In Kim Fu’s short story collection, Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, there is a piece called “Do You Remember Candy.” In the tale, everyone loses the ability to taste. This is a known path of speculative fiction, outlining a global loss of sense and its results.
But Kim’s world, unlike so many others, does not implode. Instead, people adapt. They forget. And the central character builds art to help others remember, installation pieces of oil, weight, and exotic fabric, substitutes for a sensory organ made suddenly vestigial. In time, a younger generation, one that does not know—can never know—what this sense was like, approaches the art with their ageusia, not understanding what it means, what it meant.
There is taste and there is finding the memory of taste. Art can be a kind of blurry telepathy, like uncovering stones belonging to another time, carefully arranged, recollections left for you, allowing you to speculate on what each angle and shadow signifies. Likewise, the 12 stories in Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century are a contemporary excavation of a different sort. An overview of, as Kim puts it in our interview, “uniquely modern monsters.”
Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is available through Tin House.
How did this short story collection take shape and how did you decide on
I started writing these stories in December of 2017. I keep a
spreadsheet of all the books I’ve read, and out of curiosity, I just
went to look at it, and the last book I read in 2017 was Ted Chiang’s
Stories of Your Life and Others. Take that for what you will! Prior to
that, I’d been much more of a multi-genre writer—I wrote just as much
nonfiction and poetry as fiction—but for the next three and a half
years, short stories were all that interested me. They were all I wanted
to write. From the beginning, I felt that the stories were thematically
connected, though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate what those
themes were until I was almost done.
Early on, I asked a friend who read some of my first drafts what stuck
out in their mind, and they most vividly remembered the literal
monsters: the girl with wings, the sea monster, the cloaked supernatural
figures, the plague of insects. This friend is a visual artist, and they
said they envisioned the book like an illuminated manuscript from the
Middle Ages, with flourishes and miniature illustrations of these
creatures. I liked the idea of the book as a kind of monster compendium
or book of fables, an encyclopedia of monsters, of the present and near
future. Uniquely modern monsters.
One thing I enjoyed about these tales is how the fantastic
aspect—whether it is horror or speculative—manifests in the piece.
I’m thinking of the creature from “Bridezilla,” part Blob and part
Thing, and how it floats into the story of an unwanted marriage. Were
you conscious of using these elements as metaphors for a larger purpose?
No, in fact, I try to do the opposite! In early drafts, I try to take
the fantastic aspect as seriously as possible, to write it at face
value, without a clear metaphor or real-world analogue in mind. For me,
that’s the best way to write a story that’s engaging on a
moment-to-moment basis. The metaphor will happen on its own, no matter
what, because both the reader and I live in the real world, and we bring
to it our own biases and experiences. I brought up Ted Chiang a second
ago; he has a novella about raising AI creatures over the course of
decades (“The Lifecycle of Software Objects”), and it would be easy to
say, “It’s a story about parenthood.” But what makes it a great story,
in my opinion, is his thoughtful and detailed depiction of how AI like
that would function and develop—that’s why I connect so strongly to
the characters’ emotions, and in turn, to my own thoughts and feelings
Do you read widely in genre fiction or have influences there? The way
you use these elements reminds me more of someone like Ishiguro, who
does pretty much whatever he wants to serve the story. Would you
categorize some of these pieces as “soft science fiction,” and what do
you make of these labels?
The comparison to Ishiguro is so flattering! I was thrilled to have a
story from Monsters on Tor.com, and to see it reviewed in Locus and
Lightspeed. I very much wanted this book to have crossover appeal, to
be taken seriously in the genre community. There’s never been a shortage
of “literary fiction” writers who tell sci-fi or speculative stories,
nor genre writers who are eventually canonized as “literary.” Many of
the influences for this book were in that crossover space, like Future
Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, Friday Black by Nana Kwame
Adjei-Brenyah, Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages, everything by Karen
Russell, Kevin Brockheimer, and George Saunders. When I look at that
spreadsheet, there’s romance, YA, poetry, graphic novels, essay
collections, memoirs, reportage, thrillers, mysteries—what ultimately
frustrates me is how slowly I read and how few hours there are in the
day. I want to read everything.
Another thing I admire about your collection is the wide variety of
emotions explored. The first piece, “Pre-Simulation Consultation
on using AI to revisit the dead, is moving. But later, we get “Twenty
Hours”—an intense piece on hatred/love/the violent boredom of the
rich. Where did the idea for “Twenty Hours” come from?
I started “Twenty Hours” because of a sentence in a short story by
Elizabeth McCracken, titled “The Goings-On of the World”: “One morning
in the last week of May I got up, got dressed, and killed my wife.” I
love that sentence. It’s so jarring. It jerks you out of your chair,
stops your heart. McCracken’s story is about the Rip Van Winkle effect
of a fifty-year prison term, but I felt like that sentence could go in a
thousand different directions. I wrote it down and used it as a prompt.
“Twenty Hours” now begins: “After I killed my wife, I had twenty hours
before her new body finished printing downstairs.” You can see how I got
there. And while I was certainly thinking about the violent boredom of
the rich, their pursuit of immortality, and the way they go untouched by
much of human pain and experience, I was also writing about very banal
fantasies and feelings of boredom within a marriage—who would I be,
without my partner?—escalated by a fictional machine into a matter of
life and death.
In “Scissors,” (first appearing in Kink:
edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwall) a professional performs a show
with her lover, one they have done many times before. The tension comes
from the blindfold, trust and its dynamics. How did you approach this
story and was it a difficult one to write?
