Mia by Kayla Eason 

will be published on April 28th, 2020 by Orson’s Publishing

*This interview involves Orson's Review (OR) and Kayla Eason (KE).

OR: Can your interest in storytelling be pinpointed to a moment? To a person? What were some difficult choices that you made to get where you are now?

KE: I think the interest’s foundation may be tied to the comfort stories brought me as a child. I became kind of obsessed with the sensation of escapism. Through the stories of others, as well as the stories I wrote, I could inhabit many different lives. And I think the decision to pursue writing was (and is) a challenge in itself. I’m often fighting self-doubt and mental fatigue. I’ve questioned my worth, my voice, my stance, and my abilities. I’ve questioned whether or not the pursuit of writing is selfish. But, the desire to lose myself in the act always brings me back. That and my family, friends, and partner, who have always been so supportive.

Sometimes I think I’m drawn to writing because I don’t want to forget what has been made mysterious or special in my life. Sometimes, I need to write through a painful question. Sometimes those reasons are the same reason. With writing, nothing is permanent and everything is possible. 

OR: In addition to writing fiction, you enjoy the mediums of photography and film. Is there a first love? If so, what? And how do you balance everything?

KE: When I was very young, I thought I was really great at drawing and painting, so I think the conscious enjoyment of visual art was my first love. At a certain point, I discovered my parents’ camera and really got into photography. I love how Diane Arbus put it: “…you don’t put into a photograph what’s going to come out. Or, vice versa, what comes out is not what you put in.” You may possess an understanding of light and composition, and your camera settings are all correct, but the final image will inevitably possess a realism entirely unpredictable—a fusion of what you remember about the scene, and a secret, suddenly visible echo of fantasy. That love for photography followed me into high school, where I was gifted my first manual film camera, a Pentax k1000. Once you start taking photos as a hobby, you can’t stop seeing the world as a series of perfectly random compositions.  

There are periods of time when I want to write and sometimes I just want to physically interact with art, take a camera and go out to see what I see. The physical act feels quite different than working with only my brain when writing—in all honesty, much less laborious for me. The different ways I engage with the mediums helps me to balance them.  

OR: What has been your biggest sacrifice so far in order to pursue writing?

KE: Is a sacrifice a sacrifice if it wasn’t made intentionally? I guess the greatest sacrifice I’ve made for writing is one that happened accidentally—a loss of sorts. In retrospect, I was very naive when I entered my MFA program—for a number of reasons, but mostly regarding self care. Due to some challenging personal experiences, I think I ended up sacrificing a more optimistic, trusting part of myself. I shut down because I felt that I was drowning in a situation that I’d created. Finances, lost time, quality of life, relationships—all caused me to reach a breaking point.

In order to keep going, keep producing, keep working, keep getting out of bed, I stopped being honest. I forgot how to ask for help. I was deeply disconnected to each passing day. There are experiences for every writer, for every person, where you need to consider how to protect yourself when so much of your energy is needed by the world and by your personal goals. I think self-care is, first and foremost, the most important choice we can make each day.

OR: What’s your writing process like? What about your revision process?

KE: I write very slowly! It feels like laying bricks sometimes. I’m easily caught up by how words sound, what kinds of associations arise from an image, where I go in my body when I think of a certain idea. When I write a story, I always build a folder of images. Sometimes the images influence plot, sometimes only a feeling. Browsing photographs or paintings help me to realize and write a moment in a way which feels more magnified. These mediums have such an interesting way of conveying narrative, swelling a single moment to its full beauty and horror. The single moment evolves, depending on who looks or when they look. I like thinking about language working the same way.

While I write, I also draw from conversations or readings, things that happen everyday. I have other people and artists to thank for constantly inspiring / directing me. I could read something interesting or talk to someone and completely change the trajectory of a story based off an idea I’ve gleaned from others. I love to give a person a scenario and ask them how they would react or what they would feel, and inevitably their response sparks a new texture to the narrative, something intimate about the story which I didn’t see before. I love how a story can act like a collage in that way, an amalgamation of what we absorb (consciously, unconsciously), all informing what we imagine.

For revision, I need to print out the manuscript. I highlight lines and sections which move / develop plot or the emotional arc of the character to make sure that movement is actually happening and happening effectively, a practice I learned in Junse Kim’s classes at SF State. In particular, while revising, tracking the triggers to a character’s emotional development has been invaluable advice for me. 

OR: How do you usually break ground on a new project? Is it the same every time?

KE: Clarice Lispector said, “I work only with lost and founds.” I think the nucleus of a story seems to contain either a draw to nostalgia or a desire for something new. The lost or found is a feeling. Plots then grow around that feeling, the character’s longing for either the past or future in some way.

