You wouldn’t know Leyna Krow’s short story “Sinkhole” is set in Spokane if you haven’t been there yourself. The quiet city in eastern Washington, where the author has lived for nearly a decade, is actually the backdrop for most of her stories, including those in her 2017 collection I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking. “There’s something compelling about this city,” Krow tells L’Officiel USA over Zoom. “It’s a little bit of a strange place but it’s also a little bit of a place that if you didn’t know about it, you wouldn’t know about it.”
Krow’s resident familiarity with Spokane yields tactfully understated landscapes coupled with unusual characters and geographic oddities. In “Sinkhole,” a vast sinkhole in the backyard mends everything broken that goes through it, and the narrator wonders if her flaws too can be fixed by the sinkhole. Krow's portrayal of Spokane will transcend the page as Get Out and Us director Jordan Peele and Insecure actress and creator Issa Rae develop “Sinkhole” into a feature film for Universal Pictures. Krow spoke with L’Officiel USA about writing short stories and the upcoming film.
L'Officiel: Let’s talk about the process of writing "Sinkhole."
Leyna Krow: It has kind of a weird history. I wrote it for an event here in Spokane; it was a fundraiser for a local arts-based community center and the prompt for the event was called Lilac City Fairy Tales. Local authors were invited to write very short, sort-of fairytale-esque pieces on the topic of "I Married a Monster," and so that’s what “Sinkhole” was. It was really just intended to be for this local fundraising event. It’s set on the street that I live on. It’s just a local Spokane story. One of the event coordinators, Sharma Shields, was also the fiction editor for a literary magazine called Moss. She’s a fairly prolific fiction writer as well; I highly encourage you to check out her books, she’s awesome. But she asked me if she could publish “Sinkhole” in Moss because she really liked it, and I was like ‘yeah, go for it, that’s great.’ So it was published in 2016 and after that, I didn’t think much about it.
And then, in the fall, another one of the editors for Moss called me and said that he was now living in L.A., trying to start a bit of a film career for himself, and wanted to take some of the material that he had published in Moss around to different studios and production companies and see if anybody was interested in buying any of the rights to any of it. He wanted to know if he could do that with “Sinkhole.” I said sure, kind of thinking I was never going to hear from him again. Six months later he popped back up with an agent he’d been working with that actually had quite a bit of interest. It was all very out-of-left-field for a story that I really had no great ambitions for to begin with.
L'O: What most excites you about introducing Peele and Rae’s perspectives to the story, and about adapting the story in general?
LK: I learned a lot in conversations with these different studios and directors and producers. One thing that came out of these conversations was the different perspectives that people saw “Sinkhole” through, the different lenses. A lot of people were drawn to the notion of it being a story that’s really central to the experience of being a woman in our society, this expectation of perfection and having to constantly fix oneself. Other people though… somebody told me they read it as a rejection of capitalism, which was really cool. I was like, that’s not what I intended but I’m going to tell people that from now on.
But what came out of the conversations with Issa Rae’s company and with Monkeypaw, Jordan Peele’s company, was that some folks were also reading it as a story that could be, in some ways, about race. They were saying, this is so much the experience not just of women, but particularly they were seeing it as the story of a Black woman. This expectation that’s put on Black women in America. I was like, I’m a white person and when I write my characters I envision them as white and so to think that somebody could read my story and see it in a light that I hadn’t intended in that way was really appealing to me. In the course of those conversations, I really liked the idea of somebody taking this story and moving it into a space that I can’t access myself. That was a huge draw for me, initially, just from a creative space. The chance to have something that you’ve written produced by Jordan Peele and having Issa Rae star in it is just the coolest thing ever.
L'O: I really sympathized with the narrator for feeling the pressure of certain societal expectations of women, while her husband, Alex, watches her stand at the edge of the sinkhole each night and it seems like he knew she was going to go through it, and maybe even wants her to. What compelled you to represent this sort of male complicity?
LK: Your take is the way that people read it most often. It’s made me actually relook at that relationship because when I wrote it, I intended it to be much more harmless than that. That her relationship with Alex is a good one, but he’s just so helpless, like he doesn’t know what to do in the slightest that he can’t engage with her in a significant way to stop her from doing this. To see where this desire of hers is coming from. But in talking to people, a lot of them have the reaction that you do: oh yeah, this dude’s an asshole. That he’s complicit in this. Even though he’s saying don’t, what he’s really saying is, well… you could be better. It made me relook at that character because I do think that’s a more interesting, and a more likely, reading.
