“The stories in Mary Kuryla’s Freak Weather are by turns disturbing and astonishing, blending the desire for a better life with the quicksand of situational reality. In each tender rendering, a female protagonist navigates her surroundings by protecting herself from the peril she’s trying to escape, often with an animal standing in as an ersatz totem for the issue. These tales twist until they become something undeniable, and Kuryla’s commitment to letting her characters make mistakes without pausing to consider their actions is something rarely seen in fiction. Despite the rush of end-of-semester grading, we were able to speak by phone about her characters’ attempts to understand their sexuality, themselves, and the people around them—and how they use pets as an emotional buffer.”
“Freaky weather—or the kind of weather that brings out freaks? Either interpretation makes sense for this imaginative, unpredictable debut short story collection.” — PEOPLE, November 6, 2017
“…when Mary Kuryla’s female protagonists persist, resist, and simply continue to exist, you can’t help following them…”
“Early on, in the 1985 film that arguably inaugurated Jean-Luc Godard’s late-period work, we watch, for much longer than we expect to, a single person on a crowded sidewalk. Our view, or that of the camera, is from a nearby rooftop—surveillance in an etymological sense. At a certain point as I recall, the voiceover comments: “If you look at anyone closely enough, or long enough, you’ll be more or less certain that the person under observation is insane.” (When I first saw this film, I myself was living in Paris, and remember thinking, “Anyone? Or do they have to be French?”) In a documentary film by Wim Wenders a few years earlier—a sequence of monologues by various famous directors at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival—Godard comments that any film that lasts for more than a minute has to start telling the truth. Why, he asks, do you think ads are so short?
Though it will take a minute or two more to get there, soon you’ll be listening to Mary Kuryla read from her Freak Weather, the story collection that won the 2017 AWP Grace Paley Prize for short fiction. It does make sense, obvious sense, to begin an introduction of this writer and these stories with a reference to film, since Mary is herself a filmmaker and several of the stories in this collection have also become films—before spiraling back and returning to the page. I could also have also begun in reference to the stage, since the energy and bravado of Mary’s characters do frequently remind one of the theater of Sam Shepard, especially the battle between Hoss and Crow in The Tooth of Crime, though the razor sex and violence of Fool for Love is in these pages, too. As you know, that one also became a film, by Robert Altman, recursively starring Sam Shepard himself.
“…Kuryla’s stories follow people on the move, even if they may be going nowhere, and even when they take readers out of their comfort zone.”
Given the lives on the margins, the sex, the drugs, and the prison time in these pages, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is another obvious analogue, particularly since, like Johnson, Kuryla’s stories follow people on the move, even if they may be going nowhere, and even when they take readers out of their comfort zone. Which is, of course, the point, or at least part of it—though Mary’s attitude towards her menagerie of characters is anything but freak show. In a lecture, Gilles Deleuze once commented that no one could possibly take offense at the explicit sex in Proust, because Proust looked at sexuality like a botanist looks at flowers. And with flowers, of course, it’s all about display.
More than plants, though, the animals may give you pause in these stories. As in Michael Moore’s first, groundbreaking film, when rabbits appear in Mary’s fiction, they inhabit the most uncomfortable semiotic space imaginable: “Pets or Meat.” No, you think, no, you can’t do that, those words, you can’t yoke them together. Moore’s modest proposal was of course a metaphor for working-class lives where there is no work; when a rabbit gets skinned in Kuryla’s story, we’re not far off, though it’s family, not state, violence under the knife.
“…to salute this woman who writes about women, who won a prize named for a woman, in a contest judged by a woman, and who has now been published by a press headed by a woman, I’ve inducted her into an old-boys club…”
So, what have I left out? In a word, language. As an editor, I can guess at the back story behind many, even most, of these stories. I can imagine the baffled silence, the chain-migration of rejections, as well as the well-intentioned edits and corrected syntax that preceded their appearance here in print. If there’s a word for what Mary’s after, I think it was coined by Viktor Sklovsky, and that word is ostranenie. The trouble with defamiliarization, though, is that the mainstream of publishers wants to publish what has already been read, not what has yet to be written. Occasionally, of course, if you persist, if you resist, if you simply continue to exist, you do slip something by.
Did you hear what else I left out? In a word, feminism. If I did this intro right, you will not have yet noticed that, in order to introduce and lend authority to Mary’s work, I’ve just alluded to four male filmmakers, three male writers, and two male critics. In short, to salute this woman who writes about women, who won a prize named for a woman, in a contest judged by a woman, and who has now been published by a press headed by a woman, I’ve inducted her into an old-boys club. All that stuff about comfort zones, about defamiliarization, well, maybe that’s really not the point. It is certainly not the whole point. Because when Mary Kuryla’s female protagonists persist, resist, and simply continue to exist, you can’t help following them, which is the point.
The great achievement of Grace Paley was, we know, to get people and voices on the page that we had never heard before, and that we would never again forget. Nothing could be more political than that. And—in 2017, the year of #MeToo and #Time’sUp—nothing could be more appropriate than to have awarded the AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction to Mary Kuryla. Having said that, well, it’s time for me to shut the fuck up, and for you all to welcome Mary to the stage.”
Jim Hicks’ remarks at Mary Kuryla’s AWP reading. Hicks is the Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review.
Mary Kuryla’s short story, “On the Occasion of a Burial of Ernest Zach Ulrich” was featured in Strange Horizons in February 2018.
“My name is Nanny Furze, and though I was not asked to talk for E.Z. Ulrich upon this day of his burial—not the first internment of E.Z., but I will not talk to that since nobody (not Bic, Simp, Shirtrun, Lacrosse, Mr. Wade, not even Ulrich’s widow) has talked of it today—I aim to talk, not of the number of times E.Z. has necessitated burial, not that, but of the words that filled me in a rush all at once last night when I was otherwise occupied in avoiding my monthly additions and absractions of the scant profits to be had in administering to the sick. …”
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.
Necessary Fiction’s Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. Mary Kuryla writes about Freak Weather.
“Otherwise Panic” by Mary Kuryla appears in Fall 2017 Issue of Shenandoah.
“Lottie in Fur” by Mary Kuryla appears in the Fall 2017 Issue of Denver Quarterly.