INTERVIEW // by Connor Harrison
Something Unseen Building: An Interview with Kelsey Ipsen
One of the hardest things to do as a writer (or as any kind of artist) is to establish your own voice, to write in a way that is unmistakably yours. In Kelsey Ipsen’s case, her work has been identifiably and organically hers at least since her first published story, in 2013. “Snail Shells,” a flash piece following a boy who tries to piece broken snails back together, bears all the markers of her later stories: body horror, an almost melancholy empathy, and a rhythm that runs under the sentences like sap. More than anything else, it is this natural ear for sounds that makes Kelsey’s fiction stand out; her characters and their movements are given form by it. In “How to Make a Henry,” for example, she writes, “Later my wife is awake and it starts raining while we are drinking our coffee. Pitter patter I repeat, of tiny feet, I say and my wife looks at me like what tiny feet?” Or in “The Autumn of Dead Foxes“: “Bones out, bleached by the sun. Fur looking like it still belongs to a living thing, looking like gold hope, looking like jump right back up bound through all that tall grass catch yourself a live meal.” Kelsey’s use of language is fluid and often strange, catching you by surprise. In her novel-in-progress, Not from Here, this fluidity is full of a half-suppressed violence, domestic or otherwise, similar to that of Anna Burns’s Milkman. Anna and Ella, the two protagonists, speak in a voice that blurs and melds:
We nod to the driver as we get on but he just looks at us as if we are wild, and this is when I notice a muddy snatch of leaves on Ella’s shirt. I flick it off her as we sit down and then I accidentally fall in love with a man in a dark blue suit. He has a brown leather briefcase in hands that look clean and soft, like they’ve never hit anything in their life. Ella notices that I’ve fallen in love again. She sighs, pulls a twig from my hair.
He is far too old for you, she says.
I wish the man would look at me as much as I hope he will not look at me. I worry for the first time today about what I look like. I try to find my image in the bus windows but they are too grubby and I come back to myself looking like splotches of warped, washed out colour. I run a hand through my hair instead of trying for a mirror and get a fistful of forest floor. I cradle a soft bit of moss in my hands and look down.
Kelsey Ipsen‘s work can be found in PANK, Columbia Journal, CHEAP POP, Hobart, jmww journal, wigleaf and the wigleaf Top 50 of 2020. Her stories have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. She is the founder of Tiny Molecules. Originally from New Zealand, she now lives in France and is working on a novel. She can confirm that French people absolutely do use the phrase “oh là là.”
Connor Harrison: So, what I wanted to ask is a bit about New Zealand—what part of it you grew up in, and if the literary scene there has had an influence on you? Were you already writing, or thinking about literature, while you lived there? I know in my experience of where I grew up, there were little to no writing communities or spaces for anything like that. I had to look elsewhere.
Kelsey Ipsen: I first lived in a tiny town, where I mostly remember fields and cows and tumbling about in hay sheds, then we moved to a city in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. Neither of these places were by the ocean yet when I think of growing up I mostly remember being on the beach and in the salt water. Where I lived there was a music scene and a film scene, I didn’t find a literary scene. I was an incredibly shy kid and I brought most of that shyness into being a young adult. I hid mostly everything I wrote and studied film instead. To me film felt like telling a story without actually having to admit I was the one telling it, film is more collaborative and it certainly felt safer to me for a long time. So like you I looked elsewhere, I found film. I still picture film scenes as the first thing I do when I write.
CH: That’s interesting – would you say, then, that film has had just as much an influence on your writing as reading has?
KI: I think reading is still the biggest influence but film, for me, is a pretty close second. It’s a different way to analyse how scenes interact together, how a plot evolves, how time is cut and sewn together—and you can literally see it happen (and all in one sitting). I feel like my first drafts are a lot like putting movie scenes in order, and then the edits are putting in all the bits you can’t “see.”
CH: Are there any films in particular that you think are good examples of this, or films you might return to for this reason?
