Marni regards herself in the mirror, sloped and shiny as a waxed apple. It is the morning after her thirteenth birthday, in the high, hot end of August, and she is amazed to find that without warning, an endless period of ugliness seems finally to have lifted from her, leaving someone new. Someone altogether better.
She preens before the glass, noting her sudden good looks with scientific precision. Her hair, formerly a distressingly oily tangle, is now thick and tantalizing, falling around her face in long waves. Her eyes aren’t brown anymore so much as they are gold, and there is something deep about them, as if she knows things she shouldn’t. And looking at what her body has become—the bright taut skin, uncreased and unburdened by baby fat—Marni nearly swoons. It’s almost too much to bear, like stepping into sunlight after a long, wasting disease.
Amelia Kahaney was raised in San Diego, CA and Hilo, HI. She studied literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz and earned her MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College, where she now teaches creative writing and composition. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, and is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel. “Fire Season” is her first published story.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- AK: Having grown up in San Diego, some of my most gruesome moments of adolescent awkwardness took place around swimming pools. The story grew out of the scene where Marni, with her sudden, unwieldy beauty, lies next to just such a pool and despairs over Pablo, the object of her love. I knew after writing for a while about Marni that I wanted to play with the horror and magic of adolescent sexual discovery, and everything else came out of that one scene.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- AK: The story started out with a much more sardonic voice, which in many ways was standing in for plot development. Once I had the characters of Marni, Pablo and the parents, it took a long time to figure out what they would do to advance the story. All told, it probably took about ten major revisions—including some brilliant editorial contributions from Marie Bertino and Hannah Tinti at One Story—before the events were strong enough to speak for themselves.
- HT: Marni wakes up one day to find she has become beautiful. The way you describe the physical manifestation of this is done so cleverly, so as to leave room for our imagination. Was your intention to portray her beauty as a pretty/model girl, or as a mythical creature? In other words, what kind of beautiful do you think Marni has become?
- AK: I was interested in the idea of beauty as a burden, as it often is with young girls. Suddenly, there are all these considerations. Marni’s beauty, like the fire, grows all the more consuming by virtue of its suddenness. So yes, I did mean for it to be a mythic sort of beauty, but one that will likely turn into something else entirely as she matures.
- HT: Why do you think Marni is attracted to Pablo?
- AK: I think Marni likes Pablo’s cruelty, and the fact that he, like her, is an outsider. They both are focused on magic—he on learning new tricks and she on the magic of her body—and both are tortured by their lack of control over their environment.
- HT: One of the most interesting aspects of the story is Marni’s mother’s love of grinding lenses. How were you inspired to add this detail to the story?
- AK: My father is in the sunglass business. He once had a nutty optician working for him. She was a tiny woman who drove an enormous pickup truck. She had this really dramatic life, with two boyfriends fighting over her, but lens grinding was the thing she was really passionate about. She could talk for hours about prescriptions and all the various afflictions that can befall the human eye. I always wanted to write about a character who ground lenses, and it seemed like a good metaphorical occupation for the mother of a teenage daughter—an obsession with seeing everything, undercut by the reality of having almost no idea about what’s really going on.
- HT: The setting of the subdivision/desert/mountain vista seems so important to the emotional skeleton of story. Can you talk a bit about how the setting influenced your writing of this piece? Did you base Marni’s environment on a specific place?
- AK: I was very conscious of trying to portray the world of the brand-new subdivision, the kind that popped up out of thin air in the hills of Southern California when I was growing up. I had an aunt and uncle who lived in this kind of place, and I loved the way all the neighborhood kids banded together out there. In my neighborhood, kids’ social lives were more fractured. Out there, it seemed like there was nothing to do but swim in the community pool and loaf around. Which is just about as good and as boring as it sounds, for a kid.
- HT: Do you think Marni’s transformation will turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing for her?
- AK: I like to think that Marni will grow wise with age and experience, and that she’ll be able to look back on her early sexual fumblings and laugh.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- AK: I have a quote from Aimee Bender, whose writing I adore, tacked up above my desk that’s been a touchstone for me over the past couple of years, particularly when I’m feeling stuck about how to move a story from point A to point B: “Everything a human experiences happens on the body. That’s the place where pain happens, and love happens; all the good and bad things.” This was particularly helpful to me in writing “Fire Season,” which is so much about the body.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- AK: I started this story in July of 2005. It was a hot, sticky summer and I was writing every day in a very cold coffee shop with my friend and fellow writer Tom Grattan. Everything I wrote that summer took place in a hot climate—sometimes Arizona, sometimes Central America. Always, heat figured prominently. And the whole time I was shivering in two sweaters in this icy café in Brooklyn. Since that initial push, the story has been workshopped at Brooklyn College, where I got my M.F.A., and then pulled out every few months for tinkering. More than two years later, I’m thrilled to finally be able to set it free. That said, there are always improvements I could keep making—watching the fires raging in California after the story was already in production was a lesson in color and mood. I feel like I got a lot of things right about wildfires, but I would probably try dialing a few things up or down if it was still in my hands. Thankfully, I don’t have to obsess about it anymore in this particular story.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- AK: I’m polishing a few more short stories, and I’m dedicating November, which is officially National Novel Writing Month, to finishing a big messy first draft of my novel, tentatively titled “Gallery of Missing Girls”.