Thursday, May 7, 2009

Author Interview: Stephanie Kallos

A few weeks ago we posted our group review of Stephanie Kallos' Sing Them Home. We all had differing opinions (as usual) but are excited to have Stephanie answer a few questions for us.

GJR: What was your inspiration for the novel?
SK: SING THEM HOME was the novel I believed would be my first. It arose from a single image. (And I should note that this was very different from the inspiration for BROKEN, which arose from several converging ideas/obsessions.)

The story of three siblings and their vanished mother has been swirling around in my head ever since I saw a 1974 National Geographic photograph of a ruined baby grand piano in the middle of a milo field; it was the only thing to come down in any kind of recognizable form after a tornado descended upon – and completely destroyed - the 19th century farmhouse of some dear family friends who farmed just outside of Wymore, Nebraska, which is where I lived until I was five.

My mother used to say, "How can a deep chest freezer just disappear? How can things like bathtubs and washers and dryers vanish? Where does it all go?"

I'd always envisioned SING as a book about unresolved grief; however, it became a very different, much more personal book after losing both of my parents during the writing process -and possibly a better book for having been deferred, and for the uncanny way that my own grief connected me to my characters.

GJR: What made you decide to have the characters be from a Welsh community?
SK: Southeastern Nebraska was settled in part by Welsh folk – and I came to understand why someone from Wales might feel at home there after I visited Northern Wales with my family in the summer of 2006: few trees; vast, rolling hills; a landscape that’s all about the sky. I wanted to give my fictional small town a cultural/historical identity that would be a source of pride. I have no previous connection to Wales or being Welsh, so it was a great deal of fun researching this part of the story.

By the way, the Welsh funeral customs practiced by the people in Emlyn Springs are completely fictional, a kind of conflation of sitting shiva and the traditions of an Irish wake. Funnily enough, I’ve had more than one reader tell me how much trouble they’ve had finding out more about the Gymanfa and the Triadau traditions on the web. That’s because they’re made up!

GJR: We’ve read you bio on your website and thoroughly enjoyed your approach? What made you write about yourself that way instead of a “typical” biography?
SK: I find traditional bios boring and/or self-serving, and I really don’t like listing things like honors and awards. The style of “Directions to Where I Live” was inspired by Lorrie Moore and a book of short fiction she published several years ago called SELF-HELP. I’m sure there’s a name for this type of writing, i.e. when everything is stated as an imperative, but (and here’s where I admit to not having an English degree) I don’t know what that name is. I do find it a very freeing way of writing, one that really gets the juices flowing.

GJR: In Sing Them Home, Bonnie finds pieces of her mom’s diary embedded into the ground, did research show that this is possible after 25 years? Have there been stories about people finding artifacts?
SK: In the land of tornadoes, nothing is too outrageous. And of course there are many anecdotes involving tornados and recovered/discovered objects in the most unlikely places. But no, Bonnie’s findings aren’t backed up by any specific research – although I do remember reading an article about a study on tornado debris which talked about the item which held the record for being the farthest-traveling piece of tornado debris. It was a receipt of some kind and was discovered well over a hundred miles away from its point of origin.

GJR: Which character was the easiest to write? Which character was the hardest?
SK: There were aspects of all their lives that were easy to write; likewise there were aspects that were challenging. The important thing for me with all my characters is that I find a way initially to establish common ground. As an example, I relegated to each of the siblings one of my neuroses – Larken got my body image problems and my past unhealthy history with food; Gaelan got my fear that someday everyone will realize that I’m not terribly smart and am completely undeserving of luck or success; Bonnie got my sometimes obsessive preoccupation with the little picture and my belief in omens and signs.

My background in the theatre has taught me how crucial it is – especially in the beginning – to connect personally with all characters, to find the common ground; that way the author can’t stand outside the character and judge them.

