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February 1999
The Secrets of a Fire King
by Kim Edwards

A Conversation with Kim Edwards

On January 20, 1999, bookclub members Janet Whitaker and Chela Kaplan and intern Amy O’Brien interviewed Kim Edwards at her home in Lexington.

Amy: OK, our first question was ... we wanted to know if this was your first book that you have written?

Kim Edwards Kim: Yes, it is. The stories have been published pretty widely in different mags and periodicals; and the book was finished and [inaudible] asked me to send it out; and she had said, “No, get a novel in first. Stories won’t sell.”

Still, the stories were starting to get a lot of attention, nationally. They have won various sorts of awards, and one of them, “The Story of My Life,” was broadcast on public radio, read by Holly Hunter. She read at [inaudible] and it got picked up for public radio, which was really exciting. And so I said, “Look, I just really want to try those stories really hard.” And so she said, “All right.” And so she sent it off.

And, as she predicted, the rejection letters came back, one by one. And everybody said, you know, “Wonderful, wonderful stories; but we can’t publish them because they won’t sell.”

And so we had given up. I was kind of despondent about it, because I’m a slow writer; and I knew it would take a fair amount of time for me to finish a novel.... And then the editor from Norton—who had been on maternity leave for about three months—called and she said, “You know, I really love these stories ...” Great. [I] waited for the shoe to fall. And she said, “and we really would like to publish them.” So Dora took them on, against all odds. And, as it turned out, the book did—you know, didn’t make a fortune, but it’s definitely in the black. It didn’t lose money. And it made some money for them, and for me. And so ...

I love to tell that story, because it so flies in the face of conventional wisdom about marketability of stories, and the marketplace being sort of the bottom line. A very positive experience.

Chela: It might be good news for you to know that last month’s book, The Memory of Old Jack, was starting to show up on the bookstores’ lists as being in their top 10.

Kim: This could do this. That’s wonderful.

Janet: And that’s a very, you know, a very old book—written in the [’70s]—and it’s ... we have just recently found it’s out of print, so we really feel like there has to be a correlation.

Chela: Yeah, yeah.

Janet: [adjusting the microphone] Let me move this a little closer to make sure we pick you up.

Kim: I can try to talk a little louder.

Janet: OK.

Amy: So you are working on a novel?

Kim: I am working on a novel—uh, despite myself, I am working on two—but one of them is an idea I had a long time ago, that I sort of keep coming back to; and one I have been working on fairly consistently, and am about two-thirds of the way through, I’d guess. Slow going.

Amy: Your actual experience—it definitely comes through in your stories. If you could tell us if that had any effect on the stories that you wrote, or ... just tell us about places you traveled to.

Kim: Sure. Yeah, it definitely comes through in the stories. What happened was, I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop when I was straight out of undergraduate school. And it was a great experience, in terms of working on craft and writing and so forth. And I learned a lot. But it sort of became clear to me during my second year—or my first year, really—that it was going to be a long time—many, many years—before I published anything, or really started to establish myself as a writer.

And, also, it became clear to me that I was young ... that I was kind of untested in the world, and hadn’t done much; and didn’t have a whole lot to say, even though I was learning how to say it. The craft was coming, but I hadn’t really found my voice, or what I wanted to talk about, or what issues were important to me, yet.

So I had this great experience while I was there. I was teaching a freshman composition kind of class, and I had—for some reason, I taught it out of sequence, so I taught the first semester in the spring. And because of that, I had this wild class that was full of really non-traditional students, about half of whom were from other countries. And so I just learned so much. I learned so much about the world. The papers were so fascinating! And I really love to travel, so I thought that I would investigate getting another degree in teaching English as a second language. I saw it as a way to be able to go off and have some adventures and support myself while I was learning how to write. So that’s what I did.

I got the second master’s degree. I met my husband—who was doing the same kind of thing, although it was a different avenue—and we got married in, let’s see, July, and then left for Malaysia ... for two years in Malaysia in September. And it was just really an amazing experience, you know. I remember being in Malaysia, and traveling on our first day there across the peninsula, through the jungles ... and I remember looking around and just thinking that it was such an unfamiliar landscape, and that I had no emotional association with place—with the landscape. And I remember thinking that I would never ever be able to write anything about this place, because it was so distant from me, or so unknown to me.

But because we were there two years, and because we were in kind of an isolated community, and really immersed ourselves in it, and learned a lot of the language, I sort of felt ... I was always an outsider, but I came to understand the place rather intimately after the time we spent there. And, gradually—it wasn’t a conscious decision; I was working on other kinds of writing—but gradually the place sort of worked itself into my fiction, too. And in a very natural way. I didn’t intend to write about it, but the stories just sort of rose up, and I felt like they needed to be written. So I wrote them.

