Q&A with Kat Lewis, author of “물귀신 | Mul Gwishin” & “Hip Deep in the Chesapeake”
Kat Lewis’s “물귀신 | Mul Gwishin” and “Hip Deep in the Chesapeake” were published in The Offing’s Fiction department on February 1, 2021. Q&A conducted by Mary Pappalardo, Fiction Editor.
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Mary Pappalardo: I’d like to start with a real craft question here — you utilize both the second person and a kind of tightrope walk of different tenses in “물귀신 | Mul Gwishin”; the story is addressed to the “you” in the future and that addressed “you” remembers their past experiences with Noh Enubi in the present tense. Does the second person allow you to explore these different temporalities more easily? How do you employ these techniques together? And do they lend themselves in any particular way to the sort of ghost story this story is?
Kat Lewis: Whenever I’m writing flash fiction or poetry, I tend to choose the second person as the point of view because I’m a big fan of the “you” serving as an ashamed “I.” For “물귀신 | Mul Gwishin” in particular, the heart of the story is the trauma of guilt and grief. Ultimately, I chose second person because it has a way of combining the emotional distance of third person with the intimacy of first in a complex way that represents and speaks to the themes of guilt and grief in the story.
When it comes to time — particularly in ghost stories — time is not linear, it’s more of a loop, and this loop of time embodies the psychological looping response to trauma. In ghost stories, the trauma is typically the “unfinished business” that’s preventing the ghost from moving onto the next place. In “물귀신 | Mul Gwishin,” I mixed the future tense with the present tense because grief and guilt tend to feel very present at all times, so much so that it’s hard to imagine a future without their presence.
As a whole, I think a lot about how form parallels content when I’m writing flash fiction, and the point of view and tense of this story suited my intentions for the piece. I’m not sure that second person naturally makes experimentation with tenses more effective, but it was definitely a serendipitous discovery that this combination worked in this piece.
MP: I’m also so taken with the way you compress space in this story, between a boarding school in Baltimore and the Incheon bridge; the geographical distance echoes the temporal space and the story is able to exist in two places at once, in a way. In such a short piece, that can be difficult to manage; how do you manage to incorporate multiple sites of narrative in shorter fiction?
KL: Short fiction — especially flash fiction — often starts as an association exercise for me. The use of space in this piece is grounded in personal experience and the associations that these locations hold for me.
In 2018, I moved to Korea on a Fulbright Creative Arts grant to research ghosts in Korean folklore for my novel. This topic is already very niche, and it’s even more unusual for a Black woman like myself to pursue. I’m often asked: why Korea? Why — out of all the languages in the world — did you study Korean? And the answer is simple: when I was in boarding school in Baltimore, my roommate was from Seoul, and she taught me the Korean alphabet and all the curse words (because that’s the first thing you want to know when you’re thirteen). Since then, I had always wanted to study the language formally. During my senior year of high school, I actually made my college decision based on which schools offered Korean classes, and I ended up going to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. All that said, for me, there’s a very close connection between Baltimore — the city in which I learned my second language — and Seoul — the city where that language is most commonly spoken.
In general in flash, I think writers can get away with a lot of disparate elements (place, time, etc.) as long as there’s a concrete connection between those elements.
MP: Port Isobel and the Chesapeake Bay is again a really specific and richly rendered place in “Hip Deep in the Chesapeake” — what experiences of that place did you draw on for this story? Did you do a field program there? Or was there something that just drew you to that setting?
KL: This is actually another boarding school story. When I was in eighth grade, our school took us on a week-long field trip to Port Isobel. We spent that week crabbing, team building, and doing some community engagement on Tangier Island — another nearby island in the Chesapeake. At the time, it was all quite miserable — I can confidently say that my thirteen-year-old self hated that trip — but these two islands were so wonderfully strange in terms of setting and culture that I still think about them almost fifteen years later.
MP: There’s a tension running throughout “Hip Deep in the Chesapeake” of the idyl of this island and something more ominous, a current of danger (or perhaps something else) underneath. Can you speak to that tension?
