About Lydia Conklin’s new book, Rainbow Rainbow:
In this delightful collection of prize-winning stories, queer, gender-nonconforming, and trans characters struggle to find love and forgiveness, despite their sometimes comic, sometimes tragic mistakes. With insight and compassion, debut author Conklin reveals both the dark and lovable sides of their characters, resulting in stories that make you laugh and wince, sometimes at the same time.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Raki Kopernik: Your new queer short story book, Rainbow Rainbow, just came out (May 31st 2022). All the stories feel so true, like this could be your memoir. How much of the book comes from your own experience?
Lydia Conklin: Every story has things that have happened to me or to friends, and all the characters have an aspect of me in them, some more than others. Not every situation is something I’ve been in, but some of the characters are remote from me, like they have parts of me but they behave in ways that I wouldn’t. It’s a mixture of truth and fiction.
RK: Where do your ideas come from, aside from your own life experience or personal feelings?
LC: Different places. For example, in the story, “Counselor Of My Heart,” there’s a tragic incident with a dog at the beginning of the story that happened to a friend of mine. So I wasn’t involved, but it interested me and it was horrifying and sad. I wanted to try and make it emotionally activated within the context of a relationship and build out the consequences from there.
But other things are totally fiction, like in, “Cheerful Until Next Time.” I relate to some of the gender presentation and identity of the character of Asher and his break-up, but his decisions are not things I would do. A lot of what he does and the ways he thinks don’t align with me. It was a struggle with that character, to try to think my way into the mind of someone who would behave in ways I wouldn’t. It took my fictional imagination to make that come to life.
RK: Sometimes we want to do that in our writing, to think about, well what if I was like this person, or what if that happened, or if someone reacted in this way. It’s fun to think about making something that didn’t happen, true. To me, that’s part of the joy of writing fiction.
LC: Same, I love that. I love being like, what situation here could be the most interesting or dramatic or get the characters out of their comfort zones. You obviously don’t want to write a tale of your normal boring life.
RK: Haha yeah. I was particularly moved by the last story, “Boy Jump.” The title relates to an event told at the beginning of the story, but also overlaps with the narrator’s trans identity. The layers of identity are also woven into parts of the complex history in Poland, where the story takes place. I know you spent some time in Poland. How much of this story comes from your personal experience and identity, like the character’s Judaism? As a person who grew up submerged in Jewishness, I’m always interested in how people find their own Judaism later in life.
LC: The narrator is a small part Jewish, which is the same for me. It’s an interesting history within my family but it was hidden until my brother started doing all this family genealogy. Our Jewish relative left Poland in the 1800’s and basically assimilated in England. He tried to hide his identity and married a catholic woman and just sweep his Judaism under the rug.
RK: Which is a common story for Jews.
LC: Yes. And he left a place that would’ve been horrible for him to continue living. We didn’t really know anything about where he was. It turns out there was a typo on his death certificate that said he was from a town that never existed. At first, I assumed it was a town that got renamed, but it turned out it was, in fact, a typo. The town really never existed.
A lot of the parts of that story are true. There’s a reservoir in the story that’s real and a boy did die when I was there (related to the title), which prompted people to jump off the cliffs into the water. The relationship in the story is sort of fictional but the basic facts are true.
RK: What exactly were you doing in Poland?
LC: I had a Fulbright. Basically I got to just go and do whatever I wanted. It was an art one, which people don’t tend to know about. I had a friend who did one in Kazakhstan and another friend who did one in India, so they helped me. They make it hard for you to know about, which is unfortunate. I did also teach at some high schools, elementary schools, and colleges, but that wasn’t necessary for the scholarship because it wasn’t a teaching fellowship. So the rest of the time I just wrote.
RK: That’s awesome! Did you write a lot of this book there?
LC: No, I was mostly working on a novel while there. But this story was the main thing I wrote about my experience there so far, though I have some other ideas. It takes me awhile to digest an experience before I can write about something, so I couldn’t write about Poland while I was there. I was still understanding and processing it.
RK: So you wrote the novel before the short story collection?
