Introducing 2018 Debutante: Kendra Fortmeyer

On May 4th, at our 9th annual Literary Debutante BallOne Story will be celebrating three of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Kendra Fortmeyer, author of One Story Issue #209, “Things I Know to be True” and the novel Hole in the Middle (Soho Teen, forthcoming in September 2018).

High-school senior Morgan Stone is an aspiring artist who has a peach-sized hole in her abdomen, to the right of her belly button. Pushed by her domineering mother, Morgan has grown up visiting countless doctors in search of a cure, believing that revealing her abnormality to anyone will bring heartbreak and rejection. When Morgan goes dancing at a club and unwittingly becomes Hole Girl—internet sensation—she embarks on a journey toward accepting her body and nurturing her own voice, separate from anyone else’s expectations. Hole in the Middle is a provocative exploration of otherness and the courage it takes to celebrate what it is that makes us different.

Hayleigh Santra: Where were you when you found out Hole in the Middle was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Hole in the Middle had a long, strange road to publication. The first time it really felt real—after the phone calls, the emails, the edits, the breaths held and released—was the day the sale appeared in Publisher’s Weekly. It was the fourth week of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in San Diego, and though I’d anticipated it for days, waking up to the email from my agent with the link to the announcement broke something open in me. I climbed out of my narrow dorm bed, went for a run, and wept. There was something haunting and lovely about pushing my body through the early morning light beneath the pines and feeling that no matter what, something I’d worked very, very hard to achieve my entire life was coming true.

And then my insane and wonderful Clarion classmates and our coordinator, Shelley Streeby, surprised me with doughnuts. “They also have holes in the middle!” they proclaimed, forever cementing themselves in history as the greatest and kindest group of humans to ever survive six weeks of intensive workshopping together.

(Bonus: when I received my acceptance to One Story, I screamed and collapsed into a pile of clean laundry. Fingers crossed this doesn’t count against my cotillion score at the ball.)

HS: One of my favorite characters in Hole in the Middle is Morgan’s best friend Caroline. She posts sticky notes around their apartment with encouraging, body-positive messages. What motivated you to explore this theme of body acceptance through the experiences of two young women on the verge of adulthood?

KF: Something I love about magical realism is how premise can give rise to larger theme. In this case, a girl with a hole in her stomach creates a space to explore body acceptance and our society’s policing of female bodies, and all of the intersections of feminism and selfhood in between.

But it’s fun, too, right? It’s not all academic—that’s the wonder of magical realism. It’s weird and surreal and filled with opportunities for humor and love. Female friendship is a powerful force. I knew from the second Caro hit the page that she would be like many women I’ve known: wonderful and supportive and kind, willing to pin you down and tell you firmly that you are beautiful, damnit, and stop believing otherwise.

Representation matters. We’ve got plenty of toxic female friendships in books and movies reinforcing the cultural myth that women can’t be friends with other women (because we’re all competing for male attention, right? #thanksfreud). Caro is a loving, open-minded, fierce-hearted teen. When her best friend is anxious about her body, her impulse is to support and encourage and champion. And the novel gets to explore this topic I adore! As it should be.

HS: In Hole in the Middle, Morgan’s mother has trouble accepting Morgan for who she is without trying to “fix” her. In your short story “Things I Know to Be True,” the main character also has a strained relationship with his mother, who is incapable of relating to her son in the face of his mental illness. Can you talk more about your interest in the turmoil that can arise when a parent cannot cope with their child’s otherness?

KF: It took me a long time to date anyone as a teenager—I was the “hopelessly and devastatingly crush on a close friend for years” sort. One day when I was fifteen (desperately in secret love, but apparently quite ace), my dad turned to me and said, apropos of nothing, “Just so you know, if you’re gay, Mom and I are totally okay with it.”

What I said aloud (ugh, Dad, I’m not) was certainly not what I was thinking (OH MY GOD MY PARENTS ARE DARING TO THINK ABOUT MY SEXUALITY THIS IS THE MOST EMBARRASSING THING THAT EVER HAPPENED). It definitely wasn’t, in retrospect, what I should have said. Which is, obviously, Damn, that’s amazing. I love you guys.

All this to say (ironically)—my parents are wonderful, touchingly accepting people. But I can’t stop writing difficult mothers. I suspect this is, in part, an attempt to exorcise my own fear about the mother I might be someday (which is, of course, how I can be to myself – overly judgmental, with love manifesting slantwise as “wanting the best,” or intolerance of imperfection). And, too, literary mothers stand in as social gatekeepers: the intimate expression of the conflicting love and worry, teachers and enforcers of the world’s rules. Maybe someday I’ll write a compelling father figure. For now, though, it’s all mothers.

HS: As someone who grew up in North Carolina, it’s lovely to interview a North Carolinian about her debut novel, which is set in North Carolina (cue Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up”). It’s also refreshing to read about smart, multi-faceted, progressive women who happen to live in the South. How important was it for you to set this story in Raleigh, North Carolina?

KF: Very! Growing up, I saw few literary representations of the place I lived. Though there are exceptions, most Southern literature seems to run the very limited gamut of:

  1. Set in the Civil War,
  2. Fried Green Tomatoes-style (folksy! charming!), or
  3. Deliverance-style (barefoot, backward and terrifying).

The first time I ever encountered the place I lived in literature—the actual place I lived, not a cutesy “y’all come back now”/truck-ridden hellscape of racism and wife-beating—were the early essays of David Sedaris. For a child who grew up in Raleigh, seeing places I knew and recognized (Cameron Village, the Dorothea Dix hospital) in a real book was revolutionary. I didn’t have to live in New York or Chicago or LA to be bookworthy. You could write books about the place I lived and the people who lived there. Those stories were worth telling.

We widely acknowledge now the power of representation in literature—the way a child seeing a character who looks like them can change what they believe possible, can change their life. In many ways, I think of this book as a love letter to Raleigh, a city I no longer live in and miss with my whole heart—a real and beautiful and complicated place, kudzu-draped and evolving. My next book is set in small-town Texas, but I’d love to write more—and read more—contemporary Raleigh novels in the future.

HS: Throughout the novel, Morgan is struggling to discover and protect her voice, as an artist and as a person. There are a lot of outside influences, including her mom and the entire internet, trying to tell her what she should do/be/say. Can you talk about finding your own voice as a writer? What advice would you give to those who are still figuring it out?

KF: Relax. Don’t question yourself. Existential creative anxiety is a sure route to paralysis. It’s normal to fluctuate, to borrow, to evolve. Maybe you just read All the Pretty Horses and all of your sentences want to be a page long and casually name-drop mesquite and arroyos; maybe you just attended a stand-up comedy festival and now all of your characters are cracking jokes about being depressed and smoking too much weed. Don’t worry about it. Just write, write, write and enjoy the ever-changing ride. Your own voice will emerge joyfully from the chaos.

HS: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutante ball?

KF:

  1. Publicly wearing the poofiest dress I can fit in an overhead bin,
  2. Seeing what earrings Hannah wears, and, of course,
  3. Meeting the other debutantes (and Alexander Chee, who I’ve Twitter-stalked with fondness and admiration for years)—and all of you.

Hayleigh Santra is a writer living in Brooklyn.