The Burning Hearth February 2022

Kim Magowan

Hello! Welcome to The Burning Hearth: A gathering place where stories ignite the imagination and free the soul. I’m so glad you’ve stopped by for my interview with Kim Magowan. Kim is a recent acquaintance of mine (like everyone in the Flash writing world), and I’m so glad that our paths have crossed. She’s quite the writing dynamo, if you didn’t already know that. But what you might not know is this wee bit of her history.

I always wrote, since I was a little kid, and I seriously considered getting an MFA after college (I ended up getting a PhD in American literature instead). But I didn’t start taking my creative writing seriously until I was 43, and my kids were in school.

It took her four years of persistent submitting before she started getting published. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that’s the definition of tenacity. A lesson she passes onto her students at Mills College where she teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages follows.

“One thing I am always telling my students is persevere! Don’t lose heart!”

Not only is Kim a top-notch writer (a list of her writing accomplishments is included in her bio at the end of the interview), but she is also the EIC and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. This experience has allowed her:

“…to see, from the other side of the curtain, how much truly excellent work we decline for any number of reasons, so now I treat my own rejections with much more equanimity. I love being an editor; I’m inspired by how much superb writing is out there.”

I hope this has stoked your curious mind for more from The Burning Hearth and our cyber sit-down with Kim Magowan. I promise, this interview won’t disappoint.

TBH: Congratulations on the release of How Far I’ve Come (Gold Wake, 2022). The book is a journey through so many relationships from so many angles. The messing up, the attempts at cleaning up the messes; and then, the very last line of the book from the story “Women on the Sidelines” sums up the whole journey and what is needed to begin the cleaning and healing of messy relationships when Veronica is aware that she owes Bobbi McPherson an apology. Wondering why the thought of apologizing agonizes her, the reader is given this by way of Veronica listening to, and hopefully, paying heed to, her own words. “She (Veronica) was always telling Tildy, ‘It’s brave to say you’re sorry.’” All of us have come a long way when we can screw up the courage to apologize. Are there, embedded within these stories, apologies from you to people in your life?

KM: Wow. That is a wonderful (and intense, and perceptive) question. Yikes! The honest answer is yes, there are apologies, along with confrontations that I am too wimpy to have in real life. My ex-husband, who is a good friend, once told me that when he reads my stories, he feels like Aaron Burr in my Hamilton; that made me laugh. My mental image for the process of composing a story is “stone soup.” There’s a pot cooking on the stove, and into that pot gets tossed a bunch of content that I only partly control: old family stuff, old bruises, as well as “seasonal” material, whatever upset I’m currently processing. I don’t feel like I have much control over those ingredients. But one gift (or curse?) of being a writer is that writers have a “Take Two” opportunity, where we can switch things up. I’m speaking as a fiction writer, who only rarely dabbles in nonfiction. In a story, we can have a character say what we wish we had said; we can try to figure out (by inserting ourselves within) someone opaque, incomprehensible. We can empathize with an antagonist. We can offer second chances. Unlike life, the process of writing includes (indeed, requires) revision.

TBH: I was so happy to see “Come, Come” in this collection. This story was first published in New Flash Fiction Review, Issue 24, which was the first issue I read as a fiction editor for the journal. I loved that story then, and I love it now! As your stories do, it was all hook from the first line. Each sentence beckoning the reader to do exactly what the title says. Talk for a moment about opening lines, both from the perspective of writer and as editor. As writer: Are opening lines an easy or arduous aspect of your writing? As editor: How hard is it to redeem a story after a weak opening line? Are there opening lines that make you stop reading? As both: What do you think is the most important aspect of an opening line?

KM: Another excellent question. Opening lines are crucial! It is extremely hard for a story to recover from a wonky start. As an editor, I wouldn’t give up on a story after a sentence (well, now I’m picturing what kind of sentence might force me to!), but I will quit reading after a bad first page. As a writer, I struggle with opening lines. It takes me a while to find the right launch. When I wrote academic papers, I always needed to draft an intro to get going, but when I was done with the essay, I invariably tossed the intro and wrote a new one from scratch. That’s often the same for my opening lines, so on your “easy” or “arduous” scale, I’d say (with a sigh) arduous. I wish I were more efficient! I have to clear my throat; I sputter. Though come to think of it, “Come, Come” is an exception—I just looked up my first draft, and that story did begin “They say that ghosts can slip through walls, but we can’t.” I’m so glad you like that story, Connie! It’s not my usual wheelhouse (it’s a scary story, a ghost story, and first person plural narration). The job of any first sentence is to capture the reader, to compel our attention so we can’t let go—even if it’s leading us somewhere dangerous.