Once that work is done, then of course the author must embroider and fabricate and lift up and away from that initial connection, and eventually create all the elements of the characters that aren’t the author; if this second, equally crucial step doesn’t occur, if you fail to ask “what if?” then you’ll end up writing characters that are all barely-disguised versions of yourself.

GJR: Is there any specific character that you identified with more or less?
SK: Nope. I love them all. I identify with them all. That’s what I mean by the necessity of finding the common ground, of really, truly forcing yourself to stand in the character’s shoes in a way that doesn’t allow you to judge them or play favorites. To say I have a favorite character or one I identified with above the others would be like saying I prefer one of my children over the other.

GJR: Why did you choose a tornado as the natural disaster to this story instead of a hurricane, tsunami, etc? Was it because you wanted the story to take place in the Midwest? Why the Midwest vs. another part of the US?
SK: When people started talking about my first novel (BROKEN FOR YOU) as containing elements of magical realism, I didn’t really know what that meant – I’m not a well-read author and wasn’t familiar with the work of writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. So I did some exploring on the web and located an online magazine that published the work of self-described magical realists. The stories were great, but the best thing about the site was the fact that all the authors had been asked in their bios to write their definition of magical realism. My favorite definition was also the shortest: “Magical realism? Sofas that fly.” This explained a lot about my proclivities as a writer: sofas are flying all the time in Nebraska! It’s hard for people who haven’t grown up in “tornado alley” to understand how deeply one is affected by the remarkable and indeed magic-seeming things that happen there.

GJR: This is your second novel, what are your plans for your third?
I’ll be revisiting ideas and historical characters I became fascinated with twelve years ago, specifically three sisters – Katie, Maggie, and Leah Fox – who are credited with launching the Spiritualist movement in America. Early on in the process, I gave a good deal of thought to how I wanted to tell this story and whether it should be a historical novel; I’ve decided instead to re-imagine these women in a contemporary setting. I’m very excited about the way the novel is taking shape; its working title is KATIE AND MAGS. And of course, because of the subject matter, there will be more opportunities for me to continue exploring the relationship between the dead and the living - obviously a pet obsession.

GJR: Do you have a specific writing process that you try to follow?
SK: It depends on where I am in the work: in the early stages I do a lot of what I’ve come to call “wool-gathering.” (And our trip to Wales really helped clarify that metaphor; we stayed on an organic sheep farm and I spent a lot of time wandering the fields picking up stray tufts of fleece.) During this phase, it’s important to keep the mind loose and curious. Anne Tyler says she spends the first year after a novel is done “puttering.” This quality of time is important, and there isn’t much to be done at the desk. I use this primarily time to read books related to research and/or the kind of novel I’m thinking of writing.

The second phase, which I’ve come to call “playing in the sandbox,” begins when the possibilities for the book are becoming clearer, the landscape of the story is starting to close in – although not too much. During this phase I write notes, sketch out possible scenes, journal about characters, etc.

Finally comes the time to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and start writing what Anne Lamott calls “the shitty first draft.” My writing schedule at that point revolves around my kids’ schedule: from the time they get on the bus at 8:30 until early afternoon. The process changes again once my editor comes on board, and the most intense and time-consuming work by far occurs during this phase; I’m often at my desk from 9 until 4 and then again after my children are in bed.

GJR: What inspires you to write?
SK: I love the actual physical comfort involved in writing – both in longhand and at the computer. It’s a very centering, meditative task for me. So in that way, no inspiration is needed for me to want to approach a blank piece of paper or empty computer screen. I also love being alone.

As for inspiring ideas, I take my advice from writing teacher and editor Gordon Lish who enjoins all writers to be constantly “open for business.” This means moving through the world with turned-on senses, with both the sensory and story-making awareness of a writer, who notices everything, remembers as much as possible, and always has as notepad and pen on hand.

We'd like to thank Stephanie for taking the time to answer our questions. As always it's a pleasure to learn about authors and their inspirations.


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