November 14, 2016
by Kate
17 Comments

What now? – A case for compassion

This morning the house is quiet and I’m sitting in my tiny office. I love my office. There are books lining my desk, stacked on the floor beside me, above me in the cabinet. This is the place where I put words on the page, where I log into my email to immerse myself in the moving writing of my students. I feel safe here surrounded by all these words I love.

But then I look out into the back yard—at the Maple tree with a few dozen yellow leaves still clinging to its mostly barren branches, at the gray sky, which seems to be pressing down on me—and safety feels elusive.

I went to bed on the early side election night, unable to watch any longer. I didn’t sleep well, but I couldn’t bring myself to check the results in the middle of the night. In the morning, Donny reached for his phone. Though we had feared what the outcome would be, we were shocked. Shocked and devastated.

When we told the girls, they couldn’t believe it either. Zoë was scared. “What will happen?” she asked. “Will we be okay? Will we still live in this house?” I assured her we would be okay, but I didn’t really feel that way.

That afternoon I had to give a lecture to 300 undergrads about reflection and backstory in creative nonfiction, and for a moment I thought, “How can I talk about that today? Who cares?”

But of course I care, deeply. I care because I believe that writing and reading poems and stories and essays in which we are reflecting, examining our experiences, questioning our assumptions, and making connections can change lives—our own lives and our readers’ lives. That is what I told the students that afternoon, and it helped me get into the right headspace—to move beyond shock and despair to a place where I could ask, “What can I do? How can I make a difference?”

But then I began to hear about the hate, began to see the ways ignorant and hate-filled people have been emboldened. I began to read posts about friends afraid to go out in public, friends who wondered which white people were allies and which white people wanted them to get the f**k out, no matter that this is their home.

 

On Friday, I went to my book group, a group that I’ve been going to once a month for almost 18 years now, a group that has been meeting for more than twice that long. We were reading Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. Have you read her? If not, you must.

These lines from her four-part prose poem “Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Center)” feel particularly timely:

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

“Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate. I’m the colour of hot sun on the face, my mother’s remains were never buried. I spent days and nights in the stomach of the truck; I did not come out the same. Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.”

“I hear them say go home, I hear them say fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant? […] All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun.”

 

Last fall, I interviewed the wonderful Dinty W. Moore for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and I asked him about compassion and its role in the writing life. This is what he said:

“Much of my early writing was about my family, but it wasn’t simply my job to tell people from my point of view why a legacy of alcoholism, depression, and suicide was so difficult. Instead, I had to try to imagine myself inside those people. Why did they act as they did? What were the realities of their lives? I needed to empathize. From a human standpoint that’s a good thing to do because it allows you to forgive and to forgive is a powerful action. From a writer’s standpoint, it’s a good thing because it makes the story deeper and more honest. It’s not just my story. I will never know entirely what my parents were thinking, but I can certainly try to imagine how various early tragedies — they were both orphaned young — created the unhappiness that permeated their marriage and their lives. That unhappiness affected me, of course, but that’s just the barest surface of the story. The deeper story has to do with who we are as human beings and how we get where we’re going.”

For me the key is in the word “imagine.” When we really stop and imagine what someone else might have been experiencing and thinking and feeling—what might have been motivating them—empathy bubbles to the surface. When we truly put ourselves in someone else’s shoes (through reading, through real dialogue, by being curious, by having an open mind), we are not only more compassionate people, we are better people.

Let us practice compassion. Let us read widely. Let us embrace voices that help open our minds, not close them down. Let us use our words for good.

I BELIEVE in the power of words to bring us together. I’m not going to give up on that. Who is with me?

 

(You can read more about Warsan Shire and her collaboration with Beyoncé on Lemonade here, and you can read her stunning poem “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” here.)

September 26, 2016
by Kate
3 Comments

Channeling Spencer

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandpa lately. I wrote about him a number of times here, and I just went back and read through some of my old posts, each one reminding me what an extraordinary person he was. (Some of my favorites are here and here and here, though there are many more).

My grandpa always hoped that one of his granddaughters would fall in love with golf—his sport, his passion. That didn’t happen—for any of us—but he didn’t stop trying. He wanted to make sure that we had the fundamentals down in case we ever—Maybe? Someday?—did fall in love with the game. So when he lived with my mom and step-dad in their Mendota Heights house (and when Donny and I were caretakers for Mimi and living a mile away in Sunfish Lake), I’d often pick him up and we’d head to the Inver Wood range. He’d buy a large bucket of balls, pull his golf cap down a little lower on his forehead, flip the seat down on his walker, and we’d set up camp.

