In the early pages of Seattle author Kim Fu’s haunting second novel, “The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore,” 10-year-old Siobhan has arrived at sleepaway camp, ready to become part of a story. She’s been poring over the pictures in the camp brochure, of girls “carrying firewood and military-style duffel bags in their twiggy arms, holding hands and jumping into the ocean. Bearing bold smiles of uneven teeth and no-nonsense braids and ponytails, these were girl pirates, girl spaceship captains, warrior princesses — the thrilling, independent societies of children that had existed only in Siobhan’s books.”
The reality, it turns out, is more terrifying than dazzling: Siobhan and four fellow campers — Nita, Kayla, Isabel, Dina — embark on an overnight kayaking trip that goes terribly awry. Fu, however, lets what happened unfold in bits and pieces, interspersed with long sections following each individual camper as she grows up, forming a life around that empty place in her past. For each of them, the trip is a shadow across a traveled path; in some cases, darker than others.
“The thing that interested me was looking at how one event affected different people differently,” said Fu, in a telephone interview. “I thought spidering out from that event would be the best way to approach that. I also kind of knew that these characters — they’re not immediately likable people, they’re kind of difficult. It takes a while to acclimatize to their way of thinking. Better to spend a long, continuous amount of time with them, rather than jumping between them, to get used to their perspectives.”
Fu, who grew up in Vancouver, B.C., and moved to Seattle in 2012 (her husband got a job here), is the author of the 2014 novel “For Today I Am a Boy,” about the only son in a Chinese-Canadian family who grows up knowing that he’s really a girl. Originating as Fu’s MFA thesis, the novel was published when its author was just 26, and received much acclaim. Among other honors, it won the Edmond White Award for Debut Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction.
For a debut author, it was a dream come true — but made the second novel that much harder. “On some level, with my first, I never believed anybody would read it,” said Fu. “With my second novel, I had learned so much about the process, and now I could hear all the other voices — critics, my agent, my editor. I knew that it would probably go out in the world and people would read it. What will my mother think? What will everyone who’s ever met me think? It was a lot harder to get started this time.
“I thought, people are waiting and I have to sit down and write a perfect book. I was driving myself crazy.” It took a while, she said, to find her way toward “things that compelled me, instead of trying to imagine what people would like.”
Part of the inspiration for “The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore” came from the region: The book’s characters come from, and travel to, places up and down the West Coast. “It’s a landscape I love,” said Fu, who has relatives all along the coast, “and one that feels sort of wild to me.”
In between “For Today I Am a Boy” and “The Lost Girls” came another book, one that got less attention: “How Festive the Ambulance,” Fu’s first collection of poetry, was published in 2016. Between narrative fiction and poetry, said Fu, the latter comes more easily to her.
“I think I’m most naturally a poet,” Fu said. “I feel like the motivation for poetry is in the process; for fiction I very much want to be communicating with someone else, to be telling someone else’s story. … Fiction is more of a struggle for me: I strive to educate myself; I’m always trying to learn from everything I’m reading; I revise a lot and I experiment a lot; I throw away a lot. Poetry is a little more natural and relaxed for me.”
Asked how her poetry informs her fiction, Fu responded in some detail, noting first “the power of concision, of fewer words. In poetry you’re trusting the reader a lot, to make enormous connections. That translates over to fiction: letting things sit, not rushing, not giving in to the urge to explain it or make unnecessary bridges for the reader. It’s more satisfying for the reader to get there themselves.”
A poet’s eye — “trying to see something new, and look at it in a hundred different ways” — is helpful with fiction. And poetry also informs the creation of a character. “I don’t like in fiction when everything makes too much sense, when everything’s a little too neat — everyone has clear motivations for what they’re doing and why. I think real people are often bumbling through the world, and the reason they’re doing something is complicated. It bubbles up from your history and psychology and emotions. It makes sense in a visceral way that’s hard to explain. That kind of thinking, trying to understand a person, is to me somehow similar to understanding a poem.”
Fu is transitioning these days to writing full time — until recently, she was telecommuting as an editor at the Canadian magazine Maisonneuve. “I really loved that job, but it was one of those jobs that was meant to be part time and became full time,” she said. And she’s preparing for another round of book promotion, something that she dreaded with her first novel but thinks she might enjoy this time.
“If you’re a writer,” she said, “you’re probably someone who loves to look at the world at a distance and then sit by yourself for hours on end processing it. Book promotion is this totally different creature, engaging with strangers and in front of a crowd, and in the beginning it was so hard and I was just this anxiety ball all the time.”
Eventually Fu came to appreciate the experience, saying she came to realize, “Most people are nice! Most people are interesting. Toward the end, I started really enjoying (the events), going to them differently.” Everyone, you might say, has a story.