Alma was sweeping the stoop when Charlie’s car appeared at the end of the road. Though she recognized her brother-in-law right away, she did not put down her broom or walk out to the drive to wave him in. He was not expected. She had sent him an invitation to the wedding, and she supposed he felt obliged, but the invitation had been a formality—a familial kindness—and in truth she had not actually wished to see him at all.

In the drive, he stopped his car and looked at her through the glass of the windshield a moment before getting out, then stood at a distance instead of walking toward her and raised a hand in greeting. “Alma,” he said. “It’s Charlie Dunne.”

Alma nodded. “You can come in once I finish this,” she said. “You walk through this sand, and it’ll be all over my carpets in a minute.”

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrom is the author of two collections of short fiction: This Life She’s Chosen (Chronicle Books, 2005), and Swimming With Strangers (Chronicle Books, 2008). She is also the co-editor with Jacqueline Kolosov of an anthology of women’s fiction, The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Contemporary Women Writers on Resemblance and Rebellion in Fiction (Lewis-Clark Press, 2008). She teaches writing at Purchase College and lives in New York with her husband and young son.

Q&A by Hannah Tinti

HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
KS: It’s been awhile since I wrote the story, but my recollection is that, like many of my stories, “Familial Kindness” started with an image rather than a character or a plot. When I sat down to write this story, all I really had was the image of Lovisa’s wedding dress, unfinished and hanging on the dressmaker’s form in the living room. That image had been in my mind for some time before I actually started writing the story. (Now that I’m thinking about it, in fact, I’m wondering if the dress image is related to the experience of my own wedding eight years ago. My mother and grandmother sewed my dress, and I remember the pattern pieces and then the partially-constructed satin gown lying on the dining room table for weeks before the wedding.) Wherever the image came from, however, it began things. I worked out from the dress.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
KS: I tend to think everything about writing a story is difficult! I’m a very slow and picky writer. Even on a good writing day, I generally only get a few paragraphs. It’s really like pulling teeth for me at times—I write a few sentences, delete half of them, write a few more, delete, etc. I never know where I’m going until I’m well into the story, and I often don’t feel I have a full grasp on the story until I’ve finished a draft and have begun revising. I’ve come to think that kind of blindness might be a necessity in writing fiction though. Or at least a necessity in writing a first draft. It forces the writer to trust her intuition, and it allows for that thing, whatever it is—I’ll call it “the mystery”—to happen. I certainly don’t mean to say that writing is all airy-fairy magic. Writing, for me at least, is always hard work. But I think the most difficult part of writing (this story or any other) is allowing that blindness. Allowing myself to let go of the need to try to control or force the story, and to instead just write and see what happens.
HT: Including letters gives the story a time-protected feel, an Alice Munro sensibility. Were they in all original drafts or did they come about later?
KS: The letters were all part of the original draft. I included them because I wanted to show how much Alma loved her sister Sara, and how deeply she wanted a bond with Sara, though Sara didn’t return the sentiment. I liked that through the letters I could tell the reader quite a bit about their relationship without actually having to come out and say much directly in exposition. The letters also were helpful in developing Alma’s character. From the letters, we see that she is both very rigid and very soft. She writes the letters as part of her weekly routine—one a week, regardless of whether or not Sara responds. She also writes mostly about the daily happenings of her life—her errands, the weather, etc.—not about anything personally revealing or significant. Yet at the same time, there is something tender and forgiving about Alma writing her weekly letter, and sending it off to a sister she rarely hears from. There is a sense of the importance of family in Alma’s life, in that she is keeping her sister connected through these letters. I think I’ve only used letters in one other story, and I don’t think I would want to overuse them as a device, but I was happy with the way they did so much work here.
HT: It seems Alma and Charlie are trying their best to live up to familial obligation, even after several years of hurt. The kinder and more polite they are to each other, the deeper the sense of pain becomes. It is a fine line to walk in the telling of a story. How did you manage to evoke such deep pain without ever lapsing into explanation?
