Interview: McKenzie Hightower
Writer McKenzie Hightower answered questions from editorial intern Daniel Heslep about writing, reading, and her story “The Village of Hands and Feet,” a Psychopomp Magazine Short Fiction Award finalist in 2016. You can read her story in our fall issue and her interview below.
Daniel Heslep: How would you describe your writing process?
McKenzie Hightower: It is always interesting to me that this question is asked with such frequency. Whether I am at AWP or a Q&A, I always hear it, especially from young or aspiring writers. The thing is though, my writing process, like everyone else’s, is not a guide. Everyone’s is different. My own consists of starting with an image. I never start with plot. In the case of “The Village of Hands and Feet,” I started with the image of a child being forced to ring a bell for the rest of her life. The image was a vestige of just reading “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I then go from there, so I never know what the end of my story will be at the beginning. It is a constant process of discovery.
DH: What inspired you to write “The Village of Hands and Feet”?
MH: My work previously had been mostly grotesque realism and I felt very constrained. I remember I had a fear that I might never write anything different and new again, but then, one day, during a routine writing exercise, the first paragraph of “The Village of Hands and Feet” surfaced. The exercise was to write about a location and let the place drive the story. I am a big proponent of these small exercises, especially when one feels like they are in a rut. After the first paragraph came, it was really fluid from there. I read The Bloody Chamber and Bad Behavior, immersed myself in adult fairy tale by Kate Bernheimer. Reading and writing go hand in hand for me, so the process for the story was organic from both the material I surrounded myself with and my own imagination.
DH: “The Village of Hands and Feet” is a thoroughly disturbing piece of fiction … in a good way! In your view, what role does the grotesque play in making a good story? Could “The Village of Hands and Feet” exist without it?
MH: The grotesque is without a doubt vital to this story. It shows its head in almost everything I write. In my belief, the grotesque is the avenue by which the reader can experience jouissance. The term is French, denoting a transgressive, excessive kind of pleasure linked to the division and splitting of the subject involved. The effect is uncanny on the reader and it this Otherness that stimulates social discourse and thought. For instance, Mona is both child and woman. She is both human and Other. Alex is both lover and pedophile. The thing that gives Mona joy and takes away her magic. This splitting, a result of the grotesque, highlights themes of sexual abuse, power dynamics, and societal rules that I want the readers to ponder, even if just subconsciously.
DH: What do you do in addition to your writing? Do you see any connections between your different vocations?
MH: I am a professor and social advocate, looking to go to law school. I think there is definitely a connection between my passion for social justice and my grotesque fairytales. All of them—I am writing a collection—deal with real world issues that our power systems of politics and law have not been able to solve yet.
DH: How would you say your lived experience has affected your style?
MH: It has influenced my writing immensely. I have travelled all over the world, experienced different cultures and people, and these experiences constantly change the content and social focus of my writing. As for my style specifically, I think this is affected a little less so. I have a very distinct voice, one of bleak omniscience, that seems to permeate everything I write. I don’t love this fact, but perhaps it will change one day.
DH: Do you have any advice for prospective writers?
MH: Submit to everything and anything. Don’t be afraid of rejection. Don’t worry if your life doesn’t follow the now traditional MFA route.
DH: What are you working on now?
MH: I am writing a historical fiction novel (my first!) about the Nazi concentration camp Terezín, located in the Czech Republic. Art was allowed to flourish, symphonies, paintings, and plays were created and over 1,000 lectures were given there.
McKenzie Hightower is a graduate from the University of Notre Dame. She attended the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. Works from her unpublished short story collection, We All Walk Away, But We Do Not Leave, have appeared in Tin House: Open Bar, Bull Magazine: Men’s Fiction, and the collection was named a Semi-Finalist in the Black Lawrence Press Chapbook Contest. She accepted a Fulbright Student Fellowship and has been teaching English and creative writing in Poland for the past year.
Daniel Heslep was born and raised in Minnesota and holds a degree in English from St. Olaf College. He is always working to improve his craft, and to this end can be found nodding off in library chairs and Goodbye Blue Monday Coffehouse. His review of Larry Levis’ The Darkening Trapeze has been published in Whale Road Review.