This month’s interview is with Kelly Sandoval, the author of “Mirror Skinned,” and “Home Isn’t.” She’s a quintessential nerd. When I called her, she was glum over having missed out on a game of Pathfinder in her area. We had a great afterward during our interview bonding over our writing heroes as well as our mutual struggles: perfectionism, shipping, personal hangups, and genre restrictions. As a tangent, if anyone is seeking a backline spellcaster (her) or a frontline tank (me), both are available for jobs requiring combat for fun and profit at your nearest generic inn.
Stanley: How did you begin writing?
Kelly: Well, I made my first attempt at a novel in the 4th grade. It was about unicorns fighting dinosaurs. And I’ve been writing in spurts ever since. I’ve always lived a little bit in my head, and I think writing is my way of externalizing that. I’m still pretty new to short fiction, but I’ve developed a real love for flash. I didn’t start seriously writing and submitting until 2013 after I attended Clarion West.
S: What possessed you to start writing in 4th grade?
K: As a kid, I was always playing imaginary games with my friends. In 4th grade, however, my usual playmate went to a different class, and I started writing to share my crazy ideas with her.
S: So were you Team Unicorn or Team Dinosaur as a child?
K: Technically, Team Unicorn, but they were Uni-pegs, unicorns with wings. These days I’d totally be Team Dinosaur because I think that dinosaurs are much more amazing now that they have feathers.
S: Absolutely! Anyone who thinks that feathers are a sign of daintiness or weakness has never gazed into the alien intelligence, locking eyes with an aerial predator.
S: Did you ever struggle with reconciling your inner world with the world in your head?
K: Definitely yes. It’s not true that all writers are outsiders, but I was definitely an outsider. My family moved around a lot, so I was a loner by necessity as well as nature. I lived in my head so much for a while that I got bad at interacting with people. Writing became a way to get out of my head. It was something where I could have something to show and share instead of leaving my entire life inside of me.
S: Did you know that you were going to be a writer when you were young?
K: I went to college to be a teacher and then after taking some classes, I saw that I would NOT be a good fit for the job. I changed my major midway and went into Creative Writing.
S: How did your friends and family react?
K: My friends were not particularly surprised when I made the change. My family, however, was freaked out. “How are you going to eat?” was a worry that they projected often. But when you publish a couple of stories, people start to think of you as less crazy.
S: And when were you first published?
K: I was first published right after graduating college in 20087. It was a literary piece in an art magazine in New York. After that, I did not publish again for 4 or 5 years.
S: What caused that gap? What was it like for you during that time?
K: It was weird for me to publish a literary piece first. I guess that’s just what college does. You learn to look down on the books and stories you enjoyed when you were growing up. I wrote this second person, very literary piece. It was very weird for me because that’s not what I wanted to do. I got it in my head that I could only write and publish things that I didn’t enjoy. It took me a long time to get past that barrier. It took me a long time to realize that I could write what I want to write. I know it sounds really negative, but the experience of being published was super positive. The guy that published my work was very supportive. It was 100% a great experience, but it just ran me into some tangles in my brain that I needed to sort out. Everything speculative was bad. And then, later on, everything literary was bad. And now I’m in a place where I can appreciate both.
S: It seems that Clarion West also played a huge role in your birth as a writer. Tell us about Clarion West.
K: Well, I attended in 2013. To be honest, I only applied because Neil Gaiman was teaching. And also because CW is In Seattle where I had then recently moved. I didn’t submit an application to Clarion San Diego because I am very attached to my husband and cats and could not go six weeks without visiting them. I did not expect to get in at all. When I did get the call, I was visiting with mother, and my phone rang at a weird time. I was rationalizing it so heavily. It must be a telemarketer? A local number? Then it must be a local telemarketer. But it was Les at Clarion West. And the news came, and I could not stop smiling. I met the best people out there. Usman Malik was there, and he’s burning up the spec fic world right now. He’s just brilliant. Basically, when I got there everyone was more accomplished than me, it made me step up and write more. They write all the time and submit all the time, and so I didn’t want to be left behind. It was an amazing experience.