KS: That’s a really lovely compliment—thank you! I do always feel that there’s a fine line between writing characters who are too reserved, too withholding, for the reader to make any clear sense of their emotions (or to care about them), and writing characters who are just too transparent (and therefore a boring read). As a reader, I want to work a little (I don’t always like a story that just gets naked, if you know what I mean), and as a writer I try to write stories that I would want to read. In her amazing introduction to her Selected Stories, Alice Munro says (and I’m paraphrasing) that a short story should be like a house that the reader feels drawn to enter again and again, always finding new rooms, new discoveries. I love that notion of a story and its ideal form, and I hope my stories are the sort that offer the reader more each time she steps inside. On a more practical level, I suppose I write characters like Alma and Charlie—people who are emotionally reserved—or at least taciturn—because they are familiar to me. My father is a Lutheran minister, and I grew up in his parishes in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest among all of these old Scandinavians—people who, like characters in a Willa Cather novel maybe, were hardworking, practical, stoic folk. My own family, in many ways, also fits this mold. I think I come from people whose most admirable trait is their ability to keep going. That ability is what I find so likeable about Alma and Charlie as well. They have not had entirely easy lives. Alma, especially, has experienced many disappointments and hardships. But they don’t complain—they make-do; and it’s the making-do that is, for me, so moving.
HT: The character of Lovisa offers youth, hopeful optimism and strength; yet she only appears in the periphery. What did you hope to achieve in this choice and character?
KS: I wanted Lovisa to parallel her aunt Sara. Sara, of course, never appears in the story in the present, but when Alma remembers her sister Sara as a young woman, it is clear that she, like Lovisa, was a lively, hopeful girl. When Sara married Charlie and left home for a new part of the country, she felt hope for herself—and though Alma, as the daughter inevitably tied to home and her parents, envied Sara to a certain extent, she also pinned her own hope on Sara. If Sara could leave and make a new life and find something better, then such things were possible—even if Alma only experienced them vicariously. But Sara’s hope eventually dissolved. From what Charlie says, it’s apparent that by the end of her life, Sara was no longer a happy person. For the purposes of the story, Sara’s eventual unhappiness matters most for the way it also dissolves Alma’s sense of hope. I wanted the character of Lovisa to, at the end of the story, revive some of Alma’s lost hope. Although through most of the story Alma doubts how happy Lovisa will be in her marriage and her new life in the long-run, by the story’s end, after Lovisa’s wedding, I think Alma has come around to believing again that happiness is possible. Her daughter’s sense of possibility, in other words, restores her own, at least a little bit.
HT: Do you think Alma will visit Charlie? Will their relationship become romantic?
KS: I do think she’ll visit. She and Charlie have found that they actually have quite a lot in common. And because they have both lost Sara, they are both alone in a very similar way. They are both somewhat closed, skeptical people, but they both also seem to see those traits in themselves (why else would they both be so drawn to someone like Sara, their opposite?). I think that in that last scene, in the boat, they recognize their similarities and the possibility of finding comfort in one another. I don’t think they’ll have a romantic relationship though. They are family—too close for romance.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
KS: Oh, it always takes me forever. I probably wrote the first draft in two or three weeks (writing for a few hours each day), but then I made several subsequent drafts over the course of a couple of years. I think I really write my stories in revision.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
KS: I think the best advice came from one of my graduate school professors, who was always reminding us to say less. She didn’t ever say it exactly this way, but over time I’ve come to think that what she meant to tell us was to leave room for the reader. This returns to what I said in response to an earlier question here, but I think a good story is one that makes a reader want to linger—a story that isn’t too immediately revealing. When a writer tells too much, she cheats her reader out of the joy of untangling fiction, and she cheats her story of its punch.
HT: What are you working on now?
KS: I’m in the process of editing my second collection, Swimming With Strangers, which Chronicle Books is publishing in October. And I’m working on a novel, though I hesitate to write that here, as every time I admit to it I feel a little wave of panic!