KI: All of them, even the bad ones. I do return to films where the feeling was the overwhelming thing, where you have to dig through the feeling to find the understanding because that’s what stories are to me or for me, they are a dissecting and exploring of a feeling. Sophia Coppola, Wim Wenders, and Alfred Hitchcock’s movies are some. Midsommar is one I want to watch over and over. There are also series where character is explored in depth, like The Queen’s Gambit and Better Call Saul, which are amazing.
CH: Do you remember the first book, or story, or poem, that you read with something more than casual interest? Was there an author that made something click for you?
KI: I think I always read everything with more than casual interest. I know what you mean by asking but the wording made me laugh because when I was little I read like I wanted to prove something. I purposefully picked out books above my age level, books with no pictures. I would fall obsessively in love with books and dress up like the characters, adopting all their mannerisms, until I didn’t know where I began and the character or world of the character stopped. I think it’s something all bookworms do, we devour books instead of just reading them.
In terms of clicking though, at university I took a creative writing class and the professor hummed at me, told me “You just like the sound of words, don’t you.” And I felt like I was just playing at something I didn’t understand. And maybe I didn’t, or still don’t, or maybe the professor was just in a bad mood. But not long after I read The Waves by Virginia Woolf and I think the mix of the ocean and the poetry of the entire book made something click. I had wondered how an author had written something before, but I think that might have been the first time I realised there were many, many different hows and it opened up something that is still opening up.
CH: Is Woolf someone you return to often?
KI: I did return to Woolf a lot. Lately, though, I’ve been reading as much contemporary work as I can. I think it’s very exciting to be able to read something and reflect on what it means to the world as it is right now. I’m particularly in love with the new horror by women—Sophie Mackintosh, Ottessa Moshfegh, Daisy Johnson, Helen Oyeyemi. Women have always written horror though—there’s always a sense of something unseen building and building over the pages or a sense of being confined, because these are the feelings that come with being women in this world. There’s always the possibility of danger in even the most innocent of things and that feeling slips through into our work. I think the difference now is that we aren’t holding back. Moshfegh lets her characters be delightfully disgusting, Mackintosh’s characters are bloodied, bruised, and hardened. It’s like we are getting to examine ourselves, and our bodies, as finally real.
CH: You’ve mentioned writers like Moshfegh and Johnson, who deal with horror in their works, but they also feel very fluid in terms of categorisation (something especially true of your work, too); I wanted to ask how you feel about genre, and the application of it. Do you think it helps? It feels as if it can be used in some circumstances to keep readers at a distance, by grouping one thing as “women’s fiction,” for example, and another as “horror.”
KI: I have been thinking a lot about genre lately, because I’m working on submitting my own book. There’s a certain need to be able to place it into a genre to find an agent that matches, to find that marketable angle, and I do think genre can be useful in that way as a sort of top layer, an entry into something deeper. In saying this I do wish I could use multiple genres from the start in a way that doesn’t just make me come across as chaotic and confused.
I agree with you that genre can keep readers at a distance, especially genres like “women’s fiction,” “LGBTQ fiction,” etc. One the one hand yes absolutely shine a spotlight on it, it makes it so much easier to find and therefore discover new authors to love. On the other hand it makes it easier for people to dismiss books as “not for them,” which is such a shame because reading is a beautiful gateway into understanding and exploring an existence different to your own. Just because something isn’t written about your specific experience, doesn’t mean there isn’t any value to it, or nothing to gain. I for sure read a lot of “men’s fiction” growing up and still found my own truths in it and a lot to value.
CH: Being such an avid reader growing up, and reading plenty of “men’s fiction,” how do you feel about the literary canon, packed as it is with nineteenth-century novels written by men? Do you think having a canon is useful?
KI: I think that maybe the most useful thing about having a literary canon is getting to tear it down, change it and make it our own. I think, with the online writing community, it is easier to ignore what is held up as “good” and instead find it for ourselves. I see this in the flash community and with new, small presses. There’s this punk vibe to it in some places, with a lot of DIY and tongue-in-cheek journals who are showcasing incredible work just for the love of it.
