Magic and Grit: Joy Interviews Kendra Fortmeyer

One of the most intriguing books I read in 2018 is Kendra Fortmeyer’s HOLE IN THE MIDDLE, which, as the title reflects, is about a teenage girl named Morgan who was born with a hole in her middle-- this perfect, round, empty space that somehow has no other effect on her body other than being this strange, at times almost mystical deformity. She has spent her whole life hiding it, until one day she doesn’t. What happens after that is engine that drives this fascinating contemporary with a little bit of magical realism intersecting. I’m a fan of novels that contain that spark of ‘other’ and HOLE IN MIDDLE (from Soho Press’s Soho Teen imprint) can also be read as feminist story, one that touches on body acceptance, although I’d say it’s much more than that, and while technically YA, is definitely a good crossover adult read as well.It was our pleasure here at Brazos to host Kendra recently for a reading, and so for those who wanted more and those who might have missed this title last year, I was able to get Kendra to chat a bit more about the novel and her intentions for it. Here’s what she had to say:

Joy Preble: How did the idea for HOLE IN THE MIDDLE come to you? Did you conceive of Morgan’s character first? Or was it the idea itself? I’m really curious as to the evolution of this project!

Kendra Fortmeyer: The premise and protagonist of this book fell from the sky in one fell swoop during my MFA program at UT Austin. I was lying on my apartment floor after a devastatingly mediocre date (the sort that makes you question The Point Of It All, Why Do We Even Try, etc, etc), staring at the ceiling and bemoaning the above, when a thought popped into my head: This would be so much harder if I had a hole in my middle.

As a writer, I’ve always loved and respected the weird – those snippets of dialogue or random ideas that come to you out of nowhere, the bizarre what-ifs. So when this one came along, I sat up, thinking, What?

And like it had been waiting for me to ask, this voice – snarky and authoritative and heartbreakingly, vulnerable honest – responded with what became the first sentence of the book: Here are the options for a girl like me …

I jumped up and stumbled to my desk, where I started scribbling what became the first chapter of Morgan’s story – all of the options (both opportunities and limitations) of being a girl with a literal hole in the middle of her body, and all of the emotional ramifications tangled within. At the moment I put the pen to the page, it seemed like the voice and premise arrived fully formed. In retrospect, of course, this book was a logical manifestation of ideas and feelings that had been incubating for a long while: friendship, feminism, the awful way society teaches girls and women to hate their bodies, and the actual medical failings of bodies, and the tension between the two. That’s the lovely thing about a novel – in writing it, it unpacks you.

JP: To expand on that, most of your trade reviews identify HOLE IN THE MIDDLE as a feminist/body positivity read. Was that your initial intention or did that come as you wrote? I’m always fascinated about how unexpected destinations arrive as we write.

KF: At the Texas Book Festival, Elizabeth McCracken gave a lovely answer to a question about theme in novels: when you spend a year (or years) on a book, things you’ve thought and lived over the course of the writing work their way from your subconscious and onto the page.

So, although a lifelong feminist and aggressive “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL, YOU IDIOT” cheerleader of a friend, I didn’t set out to write a feminist or body-positive novel. But the ideas you return to obsessively in your day-to-day by necessity rise to the surface in your work. Hence the girls’ relentless love for and cheerleading of each other, the anxieties about bodies and body acceptance, the feminist questions laced throughout. With all those words, it’s impossible not to reveal pieces of yourself on the page – which is equal parts terrifying and wonderful, isn’t it?

JP: And to jump to the specifics of the oddity, is there actual science behind the possibility of having a, well, hole in the middle?

KF: Amy Gentry recently referred to this book as a “medical fantasy,” a term I love. While there’s not a precise medical condition that could create a survivable hole in the middle of a person’s torso, there’s a power – and a deliciousness, for the reader – in making the unreal as real as possible.

For example, there’s a scene in the novel where her doctors explain that the hole in Morgan’s middle is due to a hiccup in her genetic code, and they zoom in on a specific sequence of her DNA. And while it’s all fantastical (the details brainstormed with an immunologist ex, and the gene itself – ICF-3 – a fiction, named for my younger sister’s initials), something about getting so close to seeming real adds a bit of grit. And I love grit. Not the blood-and-cussin’ kind of grit, but the grit of surprise that gets caught in the smoothly turning wheels of a narrative, makes a reader stop and think – wait. Think, could that be real? Which makes the emotional ramifications of any weird narrative suddenly more resonant, and the world much more interesting.

JP: In addition to all of the above, the novel has what I suppose we could call ‘casual’ Jewish representation with Morgan’s character. Was that by design? Or just how Morgan arrived in your imagination?

KF: Morgan’s Judaism – as casual as it is – has always been vital to me.

As a Reform Jewish girl growing up in rural North Carolina (where my younger sister and I were the only Jews at our school), I perpetually felt isolated and misunderstood. As a young child fending off the varyingly well meant and hurtful questions (Do Jews believe in God? Why don’t you just try coming to church with me? Do you know you’re going to Hell?) of other children and adults, it would have meant the world to me to see more of myself in fiction.

So much of the contemporary literary conversation is rightfully about own voices and the power of representation. Writing a character who isn’t the default – by which I mean, the unquestioned majority, by which I mean, straight-white-cisgendered-able-bodied-Protestant-male – is always a choice. In this case, the choice was to say, hello, I am here, I exist; there are people like me moving through the world. To declare oneself a real person (despite not being the default!) is a planting of a flag. I can’t go back in time and plant that flag beside my young self any more than I can help her calmly and compassionately tell her classmates that their world is small and they are not the only people in it. But writing a Jewish protagonist in my first book felt like a way to help set things to rights.

JP: Finally, let’s dish a bit about the presence of ‘other’ in HOLE IN THE MIDDLE. I love that HOLE IN THE MIDDLE has that intersection of something magical and unreal amidst an otherwise realistic, contemporary novel. Is that something you aim for in your writing or did it, too, simply arrive with the story?

KF: I love magic, and firmly believe the world should contain more of it. Magical realism is a slightly different beast, and a powerful one. I’ve said elsewhere that realism reflects who we are; strange and magical fiction allows us to explore the same from new and more vivid angles. It allows us to turn up the volume of recognizable emotional truths.

I’m also drawn to magic as a reader and a writer – I'm infinitely more likely to be interested in a book if there’s a ghost or a time travel element or a shifting labyrinth. In recent years, I’ve seen a great deal of the weird and fantastical bleeding into – and being accepted in -- the otherwise staid literary genre, and I’m so excited by it.

JP: Anything else you’d like to tell us about Kendra Fortmeyer?

KF: It’s been a strange and wonderful debut year. One thing nobody tells you about publishing – or about achieving any lifelong dream – is how you never quite feel like you’ve arrived. It feels, instead, like reaching the foot of a very tall ladder. I’m tremendously grateful to be here, but I’m keenly aware that this is just the beginning. There’s so much further to climb. A final note: I have a story upcoming on the LeVar Burton Reads podcast! I’m tremendously excited (and a bit nervous) -- it’s a fantastical piece about a heartbroken woman who, as a result of a temporal hiccup, meets herself on a date. Do look for it!

JP: Thanks for this great conversation, Kendra. HOLE IN THE MIDDLE is on our shelves now! 

Want to know more about Kendra Fortmeyer? Check out her website here: http://kendrafortmeyer.com

Hole in the Middle Cover Image
$18.99
ISBN: 9781616959562
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Soho Teen - September 4th, 2018

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