A case study in ascension

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Cody Klippenstein is feeling pretty good these days.

The fledgling UVic writer, who is set to graduate with her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in April, recently won Zoetrope’s annual fiction contest with her story “Case Studies in Ascension.” The win came with a $1 000 prize and the distinction of being recognized by one of the most prestigious literary magazines in North America.

Klippenstein was waiting for a ferry to Vancouver when she received the news of the win via a text message from a friend in the U.S.

“It was so packed in the waiting area that I was sitting on the floor against a wall,” she says. While she checked her phone for the results, she paced around the lobby, focusing on her deep breathing. Nearby passengers seemed concerned she was about to throw up.

“I checked the inbox on my phone — nothing. Checked the website — something,” she says. “I was beyond thrilled. I’d had hopes for the story, but not expectations.”

Lee Henderson, one of Klippenstein’s writing professors at UVic, says the win is well deserved. “Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope magazine is known for discovering tomorrow’s talent. And it is not easy to get published in Zoetrope, let alone win their All-Story contest.”

Henderson feels confident the win will bring Klippenstein attention from literary agents and will lead to a promising career.

“It takes a while to see that book that comes from all this success, but you can be sure that, within a few years, she’ll have one on the shelves at Chapters.”

Klippenstein first wrote “Case Studies in Ascension” during a writing workshop with author and UVic instructor Matthew Hooton in spring 2012. The story blends magic realism into an intimate familial drama. Hooton says the story immediately stood out among the others he was marking.

“I remember reading it twice before just penning an exclamation mark at the top. I even took a break from marking later in the day to reread it yet again. It’s one of my favourite pieces of short fiction ever. By anyone. And that’s not something I say lightly.”

Klippenstein was inspired to write “Case Studies in Ascension” after reading St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised by Wolves by American author Karen Russell.

“I remember thinking, ‘Yes! This is what I’m trying to do with my own fiction,’” Klippenstein says. “I wanted to attempt to write the same magic combination of weird and wonderful that I look for when I’m reading; to be courageous enough to invent characters that, for example, commune with the dead on a defunct gator park in Florida, as in Russell’s Swamplandia! — or, in the case of my piece, that suffer from a strange family curse and fall in love with an investigating anthropologist.”

Russell was the judge of Zoetrope’s contest, which is partly what convinced Klippenstein to submit her story in the first place. Russell selected “Case Studies in Ascension” out of over 2 200 submissions.

This wasn’t Klippenstein’s first taste of success. She was a fiction finalist for the Malahat Review’s 2012 Open Season awards. Earlier this year, she won first place and $2 000 in The Fiddlehead’s fiction contest for her story “We Gotta Get Out Of Here,” which takes place in Vancouver in the early ‘80s. The story follows a young female groupie of a hardcore punk band.

“Most of the short fiction I write tends to be set in or around Connecticut, where I grew up, and I wanted to write something a little closer to [the West Coast] while challenging myself to do more research than I was used to,” says Klippenstein.

“I used music as a springboard and dove in from there. Looking into the ‘80s hardcore punk movement in Vancouver was pretty cool, actually, and the more I found, the more I wanted to keep digging. I listened to a lot of music while writing — early D.O.A, the Pointed Sticks, the Modernettes — and watched a few then-and-now interviews on the Internet with the West-Coast punk bands that were active in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. And I got to hear excellent stories from some friends and relatives who were there at the time, who went to the shows and drove their parents crazy and did things just to see if they’d survive them.”

The story was selected by Alexander MacLeod, the author of the acclaimed collection of short fiction Light Lifting. MacLeod says judging contests can be stressful, but finding something special makes it worthwhile.