CH: I wanted to talk about two of my favourite of your published stories, “Bird in Love” and “Salt in the Body,” which I think are really good examples of your ability to lean into the sounds in prose, either in a kind of beautiful way in “Bird in Love”—”He always remembers to make no sudden movements around me, which is how I can tell he loves me. I hop, hop, hop inside because that is how he can tell that I love him”—or for comedic effect—describing cars from a bird’s perspective as “ARRRRRRRGGHHHHHHHHHH.” It has a definite feeling of George Saunders’s shorter works, of keeping small tragedies, almost, inside a light-hearted tale. And then with “Salt in the Body,” the prose becomes physical—”Of course she was rag-doll rag-doll rag-doll”—or melodic—”I cannot follow you if you do not scream, baby. Scream. Small kicks can’t sound louder than this.” Could you talk about where either of these stories came from, whether in terms of the prose, or the idea?
KI: You’ve chosen the two stories that I’ve always felt were the closest to bordering on autobiographical. I like that you’ve said “Bird in Love” is like a small tragedy inside a light-hearted tale. I think it’s important to know that you can hold “good” and “bad” inside of you at the same time.
I guess that Bird in Love came from the idea of a bird being seen as “free” when in reality they are such anxious things. With anxiety there is a lot of feeling just “wrong,” there’s a lot of repetition, there are a lot of feelings that seem like they should come out as screaming. I had a lot of fun writing it, but it also felt very serious to me. In the end I looked at it and thought, “This is silly, who will ever want this? Surely everyone is sick of birds.” But it felt special to me anyway, and then Aaron Burch was doing his drinking and looking-for-weird submission call, it was perfect timing for my little lovebird.
“Salt in the Body” actually started as a prose poem a long time ago, but it never felt right. Then at the beginning of 2020 I was thinking a lot about water, about the body, about the feeling of drowning in ourselves. I picked apart the original poem and used some of the lines as headings to try and explore something, to try and figure something out. Usually I feel like I write something in a hurry, before the words and ideas disappear, but for this story I felt slow and methodical, like I was researching something or trying to dive deeper into something. It felt strange to use an old poem, and interpret it coming from where I was in the present where the poem felt more like a warning, but it fit with the idea of the ocean. Growing up in New Zealand you get it drilled into you that even when the ocean looks still you cannot trust it to be safe. That’s the feeling I wanted to get across.
CH: You say it felt strange to rework a prose poem into a story—how do you typically go about editing your writing? Do you tend to work through a lot of drafts?
KI: A lot of drafts, a lot of reading out loud, a lot of going back to something and wondering what I was even talking about, occasional heavy sighs.
CH: In regard to your novel, how has it felt moving from shorter work to something much longer? How long have you been working on it?
KI: I enjoyed working on something longer much more than I thought I would. There’s a rush, when working in shorter forms, that is really exciting. And of course you get to finish something sooner and finishing something always feels good. I’ve tried writing a novel/novella before and both times it was a struggle and in the end I wasn’t happy with the way they turned out or the direction they were going in. I’ve been working on the one I have now for around 10 months with about 5 of those being months I was really sitting down all day every day getting it done. It felt good to be going back to it every day, to be slowly building something up.
CH: So do you try and keep a regular routine, when it comes to your work? Do you have a preferred time and place?
KI: When I was working on my book I had a goal of 1,000 words per day. Sometimes it was more, sometimes less. It helped me to have that goal which I (mostly) met, it pushed me to write even on those days where I felt like I couldn’t because there was an achievable end in sight every day. Apart from that I don’t really have a routine. I think most writers feel guilty when they aren’t sitting down and writing, which is strange when you think about it. For a lot of jobs you can come home and switch off but when you write you can never really switch off. There are always ideas to scribble down, more words to write, a spare moment that could be used to work on something. I think breaks and breathing room are important and I’m trying to learn not to feel guilty about taking them.