I had a pretty good swing despite my playing very little actual golf, but it was never a perfect swing, and that’s where Grandpa came in. He would remind me to square my hips, to keep my left elbow in, to shift my grip just a centimeter to the right, to swing with the back of my left hand, to close the face of the club, to swing through the ball. I can still hear him: “Keep your head down, dammit.” He would often end up exasperated with me, and I would end up exasperated with him. Yet I loved to go to the range with him. I loved how he could see what I was doing wrong (and occasionally what I was doing right). If I were to watch someone swing a golf club, all I would see is someone swinging a golf club. But not Grandpa. Golf was his language and he spoke it beautifully.

Two weeks ago I started taking bass guitar lessons. Perhaps you remember that Donny surprised me with an electric bass guitar for Mother’s Day. And then my friends got me a gift card for six lessons to Twin Town for my birthday. The summer was hectic so I decided to wait until fall for the lessons. But that meant that I developed a few bad habits over the summer.

During my first lesson, my teacher made notes of all the things I need to remember: finger numbering, to keep my fingers down (so freaking hard for me), pull into the next string, etc. etc. (Don’t even get me started on the notes! Jeez.) I try to remember it all, but last week at my lesson, my elbow started doing this crazy waggling thing and my index finger wouldn’t stay down and I got flustered. Though my teacher didn’t swear at me, he might have wanted to. I feel exactly like I felt all those years ago at the driving range—so many tiny details to remember, none of them intuitive.

But then I think of Grandpa, who in addition to being an amazing golfer and golf teacher, never gave up. He was always open to learning new things. After my grandma died in June of 1999, part of my thought he’d fade away. They’d been married 67 years after all. Instead, he taught himself to cook. He invented “The Gadet” so he could practice his swing inside during the long Minnesota winter, he read voraciously, he met the other geezers down at the Par 3 for mornings of cribbage. He was always an optimist, and he always knew there was something else he could learn.

I remember him saying about golf that it has to feel like second nature. “You have to practice these things enough so that they feel natural.”

So every day I sit down with my bass, flip on my amp, and practice. I watch videos of my teacher, I try to remember all those little details. Last week it was a blues progression, this week Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up.” My fingers are freaking killing me and I’m often frustrated.

But isn’t that how writing used to feel, as well? For so long when I sat down to write, I felt like I was bungling everything. Because there was so much to consider, so much to remember. And now, not so much. It’s still often difficult, but character and scene and knowing when to dip into backstory or reflection—all of that is more intuitive. It’s become second nature. So maybe there is hope for me and my bass. I know Spencer would think so.

September 6, 2016
by Kate
19 Comments

Girl in Pieces: An Interview with Kathleen Glasgow

“Everyone has that moment, I think, the moment when something so…momentous happens that it rips your very being into small pieces. And then you have to stop. For a long time, you gather your pieces. And it takes such a very long time, not to fit them back together, but to assemble them in a new way, not necessarily a better way. More, a way you can live with until you know for certain that this pieces should go there, and that one there.”

So says Felix, one of my favorite characters in Kathleen Glasgow’s debut YA novel, Girl in Pieces, to Charlotte (Charlie), as she’s trying to find her way toward healing.

This is a stunning, heartbreaking book about loss and survival, friendship and love. For seventeen-year-old Charlie, the only way to calm the noise in her head is to cut herself. But she wants to do things differently, to make peace with herself and the world. Glasgow’s characters are real and human, flawed and beautiful. I loved this story, which ultimately is about finding one’s voice through art.

I’m pleased to welcome Kathleen, who is here today at Motherhood & Words to talk about writing, motherhood and Girl in Pieces. (If you’re in the Twin Cities, she will be at Magers & Quinn tomorrow night, Wednesday, September 7th, in conversation with the fabulous Julie Schumacher.) And don’t forget to leave a comment below to be entered in a drawing for a signed copy of Girl in Pieces. Now without further ado, please welcome Kathleen!

KH: Charlie’s friend Louisa writes in her journal, “People should know about us. Girls who write their pain on their bodies.” In the author’s note at the end of the book you say that for years you didn’t want to write this story. What changed? What happened in your life that made it not only possible, but necessary to write this story?