KL: I think a lot of that tension is just leftover teenage angst about being shipped off to boarding school and abandoned on an island with no technology.
I’m kidding. Mostly. But in all seriousness, the moment from this trip that has stayed with me the most was watching our counselor kill the crabs we had caught that day. When you’re thirteen, you’re not blind at all to the fact that meat comes from animals, and I had grown up in rural North Carolina, so I had seen plenty of dead animals on the farm at different points in my childhood. But I had never seen an animal butchered for the sake of my sustenance before, and this moment was essentially the peak of my discomfort in a trip that was intentionally designed to put us all outside of our comfort zones.
MP: You’re at work on a novel right now, which is necessarily a different writing endeavor than flash fiction. What do you think the briefer form offers you as an author or makes possible that the longer form may not? Has working within the flash fiction form ever helped you unlock things in your writing process for the novel? How do you juggle different projects in different forms and genres?
KL: At heart, I identify very much as a long fiction writer, but I don’t think I really became a strong line-to-line writer until I started writing flash fiction. The economy of prose in flash requires a writer to really consider diction and sonal qualities to convey large themes and emotional stakes.
When it comes to my novel, I’m very much an over-writer; I set a daily word quota and often write long-winded passages to meet that quota. Writing flash has helped me so much in revision. If I’m particularly frustrated with a scene or paragraph in my novel, I pretend it’s a flash piece, and I use that same attention to sound and economy of prose to pare down and let the novel’s story shine in a less-is-more sort of way.
Even though I identify more as a long fiction writer, I love flash because it feels like a sandbox where I can experiment and delve deep into a single emotion or association. When it comes to long fiction, I’m very much a traditionalist when it comes to craft and story structure. As a result, flash is a departure from that craft perspective for me. I often find myself writing flash when I need a break from my novel, and I always come back to my novel refreshed after working on short fiction.
MP: I am always curious about our contributors’ writing lives — what shape they take, what tools make them work, how you manage various projects, where do you find inspiration, etc. — and so I’m wondering if you could talk about your writing life both broadly and in terms of how, if at all, it’s changed shape in the past year?
KL: I am the type of person that becomes obsessed with something very easily. I’ve been a fanatic like this since I was a kid. When I was in middle school, my obsession was Pokémon. In high school, it was The Vampire Diaries, and in college it was figure skating. My hobbies and interests are very much driven by obsession, and my writing is the same way. Up until I moved to Korea, my writing obsessions were all monster-related, everything from physical monsters like zombies and werewolves to psychological monsters like ambition and addiction. I lived in Seoul for the sake of pursuing this monster obsession within the context of Korean folklore, but my experience in Korea actually unlocked a new writing interest for me: the Black experience in Korea. Anti-Blackness exists in such a different way in Korea than it does in the US, and as a Black woman, I feel more human and safer in Korea than I do here in America.
Since I moved back to the States in 2019, I’ve been writing about this experience in Korea almost exclusively. At the moment, I’m deeply fascinated by how my personality changes depending on whether I’m speaking English or Korean. I’m also fascinated by the humor that comes from the mistakes I make while speaking my second language. And most of all, I’m fascinated by how I discovered a new sense of humanity while living in Seoul and felt stripped of that humanity (especially after the events of last summer) when I moved back to the US. This fascination has been fueling both my novel and the short fiction I’ve been writing lately.
In the last year, the tone of my writing has changed quite a bit. Before 2020, I was very interested in sadness and devastation, but this past year has been sad and devastating enough for all of us. Now, for the first time, I’m more interested in writing comedies in the Shakespearean sense of the word. This past year has taught me the value of happy endings, and I’ve been leaning more into joy with my writing.
Kat Lewis graduated from Johns Hopkins University where she held the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund Fellowship. In 2018, she received a Fulbright Creative Arts grant in South Korea. Her work has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, PANK Magazine, and The Rumpus. She is currently an MFA student at the University of South Florida.