I’m boring with my preferred time and place. I sit at my desk pretending I’m a morning person when really I’m an afternoon person. Sometimes I dabble with being adventurous and I go outside in the garden and squint through the sun at my screen and pretend I’m enjoying it.
CH: How did you approach the story in the novel initially? The prose is very fluid, and naturally rhythmic, but was there an overall plot beforehand?
KI: I knew where I wanted the book to end and a very strong idea of what I wanted it to be really about but I didn’t plot out everything first. I felt like if I didn’t quickly dive right into the writing of it I’d chicken out. The characters immediately felt very real to me too, which helped a lot with feeling like it was all actually going somewhere. Having confidence in your idea and your characters is so important, at least for me it is, and maybe that seems obvious but it’s also true. With a novel especially, because it’s scary to pour so much time into something that might not ever work out how you want it to. You need that confidence to push you through the moment that comes about halfway where you absolutely panic and think every word is rubbish.
CH: You’ve since moved from New Zealand to France. What has it been like learning to speak French? Did you speak any before relocating?
KI: I learnt French in high school so I assumed I’d do ok, then I arrived and understood nothing. It’s hard, also, because you don’t really realise how much the way you speak is connected with your identity and personality until you’re stripped back to only the most basic of phrases. The most helpful thing for me was teaching children English because I was forced to also use French and if I didn’t use it properly the students would gleefully point out my mistakes. That forced me to learn pretty quickly.
CH: In my experience (I’m learning very, very slowly), the hardest thing is learning a word and then attaching the full meaning. I’ll learn a new phrase, say, and it takes me a lot longer to hear it as more than just sound. How do you feel about writing fiction in a second language? Is it something you’ve tried, or would consider?
KI: Yes exactly! It comes out as just sound for such a long time, which is quite frightening when you’re trying to communicate with someone because it feels impossible that they would hear meaning in what you are trying to say either.
I do have a few stories that have French mixed into them in the same way that when you are bilingual (or trying to be) the two languages mix in your thoughts but I’m not sure where to put them. But it’s interesting, in any case, to explore how different languages express things in different ways, how the meaning behind something can be altered so subtly but still feel like a completely new way of looking at something. I don’t think I could ever write a fiction entirely in French, written French is almost an entirely new language itself.
CH: I wanted to ask about your role as both a writer and as an editor—what was the impetus behind putting together Tiny Molecules?
KI: The main reason was that I loved reading for a magazine and wished I could have my own and so I just did it. I love finding work and being able to help put it out into the world and support it in some small way. I love all the work behind running the journal, and seeing an issue come together that somehow all fits, like somehow all these strangers have come together and captured something real and beautiful (and strange, I love the strange).
CH: Did you decide on an aesthetic for Tiny Molecules (both in terms of the writing and the magazine) or did you let it arrive on it’s own? Did you have an image of how it would look before you started?
KI: I knew I was looking for those flash pieces that tug at your heart, the ones that make you think “yes, that’s exactly it” about a feeling and as if something has been exposed. I also knew that I wanted to have minimal looking issues that you could scroll through—to make it easier to discover other writers and have it feel like a print magazine but with the accessibility of it being online and free.
CH: Do you remember what the first lit mags you read were? Did you come to them in print originally, or online? I remember first picking up a copy of the Paris Review at university and thinking I’d never seen anything like it.
KI: They were Kill Author, Metazen and PANK, all online. I don’t think I ever came across a print magazine where I lived. And I think I had a similar reaction to you. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is the world I want to be part of.” It really felt like stumbling into a different universe.
CH: The majority of your work so far has been prose, whether as writer or editor; how do you feel about nonfiction, and poetry?
KI: I don’t write nonfiction and I don’t often read it, that’s not to say I don’t like reading it—I’m just much more drawn to fiction. I’ve tried a few times to keep a journal and absolutely hated it which I think has put me off writing non-fiction forever. This interview is enough nonfiction for me. I like reading and writing poetry but it’s something I don’t feel as comfortable in. That’s the reason Tiny Molecules doesn’t publish poetry, although with more people on the team, maybe it’s a possibility in the future.