LC: Yeah I was working on a novel then that I’m still working on now.
RK: The title of your new collection, Rainbow Rainbow, isn’t one of the stories, but rather, a part of a story (I won’t give it away). How did you decide this would be the title, other than it’s so fitting for a queer collection.
LC: Where the title appears in that story felt like a good stand-in for larger themes of queerness and connection, disconnection and loneliness, and seeking connection and failing, which is kind of how it comes up in the story. But it’s also not totally serious. I liked how it worked tonally. I also put one rainbow in every story.
RK: Oh I didn’t catch that!
LC: It’s very small. Almost all of the rainbows are marginal.
RK: That’s really smart. The cover is also quite fitting. How much say did you have in choosing the cover?
LC: We went through some different ideas. Nicole Caputo designed it. She’s an amazing designer. For the first one’s she was working with a realistic photograph of a rainbow, but in my mind I’d always pictured a cartoon seventies style rainbow, so I sent a bunch of those to her and she came up with this one. I wanted slightly off rainbow colors. It was somewhat collaborative, but mostly her.
RK: I think the cover is one of the reasons subconsciously I reached out to you. I’m very visual. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve bought because of how good the cover and title are. It pulls me in. This method isn’t always accurate, but in this case the meat inside is also really good.
LC: Thank you. I’m a cartoonist too, so I’m also visual. I told them I might be annoying about it because it means so much to me. I think book covers also get stuck in certain trends. Like some of the options were so beautiful but they were in the trend. I like how this design is so different, and I think it’s helped with publicity. People want to put it on a website because it’s colorful.
RK: Yeah it is beautiful. And I agree. Like the trend on YA books where the cover is just big words. I want something more interesting.
Anyway, how do think queerness has changed in the literary and publishing world? Did you read any queer books as a kid?
LC: When I was little I was a big reader and I couldn’t find any books that were explicitly queer. At one point I read Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown.
RK: I knew you were going to say that!
LC: Haha. That was cool. Before that I read Carson McCullers and Dorothy Allison. But those books were often about kids who were queer, not adults. They just identified in it. I realized later they were queer kids who don’t really have a queer adulthood, which makes it hard to visualize a future. And I remember reading at least one book I won’t name written by a cishet man that had a lesbian scene. I was into it at the time. It was one of the first representations I’d seen. But it was also disturbing and hateful and offensive, which at the time I didn’t realize because it was so rare to see this is represented. I was hungry for it, but it was also damaging. There are a lot of queer books written by cishet authors that haven’t been very interrogated, which I think is partially because queerness isn’t always as visible.
RK: Right. And now anybody can say I’m queer and go by they/them pronouns and still live in the world as cishet looking people in those kinds of relationships with that kind of privilege. Everyone’s allowed to use that language. But it’s about how you’re seen in the world, being marginalized and feeling safe.
LC: I’m bugged by that too. You can say you’re queer but you should acknowledge passing privilege. I’ve even known people who are totally straight but have kinky sex and then identify as queer.
I do like a lot of these books, but I can see the patterns that are not so great. Like every movie about lesbians when we were younger was about someone killing themselves at the end.
RK: Or they’re violent, psychotic murderers, or the bad guy, or super depressed, or end up in a hetero relationship.
LC: It’s clearly a cishet perspective draining into the work over the course of time.
RK: So how do you think that’s changed, if at all? Does it feel harder to still find queer books?
LC: I feel like there are more nuanced books now. I recently read a number of books— Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor, Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters, which was the queer book of the last year, Eleutheria by Allegra Hyde, The Five Wounds by Kirston Valdez Quade—that show aspects of the queer experience that weren’t allowed to be told in the past.
RK: And it’s more normalizing, not just the same story about coming out over and over. Normalizing humanness, which you do in your book.
LC: Thanks. Yeah that was really important for me, the nuance and realities of the experience, not just the one narrative that people are comfortable hearing. Some of the characters are not always behaving in comfortable and appealing ways because I don’t think that just because you have a marginalized character, they need to be a hero, tragic or not.
RK: Absolutely. In fact, it makes that person more human and real if they’re sometimes a dick or whatever.
