Writing without expectation: Author Kim Fu on the joys and labors of her craft

Seattle writer Kim Fu. (Photo by L D’Alessandro from kim-fu.com).

Canadian-born writer Kim Fu, who now lives in Seattle, began writing as a child and has published two novels, “For Today I Am A Boy” and “The Lost Girls Of Camp Forevermore,” plus a collection of poetry, “How Festive The Ambulance.” “Lost Girls,” published by Houghton Mifflin earlier this year, starts in 1994 with a band of girls away at summer camp, and the ripples down the decades, for each one, from a calamity that strikes from nowhere.

Fu took some questions over email to talk about her influences, upbringing and the joys and labors of writing.

Please describe your upbringing. Did you do all of your growing up in British Columbia, or did you move around some?

I was born in Calgary, Alberta. I grew up primarily near Vancouver, BC.

What are your most crucial memories from growing up, and why?

Relevant to [“Lost Girls”], the area where I grew up was up in the North Shore mountains, with giant Douglas firs and the occasional bear right in our suburban backyards. My public elementary school had “outdoor school” for a few days each year, which included ocean kayaking, and seemed full of danger and excitement to me then (though I’m sure now that it wasn’t).

Which books and authors were most crucial to your decision to become a writer How did they put you on the path?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. I started writing poems and stories as a young child, when I was still reading fairly common children’s books; I wasn’t especially precocious in that way.

One of the earliest books I can recall reading is “The Silver Pencil” by Alice Dalgliesh, a British children’s novel from the 1940s, set about 30 years earlier, about a girl who grows up to become a writer. Looking at it now, the book seems outdated and often racist, but I remember connecting strongly to the character and the rosy picture of life as a writer portrayed.

Which books and authors are your favorites now, and why?

Some of my favorite writers are those who, beyond just the technical strength of their voice and prose, seem to be doing something new and unique, who suggest to me an exciting future for literature: Zoey Leigh Peterson, Karen Russell, Louise Erdrich, Peter Ho Davies, Kevin Brockmeier, Matt Bell, Miranda July, Tommy Pico, Khadijah Queen, Rebecca Brown.

Where did you attend college? Which professors meant the most to you, and why?

I did my undergrad at McGill [University] in Montreal and went to [The University of British Columbia] in Vancouver for my MFA. My thesis supervisor at UBC, Keith Maillard, taught me a lot about seeing a piece of writing for what it is and what it wants to be, rather than trying to force it into any predetermined shape, which has been useful in my own work and when teaching and editing others.

How hard does a writer of fiction and poetry have to work to get established? How does one go about getting a foot in the door and pushing the door open?

I started sending yellow envelopes out to literary magazines and publishers while I was a teenager, but a lot of it is luck as much as determination. Knowing other writers who are coming up alongside you is extremely helpful, in both a practical sense (you can share opportunities with one another) and to keep you motivated and sane.

How did the ideas for the new novel come about? How long did it take for the novel to come together?

I’d been picking at something involving these characters for several years when I did a three-month residency in Dawson City, Yukon, in the winter of 2015. Dawson itself is comfortable and modern, but the surroundings are isolated and subarctic, and town shrinks dramatically during that time of year, as the temperature hits -40C, the river freezes over, and daylight vanishes altogether.

The people I met, and the way I lived there, left me thinking a lot about outdoor survival. The image of the girls in the kayaks came to me there, and the novel came together quickly after that. So I’d been playing with the characters for about six years, but the novel as it stands was written in less than two.

How does your second novel compare and contrast with your first? What were the most important lessons you learned from your first, that you could apply to your second?

I had to relearn my own process after my first novel came out. I’ve always been the kind of writer who generates a lot of material and throws away most of it. I need to experiment with a lot of bad ideas before arriving at a good one. But the second time around, I felt a lot of pressure to just sit down and immediately write a new novel, and now that I knew what the experience of being published was like, I worried a lot about how it would be received, what people would think. It was paralyzing.

It took me a long time to come back to writing as play, writing without expectation, writing what compelled me personally, which is the only way I can write a first draft. Those worries are helpful during editing, but I can’t initially create that way.

How does writing poetry influence your fiction, and vice versa? What are the crucial similarities and differences between the two?

Poetry teaches you to be concise, to pare down your words down to what is strictly necessary. It also teaches that trusting a reader to make connections themselves, rather than spelling it out for them, makes for a more powerful reading experience. I think these are both valuable lessons when writing fiction.

How long have you lived in Seattle? What are your favorite and least-favorite things about the city?

I’ve lived in Seattle since 2012. As I grew up in Vancouver, the Pacific Northwest landscape where I’m most at home. I love the parks, the nearness of the outdoors, hiking and skiing.

Some of the characters in the new novel aren’t particularly likeable. Does working with unlikeable characters prove an uphill push?

The unlikeability of these characters influenced the structure. That’s why (with the exception of Siobhan) they each have a long, sustained section from their perspective, rather than jumping back and forth between them. I think the reader needs to sit with each one for a continuous, uninterrupted stretch, to come around to her way of thinking and seeing the world.

Do you teach writing seminars? If so, what are your best, worst and strangest tales from instructing writers?

Yes, I teach writing seminars. I’ve personally found teenage writers the most inspiring in this context; they have a confidence and an intensity of feeling in their work that can never be replicated.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m currently focusing on writing short stories; whether they turn into a book remains to be seen. I’ll be appearing at a number of literary festivals this year, and I start teaching through the Humber School for Writers in the fall.