I’ve been a fan of Carla Crujido and her work since I first met her at the Institute of American Indian Arts. At the time, Carla was working on a novel, the seed of which split into the various short stories that make up her collection The Strange Beautiful (Chin Music Press, 2023). Carla’s fascination with time and place render vividly detailed worlds, while her poetic language captures her imaginative plot lines that depict characters from various historical moments. Take a tour of any American city with Carla, and you will quickly be impressed with her knowledge of history and place (as well as in stitches from her sense of humor). In The Strange Beautiful, the place is Mount Vernon Apartments in Spokane, Washington, with each story set in a different apartment at a different time period. Carla masterfully leads her readers on a whimsical tour through the lives of those who inhabited the building, depicting the stories of people searching for beauty and often finding tragedy.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Carla about her debut collection over Zoom in which we talked fairy tales, research, and the power of food in fiction.
Kasia Merrill: What is it that first attracted you to the Mount Vernon Apartments in Spokane?
Carla Crujido: Mount Vernon Apartments appeared in a movie that my mom and I were watching together, in the 1990s, and she realized that she lived in that particular building in the 1960s. She had a very strange experience there that involved a man in a black top hat—just like the man in the movie. Whether it was a dream or reality, the experience totally colored the world of my siblings and me. We didn’t sleep with the doors closed, and hated to sleep in pitch-black rooms. The story became a part of our family mythology, and it was also the inspiration for the final story of my collection, “The Mirror.” This fascination with the “man in black,” as we came to call him, launched my journey of trying to find the owners of the apartment building, so I could try to see and experience the apartment for myself. It took 25 years for me to finally connect with them, and when I did, they invited me to visit. When I went into my mom’s old apartment, I had an experience of my own with a former tenant who lived there decades before my mom. I could hear her voice and see her story start to unfold, and that, more than anything, was the beginning of “The Strange Beautiful.”
KM: It was like the place picked you.
CC: Exactly. I thought I picked the place, but you are absolutely right, because I could have just gone into the apartment, looked around, and that would have been that, but the connection was immediate and intense. From that moment forward, I knew that I had to write a book.
KM: I really like that idea of a place or person picking you to describe or express it, and in turn, following that instinct. Would you say that describes your process in most of your writing?
CC: It absolutely does. Sometimes, I have an idea around a particular topic, but I feel that if I am too linear in my thought process or decide what I’m going to write, it doesn’t work. So, it’s usually the ideas that present themselves to me.
KM: That’s really interesting. Your book has a really unique structure. I haven’t read a book before where each story takes place in a different apartment within the same building. Were there any specific books or writers that inspired this structure?
CC: I think the biggest influence was Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which I read when I was living in San Francisco. I absolutely adored his work. His books are set in one apartment building with the various characters moving in and out of each other’s lives. They are, of course, in the same time period, as opposed to my stories which take place over a span of one hundred years. Initially, I planned to also set my stories in the same time period, but as I started writing, I discovered there were distinct time periods I wanted to cover, so I began to jump around and find themes and connectors to tie everything together.
KM: Location is such a huge part of this collection. I would say another huge connector is food and the role it plays to give a sense of place, time, and the cultural backgrounds of each of the characters. How do you think we as writers can use food to ground writing and to create a sense of setting, mood, and time?
CC: I came from a food-obsessed family, so food is very important to me. I feel that it shows so much about who a person is, where they came from, what they think, what they love, what they hate. Writers can use this to their advantage in so many ways. Food and foodways are a rich and underused way to unlock deeper truths about who a character is and what they really want. As far as my characters go, I used food mainly to give insight into their personalities. There were also mentions of places that sadly no longer exist, like The Percolator, a tiny wedge of a spot, that served towering slices of cake and endless cups of coffee, and was so popular customers would wait against the wall to get one of the coveted counter seats; or the Top Hat Drive-In, where waitresses dressed in uniforms and roller skated your food to you; or the Tea Room at the Crescent Department Store, which was for ladies who lunched. I feel that food, and where it is eaten, goes a long way in conveying a certain mood and sense of time and place on the page. It has also been pointed out to me that cake appears thirty-two times in the collection. It can only mean one of two things: I was constantly craving cake while I wrote these stories or there is a deeper meaning hidden between the layers.
