Interview: Naomi K. Lewis, I Know Who You Remind Me Of

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From its title onward, the debut story collection by Naomi K. Lewis is about forging a future in order to spite one’s past. I Know Who You Remind Me Of contains little in the way of fuzzy, harmless nostalgia. Instead, the past is more like a pine needle stuck in your shoe: uncomfortable, often painful, and all but impossible to ignore.

“The first two stories are about teenagers,” Lewis says, on the phone from her home in Calgary, “but the others are about adults who are still dealing with the repercussions of something that happened when they were young—the significance of which they couldn’t have known at the time, but which has become a defining moment for them.”

In most of the stories, those defining moments come couched in recognizable, if extreme, situations. The teenage protagonist of “Warp,” blindsided by flattery in a rock T-shirt store, winds up posing for pornographic pictures in an older couple’s bedroom. In “Digging a Hole,” two childhood friends stay uneasily in each other’s orbits, even though common interests have long since passed them by. And can you guess what organ a lover impetuously decides to donate in “Eye”?

Among these familiar settings, however, are two stories with much higher and much stranger ambitions. (They’re also the only two stories that explicitly take place in Edmonton. Lewis, who lived here from 2005 to 2008, giggles and pleads coincidence.)

The first is a novella called “Attachment.” Originally, Lewis, who also works as an editor for Alberta Views magazine (where she edits some of my own writing), says it was going to be a novel about a dysfunctional family, told in the form of a letter. But after several years of work, and far too many pages, she finally admitted she’d lost control of the narrative. “It was immensely long, and rambly, and really wasn’t working,” she says.

That’s when Lewis had to get creative. “Attachment” now looks like a job application, with the text itself as one long, excessively personal addendum to the sender’s resume. And the job itself is just as unusual: to “man the world’s first self-contained extra-atmospheric rocket and skydiving device” for a company called Bottle Rock-It Soda Pop.

Or, as the narrator’s sister puts it, “Mum says you want to be shot through the air dressed as a bottle of cola!”

None of this was in the original story. Still, once Lewis decided on the new plan of attack, everything clicked into place. She finished the new version—which now checks in at just under 80 pages—in just two weeks.

Which brings us to “Flex.” Oh, “Flex.” I’ve never made a list of my favourite short stories of the year, but if I did, this dizzying time-travel romance tale would be a contender for the 2012 title belt.

It may have a little less flash than “Attachment,” but “Flex” is ultimately far more satisfying. The story picks up as our hero, Noel, begins a mundane job throwing out old binders in a government building. But a co-worker quickly ropes him into a plan to exploit a loophole in their work schedule; eventually, they’ll have built up enough hours to enter some kind of wormhole, at which point they’ll live the entire week again, but in reverse. “The point is,” his co-worker tells him, “avoid home, work and anywhere else when Noel1 is there.” For the next seven days, he will be Noel2.

The premise is plenty of fun on its own, but Lewis pulls off a delicious feat of chronology, too. I tripped up several times near the beginning, on details that were jarring or unrealistic—only to later realize that every single one of them was a calculated side-effect of Noel2’s future behaviour. The logistics of his workplace romance alone are a thing of beauty.

Lewis says she usually doesn’t use any kind of outline while writing. But for “Flex,” she made an exception. “I needed two different timelines,” she says. “I had to chart it out, day by day, hour by hour of what was happening.”

Enfield & Wizenty, 232 pp., $29.95, hardcover

(profile originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, September 28, 2012)