Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Magical (Serialized) Imagination of Kimberly Karalius

I took a Creative Non-Fiction workshop this past semester, and one of our assignments was to interview a writer over spring break. I pretty much turned to Kim immediately. And because I suck if I don’t have a deadline, it’s taken me this long to work up the interview. So without further ado, here it is!

Interview with Kimberly Karalius

When Figment opened to the public last November, it was pretty much immediately flooded with new users uploading their writing. It was pure chance that I found Kimberly Karalius—though I don’t doubt that I would have eventually come across her work. She had made her way onto Figment, and she had uploaded a lone story, a cell phone novel called Birdcage Girl, centered around 18-year-old Ashlyn, a girl who spends most of her days in a wire birdcage, wheeling herself around the house and secretly planning her escape. She now has over 300 readers following her novel, anticipating her updates, and begging for more.

On the surface, her stories seem quiet and regular. They take place in small towns, by the sea, in a bakery. But then we get these magical flourishes. A carousel spins to life. A girl has the ability to tell stories in flour, making her drawings come to life within the confines of a flour-dusted cutting board. There’s a boy, a real live boy, living in a dollhouse. A young mermaid, taking her turn in the age-old tradition of visiting the dry world, sends postcards back to the sea.

These stories seem wholly fantastical, but they’re also grounded in the reality of human relationships, an overprotective mother, lovers’ quarrels, homesickness. The mixture of the magical and the mundane is compelling, to me, because of everything seems to be within the realms of possibility. When I read something by Kim, I get the feeling that this world is within reach, if I just tilted my head and looked at it this way. The worlds she creates are places and pockets of life that I wander through and then settle down in—with some wariness, because there are disquieting suggestions of things gone awry.

Kimberly is a first year MFA fiction student at the University of South Florida. She lives and writes by Disney World, where she has an annual pass.

Your stories on Figment remind me a lot of fairy tales. How big of an influence are fairy tales on your writing?

K: I feel like fairy tales have been burned into my writing - and probably my very being - from a young age. I read all sorts of stories when I was little, but as I got older, my love for fairy tales grew. I watched crummy 80’s cartoon retellings of them, sought different versions, and immersed myself in them even with critical study. For my senior year of college, I did my senior project on the roles of mermaids and mermen in fairy tales and folklore. I used Vladimir Propp’s structuralism for my required theory and had a lot of fun translating story—probably incorrectly—into formulas. I feel like I’m an unofficial mermaid specialist.

And in a more general sense: I’ll eat up any fairy tale that can be labeled as an “enchanted bridegroom” tale. I love the idea of a enchanted princes running around, and the girls having to free them from their curses – it’s empowering, I think, for the girls, and there’s a greater chance of an intriguing romantic relationship developing.

You write a lot about adolescents, especially teenage girls. What is it about that period in our lives that speaks so much to you?

K: I feel like I have a nostalgic mentality, and I like this teen to young adult period because a lot can happen in those years. I can stretch my imagination to the max with possibilities just as, perhaps, a teenage feels that optimism that comes with an open future. There’s a chance to learn and grow, to transform into something.

You’ve said that growing up, you always wanted to tell stories and that you tried many different avenues before settling into writing. What other creative avenues did you try?

K: I began writing at a very young age. However, I would write stories using pictures. The creative avenue I loved, and still love, is cartooning. I took a lot of art classes as a kid—I even took a cartooning and cell painting class with the Disney animator, Al Baruch—and devoured the cartoons on television, American and Japanese. While other kids played kickball, I was striking Sailor Moon poses.

I wanted to be a comic book artist or animator. I wanted it so bad that I used to draw any chance I got. I would dream up stories and characters, create plotlines and such and would write them all down, hoping that when I got older someone would made them into a cartoon show or comic book. My parents embrace this for the most part; I even have a cartoon character got copyrighted in the 6th grade. I never did anything with him, but I don’t know, maybe someday.

So what led you to writing?

K: When I was in high school, I started to do journalism - bringing me closer to the dark side called writing. Although I always drew, I realized during this time that I wasn’t getting proper education in drawing (my art teachers in a regular public high school hated cartoons - they didn’t consider it art) and I didn’t have the ultimate patience to really sit down and teach myself anatomy and dimension, all those important rules. My parents were also understandably worried that it was a bad goal for my future, so when I started to write more and more, they made sure to support me there - thinking that maybe being a newspaper writer would pay the bills better than a comic artist. I don’t blame them. There were better artists out there, I didn’t seem to be getting any better, and I had no idea what to do.