KG: Well, I don’t know if anyone wants to revisit painful emotional turmoil from their past! Except maybe comic book characters. What really spurred me was sitting next to a girl on the bus in Minneapolis and noticing she had fresh scars, and not reaching out to her. When I was teenager, we didn’t yet have books like Speak, All the Bright Places, All the Rage, or Girl, Interrupted, so when I went to the library or bookstore, I had a hard time finding myself in books. I wrote this book so kids who are having problems with depression, and everything that comes with it, can find themselves. And, hopefully, their parents will see themselves inside Girl in Pieces, too.

KH: What was the most surprising thing that happened in the process of writing Girl in Pieces? (In terms of the narrative itself, your writing process, or how you approached the material, etc.)

KG: Things shifted around the fourth draft, when someone suggested that I needed to write scenes in the hospital. Originally, the book takes place after the hospital. I didn’t want to go into the hospital, because I was committed to talking about people who have no money for therapy or health care, but I did it, and writing that section opened up the book, and Charlie’s voice, in tremendously helpful ways.

KH: How has motherhood affected your writing? 

KG: Motherhood influenced the ways in which I drew the adult characters in Girl in Pieces, particularly Ariel and Linus, who have both struggled with their children. Now that I’m a mother, I can really understand all the things parents go through that their children never know about—the decisions you have to make, etc. I tried very hard to make the parents in this book flawed, but understandably so.

KH: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

KG: Time. Being a working parent and also a writer is very hard. You want to be with your children, but you also know writing makes you a happier person, and thus a better parent, so you have to really try to find some sort of balance. And forgive yourself if you have a deadline and they need to watch Octonauts for three hours straight.

KH: I’ve been there! That leads into my next question. Can you talk a little about how your writing life fits in with the rest of your life—mothering and work?

KG: What? Writing can fit into your daily life?! Right now I am working at home doing my full-time job and writing the second book in my contract. Thank god for school! That’s all I have to say. Otherwise, it’s a lot of late nights. That’s the only way I can make it happen. Which is really too bad, because, honestly? I just want to watch television after a day of working.

KH: I’d love for you to talk a little about the editorial process. (How much did you revise the manuscript after it was sold? Can you also talk a little about what it’s like to work with an editor?)

KG: Novels for young adults have a very different editorial process than novels for adults (I don’t really like the distinctions between the two categories—I think teenagers are smart enough to read whatever they want, and there are so many adults who read “YA”). For instance, we aged a character down to 27 so that the difference in age with his love interest would be more nuanced than, say, illegal (she turns eighteen in the course of the novel). That one change necessitated dropping pages and pages of his backstory, which had to do with Tucson’s music scene in the 1980s. I felt sad losing all that—but in the end, the change made the relationship (on the page) stronger and more interesting. The editorial process after a book is sold is super interesting. You go through what’s called “first pass,” “second pass,” etc. These actually happen AFTER you do edits with your editor. This doesn’t even account for what you go through with the copy editor. Copy editors are worth their weight in gold. Editors are like that person you always wish you had in workshop: blunt, to the point, no soothing of ego. I kind of loved it. I am a person who desperately needs an editor in all aspects of my life.

KH: How does it feel to have this book out in the world? What kinds of responses are you getting from readers?

KG: It’s very scary when your book goes out to reviewers and bloggers in the form of advanced review copies. This is when your publisher is trying to create buzz. Total strangers are now reading your book! I’ve gotten a lot of emails from advance readers for the past several months, and from librarians and teachers after my visit to ALA this summer, telling me how much the book will help teens who are struggling. Those are the readers I want to reach, and I hope they find the book.

KH: I hope so, too, Kathleen! Thanks so much for being here!

Friends, check out Kathleen’s website. If you can’t be at her reading tomorrow night, maybe she’ll be at a bookstore near you soon. And leave a comment by 9/23 if you’d like to be entered in the drawing for a signed copy of Girl in Pieces. You’ll love it.

August 30, 2016
by Kate
12 Comments

I’m back!

I hadn’t actually meant to take the summer off from blogging, but somehow life felt too big to condense into manageable blog posts, so I remained silent here.

It was a busy summer, one that held a mix of happy and sad, relaxed and hectic. Donny and I painted the living room and stairway and upstairs hall, which took what felt like forever. We also spent lots of time with family and friends and on small and large adventures with the girls. We were in town and out of town. I did lots editing, working on many fine manuscripts with many fine writers. And I spent time thinking about big stuff—life, death, that sort of thing. My step-brother, Brett, died on July 1 after an 8-month battle with stomach cancer, and it was just sad, really sad. He was only 47 years old. So this summer I thought a lot about Brett and about the fact that nothing in life is guaranteed.

