Katherine Karlin’s fiction has appeared in Cincinnati Review, One Story, [PANK], Alaska Quarterly Review, and many other journals. Her work has been selected for the Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South anthologies. Her short story collection, Send Me Work, was published by Northwestern University Press in 2011 and received the Balcones Fiction Prize. She lives in Manhattan, Kansas. An excerpt from her story “Nearly Everybody Reads the Bulletin” can be found here. It appears in the Mar/Apr 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Nearly Everybody Reads the Bulletin”?
I am interested in writing about friendships, which can rupture as violently as romantic love. I wondered what would happen to a woman who, in middle age, gets tossed aside for another woman—not by a husband, but by a close friend. Like a divorcée, she would be forced to recalibrate what is left of her future. But she might have a tougher time exciting sympathy, explaining the depth of her pain. It struck me as a tragic situation.
Saul takes a trip to Israel and it changes his aspirations, his tastes, and his circle of friends. (“The day for him was never too long.”) What made you choose to write about Israel?
Specifically, Tel Aviv. Israel occupies a complicated spot in our imagination: designed to be a safe haven, it became a brutal occupier. Even putting aside the contradictory politics, Israel confounds us. The project of retrofitting an ancient language for modern use fascinates me, as if we all decided one day to speak Latin. The juxtaposition of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—new vs. old, secular vs. religious, cosmopolitan vs. provincial—says a lot about memory and geography, both of which play a big role in this story. As an American Jew, Saul would be conferred citizenship in Israel, and Tel Aviv seems like a good place to go if you want to erase your past.
Was there a specific event in Philly that inspired the building collapse in this story?
Yes, the 2013 collapse of a Salvation Army thrift shop. An awful accident, six people were killed. They were doing demolition on an adjacent building. I lived in Philly years ago and walked by that spot thousands of times, and reading about it from my home in Kansas I felt extremely mournful. For Cecile, the building collapse typifies the crumbling of a city she loves, a city that is disappearing. Many of the sites she describes are gone. The title of the story quotes the slogan of a newspaper that ceased publication decades ago; for years after the paper folded, the sign on its old building still blazed at night, a ghostly palimpsest of a vanished institution.
I just returned from a visit and I am astonished by how much Philadelphia is changing. Construction cranes are everywhere. Old working-class neighborhoods are being gentrified, factories are being carved into pricey condos. On one hand, it’s exciting to see streets that used to be deserted at night now bustling with the activity of young people. On the other, the city stands to lose some of the industrial character that once made it hum. Significant, to me, that a Salvation Army thrift shop collapsed. That was very much part of the old economy.
This story is centered around the growing distance in an old friendship. What other stories or books would you recommend in this vein?
Like millions of other book lovers, I have just devoured Elena Ferrante’s four Neopolitan novels. She writes about friendship with such passion and precision, I come away feeling the rest of us are not fit to breathe her air.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
The process has not changed very much. I sit at my computer and hope something comes of it. As far as the writing itself, I think I am paying much more attention to characters’ interiority, how intonations of voice can go a long way in suggesting a state of mind. My early attempts at fiction looked like screenplays.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
When I was living in Philadelphia I worked in an oil refinery. It’s a refinery which (like so many places in this story) doesn’t exist anymore. I have drawn from my work experience for many previous stories, and even when I don’t write about it directly, I think my viewpoint has been shaped by my work history, by working shiftwork in an industrial facility so many people pass on the highway without noticing. This experience affects the way I see a city, its structures, the network of people who keep it operating.
Other than that, I am a runner, and I am convinced that running and writing are the same thing. Daily habit carries me far, and compensates for periods of dullness. There are good days and bad days, but, you know, I keep plugging away and maybe progress will be made.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
I’ve been lucky to have some good teachers along the way. Aimee Bender’s simple advice to write for a set amount of time every morning is invaluable to me. I think I would be very anxious about writing if I didn’t have a routine, if I had to wait for the right inspired moment. Also simple advice from Chuck Kinder to be unsentimental about throwing stuff out. It’s liberating to be unattached to your own work. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten bad advice, although I did read somewhere that real writers are required to sit at desks, and I don’t; I write sprawled out on a futon-sofa. Sondheim writes lying down so he can take refreshing naps between lines of a song. I don’t nap, but I do like to sprawl.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I have just completed a novel about a meatpacking town in Iowa in the years after the state legalized same-sex marriage. It is a rural setting, but like “Nearly Everybody Reads the Bulletin” it addresses the connection between place and character, and the antagonism between change and tradition. And, like this story, it is about the convulsive nature of friendship.