The transition to writing, once I did it, was wonderful. I started to get comfortable with using words, but perhaps my visual background is what had fostered by undying love for imagery. I like being able to doodle a character or sketch out a basic setting if I’m stuck or feel like I need to get something out of my head. I still love cartoons and would like to write for one someday, but I don’t really know if it’s possible.

Would your family and friends be able to recognize nuggets of your autobiographical self in your writing?

K: They’ve been able to recognize my style, but not so much anything autobiographical. I try not to put myself—in an obvious way—in my stories, and I also avoid basing characters off of people I know. It’s easier for me look at a cool, artistic photo or a distant sort of awesome person when I’m musing about a new character. I try to create my characters while being aware of the plotline, however thin, so that I know what kinds characters they are going to need to be.

I have created a character that is based extremely loosely on a relative—one that probably knows nothing of my existence since it’s been so long—because it just was right. But generally, I try my best to keep it all my head.

What do you enjoy most about the writing process, or the act of writing?

K: Discoveries about your characters and plot as you’re writing is the best part. There’s this novel that I’ve been trying to write for a few years now, and I did so much planning for it. I have it tucked away for now, but I’ll be coming back to it when I feel I’m ready. However, I binder full of charts and pictures and scenes outlined. And it’s not a bad thing, but I find I don’t do that as much anymore.

Now when I write, I have my little notebook with the “it can’t wait” inspirations and scribblings, and I force myself to just keeping writing, staying one step ahead and following the trail of a thin plotline - watching it grow bigger and complicated in a most amazing way. I love constructing the stories in my head while maybe dusting or eating lunch and wham! Suddenly I know what’s driving my main character or who the mysterious boy really is or why the old man with the pitchfork likes to eat chocolate cake. I can think and think about it, but the answer always acts like a string - I tug on the first bit and follow it along to uncover.

What led you to the MFA program? How has the MFA program changed or influenced your work?

K: I was technically a writing major in undergraduate school, but I was raised by literature professors - we didn’t even have much of a creative writing program. One professor, toward my last two years, had the burden of teaching both poetry and prose and having to somehow support all of us aspiring writers. But I’m glad I learned the way of the literature major. My love for reading more classics and discovering the joy of old 16th century novels and the like clearly came from being schooled as such. I think it’s made me more than able to survive graduate literature courses, an added benefit, because for writers, sometimes they can be intimidating.

What writers have influenced you?

K: Francesca Lia Block’s been a great inspiration on my writing, I think. Although she does tackle complicated and dark issues, it’s never overwhelming because the beauty of her writing just overpowers it - I feel like I'm reading moonbeams when I open her books. Although you can always rely on reading what makes her so great in every book, each book is structured so differently. In Echo, it's one long story, but you get the feeling that each chapter is almost a small short story, linked by the overarching thread. And in Psyche in a Dress, the book is mostly in prose-poetry with snippets of small narrative paragraphs thrown-in.

Shane Jones, Light Boxes. He’s been a huge inspiration to me, especially concerning the structure of my recent stories. His book is written in a fragmented way with small “chapters” and littered with magic and strangeness. He inspired me to try writing in bite-sized pieces; trying it out has led me to write my Figment stories and continue working on longer pieces in the same way.

The first piece of yours that I read was Birdcage Girl, and it would seem that it is your most successful piece to date. Where did you get the impulse to write Birdcage Girl? What were your original ambitions, and has the unfolding of the story surprised you in any way?

K: When I first saw that Figment was up and running, I knew that I wanted to write a story on there that would be a novel of some sort. I wanted it to have chapters and continue on and on - in that same vein, I also wanted to challenge myself. I was high off of reading Light Boxes, feeling happy and ambitious, and so, when I saw that the website was up, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I need to write something now.”

The day I found out was the day I signed up and the day I posted my first chapter of Birdcage Girl. I looked for inspiration and slowly picked out little things that seemed interesting and mashed them together. I had the girl in a cage idea firmly planted when I found the illustration “The Girl in the Birdcage” by artist Leyla Akdogan. Seeing that picture gave me an idea of what my cage actually looked like, and once I knew that, then the chapters started to flow and I was able to figure out how Ashlyn got around and what was going on with her mother. I wanted to come up with the quirkiest characters I could think of, throw in bizarre situations, and make a story of it.

Yes, yes, yes! This story continues to surprise me all the time. There’s so much to discover in the characters and, sometimes, new ones try to pop in and I have to decide what to do with them. The story, as well, has just bloomed from when I was only a couple chapters in. For now, a lot of what’s happening is centered around Ashlyn and Spinedew. I liked how my story started micro and seemed to expand, and it’s going to expand even further. I’m so excited about the roles my characters are going to be playing, and about the characters the readers have yet so see.