I do want to revisit some of my thoughts on this summer. I want to write about what home has come to mean to me, and also about how humbled I was earlier this month when I celebrated a decade of Motherhood & Words with some of my first M&W students. I’ll revisit these things in the coming weeks as I settle back into my work routine in my tiny office that is once again quiet. I hope you’ll join me again and forgive my long absence. I look forward to reconnecting!

June 14, 2016
by Kate
10 Comments

this is 44

I’ve spent the last couple of days celebrating turning 44. The celebration kicked off Saturday night with a dinner hosted by dear friends, who, in addition hosting a wonderful dinner, pooled together to get me bass guitar lessons at Twin Town. (Whoop! I can’t believe my luck to have so many wonderful friends in my life.)

Sunday there was lots of driving to and from soccer practices. There was paint selection for our living room painting project. And there was another lovely dinner celebration with my family. Yesterday morning—my actual birthday—Donny and I went for a long walk, and then I had a wonderful lunch with my mom. I spent the afternoon sampling paint on our walls and the evening driving between Stella’s soccer practice and Zoë’s soccer game. It was a pretty ordinary day, but it was perfect. I’m simply grateful to do low-key things around the house and with family and friends.

Maybe my gratitude for the little things and for just being with those I love has to do with getting older. I no longer need fireworks on my birthday. (Though, if someone had some fireworks and wanted to set them off, that would be fine too.) Maybe my gratitude has to do with the fact that I am finally feeling better. I’m still not completely out of the woods—I still have pain some days—but I’m learning how to manage it, and I’m running and walking and even dancing through my living room, often without any pain at all. Phenomenal.

But my gratitude also has to do with knowing how fleeting life can be, how unpredictable. I’ve been thinking a lot about the victims and families and friends of the victims of the Orlando shooting. They have been robbed of birthday cakes and long walks and dinners with loved ones. They have been robbed of, well, everything. Just like that. I can’t wrap my mind around the senseless violence or around the fact that it’s even possible for people to buy assault weapons. How can we make this stop? How many times does this need to happen?

So my celebration these last days has been tempered with sadness over everything that those innocent people and their families and friends lost. I’m sending out love to all of them, and I’m holding tight to those I love.

What about you?

May 8, 2016
by Kate
16 Comments

never too old

Happy Mother’s Day, friends! I hope you’re enjoying the day, doing exactly what you want to be doing!

A couple of days ago, I posted about Prince and grief and not waiting to do the things you want to do in life, about seizing the it, whatever that may be for you. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last year, and I’ve been talking to people about regrets. Did I have any? Did they?

When I was in my early twenties, a friend offered to give me his bass guitar amp. I didn’t have a bass, much less know how to play one, but still I toyed with the idea of accepting his amp, buying a bass guitar, learning how to play it, and joining an all-female band. I certainly spent enough time at 7th Street Entry to imagine that maybe I could be on the stage rather than in the audience. But I didn’t take the amp, didn’t buy a bass, didn’t learn to play.

Over the years, I’ve thought about it, about how I wish I’d just done it. In recent conversations with friends and Donny, that’s the regret I’ve named. All of them have said that it’s not too late. I agreed, but realistically, I didn’t think I’d do it. Buying a bass guitar? What?! It was a cost I could not justify. And when would I practice?

This morning, Donny and the girls brought me breakfast in bed—berries and a latte. I read their beautiful cards, marveled at Zoe’s crazy-hair plant that she made for me at school. Then they wanted to know if I wanted my present right then (it was downstairs).

“I’ll wait,” I said.

But then Zoë said, “Can I play with your present?” And I thought of the wording in Donny’s card that had something to do with music, and I suddenly thought, No way. He couldn’t have!

“Oh my God,” I said. “I need to see the present.”

We all ran downstairs, and they pulled a blanket from this huge box in the middle of the living room, and it was this:

Bass

 

I couldn’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I am almost 44 years old, and I just got my first bass and amp. And I’m seizing this, my friends. I’m going rock this out!

What are those things that have been calling to you? Are you ready to listen?

