May 2014

Rebecca Silber

features

An Interview with Kodi Scheer

Kodi Scheer is a talented storyteller with a gift for writing untraditionally about the fragile nature of life. The stories in her debut collection, Incendiary Girls, are shocking, heartbreaking, humorous, and delicate. None of them is easily forgotten.

Scheer teaches writing at University of Michigan and won the 2008 Dzanc Prize for Excellence in Literary Fiction and Community Service for her writer-in-residence work at University of Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center. Fantastical, at times far-fetched, yet grounded by Scheer's empathetic and gracefully flowing prose, Incendiary Girls is as compelling as Scheer's biography.

Starting with the very first story in Incendiary Girls, "The Fundamental Laws of Nature," it immediately struck me that medicine and medical knowledge are fundamental to that story. And as I read more of the stories, it quickly became apparent that medicine is a large theme in your writing. This is not something commonly seen in creative writing -- can you talk a little bit about your background and how it has influenced your writing in this way?

For me, medicine is the road not taken. As an undergrad, I was an interdisciplinary major and completed an honors thesis in cognitive neuroscience. To make myself a good candidate for medical school, I volunteered at the hospital as well as a women's clinic, worked in a neurology lab, and took demanding science courses.

Then I took my first creative writing class -- I figured it'd be an easy A to boost my med school applications. (Turns out the University of Iowa isn't a bad place to stumble into a workshop.) I'd always enjoyed writing but never took it seriously. Of course, I fell in love with language and narrative. And I found myself more interested in people's stories than their pathologies. I discovered that I could explore my scientific and medical interests through the lens of short fiction. To support my writing habit, I worked with human subjects in the neuro lab and tried to take advantage of all the literary offerings in Iowa City. Eventually, I began the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Along with another MFA student, we created both bedside and outpatient writing initiatives with patients at the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Upon graduating, I served as writer in residence there. The experience was both heartbreaking and profoundly life affirming.

Medicine, especially how the physical intersects with the psychological, continues to fascinate me. I feel very fortunate to have had these experiences and that I'm able to explore these scientific and medical milieus through fiction.

That is an incredibly unusual background story. I will get back to Incendiary Girls shortly, but first -- unconventional writer-in-residence programs seem to be getting a fair bit of press right now, mainly Amtrak's new program. I am interested to know more about your residency at the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Can you elaborate on that a little? Did any of the stories in Incendiary Girls come from your residency there?

I think it's important that we, as writers, make our own residencies. Live somewhere cheap and seek out interesting experiences -- find the people who really want to tell you their stories. You'd be surprised at the number of people who just want someone to listen. Last week, after her reading, I asked Jane Smiley how she researched Horse Heaven. She started by interviewing a gregarious trainer, one story led to another, more people found out and wanted to tell her their stories, and she was able to create the masterful work that is Horse Heaven.

That's along the lines of what I did at the Comprehensive Cancer Center, in terms of making my own residency and finding folks like doctors and nurses who had stories to share with me. With patients, who hadn't chosen to be part of that milieu, it was very different -- their narratives were never available to me in the same way because my role was that of a guide, to suggest ways of getting to the page and talking about the types of writing that had helped others in their situation.

There's a body of research showing how expressive writing can positively impact health and well-being, so when I was working with a patient or caregiver, I'd give reading recommendations or suggest writing exercises. As you might imagine, when faced with a significant illness, a lot of people become more introspective and start to reevaluate their priorities.

My story "Transplant," about a young woman who receives a donor heart, examines how someone with a potentially terminal illness might turn to faith. It's not based on any particular patients but it is grounded in my experiences at the Cancer Center. Western medicine obviously has its limitations, so I was interested in exploring the ways people try to cope with and make up for these limitations.

I would think that being a resident writer at a cancer center makes life seem quite tactile, almost raw. Just being in a medical setting, surrounded by science, machines, and tests doesn't leave much mind space for fantasy. Yet, a number of these stories are completely fantastical. "Primal Son" is about a couple who finally were able to have a child, but it is more monkey than child. In "Fundamental Laws of Nature," a doctor believes that her mother is reincarnated as a horse. "When a Camel Breaks Your Heart" is about an American white woman whose American Muslim fiancé is transformed into a camel. What made you take common, yet difficult life moments -- infertility, death of a parent, and background differences in relationships -- and add unexpected and incongruous animal whimsy to these human experiences? Was it a reaction to your residency? Completely unrelated?

Actually, these strange and whimsical situations started to take root in my brain before the residency, when I was planning on med school and working in clinical settings, wrestling with my expectations versus reality. People who are in pain or ill want someone who can alleviate their suffering and I was never in a position to do so. And the hospital itself can be a strange and surreal place if you think about it. Surgery, for example, is a very violent, unnatural trauma to the body. You're escorted into a dream world by a masked man and wake up missing a part of yourself. So yes, in some ways, the fantasy is a reaction to the clinical milieu.

But it was also very much a reaction to what I'd been reading. I'd read Garcia Marquez and Borges and Kafka and had this idea that you had to be either Latin American or a long-dead German dude in order to write anything fantastical. But then I discovered Angela Carter and Aimee Bender and Kelly Link and thought, why can't I give this a try? These amazing writers gave me the license (and courage) to start following my own wacky imagination.