“This contest was a bit of a freaky one. I don’t know if it was a nihilistic vibe or the zeitgeist of the age or just something in the air,” he says. “There were a whole lot of stories about a young, lost generation, a lot of stories about bad drugs and bad sex and earnest, ‘real’ music. After you read 10 or 12 of those things, it’s easy to get de-sensitized and to just see the next story as yet another example of the same trend. In Cody’s case, though, I was taken in by the language itself, the timing of the sentences, the relationships between the characters and the overall structure of the story. It’s a cliché, I know, but when something is careful and right, it just shines through.”

MacLeod judged the contest blind, so he had no idea whether the author was male or female, young or old. He says he was unsurprised to discover that Klippenstein is a 22-year-old undergraduate student.

“Talent is talent, and she’s clearly got it. She had it when she was 12 and she’ll have it when she’s 32. Twenty-two is just a stage along the way,” he says.

Klippenstein’s teachers are similarly optimistic about her prospects.

“What distinguishes her work from others’?” says Hooton. “Every damn sentence. Every image. Every scene. She’s technically gifted, but it’s more than that. It’s a type of artistic magic. Her prose is so clean and accomplished that the techniques she’s using (and make no mistake, she works hard at them) disappear and leave me immersed in her stories. So much so that it was actually a pain in the ass to grade them, as I constantly had to reread them to assess the machinery behind the gorgeousness.”

Henderson seconds the sentiment.

“Cody is an absolutely meticulous writer — every word counts. The language is alive and energetic and full of rich detail. Plus, she has the vision thing. Her story ideas are beautiful and uncommon.”

Both of Klippenstein’s award-winning stories involve Asian characters as protagonists, something she says she didn’t do on purpose.

“Funny, they also happen to be the only stories I’ve written featuring characters of Asian descent. I’m half-Chinese, but that half is fourth-generation Canadian. My great-great-grandfather arrived in B.C. with the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. So I’m not actually all that familiar with that part of my background,” she says. “When writing these stories, I felt I could work with the sense of displacement and isolation that my protagonists deal with. And I guess feeling far removed from your own cultural roots is also, in a sense, a type of displacement that can be explored through writing.”

Klippenstein is currently working on a full-length manuscript. When asked what her further literary ambitions are, Klippenstein simply says she wants to have the time and ability to write books.

“And okay, one day to get a Tweet from Margaret Atwood asking if I’d want to have lunch. She seems like she’d fire out tough questions about life, literature and science and challenge all my flustered replies and then expect me to foot the bill at the end, but it’d be worth it. Probably.”

 

“My mother used to teach me bits and pieces of Japanese, whatever she managed to remember whenever memory struck her. Her head was so full of my father — her love, her grief — she had room for little else. The day she ascended she listened to me introduce myself over and over again at the breakfast table — Hello, my name is Miu and Nice to meet you; goodbye — something we’d practiced the night before during dessert. By early afternoon I’d found her on the ceiling of the living room, twenty feet in the air, long black hair tangled around the brass chain of the chandelier. Obaa-san was knee-deep in the backyard garden pulling weeds. There was rain, but even so, my mother asked me if I wouldn’t open the window, let the house breathe.”

— From “Case Studies in Ascension” by Cody Klippenstein

 

“It was autumn when I first started shacking up with E, the season as pungent and sudden and liquid as gasoline, and the trees were slick bursts of flame. I’d severed myself from those freaky IVs that were sucking my life away – the Academy, for one, with its heavy wool coats and dreary grey tube socks, each uniform pair cutting off the circulation of every Kerrisdale schoolgirl’s legs to the knee, and then, of course, my family. I was pissed at my father for being someone I might see three times a year and other than that, only in letters faxed to our home machine. There was never any mention of me. But more than that, I was pissed at what I had to deal with in his stead: my mother’s slowness, the way she put one heeled toe so carefully in front of the other, turning a three-block stroll from our downtown parking spot to the Royal Bank into a precarious balancing act; the number of times she had to repeat herself to the teller, whose brows descended further down his face each time he failed to decipher the request soured by the rice vinegar twang of her accent.”

­— From “We Gotta Get Out of Here” by Cody Klippenstein 

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