Sept. 28, 2017
‘I bring this life with me wherever I go’ — an interview with author Katy Resch George
VCU alumna’s debut short story collection, ‘Exposure,’ examines our many selves
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When Katy Resch George was a creative writing student at Virginia Commonwealth University, she distinguished herself with both her vivid, honest storytelling and the generous, insightful feedback she offered her classmates. Now, Resch George, who earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the Department of English, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU, has published her first book, “Exposure,” a collection of short stories from Kore Press that brings readers into the tense lives of an assortment of flawed, compelling characters so sharply drawn as to seem summoned from real life.
Allison Titus, a poet, novelist and fellow alumna of the VCU creative writing program, said, “The stories in ‘Exposure’ sear like light trails, glimmering and striking their lyrical, luminous pitch. Resch George’s characters are searchers, feeling through the darkness of their suburban lives to the edges that shape a deeper truth by which to reckon their experiences and their desires — always conscious of the pulse beneath the surface.”
Resch George answered questions from VCU News about her book and her experiences as a student at VCU.
I was struck by a pervasive feeling in these stories of watching characters who were trying to understand each other and failing — of emotional estrangement between people who were talking and interacting but struggling to connect properly. Do you see this as a central thread running through this collection? Are there themes or other components that you think tie the stories together?
One reason the opening story, “Exposure,” frames the collection is because of that moment in the final paragraph, when the nurse is in the movie theater and observes the couple holding hands. She thinks, “to hold hands in a theater is to say I am watching this movie, but I am also in this life that I share with this person; I bring this life with me wherever I go.”
This idea that we contain many lives, or selves, and that we tote them around with us is one that touches nearly all the characters in the collection. Most characters in these stories are trying to reconcile past mistakes, past selves, with their current station, and with their wishes for their future. Often, this process is the heart of the story. To go through it, characters endure a variety of emotional exposures: they have to confront their whole selves — be exposed before themselves, if you will — to know why they behave as they do, and what they need to let go of. I also launch the book with this story because the word “exposure” draws attention to a central metaphor in the book that involves the photographic process of capturing the accumulation of time through long film exposures.
Multiple stories in this collection touch on the complex relationships between daughters — both teenagers and adults — and their parents. What attracted you to that dynamic and led you to explore a range of those relationships from different perspectives?
I’m sure the fact that I’m a daughter has something to do with it. And I became the mother of a daughter as I wrote a couple pieces for the book and went through the edits. I also grew up with a sister, and we shared a very tight relationship with our two cousins who are also sisters. In fact, they’re the daughters of my mother’s sister. Point is, much of my life has been spent in this culture of women, of daughters at various stages of their lives. I think if I didn’t write at least one book in that realm it’d be a conspicuous absence. And while the book isn’t autobiographical, some of the character’s feelings are ones I’ve witnessed up close.
Your book includes several pieces of flash fiction — pieces as short as a page — arranged alongside longer works. Each of the short pieces is sharp and succinct, while the longer pieces often feel expansive, sometimes almost novelistic. How do you manage the balance between writing such different types of works? Do your goals for a work differ based on length?
Really, the initiating process for these short and long stories wasn’t too different. Most of the stories in the book began as ideas about a theme, or even a metaphor or image — plot and character weren’t the germs. I didn’t always know if I was sitting down to write a flash or a lengthier piece. Often, a story became a flash fiction if what excited me most was the language. The flash fictions develop the characters and plot far less, but let me play with creating networks of images and metaphors and a more lyrical sensibility. The lengthier stories, which you say are sometimes novelistic and I think that’s right, I enjoyed trying to layer up, to see how much a story could hold together before it burst at the seams.
What draws you to the flash fiction form, which is rare to find in a short story collection? Does your background in poetry play a role?
I was drawn to the flash fiction form when I was in the novel workshop in the VCU M.F.A. program. Drafting a novel felt like a long, daunting project and I started to write flash fictions alongside that work to take a project to completion — I needed that satisfaction to keep me motivated — and to write about ideas that popped up but didn’t belong in the novel. As a reader, I love flash fictions for their suggestiveness and in that way they link to poetry, but I see flash fiction and poetry as quite different forms. I haven’t written poetry for a while, but when I did I wrote in a spare style, so yes, I think that attention to economy comes into play when I read and write flash fiction. But unlike flash fiction, poetry has an ability to better replicate the movement of thought and has the nimbleness to not be narrative, but to wield narrative as a device when it needs to. There’s an experimental quality to flash fiction that excites me as both reader and writer.
How did your experience in the Creative Writing Program at VCU help you create the stories in this collection? Were there professors or classmates who were particularly influential in your development as a writer?
As a student you feel that level of investment — for yourself, for the field — and it’s extremely motivating.
VCU helped tremendously with this work. I wrote many of the stories while an M.F.A. candidate. I loved my time at VCU — what a gift! To have a fellowship to spend three years immersed in the study of craft, and with such expert writers and generous teachers as mentors. I worked closely with all three of the department’s fiction writers at the time, Susann Cokal, Tom De Haven and Clint McCown, and I see each of their specific guidance throughout the book. Even in the stories I wrote after the program, even in the work I write now, I draw on aspects of craft that I learned in their workshops or in our advising sessions. I graduated in 2012 and am still in contact with each of these professors. Their commitment to the M.F.A. students is real. As a student you feel that level of investment — for yourself, for the field — and it’s extremely motivating. My classmates helped me understand how rewarding it is to be part of a community of artists, that writing is necessarily solitary, but you’ve got to come up for air and go to happy hour. My workshop mates were all gifted and all worked with their own sensibilities and preoccupations; I learned a lot by reading and responding to their manuscripts.
What are you working on now?
I am wrapping up a novel. Actually, it’s the novel I began in the novel workshop at VCU. I had put it away for a few years as I completed the story collection and, really, I wondered about its merit. But a conversation with Susann Cokal — who had been my primary thesis advisor and had provided a fruitful mix of encouragement and questioning as she workshopped the novel manuscript — urged me to return to the novel, spruce it up and complete it. It’s titled “Lent,” and is about a young a woman finding her way despite financial hardship and an emotionally fraught relationship with her mentally ill mother. I’m also working on a second story collection titled “City Park” that thinks about fear and the danger of letting fear drive us — most stories are from the perspectives of parents. Did I mention my daughter just turned 2?
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