And that was my same kind of experience in the other situations I was in, too. We spent two years in Malaysia and then went to Japan, to the outskirts of Tokyo, a place called Otowara, which is between Tokyo and the mountains, in the mandarin orange farms. It was really beautiful in the hills. And we were there for two years, and then didn’t intend to spend any more time overseas. But then we got the chance to go to Cambodia and couldn’t resist it. So we went.

Amy: So what brings you to Lexington?

Kim: Well, my husband got a position here, at the University of Kentucky. He’s in the English Department. We came in 1996, and we were so delighted to come—to come here to Lexington.

Amy: Do you think the Kentucky landscape might influence any stories that you write in the future?

Kim: You know, that’s a really good question, and I have thought about that a lot. I’m sure that it will. I find that it takes some time to sort of, you know, acclimate myself to a place. But one thing I really noticed—I have noticed it in the teaching that I do, and the writings of other Kentucky writers that I have read—is that there is an enormous sense of place in their writing, this enormous love of the land and deeply rooted sense of being in a place, and of a place, which I find interesting. I don’t feel like I’m quite “of this place” yet; but I’m hoping it will happen. I’m sure, after time, it will.

Chela: Do you mind if I take a picture or two?

Kim: No.

Amy: I touched on it, talking about your travels, but: How do you come up with the story ideas that you have? They are just so ... a lot of them seem unconnected, just random thoughts ...

Kim: ... from each other.

Amy: Uh huh.

Kim: Different from each other.

Amy: Yeah.

Kim: That’s something that a lot of people have commented on. And it actually was kind of a problem, when it came to sell the collection, because people said, “Well, they are not thematically related; they are all really different from one another,” which ... You know, I can’t imagine writing stories that were thematically related, just to do that. I don’t know exactly where they come from. It’s kind of a mystery. And I am just as glad I don’t know. But those sort of ... I’ll have ... I’ll see something, or I’ll hear a piece of dialogue, and suddenly a story—the heart of the story—will be there. And then it often takes me ...

[interview interrupted momentarily]

Kim: So, anyway ... I don’t know where they come from. I’m sure that what I overhear—or glimpse, or see—touches on a lot of memories or past experiences that I’m not consciously aware of. But I’ll just ... I’ll just know that they are the heart of the story that I need to tell. And sometimes it takes me a while to really figure out the story. I’ll have that kernel, but I won’t know precisely how all the pieces of the story fit together. Sometimes I will have several pieces of a story, and I need to work to find out how they are related. I will know instinctively that they are, but I won’t know precisely how until I discover it through writing.

Amy: Which story are you most proud of?

Kim: You know, I can’t answer that question. [laughs] I really just don’t know. I love them all. Not all the stories that I have written are published, or in the collection. So the ones that are in there are ones that I chose because I love them all so much, and they all have such different resonances for me. Some of them I really like because they were so difficult to write. “The Story of My Life” is one of those. It really was a hard one. And it was challenging because it took on a social issue, which is very difficult—very difficult to do that and be true to the characters, and not let the issue sort of guide the story but, rather, let the characters evolve on their own. So I loved that for that reason.

“The Way It Felt To Be Falling” was the first story that I ever wrote. I wrote it for an undergraduate workshop, and revised it probably 75 times over the years—and had it go on to win a Pushcart Prize. And so, you know, I love it because I can see my own evolution as a writer in that story. And so for many, many different sorts of reasons I love ... I love “Rat Stories” because many of the anecdotes about the rats are actually true stories that people told me [laughs] when I was in Cambodia—and one of which happened to me. So there are many different reasons that I love the stories.

Janet: About the conflict in Cambodia ... How did that ... First of all, what attracted you? And how did that lead you? Did that influence some of the stories? I’m just curious.

Kim: Yeah, I’m trying to think. We went to Cambodia ... Actually, I have several unfinished stories about Cambodia. But the only story that really grew out of my experience directly in Cambodia that’s in the collection is “Rat Stories.” Because one night we were sitting around telling stories about—when you live in tropical countries, there are rats; they are just around. And everybody had these wonderful stories, and I just sort of filed them away and thought, “Someday.” And eventually ... The frame of the story is all fiction, but many of the anecdotes within it are stories that, at least, were presented to me as true. And so that one grew out of the experience directly. I have a lot of stories that I haven’t finished. It was a very profound and really difficult experience. We went in ’91 to ’92, just before the Paris Peace Accords were signed; so Cambodia was still in a state of civil war, actually. And it was still under U.S. embargo. And when we got there, there were no cars—very few cars; they were all Russian, and there were very few. We got there, and I remember we got to the Monterey Hotel—which is like one million hotels, and it’s right on the busiest corner in the city—and there were pigs kind of sauntering around in the street. Lots of bicycles, and coconut trees (on the side streets, not on the main streets) growing up in the middle of the streets. The country had just been so devastated and ruined and neglected because, you know, they had been so isolated for 25 years.