Kim Magowan reading “Come, Come”

TBH: So, I’m going to go all “Hell, yeah!” on this book simply because a silhouetted image of the Enterprise is at the end of “Impulse Control.” Seriously speaking though, this book is a winner from cover to cover. But the story I kept coming back to, thinking, Dang, she masterfully took me one direction and gave me a satisfying switch up of an ending, is “Middle Ages.” I love everything about this short piece and the narrator’s description of her step-daughter as “sharp-edged as a twisty-tie” is a high-fiver hit for sure. I want to hear anything you have to offer about this story.

KM: I’m so pleased you like that story, because it is a personal favorite—probably my favorite flash in the book—but I felt like it was an idiosyncratic and private preference. So, one role that I find fascinating and complicated is the stepparent. Consider it: you’re forced, simply because you fall in love with a particular person, into this very intimate relationship with strangers. As one of my characters says in a different story, the stepparent gets a bad rap. Often that bad rap is merited. Well, I’ll avoid going into biography here. Suffice to say, it’s a relationship that I keep trying to untangle and parse. One thing that takes me by surprise in my stories is how often I set out to write a fraught, “wicked” stepparent, and how many of them, almost in spite of me, warm up. The narrator in “Middle Ages” adores her stepdaughter. The reader may not understand that until the end, but reread the story—they have a great (if combative and spiky) relationship. They are very direct with each other; they tell it like it is. I’m proud of “Middle Ages” because it’s a moving story without being at all sentimental (I hate sentimentality).

Kim Magowan reading “Middle Ages”

TBH: Switching gears, I recently reread the interview you and Michelle Ross had with Al Kratz at Flash Monsters!!! this past April, and it made me curious. How do you know the difference between a story you want to collaborate on and one you want to solo pen? Is there something inherent in an idea that lends itself to one or the other?

KM: I never send Michelle the start of an EQ (that’s what we call our collaborations, short for exquisite corpses) if I know where it’s going, and she’s the same way. With EQs, we write a few sentences, maybe a couple of paragraphs, and toss it to the other person. When I’m writing solo, I may not know exactly where the story is headed, but I have a sense, at least, of what I want to do; I have a game plan in mind. That wouldn’t work for a collaboration, where it’s all about being open to whatever weird curveball Michelle throws at me.

TBH: Lastly, as EIC and Fiction Editor at Pithead Chapel can you offer my readers a nugget or two to think about as they move through their writing and submission process for 2022?

KM: Regarding the submission process, my best advice is, don’t let fear of rejection bog you down. I wish I’d been less thin-skinned and sensitive when I was twenty-two; I wish I’d understood then that an encouraging rejection from a great journal was something to be proud of! I’m reliving that angst now, because I have a daughter who is just starting to submit her stuff, and she gets discouraged. And she’s very good! Unfortunately, writers are wired to doubt ourselves. So, I want to shout to people: Hashtag perseverance! Talent matters, of course, but I know a lot of talented writers who gave up writing because they couldn’t handle rejection. Also, I strongly recommend volunteering to read for a literary journal. Reading is an essential part of how we develop and improve as writers. When I was working on my first book, Undoing, I read well over a hundred short story collections to teach myself things about structure and sequence. Reading extensively and deeply teaches us skills. Writers can say with a straight face, in perfect sincerity, that reading great literature is an essential part of our “work.” And seriously: how lucky are we???

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. She is the author of the short story collection How Far I’ve Come (2022) from Gold Wake Press; the novel The Light Source (2019), published by 7.13 Books; and the short story collection Undoing (2018), which won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her fiction has been published in Booth, Craft Literary, The Gettysburg Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.

As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s interview.

Looking ahead to March, I will be interviewing Maggie Smith whose debut novel Truth and Other Lies will be released next month.

In April, I will be updating my website. While I still hope copies of Tornado Dreams will continue to sell, I’m refocusing my site on the speculative literary novel I’m currently working on. My blog post that month is the result of a back and forth with author Joy Baglio, who encouraged me to write an article about how my dance and choreography training has influenced my writing.

May will feature an interview with Joy. This woman is doing a lot, and I have many questions brewing that I look forward to asking her.

Until next time, stay safe and well my friends.

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