Kevin studied writing at the University of Toronto and at Cardiff University. He was a finalist for the 24th annual Journey Prize in 2012, and his short stories have been published broadly. He also has new short fiction in The Fiddlehead, and more will appear in Best Canadian Stories. His debut short story collection, Debris, will be published by Biblioasis in September 2015. His novel, In the Cage, will also be published by Biblioasis in fall 2016.
I had a particularly good time asking Kevin about this story because I love the bang of an opening, and the quiet menace and strain around Kayla, the main character. Also because this is one writer who is particularly clear on his process, which is a pleasure to learn about.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for the story? What made you pick "Most of the Houses Had Lost Their Lights"? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
I am not great with titles, to be honest, and they either come to me early on as I’m writing, or they don’t come to me at all and I’ve gotta rifle through the thing and figure one out. This one wasn’t too painful, however unwieldy it might be, as it was a line straight out of the part of the story with the storm and the floods. I got lucky in that it just seemed like a line that suited the rest of the story and what it was all really about. But generally with titles, either I know it early or I’m flipping through it for something that works.
2. How did you start--an image, a word, a general idea?
I started with that scene in the storm, and that was the first thing I wrote for this story. Usually I plot all my stories from beginning to end, and follow the main signposts pretty closely. This is one where I originally started with that scene, wrote almost an entirely different story for a while, and then threw it away and went back. That doesn’t usually happen and it was a good experience to see if I could keep that initial idea of the storm and the floodwaters ruining their apartment, and their eventual journey to that ending, but change the entire story around it.
Overall, I am a character-focused writer and any greater idea is usually tied to the main characters from the start, and what is happening to them. I think character and atmosphere are the things I lean on most to build a story.
3. How did you find the sense of an ending--did you know when to finish? Did the ending remain the same through different drafts?
As I mentioned, this was well on the way to being a totally different story in the middle-sections before I threw it out. But I did always have Matthew going into the hospital, and Kayla between homes trying to keep it together and find a spot for them both when he was well enough to leave. Because those points were still plotted, I knew it would end with them on the floor or on the grass, or in a tent, some such thing, and it would be ambiguous as to what their chances were after Matthew got out and tried to settle in to whatever place she’d found. Because I had the main events for the characters set, the story sort of kept its focus however it might have changed or had parts replaced in the middle of it.
I usually have a sense of the ending when I begin the writing, and I rarely have significant changes to the endings anymore. Actually, I usually write slow and don’t move on from any one line until it is as good as I can get it, which, if you can tolerate that pace, really streamlines the revisions. In almost every story in my forthcoming collection, Debris, I plotted the thing, wrote one first draft, a second draft for larger problems like lines or passages to cut down, and then a third and final draft for nuts and bolts issues. That’s usually all the drafts there are. Though, I do like to continuously look back and what I wrote earlier, and clean it up some before continuing with the story. Many writers seem to do these very rough drafts and shape it up from there. That doesn’t work for me as well, though this story did get taken apart and put back together more than any other I’ve published.
4. Could you choose a piece of music to go with this story?
How about Cover Me Up by Jason Isbell. Many of them would go well with Drive-By Truckers songs, and Isbell wrote some of my favourite Truckers songs before he moved on to his own records. It’s sort of a flip in that the song is from the perspective of a man trying to get sober and recover for his better half, but I think it suits this story, as a song about two young people trying to get through the wars together.
5. Your other stories I've read are about male characters. How did you find it to write about a female protagonist? (I struggled some with writing as Dan in All True, and your character read as real to me, for instance in the scene with the sweat sticking her dress to her back and frizzing out her hair.)
This is something that I was real curious about, in how this story would be received by readers. But I was bolstered a bit by the reaction to another story of mine that was published in Shenandoah last year (the title story in Debris). That one started as a two-hander with an old couple at the heart of it, but it quickly became the wife’s story and she became the standout character, and the one who drives the entire narrative. That story was well received, and that gave me some confidence with this one.
You are likely not going to see me start writing first person stories with a female protagonist, and you will not see me suppose things that I don’t know at all on an experiential level. As long as I stay in my wheelhouse with any character, I think I’ll not write about it too terribly. In another interview, I was asked about my female characters being violent and doing things that are supposedly manly. Well, in my experience, I’ve known a lot of women who ran the household and carried the family and I’ve known others who could do that and then smack the teeth out of your head. If anything, I’d feel more limited in ability if I were to write about a certain class of character, or a character with very different priorities than most of mine have, rather than those just differentiated by gender. Otherwise, I figure you always have to be paying attention to physical behavior if you are a writer of any worth to begin with, and have some empathy, which gets you pretty far. It also helps that I write very little about the explicit thoughts of characters, and focus more on the physicality of what they are doing.
6. Your diction tends to smack us every so often with unexpected words, sometimes archaic ones. Where does that come from?
At this point I’m not even sure that I can figure out the exact origin off all of my odd or antiquated word choices. Not exactly anyway. But I have read a lot of writers from rural areas, and from the south and southwest in the US, and I come from a rural place in Ontario with all kinds of interesting folks. I think, especially with dialogue, I’ve mashed a lot of those elements together to create the rhythm and tone of certain lines, and it has certainly informed some of the words I use regularly.
Some of it is folksy, some of it American perhaps, and some of it is just because I like the word better than whatever is commonly used, whether the sound of the word or how it reads in a line. I've certainly followed a lesser Cormac McCarthy philosophy of using archaic words for the effect as long as their meaning is correct. It also puts a story out of time to some degree, making it harder to pigeonhole. Strangely, that kind of unusual writing can lend a permanence and a sense of universality that is often lost with more conventional language. That is probably easier said for a world-class writer like McCarthy, and not for me, but it is on my mind. I also started working unconventional phrases and modes of speech into the actual narrative voice as well, along with profanity, and it all tends to work somehow, whether it is proper English or not.
7. For a while I've been interested in a kind of Canadian Gothic in fiction (this comes up in my own writing too). This story isn't all that Canadian on the surface, but it has that Gothic quality I've noticed--quiet fear, sudden violence, animals, etc. Can you comment on that?
As in the previous question about language, I do also think that I’ve been influenced in setting and atmosphere by a lot of the southern-based US writers I read, and their approach to handling that kind of material. There is certainly a lot of Canadian writing that deals with the natural world and the wildness and danger and violence therein, but I feel like there are many circumstances where a writer follows certain tropes and patterns that ultimately deaden the impact and potency of these gothic elements. Often we see the natural world or violence or the terrain qualified by the characters constant thoughts on it and whether they want to be there or are trying to escape to it or from it.
Since I tend to read many American writers firmly rooted in this tradition, such as McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell and Willa Cather, I think it happened that I wrote this kind of material in such a way that the characters don’t have a specific agenda or a catharsis or magical epiphany or anything like that, some profound realization supported by a change in environment or by violence or by being under siege in some way by their surroundings. They just live in it and deal with it accordingly. The gothic elements aren’t a device or tool, but more another character or essential element of the story. There is a wealth of this kind of material for a Canadian writer if they are willing to write about it without trying to justify or qualify it to the audience. And they shouldn’t run away from it. They should run toward it without feeling compelled to explain why or rationalize it for the reader.