So it was a very ... It was a difficult experience, and challenging, and wonderful, all rolled up together. And I found it hard to, almost, unravel all of that. It was almost too intense to write about it. And so I kept a really intricate journal ... and I have a feeling that my husband and I are hoping to go back. And I have a feeling, at that point, that it will all ... it will all sort of ... [inaudible]

Amy: Do you have any writers that you just thoroughly enjoy reading or recommend to other people to use as inspiration?

Kim: Oh, yeah. I have a lot of writers whose work I really love, and am teaching. Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies, I just—that’s a book I found in Cambodia, actually; I just stumbled across it in a kind of expatriate library there, and I read it. And I read it again, and then I read it a third time—and now I teach it in the fiction class I’m teaching. So I love Lee Smith’s work. Ummm ... I always blank out when people ask me that question. I really love Louise Erdrich’s work a lot.

I’ve been reading ... Well, Alice Munro I go back to always, and a writer named William Trevor, who is an Irish writer who is just a masterful, masterful short story writer.

Amy: We were curious about the role of gender in your stories. It seems that oftentimes the women characters play, you know, [inaudible] ...

Kim: Uh huh.

Amy: If you can talk a little about that ...

Kim: Yeah. Of course, I think, I write from a, obviously a female perspective—and from a feminist perspective, too. I don’t sit down and consciously make the decision to do it; but I am very drawn to female characters, to their situations.

And I think it—I started to say earlier, and I think I got sidetracked, myself—but one thing that happened for me when I was traveling overseas is that my experiences here as an American, growing up in this country, suddenly were thrown into new light by traveling in other places and seeing contrasts and different ways of living, different ways of thinking about things. So I think I’m always most aware of aspects of my own country when I am in another country, or have just returned from it. And I’m very conscious, as a woman traveling, of ways women’s lives are different and also the common threads in all of our lives. You know, I’m aware of both the differences and the similarities and I’m very interested in that.

I feel really privileged to know a lot of people in different countries and have become friends with them and sort of been invited to witness, or share, in other women’s lives. And that sort of thing, I think, because it’s important to me, comes out in my stories even though I don’t, as I said, make a conscious decision. It’s just a natural outgrowth of my interests.

Janet: One of the words that ... When I first started reading “Fire King” and I was talking to Bill Goodman, who is hosting the series, the word that came to mind was “sensuous.” I really feel that, from the language that you use in your descriptions. They are so—almost tangible—but they are ... there is a very sensuous quality about them. Do you have a sense of that?

Kim: You know, I started writing because I love language. And I had to really learn other aspects of storytelling: plot and characterization. I think I had to learn a lot about language, too, but that was always what drew me and I think that was sort of my natural inclination: to listen to the music of language. And, again, it’s the kind of thing that ... When you are in another country, the sounds of your own language become more acute, and the sounds of other languages do, too. And different kinds of phrases and expressions that have traveled from English into other languages, particularly in Malaysia, which was a British colony for many, many decades. There were lots of expressions that were English, but not the English that I was used to. And that was very interesting to listen to. But I still ... When I write, what I go back and therefore spend the most time on or am the most in tune with is the language. And, I mean, I worry about all the other things’characterization, or ... I work on those as well. But it’s language that is probably my primary love when it comes to writing. It’s the thing that gives me the deepest pleasure: to get the sentence to sound right.

Janet: Well, that tells me a lot. I can sort of see that attention, I think. And that’s one of the things, as a reader, that pulls me in—one of the things that I really appreciate and enjoy. I was very excited about that. I have to ask: Liz Hobson, who really came up with the idea for this thing [the book club]—she is the head of our Education department, and we have talked about it several times—we all have been, sort of, really fascinated with the Marie Curie story. How in the world, you know? We have all just been: “Where did that come from?” So I just can’t leave without asking for her, and for me: What ...