S: And how was Neil?
K: Neil was as nice as he seems but also honest and tough. On the last day, I just broke down and sobbed all over him. If you need to find a good sponge to have a cry over, he’s great for that.
S: Did Mirror Skinned emerge out of that experience? Forgive me for being a bit woo-woo, but I sensed some resonance with Neil Gaiman’s short fiction style when I read your story.
K: I wrote Mirror Skinned as an exercise in week 1, and he taught during the second week. But you’re probably on to something there. He was certainly looming large in my mind the entire time.
S: What goals do you have with writing?
K: My friends say that I want to make them sad. And it’s true that I usually write sad stories. I think, mostly, I want to make people feel. It’s just the emotions I’m interested in tend to be the painful ones. My favorite stories are the ones that linger for days, the ones that leave you unsettled and thoughtful. On the other hand, I think fiction can be enormously comforting, and I hope that some readers find comfort in my stories. Even if it’s only the comfort of seeing their own hurts reflected back.
S: The stories that you’ve written, “Home Isn’t” and “Mirror Skinned” have strong themes of abandonment. Has that been a recurring motif in your other works?
K: Mirror Skinned is one of my most personal stories. I mentioned before that it started as a writing exercise. We all wrote an anonymous piece about some intense emotional moment in our lives. And then we wrote a second speculative piece about that moment. I wrote about self-loathing. Sometimes people self-loathe by absorbing themselves into the people they date. If you date the right or wrong person, they project their idea of who you should be and it’s easy to adopt that as your identity. That’s what “Mirror Skinned” deals with.
S: What about Home Isn’t?
K: I was thinking about the Indian Schools back when the US was “civilizing the savage” and the trauma that came from having one culture taken away from you and having another foisted upon you. I couldn’t stop thinking about the identities that people have inflicted upon them instead of the identity that they are born with.
S: Does this theme continue in other works of yours?
Yes? I’m interested in stories where characters not interested in external struggles. I’m interested in stories where characters are lost within themselves. It’s closer to home. I’m almost certainly never going to take on a dragon myself. But we all deal with identity, recreating ourselves and having to change. I write a lot about identity because it’s such a universal element.
S: What stories have brought you comfort?
K: Neil Gaiman’s “Black Dog” from Trigger Warning is a horror story about depression and fighting depression, but it’s an enormously comforting story. It’s not a happy story, but it is a comforting story. It allows us to see that we’re not the only ones coping with the world. When I was younger, Tamora Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, the typical escapist fiction, Anne McCaffrey, and their stories comforted me. When I first read Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman, comfort came not from the stories but the way he wrote about fiction in the beginning. Someone finally thinks the way I do! Reading that helped me realize that I was not the only one and it’s one of the things that made me fall in love with his writing.
S: What makes fiction WORK?
K: That’s such an impossible question! I mean, the fiction that works for me is lyrical, thoughtful, and sad. The fiction that works for my husband is fast-paced, witty, and uses transparent prose. Every book on writing has its set of rules. Conflict. Character growth. Three act structure. For me, I guess fiction needs a character I can care about. But that’s just me.
S: What helps you decide that something is ready?
K: Left to my own devices I would spend forever revising but to ship, I listen for the rhythm of the words, the flow, and sound of it. When I’m sure that the ending will make my friends cry, then I know it’s ready. Otherwise, I’m too self-critical to look at a piece of my writing and think “They’re going to love this.” At best, I think “I’m not going to edit this anymore because I need to start another piece of fiction.” I edited Mirror Skinned to death and had it up to 1,700 words at one point, and it just wasn’t working. I rewrote it so many times that I had broken it. To get it right, I had to go back to a much earlier version and glue the unbroken pieces together.
S: Is there advice you’d give to aspiring writers?
K: The current advice I give to everyone, aspiring or not, is to write things, finish them, revise them, and move on. If it never works, never sells, don’t go back and try to fix it, just move on. If you like themes that you’ve explored in the works, write a new story with those same themes. We’re constantly growing, but at the same time we keep trying to fit into these old sloughed off skins. When we can’t anymore, we should reach up and out instead.
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