Meet a Resident: Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum is the author of two collections of short fiction–This Life She’s Chosen and Swimming With Strangers, both published by Chronicle Books. Her fiction has appeared widely in journals, including One StoryThe American Scholar, and Willow Springs, and she has work out this summer from Ploughshares Solos and this new piece in Joyland. She is the recipient of a PEN/O. Henry Prize and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee Writers Conference, and the Jack Straw Writers Program. She teaches high school English at The Attic Learning Community and lives with her family near Seattle. Author Kait Heacock conducted this interview.


What inspires you? 

I’m not sure I have a quick answer to this question. Most of my stories begin in setting, in a visual image I have in my mind of a specific place at a specific moment in time. Something must strike me about the place–it must sink some hook into me so that I feel excited about writing a story in that place. Character and plot emerge and develop from there. My writing is going through something of a midlife crisis at the moment, though, and what inspires me is shifting. I might have a different answer to this soon.  

Who do you admire artistically both historically and currently and locally and nationally? Short story writers and others. 
My heart is with short stories–as a writer and a reader–so most of my idols are short story writers. Alice Munro is the foundation for me. Also Edith Pearlman, Mavis Gallant, John Cheever, James Baldwin, Gina Berriault, Lorrie Moore, James Salter, Willa Cather, Chekhov (of course). I’m loving Lucia Berlin‘s stories right now, and Anthony Doerr‘s short fiction is a contemporary favorite.
Briefly describe your residency at Mineral: How did you hear about it/get involved? What did you create while there?
I attended Mineral during the first summer of residencies. It was magical from the start. I loved the wide, open space and high ceiling of my room. I loved the way the light flooded in through the huge school-room windows every morning. I took solo runs every morning, came back to coffee and breakfast waiting, and then spent the day working. I was amazed at how productive I could be with whole days to write! I finished a first draft of a collection while I was there.
What do you look forward to as a dorm mother for this summer’s residency?
I’m just completely delighted to have a chance to spend some more time in Mineral, and I’m looking forward to meeting this summer’s residents. (Maybe this is the year I’ll finally swim in Mineral Lake, too… )
What are you working on now? Another collection? Do you have a desire to write a novel?
I finished a collection early this spring, so I’m back to that strange vacancy of not clearly knowing my direction. I’m writing individual stories and essays, and I’m hoping something calls to me soon, and maybe it will be a novel, but I don’t know. To be honest, I have a lot of tension about that question–“Do you have a desire to a write a novel?” Novels are, of course, what is expected of a prose writer. Stories are seen (unreasonably, in my opinion) as the appetizers–pleasant and maybe more artful than a novel, but definitely neither as satisfying nor as difficult to make. I get frustrated with this view and with the way it seems to see those who write stories exclusively as “fiddling” hobbyists, not real writers. I wrestle with that idea and with trying not to internalize it.Kir54300dpi
I think I’m becoming–oddly!–a self-determined defender of the short story as a form, but I do truly love the short story for both its freedoms and its confines. A story can experiment with the elements of fiction in ways (because of its length) that a novel cannot. And (because of its brevity) a story must be precise and carefully packed, written with an intentionality on the sentence level that most novels don’t possess. I love all of this as a reader of stories, and as a writer of stories I still find story construction so exciting.  I don’t know if I’ll write a novel next (or ever), but I will definitely keep writing short stories.
As a teacher, how do you balance writing with teaching? Is there anything you’ve learned about yourself as a writer through the act of teaching others how to write?
I’ve been teaching now (unbelievably!) for almost two decades. I think what I’ve learned is simply to redefine what balance looks like. Teaching fulfills my creative self differently than writing does, but it does fulfill it, so it’s harder for me to have the creative energy writing requires during the times when I’m expending that energy on my classes. I used to worry about that, but I’m happy to have “seasons” that an academic life offers me. I get most of my writing done during the academic breaks, and that works well. Of course, I’m also a parent of two young children, and so the real balancing act for me is about meeting my family’s needs and also getting time to write. That’s getting easier as my children get older, but it’s the real challenge. I think both teaching and parenting have taught me to be a better writer for a number of reasons, a simple one being the forgiveness I can now extend to myself when a draft fails or somehow doesn’t meet my own expectations. I’ve been telling my students and my children for years now that failure is the way we learn, and I’m glad the lesson is finally sinking in for me too.