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Your Sick: A Conversation with Carol Guess, Elizabeth J. Colen, & Kelly Magee

CAROL GUESS is the author of fifteen books of poetry and prose, including Darling Endangered, Doll Studies: Forensics, and Tinderbox Lawn. In 2014, she was awarded the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement by Columbia University. She teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

ELIZABETH J. COLEN is the author of the poetry collections, Money for Sunsets (Steel Toe Books, 2010; finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in 2011) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies (Jaded Ibis Press, 2012), as well as the flash fiction collection, Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake (Rose Metal Press, 2011) and the lyric essay, The Green Condition (Ricochet Editions, 2014). She is editor for Jaded Ibis Press’ new memoir series, Bowerbird.

KELLY MAGEE is the author of A Guide to Strange Places: Stories (forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks), The Reckless Remainder, (co-written with Carol Guess, forthcoming from Noctuary Press), With Animal (co-written with Carol Guess, Black Lawrence Press), Body Language (UNT Press), and History of My Locked Wrist (co-written with Kristina Marie Darling, Dancing Girl Press). She teaches creative writing in the undergraduate and MFA programs at Western Washington University.

YOUR SICK: Fever dreams turn kids into parrots; lungs sprout seeds; and a lover’s infection infuses into her name. In this collaborative collection, real contagions transform into magical kinds of sickness, from airborne amnesia to genetic tornadoes to plague-stricken mail. These magical stories offer no cures for the human condition, but they will infect you with dreams of a different kind of life. Buy it at Jellyfish Highway Press.

EDMUND SANDOVAL: How did this collection start out? Was it a collaborative effort from the get? Or did it pick up steam—and authors—as time went on?
CAROL GUESS: The collection began as a collaboration between Kelly and me. We were very ambitious and intended to create imaginary illnesses for every letter of the alphabet! Kelly was working A-Z; I was working Z-A. Somewhere along the line, we realized that we were hindered by the constraints we’d set up, and allowed ourselves to follow characters and stories in a more organic way. Elizabeth began working with us at this stage, adding stories related to illness, but without the alphabetical constraint. Elizabeth and I were interested in the idea of changing identities, of relocation, and we folded that into the idea of illness. Toward the end, we all worked to revise and edit and reshape the manuscript, without regard for who had originally written which pieces.

Did you look to any texts as inspiration? For guidance? If so, to whom did you refer?
CG: Lately I’ve been inspired by Etgar Keret, Louis C. K., and Kate McKinnon.

ELIZABETH J. COLEN: I’m pretty obsessed with reading any and all collaborations currently, just to see what’s going on. I think there’s a way that artistic collaborations are a little like romantic and/or familial relationships at times, and it’s fun to see how people navigate each other’s pitfalls. Lately I’ve been reading Ceci n’est pas Keith, Ceci n’est pas Rosmarie by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop; Ben and Sandra Doller’s The Yesterday Project; a couple of collaborations Lyn Hejinian did (Sight with Leslie Scalapino and Leningrad with Michael Davidson, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten); and Mary Biddinger’s and Jay Robinson’s The Czar, which will be out this year from Black Lawrence Press.

KELLY MAGEE: I’m into work that blurs boundaries, so fantasy/sci-fi/literary, poetry/prose, fiction/nonfiction ... but also writing that involves characters who themselves blur boundaries. While I was working on stories for Your Sick, I was reading Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, the stories of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, In the Circus of You by Nicelle Davis and Cheryl Gross, and some of the YA novels by David Levithan. I also have an ongoing love for and fascination with fairy tales, so I often have a Bros Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen collection open on my desk.

Where are you all located?
CG: We all live in Bellingham, Washington, and teach Creative Writing at Western Washington University.

Can you give us an idea of the process of writing a short story collection as a trio?
CG: It was pure pleasure! Elizabeth and Kelly are two of my favorite writers, so it just felt like luck to be able to work with them so closely. Also, it was great to have someone to talk to when I got stuck on a line. It made the revision process especially rewarding.

EJC: I came in a little late to the process. I made the decision not to read the stories Kelly and Carol had done until I had started working pretty heavily with a few of the pieces. While I wanted a unified manuscript, I was more interested in jumping into the mix blindly, then working in what I had done, revising toward that greater cohesiveness.

KM: It sounds a lot more complicated than it was. All three of us are writing all the time, and at some point it made more sense to put our work in conversation with each other than to keep writing in our own separate rooms.

Can you tell us how you settled on the title?
CG: I came up with Your Sick when I was working Z-A, creating imaginary illnesses in reverse alphabetical order. We all talked about using one of the other titles, but decided this one captured the spirit of the collection.

EJC: I love this title. So much. If my name weren’t on this book, I would be so jealous of the title.

KM: One of those titles that just announces itself and makes all the other titles sit back down.

About how long did you all work on this collection?
CG: Maybe a year.

EJC: About that. And a few weeks of pretty intense revision after speaking with Justin Lawrence Daugherty and Matt Fogarty (co-founders of Jellyfish Highway Press). They were really great to work with.

Your stories and characters are rather far removed from domestic tranquility—Was that a conscious choice or did it just kind of happen?
EJC: You know what they say about happy families. I, for one, wouldn’t know how to write tranquility. I’m most interested in characters and situations in a state of flux.

KM: I’m always looking for trouble.

From where did this world of Bad Babies and children metamorphosing into birds and entire forests growing overnight and much-desired lightning strikes derive?
CG: Is it odd to say that this is actually how I see the world? I’m not being cute or silly when I say that I look for strangeness in the everyday. If I see a forest, I imagine magical animals living there, or groups of people Up To No Good pacing the perimeter. I assume the worst, weirdest, and shiniest; there’s nothing normal to me about the world I inhabit. It depresses me when people say they’re easily bored. My imagination is so much more real to me than reality, and it guides me, keeps me company. I feel profoundly lucky to have so many stories and characters alive in my head.

KM: My favorite way to write a story is to start with a character who wants something completely inexplicable, and then to try to figure out why. Also I’m a sucker for fairy tales—not the sanitized ones, but the gruesome, bizarre, raunchy, funny old ones.

Have you, as a group, a favorite story in the collection? As individuals?
CG: My favorite stories are “Forgetting Wendy,” “Your Sick,” and “Relocation Program.”

EJC: “Relocation Program.”

KM: “Relocation Program” is terrific. I think my favorite one to work on was “The Storm Grower.” I kind of want to return to that character, actually.

Was the connectivity of characters and themes intentional, or did it transpire organically?
CG: Intentional! Connecting the stories and characters was a deliberate part of our revision process.

KM: A little of both? There are always themes you notice after you’re done, things you didn’t realize you were writing about—Those are my favorite ones. But there’s also a consciousness, as a writer (and especially as a collaborator), of trying to write something that will coalesce into a book. We played around with recurring characters, intentional themes, even the alphabetical structure Carol mentioned, and some of those connections stuck and some didn’t. But the process of writing connected stories was certainly intentional.

Any plans to get together for another book?
CG: I hope so! Elizabeth and I are currently writing a collection called, True Ash, and Kelly and I recently started a novel called, To Keep You Close. I’d love to write as a trio when these projects are done.

EJC: Carol is the queen of collaboration. I definitely wouldn’t say no to anything she was involved in. And I’ve become a convert. I want to collaborate all over the place. I’d really like to do some visual/cross-media collaboration. Someday soon. So if any visual artist out there has any ideas ...

KM: I’d work with either or both of these lovely ladies again.

EDMUND SANDOVAL lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in The Minnesota Review, The Common, Fourteen Hills, and The Mud Season Review, among others. He earned his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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