Monday, December 9, 2013

My First Time: Kelly Luce

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Kelly Luce, author Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, available now from the publisher, A Strange Object.  Luce grew up in Brookfield, Illinois. After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in cognitive science, she moved to Japan, where she lived and worked for three years. Her work has been recognized by fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Ragdale Foundation, the Kerouac Project, and Jentel Arts, and has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, and other magazines. She lives in Santa Cruz, California, and Austin, Texas, where she is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and fiction editor of Bat City Review.  Click here to visit her website.

My First Residency

In the fall of 2008, after a season of failed applications to artist colonies, I got a phone call.  It was a woman from the MacDowell Colony (the only place where I’d been waitlisted), offering me a residency from mid-December to mid-January.

I was fine spending Christmas and New Year’s away from family.  I would have missed my own wedding for a month at MacDowell.  Besides, as a native Midwesterner living in California, I missed snow over the holidays. I looked forward to a real winter.

Anxiety set in somewhere between the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire and my arrival at Colony Hall.  Did I have anything interesting to say to legit artists?  Wasn’t it weird to go to a prestigious residency when I’d barely published?  I worried that people would see through me, the Muggle who’d lucked into a spot at Hogwarts.

The storm hit my second night.  I was in my studio, a tiny stone cottage set deep in the blackness of the woods.  Dinner had passed in a blur of lively conversation and laughter and I was high from the energy of the land and the other residents.  The power went out around ten.  I lit a few candles, delighting in the way the warm light flickered off the walls, where wooden plaques (“tombstones”) hung, listing the name of every artist to occupy the studio since 1931.  I started writing my novel—really writing it, not just making notes—that night.

As I sat with my laptop in front of a hot, crackling fire I’d built myself, cozy and full of hope for the coming weeks, I didn’t really want the power to come back on.

By the time the fire died down and it started to get cold in the studio, it was the middle of the night.  I grabbed my flashlight, snapped ice grips onto my boots, and scampered down the path to the house where my bedroom was.  It was freezing in there.  I found extra wool blankets in the closet, threw them on the single bed, and fell asleep in my clothes.

I woke at dawn to what sounded like gunshots.  A few pistol pops, then the crack of a shotgun, followed by a thud that shook the building.  There was a thin layer of ice on the inside of the window and a thicker one outside, making it impossible to see what was going on.  My breath was visible.

“Warzone” is maybe too melodramatic a descriptor for what it looked like outside, but let’s just say that shit was a mess.  The arboreal carnage was total.  Some of the downed branches were big enough to carve into benches.  I made my way to Colony Hall, where the kitchen was partially powered, thanks to a small generator.  One of the cooks was making hot breakfast.  We later found out how incredible the presence of any of the staff was that morning: the road to town was impassable by car, with more ice-laden branches crashing down, taking power lines with them, every minute.  This woman had driven as far as possible and come the rest of the way on foot so that we didn’t miss our hot breakfast.

One by one, the other residents burst through the door of the dining room, each with a story of a near-death on their journey through the woods.

“I can’t believe I risked this just for coffee,” someone said.

Not everyone made it to breakfast that morning.  A couple people didn’t risk the trek to Colony Hall; a fallen tree had trapped one writer in her studio.  Luckily, no one was hurt.  The only casualty was Alexandra’s borrowed car, smushed under the six-foot arm of an oak that had survived a hundred New Hampshire winters.

The world’s new look was both shocking and insanely beautiful.  Ice encased every tree, rock, and blade of grass.  The birches along the edge of the colony’s central meadow bent over completely under the weight of their ice-coats (“Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun…”  Robert Frost’s “Birches” became the official poem of that residency.)  Every few minutes we heard the savage crack of a treetop snapping off, but during the moments in between, frozen twigs clicked and tinkled, occasionally falling prettily to the earth.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

Photo by Corrie Francis Parks
Twenty-five artists moved into Colony Hall, the only place with heat and (limited) power.  We were brought cardboard and blankets as makeshift beds; we fought over sockets in the power strip connected to the generator.  Out in the studios, the cold froze paints and cracked sculptures-in-progress.  When the road to town was cleared of debris after a couple of days, a lot of the visual artists left.  When the power still hadn’t returned on Day 4, there was another exodus.

In the end, we were seven.

Oh, the meals.  The kitchen staff went all-out, spending as much time preparing dinner for seven as they had for twenty-five.  Rack of lamb.  Souffles.  Personalized cakes for dessert.  And they often ate with us, as did the maintenance crew and the people who ran the office.  Getting to know the staff, many of whom could have stayed in town with their families and their electricity, remains for me one the best things to come out of The Great Ice.

I didn’t get as much work done as I’d planned, of course.  I’m sure no one did.  During the first couple of days especially, many artists (myself included) felt frustration and panic over “wasted” time.  But in hindsight, among those who stayed, that waste is impossible to identify.  We didn’t necessarily do what we’d expected to do, but who’s to say all the gorgeous photography, ice-poetry, random reading, extra silence, extra noise, didn’t turn out to be more productive than our original plans?

I learned something about myself, for example: in order to write, I need silence and a lack of distractions even more than I need warmth.  During those disconnected days, I worked mostly in my studio despite the lack of heat, typing in gloves with the fingertips cut off.  When my laptop battery ran out I wrote in a notebook.  The studio was small enough that a good fire could raise the temperature to just-tolerable (my personal best was 56 degrees).  I remember a sense of heightened awareness at working in such adventurous conditions.  The pages I wrote that week have remained, years later, among my favorite in the book.  They’re pages born of fire and ice.


It had been a week since the lights went out.  Most of Peterborough proper was back online, but MacDowell was still without power.  A hotel in town offered us two of their rooms for the afternoon so we could shower in hot water.  While one person used the bathroom, the rest of us sat on the bed watching TV and listening to the delighted whoops of the one getting clean.

Of course, the power eventually came back on.  We’d gone eight days without it and had gotten used to our new work routines (we were four writers, a composer, an animator, and a visual artist).  To return to the regular program and to share the territory of our brief and relatively inconsequential suffering with new people felt strange.

When new residents, many who’d delayed their trips due to the storm, started arriving, they listened to our stories with horror, relieved at having been spared such discomfort and disruption.  But among those of us who stayed lived a secret gratitude that we’d been there for it.

(On a side note, Corrie Francis Parks, the talented artist who made the book trailer for Kelly Luce's debut story collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, was one of the seven artists who stayed through the storm.  As Kelly told me in an email: “She's become a dear friend and I'm pretty sure that without the ice storm, there'd be no trailer.”  The video was featured here at The Quivering Pen on a recent Trailer Park Tuesday.)

Author photo by Russell O. Bush

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