The characters in Lindsay Hunter’s Don’t Kiss Me are not your typical heroes. There’s an overweight hairdresser, whose relationships are defined by her intense associations with food. There’s an unstable thirty-something, whose object of affection is a belching, Star Wars-obsessed nine-year-old. There’s a pack of violent desert nomads, an alcoholic gambler, and even Richard Nixon, whose gruff persona is amplified and tinged with perversion as he enjoys retirement.
Don’t Kiss Me, Hunter’s second short story collection, is a bold, haunting, and beautiful observation of lives lived outside the scope of the mainstream. Through the medium of flash fiction, Hunter near-effortlessly captures the hopes, fears, realizations, regrets, and desires of the uglier, more taboo, and misunderstood side of humanity. Though their worlds may be sordid, Hunter manages to infuse her misfits with incredible amounts of empathy and humor. Instead of repulsed, we often find ourselves rooting from the sidelines. And it’s hard not to voraciously ingest all 26 stories in Don’t Kiss Me, given their breakneck pace, raw emotion, and Hunter’s own propensity for language that pops but never fizzles.
Like many writers, Hunter attributes the cultivation of her distinctive flair for storytelling to her surroundings. While she dedicated her first collection, Daddy’s (2010), to the area in Central Florida where she grew up, Hunter dedicates Don’t Kiss Me to Chicago, which she’s called home ever since moving there for grad school almost a decade ago.
“I was completely enveloped in this welcoming community,” Hunter says of her adoptive city. “Pretty much from the get-go, when I started reading out at my own reading series [Quickies!] and other reading series, people were just really excited, and supportive, and everyone in this community seemed really happy for other people. Everyone’s doing their own thing…and I just felt like it was a place where I could let my freak flag fly.”
Growing up, Hunter wanted to be an actress, and she attended the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York for a spell, before discovering the craft wasn’t for her: “I think what I realized is, what I wanted was to be part of some sort of experience people were having. I wanted to be able to make them—or help them—feel. And I’ve always written my whole life, so I sort of returned to that after I had that realization.” Hunter switched gears, enrolled in The Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA program, relocated to the Midwest, and shortly after, began to show up at readings, where she used her performative roots to engage her audience.
“I try and inhabit the voice of the characters, because I want people to be immersed,” Hunter says. “It definitely comes across in the book in how I try and be very particular about every single word that I choose; every image that I describe, I try to do it in a way that is particular to the story, to the character, to the voice.”
Voice and form are at the epicenter of Don’t Kiss Me, which not only features a diverse cast of nonconformists, but also stories formatted in unconventional ways. Some are written in all-caps (“Candles” and “Don’t Kiss Me”), some with linguistic constraints (“Like” uses repetition of the word “like” to alternately propel the narrative and criticize vapid teen culture), and some even employ the use of columns and multiple speakers, much like a play (“Our Man,” a noir piece, is guided by its detective’s voice, but also broken up by interjections from a disgruntled murder victim).
Hunter has often been taken to task for her affinity to play with ideas of what a story can and cannot be. In the past, her fiction has been pegged as poetry, to which she counters, “I think maybe because I prize words and imagery over traditional narrative arcs, people can get confused by that, or want to label it something, when really, you don’t have to label it anything.” Writing in the short form has particularly accommodated Hunter’s sensibilities. “To me, a story is a defining moment in a person’s life,” she says. “And that’s what I really enjoy about flash fiction: It just lets you get to those moments so quickly—you’re in, you’re out. But once you’re out, you feel like that person was real—that world was real—and you ultimately (hopefully) relate to it, because you have all those moments in your life.”
In the end, everything about Hunter can be summed up by her desire to find worth in her characters. “When I sit down, I write from the heart,” she says.
While Don’t Kiss Me is not an easy read, it is transgressive without being navel-gazing, confrontational without being aggressive. But above all, it contains a whole lot of Hunter’s bloody, beating heart.
Rebecca Rubenstein is the Interviews Editor at The Rumpus, and can often be found thinking aloud on Twitter.