Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Mary Kuryla

Image: A still from the feature film Freak Weather.

In her short stories, a novel-in-progress and her films, Mary Kuryla conjures arresting portraits of lonely, vexing, isolated and frequently damaged characters who, despite their precarity and eclectic impairments, resonate fully, becoming irresistible in their refusal to acquiesce or accommodate. Kuryla’s writing has been published in many publications, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Greensboro Review, Pleiades, New Orleans Review and The Brooklyn Review, and her bracing and beautiful feature film screened at festivals internationally. Kuryla has earned awards and acclaim for her fiction, including a Pushcart Prize, and, most recently, her collection of short stories, Freak Weather: Stories, earned The Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction from AWP, where it was judged by Amy Hempel. The collection was just published by the University of Massachusetts Press.

In this interview with writer Holly Willis, Kuryla talks about the role of filmmaking and performance in her writing, and the role of fiction writing in her screenplays, and offers practical advice on how to make use of this powerful dialogue among forms.

Holly Willis: You are both a filmmaker and a fiction writer: how do those two very different vocations influence each other and in turn impact your work?

Mary Kuryla: I started as an English major in college — though I ultimately took a second major in Film. What was most interesting to me in the creative writing classes I took at the time was messing around with given forms. My preoccupation with form extended to extracurricular activities, like writing for the college newspaper. As an example, at one point we took an issue of our college newspaper, just after Rupert Murdoch had purchased The Boston Herald, and we converted the entire Arts section into a salacious bit of yellow journalism. It felt great to provoke our fellow students, in part because it somehow felt so wrong that Murdoch was buying the Herald; that purchase seemed such a threat to truth, and I felt that it should be a discussion at my school. So, from early on, I think I’ve always been interested in reflexivity, and the parameters and edges of things. Reflexivity and social critique were topics very much on the mind of the post-Vietnam era filmmakers, particularly European filmmakers like Jean Luc Godard (Breathless), whose films I was watching at the time since throughout college I worked at repertory cinemas all over Boston.

Willis: Can you say more about what appeals to you in experimenting with form? What is the particular allure?

Kuryla: I’ve come to know that the Aristotelian notion of how we derive pleasure from drama arrives in that moment when you know something to be true. That knowing is crucial as you return to the affective state. If you’re just feeling something, you’re only responding to the work at a certain level. But if you know, if you have a relation to a work, then you’re altered. What is interesting to me is the idea that reflexive work makes you aware that you’re experiencing the story as you’re experiencing it. It reminds you of its boundaries and its construction, so that tension is there all the time. But it doesn’t just throw you out of the work; if the work is any good, it also pulls you back in. It implicates you as the person experiencing the art form, and by being tied into it, the drama’s impact doesn’t just go away. Work that is reflexive offers a chance for you to be changed.

Willis: Does this sense of reflexivity function in the same way in cinema? Does it produce the same kind of tension through an awareness of form?

Kuryla: I was very influenced early on by the films of Chantal Ackerman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Godard, and by feminist film theory. All of this was very emboldening because it was also working at the boundaries of form. The literary world seemed softer at that time, in the ’90s. I wanted the turbulence of Laurence Sterne. Screenwriting seemed so much more interactive and exciting. The form — the screenplay, I mean — itself is very rigid, but I was curious about how I could push against that rigidity. Eventually I had an opportunity to work with Gordon Lish, and that pointed me in an entirely new direction because, according to Lish’s paradigm, if you wanted to move forward you had to undo everything you knew as a fiction writer. I was able to follow his diet, or cleanse, so to speak, because the writing habits I had formed by that time were so uninteresting.

Willis: There is definitely a leanness in your writing — would you say that came from working with Lish? What did he offer as a mentor?

Read “Animal Control,” originally published in Witness.

Kuryla: What appealed to me about Lish was that he was steeped in theory, a lot of the same theory I’d come across in film studies. He integrated theorists such as Gilles Deleuze into his teaching; he included concepts from post-structuralism and deconstruction, and that’s what he talked about. He applied that to fiction — he came at fiction from theory and philosophy, and that was the first time I really experienced the intersection of fiction, film and theory. The theory was familiar, and I had found that film seemed to have this direct dialogue with theory. But prior to Lish, creative writing had seemed less interesting because it hadn’t been reflexive since the Modernists or perhaps some of the Fabulists of the 60s and 70s. Lish, with his interest in form, reoriented me to my original preference. I wanted to foreground the form, but Lish wanted to build out from form. He said that the only way you can make something new is through form. We know through music that all emotion is carried through form. With Lish, if you didn’t want to produce the same old stories you had to deal with the sounds, the appearance, the shape of the language; it was more like poetry than any creative writing I’d studied previously.

Read “Not in Nottingham,” originally published in The Normal School.

Willis: Your stories in your new collection definitely attend to language, and to the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs. You can feel the stories, in a sense…

Kuryla: The best analogy in exploring this concept is music — music only carries emotion. If you listen to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” it’s all feeling. When you have language, it’s already representing something. The letters are representing sounds and the words are representing things, so it’s already intellectual and appeals to the brain, meaning and thing-ness. It automatically distances you from feeling. So you’re trying to wrest words from the their meaning and return them to a sonic or visual effect. Bring language back into the body. Cinema is inherently more suited to stimulating bodily response because of its appeal first and foremost to the senses. Words prove a tougher opponent to a writer, because words arrive fully loaded with meaning. How do you return them to emotion? A reader recently told me, “Only the characters’ actions in Freak Weather: Stories describe the emotions.” So perhaps character action is one way of delivering emotion. One of many possibilities.

