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Queens MFA Informs Kelly Fordon Short Story Debut

by Leah Worthy

March 29, 2015

Kelly Fordon is a 2013 graduate of Queens University of Charlotte’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Since graduating from Queens, she has turned her thesis into an unforgettable debut story collection. Garden for the Blind is a tragicomedy told from the perspective of a wide-ranging cast of characters whose lives are intricately woven together by Fordon’s nuanced storytelling.

In the collection’s opening story, 5-year-old Alice Townley witnesses a tragic accident on her front lawn. The stories that follow span the next four decades of her life. Alice’s powerlessness against the tragedy she witnesses balloons into a lifelong sense of powerlessness in the face of the injustices she witnesses in the suburbs of Detroit. As a teenager, Alice allows a classmate named Gary to take the fall for her boyfriend, Mike, who is caught selling pot. Gary is expelled from school and the event changes the course of his life, but Alice clings to her loyalty to her boyfriend in order to sustain the one belief that allows her to move forward in life: that she can’t do anything to help anyone. Alice becomes a woman who represents a society as damaged as she is by the recurrent past.

Julia Glass, author of National Book Award winner Three Junes, said of Fordon's collection that the stories were "perceptive, memorable, and moving -- but taken together, they compose something far more significant: a tragicomic elegy for American youth as we knew it in the late twentieth century."

Wayne State University Press will release Garden for the Blind in April. Leah Worthy chatted with Fordon for Charlotte Viewpoint:

How did your time in the Queens MFA program shape you as a writer?

KF: My thesis was an earlier version of this collection. Though the collection was quite different when it was in thesis form, I learned a lot about how to structure the linked stories and how to use point of view from my professors. Also invaluable were the connections I made with other writers in the program, some of whom I am still in contact with today and whose opinions I value highly.

Which authors have influenced you the most?

KF: Alice Munro, Christie Hodgen, Elizabeth Strout, Anton Chekhov, Richard Ford, Marilynne Robinson and many more.

You are also a poet. Do you know when you first start a piece whether it will take the form of poetry or prose? Do they inform and inspire one another?Author Kelly Fordon

KF: I always end up writing poetry when I’m trying to capture a feeling and I write stories when I have a story to tell. Most of the time I can tell right from the start whether I want to capture the moment in a poem or delve into a story for a longer period of time.

One aspect of Garden for the Blind that seems especially poetic is your use of repeated imagery. For example, the collection is bookended with images of people sitting in trees looking down on the street below. What role does this image play in the book?

KF: I imagined that Alice’s failure to see how her behavior impacts the people around her would cause the scenery to remain the same despite the passage of many years. When she returns to New Hope Road after 30 years nothing has changed, and in some ways the situation is even more dire. Why is this? In the case of this story, I imagined it was because she is too damaged, too self-involved and too privileged to figure out that she has had an impact on Gary or anything else for that matter. In the beginning of the collection, she remembers playing outside and even climbing trees where one can see more of the world, later she never even ventures outside of her neighborhood. In a sense, she doesn’t want to see anything anymore. I imagined that the boys who climb the trees in the last story are in despair because nothing ever changes for them, but then they see the monks making an effort and maybe feel a glimmer of hope.

I love the imagery in that final scene. There’s a freshly planted garden at Mt. Carmel School for the Blind. The boys in the neighborhood have vandalized the property hours before its grand opening. Master Hui-Chao and the monks from the Zen Buddhist temple across the street are sitting lotus at the garden’s five points to help students experience what’s left of it. As the children arrive, the vandals climb trees to watch. The imagery is so metaphorically poignant that it takes on an otherworldly quality. Do you use metaphor as a means of removing readers, just slightly, from a situation so they will look at it a bit differently than they otherwise would?

KF: I was hoping that the reader might be able to see the final scene from many different points of view. By then I felt like the collection was not really about Alice anymore and I wanted to convey that.

These stories take place mainly in Detroit and its suburbs, but their themes are universal. The collection illuminates the dangerous combination of privilege and nihilistic youth, the inescapability of the past, racial injustice, and societal complacency. These themes permeate layers of society. High school is a microcosm of Detroit. Detroit is a microcosm of America. This makes me think of one your poems, Detroit: Word to the Wise, which ends with the lines, “You could find yourself / recalling how beautiful you once were, / before all the people you carried / turned their backs. / It happens all the time.” To what extent can Garden for the Blind be read as a warning?

KF: I’m aware that there has been a lot of talk lately about privilege. I don’t think of this book as a warning, but I hope the story resonates with people. If it generates discussion about injustice that would be great. In Alice and Mike’s case, I am aware that if they were dealing drugs in Detroit rather than in the suburbs, they would not have been given a second chance, and their lives would have gone in a completely different direction as Gary’s did (even though he was innocent!). That discrepancy is probably the one thing that drove me to write the book.

Some authors prefer to write about the setting they’re in and others prefer to write about a place from a distance. Describe the experience of writing about the place you call home. Did you ever wish for more distance from your subject matter?

KF: I wanted the story to be about the characters, but placing them in metro Detroit also felt organic to the collection. I once heard that Jeffrey Eugenides placed Middlesex in Grosse Pointe because the storyline required so much from his imagination that he didn’t want to have to imagine the location as well, and that makes sense to me, too.

The connection between the characters is so intimate that one could imagine these stories functioning as chapters in a novel. What made you decide to tell this narrative through linked stories?

KF: Honestly, it just kind of happened. I kept writing stories about these two kids, Mike and Alice, and at some point along the way I realized that they knew each other and might even be friends. At that point, I’d written a lot of the stories and I liked the different POVs, so I wanted to retain them. I loved seeing Olive from so many different angles in Elizabeth Strout’s collection, Olive Kitteridge. Even though I still didn’t like Olive at the end, I felt like I really understood her because I had seen her through so many different eyes.

That’s interesting because I think I could say the same of Alice Townley.

KF: If I met Alice on the street, I wouldn't like her either. She's damaged, self-involved and she has the wherewithal (money/privilege) to do some real harm. But in the last story, “Garden for the Blind,” when I looked at the whole story with a wide-angle lens and Master Hui-Chao took over, I realized that Alice is like a piece of shattered glass. It's not her fault she's broken, but a shard of glass can still do a lot of damage if you come into contact with it. Master Hui-Chao doesn't blame the boys who threw the brick; he doesn't blame Alice. I think he can see that everyone is suffering and he is focused on fixing that instead of assigning blame. Easier said than done. People always want to blame someone, but what good does that do in the end?

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Tags: Queens College of Charlotte, Garden for the Blind, Kelly Fordon, Alice Townley, Detroit, Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

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