The Lightning Room with Dalena Frost


–Interview by Diana Clarke


In “Winter’s Kitchen,” November author Dalena Frost wrote hunger and cold. Digest her words just in time for this new dark season.


1. I loved your use of apt and incongruous figurative language—the sun a “slow oil bubble” in a “denim sky,” its setting like “a witch deflating.” It rendered the ordinary experience of a sunrise strange, and therefore noticeable and tangible—but even moreso it made the whole idea of figurative writing strange. Why, so often, are we taught to write congruity? What happens when we reject it?

Thank you! If we reject congruity, I hope we can reject traditional or clichéd ways of seeing, and wake up to the present, to seeing for ourselves. The world is always strange and fresh and unsettling, but with familiarity, we forget.

2. There’s such darkness and estrangement in the arrival of the ant-man with his “gleaming, sharp” sword. The haphazard menace of something or someone with “a claim on [our] past.” But writing often demands that we confront history. How do you handle your own?

The ant man does have a claim on Winter’s past, definitely, but he also appears, like the orange, as something “other” and unidentifiable, inassimilable, and I think this contributes to the sense of menace as much as anything else. The confrontation that I feel takes place in his arrival is one of learning to recognize this simultaneous difference and similarity. What’s in the past is out of reach, sometimes suppressed or unknowable, and when it reappears, we may not, through our suppression or distance, be able to recognize it. This is what happens with Winter: she doesn’t remember the ant man, and seems unable to return his love, but she doesn’t reject the truth of his statement—that he was in fact a part of her past. Only when he splits himself into two pieces, his human body and his ant head, does Winter finally recognize his hand. So the confrontation with past becomes a process, once we have begun the work of excavation.

In terms of writing about the past more generally, I try to be aware of significant influences and events that precede the space of the narrative, and how they might manifest within the story—even if these manifestations aren’t recognized by the characters in their moment of appearance, or even at all.

3. Half-way through “Winter’s Kitchen,” the narrator says “these questions are pointless. It is the nature of the world and some day I will become used to it.” And yet I don’t believe her. (I assume, perhaps unfairly, that the narrator is a woman.) Why write otherwise? What use do these unanswerable questions have?

No, you’re right, the narrator is a woman. I tried to be clear about that, without over-emphasizing it. And it’s an interesting point, the assumption about narrator and gender that we bring to a piece of fiction. These days, I am writing primarily female characters, but I do think it’s good and worthwhile to push back against that assumption.

As for the unanswerable questions… I agree with your impulse to distrust the narrator. She’s kind of bitter, I think, since the story isn’t about her, though that’s really her own doing. So the fact that her answer to these questions is unsatisfying is an opportunity for those questions to perhaps outgrow the story, or lead to other questions, because I’m not convinced that she is even asking the right ones. Why this and not the other? Why her and not me? Maybe it’s a result of cause and effect, maybe a result of not the right time, or not the right story. It reflects the quest for self-understanding, the need to make sense of the world, and I think that for these kinds of existential-seeming questions the only way to get at them is to try to write around them and push at them, testing them. They can never really be summed up, but only pointed at from a distance and sought after.

4. Your writing pays gorgeous attention to a litany of baked goods—“strawberry cake, plates of butter cookies and flaky misshapen croissants, ginger snaps and miniature peach tarts”—but also to the act of their creation. Mixing, straining muscles, sneaking a spoonful of jam. Do you bake? How did you come to the idea of baking as central to this story?

I bake sometimes. Baking is good! When you bake, there’s a sense of control and intentionality, though you can still mess it up. But it’s this opportunity to create what you want the way that you want it, without having to rely on someone else, and it’s also intimate. Eating is intimate. At least I think so. Winter was always a baker in this story. That was always her outlet. I think it has to do with her dissatisfaction with Solomon and her situation. The kitchen is a place to try to take control, to burrow into herself and create a little self-sustained universe with her friend, the narrator. Of course, it can’t last.

5. This story moves so easily and quickly between concrete action and the existential, as when you write “flour dust is like the galaxy and the jam globs are the stars.” In your bio you write that you have “never…liked binaries or restrictions—in writing or in life.” Which makes me think it’s okay to ask how much of yourself is in this very intimate-feeling story, this unnamed first-person narrator. What boundaries do or can you draw between author and page?

I think this question has a number of answers and it depends on the author and the page. Some of my favorites works of fiction are those that could fall into the category of the “I-Novel” or “autobiographical fiction” or “auto-fiction.” As a writer who is fond of writing in the first person, I see my task as being to go through the self in order to reach the other. In other words, empathy. Whether I’m writing in the first or third or second person, the individual whose perspective I’m writing should be real and believable. I think I can naturally empathize with and therefore write about a wide range of experiences that don’t necessarily reflect me-as-I-am-today, but me-as-I-could-conceivably-be. And then there’s a much wider range of experiences that I would have much more difficulty writing. But as a writer, my goal is to continually broaden the range of what I can learn to empathize with, to write from the voice or perspective of someone who does something I would normally, in my everyday life, want to distance myself from. It’s like what Goethe said: “There is no crime of which I could not conceive myself guilty.” Once we recognize our own potential culpability, we become able to write from a place of greater understanding. For me, the “self” always extends to include others. So writing from a place of self and other become the same thing, though practice—at least hypothetically. I still have a long way to go.