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The Secrets of a Fire King
by Kim Edwards
Bill Goodman: Hi everybody, and welcome to the book club at KET. Welcome back to the coffee shop and our book club members Cait McClanahan, Rochelle Riley, Jonathan Allison, and Dava West. Good to have you all here again and ... last month, a novel...this month, a collection of short stories. Jonathan, why don't you begin....
Jonathan: Well, The Secrets of a Fire Kingis the title of one of the stories in this book, and that's the title of the book as a whole. It's by Kim Edwards, who now lives in Lexington, Kentucky, although not originally from here. Indeed, I believe she used to travel quite a bit; and she lived for a couple of years in, I think, Malaysia and Indonesia. And I mention that because some of the stories are set there. I think, maybe, 4 or 5 of them are set in that part of Asia. And some of the stories are set in the United States; a couple are set in France. Very surprising collection of stories. Very diverse. And uh ... what do you think?
Rochelle: Well, I'm not a short-story person. All I know about short stories, in my life, has been from O. Henry and "The Gift of the Magi" -- and I always want breadth, and a whole lot of ... you know ... Tom Wolfe: BIG, and l-o-n-g ...


... so I didn't expect to like it. I really thought, "OK, I'll read this and see what I think." And I was surprised at how much I cared about some of the characters. I was also surprised at the different places. I didn't know anything about Kim Edwards before I picked up this book. So ... I was thinking: "Well, Kim Edwards is going to write about Kentucky and I'll read about stuff from the Purchase or from Eastern Kentucky."

And it was all these great places -- and I was kicking myself, and my own bias, for thinking that just because she is in Kentucky doesn't mean that she can't take me around the world, and to places I've never been.

Bill Goodman: That was a real surprise, Dava ... the different locales that she wrote about ...
Dava: Oh yes, not only the different locales but also the different subjects she used in these first stories. Because in every story the character or characters all live out of the mainstream of society. So it makes for very different reading: We aren't used to reading about people like this; because we are used to reading, pretty much, everyday experiences and everyday Tom and Joe ... and this was somewhat different.


Cait: Well, I thought they, uh ...
Rochelle: Tom and Joe [laughs]
Cait: ... revolved around common situations -- a lot of the stories or things that would be typical to say in a relationship or a place and, you know, she just dealt with them from a very ... bizarre, sometimes, perspective.
Jonathan: Well one of the things she's good at, I think, is describing how it feels to be living in a foreign country. You say that many of the people are very average; but, actually, in a number of cases -- she's describing an English woman in Malaysia, she's describing a Korean woman in the United States -- she's describing people living overseas and feeling exiled, and feeling ill-at-ease and somehow estranged from the environment they live in. There are aspects of the environment they live in that they don't understand, that they are cut off from.

And I think that's an important part of many of the stories -- the sense of being cut off from your environment, of being in sort of exile. And in those cases, many of the times, the key moment is when that person discovers something that had been kept secret from them; and, I think, that what we find in a lot of the stories is that -- at a moment of illumination, or a moment of discovery, or revelation which changes the way they see themselves -- it changes the way they see each other.

And there are a number of stories like that, aren't there?

Cait: Yes.
Rochelle: Did you think it was romantic? I mean, she writes a lot about love -- whether it's being in love, the lack of love, or a sadness about love -- and, even though there is some profound sadness with some of the stories, I just think that anytime you have an author who can make you feel what she's feeling, you know, that they're capable of great love. Her husband must be really happy ...


... because I was moved by the depth of feeling that the characters had.