KM: One of the really amazing things about this collection is how you take historical fiction and infuse it with a fairy tale atmosphere. When you first started writing about these apartments, did you plan to have a magical realism element, or was that something that evolved naturally?
CC: Early on I battled with how to tell the stories. For example, when I started my story, “The Mirror,” I intended to write it as pure historical fiction. One of my mentors, the writer Toni Jensen, read an early version of it and saw the elements of fairy tale and magic in the work. She told me to go deeper and embrace the strangeness, which was something that I hadn’t explored before. The minute I embraced the surreal element, it poured out of me. I focused on writing these stories in metaphor, and that was when I was able to delve deeper and get to the truth of these stories and the characters.
KM: That’s neat how using your imagination gave you access to history and made it more real in a sense.
CC: Right. That was the key that unlocked the door.
KM: I couldn’t imagine these stories without a fairy tale aspect. One of the short stories in this collection, “The Tower,” is about a woman navigating a suffocating relationship during a time of the Spanish flu. The story approaches the topic of the pandemic without being directly about the pandemic. Did you write this piece with the pandemic in mind and did setting it in a different time period with a different type of pandemic happening make it easier to write?
CC: It made it much easier. I wrote that piece at the height of Covid. I was taking the collective emotion, as well as what was happening around us—the masks, the quarantining, the isolation, the rules, all of it—and putting it down on paper. It was all exactly the same as it was during the Spanish Flu in 1918. However, in setting it 100 years in the past, it was much easier to write a pandemic story. If I would have set it in the current time period, I don’t think I would have been able to get it onto the page. I really wanted to make a point of showing how cyclical history is because it could have been set in 2020 and been exactly the same story.
KM: My next question was about research. How much of a role did research play in writing these stories? Would you begin with the story, then research more? Or would you begin with the research and then use that to launch into the story?
CC: Usually, an idea around a certain time period would pop into my head and that would launch my research. This was often to my detriment because I’d get so lost in the research, it was hard to come back from it and start writing. Eventually I’d emerge from this historical deep dive and write the world that I had entered via research. To that end, I tried to immerse myself as much as possible in each specific time period via archival photographs, newspaper articles, and by reading stacks and stacks of books. I’d also listen to the music of the period, watch TV shows (if applicable), and eat food from that particular moment in time. One thing that I dreamed of every time I sat down to write, which is very specific to the Northwest and that I never got to eat, was huckleberry pie. I wished daily that the pie goddess of Spokane, Kate Lebo, was in my kitchen baking pies for me while I wrote.
KM: I think we could all use a pie goddess in our lives. Which of these stories was your favorite to write and why?
CC: “The Telephone” was my absolute favorite because it’s set between the present and 1973, and the character from 1973 is based on my Auntie Helen, my lifelong idol, who I lost a year ago. She was still alive when I was writing this collection, but never got to read the finished story (which I hope she would have loved). However, it was fun to think about her being super young in the 1970s and capturing her during that time period; who she was, what she was like. Also, the ‘70s is one of my favorite time periods in history.
KM: I also really enjoyed “The Telephone,” but I would say “The Bear” left the strongest impact upon me because it was so heartbreaking.
CC: Oh, yes, Boris. Even though he’s a bear, he is one of my favorite characters. “The Telephone” was my favorite story to write, but “The Bear” is the hardest for me to read because it is absolutely heartbreaking. Even though I wrote that story, I cry every time I read it.
KM: You really killed your darlings in that one. Faulkner would have been proud of you.
CC: When I learned that lesson of “killing your darling,” I thought it was ridiculous. Killing my darlings would kill me! I couldn’t do it and that’s one thing that writing short stories freed in me; it just completely changed my writing. Writing short stories allowed me to do things that I never allowed myself to do in a novel . . . like making my favorite characters disappear.
Carla Crujido is the Nonfiction Editor at River Styx Magazine. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts and has had work published in Crazyhorse, Yellow Medicine Review, Ricepaper Magazine, Tinfish Press, The Ana, and elsewhere. Her short story collection, The Strange Beautiful, is forthcoming from Chin Music Press in the fall of 2023. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and can be found at www.carlacrujido.com.