Behind the Words: Kendall Pack

Posted by on Jan 28, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Kendall Pack

Kendall Pack’s short story “Exposure” was published in Spry Literary Journal’s tenth issue. His work has also appeared in The Disconnect and Superstition Review, and he is a former contributor to Utah Stories. He lives in Mesa, Arizona with his wife and two daughters where he continues to write and perform in several mediums, including narrative podcasts and an annual play that finally answers the question, “Do we really need more Thanksgiving content?” In the Fall of 2022, he will attend ASU Law School. Here Kendall and Spry contributor, Kristin Tenor, discuss “Exposure,” the importance of mentorship and reading good books as well as what’s up next for Kendall. 

Kristin Tenor: I love how the narrator directly addresses the reader within the first few sentences of “Exposure”, inviting the reader to participate in the story as it unfolds, or in this case, exposes itself. How essential is this bridge between writer and reader? Can a story resonate without it?

Kendall Pack: I grew up going to a lot of overnight campouts where storytelling was a given. In that format, connecting with the audience is a must. It’s an energy I am constantly trying to capture in print, and I’m glad I had some success here. Since “Exposure” is framed as a letter, it was necessary to address the recipient in that way, but I think it’s important to always have some connection with the reader, whether it’s overt like this or more subtle. In storytelling, we have the ability to read the audience as we go, and I try to act as both speaker and audience as my characters confess and hold back and process their story. I think a story can exist without that, but I wouldn’t like it much.

The family dynamic in this piece is familiar and yet unique to the narrator’s experience. How does one balance the familiar with the need to turn things on their head so the reader walks away both feeling connected and entertained?

While I write, I am constantly on the lookout for that shiny object, something that sticks out as strange that I can obsess over. I like this character because she gets so intensely focused on things that may have little significance in the world but that are so important to her. Here, she’s obsessed with a photograph, and that preoccupation gives me an anchor for the whole story.  I don’t think it’s my job as a writer to create some strange situation, just to amplify an interesting detail to show the strangeness of reality.

All that said, Mark Holly himself is not the most common detail, but I enjoyed having our narrator dismiss this obvious strange thing in exchange for others that meant more to her. 

The narrator discloses that the cameraman who took the photograph without her consent is Mark Holly, “a professional visitor traveling from West Coast to the East,” a bad news character who ends up incarcerated for crimes we never quite know. When the narrator says, “You recognize the name? Yes, that Mark Holly,” it prompted me to Google his name to see if a criminal named Mark Holly actually existed. No dice, but I’d love to know what or who inspired you to create his character?

Mark Holly was one of those discoveries I made along the way. As I was writing, I kept repeating his full name and emphasizing that he was this known entity until his role in the thing clicked. In the moment, I think I was imagining this college apartment where the protagonist’s brother lived, and I remembered those awkward conversations I overheard during my first semester when I slept on a friend’s living room couch in full view of visitors some nights. So Mark Holly started out as an avatar of sorts for me before becoming this omnipresent thing that haunts the story. I love those elements, the enigmatic things that fill the space beyond the story. I know it can be unsatisfying to some readers, but I always like a story where I have questions that will never be answered, mysteries I can endlessly ruminate on.

“Exposure” also circles around the narrator’s quest for transformation. Early in the story we’re told she is about to leave her family to go to The Retreat. Why do you feel the narrator finds it necessary to leave? Also, did you do any preliminary world-building prior to writing this story so as to better understand how The Retreat would play a role in this story , or did this place develop organically?

I think she felt the need to go because she was stuck in life. I’ve often felt that same need to do something extreme to break a cycle. The Retreat is such a big commitment, and in my mind, this character has never committed to anything. I grew up in Utah, where it’s pretty hard to get out without being sucked into an MLM or some self-help scheme, and I found myself on the receiving end of a lot of pitched. When friends or family or, in one case, former students would talk to me about these new, life-changing products or experiences, I always felt like they were scammed, but that I was somehow missing out on some secret they had. I took that thought process into writing this, and I didn’t feel the need to do any world-building other than what you see on the page since the main character is trying to figure out this new world herself. There are certainly things I imagine when I think about the Retreat, but I like the effect of having the character be somewhat clueless to this world she has made such a full commitment to. 

Besides being a writer, you’re also an English teacher in Mesa, Arizona. What is the best writing advice one can give an aspiring writer? Who do you consider your mentors?

A while, I realized that I was never going to write at the level I wanted to unless I carved out a committed daily writing session. Sometimes it was five minutes, sometimes it was a couple hours, but my goal was to touch the work every day to keep my mind constantly processing the story. Then I had kids, and then teaching sucked up the rest of my time. So I don’t get those big, beautiful chunks of time to work, but I carry around a notebook and keep 3×5 cards at my desk and try to be a writer for a few minutes every day. The bulk of my students don’t want to be writers, but I think the advice to write every day is equally important for them, because the act of it can show them how beneficial it is to process your thoughts through writing. 

I’ve had a lot of great mentors, especially in the graduate program at Utah State University. That school is big for technology and engineering, which was its own inspiration, but they have a great, active writing community with some incredible professors doing interesting work. I took a summer writing workshop with Rick Moody back in 2015 and then promptly lost his email and haven’t spoken with him since. But he said something that stuck with me. I’d written a sci-fi piece and his biggest critique was that I just needed to do more of what I was doing. That helped me take off some of the restrictions I’d put on myself and take stories further.

It’s often said to be a good writer one must read and read well.  What books do you recommend?  Is there a book you return to time and time again?

I was assigned to read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer during my senior year of the undergraduate program and, like much of the work I was assigned, I skimmed it. A couple months ago, I picked it back up and read it cover to cover. That book is so important for me now. The core concept is that a writer should read with the intent of becoming a better writer. When I read it now, I do so focused not only on the story, but on the tools the writer is using to construct it. 

I have a shelf dedicated to books I reread for lessons on prose. I have a three-volume paperback collection of Chester Himes’s Harlem Cycle and I find myself opening those, even to a random page, and finding something inspiring. All nine of those books are written with such abandon. Himes has some of the most ridiculous phrases in all literature, but he pulls it off by never letting up. His work is a reminder for me that I can literally do whatever I want in a story as long as it drives the plot forward. 

But the most important area of my bookshelf is my full row of Dave Barry collections. I am not joking when I say that Dave Barry is one of our greatest writers. If you have gone longer than a week without reading one of his articles, it is likely you are miserable. 

What are you currently working on?

I’m pretty invested in a story about a boat trip that turns spooky as well as finishing my novel about a middle-aged cyborg just trying to enjoy his vacation. I’m also working on recording audiobooks of that novel and its prequel with a buddy of mine who recently quit his job to figure out what exactly he wants to do, which is one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed. We’re also working on a short film, and all this before I head to law school in the Fall and start suing the pants off everybody. I find myself constantly pulled by all these projects, which means it tends to take longer to complete one project, but I love being immersed in stories. 

Kristin Tenor

Kristin Tenor is a writer and editor who finds inspiration in life’s quiet details and believes in their power to illuminate the extraordinary. Her work has appeared in various literary journals including The Midwest Review, Bending Genres, Emerge Literary Journal, X-R-A-Y, and more. Her flash fiction piece, “Matinee,” was published in Spry Literary Journal’s eleventh issue. She and her husband call Wisconsin home.