May 6, 2016
by Kate
8 Comments

on Prince and seizing the moment

When I heard the news of Prince’s death, I, like so many others, burst into tears. For the rest of the day, I listened to The Current, flipped between Twitter and Facebook, and even turned on the local television news, stalking every new bit of information, wishing somehow it was all a mistake. Memories of listening and dancing to Prince flooded my mind: “Kiss” cranked up on a boom box in high school; my college roommate and I “going crazy” in our apartment despite the cranky old lady downstairs; me lying alone in my room belting out “Nothing Compares 2 U” (the fabulous live version with Rosie Gaines). Prince was the soundtrack of my life, his songs the ones I always came back to.

That day, I couldn’t focus on anything. I just didn’t feel right in my skin. It was too soon. He was too young. Also, I was disappointed in myself. I live in Minnesota. I grew up here. In my twenties I spent countless nights at First Avenue. Yet, I never saw Prince live. I never went out to Paisley Park for one of his late-night concerts. I wanted to, but I didn’t. I thought there would be plenty of time. And now he’s gone. And I’d missed my chance.

The Thursday he died was complicated at our house—there was evening soccer practice and Donny had work to do and Zoë had a friend over and we were leaving town the next day. I cancelled out on two commitments I had early that evening. I couldn’t imagine doing anything, even if our night hadn’t become so discombobulated. But then I heard about the gathering downtown Minneapolis in front of First Avenue, and I knew I had to go. I had to act on my desire instead of waiting. When Donny got home with Stella, I said, “I just need to be with people who loved his music.” He said, “Go!” and dropped me at the train station.

I made my way through the crowd toward Prince’s music blaring from loudspeakers and toward my friends, who were somewhere in the mix. When I found them, we stood together with thousands of others who were sideswiped by his death. Prince’s music and his spirit and our collective grief and love permeated the air. And it was exactly what I needed to do, exactly where I needed to be.

I still can’t believe he’s dead. But in the last two weeks the thing that I keep coming back to (other than his music, which I cannot stop playing) are two things: there is no time to wait—you have to seize it (whatever it is for you) now; and, cherish those you love every day. It all sounds so clichéd, I know. I’ve heard those words spouted thousands of times. But somehow right now I’m really feeling them. It’s because Prince, yes, and others too. Right now my conversations and Facebook feed are full of deaths—some after long, happy lives, but many not. It’s a constant reminder that we can’t know what will happen or when.

So I am taking more time to hug my girls, to unplug from my computer, to cuddle. And when I was sitting on the porch with Zoë the other day staring at the peeling paint that has made me crazy for a year, I thought—now! So I got up and scrounged around in the basement until I found the right leftover paint. First the trim, yesterday the floor. The porch looks like new and I wonder why I waited so long.

Prince was many things to many people, here in Minnesota and around the world. I will continue to celebrate his brilliance and crank the tunes. I will continue to dance and belt them out. And as I do so, I’ll remind myself each day not to take any of this beautiful messy life for granted.

April 12, 2016
by Kate
6 Comments

celebrating women’s stories

Last weekend I was at Faith’s Lodge for my spring retreat, and I was, once again, blown away by what can happen when women get together to write and share their stories with one another. When we delve deeply into both the beautiful and hard parts of life, then share that writing with each other, our hearts expand and our perspectives shift. What amazing writers and people. We laughed and cried and laughed some more. And that place worked its usual magic.

On Saturday afternoon after my final conference, I was both energized and exhausted, so I bundled up and headed out into the crisp air to clear my head. I walked along the trail until I ended up at the labyrinth. I took a few deep breaths and began to circle inward, toward its center. And as I walked, I thought about my work as a teacher and editor. I thought about my marvelous students and their rich and complicated and stunning stories. And as I slowly wound my way around and around, to the center and out again, I was filled with gratitude.

Labrynith

I am back home now, happy to be with my family again, and gearing up for the 10th Annual Motherhood & Words Reading, which is this Saturday, April 16th at 7 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. 10th annual, people!

This year, I’m thrilled to have Sherrie Fernandez-Williams and Andria Williams join me at the podium. Sherrie is the author of Soft, a moving memoir about identity, motherhood, surviving a tumultuous marriage, and finally being brave enough to follow her heart. Andria is the author of The Longest Night, which was described by Kirkus as a “scintillating marital drama set at a nuclear testing station in the late 1950s.” It’s a novel about marriage and motherhood and trying to find a place for oneself, all set against the backdrop of the early nuclear era. I will be reading something new, the beginning of an essay on navigating illness as a mother.

Each year, when the Target Performance Hall at the Loft fills with people, I am heartened. It confirms for me once again that I’m doing the work I was meant to do. Because the stories we’re writing are important ones.