L'O: What drew you to the short story as a form?
LK: Most fiction writers start out writing short fiction because it’s the easiest thing to access. For me, that form just felt most natural to stay in as I got more comfortable with it. It’s a form that is so satisfying when it’s done well. You can tell a whole story, you can open up a whole world in the span of time that somebody can read when they’re riding the bus. My husband, he’s a pretty good reader, but he doesn’t read novels very often. He’ll read short stories for exactly that reason. He can sit down and read one in its entirety and enjoy it, and then pick up the book again when he wants to.
L'O: “End Times” was one of my favorites in the collection.
LK: The collection I wrote over the course of four or five years while I was in graduate school and in the years immediately after. “End Times” I wrote while I was in grad school. It was one of the earlier pieces. I had this idea that I wanted to write a story that was written in two different times. Like somebody who is projecting forward to what’s going to happen in the future, and also from her present place. I’d been trying for a long time to write a story that had footnotes in it, which is, like, the nerdiest thing to do, and I was really struggling with it. “End Times” was my first successful attempt at managing to find a way to use footnotes in fiction. Everybody is always like, 'oh, that’s David Foster Wallace’s territory and nobody else can really do it well.' But I wanted to make an effort at it.
The story itself I actually think of as the most personal story in the collection. I’ve always imagined the narrator as the character in the book that’s closest to myself, even though her life is very different than mine, her family is different than mine. But I think the way that she sees her world and sees her relationship to the people who she loves is my own. I don’t have that same connection to the other stories in the book.
L'O: Who are some of your favorite short story writers?
LK: The folks that I definitely look to big time and in influencing my own work are women writers like Amy Bender, Kelly Link, and Stacey Richter. Those are the three I always point to. They’re women who are doing really cool things with magical realism and fabulism in a way that I think shows us something really poignant and significant about the experience of being human, but in a way that’s super fun and playful and strange. And that’s what I want to do, too. If you can tap into something that people can empathize with, that’s all that matters in a short story. You can be as weird as you want to after that.
L'O: The worlds of your short stories aren’t entirely rooted in reality. There are elements of the odd or strange within these normal settings, but your characters don’t necessarily regard the phenomena as otherworldly; it’s accepted as a part of their world. I’m curious about how you identify your work genre-wise and your use of these elements.
LK: I call the genre domestic fabulism. I didn’t make that term up—I wish I knew who to ascribe it to. It’s basically stories that are rooted in the real world, oftentimes in a domestic setting, a family setting, a household setting, but that have a fabulist element to them. Or it’s the reverse; it’s stories that are set in a fabulist setting—outer space, the ocean with a giant octopus—but at their core, still a domestic story. Something about relationships or families.
That idea that you’re talking about: the rules of the world are just accepted, people are not thrown off by weirdness. That’s me stealing 100% from Amy Bender. I think that she’s the queen of doing that, where the conceit of the story, the weird thing, is at the very beginning and it’s just accepted. You’re not going to spend the whole story learning about why the world is that way because that’s not the fun part. So if we just say, here’s what the strange thing is and everybody accepts it, we can move on.
L'O: And that’s what Jordan Peele has always done in his films, creates worlds that are not exactly made for you to figure out the mechanics of.
LK: The first conversation I ever had with one of the executives at Monkeypaw. He was like, you know, we can go into how the sinkhole works or we can just let people fight about it on Reddit. Either way. I thought that was pretty good. You can say nothing. You can explain nothing. And people can have fun with that on their own.
L'O: Characters are often subjected to the forces of the natural world. Tigers live in backyards, a woman conceives in the woods. What can the environment reveal to us about a character? How does a character’s environment affect their behavior?
LK: I definitely am drawn to the forces of the natural world, and animals, in particular. I think because those things can become characters in their own right, without having to be somebody with dialogue and with a personality. They’re things that can pull and push at your human characters in really surprising and significant ways.
And also because in the real world, there are things that pull and push at us in surprising ways, particularly in our current state of being where humans are going to become increasingly beholden to our changing planet. It’s an interesting thing to think about: when things change suddenly in the environment in some way, whether it’s in a global sense or a local sense or just in your own neighborhood, what is that going to do to the people who are experiencing it?