Bill Goodman: All the aspects of romance, though not necessarily ... or were there elements of even surprise there, in, maybe, the tragedy of some of the romance.
Rochelle: I think there's great love in tragedy. Which is why Romeo and Julietis the best love story ever. I think when you lose somebody and you see them in places that they really aren't ... that's undying love.
Bill Goodman: To cite an example, uh ... we might start with some of the stories. Spring Mountain and Sea -- certainly a romantic story. Or was it? Let me ask you. What is your opinion of that selection?
Dava: Well I think, umm ... it does speak a lot about love between two people who come from very different backgrounds. But it also ... the story also gives you an appreciation of people who hold onto their roots but are still strong enough to have the love of the person just like Jade Mood ... Moon ... Jade Moon was for her husband, Rob. It talks about in the story how Rob was so aggravated with Jade Moon, because she wouldn't assimilate into society. But actually it's not laziness or stubbornness, it's her ability to love and hold on to what she had loved before.
Cait: I thought it was the root of their whole problem -- the fact that they were both so desperately clinging onto to their own identities or their own cultures that they couldn't assimilate them at all. And that was...
Jonathan: Well, in one sense, you know, the husband, he really made a big effort -- he lived in two worlds. He was in a situation where he was in the military in the 1950s in Korea. He comes back to the United States with a Korean bride. He's living in a small town in New York state, I believe. And he goes to work and the men at work initially harass him for bringing back an Asian bride. And he feels ill-at-ease at work because of that, to some extent, and then when he comes home, it's like he enters a different world, that is the world that Jade Moon inhabits. I think that he was particularly annoyed when she wanted to christen the kids. They've got three children. She wants to christen them "Spring," "Mountain," and "Sea," respectively. And he says, "Well, you know, 'Spring' - that's a pretty weird name, how about 'Ethel.'"


Jonathan: And she refuses. And it's not until the very end of the story, when he has a moment of illumination or realization, that he realizes that she is naming those kids after the place they fell in love, initially. And I think that, in a sense, makes him feel more comfortable with the decision. Even though by then it's long past.
Cait: It's so tragic. It comes so late.
Jonathan: By then, of course, she's dying.
Cait: Didn't you think that one of the most potent images -- or that I found, in this whole collection -- was the image of Jade Moon taking the fish to the potluck supper and having everyone just gasp in horror.
Bill Goodman: The tragedy of Jade Moon being from a foreign culture, certainly a foreign land, and having to make this transition. I thought, while I was reading this, too, though, that what if [the tables had been turned] ... and Jade Moon and Rob had actually lived in her country. They would have had, maybe, the same sort of conflicts -- I don't know if that crossed somebody else's mind or not.
Rochelle: Well I thought about it through several of the stories, because what Kim, if I may call her Kim, is writing about are cultures within cultures. And when we talk about names, and how you're known, the very first story -- with that poor little girl, who stayed with me through the rest of the book. Uh, and this was the one umm, [looking through book] let me go back to the very beginning.
Bill Goodman: The Great Chain of Being
Rochelle: Which I love.
Bill Goodman: Uh-huh.
Rochelle: It reminds me of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But here is a child whose world revolves around the love that she feels for her mother, because she doesn't feel like she gets it anyplace else. And all of a sudden, I'm living in her world. And then her world revolves -- it's sort of a nugget -- in the world of her family and their traditions ... which is a part of this world outside, where people may or may not agree with them. And all those layers of culture -- that was fascinating, and really good work, to be able to do that and let you see a piece of each one.

But the other thing, too, that I kept thinking about every time I was reading a story was -- and maybe this is a part of short stories, there's supposed to be an element of surprise or something really strong that stays with you because you don't have a lot of room ... you have to finish up the story real quick -- at first, I wanted to be a little offended. That "Oh, My God! Here's this image ... and this image ..." and I wasn't remembering her writing as much as remembering those things. Then I thought, "Well, wait! That's the point. That's the point!"

Dava: I thought that what stuck with me was not just particularly an image or a symbol but the moral that each story conveyed. Like, especially, in "The Invitation" you can see the dangers of arrogance. But other stories, especially closer to the end, I had trouble finding a theme or a lesson ... which I was just expecting to see, because I had seen it in all the other stories before. And I was going to talk about "Rat Stories."
Cait: Uh-huh
Dava: I don't get it.
Jonathan: Well, I don't know. When I'm reading them I don't sense that they're necessarily pointing a moral. And one of the things I like about the endings of so many of the stories is that they're not at all pat. It's not as if she's saying "Okay, that's the end of the story; they all live happily ever after, or they all didn't live happily every after." But in a sense it's open as to how they live after. And she doesn't ...
Rochelle: ... or whether they live ...
Jonathan: ... or whether they live. Well indeed, yeah. There was that one about that trapeze artist.
Rochelle: "Balance."
Jonathan: ... and frankly, uh ... the female trapeze artist is diving through the air and she's expecting her boyfriend to catch her.
Rochelle: Or is she?
Jonathan: Or is she -- and it ends there and you don't know whether ...
Bill Goodman: Did she live ... or not? That's the question I had.