I hope you’ll join me for this reading and conversation. Let’s celebrate the power of writing our truths. It’s free and open to the public, so bring your friends!

When: Saturday, 4/16 – 7 p.m.

Where: The Loft Literary Center, Open Book

The reading is sponsored by Pacifier, an urban kid and baby boutique, Park Nicollet Women’s Center, a new concept in women’s health, and of course The Loft Literary Center.

March 11, 2016
by Kate
19 Comments

Andria Williams’ THE LONGEST NIGHT (and a giveaway!)

I am thrilled to have Andria Williams here today to talk about her debut novel, The Longest Night. Andria will be reading with Sherrie Fernandez-Williams and me at the 10th Annual Motherhood & Words Reading on April 16th!

I am so excited about this book! The Longest Night is a story of marriage, parenting, longing and loneliness set against the backdrops of small town Idaho and a Greenland military base in the late 50s and early 60s. Andria’s prose is exquisite, her characters carefully and lovingly wrought. And she’s funny as heck. Based on the true story of the only fatal nuclear accident to occur in America, The Longest Night is one of those books that you will not want to put down. I could go on and on about this book, but instead I’ll turn it over to Andria!

KH: First, congratulations on your book, which is getting rave reviews all over the place. I’d love to kick off our conversation by asking you how you got started on this novel. Did you know when you began writing that it was going to be set in this time and involve nuclear testing facilities?

AW: Thanks, Kate! And thank you for having me here on your blog, and with you at Motherhood and Words in April. I can’t wait!

When I was in graduate school, doing some research for a writing project (by which I mean a now-defunct novel), I’d read about the 1961 explosion of a small reactor in Idaho. Then, years later, I came across a book on the subject (Todd Tucker’s Atomic America) and read the whole thing in one sitting. The story was so riveting: this tiny reactor in a desolate stretch of Idaho wilderness that had been malfunctioning for a year; the crew members’ efforts to keep it running; its explosion and the rumors of an intentional murder-suicide, not based in any real evidence but which persisted for decades after the event. And even more than that, the people involved intrigued me: young Army nuclear operators, their wives, the local folks who’d seen their sleepy Mormon town grown exponentially with the arrival of this military base. The setting, in the West, was also right up my alley.

I’d been out of writing for about five years because my children were small. Having young kids and writing a novel seemed, at the time, mutually exclusive. But then I read about this incident again and, bored and stranded in a motel in Oklahoma on my way back from a Texas wedding, I had a quiet room to myself and lightning literally crackling along the horizon as if to spur my inspiration, I thought: What if I just sat down and dreamed up who some of these characters might be? What have I got to lose? I scribbled away and filled up the whole pad of complimentary motel paper and started in on some napkins at the bottom of my backpack. I thought: Sheesh, all the ingredients are here; I know how this thing ends; here’s a plot on a platter. I have no excuse not to try and write this!

KH: I read an earlier draft of this novel, and it was also wonderful, but it’s clear that you did a lot of editing and new writing in later drafts. Can you talk about the revision process and how that deepened the story and characters? Did you work with a developmental editor?

The first draft of The Longest Night (originally called The Falls) took a year, but then I revised it for a year and a half. I was working with this terrific young agent whom I could tell was really invested in the story, who just got what I was trying to do, and who had such smart suggestions for me. I incorporated pretty much every revision she suggested. It was a leap of faith.

I also had some friends read the book, including you, for which I am truly grateful, and I worked with an editor friend, Erin Wilcox. The whole process was alternately exhilarating and interminable. Well-meaning family members ask you every three days, “Any news on your book?!”

But all that going around in circles paid off, I guess, because when my agent went to finally sell the book it sold, to my great surprise, in one day.

KH: I LOVE that, Andria. I’m not at all surprised. But back to revising: what were the biggest kinds of changes you made in later drafts?

AW: Well, all told, I cut out about 300 pages of Paul’s backstory. Boy, I must have loved that guy because I went into great detail about his childhood in Maine, his abusive father and older brother, how he hid out in the school’s woodshed because he was afraid to go home; the wounded veteran teacher who encouraged him to run away and the morning he stole his brother’s boots and joined the Army, hitching a ride with a truckful of German POWs. My agent very diplomatically suggested that this all perhaps belonged in another book. So I cut it out of The Longest Night and set it aside. A few excerpts did get placed in small literary journals, and it informed my understanding of Paul in the long run, so it wasn’t a waste; but I do feel I know far more “about” him than Nat does.