LC: Yes, they’re allowed to be messy and not perfect.
RK: Did you write all of the stories with the intention of putting them together in a collection? How did you choose the order?
LC: I wasn’t really thinking about a collection for a long time. I wrote the stories over the course of twelve years, so I’ve had lots of projects interspersed with working on a few other novels. About ten years ago I was like, maybe I have a collection. But I realized there might’ve been enough quantity without enough range, so I had to keep working. I didn’t do it in a directed, organized way. I just checked in with myself every now and then to see if it felt like it would come together as a collection.
RK: Were any of the stories part of or inspired by the novels you’ve been working on?
LC: I have one story that became a novel but then didn’t work out. One story that didn’t make it into the book, because I didn’t finish in time, was an inspiration for one of the novels that I’m working on now.
For the order, we changed it up. I had it in an order that my agent and I agreed on, but the editor changed it. The biggest thing she did was put, Counselor of my Heart (the one we talked about earlier with the dog), first, but then the PR people didn’t want a dog to die in the very first paragraph. I realize now how brilliant that was, because that’s the one moment that people have pushed back about and said was upsetting.
RK: I didn’t actually find it upsetting. The story isn’t about the dog, but about trust and the tenderness of the relationship. And there’s no animal abuse, which I definitely can’t handle, but animals and people die.
LC: Right, you don’t even see the dog die.
RK: That story ended up in the middle, so as a reader, I already trusted you as a writer to know that you weren’t going to throw something wild out there. Your stories aren’t hard in that they’re gruesome and describing death, they’re hard in the relationships and circumstances. By the time the reader gets to that story, you’ve built and gained their. trust.
LC: Yeah I think it was a good choice. And the first story is the one I originally put there so I was happy with that. And the editor chose the final story, (“Boy Jump”) which I agree is a good final moment.
RK: It has a maturity to it for sure. You want a solid engaging one in the beginning and an ending that sticks. I love that last story. It’s my favorite of the collection. If I was the editor that’s where I’d put it!
Talk about your process in getting published.
LC: I’ve always been afraid to publish a book because it’s scary, but then my fiancé and I broke up after nine years during the pandemic and my fellowship was ending and I was like, I need to get a job. Not because she financially supported me, but I needed that stability. I felt like, I can’t keep going from fellowship to fellowship even though that was working for a while. Also, the 2020 election was about to happen and I was like, Trump’s going to get elected again, the world is over, publishing will end…My editor (Leigh Newman) was really kind about it and got it organized fast. She told me in our first conversation things she’d change and editing ideas and I was like, dang she’s an amazing writer. She made it so much better and that was glorious. Her book, Nobody Gets Out Alive, just came out, which I love.
RK: What’s your writing practice like?
LC: I work from the morning until I have something else to do. If I had nothing I’d work until two hours before sunset, at which point I’d exercise. Lately I’ve been doing the Pomodoro method where you do 25 minutes of writing and then take a break because I was having trouble concentrating with all the news and stuff. But I also use a treadmill desk. I’m very restless, so to be moving helps me think. I walk and write.
RK: Do you really write all day? What are you writing?
LC: I have a lot of time when I’m procrastinating too. I don’t know if all this time is being usefully spent. I do write a lot but it takes me a long time to write something good. Thousands of pages get thrown away. It’s not efficient. Most of the time it’s revision after endless revision. It’s rare that I’m writing new material, but maybe I should…
RK: Are you revising the novels you’re working on?
LC: Yes, now that the story collection is done. I have two novels I’m working on but the main one is called, Songs of No Provenance. It basically follows a folk singer and deals with similar issues as my collection, like storytelling, queerness, non-binary identity, but also other thing not in the collection, like art making, queerbaiting and appropriation, toxic ambition, how to make art in a way that’s not toxic, jealousy.
RK: Do you write poetry, memoir, or any other genres? Do you have any other art practices?
LC: I do comics and sometimes write nonfiction, which feels a little different somehow. I don’t do poetry. That would terrify me.
RK: Haha. What books or writers inspire you?
