I’d noticed her short pieces, saw how even back then, she was a master with the form. Years later, she’s still amazing, and her work is playful and intelligent and fresh and will entrance you with its tragic beauty then two seconds later make you laugh out loud. Each of her pieces in her book, “Wild Life” is a glistening, detailed world in miniature, replete with humor, longing and willful creatures.
Kathy has graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about her process, her stories and her writing desires.
Kathy: I always begin with notebook and pen. I don’t think I’ve ever started any writing at all on the computer. I need time to scribble. And it’s all over the page. If something feels like it might be good I circle it. After awhile something clicks and I know I’m ready for the keyboard. I’m very unstructured. I don’t give myself a time limit or word count goal. Coffee is always involved. I know the writing’s going well if the coffee gets cold.
A typical writing day is spent messing around on the internet for longer than I ought to until I’m seized with guilt and shut it off. I stare out the window a lot. I take my dog for a walk. I pour another cup of coffee. Maybe after two hours I start to scribble in my notebook. I look out the window some more. My dream writing day is when I get past all of this and go into that beautiful trance, where I forget everything and look up, finally, two hours later and have before me something that feels real and right and pretty decent. A dream writing day is when it feels effortless.
Kathy: I feel, often in my life, that I don’t connect in those moments when I most want to. And that the scene plays on nonetheless. It’s like small talk when you really want to say I love you. And the scene plays on and we go along and there’s so much courage to that. We swallow our disappointments and heartaches and the small ones are just as important as the big ones. That was my seed for this piece. So here is this woman, desperately wanting to connect and she knows it’s not happening and she wants to confront that. I’m interested in people who are just about at the end of their rope. She wants answers and she’s not getting them. She’d been deceived and it wasn’t the first time! That, right there.
Kathy: It’s narrator as observer. That is her only part in this scene. To observe and sketch. Family dynamics as cartoon. Harried mother with exclamation points all around her head. I wanted to drop the brother in right at the end, just bluntly like that, to show how the cartoonist sees him. Smaller than everything and everyone else, because she sees him as he sees himself. It was just another way in, to write it that way. In my own family dynamic, as a child, I hardly said anything at all. I had six older brothers. I watched and listened and learned and that is what my cartoonist is doing in this story.
“This house is getting tighter like that vacuum that sucks the air out of things so you can pack your quilts and sweaters and pillows into smaller spaces. You could pack this house into a dresser drawer, open it up in the springtime.”
Kathy: Yes, much of the inspiration for this story came from life. I’ve had so many times of being home alone for days with a sick child or two sick children and that claustrophobic and desperate feeling of, this is all there is, this will never change, Spring will never come, etc. One of my children went through a period of high fevers and febrile seizures. It was the scariest thing I’d ever gone through. I wanted to take that experience and notch it up, to put my character right on the edge to the point where she believes the snow outside is nuclear snow, that she is the only hope for her child and for humanity. The challenge was letting myself as a writer go to that strange place and letting that peculiar voice take over the story and letting her say the things she did without going, oh this is just too demented. To trust in the story.
Kathy: Endings are definitely more difficult for me. And one of my most common self-edits is to cut the last line, ending on the line before it instead. The last lines of my early drafts tend to feel too much like a wrap-up. They feel too neat, often, even contrived in order to achieve that neatness.
I’m glad you felt the hopefulness at the end of “Spin.” That’s how I wanted that story to feel, that this mother is never going to stop trying to connect with her child. To me, there is such joy in that alone, in stories and in life. It’s so not about everything being perfect or all problems being solved, it’s about not giving up. The ending of “The Bed” is sadder, more resigned, I think, in its recognition of a connection that will never be fully made.
Kathy: Thanks, Katrina! I’ve always been a line-by-line writer, revising as I go. I actually enjoy taking my time, fussing over words and sentences. I have had a few stories that seemed to come out very quickly, but it’s not my normal process.
Kathy: Charles Baxter, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams, William Maxwell, Edward P. Jones, Salinger, Tolstoy, Julie Orringer, Raymond Carver, Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor…also, I love and admire the work of my friends who are writers and who are amazing.
Kathy:”Together We Can Bury It” from Cow Heavy Books. It’s a collection that keeps evolving. The title has changed three times. It’s gone from being a chapbook of flash fiction to a longer collection of both short shorts and longer stories. I really like the mix of work included, the emotional tone of the book as a whole. Molly Gaudry is a gifted and thoughtful editor and just a joy to work with. And the cover is gorgeous.
Kathy: Is it too much of a cliché to say I’d like to write a novel? Well, I’d like to write a novel. And plays. I’d love to write some plays. I’m feeling a tremendous need to stretch and try new things.