© 2024 Boise State Public Radio
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Somewhere under the rainbow, Lydia Conklin is having a moment

NPR named Rainbow Rainbow a "best book of the year."
Lydia Conklin, Catapult Books
NPR named Rainbow Rainbow a "best book of the year."

Scholar and short story-writer extraordinaire Lydia Conklin had already touched countless readers. But when Rainbow Rainbow, their groundbreaking collection of stories that The New York Times singled out as a must-read and NPR named it as a "best book of the year," Conklin was able to forge new relationships with fans across the U.S.

“I’m getting to meet people that I would never have met, said Conklin. “Yeah, it has been amazing to connect with people.”

Just prior to their trip to Idaho as a guest of the Boise State MFA Reading Program, Conklin visits with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about inspiration and “interiority,” plus they share a taste of their award-winning prose.

“Even writing just a little bit every day ... it helps you stay in the world and stay attached to it, even with everything else going on.”
Lydia Conklin

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. When the dust of the whirling dervish that are the 2020s has settled, it will be interesting to see what chapter in the book of life we will find ourselves in. Which brings us to the always interesting MFA creative writing program at Boise State. This year, bringing us world class writers who are charged with chronicling the human condition. And here comes Lydia Conklin. They are the best-selling author of stories and graphic fiction that have been wildly popular and critically acclaimed. The New York Times reminds us that Lydia Conklin's debut collection of stories, Rainbow Rainbow, is a must read. Let's welcome Lydia Conklin to the program. Good morning.

LYDIA CONKLIN: Thank you so much, George. Thank you so much for having me on the show.

PRENTICE: You bet. I have asked your indulgence to see if you might share something with us this morning.

CONKLIN: Yes. So, I'm just going to read the very, very beginning of the first story in the collection, which is called Laramie Time.

PRENTICE: Okay, let's listen.

CONKLIN: "Maggie and I had been living in Wyoming for three months. When I finally agreed we could get pregnant. We were walking on a boulevard downtown over snow that was crunchy and slushy by turns, heading home from a disappointing lunch of lo mein made with white spaghetti. The air was so sharply freezing, the meal churning so unhappily through our guts that I longed to cheer the afternoon I'd made up my mind the week before, but I didn't find the right moment to tell her until we were trudging through uncleared drifts in front of the former movie theater. 'Maggie,' I said, taking her hand. I've decided last week's test results had exposed her declining fertility. If we wanted to do this, it had to be now. She aimed her freckled stub nose at me and studied my face. 'Where to get dessert?' She spoke bluntly, the joke of what she really hoped and the deadness of her words. 'I want to have a kid with you.'"

PRENTICE: Wow. Can you talk a little bit about truth… the truth that your characters find that they reveal, and then, you know the bigger truth of the space that we all move through?

CONKLIN: Oh, sure. Yeah. And this story actually deals with that question a lot. It opens with this decision that the main character, Lee, makes, where she is, agreeing to have a child with her partner, even though they've been sort of arguing for years about this. And Lee has been the one who doesn't want to. But as the story goes on, there are sort of layers of the truth that get unpeeled, where you realize first, she's sort of agreed to do this more to save the relationship than actually because she wants to. But then even deeper layers, which I won't reveal, sort of get revealed. And so you sort of see the story through, like what Lee knows about herself and what she has access to, which changes over the course of the story as she sort of, you know, how sometimes we don't know things about our own selves until we uncover them. But then there's this other layer of what she is communicating to her partner and how she is communicating that which isn't always honest. So yeah, I'm so interested in what truth we want to put forward, what we're capable of putting forward, and what we know, either consciously or unconsciously, about our own truths.

PRENTICE: You know, so many of us talk, of late, about evolution, personal and professional evolution. Can you talk about your own… the evolution of your writing style through the years, and how that intersects with your personal evolution?

CONKLIN: Oh, sure. Yeah. Yeah, actually. So, this story is a good example of how my writing evolved, because, you know, in grad school and a few years after, I was mostly writing stories from the perspective of very young people. And there are a couple stories in my book that are from that era that are sort of from the perspective of 12 or 13 year olds, but most of the stories are from the perspective of adults. And in graduate school, I sort of struggled to access a deep interiority of the characters, and it ended up that that needed to have tweaking and evolution over time. But it was kind of fine for that age group, because at that age we have some awareness, but not like complete awareness of ourselves and our behaviors and why we're doing the things we do. But this story, Laramie time particularly, I was trying to access a deeper interiority and I just like, really admire books where the interiority is what propels us. Like Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is one of my favorite books, and the actual plot of the book is, if you describe it to someone and be like, oh my God, this sounds so boring. It's like a man working in an office and like a woman, you know, caring for babies or whatever. And  their interiorities are so alive and so propulsive that you want to just follow them, even if they're making a garden path or doing something completely boring. So I was trying to sort of access that. In writing this story.

PRENTICE: It's so interesting you mentioned that because it is an essential American story, right? It is the American experience...that couple.