Is it fair to say that all your stories so far have dwelled in the realm of magical realism?

K: The actual attempt to solidly define magical realism is a mess. I mean, you can look it up online and wade through bogs of opinion. Since the genre has stemmed from Latin American writers like Gabriel García Márquez and is now (or has been) taken up by writers across the board, a new definition independent of that cultural link is being sought after - and perhaps that's another reason why there are problems in defining. It's hard to say.

I believe that magical realism is a type of story where the setting is in the real world, filled with normal, mundane things, and yet there's a slight magical element that sneaks in - and sneaks in so effectively, that the reader doesn't question it being there. The magic makes sense somehow. Expected, almost. Secondary to that is that magical realism usually contains hints, bits or pieces of mythology, folklore, and fairy tales infused into the writing. So that’s the genre I work in.

Does magical realism satisfy something that other genres or styles do not?

K: Definitely. I feel like I was even groomed to love the genre. I grew up sincerely loving even the strangest cartoons like Ren and Stimpy for the weirdness, and I loved the more serious, deep Japanese series that would always have plots like “transported to another world” or “she lives an average life but she’s secretly able to melt walls” or something. Not super hero stuff. Just magic and strangeness in the mundane.

I forgot to mention I’m a big Greek Myth buff. I loved how among every day life for the Greeks, these gods would be flying around making trouble. As it was as normal as walking your dog. Zeus turned to gold rain and got a girl pregnant? No big deal. There’s magic in the mundane right there, too.

It’s interesting that you mention your background with the visual art form, because the imagery in your stories is something that I linger over, and I’m not alone in this. A lot of the imagery is so compelling that I latch onto it as being the seed of a story, though I don’t know if that’s really the case. What sparks a story (Flour House, Glitter Bathing, Disappear, etc.) for you?

K: A lot of my stories start with images. I spend too much time staring bleary-eyed on image sites, but I think that’s how a lot of my ideas start to form. When I’m trying to come up with a story, I usually think of some of the strange thoughts I’ve had or observations, while filtering through some of my picture folders and searching fresh online. I also love to create stories in which the literal becomes real. You could tell me that you saw a cool display at Macy’s where the ceiling was covered in paper whales, and instead of thinking, “Oh that’s cool. Let me write about a janitor sweeping up the fallen whales,” I think, “Well, what if the whales were real and they only turned to paper because a sea captain with a broken nose had a mother who was a witch and he lost his sea job and had to work for Macy’s so he brought his living trophies with him.”

What kind of narrative voices are you drawn to?

K: I love the quirk factor. The more unique or strange a character seems, the more I’m drawn to them. There were a few books that I picked up just because, on the back, they didn’t have a blurb but a list of characters and a sentence or two about them. The books had amazing storylines, but I liked how they could sell themselves by the strength of their characters alone. Two books that do this are Tricker’s Choice by Tamora Pierce and Eyes Like Stars by Lisa Mantchev. I love both series dearly.

I do like to read first person, but third person narratives are my favorites. I like to get chills when I read a good piece, and for me, it’s when I hear that narrator, even for a moment. The first couple paragraphs in The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis gets me every time. A visual example of my favorite type of narrative voice is the TV show called Pushing Daisies. Quirky characters and storyline, plus an overarching narrator who, most of time, can say anything and I’ll be shivering and grinning.

So if in the body of your Figment work, you’ve really been writing about the strangest, most curious characters and dilemmas, what would be considered experimental for you?

K: Trying something new would totally be experimental, whether in structure or in development. I try to create different types of characters and create scenarios that may be not as easy, just so that I can see what I can do. I like digging holes for myself; I like to see how I get out of them. I’m not sure about experimental, but I find writing poetry to be extremely difficult for me. Sometimes I have to write them in some form - like the sea shanty from Cinnamon - and I struggle for a long time over those things.

How is—if it is—your writing for Figment different from the work you do for your workshop?

K: My writing for Figment is totally different than in my workshop, not in genre but in structure. I feel like the fragmented, long-arced stories are still new, especially to fiction, so I haven’t really worked up to sending them under the workshop microscope. The stories I submit are the typical 20-page or so ones; they’re a lot harder to write in some respects. I’ve taken to the bite-sized storytelling so much, that maybe I’m spoiled now. Amazingly, it seems that nonfiction is embracing this a lot faster: on a personal level, my nonfiction professor, Ira Sukrungruang, has instinctively suggested I break up my paragraphs and use a lot of white space. But he’s been teaching the whole class to try this out, leaving it open as an option.