LC: I love Rachel Cusk and her book Second Place, which I just read. The book I read the most, strangely, is Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, because even though it has the dullest premise of dreary, white, cishet, middle class, whatever you’d picture the quintessential 1950’s novel, somehow he’s able to make the interiority so urgent and thrilling. That’s one thing I want to work toward, making urgent and propulsive interiority. Another book that does that is, A Separation, by Katie Kitamura, that I also love. Those are books I’ve recently studied.
RK: What makes a good story?
LC: Urgency and closeness to character and feeling that the character is embodied; that you understand what the character is feeling on a physical and emotional level, and you can really be there with them. And, it’s interesting to see characters behave badly or mess up or act in mean or disorganized ways because it’s more fun and more telling of their place in the world.
RK: What’s your feeling about endings?
LC: They’re really hard. One of the hardest things that a lot of my notes centered around for this collection and that I worked on a lot with my editor. There’s one story whose ending I struggled with for almost a decade and couldn’t make it work. I rewrote it over and over and kept getting feedback from journals that the ending didn’t work. And then, my editor just cut the whole ending, sliced it out, and it worked perfectly. I couldn’t believe I spent ten years on four pages that could’ve just been cut!
I do like to give a little flavor of trajectory beyond the story of where the characters end up, so it can feel like they live. I don’t like an ending that totally cuts off.
RK: What advice would you give to a young writer, or to your younger self as you began writing?
LC: Don’t worry if it takes a long time. A lot of people rush to put their stuff out there because they’re excited or they need a job, like tenure or whatever, but I think a book shouldn’t be rushed. It’s going to be so much better if it’s the best it can be. I know that’s hard advice. I could work on a book for thirty years and feel like it’s not done. But at some point to you have to let it go. I had so much anxiety in the last twelve years of, this is taking too long, and, I’m not a real writer. It’s okay. It takes a long time to write a book that’s decent.
RK: How do you know you’re done then? Or how did you know with this book?
LC: I didn’t even know. It was just that panic that I needed an academic job! But the other reason was that when I first started putting the collection together, too many of the stories had a similar thing and it took awhile for me to write stories that branched out more.
RK: What do you do when you’re not being a writer?
LC: I’ve been teaching in Ann Arbor, Michigan and now am about to teach fiction in Nashville, Tennessee at Vanderbilt University. I like the vibe there so hopefully it’ll be good. Moving at the end of July!
RK: What writers and/or artists would you invite to a dinner party, living or dead, and what would you serve?
LC: Carson McCullers because I love her work and am fascinated by her as a person, and Hieronymus Bosch, which would be a strange combo, but I love his art. I would probably be anxious and just make lentil soup. You can’t really mess that up and it’s just one thing.
RK: Haha. With some nice bread?
LC: Yeah bread and maybe I’d make cookies or something.
RK: If that happens please send me an invitation!
LC: I will!
LYDIA CONKLIN has received a Stegner Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, three Pushcart Prizes, a Creative Writing Fulbright in Poland, a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Creative Writing Fellowship from Emory University, work-study and tuition scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, Djerassi, the James Merrill House, and elsewhere. Their fiction has appeared in Tin House, American Short Fiction, The Paris Review, One Story, and VQR. They have drawn cartoons for The New Yorker and Narrative Magazine, and graphic fiction for The Believer, Lenny Letter, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. Last year they served as the Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Fiction at the University of Michigan and they are currently an Assistant Professor of Fiction at Vanderbilt University. Their story collection, Rainbow Rainbow, will be published in May 2022 by Catapult in North America and Scribner in the UK.
RAKI KOPERNIK is a first generation American, queer, Jewish writer. She is the author of The Things You Left and The Memory House, both Minnesota Book Award finalists. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and has been shortlisted and nominated for several other awards, including the Pushcart Prize for Fiction and the Pen Faulkner Award in Fiction. Her queer travel novel, No One’s Leaving, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press in 2025. She is a fiction editor at MAYDAY Magazine and an adjunct creative writing teacher at The Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
You can find her here and follow on Instagram @rakikopernik