This was such a difficult story to write! For a long time, my first
instinct was to treat bad, traumatic sex as something worthy of close
literary attention, and to treat good, pleasurable sex as something to
gloss over in a sentence or two—which I think is both artistically and
spiritually wrongheaded. Garth has been writing and speaking for years
about the underexplored power of writing explicitly about sex, as a site
of intense vulnerability and metaphysical and cultural meaning, and when
I got the anthology call for Kink, I wanted to try to write something
joyful and embodied for once, where—as you said—it’s not a
manufactured external conflict that drives the narrative, but the
question of trust inherent to all sex, and in particular the higher-risk
style of play in this story. The early drafts of this story were too
quiet, too slow; I had to really drill down into the emotions and
sensations, and push past a lot of my own fear and anxiety. All writing
is a little bit humiliating, you always offer yourself up for ridicule
to some degree, but writing a story that is actually supposed to be
erotic is really on another level.
You frequently show characters struggling with societal conditioning. In
“June Bugs,” the main character often comforts her abuser, even
conditions herself to believe their first kiss was magical as the real
details of that event—her drunkenness, his groping—crawl in her
awareness. It is strongly feminist and also very real. Was this your
intention and what other writers influenced you in this regard?
This dynamic is familiar to me from my personal life, as it is, sadly,
to many people, and I wanted to portray it accurately, both through and
in contrast to the more surreal elements of the story. There was a short
story I read in 2016 in Minola Review by Meghan Bell, “Erase and
Rewind,” that comes to mind as an influence, about a character who
discovers she can go backward in time shortly after she’s sexually
assaulted. The story unpacks the assault and the relationship leading up
to it as the character relives everything in reverse, trying to find the
crucial moment where she can prevent it. It’s a fantastical scenario
that feels devastatingly familiar and real, like mornings I’ve had, like
a million conversations I’ve had with friends. Red Clocks by Leni
Zumas is another boldly feminist, speculative work that I really loved,
as well as “The Vegetarian” (in the collection of the same name) by Han
Kang—what a wonderfully dark act of feminist protest that story is.
I’m told short stories are difficult to sell. Yet, we keep writing them.
Do writers like them because they can be more experimental? Because they
tend to find a more open and forgiving audience? What are some things
that draw you to the short story?
You know, people say that, but there are so many interesting collections
coming out this year. I choose to believe they’re having a renaissance.
But I don’t think short stories have a more forgiving audience! If
anything, as a reader, I’m harder on stories than I am on novels,
because they have less time to grab my attention, immerse me in a
complete world, connect me to characters with believably full, complex
lives. I feel like I’m more open to meandering along with a novel,
seeing where it will take me, letting its sense of meaning and purpose
build. With a short story, I want to be on board immediately. I feel
like a novel considers a thousand ideas, turning each one gently,
testing its heft like an orange at the grocery store; a short story
takes one idea, wrings every drop of juice from it, and lets you drink
it in a single gulp. A short story can be so satisfying, so sharp: a
magnificent little machine, a bracing slap in the face. You can read one
over your lunch break and have it stick with you for the rest of your
What advice do you have for writers when it comes to handling short
Read lots of them! I hate this idea some people have—mostly people who
don’t read short stories—that stories are a practice or preparatory
form, while you work your way up to writing a novel. To me, they’re as
distinct from a novel as an essay or a poem, and if you want to write
them, you need to determine what it is you like about the stories you
like, how they function structurally, what makes them land.
This is just my personal preference, but I also believe brevity is a
crucial feature of the story. Not in the sense of a particular word or
page count—one of the stories in Monsters is novella length—but
rather, while editing, you should consider how necessary everything is.
Every scene, beat, sentence, word—if you cut it, would it make a
difference? Would the story change, fundamentally? If not, it should
Your first book, For Today I Am a
Boy, was published in
2014 to much praise. How has your writing changed since then?
I like to think everything in my writing has changed! A lot of writers I
know cringe when they read their earlier published works, who can only
see a matrix of mistakes and changes they wish they could make. I don’t
feel that way—I recognize their flaws in the way I would in work by
someone else. I’m grateful to be able to look back at my previous books
and see who I was when I was writing them, the themes that interested
me, the influences I can recognize, but they feel so far away and
complete, like a dream I had years ago. I wouldn’t, and couldn’t, write
In terms of writing practice, though, I would say I’m actually finding
my way back to the way I wrote when I was much younger, when I was
writing mainly for fun, into the void, with no expectation of being
published or read. I’ve always written in erratic bursts, writing for
days straight and then not writing for months, writing scraps and images
and lines to no particular end, stitching together disparate bits,
throwing away ninety percent of what I create. For years, after my first
novel came out, I tried really hard to be a different, more disciplined
kind of writer, who had fully realized concepts and sat down every day
to chip away at them. I longed to be the kind of person who wakes up at
five and churns out 750 words every day, without fail. I thought this
was what it meant to be a serious writer, a career writer. It never
worked, but only recently have I truly given up on that dream, and
embraced writing in this playful, experimental way, trusting the process
that has served me before.
Thanks, Kim, for this interview. What is next for you after this book
My pleasure! I’m just starting to work on another novel. It’s in that
nascent, disparate, bits-and-bobs stage I was describing above, where
even I have no idea what it’s about. I’m thrilled for Monsters to be
out in the world, but my mind is already camped out in the next
Kim Fu is the author of For Today I Am a Boy which won the Edmund
White Award for Debut Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway
Award, as well as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her
second novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, was a finalist for
the Washington State Book Award and the OLA Evergreen Award. Fu’s
writing has appeared in Granta, the Atlantic, the New York Times,
Hazlitt, and the TLS. She lives in Seattle.