The author and poet talks writing process, the nerve of second books, and the “perfect” location for stories of survival.
In her second novel, “The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore,” author Kim Fu weaves the story of five girls who share a formative trauma at summer camp, then go on to grow up and face the aftermath. Fu is a poet and essayist, and her evocative and well-crafted writing makes “Lost Girls” a quick yet deep read, providing alternating characters’ perspectives at various ages to show us how the same event can echo through individual lives in vastly different ways.
Last week, I talked with Fu about poetry versus prose, debuts versus second books, the uncontrollable writing process, and why the wild Northwest is “the perfect place for [survival] stories.”
Nicole Chung: Kim, you’re from Vancouver, but you live in Seattle now. I’m a little jealous. How do you like it?
Kim Fu: I like Seattle, and I love the geography — there are a lot of similarities between Seattle and Vancouver. Moving here [in 2012], adjusting in ways both big and small, was harder than I thought it would be. There were little things, like not knowing how the post office works, and bigger things, like not being able to vote over the last several frightening years and watching all this from the sidelines. I’m a green card holder, [though] I’m leaning toward becoming a citizen because I want to be able to vote and participate . . . Citizenship would also give me more power to go back and forth between here and Canada.
I don’t feel I’ve totally found my community here [in Seattle], but that’s my own fault, maybe. I feel like I exist in this writing community on the internet, which is huge and diverse and welcoming. I live so much on the internet . . . and I live kind of reclusively a lot of the time. The flip side is going on a book tour, traveling, and speaking, which is another extreme. I live in my house, and at the same time I live all over.
NC: What was it like for you growing up in Vancouver?
KF: I grew up on the North Shore, technically, in a suburb of Vancouver. In my neighborhood there were a lot of immigrant families, so while the majority was white, at my elementary and high school there were a lot of East and South Asian and Middle Eastern kids. I didn’t think about being Asian in that environment — it wasn’t at the top of my list in terms of how I expected other people to respond to me. Then I went to university in Montreal, where there was a smaller Asian population, and people would comment on it a lot more. They’d just approach and ask about your ethnicity, or start telling you about this Chinese person they knew. The way men would approach, asking “where are you from?”— it happened constantly. It was much more in my face.
NC: Did you want to be a writer when you were a kid?
KF: I really wanted to be a writer when I was little. I was always writing stories and poems. Somewhere around eleventh grade, I got it into my head that writing is not a job, it’s a hobby, and it was time to grow up and get serious and pick something “real.” When I started at university, I started in chemical engineering, because I had really loved studying chemistry and math. That was the only year of my life when I didn’t write, because I just didn’t have time — and I realized I would rather fail at being a writer than succeed at being a chemical engineer.
NC: I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I’m kind of in awe of people who write a book, and then, eventually (not even all that much later!) write another book. How did writing this novel compare to your debut?
KF: It was a lot harder to write this second novel. By then, I knew what the process was like. I could hear critics’ voices in my head. What would my agent say, what would my editor say, what would everyone I’ve ever met say? I knew it would be out in the world, and I knew what that meant.
Writing the first draft of this book was really hard. Every time I sat down, I thought, “Now it’s time to write a perfect book!” I had all these high-concept ideas I couldn’t execute on.
NC: What was the turning point for you?
KF: At a certain point, I had the main characters in my mind. I knew them, their personalities, the ways they’d bounce off of each other, but I didn’t know how they were connected. Were they classmates? Did they live on the same street?
Then I went and did a three-month residency in the Yukon, at the Berton House in Dawson City. It’s very isolated, and I was living there during the winter, when it got to negative 40 degrees. I went out hiking every day and it cleared my mind. All the time I spent hiking in the snow there made me think a lot about survival and physical vulnerability, and that steered me toward this image of the girls in kayaks. In three days and nights — but really one endless night, because there was almost no daylight at that point — I wrote 20,000 words, and the novel kind of broke open.
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