I often come up with the weird premise first and roll with it, eventually finding the more common life experience somewhere in there. Non-human animals make great foils, I think, to human character -- obviously there's a longstanding fairy-tale tradition of this. In the case of "Primal Son," I was thinking about simian babies and how we share an insane amount of DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos. Then I wondered what might happen if a woman gave birth to a monkey-child -- I mean, are we really so different from the great apes? What about the circumstances of such a birth? What kind of couple might try to raise a baby like this? In essence, what happens when you have a child who's not at all what you expected? I started to think about the potential mother character, got a few scenes on the page, and then I followed the weirdness to produce a first draft. It's only after several drafts that I figure out what a story's about. And even then I'm not always certain!

I love that you courageously followed your "wacky imagination"! When I was reading Incendiary Girls, I felt like all of the stories fit together quite well. How did you go about selecting stories for the collection? And how far back in time did you go? Did you have to leave any stories out that you really like, for whatever reason?

The book came together in a fairly organic way -- which was more a result of my obsessions than anything intentional. Essentially, I was mining similar themes from different angles and just kept digging.

Two of the stories were conceived as early as 2005: "When a Camel Breaks Your Heart" as well as "Transplant." But they've undergone significant revisions since then. I was still feeling my way through the dark at that point, trying to figure out how to write a story, let alone one where the protagonist's med student boyfriend turns into a camel or a heart transplant recipient takes on the personality and religion of her donor. The initial drafts of these stories just followed the weirdness without any regard to character or theme -- totally out of control. I just got carried away with the conceits. But I was lucky to have great MFA classmates and teachers who guided me in the right direction. And I still rely on my insightful first readers to tell me when I've gone too far down the rabbit hole.

Fortunately, I didn't have to kill any of my darlings for the collection. I did cut several stories that lacked imagination -- they were still linked thematically, but they didn't have the spark or surprise of the other stories. My editor and I were on the same page about these. We did consider cutting "Miss Universe" because it's by far the shortest of the stories in the book, but I lobbied to keep it because it's startling and upsetting in a way that allows it to stand out, I think, even among the longer stories.

"Miss Universe" definitely stands out in length, but I thought that it fit in with the rest of the stories, because as you said it was very startling and upsetting. I actually thought that the final story (shares its title with the collection), "Incendiary Girls," stood apart from the others the most. This story about a girl named Vartouhi who is subjected to the first genocide of the twentieth century, is also startling and upsetting. But it differs from the others in that it is historical and told from the viewpoint of an angel of death. Despite these differences, this story of unbelievable perseverance is probably my favorite in this book. Unfamiliar with Vartouhi's story, I admit that I Googled it -- it appears that it may be loosely based on a story of the Armenian genocide. Is this correct? Can you talk more about "Incendiary Girls?" What inspired you to write it? How did its title become the title of the whole collection?

"Incendiary Girls" is actually based on the experiences of my friend's great-grandmother Vartouhi. When he first told me the story, I was absolutely floored -- not only because it was extraordinary, but also because I knew nothing of the Armenian genocide. And most Americans don't know anything about it (I had to do a fair amount of research to dispel my ignorance). I just couldn't get Vartouhi out of my head and felt compelled to get her onto the page.

Obviously, I fictionalized elements, but much of Vartouhi's story -- marching across the deserts of the Ottoman Empire, losing her family, being sold as a slave, and eventually making it to America – are all true. I couldn't stop thinking about what the mind and body must do to stay alive. What kind of tales do we tell ourselves in order to survive? And how might another life form (in this case, an angel of death) view our regard for narrative? Whether stories are "true" or not, we often cling to them to make sense of the world, to make order out of chaos.

As you mentioned, "Incendiary Girls" does differ in setting and narration from the others. Also, rather than starting with an outlandish premise, I began with a real survivor's testimony and wove in the fantastical elements. The spare quality of the original testimony is probably one of the reasons I was so drawn to it in the first place -- I found myself imagining the words unsaid. As in the other stories, you'll note the raw physicality, the intense, visceral reality of Vartouhi's situation, which is my own rendering of what happened. And in keeping with the rest of the book, I was asking myself, how could she possibly heal after these unthinkable traumas?

I think the title fits the collection for a couple of reasons. With the exception of the genderless angel of death, all of the main characters are female. And I think many of them make decisions that are startling or upsetting in some way.

How amazing that "Incendiary Girls" is based on the extraordinary experiences of your friend's great-grandmother! What was your friend's reaction when reading the story for the first time?

He was very touched (and he's probably the least sentimental person I know). The whole family has been so kind and supportive -- they're thrilled to see Vartouhi's story in print. I feel lucky to be the messenger, sharing an important part of Armenian history that I hope a wider audience will now appreciate.

I definitely think they'll appreciate it. Finally, you have a book tour underway right now. Are you teaching this semester as well? What are your writing plans when things finally calm down?

The tour is underway, and a little overwhelming! Fortunately, I'm not teaching this semester so I can focus on the tour and help spread the word about this book. But I am eager to get back to writing fiction -- haven't gotten much page time in the last few weeks. I'm wrestling two different novel-length ideas -- I think they both have merit, but we'll see which beast wins out, at least in the near future.