The cover of Courtney Sender's book "In Other Lifetimes All I've Lost Comes Back to Me."
The cover of Courtney Sender's book "In Other Lifetimes All I've Lost Comes Back to Me."

I first met Courtney Sender in Baltimore back in 2016. I had just finished revising my first novel, and a friend in my writing group recommended that I contact Courtney about querying agents, which I had no idea how to do (beyond Googling how find agent sell novel). Courtney was apparently well known in the Johns Hopkins MFA community as a wunderkind, a superstar whose stories were fierce and gorgeous, universally loved and praised. But you couldn’t hate her too much, my friend said, because Courtney was so damn nice and generous and helpful!–an assessment I wholeheartedly agreed with as soon as I met her. Courtney spent a lot of time with me that day and afterward, holding my hand through the agent-querying and editor-submission processes. She’s an amazing literary citizen who taught me how important it is to support other writers and strengthen our community. 

One wonderful byproduct of our friendship over the years has been the honor of getting to read Courtney’s work–even an early draft of a novel, which I loved and devoured, hoping that the singular combination of precision and sensuality in her prose would somehow magically rub off on my own writing. I can’t wait until it’s out so that I can recommend it to everyone I know. In the meantime, I’m thrilled to be interviewing her about her debut book of braided stories, “In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me.”

Angie Kim: For the readers who haven’t read your beautiful book, do you have an elevator pitch of sorts? I’ve heard you describe the book’s title as a summary of its themes and structure, which is fascinating. 

Courtney Sender: The elevator pitch: it’s about love, longing, loneliness–and ghosts of the Holocaust.

The long-car-ride pitch: If you’ve been single and hurt by it, if you’ve felt the longing not to go through this life alone, or the fear that you will, then I wrote this book for you. It’s both representation and consolation for that condition of loneliness.

The title and the first story function like a little guide to the sections: “In Other Lifetimes” is that impossible desire, to have had a different life; “All I’ve Lost” is the pain of being alone; and “Comes Back to Me” is the hope.

AK: I LOVE that way of thinking of the title. I personally have a horrible time coming up with titles my publishers don’t object to for one reason or another. When did you come up with this title and the organizing principle? Sorry to keep focusing on this but it’s simply brilliant. It’s an entire story and kaleidoscope of emotions in one sentence, like those six-word flash stories.

CS: Titles! I remember when I wrote for Modern Love, and the New York Times editor changed my title–of course, I now know, all the newspapers and magazines do that. I never would have chosen the title they used, but the Times knew better than me how to get people reading. I’d pitched as “When Consent is Not Enough”; they went with the flashier, “He Asked Permission to Touch, but Not to Ghost.”

AK: I remember when that came out! Like your stories, that essay slayed me. So powerful! How about the book?

CS: The book title came late in the process. I didn’t realize at first that “In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me” would be the first story in the collection, but when I realized that, the whole book clicked. The first word of that story, and of the book, is “Yes.” That felt right, in a book that’s so much about the “no” of rejection and loss.

It’s a little hard to fit on a spine, but is itself a little poem, I think!

AK: Definitely agree. The first word of the book being “Yes” feels so right, as you say, as do the last words of the book being “Believe, believe, believe” in a story called “A New Story.” Much of this collection is about loneliness, but even in the first stories, there are hints of hope and faith, which reverberate throughout and grow and grow until they take over at the end. Trying to learn as a writer (I’m being selfish!)–did you write these stories roughly in order, or were they written at different parts of your life? 

CS: I did want the book to move from loneliness and longing, to the real crash of faith in the middle (when the stories go into a Holocaust-era concentration camp). And then out again, to that light and hope at the end.

The stories were written at different parts of my life, but I was very intentional about creating that arc. I think a lot about: If each story or chapter were a play, how would you want the audience to feel on the way out? And I wanted the reader to have an arc of feeling, from hopelessness to that movement upward at the end.

I actually novelized the stories, then un-novelized them, and that helped me find the arc. The anchor to me was “Believe, believe, believe” as the final words.

AK: Oooh, I want to read the novel version of the stories!!!! I also think it would make a great movie or a limited series, and want to see that! 

CS: I hope you can someday!! And thank you – I do think the recurring characters are limited-series-esque – TV and movie people, take note…

AK: I wonder how the story about Lilith, the first wife of Adam, fits into the novelized version! Seriously, I love that story. I love all the stories, but the combination of feminist rage and longing and grace in such a short piece, plus the high-concept premise! It’s wonderful. 

CS: I love getting to refract and rewrite contemporary feminist rage, longing, grace into scenes from the past. To me, Lilith is the original rejected girl. There was only one other available woman, and Adam chose her! It’s a distillation of the problem of needing to be chosen, and it’s enraging for her then and for us now. There’s that feminist rage of: I want to choose! And that’s a part of love, too, of course. But love is equally being chosen and so often that’s out of our hands. Even in the Garden of Eden this was the case.

AK: That leads me to questions about your studies in Divinity School. You went from getting an MFA in Fiction Writing to getting your MTS in theology. How does writing figure into your divinity studies, and vice versa? 

CS: To me, writing and the spiritual are very similar things from the side of the practitioner. When I’m writing, as when I’m in a synagogue listening to the same prayers my ancestors listened to, there’s a feeling of uplift. Of being part of something larger than myself. Of extending beyond myself. So to me, they’re both spiritual practices.

AK: That really resonates with me with respect to writing. I know people sometimes make fun of writers who talk about their stories or characters as forces outside themselves–“but you made them up! They’re all you!”–but I feel that acutely and I start every writing session with a prayer and meditation. That’s really the only time I pray or meditate.

CS: Wow–do you find that it helps you? I just finished a brand-new residency called The Hillholm Writing Residency, which combines yoga and meditation with writing. It was the first time in my life that I wrote for two intensive weeks straight–I write bent over on the floor–and my back didn’t hurt!

I always start from voice, and character follows. So for me, I wouldn’t say it’s quite that the character has a life of its own, but the energy and momentum and interests of the voice certainly does. When I’m interviewed, I often find myself saying, “I wanted to do x in my book.” And really, I didn’t want to do anything. The momentum of the story’s voice wanted to do it!

AK: That makes so much sense because voice is so important in your stories. The Boston Globe called your book “a deep and howling portrait of longing and loneliness,” which I agree with, but the voice layers so much humor on top, which is so hard to do and makes your stories fun and page-turning as well as profound and, at times, emotionally devastating.

We have so much more to discuss; we haven’t even gotten to my questions about the role of ghosts or the Holocaust in the collection or my questions about any stories that served as inspirations or touchpoints for you. I’ll be in conversation with you about this gorgeous, brilliant book in Baltimore this Friday. I cannot wait, and I hope we’ll see many readers there with questions of their own!

CS: I can’t wait. I got my MFA from Johns Hopkins and lived in Baltimore for six years, where I found a wonderful literary community early in my writing life.

Baltimore Launch Event
Courtney Sender in conversation with Angie Kim
Ivy Bookshop
Friday June 9th, 6 pm
More info here

Angie Kim is a Korean immigrant, former editor of the Harvard Law Review, and author of the international bestseller and Edgar Award winner Miracle Creek, which has been translated into over 20 languages...