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Emme Lund on MFAs, making decisions and listening to the story that wants to be told

by Writing Workshops Staff

2 months ago


Emme Lund on MFAs, making decisions and listening to the story that wants to be told

by Writing Workshops Staff

2 months ago


Emme Lund on MFAs, making decisions and listening to the story that wants to be told

By Michelle Kicherer

When Emme Lund first decided to pursue an MFA in English and Creative Writing from Mills College, she had about 100 pages of a manuscript and a pretty clear idea of the book she wanted to write. By that time, she was sick of working restaurant jobs and was really looking forward to the time and space to take her writing more seriously. But as tends to happen in MFA programs, the book Lund went in with was not the one she came out with.

After only a month or two at Mills, another story sprang up and started taking over Lund’s first book. “It presented itself as a crisis at first,” Lund tells Writing Workshops. “I was really set on that first book. I wanted to finish it.” But pretty instantly, being in a new space shifted things for Lund, both creatively and personally. She found the Oakland community to be particularly accepting and for the first time, truly started to explore both her queerness and her voice.

I tell Lund that I’m from Oakland and attended that same MFA program a couple years after she graduated. We share a long moment in which we realize that we had the same thesis director, Micheline Marcom (Hi, Micheline). “Okay, so you know the books Micheline would assign, then!” Lund says. From Elena Ferrante to Michael Ontaajte, Clarice Lispector to Svetlana Alexievich, the books we read in those classes were mind-expanding and inspiring. We were encouraged to challenge ourselves and to question anything boring or uninspiring in our work. 

One story kept pushing its way into Lund’s work. It was about a boy with a bird in his chest. It started as a short story. “I thought that would be the end of it. And then it just wouldn’t stop,” Lund says. “So I just finally listened to it and started writing it.”

That story ended up growing into a novel, which grew into what would become Lund’s MFA thesis. It started off as five different stories that were all linking in a way that Lund didn’t really understand. When she brought it to Micheline in the winter of 2013, Lund says, “It was an absolute mess, and Michelin goes, ‘What is this?’ and I was like, ‘A novel?’ and she said, ‘No, it’s not.”

Oh.

Especially in retrospect, Micheline’s advice was wise: she told Lund to go home and get drunk or stoned or whatever she needed to do in order to sit in the sadness of that disappointment for a couple days. Then, go fix it. Micheline recommended making two or three big decisions about the book. And once Lund sat down to rework the story, she realized that there was only one character that she really cared about.

“It was like every time I wrote about Owen I got excited, whereas anytime I was writing the other characters I got kind of bummed out,” Lund shares. So she listened to that feeling. First she narrowed it down from five storylines to two, and finally just the one: and that was the story of Owen, the protagonist of what would become Lund’s novel The Boy with a Bird in His Chest (Atria Books).

“When I sat down and told myself I had to make a decision, those decisions were really clear that time around,” Lund says. “So now, I love the rewriting and redrafting process because you do get to make these decisions. And often, they’re clear like that. And it’s beautiful when they’re clear like that.” For Lund, the decision was to really explore the idea of a boy who had a bird living inside his chest. “I wanted to understand what that would be like and to try to capture what contemporary life would be like if you had an animal living inside of you.”

That magical component of the story is what led the book to be classified as speculative fiction and magical realism. Ultimately, it’s a coming-of-age story about what it’s like to feel different, to keep secrets and to wonder who else might be like you – and is equally terrified of connecting about it.

“It was important to me that he was queer on the page and that [the bird] wasn't necessarily a metaphor for Owen’s queerness,” shares Lund. “He's queer from the beginning and he doesn't really ever grapple with that, which was something that was important to me. I wanted to sort of live out the fantasy of like: what is life like if you don't have to grapple with your sexuality? If you get to just like be queer and that's not an issue for you?”

What is an issue for Owen is how different he felt from everyone else. “Because that's how I grew up feeling,” Lund says. “I wanted to explore how we carry secrets around, how we decide who to share secrets with, who to keep secrets from, and the secrets we keep even from ourselves.”

Throughout the writing process, Lund began to ask herself, “What are my secrets? What am I keeping from myself? What am I hiding from the world? And so in many ways I came to understand my transness through this book.”

Lund had a very open conversation with her publisher, who asked how she felt about her queer identity and being trans in terms of how to market the book. “And I said, I don’t know! And I still don’t know. I see people get really excited to see a trans woman being published with a big five publisher. And then to get the novel and find out that there aren’t trans people in it? I think I worry about bumming someone out, although I don't know what to tell you. You can’t expect trans people to only write trans characters. That just wasn't the book I wrote. It’s a very queer book, but it's not super trans, other than the deep underlying feeling that's sort of showcased throughout the book.”

Ultimately, Lund told her publishers to submit her book to all the prizes and lists that were looking for queer books and books by trans authors. But she wanted to be submitted to mainstream awards, too. “I am trans person who wrote a queer book, and I do want trans people and queer people to find my book because they’re who I’m talking to and about,” Lund says, adding, “Definitely love it when every straight person buys my book, because they should read it, too.”

As for what Lund is reading herself? Recent reads include Summerwater by Sarah Moss and The Hours by Michael Cunningham. Lund also somewhat regularly revisits The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, written by Larry Mitchell and illustrated by Ned Asta. It’s a long-beloved cult classic critique on capitalism and the patriarchy that takes place in the fictional land of Ramrod. “I tend to read really strange books, too. So, half the time when I talk about the books that I read that I'm really excited by, people haven't heard of them.”

Emme Lund is working on a pilot and her next book, a story that takes place in the near-distant future. She teaches classes like When New York’s a Character: On Writing Place and Setting, and Getting Your Novel to the Finish Line at Writing Workshops. The paperback version of The Boy with a Bird in His Chest comes out January 3, 2023 .

Michelle Kicherer is an arts journalist, writing coach and instructor specializing in fiction and memoir. Michelle regularly interviews some of the world’s favorite writers for publications throughout the United States and Canada. Michelle believes that there are no dumb questions in the classroom, only pretentious teachers. She regularly teaches classes like Prompted and Fiction Technique in Memoir for Writing Workshops. Learn more about her here.