Animal Selves and Mystic Toasters: An Interview With Kelly Luce


It’s hard to shake the stories in Kelly Luce‘s collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. Most of them are set in Japan; those that aren’t tend to be connected to said nation in some other way. The deceased character at the center of “Rooey,” for instance, possessed a fondness for Japan for an early age. Sometimes, as in “Pioneers,” Luce sharply portrays characters’ daily lives, and the ways in which they can be disrupted. In others, especially the title story and “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster,” the supernatural intervenes, leaving a trail of surrealism in its wake. The best of these stories subtly evoke the miraculous in the background, gradually allowing it to make its presence known, and commanding dread as the plot gathers steam. I caught up with Luce via to ask her about her collection’s genesis, some of the themes that it raises, and where more of her fiction may head.

Japan looms large in the stories in Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail — if the stories aren’t set there outright, as in “Rooey,” its presence is still significant. What, for you, was the appeal of using it as a setting? 

I found that certain story ideas clicked into place when I set them in Japan. Maybe because that setting felt like it “matched” the themes I was exploring: nostalgia, grief, and the ephemeral. This match-feeling probably came from spending those years in Japan and observing and/or absorbing, a different cultural approach to these ideas.

When you were assembling this collection, did you know from the outset that all of the stories would have some connection to Japan? And do you have a significant number of other stories set elsewhere?

I didn’t set out to write a collection. There was a period where I was writing as many stories as I could, and submitting them a lot—just trying to see what stuck, and what I enjoyed writing. I’d written four or five stories set in Japan, sprinkled in with a bunch that have nothing to do with it—set in places like Illinois or Las Vegas or California or Europe, or nowhere at all. At one point I did start to focus on Japan as a setting—if anything, simply so I could have a somewhat cohesive book manuscript. Aside from my novel, I haven’t worked on anything set in Japan for a couple of years now.

In both “Pioneers” and “The Blue Demon of Ikumi,” characters discuss the notion of fate as it relates to their current relationship. Where do you stand on this question?

A nice meaty question! Fate is interesting in the same way that magic is, in that it doesn’t matter whether either actually exists; it matters that people believe in it (or don’t). I fall more in Saki’s camp—that relationships aren’t fated, but rather, that people happen to one another and whatever meaning comes from that is meaning we make. Still, though, when I consider my relationship and the wacko circumstance that led to it beginning, it does seem possibly fated.

The notion of divining someone’s future from burn marks on a piece of toast, in “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster,” is incredibly striking. Where did the idea for this come from?

I used to put scraps of ideas into a box and pull out a few when I was stuck on a story, or wanted to start something new. One of those was a scrap that I’d written after coming across a writing contest prompt for “an appliance with a superpower.” The other two scraps said “Jehova’s Witness” and “so much beer.”

You mentioned a novel earlier — how is your progress on that going? Is it similar in style and tone to the stories in Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail?

The novel’s coming along. I’m on draft number…5? 6? It’s the story of a Japanese-American woman who, as a child, murdered her bully. She’s now an adult, living in Colorado, married with a daughter, and no one (including her husband) knows about her past. When her estranged father dies, she returns to Japan for the first time in almost twenty years, which sets the story in motion.

The book doesn’t contain magic or fantastical elements, per se, but perhaps echoes some of the themes of Hana Sasaki: memory vs. reality and the strangeness of the human mind, complicated grief, the tension between being an individual and being part of a family. It’s darker than the stories, though I’m still finding room to play.

I feel like I’ve done a lot of misstepping along the way. Like, draft 3 had the narrator randomly addicted to Xanax. Guess what: that didn’t solve any of the narrative problems of draft 2! But I’m getting there, and most importantly, still excited about the book. I just know that my next novel is going to be so easy to write; I’ll outline it completely and know how all the tiny threads connect before I start writing. (Hahahayeahrightsigh.)

As you were putting the collection together, did you know from the outset that the title story would be the title story?

Definitely not. When I sent the manuscript to A Strange Object, it was named after what’s now the first story in the book, “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster.” The idea to use “Three Scenarios” was the editors’. In two years of searching for the perfect title, I had never even considered that one. When they suggested it, I worried that it was too long — how are all those words going to fit on the cover? — but soon came to see their genius.

Besides the title story, tails show up elsewhere in the collection; what about the strangeness of growing a tail appeals to you as a writer?

I suppose tail growth falls into a larger category of outward changes that symbolize internal transformation. We love to mark ourselves: big birthday? Commemorate with a tattoo. Just got dumped? Chop off that hair. And our bodies do this for us, sometimes–our eyes give away when we’re tired, our skin when we’re stressed. The body often knows things before our conscious mind knows them, a divide that can yield some weird fruit when exploring a character in a story. A tail is a nod to that divide, and to our animal selves, which are often closer to the surface that we’d like to acknowledge.

Photo: Russell O. Bush

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