Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Kim Magowan’s fiction piece, Subplot
Sommer: What is there not to absolutely love and admire about this flash? One of my favorite aspects is how deftly you handle showing us the narrator’s spinning though highly logical train of thought, as if she were a professor applying the discipline of philosophical logic to the very personal problem before her. This, of course, also adds a delicious tinge of irony: the narrator is obviously capable of deep intellectual thought, contrary to how her husband seems to view her. I did not see the ending coming and was so happily surprised and contented afterwards. It felt like sliding the right key into the right lock. Really, there can be no other ending. Did you write towards this ending, or did you have the ending first and write your way back from it?
Kim: Thanks, Sommer, that’s very kind! And ha: I am a professor. One thing the narrator and her husband have in common is that they’re intellectually compatible, so the husband is horrified that she would fall for someone whose film taste (to the husband) marks the lover as stupid. At least, that’s how the wife reads his reaction: what does it mean that someone her husband loves, and believes loves him, has fallen for someone stupid? Of course, Love Actually isn’t really what the husband is upset about—the wound goes much deeper—but I think this reaction is commonplace when marriages go south. People seize onto some pretext to legitimate their upset (often money). Love Actually is a useful weapon: it allows the husband to shame his wife, to see her as degraded. It’s a far less painful thing to fixate upon than the fact she’s fallen in love with another man. I chose that particular movie because it’s tonally and stylistically uneven: there are some moving and beautifully acted subplots, as well as some ridiculous subplots. I didn’t know, writing this story, that it would end the way it does, but as soon as I decided the narrator needed (sneakily) to rewatch the film, I knew what the last four words had to be.
What are the differences for you in approaching and writing a piece of flash fiction versus something that is longer?
My general rule with flash is that I have to write the first draft in a sitting, and revise at leisure. Sometimes I go into a story knowing it will be flash. With this one, I didn’t know—I just hit the ending and I realized it was the ending. Though it’s difficult to imagine a long version of a story that is essentially a thought problem.
The stereotype (and, quite frankly, what we mostly read about) is that it is the man who has had the affair. Statistically speaking, it’s probably more common among men, I’m not sure. At least society tends to give men more permission and forgiveness. I like how you twist the stereotype in this story and give us something we don’t fully expect. Of course average women have affairs. And let’s go even further: yes, women fall out of love with their husbands and need to move on. Was this something you were intentionally aware of as you wrote? Do you think stories should seek to be in dialogue with larger, societal issues? Or does this dialogue appear more organically and subconsciously?
Hard agree that our stereotypes about and reactions to affairs are gendered! That’s true in literature (the great novels where women have affairs usually end tragically; hello Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier). It’s also true in life. Women are more likely to forgive the straying partner and to see themselves as partially responsible; men who are cheated on are more likely to see the marriage as fatally besmirched. And this one is weirder: men are more likely to use “It was just sex” as an excuse, while women are more likely to rationalize cheating because they fell in love. I say “weirder” because personally, I would be far, far more upset to have a partner fall in love with someone than have sex with someone. Infidelity is definitely one of my “core islands” as a writer (I’m thinking of the islands that form personality in that wonderful animated movie Inside Out). I’ve been writing about infidelity since I was a teenager, and had front-row seats to a messy divorce.
And on that note, what do you think is the purpose of a writer today? How do you gather and maintain that drive and inspiration to keep writing?
I love to write for the same reason I love to read, and I love to listen to people tell stories: I find people endlessly fascinating; I’m amazed by the tricks we all play on ourselves. When I was in college and people would say “I have a friend who did such-and-such,” I was just as likely to refer to some character (Emma Woodhouse, Mr. Stevens the butler). I never saw a relevant difference between well-drawn fictional characters and real people. I write to understand the world better, including myself.
You have two weeks all to yourself and your writing. Where do you go and what does it look like?
I would LOVE to go on a writing retreat—I never have! Maybe rent an Airbnb in the woods, somewhere in North Marin where I could go on long walks (I do a lot of my story spinning on walks), somewhere close to oysters and smelly cheese and wine. Maybe I’d drag along my friend and sometime writing partner Michelle Ross. We could each have our separate desks by windows. I picture having curtains with a mushroom pattern: those funny yellow mushrooms that are pleated like coffee filters.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
Thanks for all the great questions!