KR Conversations

Lauren Schenkman

Lauren SchenkmanLauren Schenkman’s fiction has been published in Granta and Hudson Review. She has an MFA from Cornell University and was formerly a journalist at Science magazine. In 2015, she received a Fulbright student grant to research a novel set in Nicaragua. An excerpt from her story “Fat Little Gods” can be found here. It appears in the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.

How do you hope and intend bodies, particularly the actual or perceived ownership of bodies, to work in this piece? Remy seems controlling of the bodies of his offspring while Fidelia seems controlled and even victimized by her own pregnancy and her choice to surrender it. Does her feeling of hunger at the end of the story exist as another moment in which she is powerless the whims of her body, or is it more a moment of returned control and individualism?

I don’t think I was consciously manipulating the way bodies are talked about, but the story probably reflects the kinds of beliefs about bodies that I’ve observed in others and in myself. Some parents feel an enormous amount of ownership over their children’s bodies, especially when it comes to whether they’re going to have children. On the other hand, perhaps because I haven’t experienced it myself, pregnancy has always seemed to me a terrifying loss of control over your body, and Fidelia probably feels this way, too. I think when I wrote the ending, I felt an abyss opening up under Fidelia. But I like your more hopeful reading—maybe as her little plans fall apart, there’s a chance for something better to happen.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

I used to try really, really, really hard on the first draft, as if by sheer force of will I could squeeze the words out, one by one, exactly as they would look on the printed page in my future bestseller. There was also an enormous (and totally irrational, and unhelpful) sense that I needed to show everyone how smart and okay I was. This is a terrible way to write, and in the last few years, thanks to a lot of conversations with other writer friends and hitting a dead end with the above process, I’ve gone totally the opposite way. In the first draft, I let anything that wants to happen happen, and I banish (as best I can) the internal critic that’s saying things like, “Oh, you don’t want to say that, that’s embarrassing and weird.” A lot of times the weird or embarrassing things are actually what’s alive in the story. In a way, I’m going back to how I used to write—in high school, I would sneak out to the family desktop computer at two in the morning to write. There’s something about the middle of the night that makes you feel like you can do anything because no one is looking.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?

I’ve tried a lot of different sports, and I think those have influenced my writing in a very positive way, mostly in terms of process. I have a wonderful friend in Ithaca, Laura Robert, who is a talented artist and accomplished outdoorswoman, and she taught me how to ride a mountain bike. I never in my life thought that I’d be able to ride with bike shoes that clip into the pedals. She taught me how to do it. The first thing she did was have me clip in, and then tip me over a hundred times so I’d learn how to fall. That’s a great thing for a writer to learn.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given? 

I think writing advice in general isn’t very helpful until you’ve already written a first draft of the thing. As someone who grew up very much terrified to break the rules, it was totally debilitating to sit at a computer thinking, “Now it has to have scenes, and you can’t write in second person, and don’t use too many adverbs”—and on and on and on. Basically there was a voice inside, this annoying know-it-all student type, criticizing every word I put down. Writing advice, like how to do scenes and plot and all of that, is fantastic and a lot of it is true, but save it for the editing process. In the first draft, just sit there and listen to what the thing is trying to tell you.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

The main project I’m working on right now is a novel about a family in Nicaragua in the 1950s and ’60s. It takes as a starting point my mother’s childhood situation—she grew up in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere in Nicaragua, where an American/Canadian company had a gold mine. The North Americans lived in this beautiful manicured complex on a hill overlooking the town, and all the Nicaraguans, including my uncle and my grandmother, worked for the company in some respect. My mother used to tell me about growing up there, and her stories got lodged in my brain and would not stop bothering me. In 2015-2016, thanks to a Fulbright grant, I actually went back to the town and spent nine months living there, and I tracked down all the old people I could find and interviewed them. So now I’m writing this novel with all of that in my head.