KH: That’s so funny. He’s not the best communicator, is he?

I’m working on a novel in which actual historical events play a role, so I’m very curious how you dealt with history/fact in a fictional narrative. What things did you need to consider as you were creating this world and these lives knowing that real people died in this accident?

AW: First of all, Kate, I am so excited that you are writing a novel.

KH: It is slow—embarrassingly slow really—but I keep coming back to it, so I guess that’s good.

AW: For my own book, I did base it off of an historical event, and as for the timeline of that event, I followed history very closely. But when it came to the people involved, the book is pure fiction. I did read a lot of oral histories and depositions, so I am sure that shades of real people have entered the story, but there is no one-to-one correspondence between anyone involved and my main characters.

I had a couple of reasons for this. First of all, two very good nonfiction books have been written about the event (the aforementioned Atomic America, and William McKeown’s Idaho Falls), so I didn’t want to merely re-tread where they had already gone. I’m a fiction writer—I’m terrible at anything else—so I needed the freedom to imagine who these people involved might have been, how their lives might be intertwined to make a good story. What if two men ended up at the accident scene, for example, and something had put them at serious odds? What if there were someone waiting for them, who cared very deeply about what might happen to each of them? I had to give myself room to make stuff up.

Also, on a more purely ethical level, the children, ex-wives, and so forth of the men who died are still alive, and because all three men were killed at the scene, we will never know exactly what took place that night. No one has survived to tell us. So I didn’t want to pin any blame, intentionally or otherwise, on any one person. I re-mixed all of the characters into composites, with aspects of pure imagination, to arrive at my final characters in The Longest Night.

KH: The Longest Night is narrated by three different characters (alternating chapters). What led you to this structure? How did this decision allow you to push toward the deeper story?

AW: Quite honestly, I have trouble writing a whole novel from one point of view. When authors do it well, it can generate a terrific momentum, but I am not a particularly fast writer and I tend to want to hear from multiple people. I was mixing aspects of history in the novel as a whole, so mixing up the characters just felt thematically appropriate.

I came to know three people well instead of just one, and I enjoyed all of their separate voices. Paul, a nuclear operator, is serious and honest; he can give the insider’s scoop on what’s going on in the reactor. His wife Nat is new to army life and has almost never lived outside southern California, so the move to a very small suburban community in Idaho is going to be a challenge for her. And one of those challenges comes in the form of her neighbor, Jeannie, a career army wife who’s become very jaded by all the cheerleading and the party-throwing and the keeping-up-appearances.

These three people are all so different. I felt refreshed when I’d switch from one voice to another.

It’s fun to hear with whom readers identify most. Jeannie is by far the most divisive character; people either love or hate her. Nat’s a close second because some people understand the way she deludes herself out of necessity, and others can’t get past the fact that she’s being willfully obtuse [particularly regarding her relationship with a local man]. Women readers in particular are vocal about which characters they love or hate, and I enjoy hearing it.

KH: I’ve asked you this before, but I’m going to do it again since most of my readers also have children. I’d love to hear a little about you juggle writing and parenthood and the other demands that life puts on you, especially as a military spouse.

AW: There will never be enough time; I’ve come to terms with that.

I used to allow myself little moments of self-pity where, being a military wife, I’d think, “I’m such a publishing-world outsider.” I wasn’t in academia or in any kind of intellectual environment whatsoever. And it’s true, we have to pack up and move every two years, which is disruptive, and occasionally my husband will go on deployment for several months, which is fairly disastrous for my work schedule. So when it came time to try to find an agent, I thought, “This will never work.”

I just started at square one, writing a bunch of “cold” letters to agents whose names I’d found in that annual “Guide to Literary Agents” book. It was terrifically humbling: “Hi, my name is Andria Williams, I wrote this novel, would you like to look at it? Oh, you wouldn’t? Okay, well thank you so much anyway, I’ll back away slowly now [grovel, grovel].” But enough agents wrote back saying sure, they’d take a look at my first three chapters, and I learned that all it really takes is that one person in the business who believes enough in your work and who has the skills to help you.

KH: Hell yes! Just one person. Remember that, dear ones!