A significant feature of posting writing online is that you can receive immediate feedback and responses from people. Sometimes readers will leave a comment saying, “I hope this doesn’t happen!” or “I can’t wait to read this!” Or they’ll read into something that the writer perhaps didn’t pay much attention to. The reader response is known to the writer as the novel is in progress—maybe a bit Choose Your Own Adventure-ish. Has this factored into your writing?

K: When I posted Birdcage Girl and Cinnamon, I thought the comments like “I hope this doesn’t happen” and the noticing little details that I didn’t were incredibly helpful. I love hearing those. It tells me that the reader is invested in the story and is enjoying it - it’s the best kind of feedback. By being able to read the readers emotions and feelings toward each chapter, writers get a feel for how our story is actually be read (not just what we think we’re saying), and that’s terribly useful. When I read a piece I really like, I try to make comments like that - how much I love a character, what I think they might do or feel.

For instance, I received a comment on Birdcage Girl that essentially said, “I hope her mother dies!” Well, after chuckling at bit (yes, her mother is kind of creepy), that comment made me think of how she was being perceived and how I wanted to write her fate. Not that I’m going to spoil it or anything! But it helped to hear the feelings of one of my readers. It gets you thinking.

I haven’t felt that any one comment or piece of feedback had distracted me from my story, which, I think, is a valid worry. It’s great to follow along with my readers and learn what they are getting from the piece.

What are some of the specific problems you’ve had with your Figment novels?

K: Probably the biggest problem any one might having doing serial is deciding what’s coming next - “what” being the subject of your next chapter. You may have the story in mind, but what’s going to spill out of your fingers for the reader to read? Sometimes it takes me a while to figure out my next move, like a chess piece. I told myself that I would give myself time to think about each chapter before writing it: I wanted to be proud of each one I uploaded. That mentality has helped greatly.

Would you say that all your work on Figment is serial fiction? As you say, the “what’s next” aspect is probably the ongoing issue to keep in mind in writing serial fiction. What’s your experience been like, writing serial fiction? What’s important about serial fiction, or what sets it apart? What goals do you have to hit with each chapter?

K: Yes, they are. Writing serial fiction has been amazing. I really love it. But I’m not sure if what I’m writing is just serial fiction. I mean, a serial writer can update really long chapters, so my tiny chapters aren’t the same as that. I’ve had people say I’m writing vignette-style, flash fiction style. Maybe it’s all of those things. Maybe there’s no official name for it yet. I’ve been writing this way recently, even when not posting on Figment.

However, on the subject of serial fiction, it’s really fun to be able to post chapters and see how readers will react. I like having extra incentive to write a lot during the week, regardless of how stressful my week is. We (MFAers) have been told tips on how to make sure we keep writing each week, one of them being an a.m. writer. Gosh, I can’t do that. At all. Not because I sleep in everyday, but because I have to get up really early just to get ready in the morning and commute to school. If I got up any earlier, I’d probably fall over while teaching about annotated bibs! So I try to find snipits of time throughout the day (I’m usually at my laptop anyway) where I squeeze in a few paragraphs and then get back to work.

Although I put pressure on myself to write a lot during the week, I don’t give myself a set time to post new chapters. I don’t think I could handle that unless it’s summer. I figure that as long as I’m posting at least one new chapter every week or week and a half, I’m doing well.

With each chapter, I like to be able to further the story, but also have it be able to stand on its own. So you can pull a random chapter out of Birdcage Girl (ah, probably not Cinnamon), read it, and still get something out if it, even if you haven’t read what came before. Same thing with Flour House, to a certain degree.

People have compared serial fiction to TV shows, because of the episodic quality, the timeliness of new updates and so on—how accurate is that comparison?

K: Ah, episodic TV comparison. That makes sense, but I’m not a big TV person. As in, I’ll watch the Food Network until my eyes bleed, but I hate having to keep track of a TV show each week. I get pretty upset if I miss an episode, or a part of an episode, so I try to save myself the anguish by buying the box set and watching it later down the road. But I’m pretty picky about that too. I guess what I’m trying to say is that TV shows can get exhausting, especially the longer they are airing. You can tell when the writers are scrambling for something to write - they tear up characters and plots just to stretch to another season.

Writing serial novels are totally different. Anyone can start reading your story at any stage of the game—no TiVo required. And, if you have control over your story, you won’t find your characters and plot spiraling into an abyss. Even if the ending of your story is hazy, you still have an ending to reach, and no one is breathing down your neck, insisting on a sequel. Of course, it’s important to keep the tension going in your chapters, but you don’t have to end each chapter with an explosion or secret love child.

Kimberly Karlius can be found @here and here.

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