[Cait laughs]

Jonathan: ... so ... the open-endedness ...
Rochelle: Well, wait. I think she did.
Cait: I think she did. I think he caught her.
Rochelle: You know it's like Gone With the Wind. Where you don't know what happens next.
Bill Goodman: You don't know.
Rochelle: But you can, like, tack on your own ending.
Jonathan: You can make your own ending.
Cait: Yeah, yeah. That was my ... [laughs]
Jonathan: [Laughs] But you mentioned "Rat Stories." I thought that was interesting, because ...

If I may introduce a distinction that was made by a novelist, E. M. Foster: He said that great fiction depends upon two kinds characters -- 'round' characters and 'flat' characters. And a 'round' character is a character that is capable of surprising you. And it seems to me that in a number of these stories, you know, one of the things that propelled them was the fact that the characters did things that surprised you. I mean there was something they did that was unpredictable.

And one of the things in "Rat Stories" was that this husband is cheating on his wife and she didn't know it whatsoever. There was nothing, in fact, in the story to provide evidence that was happening. And in a sense that was a big surprise: that, at the end, they're out on the veranda and he's kissing her; and, all of a sudden, the wife ... all of a sudden she sees everything that has happened in the last 2 hours -- in fact, in the last 2 weeks -- in a different way.

Bill Goodman: I think the wonderful thing about that is that we, as readers, found out as soon as the wife found out.
Jonathan: Yes, that's right.
[everyone agrees]
Bill Goodman: I thought that was a real different way of discovering that element. But Dava: You said there were things you liked and disliked about "Rat Stories." Because I thought it was a pretty fascinating story, myself.
Dava: Oh, I thought it was fascinating. What I was saying is ... I just couldn't get what the message was that it was trying to get across. And, since I had been so used to seeing such a message in other stories, it surprised me. I did enjoy the story. Rats! Very exciting -- they scare me a lot.

[everyone laughs]

But umm ... I just ... I wanted a little story message.

Bill Goodman: You were looking for a little bit more.

[To Cait:] What did you think about "Rat Stories?"

Cait: Well, I thought it was interesting. That story had two women in it who were so different. One, I thought -- Inez -- I thought she was a cobra herself. She tells that story about that snake. And that's her.

[everyone laughts]

And the wife ... see, I had a different impression. I knew. I knew that was going on.

Bill Goodman: Oh, did you really?
Cait: I could tell by that woman's behavior. She was so clearly evil. But I didn't ... that wasn't a surprise to me at all, at the end. I was expecting that.
Jonathan: I didn't see her as evil. I saw her as ...
Cait: ... manipulative. And more like some of the other men in the other stories.
Jonathan: She was in a funny position. She was in a dinner party. And she ... she was going to announce at the end of it whether or not she was going to suggest that the corporation continue to fund the project. So, in a sense, she has all the power.
Cait: Uh-huh
Jonathan: And sort of the sense that, you know ... some sense it's stacked against her. You know -- we're we're prepared to think of her as somebody who we don't completely trust.
Cait: Yes.
Jonathan: But, you know, it's interesting ... because, after I read the ending, I then went back and reread the story. And there ...
Rochelle: That's a good idea.
Jonathan: ... are lots of moments when Paul -- who is actually having an affair with her but we didn't realize it -- he's paying extra attention to her. And initially, in your first meeting, I think you think, or you're expected to think, that he's doing that in order to soft-soap her, because he wants her to grant him the money. And that's how the wife sees it. But then you realize he's doing it because he's having an affair with her.

It's very skillfull, on the author's part.

Bill Goodman: Did you see that coming, Rochelle?
Rochelle: No. Well ...
Bill Goodman: So, Cait, you're out on a limb on this one: That you really ...
Dava: I saw it, too.
Bill Goodman: Did you? Feel that that was happening?