Willis: You’ve talked about experimenting with form, but how can that happen in screenwriting, which as you said earlier is so prescriptive in terms of form?

Kuryla: Gill Dennis, the screenwriter who wrote Walk the Line, was teaching at Squaw Valley Writers Conference when I was there, and he said that while people think of screenwriting as a fixed form, in which exposition should be minimal, he thought the opposite. He said you can communicate what the script is about and convey the feeling of it in your prose in the script. Contrary to what everyone else says, Gill said you can put point of view in the prose. That was very new and compelling, and it released something for me. I went home and adapted my short story “Freak Weather” to a script, and I wrote it with the same spirit that is in the story. I carried the antic attitude of Penny, the main character, into the screenplay.

I used proper screenwriting format — I was very traditional in the format — and I also employed a three-act structure, but I carried attitude into the exposition, into the very design of the script. In every screenplay you have dialogue and description of action, and the description in the script for Freak Weather was not neutral; it was written as if in Penny’s (the main character) voice. I wrote everything with the “sound” that is in the rest of the short story. I used the dialect, the brevity. As a result, the script is rich with the main character’s attitude. This might sound calculated — but it was really just my way of following an impulse. This was so liberating for me. And I’ll also say that the screenplay was impactful. People really responded to it, as if they hadn’t read anything like it before.

Watch the short film Easter Sunday, based on the story “To Skin A Rabbit.”

Willis: At a reading from your new collection at Skylight Books in Los Angeles recently, you said that one of the things that unites the stories is that most of them were performed in some way. Seeing them read aloud to an audience gave you a unique perspective, and you then returned to them and revised them based on what you saw in the performances. Was this true of “Freak Weather” as a short story?

Kuryla: Yes. The third step was going back to the story and rewriting it — it’s so obsessive that I’m almost embarrassed to talk about it! However, after making the feature, a few years later, when I started to put my collection together, (after also seeing many of my other stories performed in a spoken word context), I went back and rewrote “Freak Weather” again. Suddenly, having made the film, I understood where I had stopped, what I had not understood, where I had written myself into a corner with Penny. I hadn’t particularly solved it in the movie — but that’s all right. The movie still premiered at Toronto Film Festival and was sufficiently uncompromising to divide audiences. What I realized was that the

A still from the film Freak Weather, featuring Jacqueline McKenzie and John Carroll Lynch as Penny and Ed.

film-version Penny (Jacqueline McKenzie), for all her bravado, was sort of a victim. But coming back to the story now, I was able to listen more to the language. Having filtered it through the cinematic, I was now able to go back into the story and listen to the language and to what it was asking. Not what I wanted, and not what fears I had, but what the language itself wanted. All of a sudden I realized that just because Penny provoked the hell out of the lead male character Ed (John Carroll Lynch), it didn’t mean she couldn’t fight back. Penny could assault Ed as much as he assaulted her — she could keep making a mess of everything, and in doing so, she was actually unhooking herself from all of these sentences that she had accumulated, all of the ways a sentence, or a person, can hang itself up. Penny’s last line in the story is “There must be another way,” and that phrase is as much about the character as about the language in the story.

“Freak Weather” is at the core of me — I remember when Lish had us each write a sentence, just one sentence, on a blackboard. I wrote a sentence from what would later become that story. Lish dismissed the sentence as just angry feminism. But I wanted to write a deeply flawed female and I wanted to liberate her from all the mantles that society imposed on her and, more alarming, that I had imposed, and have it be a story that liberated Penny as an agent of her own destruction and change. I am interested in that act of destruction. So going back to the character of Penny when it came time to assemble the collection was also about returning me to my own process.

Watch the short film Easter Sunday (with Jennifer Jason Leigh), based on the story “To Skin A Rabbit” in Freak Weather: Stories.

Read “Animal Control,” originally published in Witness, included in Freak Weather: Stories.

Read “Not in Nottingham,” originally published in The Normal School, and winner of a Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Award, included in Freak Weather: Stories.

Buy Freak Weather: Stories, published by University of Massachusetts Press.

MARY KURYLA’s collection Freak Weather: Stories was selected by Amy Hempel for the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and was published by University of Massachusetts Press in November, 2017.

Kuryla’s stories have received The Pushcart Prize, as well as the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction PrizeThey’ve appeared in or are forthcoming in Epoch, Witness, Shenandoah, Denver Quarterly Review, Greensboro Review, Pleiades, New Orleans Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Strange Horizons, among others

Kuryla’s feature film, Freak Weather, premiered at Toronto and was in competition at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Her award-winning short Memory Circus premiered at Sundance. She has written screen adaptations for United Artists and MGM and teaches seminars in International Cinema and Writing the Horror Feature at Loyola Marymount University.

HOLLY WILLIS teaches classes in writing, film and new media in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She is a co-founder of Filmmaker Magazine, dedicated to independent film, and served as the editor of RES magazine and co-curator of RESFEST for several years. Her books include Fast Forward: The Future(s) of the Cinematic Arts and New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image. She writes frequently about experimental film, video and new media for various publications.