AW: As for juggling writing and parenthood in my day-to-day: I wake up very early every morning and write until the children wake up; this is my only “guaranteed” time. And I write every single day, but I don’t think everybody has to. My only other “trick” is that when I leave off writing for the day, I try to stop at a place where I know how to pick it up tomorrow. Even if that means stopping a few sentences or paragraphs early—I might jot a quick note so I don’t forget where to go next—I will get more accomplished if I can hit the ground running the next day at 4 a.m. It’s just too darn early to sit around trying to figure out what to write; if I do that, I’ll fall back to sleep. But the combination of a very uncomfortable folding chair, lots of hot black coffee, and a clear storyline ahead of me keeps me awake and much more productive.

KH: This book has been very well received (as it should be!). But I’m curious if you’ve heard from anyone who was involved in the reactor accident. What has the response been from readers involved with the military?

AW: Military wives have responded well to the book, because I think a lot of the themes (the constant moving and reinvention, the emphasis on family; the tradition, loneliness, and occasional claustrophobia) ring true even today. Interestingly, Paul’s six-month deployment in the book is a walk in the park compared to what military families have been through in the last ten years.

I have heard from some nuclear engineers and from a couple of men who did tours in Greenland in the 1960s, and that has been really exciting. They have been overwhelmingly supportive. I think they must find it rather curious that this chipper little Navy wife is writing about nuclear reactors, but they have said they think the science in the book is pretty good.

More than that, though, I just love hearing from them. I love when people who were actually there contact me. The men who’ve been stationed in Greenland, in particular, have a pretty close network, because it was such an unusual and specific tour of duty and so few people ever did it. They’ve found one another in the intervening years and have a great online forum and oral history collection. A few of them have written to me, and I’ve been so grateful every time.

KH: What are you working on now?

AW: I’m writing another novel, this time set in the 1930s. I tried to write it from only one character’s point of view, but another one snuck in there.

KH: I can’t wait for the next one, Andria! Thanks so much for taking the time to email with me. I so look forward to seeing you for Motherhood & Words!

Friends, please mark your calendars: April 16th, 7 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center, Open Book, Minneapolis. I am pleased to have two fabulous sponsors for the event this year: Pacifer and Park Nicollet Women’s Center! It will be a blast! Please tell your friends!

And now, if you’d like to enter to win a copy of The Longest Night, please leave a comment below by Friday, March 25th!

February 29, 2016
by Kate
12 Comments

fishing nets

I spent the last few days at Faith’s Lodge, leading my winter Motherhood & Words retreat. As always, it was a weekend filled with words—some funny, some difficult to speak aloud. As always, it was inspiring to sit in a circle of amazing women and talk and laugh and cry and share delicious meals and glasses of wine. As always, it confirmed for me that I’m doing the work I need to be doing. As always, I returned home exhausted.

This morning, after the girls and Donny had left for the day, I turned to my Headspace app, knowing I needed some grounding. And then twenty minutes later, feeling quieter inside, I made myself another cappuccino (decaf), and sat down at my desk to catch up on things. That’s when I noticed the letter that had arrived over the weekend from a friend and former student.

I slit open the envelope to find a postcard. On its front is a photograph of a pile of fishing nets in brilliant pinks and blood reds and soft purples. In the top right corner, there is a woman’s hand, only her four fingers visible, pressing into the pile of nets. I stared at it for a long time, lost in those rich colors all spilling into each other, wondering at the woman whose hand is there, just barely visible. And then I turned it over to read my friend’s lovely note inquiring about my health and detailing where she is at with her reading and writing. I smiled as I read, grateful for these communications that continue to connect us long after she was my student and I was her teacher.

I turned it over again and stared at those brilliant fishing nets a little longer and then I read her note again, stopping at this line: “I miss finding your voice in my inbox.”

I had actually started a blog post two weeks ago, and then tried to revisit it last week, but my dad had fallen, and though he is okay—luckily, amazingly—there was still a short hospital stay and appointments and worries. And then prep for my retreat and the retreat itself. On the horizon this week are: a large editing project, catch-up for the online class I’m teaching right now, logistics to attend to for my annual Motherhood & Words reading (April 16th—mark your calendars!), and Zoë’s eight birthday (how can she be 8 already?).

But as I held my friend’s beautiful postcard in my hand, mesmerized by the those brilliant colors on one side and her gentle words on the other, I realized that this week before I do anything else, I need to spend time on my own writing, need to nurture my voice the way I nurture my students’ voices. So before I get to any of those other things today, I’m going dip back into my novel and give myself the space that I’m so dedicated in carving out for others. Thank you, S, for the reminder I didn’t know I needed.