Kim: Oh, yeah ... I was working on ... I was doing some research for something else, actually, for this idea that I mentioned and—just sort of on the back burner for the time being, which is eventually going to be a novel—but I was doing research for that. And I came across sort of—it’s related—a biography, a contemporary biography, or adult biography, of Marie Curie. And I remembered when I found this biography that, when I was a girl, I had just been enthralled with Marie Curie. I read a child’s biography about her, and I remembered it vividly—and still do. The descriptions of her passion for her work, and the kinds of extremes that she would go to, the things that she would go without ... When she was studying at the Sorbonne, she would pile clothes on top of her at night so she didn’t have to spend money on a gas heater, so she didn’t have to work at something that would take her away from her studies. And she just had this utter devotion to science that enthralled me when I was young. I just admired it so much.

And I think what was going on, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, is that, here is a woman doing what a woman didn’t do! And I think that was very inspirational, and very formative for me. And that’s why I remember it so well.

But, as an adult, when I was doing this other research, I came across the biography of her, and I read about her again. And this time I was just as ... deeply enthralled with her. But I was also very struck by the fact that she defined herself as part of a movement, at least at the turn of the century, that believed that cures for social problems would be found through science, that science was sort of the means to ending all the problems of the world that we recognized. She had lost her mother at a young age, and she was, you know, not a religious person at all. And she identified herself very strongly with this movement, and one of the sources of her passion for science came from this belief that she was going to change the world for the better. And, of course, her discoveries led, you know, straight to the atomic age, which is, you know—many, many good things have come from it, but also the potential to destroy ourselves.

And I was very struck by that irony, that she would start out ... start out with a set of intentions and end up in someplace else; or that the effects of her work would be very different than what she originally intended. And I wanted to tell the story. And I had the voice of the story right, early on. And I knew it wasn’t the story that she would tell. It was sort of like I knew her, sort of, very well. But someone who wasn’t closely related to her ... So I struggled for a while, to figure out who was telling the story. And I finally settled on the person whose life was so similar to, yet so different from, her own.

Janet: Well, that’s just fascinating! I mean, it makes me want to go read about Marie Curie, you know? I mean, it’s just ... it really is just a very, very interesting direction.

Kim: She is kind of an astounding woman. The hardest thing with that story is finally ... is getting the real-life facts to mesh with the things that I made up.

Janet: Which you do quite a bit, really, don’t you?

Kim: You mean in general? Yeah.

Janet: I mean you are mixing ... facts, and things, and surrounding it with the fictional sometimes, too.

Kim: I guess so.

Janet: Looks like that would be hard.

Kim: Well, I think some of the energy with the story probably comes from that, that kind of clash—facts or fiction, or taking what’s real into the realm of the imaginary.

Janet: Just out of curiosity: Would you, if you knew a book club was going to discuss your book, would you perceive it as being better to do it as a whole, or to select certain stories? And, if so, which ones would those be?

Kim: That’s a hard question. I, I think ... I’m trying to think. I have talked to book clubs in the past, and so I am trying to think how ... Usually, there are always different stories, though, that come up; but the people in the book club are interested in ... several of the stories will have caught their attention ...

Janet: Certain ones.

Kim: ... for various reasons. The Madame Curie story comes up a lot; “The Invitation” comes up a lot ... so oblivious to the culture in which she lives. “The Story of My Life” frequently comes up, and “The Great Chain of Being,” and also the title story, “The Secrets of a Fire King,” so ... and “Spring, Mountain, Sea”—that’s the other one.

Janet: Uh huh.

Kim: I would have a hard time choosing. But just off the top of my head, those are the ones that seem to come to discussion. And it will be interesting to me which stories the women pick and which stories the men might pick. That will be interesting.

Chela: You know, I think they are all such strong, female-type stories.

Kim: Uh huh.

You know, the whole thing [bookclub@ket] is great. Terrific idea! I’m really looking forward ... I’m sorry that I missed Wendell Berry’s, but I’m looking forward to the other authors.

Janet: Oh, yeah.

Kim: I feel thrilled to be in such company; you have got so many real great writers.

Janet: We do. It was interesting, too, that Amy asked if the landscape would influence you; because, like you were saying, there is this real land connection, it seems, with Kentucky authors. And it’s very profound. And it will be interesting to see where it takes you.

Kim: I asked my class that I taught. I taught a class at the Carnegie Center last fall, for the community; and it was wonderful. I had 10 women ... but they were really, really wonderful writers. At one point, I asked them, you know, I said, “Here it is again, you know, this ... and where does it come from?” And people had different speculations about connections that people in Kentucky have. One woman said that she thought that lots of people were only a generation or two away from being farmers, and so that sense of real immediacy with the land is very much a part of their lives. Which I thought was interesting.

Janet: Thank you.

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