Uh ... Rochelle: Again, about the the story: I mean, it was fascinating the way she she put it all together. And that's a good point, Jonathan, in that again you're sort of the reader going along understanding ... and all at once, Boom! you know, it happens.

Jonathan: Yeah. Yeah.
Bill Goodman: And, again, the tables turn.
Jonathan: Yeah. Yeah.
Rochelle: Well, I like the surprises in some of the stories we were talking about. I mentioned the little girl in the first story; and I wanted to read something, if you guys don't care.
Bill Goodman: Go right ahead.
Rochelle: It's from "The Great Chain of Being" ... and what has just happened is the little girl is the seventh child, so the mom is now having twins -- which I think are the eleventh and twelfth children -- and after the second birth she's fading fast. And this little girl is seeing her whole world turn up-side-down and the person she loves the most is going and it's because of the birth of the twins.

So: The twins come, mom is going to die. So, maybe ... and then there's this passage. Umm ... actually, I need to start sooner.

All that followed is no longer very clear. The words rain down around me and suddenly I was standing up illuminated with an idea of how to save my mother. I remember that the floor felt cool against my bare feet. That moonlight came in through the window and lit the crib where my two sisters slept. Their mouths moved even in sleep and their hands and feet jerked sometimes with the motions of the womb. And the sudden silence from my mothers' room I reached for a thick pillow and placed it above the sleeping faces of my sisters. I was nine year's old with a literal mind. And I remember the midwife's words. If these twins would cost my mother her life. Then I reasoned I could save her if they died.

And I could see this 9-year-old -- my daughter's nine -- this 9-year-old girl, thinking: "I can right my world by doing this" -- without giving any thought to what that is.

Cait: That ... that logic.
Rochelle: It stopped me cold. It just stopped me cold.

And every time there was something like that. Like you were with the morals or the things in the story that got you. I felt like there were moments in almost all of the stories that were supposed to haunt you after you close the book. And that was what I couldn't figure out whether I liked -- because I know a short story has to do that -- or whether I didn't want her to do that. Like: Was that necessary, for me to understand? Then I thought maybe it was, for me to get what that child felt.

Bill Goodman: So you really felt the emotion.
Rochelle: Oh my God!
Bill Goodman: ... she was going through, and it bothered you.
Rochelle: I dreamed about that.
Bill Goodman: You dreamed about it?
Rochelle: Well, you know, some things stick with you for a long time. And it's like with a good movie -- where you leave, and you cry; and you think about it later, and you cry again. Like, every time someone brings up An Affair to Rememberyou pull out a handkerchief. Every time I think about that, I just ... I keep thinking about it. Out of this whole book. And that wasn't even my favorite story. But it was good.
Bill Goodman: Well, that's a good segue. What was your favorite story? Let's talk about that. Let's have everybody sort of select their favorite.
Rochelle: Well, let everybody say first.
Bill Goodman: Dava?
Dava: I particularly enjoyed "A Gleaming in the Darkness."
Cait: Yeah, that's my favorite. I like that.
Bill Goodman: And why?
Dava: Because its concern is one of its subjects -- Marie Curie. I don't know. Just because she's famous; and because I never heard anything about her, other than she was a great scientist. Because I appreciated the sense that all she had wrought with affection, all the hope she had for her discoveries to be a cure, became a tool for devastation.
Bill Goodman: So, did you think she was the real central character? Or were there two?
Dava: There were two.
Bill Goodman: Two main characters. But was Marie Curie more of the central figure than Maria -- was it pronounced Bovine?
Jonathan: Umm ...
Dava: I'm not sure.
Cait: Bovin.
Bill Goodman: Or the french pronunciation.
Rochelle: That probably sounds more romantic.

[everyone laughs]

I'm thinking pig, or...[laughs]

Dava: The cleaning lady was ...
Bill Goodman: The cleaning lady. Good, Dava ...
Dava: Sorry ... I thought that the cleaning lady was more just there to tell the story a little bit. You know.
Cait: That was my favorite story.
Jonathan: But she also -- at the end of the story, her hands are disfigured, from touching the radioactive materials ...
Bill Goodman: Uh-huh
Cait: Right.
Jonathan: ... in the laboratory. So she, uh ... you were talking about morals earlier. This story is certainly about the dangers of radioactivity.

