Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Ashley Kunsa’s fiction piece, Drowning
Sommer: You do a great job of weaving together so many different plot lines in this story, with the relentlessness of Kyrstal’s terrible difficulties acting as unification. How did you decide upon a modular format (versus linear) as a way to tell this story?
Ashley: I write a lot of stories this way, though I almost never set out to. I think it’s something about the way my brain “sees” stories, sort of in these little clips or moments. Some people find this style confusing, and I do understand that, but I love the pay off, how you can get such a richly developed story and backstory in a rather short span of pages. I’m very moved by lyric essays, and I like the way this form, like the lyric essay form, allows for shifts from past to present to somewhere else in the past to details kind of floating outside of time. Even so, I strongly believe in narrative, in character arc, and so I always want there to be a thread that guides the reader through a story and an evolution that takes place.
The accumulation and slow revelation of the story’s highly volatile events makes for some incredible suspense and tension. But I love how you defy our expectation by creating a positive ending—we literally breathe a sigh of relief! Did you have this ending figured out before you came to it?
I had the ending clause—“she waits to give her statement”—from the first day I started working on the story, but for a long time I had no idea what words/ideas would lead up to it, and I didn’t know whether the story would end on a positive or negative note. I worked and reworked that last section as I was trying to figure out how things would come to a close in the convenience store, and finally it just felt right to create a space of possibility where before there had been only difficulty and darkness.
What techniques help you create tension and suspense in your writing?
The two things you’ve already mentioned—slowly revealing details/events and writing in a non-linear fashion. Giving out details bit by bit whets the reader’s appetite but allows you to hold back enough to keep them reading. With Dylan, for example, I wanted to immediately establish that he’s had some kind of painful experience that’s still affecting him and also gesture toward the fact that he’s been somewhere different from the world they now inhabit—by way of setting up his difficulties early on in the story—but, at the same time, I wanted a slow revelation of exactly what’s what, similar to how Krystal would’ve gotten this information from him in bits and pieces.
As for using a non-linear form, the transitions/connections between sections can be more intuitive and less literal than they might be in a more clearly chronological piece. These jumps, which don’t always occur for easily discernable reasons, contribute to suspense, I think, by creating questions as much as answering them.
I greatly admire the way you write and focus on details in this story, from Dylan’s thinning physical body to Krystal’s leaking and large breasts. Indeed, it’s the details that truly make a story. How do you determine in your own writing what details to dwell on and what details to let pass?
A good detail, to me, has metaphorical/symbolic weight in addition to doing descriptive work. It will suggest meaning on multiple levels and help to broaden the feeling of the story, rather than constrict it. I firmly believe in the concepts of significant detail and not wasting words, so as I revise and revise, I’m constantly looking for what I can delete, what isn’t doing enough work to be included in a story. And I’m looking for ways to get more out of the details I have decided to use, ways to make them do double or triple duty.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
It gets easier. Seriously. Three years ago, I’d lie on my kitchen floor and dramatically pound my fists when I received a rejection from a place I admired. Now, I announce my rejections to my students. The rejections only make the acceptances sweeter, and the acceptances will come—just give it time.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, and much congratulations!
Thank you, and thanks for having my story in your beautiful journal!