In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Katie Yee

by Feb 20, 2024

Red gumball machine on a round table with shadows on a red wall and a solitary blue gumball on the floor.

Image by swords4two

Your piece, “Pennies Only,” blends the steady life of a relationship with a fantastical gumball machine. Where did the inspiration for this piece come from?

Truthfully, the finding of the gumball machine is actually completely based in real life. It was 2020, at pretty much the start of the pandemic. (Read: a totally great and safe time to bring someone’s discarded trash into your home.) My boyfriend and I had gone out to walk the dog, and when we came back, there it was: sitting in front of the building, just like that. It felt like it had been left for us somehow, so we brought it back to his apartment (and cleaned it a lot). We’ve moved twice since then, and of course it’s come with us each time. I’m staring at it now.

I guess what I mean to say is, like a lot of writers, I draw bits from my daily life and then I take a step back from reality and ask, “What’s the most fucked up thing that could happen in this scenario?” And then we go from there.

The voice for “Pennies Only” is wonderfully distinct. Your slight breaking of the fourth wall throughout the piece draws readers in and seems to include us in the gumball secret. I’m thinking of your use of “our couple” or “Look, there they are…”. Was this the original voice of your piece? Who do you imagine your narrator being?

I like the way you phrased that: the “slight breaking of the fourth wall.” You’re totally right. It’s not a break. It’s just a little crack in the fourth wall. It was indeed the original voice of the piece; I think the tone of it mirrors something like narrating the make-believe lives of your neighbors. (In a sense, the narrator could be someone peering in.)

This crack in the fourth wall is something Kelly Link does really well: she invites you in, creates this sense of intimacy with the reader. Implicates you. Catches you looking.

It has an almost fairy tale quality when she does it: the sense of a story being told. Who narrates the fairy tales? That’s who I’m imagining. 

Your work has so many delightfully fun layers and fluidly includes symbolism. Are those parts that you’ve intentionally laid out as you’re writing? Or are those pieces parts that surprise you in revision, which you then tease out in editing?

Honestly, I live to be surprised with each sentence! I’m not an outliner. (I so admire people who are that organized, though!) If you’re asking specifically about the odd items that come out of the gumball machine, I can tell you that at some point in the middle of drafting, I made a long list of jarring things that could conceivably come out of it. These are the ones that just felt right when I wrote them down. Something just clicked. 

In the very first draft of this story, the ending was different. (Spoiler alert!) The gumball machine doesn’t break in that first draft. Instead, smoke pours out of it and floods the rooms of their apartment, and we’re left with the image of them unable to see through the smoke but reaching towards each other. That kind of symbolism felt forced, so it had to go! 

Another one of your pieces, The Carols, published in Washington Square Review, also revolves around domestic partnerships and the windows into other people’s lives that living in close quarters brings. What keeps you returning to these themes? What are some other themes you return to throughout your work?

I love to walk my dog around to the fancier blocks and peer into brownstones and form a parasocial relationship with the people who live there (if I like their books or their decor). This is an endless well to draw from! Imaginary friends are fascinating. They teach you so much about yourself. Like, maybe you didn’t know you needed a mushroom-shaped lamp until you saw it illuminating someone else’s life! Similarly, putting your characters up against other characters can reveal so much about them. Other people add surprise. 

When you move in with someone—even someone you know really well—you are surprised every day by the ways in which they are not you. For instance, I am surprised constantly by the inventive places in which my partner thinks to leave his dirty socks that are, in fact, not the hamper. Surprise!

And yet—despite the socks—I would say we are generally very happy. And it’s hard to capture mostly happy couples in interesting ways. I keep returning to this theme of domestic partnership because I don’t think I’ve cracked it yet. And because I can’t imagine ever not writing about love. You’ll never get to the bottom of it! You can dig and dig and you’ll find a different weird buried treasure every time. Love, like other people, will always add surprise. 

What authors helped shape the writing you do today? What are some stories or writing you return to?

Oh, I love this question! I will take any opportunity to tell people to read Aimee Bender. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is one of the most perfect short story collections that exists. She is a master at giving physicality to feeling. (In the title story, for example, a character wears grief as a stone backpack.) Other loves include Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Ruth Ozeki—they’re each so singularly weird and gutting and wonderful. They’re my patron saints. 

What else are you currently working on?

More short stories! And a little novel, too—it started as a short story but kept rolling away from me.

Katie Yee in an orange blazer in front of a bookshelf.

Photo by Roque Nonini

Katie Yee is a writer from Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in No Tokens, The Believer, the Washington Square Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Triangle House, and Literary Hub. She has received fellowships from The Center for Fiction, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and Kundiman. By day, she works at the Brooklyn Museum. By night, she chips away at a collection of short stories and a novel.

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