A new project also fishes from old ideas I’ve had circling around for a long time. Ideas carried over from other stories, themes, and questions. Once the feeling takes root, and a vague notion concerning plot emerges, I have to know the characters’ name. My partner and I do this differently, and we laugh about our approaches because it’s such an eye-rolling topic. I think he writes these complicated narratives with a strong sense of character without needing to know the characters’ names. Personally, I can’t write a first sentence until I know the main character’s name. This “necessity” may actually be procrastination on my part…

But also, to know what a person is called helps me to imagine their interior life. The name doesn’t define them by any means, because a name can also carry preconceptions, but adds to the unique quality of their “feel.” By that I mean, characters begin essentially as feelings, that emotional pull forward or backward. What does this person want? How do they go about moving toward it? Cue eye rolling.

The way I begin a story is pretty much the same each time. There’s the feeling, the images, the resurrection of stored, accumulated interests, the naming, and then, the slow writing process.

OR: Is there anything in particular you’d like your audience to experience with Mia?

KE:  My hope is that the text generates the sensation of floating through someone’s memory, and that time is a spatial experience, not linear. I wanted Mia’s desire to manifest in musing, recollection, and real-time experience—each state indiscernible from the other. With the narrative structure built by short, episodic “chapters” depicting a moment in Mia’s life, my hope was that each section could stand alone and yet work to accentuate and inform every other. Years ago I read Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar, which left a deep impression regarding novel structure. The book is written in a series of snapshots as well as with changes in POV and instructions by the author suggesting the book be read chronologically or non-chronologically. I don’t recommend that the reader jump around when reading Mia, as there is a narrative progression toward the final chapter. However, along with Hopscotch, I was also inspired by the experience of reading poetry collections, and my goal was to write Mia in such a way that once the reader was finished with the book, they could then revisit any section as an entry in itself, a kind of prose poem hiding as a chapter. Snapshot writing lends well to this type of experience in fiction, and I love literature that blurs the lines with poetry. Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño and Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg are two books which do this so well, and were guides to me when I began thinking more seriously about the book’s architecture. 

OR: How did the idea of Mia come to you?

KE: The feeling for the story was sparked by the isolation I was experiencing while living in San Francisco. As I was exploring the feeling, an image came to mind of two children in the desert, a landscape which is familiar due to my undergrad years in Southern California’s Inland Empire. To me, the desert represents extremes in contrast—heat, space, color—and through those extremes an alien appearance is stimulated. I liked that parts of desert remind a person of a different planet, an aspect which was important to Mia’s story. She wonders what exists outside her sphere of sight, and the book tries to explore the fact that what extends beyond her is infinite.

Returning to the idea of two children, I think the choice to write close to the perspective of an eleven-year-old came from wanting to explore power dynamics without being too direct, and most importantly, wanting to examine moments in our youth which either lays or builds upon the foundation of social interactions. One of my favorite quotes about literature is by Javier Mariás:

“I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness it is not in order to see anything better lighted, but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around. I think that literature does mainly that. It is not really supposed to ‘answer’ things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore—often blindly—the huge areas of darkness, and show them better.”

Writing close to the perspective of a child felt like a really intimate way of striking the match to reveal adult tendencies. Mia is exploring expectations, assumptions, and rules which shape certain kinds of relationships—romantic, platonic, familial, and personal. She wishes to be cared for and to be needed. She also questions inadequacy and strength in the face of those who challenge the most vulnerable parts of her—a universal feeling no matter your age. 

OR: What about Mia was a challenge for you to write?

KE: Writing from the perspective of an eleven-year-old. At first, I thought I remembered what it felt like to be that age. As I wrote, I began to note how often my adult perspective would slip into observations or thought processes. I’d ask myself: would an eleven-year-old make that conclusion? Would they consider that path? And I think ultimately, I wasn’t giving enough credit to the age. I don’t think a child or young adult’s depth of thought is shallow by any means, but I was having a hard time determining at what pace Mia’s reasoning could play out, and what controlled her justifications. Was there more whim involved? Was there less? I’ve been a nanny, a tutor, and a substitute teacher and ultimately, I remembered that Mia’s personality and motivations drove her choices, as would any character at any age. And I found that writing her thoughts through a more sensory-based, impressionistic approach helped me to feel like I was capturing a younger perspective. 

OR: What about Mia was easy for you to write?

KE: The least challenging aspect was setting up the natural landscape. The natural world defines so much of how we experience our lives and the sensory experience of place is the way we orientate in time. Plus, it’s just fun to create settings—it’s an excuse for me to take liberties with descriptions (I love any excuse to do that). And with Mia, the setting was a way for me to enact a trance-like tone. If I described place in a strange enough way, the story could adopt an uncanny feel in parts, which I hoped would help blur the space between memory and the present. 

OR: I think you have an exceptional gift for poetics (among other things), and that that’s on full display in Mia. The language and rhythms throughout the book are just wonderful. Does that come naturally to you? If so, has that always been the case?

KE: In a way, I think my interest in poetics began with an inclination to overuse the vocabulary I was studying in my high school English class. When you make flash cards, you write a brief definition. In my poems, I would apply those brief definitions to the words liberally, meaning I’d bend the definition to loosely encompass what I needed it to mean, which I thought created unexpected descriptors. The use of the word would be rooted in feelings inspired by the definition, or associations based off the literal meaning.

