade special edition versions made from stripped out old book covers, filled with old prints of birds for a limited purchase, which was pretty cool.
What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?
The usual. Twitter, Facebook, my website.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m in the process of putting together a novel-in-stories that I’ve been working on for several years. It follows various characters in a family over several decades, to look at how different events and choices have repercussions across lives and time. It also features an imaginary circus. I also have a newer novel that I’m just beginning. Throw in side projects: personal essays, short stories, and I have enough to keep me working for awhile. I think I work best when I have several projects going on at once. I wish I had more time.
What is your writing practice or process?
I don’t think I have a set process. Some stories spit themselves out fully formed, while others take months, sometimes years, to percolate and coalesce. I often write a first draft with no idea where it’s going and what is going to happen, and sometimes those first drafts are very close to the final product, and other times they’re practically just notes that I then have to rework completely, or even try in a new POV or tense. With short shorts, it’s a little easier, but even then, I’ve had short shorts that I’ve worked on for years and drafted multiple versions of. I am not a “write everyday” kind of writer though; I’m more of a “sit down and write in lengthy spurts” type of writer. It’s hard for me to focus when I know I have to be somewhere in an hour.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
True or False: The chapbook is to the full-length collection as the EP is to the LP. Discuss.
Hmm. Maybe for poetry. For fiction, I’d say less so. For fiction it’s probably more like… the short film that goes before the feature at Pixar movies.
Have you ever written a fan letter to a writer?
Oh lord, HAVE I. Before I decided to take this writing business seriously (and even at the very beginning… and I confess, even now) I would seek out email addresses for the writers whose books I had loved and send them heartfelt messages. My reasoning was always that I wanted them to know how much their words had meant to me, and that hopefully, they would always be pleased to know that was the case, no matter how much of a nobody I was. I still feel that to be true – maybe even more now that I’m a writer myself – that most writers don’t get monetary awards or even fancy prestigious awards, so that the reward is partially in knowing that you’ve done something that has touched someone, that all of that effort means something to someone.
If your chapbook wasn’t a chapbook — if it was in some other form — what would it be?
Are we talking not words? If I could tell the same story but not in words? I imagine photography, or music. Although I’m sad to say my photography skills are lackluster and while I love music, I can’t compose. My brother’s the musician in my family.
Which piece in your chapbook has the most meaningful backstory to you? What’s the backstory?
The last piece, “Postcards to a Man Who Will Not Tell Me He Hasn’t Cheated On Me” is most meaningful to me. It’s more a collection of prose poems that began as little section breaks in my MFA thesis. They’re fiction, but many of them are cobbled from images, moments, places that have meaning to me. I wrote the first few at the very beginning of a relationship I am still in, at a time when I was still trying to make sense of a relationship I was still healing from. I don’t think it’s my favorite piece in the chapbook, but it’s certainly most meaningful.
Where is the ideal place to read your chapbook? What type of place for reading might antagonize your chapbook?
At the beach. Or, if it’s cold, by a window in a writing nook. My chapbook probably wouldn’t want to be read in the middle of a traffic jam; it’s not particularly fond of angry people blaring their horns.
Do you think that in the course of your present and/or future career, having written and published a full-length book, you’ll come back to the chapbook, publishing them (or attempting to) as you see fit or as the work seems to elect, or do you see the chapbook as a breakthrough collection to longer works?
I think I mostly see them as the latter, though I imagine that if I got together a small collection of shorts again that I felt were related in theme and existed best in a singular form, I would consider the chapbook. I think, also, in the face of digital books and such, chapbooks increasingly can become art items, a precious artifact that people want to have. So I’d definitely consider it again.
Concerning voice and style: Do you find it something that you consciously think about or do you simply write? Do try to reinvent yourself every few years, go looking for a new way, or do you think that finding a certain language, a certain voice and pushing and honing it over a lifetime is your preferred mode?
I get bored easily, so while I think I have a “voice” I slip into and probably even unconsciously reach for, I really like trying on new voices or modes or forms. It’s more interesting to me to search for the different voices a story might have, and flesh that out, rather than going back to the same voice.
Karissa Chen is the author of Of Birds and Lovers (Corgi Snorkel Press 2013). Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including PANK, The Good Men Project, and Midnight Breakfast. She has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from the Napa Valley Writers Conference, VONA/Voices, and Kundiman, and received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She is currently the fiction & poetry editor at Hyphen magazine and co-founder of Some Call It Ballin’.
from “Long-Distance Lover”
In the shower this morning, I traced your name in the glass and tried to hold it in. My tongue flopped like a fish in my mouth. My chest ached, my lips slipped. Your name came out in a hushed prayer. I thought if I swallowed the words they would make me feel whole, but instead they bounced off the tiles and swirled down the drain.
I resolved to stay mute on my walk to work. But then I saw a man wearing your green cap, and I called for you. The sidewalks echoed. When he turned I saw he was somebody else. His smile was too white, his eyes too blue. He was too young and his face too square. Everybody stared. I fled. I told myself to stop the wishful thinking. But eight more times it happened. Eight more times I called you because eight men had clothes or gaits or napes like you.
In my cubicle, I answered all correspondence with email. I did not pick up international calls. I ate my sandwich quietly. I spilled hot coffee on my hand and bit my lip. My coworker asked me if I was hurt. I shook my head. At the end of the day, my boss appeared with a pink slip and an empty box. I tried not to cry while placing my dying fern and the photo of you inside. All my hiccups came out sounding like your name.