CONKLIN: Totally. Yeah, totally. But it's like, yeah. And the hands of a lesser writer, like, it could just be so generic, but he just activates it and he gets to the darkness and he goes to the dark places of their minds in a way that's just so compelling.

PRENTICE: I want to ask a little bit about what you do sometimes with those dark shadows, but often with humor. Can you speak to how heartbreak and humor sometimes can occupy the same space?

CONKLIN: Totally. Yeah. That's actually I was just teaching the story Dance in America by Lorrie Moore on Monday to my intermediate fiction students, and it's one of my favorite stories because I think every time I read it, there are at least 2 or 3 moments where I tear up. But it also has so many funny jokes in it. And we were just talking in my class about how you can sort of sneak in the dark parts if you have the humor, because it kind of goes down more easily, but also humor just goes hand in hand with those dark moments. And maybe it is a survival mechanism of humanity, like, how can I make this funny, this awful thing that's happening to me? But also, there is they are kind of two sides of the same coin in many ways.

PRENTICE: And when you talk to students....for a new writer...is it about giving yourself permission?.. To have both of those in the same space?

CONKLIN: Totally. Yeah, totally. And once I was teaching a class and a student was like, “Oh, once I read a story and I thought it was so sad and serious and people were laughing, and I was so confused,” and I was like, “That's a good thing, because it's like it's also a discomfort response.” So, if you make people feel uncomfortable in your writing, that's really a good thing because then you're getting them to feel something, which is kind of the main prerogative of writers.

PRENTICE: Are you a morning person? Do you create in the morning?

CONKLIN: I start writing first thing, and it's not so much that I'm like a pure morning person. I think actually it's that I do my best writing and like late morning, early afternoon. But if I don't start early, then I'm doomed because then the world kind of invades and I'm like, thinking about like, making appointments or student concerns or just millions of other things that I can like, save until a little bit later most days.

PRENTICE: Do students ask you about process, about unplugging the world, if you will? Sometimes figuratively. Sometimes literally. To create, to give yourself that space?

CONKLIN: Yeah, totally. I was talking to a class of… actually STEM students who were yesterday who were in their mostly pre-med students, but they're learning about LGBTQ narratives to sort of apply to their quantitative research. But I just try to tell them to, you know, even writing just a little bit every day, it helps you stay in the world and stay attached to it, even with everything else going on. Like sometimes for me, if I take even a day off, it can take a week to get back into the flow.

PRENTICE: My guess is you've heard a little bit about Idaho, in that we have the privilege of open spaces which welcome creativity, and yet it is a state... and I think that a lot of people might agree... that has significant political and cultural restrictions.

CONKLIN: Totally. Yeah, we have that even a little bit in Tennessee. Like I'm in kind of a blue bubble. But we do like there's so many just insane regulations coming in right now. But at the same time, it is a state of like music and especially Nashville. It's like just such a beautiful artistic music city. But then there is this other side to it. But I could see that being the case with the physical space, too, because I have lived in the West and just that expansiveness it does, it does really get into your bones to feel like possibility, even if there are restrictions.

PRENTICE: Is it a fair prompt to a creator, to a writer, to take a really harsh look at that cultural landscape?

CONKLIN: I grew up in New England and some of my stories are based there, and that is a culture where even if it has more opportunities politically, it's like emotionally very restrictive and like the puritanical kind of vibe. So that's definitely something I write about. And then too, like the legislation that's dropped down and restricting queerness in recent years, around 2016, when it started to, for the first time, feel like doors were closing. That was a really scary feeling that I didn't think I had expected slow progress, but I hadn't expected like a backlash kind of thing.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about Rainbow Rainbow, and that experience for you. When The New York Times says this needs to be on your nightstand, that's pretty heady stuff. I'm going to guess, as a result, you have heard from people from all across the planet.

CONKLIN: Yeah, I've had people write letters and I've gotten to meet people at universities or book festivals and getting to meet people that I would never have met and talked to them about the book, which is great. And yeah, it always feels like so, so much personal stuff in my book that it always feels like, oh my God, it's so invasive that you read my book, even though obviously I want people to, but it's just like, oh, this stranger knows so much about me. Even though you can't necessarily tell what's fiction and what's not as you're reading it, because it's such a blend. But yeah, it has been amazing to connect with people because I published stories in the past, but they were always in small literary magazines that nobody actually reads it. So, it's kind of crazy having people actually read it.

PRENTICE: Well, talk about a welcoming space. We have a reading and book signing Friday, November 10th at the Hemingway Center on the campus of Boise State. They are Lydia Conklin. And again, this is a public event Friday, November 10th. Lydia Conklin... such a privilege...and thank you for giving me some time this morning.

CONKLIN: Thank you so much, George. It's a delight to talk to you.

Find reporter George Prentice on X @georgepren

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

As host of Morning Edition, I'm the luckiest person I've ever known because I spend my days listening to smart, passionate, engaging people. It’s a public trust. I lean in to talk with actors, poets, writers and volunteers who make Idaho that much more special.

You make stories like this possible.

The biggest portion of Boise State Public Radio's funding comes from readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

Your donation today helps make our local reporting free for our entire community.