Eventually, I had to also play by the world’s rules, too. In college, I had a professor tell me my metaphors needed to make more concrete sense. I began to suss out a balance between literal and feeling-based designations—especially because I was writing fiction, which in particular, requires that basic meaning is understood. So I’m not sure if the poetics have always come naturally, but I’ve long been interested in how a meditated use of language can develop the text’s meaning to a higher sensory degree, and this aspect of writing feels really fun, like the adorning step—when you decorate a space.

OR: Throughout Mia, I think you’ve captured the relationship of Mia and Sebastian in such a genuine way. How they both think and interact with one another is entirely unique but at the same time very relatable. What was it like finding their voices?

KE: From the beginning, I wanted Mia and Sebastian to feel close. In fact, the first scene I wrote was the section early on in the story when the two are lying on a mattress, chatting before bedtime. I wanted to create tenderness—the type of friendship which becomes a cornerstone in a person’s formative years. When I wrote them in that first scene, Mia was immediately realized through her desire for affection, and this desire becomes one of her greatest motivations in the story. Despite sharing a bond with Mia, Sebastian felt like he also needed to be an obstacle to her desire, as he is one of the few intimate figures in her life. I wanted the reader to know Sebastian, but I also wanted his POV to be restricted enough that he became a kind of canvas upon which emotions or assumptions were projected, because this is what Mia does to him.

I wanted their interactions to feel easy and innocent. I also wanted their interactions to feel awkward when others were present, an experience I remember often as a kid. You could be very close with a friend, but when thrown into group settings, the closeness becomes uncomfortable, like a vulnerability is being revealed. In my head, I was placing myself on the playground, trying to visualize the body language, experiments with power dynamics, the way children organize themselves. My sister once said that the early years of our childhood feel like a movie she’s seen countless times. I loved that way of describing the distance in time which begins to depersonalize our experiences the farther we move from the moment. We remember scenarios and emotions intensely, but sometimes only as if they happened to someone else and we watched the situation unfold. Writing the story was an excuse to attempt crossing that distance in time—I felt kind of entranced by trying to remember my younger self. 

OR: Mia comes in at just over 100 pages and can be read in one sitting. Was a short novel premeditated, or was it something that just sort of happened?

KE: It definitely wasn’t premeditated—I had a much longer story originally outlined! In fact, I cut many sections to arrive at its final length. At the time that the narrative was beginning to take shape, I just so happened to be moving through several short novels, some I’ve mentioned above, but others like Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin and Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba. One of my favorite novels is The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, which was probably the first book to spark an interest in the short novel / novella. I think a low page count allows for more liberties with style, and can really support an experimental yet focused approach to the content. A short book can span years within the narrative, of course; but in general, there are less subplots than a full-length novel. By nature, it’s more precise and immediate, like a film or play. As with viewing those two mediums, you experience a textured emotional involvement instantaneously. While I worked on it, Mia felt more and more like it needed to be small. The more the story dealt with memory, the more I felt it needed to span a multitude of experiences in a single sitting. 

OR: Give ten words of advice for aspiring storytellers.

KE: Read often, be kind to yourself, and protect your joy. 

OR: Tell us about where you’re from. Does where you're from impact what you read and what you create?

KE: I grew up in a very small town called Angels Camp, located about three hours east of San Francisco in the California foothills. I spent a lot of time outdoors. Open spaces in and around Angels are abundant: fields, valleys, forests. I think there is a certain beauty to any place, due to a combination of its natural elements, architecture, and climate; I think for my hometown area, the wealth of untouched land creates a gorgeous sense of calm. I feel forever grateful for that access to nature, and because of it, I have a deep nostalgia for rural settings. Stories which emphasize a rural landscape really grab at my heart, and act as an anchor to my sense of self. My Antonia by Willa Cather, The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector, In the Distance by Herndon Diaz, and recently, The Unpassing by Chia Chia Lin, in which the rural location is a central character, feel important to me. When I read books like those listed, I feel closer to home. And when I write, I tend to emphasize sense of place—an inclination I’m certain developed through love for my hometown’s geographic identity. 

OR: Tell us about where you’re going. Where do you hope this creative journey leads you?

KE: I hope this journey leads to more self-awareness, and to more opportunities to try something new. As my journey progresses, I hope to continue discovering that I am capable of moving past the critical voice in my head, and that aspiration can feel positive, not overwhelming. 

OR: Are you reading anything right now that excites you?

KE: At the moment, I’m really into a couple non-fiction books—Figuring by Maria Popova and Portraits: John Berger on Artists by John Berger--as part of research for a novel project. 

OR: Name one writer you’d love to collaborate with.

KE: My partner and I fantasize about adapting one of Samanta Schweblin’s stories from her collection, Mouthful of Birds, into a screenplay. 

OR: Any idea what your next project will be?

KE: I’m working on a new novel and a short story collection. 

OR: Where can readers find your writing?

KE: Most of my publications are listed on my website with links. I had so much fun designing the site—check it out if you have some time!

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