The Next Chapter·Q&A

Kim Fu taps into the power of short stories in her collection Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century

Kim Fu speaks to Shelagh Rogers about writing her short story collection Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century.
Kim Fu is a Canadian-born, Seattle-based poet and writer. (L D’Alessandro.)

Kim Fu is the Vancouver-born author of two novels, For Today I Am a Boy and The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. She has also written a poetry collection titled How Festive the Ambulance: Poems.

Fu writes fiction that makes the mundane extraordinary. Her writing peers into the dark and foreboding side of human nature.

Her latest book is Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century. It's a fascinating collection of short stories featuring characters dealing with common issues of grief, regret and unhealthy relationships. The stories weaves elements of magic, sci-fi and horror. 

Kim Fu spoke to Shelagh Rogers about writing Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century.

You have a story called Pre-Simulation Consultation XF007867 about a character who wants to use virtual reality technology to see their dead mother again but keeps getting denied. How does this story open the tone for the stories that follow?

Kim Fu: It was actually my editor, Maisie Cochran at Tin House. It was her idea to put this story at the front. She thought it was really attention-grabbing in a specific way. It's formally unusual. The story is written entirely in dialogue, where most of the stories in the collection are just conventional prose.

But I do think that it tackles very quickly a lot of the themes that the book is interested in right off the bat, about technology and about grief and about worlds that are just slightly different from ours. Just a little bit more fantastical or just a slight speculative leap forward.

So the worlds are recognizable at the same time, even though they're just of that little step into something more fantastical. Was that important for you?

Kim Fu: Yes, very much so. I find that you don't have to make an effort exactly when you're writing a first draft to make your fantastical world resemble this one, because this is the one that you live in. It will sort of make its way in no matter what.

The themes and the concerns you have about this world will make themselves part of the story.

The themes and the concerns you have about this world will make themselves part of the story. You focus on making it cohesive and make sense and sort of emotionally true unto itself. And its parallels to the real world will happen on their own, in my experience.

Stories like Time Cubes and 20 Hours explore the convenience of technology and the hold that it can have on us. What made you want to look at this as as a prevailing theme in the book?

Kim Fu: I think the imagined technologies in the book are able to bring certain emotions to a head — emotions that are a little bit more nebulous or desires that are vague or hard to pin down. So, for example, in 20 Hours, the technology is a body printer that allows bodies to be reprinted after death and a mind re-uploaded to it under certain circumstances. For the married couple in the story, it takes these nebulous feelings of boredom and resentment and wondering about life outside their marriage, and it makes it this life or death question: 'I could kill you and you would be gone for a little while and would come back.' It's that feeling of when your partner is out of town, right? That question of, 'Who do you become on your own again?' But it's made much more extreme — it's made into a much more pointed, black-and-white question and a violent question in the story.

And then with Time Cubes, it's a very literal question of, 'What if you could reel back time? What would what would that mean?' I can see how deeply attractive that is to people, but also how the specific character in the story reacts to that a little bit differently than most people would.

By having this one surreal element, it focuses all the other emotions, and it sort of points the story in one direction.

I think that these technologies serve a function in the story similar to the literal monsters or some of the other stories where I think that they're a focusing force. By having this one surreal element, it focuses all the other emotions, and it sort of points the story in one direction.

LISTEN | Kim Fu on The Next Chapter

Kim Fu on exploring what happens when summer camp takes a dark turn in her novel The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore.

Is the short story an even richer place to write that kind of fiction from?

Kim Fu: I love stories that function in all kinds of different ways. But I have noticed that in my own, I'm very interested in what one interviewer referred to as 'the unrelenting present,' which I really like. I do think stories give you an opportunity to drill down into a moment really, really far and to look at it from every possible angle and squeeze everything out of it.

I do think stories give you an opportunity to drill down into a moment really, really far and to look at it from every possible angle and squeeze everything out of it.

I think it's incredible that you can read a short story in a lunch hour or commute and then it'll stay with you for the rest of your life. You went on this journey. You had this experience. I'm working on a new novel right now, so I've been thinking a lot about the difference between the experiences of writing the two. And something that just that occurred to me this morning is it feels like you're pulling puzzle pieces from the same sort of infinite pile of puzzle pieces.

You really have this wonderful and really beguiling mix of science fiction and fantasy and horror technology in the stories. But at the heart, there are really grounded ideas about what it means to be human. What did you want to look at here?

Kim Fu: I'm fundamentally interested in people above all else, more so than I am about the speculative ideas. What I want to tell are small human stories. And for a long time, I think I felt writing speculative fiction was very challenging because I would get bogged down in the mechanics. I would overthink and over-research. How does this work? What are the global repercussions of this machine or technology I'm proposing or this different slight change to the rules of physics? I would lose sight of the stories that interested me in the first place.

I'm fundamentally interested in people above all else, more so than I am about the speculative ideas. What I want to tell are small, human stories.

I once took a photography class where my photography teacher was really, really skeptical of basically all other types of photography that didn't feature people. He was not a fan of landscape photography or advertising photography or still-lifes — any of that. He felt the only thing that really mattered were pictures of people. And I'm not sure that he's right about photography, but I do think that that explains my interest as a writer where my camera is always turned.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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