Interviewed by Rachel Wild
Read Kim Magowan’s fiction piece, Passing Muster
Rachel: This story deftly captures the intricacies and undercurrents of parents who have split up but remain friends. Why did you decide to write about this subject?
Kim: Anyone who has read many of my stories knows this is a familiar theme of mine: the tangled relationship people have with their exes. In both of my collections, there are quite a few stories where characters have deep, intense feelings toward their former partners. Sometimes they are still lovers, though only behind the backs of their children, so as not to confuse the kids (well, that’s the story they tell themselves). In one story, my main character knows her cancer is terminal, and the one person she feels she must check in with is her ex-husband. I suppose as a writer (and frankly, as a human being) I’m curious about aftermaths—how certain relationships can’t dissolve. Much as you might like to, you can’t simply walk away from the father or mother of your children. You have to figure out how to deal with that person. Or, I suppose, you can walk away, but then your children must pay a pretty high price. Well, here we arrive at the completely truthful answer to your question! I’m a child of divorced parents who barely interacted post-divorce. That was challenging. I also have an ex-husband who is a good and enduring friend. He is not the father of my children, but I admire and respect exes who co-parent gracefully.
The narrator’s final thought is that she can never trust Melissa, really. Why did you decide to end on this note?
The last line, after Melissa (who is pregnant) notices that the narrator sees her surreptitiously drink some wine, is “She raises her glass to toast me, as if I would ever be on her side.” I don’t think that’s a thought about not trusting Melissa (though she doesn’t)—it’s more snarky, it’s spikier. The narrator is rejecting, if only secretly and privately, an authentic alliance with Melissa. Here you see the bumps underneath. Sure, on the surface, everyone is getting along—the narrator and her boyfriend are camping with her ex-husband Harry, his pregnant wife, and the six-year-old daughter Sammy these four people co-parent. But underneath, there are messy, complicated feelings. The narrator wonders when exactly her ex-husband’s relationship with Melissa began, if it started when she was still married to Harry. She appreciates the fact that Melissa is a kind step-mother, but she has to force herself to appreciate this: “I should be grateful,” is what she thinks, rather than simply, “I’m grateful”; “I know I’m lucky,” and it’s phrased that way because what she cognitively understands (it’s fortunate they all get along and that Melissa cares about her daughter) is somewhat at odds with how she truly feels. A lot of labor goes into this performance of group conviviality. So that ending line felt sharp and cutting to me (even as a private thought), but also very much in keeping with the narrator’s internal thoughts throughout the story. She has so much ambivalence for Melissa, who is one of those enviably pretty pregnant women, who is organized and competent, who is kind but whose smile she characterizes as a “pretty wolf smile,” and with whom, fundamentally, the narrator has to share two people she feels possessive about: her daughter, and also her ex-husband.
You recently published a new collection of short stories, How Far I’ve Come. How did you choose which stories went into the collection? And what has been the reaction to the book?
Almost all the fifty-seven stories in my new book were written in the last five years, since my first collection was completed. (There are three or four older stories that I didn’t include in my Undoing book for redundancy reasons). Two of the stories in there, “Compromising” and “Subplot,” were published here in Forge. My collection-building process is to throw all my new stories into a work-in-progress file, and when the document gets to be book-sized (around 50,000 words), to start curating, assessing which stories are up to scratch. Once I nail down who makes the cut, I work on order. Sequencing is always a nightmare, especially with fifty-seven stories. My good friend Michelle Ross is very helpful about helping me figure out effective transitions and juxtapositions. As far as reaction—people seem to like it? (I glance around nervously). The reviews have been good. Personally—and I feel guilty saying this, like I’m choosing a favorite child, but I will say it anyway, so deep breath!—I think it’s my best book.
What are you working on now?
My new work-in-progress file (see above, WIP as holding cell) is currently 37,000 words, so I’m probably a year away from being done. It’s another short story collection. I haven’t even begun to think about curating it, which stories to cut. Hopefully I’ll make a lot of progress on it this summer. I’m a professor, so summer is when I get most of my writing done, especially of longer-form stories—the only thing I can reliably write during the school year is flash fiction. Also, Michelle Ross and I have a completed collection of stories we wrote collaboratively that we are shopping around. It’s been a finalist in about half a dozen contests, so here’s hoping that book will see the light of day soon. Throw salt, knock wood! We’re both proud of it.
Thanks very much Kim!