It just superimposes the images of the Hiroshima bomb with the image of this poor woman's hands, which are all distorted. You know, due to the radioactivity.

Rochelle: I thought it was about hero worship. And be careful who you idolize.
Jonathan: Well it's ... it could be that, too.
Bill Goodman: See? That's what's fascinating about a discussion about this. Because, again, Dava mentioned at first about a moral -- which you seem to think that, maybe, there was a little bit of that in this story. And yet Rochelle has a completely different take on it.
Jonathan: Yes, yes, you could say ...
Cait: I thought it was about the sacrifices that women make.
Rochelle: See!

[women laugh]

Cait: I thought, uh ...
Jonathan: You get it in all sorts of ways.
Cait: This is also my favorite story. I thought it was amazing that she came up with this idea of Madame Curie's cleaning woman, and the two of them having these parallel lives -- where they were both connected by personal tragedies. They both lost their loved ones. They were both connected. Their hard work. Their love. You know they worked all the time. And then connected with this illness that eventually killed them. And she was ... I mean, she was an experiment. This cleaning woman. You know, she became an experiment; and people came from everywhere and looked at her and examined her. And then Madame Curie she ...
Bill Goodman: The poignancy of their meeting at the very end ...
Cait: Yeah.
Bill Goodman: ... in the park or the garden, in some place ...
Cait: ... and they touch hands -- they clasp hands -- and they're physically connected. Three times, that aspect.
Rochelle: See that's another point: You never know who you're connected to, where the connections around you will lead.
Cait: Uh-huh.
Jonathan: And there's a moment of recognition, I think, when ...
Cait: When they ...
Jonathan: ... Madame Curie sees the woman's hands, disfigured hands. And what she says is, "You work too hard."
Cait: Yeah.
Jonathan: But, you know ...
Cait: I thought that was beautiful.
Jonathan: ... there's more to it than that.
Bill Goodman: So, two marks go down for "A Gleaming in the Darkness." Jonathan, your favorite?
Jonathan: Well, it's really hard to choose a favorite because there's a number of them I really like very much. I very much like the one, "The Way It Felt To Be Falling," about the woman whose father is clinically depressed and she hitches up with this guy and they go parachuting; they go jump out of an airplane.

I suppose I particularly like "The Invitation." I thought that was very, very subtle; very good because here you have a woman -- I think she's supposed to be an English woman in Malaysia -- and she's expecting the invitation from a sultan's palace for the annual ball. And she's visited by that young, American woman -- and through the conversation it transpires that it's very inappropriate to be in front of the sultan wearing gold. And suddenly [snaps his fingers] she realizes ...


... that that her fantasy of herself as the object of all eyes at the ball the previous year was because she was wearing a beautiful dress. And suddenly she realized there were all silent and stunned and staring at her. Not because she looked so stunning, but because she was breaking a taboo about the sultan. And it's that moment of silent recognition in her that I really thought was very skillfully done.

And then, a little later, she's dealing with the gardner -- who's a native of that land, I guess it's Malaysia -- and she asks him to clean away the ants from the backyard. The ants are eating the trees.

Bill Goodman: Uh-huh.
Jonathan: And then she tells him to stake the trees. And he says, "No, I don't think it's a good idea to do that." And she ... she thinks that this is some aspect of native superstition, and she's so condescending towards the native culture that she thinks it's just the natives being superstitious again -- and she sort of orders him to do it. Then it ends in that beautiful way ...
Cait: That's a great ending!
Jonathan: ... where, in a sense, you know, she realizes at the end why she shouldn't have staked the trees.


