Kerry-Lee Powell’s debut short story collection is about art, reality, the primacy of vision, and identity
Kerry-Lee Powell is a poet and short story writer in Moncton, New Brunswick, who just launched her first collection of short stories, Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush. She received a Pushcart Prize special mention for her fiction in 2015 and her debut collection of poetry, Inheritance, was nominated for the 2015 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Atlantic Books Today had a chance to learn more about the author’s “rapid” rise to success, her latest work and her focus on both poetry and prose.
Your bio shows a bit of a wandering past; how did you end up in Moncton and how has being in Moncton helped or hindered your progress as a writer?
We moved to Moncton because of my partner’s business. I was writing scientific abstracts for the International Atomic Energy Agency at the time and could work from anywhere. My company subsequently lost their contract in Harper’s big reshuffle of scientific resources, and I was then unemployed in a town where I knew basically nobody. I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands.
I had been writing fiction and poetry on the side, but I was devastated at losing my job, actually crying about it one night, and my partner very kindly went out and bought me a bottle of wine and said something along the lines of “this is the best thing that’s ever happened to you, because now you can just do your real writing.”
I tried to honour his kindness to me by taking myself seriously, showing up at the page, sending stuff out to magazines and competitions, applying for residencies and grants. It was really that moment of taking myself seriously because someone believed in me that got me where I am with my work today. But it wasn’t easy; I had walked away from an earlier writing career because I couldn’t cope with the sense of vulnerability and rejection. It’s a tough business!
Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush is your fiction debut, but not your first book, as your poetry collection Inheritance came out recently as well. Were you writing fiction and poetry at the same time or do you need to focus exclusively on one?
I’m a very sound-oriented poet, and I think some lines attract me or strike me as belonging more to a poem. A short story tends to develop thematically with me, or as a problem that needs to be solved using a narrative. But really I just feel my way around with lines at first.
Does your ‘poetry mind’ fight your ‘fiction mind’ over great ideas?
I wrote a book of poems related to my father’s death, and it’s not a subject that I really wanted to explore in fiction. I wonder if it’s because I secretly feel that poetry is a “higher form” the way people discern between “Tragedy” and “Comedy.” I could probably have written a prose account of my father’s suicide, but I can’t imagine any of my short stories as poems.
To some, you seem to have come out of nowhere, picking up prize after prize in a very short period of time (Malahat’s Far Horizons, the WFNB’s Alfred G. Bailey Award, The Boston Review Short Fiction Prize etc), and now two books. Nothing happens overnight. In reality, how long a struggle has it been?
As I mentioned earlier, I started out publishing when I was in my twenties, and then gave up after a fairly serious rejection. I was living in the UK at the time, Faber and Faber had been considering me for their first fiction series and I went out and got drunk with sailors (really!) on the day that rejection letter finally came, after a year or so of deliberation.
I turned my back on writing, but it always ate at my conscience and slowly, poem by poem, story by story, crept back into my life. I would write pieces and not send them away, and so I had a bit of a stockpile of work in the beginning that won awards and found its way into magazines like The Spectator and The Boston Review, which makes it look like I had an easy time of it. In fact I’d been struggling for years with a sense of shame and a crippling lack of confidence.
There’s a vivid reality to your stories and it’s no coincidence the book’s title references such an intense, deeply emotional painter. Do the visual arts greatly influence your approaches to writing?
I wanted to say this morning to someone questioning me that it’s a book about reality. It seemed an absurdly general response but I think the book does attempt to ask questions about what constitutes reality.
There’s quite a lot of trauma and violence in this book and I suppose some of the questions that I pose surround issues related to creating works of violence, the kind of amorality that we confront with visual works and the primacy of vision in our lived experience.
There are also quite a few characters who struggle with their identity and who have substance abuse problems. Bars are very interesting settings – full of people who don masks, slip in and out of loosely inhabited identities, and for whom identity is often problematic or fractured, whose vision of themselves and others is blurred.
I find this, as a writer, extremely interesting.
What are you working on now?
I am writing a novel about a tall ship!