How Far I’ve Come: An interview with Kim Magowan by Yasmina Din Madden

When I have a Kim Magowan story or collection in front of me, I get the same feeling I have when I’m anticipating a meal at my favorite restaurant—impatient to get started, hungry to dig in. I savored every one of Magowan’s stories in her second story collection, How Far I’ve Come, out from Gold Wake Press in February 2022. Magowan explores broken relationships, betrayals, desire, and loss with beautiful and precise language, and there is a complexity and fullness to every one of the stories in this delicious collection. It’s such a pleasure to talk with Kim, a writer I admire so much, about how her new collection came together.

Yasmina Din Madden: I loved How Far I’ve Come, Kim. Big congratulations on this accomplished collection. I wonder if you could tell us how this book came together. Given that you’ve published a story collection before (Undoing, Moon City Press), how was your approach to this second story collection different? What was your process for finding a press for this collection? Gold Wake Press did such a beautiful job with the book—I love all of the little infographics they included throughout.

Kim Magowan: Thank you! I finished Undoing in mid-2017, so this new collection is stories I wrote in the last four years. This isn’t a concept book. That is, there isn’t a theme that binds the stories together (though a lot of plot points keep coming up, like divorce, drinking, estranged friendships, parenting, mourning). I had (delusional) hopes that it would be easier to publish this time around, since I already had two books. Ha. Well, it was easier, but only in the sense that second-degree burns are easier than third-degree burns. It’s hard to publish a story collection! I shopped this for about eighteen months before Gold Wake accepted it. It was a finalist in six different contests and open calls, so I was hopeful, but (as we all know) rejection is demoralizing. It went through several major overhauls. Right before I sent it to Gold Wake, I gave the hook to a bunch of stories I wasn’t sure about, added ten new ones, moved them all around again (putting together a collection is like assembling a puzzle made of live crabs). I’m so happy it worked out this way; Gold Wake is a perfect match. And yes, hard agree that Paul Brooke is a genius interior designer! His graphics that end a bunch of the stories are so whimsical, odd, and brilliant (the sorrow bowl! The field mice! The dead person run over by a Recology truck!).

YDM: Did you find one of your story collections harder to write and why? Or maybe they were equally difficult!?

KM: This one was definitely easier. Undoing took me thirty years to write (though most of the stories in it were written from 2010-2017). With this one, I’d hit my stride. Undoing is roughly 60,000 words and 28 stories; my new book is 50,000 words and 57 stories. I wrote this book after becoming deeply obsessed with flash fiction. One thing I love about flash is that it lends itself to experimental forms—you can get away with doing bizarre things if a story is very short. So How Far I’ve Come is more adventurous. It’s also more playful. Undoing is a pretty dark book. My friend George quit reading it because he found it too depressing. There’s a lot of darkness in this new collection too, but I made a conscious decision to lighten up, to write a warmer and (hopefully) funnier book.

YDM: I noticed there are some recurring characters from your first collection, Undoing, who show up again in How Far I’ve Come. I recognized Miriam and Ben and also Laurel. Could you discuss what it is about these characters that keeps you coming back to them?

KM: If I were less deathly afraid of writing another novel, I would have written novels about both Ben and Miriam, and Laurel and her family. Those characters definitely got under my skin. I wonder about them; I worry about them as if they were real people (I realize I sound like a nut!). The Ben and Miriam stories are always in Ben’s POV. The Laurel stories (I’ve written six now) change perspective. This was the first one I’d tried in second person, and I wanted to show Laurel struggling—she always struggles—but rising to the surface. I’m happy you noticed Laurel! The connection is a little subtle (I don’t think her name is mentioned).

YDM: I think every writer is curious about every other writer’s writing practice, and I’m curious what your writing practice looks like.

KM: The only interesting thing I have to say about practice is that many of my stories were first drafted during manic flashathons—as you know perfectly well, but let me explain for others. Yasmina, Michelle Ross, Elizabeth Brinsfield, Brittany Terwilliger, Chrissy Kolaya, and I will block off 4-6 hours and take turns sending each other prompts every hour on the hour. I always feel like a dead person at the end of these, and a lot of what I write is dreadful. But I always get drafts of 2-3 stories that can be turned into something presentable, and because I’m writing to other people’s prompts, I write stories that surprise me. I count at least ten stories in How Far I’ve Come that germinated during those flashathons.

YDM: Is there a story in this collection that you consider your favorite child? Conversely, is there a story in this collection that’s your black sheep rebel child?

KM: This question makes me guilty, in exactly the way you describe—it feels taboo. I’ll choose three, which is hard enough: “Home Economics,” which I wrote in my notebook one day at Starbucks and then kept rearranging; “Middle Ages,” which is a tiny and quite silly story, but for whatever reason moves me; “Women on the Sidelines,” a story I had to keep faith in, since it took a long time to publish (in general, I find longer stories are harder to place). The “black sheep” story wasn’t hard to write, but it’s anomalous: “Irreconcilable Differences.” It almost didn’t make it into the book, because it’s nonfiction. But I felt like it had the same genetic material as so many of my stories (divorce), and it seemed authentic, even if uncomfortable, for that essay to share space with some fiction it helped inspire.

YDM: There is a particular story that I selfishly want to ask you to discuss: “When Viv Wanted to Walk to Crescent Street” is such an excellent story that distills the sheer terror of a child being kidnapped and missing into two and a half pages. The subject matter is also so difficult and anxiety producing I felt like I was holding my breath the entire time I was reading it. Tell us a bit about what it was like to write this story.

KM: Oh good grief, that’s my “worst fear” story! Well, the back story is, one day my then nine-year-old wanted to walk by herself to get a smoothie, and I let her, but I was completely freaked out, so while Camille was blithely drinking her smoothie I banged out this story. My writing group thought it was too upsetting, not publishable. The funny thing is, Camille loves it. She calls it the “Camille is dead” story. She wanted me to read it at that reading we did for Michelle Ross’s book launch—you were there, Yasmina—and I did read it aloud in advance to see if I could stand to, but it just makes me too sad. Yikes.

YDM: What’s on the horizon for you? You now have two story collections and your novel The Light Source (7.13 Books). Another collection? Novel? Something else?

KM: Michelle Ross and I are shopping around our collaboration short story collection, and it’s been a finalist in a few contests, so hopefully (knock wood, toss salt, et cetera) it will get picked up soon. It’s been a fascinating process, co-authoring stories with Michelle; I feel like we channel some third voice. Sometimes I read a sentence of one of our stories, and I genuinely cannot remember who of us wrote it. Also, I have another short story collection in the works—it’s currently 27,000 words. So that’s at least a year away from done, and I haven’t even begun to shape it or put it through the quality control Wonka factory machines—I just throw all my new stuff into the WIP file. I didn’t start taking my writing seriously until I was 43, so I feel pressured to bear down and make up for lost time. I need to chill out!

Yasmina Din Madden is a Vietnamese American writer who lives in Iowa. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in The Idaho Review, PANK, Necessary Fiction, The Masters Review: New Voices, The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot and other journals. Her short fiction has been a finalist for The Iowa Review Award in Fiction, The Masters Review Anthology, the Wigleaf Top 50, and Fractured Journal’s micro-fiction contest. She teaches creative writing and literature at Drake University and is completing a collection of short fiction.

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