Bill Goodman: I think that's one of my favorite stories, too. And I think it goes again to show what a surprise and delight so many of these stories are, and what a good writer she is. Because ... you can read many novels and short stories, and find that they don't surprise and delight you. Like, she found out about what the gold really meant; and I thought that was real pleasant -- a sort of jolt to to get you back on the page. So, [to Rochelle] your favorite story?
Rochelle: Now, you know, I'm a journalist and I'm a cynic. So you don't want to like the one everybody likes and that they made the title of the whole book. But, um ... except for the Curie story, "The Secrets of a Fire King" was my favorite story. And on so many levels I connected with it more. Taking risks; being in love with someone you can't have; tragedy that sort of helps build your soul. I don't know, there was so much about it that I liked. But that was such a motley little crew of characters and that guy just, you know ... it stayed with me.
Bill Goodman: And all the characters were so well developed.
Rochelle: Oh, they were real! Everybody in every story was real; but they were the most real to me.
Bill Goodman: Okay.
Jonathan: What about the ending of that story? The ending is very strange, isn't it? I mean he ...
Rochelle: But I thought all the endings were strange. [laughs]
Bill Goodman: Strange in what way though, Jonathan? Strange in a critical way?
Jonathan: Well, uh ... No, I mean, I liked it.
Bill Goodman: Strange in a surprising way?
Jonathan: I like it surprisingly. I mean, at the end he realizes he will never find this woman that he loves. But it almost uses this biblical language ... [reads from book]

'As it was,' I thought, staring at the sky, vast and blue and infinitely empty. 'As it is. As it ever shall be.'
And it seems as though ...
Rochelle: Forever and ever, Amen.
Jonathan: It's such a ... it's such a final and definitive and tragic end. Isn't it?
Rochelle: I thought it was the only ending that was really an ending. And maybe that's what drew me to it. Everything else I had to keep going and keep working with and revisit. This one, it was done; and I could see him in his entirety and what he would be living.
Bill Goodman: So I'm always asking questions, too. Do you think that was really her? Do you think she was there? Had she survived the fire? Do you think she was there?
Jonathan: Yeah.
Rochelle: Well, I saw Beloved, so I thought it was her. [laughs] I said, "Yep! It was her!"

Bill Goodman: Okay. What about your least favorite stories, and why? The ones that you thought maybe needed a little bit more development, or for whatever reason you have. What did you think maybe were your least favorites?

Cait: I think my least favorite probably was "Gold." And maybe and I think one of the reasons I really like these stories is because of the broad expanse of time that they cover. And I think ... I'm pretty sure this is the only one that actually occurs in this very short relatively short period of time. And, uh, it has the quality of a fable, I think ... which is kind of what you guys were talking about -- about morals, and that kind of thing. It reminded me of a fable, I think, in the tone; but I think it was probably my least favorite. It didn't grip me like the other ones did.
Bill Goodman: Somebody else, least favorite? Any of the others that, uh ...
Rochelle: Well, I can say "Rat Stories."
Bill Goodman: Really? Why? It got a couple of votes a few minutes ago.
Rochelle: Because I had gotten into this mood of these short stories that were teaching me lessons and it was lyrical and, you know, you see yourself laying on a beach in Jamaica reading them. "Rat Stories" was just too contemporary. It was, like, people you might know -- doing stuff you don't want to know about. And, I don't know. I mean, it's a good story. I just had to look at the one that, if it was left out, I would not miss it.
Bill Goodman: You know one of the things that we're going to have an opportunity to do is to talk with Kim Edwards online ... chat with her on Tuesday, February 23rd ...
Rochelle: Wow!
Bill Goodman: ... at 9 Eastern, 8 Central time. We'll all have to mark our calendars. She's going to be live on the KET Web site -- on our book club Web site -- and these questions, we can ask about whether somebody ...
Rochelle: Oh, my God! Is she going to know I didn't like "Rat Stories?"
Bill Goodman: Well, of course she will. But you'll have to ...
Rochelle: But it's a great book, Kim.
Bill Goodman: But I think it's interesting: We'll get to really ask her some of these questions. That's going to be fun. And I hope all, everybody else, will too.
Cait: That'll be great!
Bill Goodman: But Cait, can you put, or anybody else in sort of a capsule, one word or two about how you would describe this writing?
Dava: I'd just say, "mesmerizing."
Bill Goodman: Jonathan, she did it in a word. Now can you do that?
Jonathan: Vivd characterization, subtle plots.

Read on for March's book club at KET with Passing For Black, by Wade Hall. And join us online Tuesday night, February 23rd [1999], at 9 pm Eastern time for a live chat with the author of The Secrets of a Fire King, Kim Edwards. Or log on anytime for a list of future book club selections, author interviews, and book club discussion boards. The address is

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