Monday, December 02, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jessica Kluthe

Jessica Kluthe’s first book, Rosina, The Midwife was released in March, and since then has been on the Edmonton Journal’s list of best sellers for eight weeks. Two chapters of Rosina were recognized before publication: in 2012, her story “Scattered” won Other Voices’ creative nonfiction contest, and in 2011, her story “Traces” was nominated by the Writers’ Guild of Alberta for the James H. Gray award for nonfiction. Her work has also appeared in journals and magazines such as The Malahat Review, Other Voices, and Little Fiction. After earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing from the University of Victoria, Jessica moved back to Edmonton to teach writing full-time at MacEwan University in the Bachelor of Communications Studies program. Jessica believes in promoting literature in Canada; she reviews for Canadian Review of Materials and has recently created a promotion project called Snap Scene to feature images from Canadian books. Jessica lives in a character house in the Highlands with her partner Reid and her cat Finnegan. She has just finished writing a children’s book and is at work on a YA novel.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Writing Rosina, The Midwife taught me a lot. For instance, I discovered, through the researching process, that those stories placed outside of traditional records, and those stories that often go unrecorded, are just as important, and just as full, as those more traditional narratives (for instance, traditional stories of migration). I knew this at a gut-level before I started writing, but this process provided proof for me. For me, Rosina’s story demanded recording and I think it’s important to uncover and bring to the fore those stories that we see somewhere in our periphery.

Rosina, The Midwife has changed my life in some really direct ways as well: I think publishing has afforded me relevant and meaningful employment in teaching writing (something I had always wanted to do). Rosina, The Midwife has helped me join a community of writers, and encouraged me to keep writing…

Rosina is my first book-length work; I was preoccupied by the boundary zone between fact and fiction and by the intersections between memory and imagination. This is something I’ve explored in my short creative non-fiction and fiction as well. Having the length of a book to really inhabit that boundary zone gave me the space to explore these ideas. With Rosina, I allowed myself to write in the voice that was most comfortable (something I’d struggled with in shorter work), and that’s because, while resisting that voice, Lorna Crozier suggested that instead I use that poetic, lyrical voice. And who wouldn’t trust Lorna Crozier’s advice? I even added a short poem at the end of my book.

2 - How did you come to creative non-fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or fiction?
I started writing Rosina as my thesis for my Master of Fine Arts degree, and that was my focus as a part of that program. I came to that degree with those ideas about genre and the intersections between genres, and had intended to explore them from the outset. While I am writing a novel right now, I think I’ll always have an interest in telling true stories in a way that extends beyond mere documentation—record making—and instead makes meaning out of the events of our lives and the things happening around us.  As a reader, I love reading non-fiction books that elevate the personal. And I came to writing first as a reader (and I hope it always stays that way).

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I often tell my students that writing is hard work, and that at any given point in a project they may find me star-fished out, sighing on my living room floor. Writing is usually a slow process for me. I tend to line edit and be unable to move forward until I am (temporarily) happy with the state of each sentence, then each paragraph, then each page. When I have time on my side, I aim to write a scene or two each day.

If something has to get done though, I will make that happen. There’s a magic that happens for me when I’ve been writing for a long time and have to meet a deadline: when I’ve found that voice, and understand the structure, I do my best writing.

4 - Where does prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I am in a new zone right now. I am writing a novel. I’ve been writing a novel since the first sentence. I think the experience of writing Rosina, and what I learned about structure and mapping, has made it possible to try this approach. When I started Rosina, I wrote the beginning, the middle, and the end into the first chapter. After realizing that, I used these three chunks as my guide—and while things ended up changing a lot, as I discovered new stories while researching and interviewing, it was useful to be writing to something. I’ve done that again with this new novel. I am still on the first half of the first draft, but I have a scene in mind for the end of the book… how I arrive there… no clue…

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I view promotion as a necessary component of publishing. I feel I would be doing a disservice to the project I spent years working on, and to the publisher that has taken a chance on me, to wait on the sidelines. That’s not to say that I find it easy; it can be uncomfortable. I view readings as a necessary part of that promotion, but more than that, they provide a chance to have meaningful conversations. On the other side of that, since I’ve written non-fiction, I’ve also been asked some questions that I thought were too personal, and have had to say so.

As a reader, I love attending readings to hear what passages authors share, and the stories behind the text. This is part of my creative process; talking about writing makes me want to write.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

The why behind my writing of Rosina gets at this question. 

As an undergrad, I had read in Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction that creative non-fiction was a genre with a rich boundary zone between memory and imagination for the writer to explore (39). But I was unsure how to explore. Memory is unstable. The entry and exit points of the moments that people remember don’t necessarily create an engaging narrative arc. I felt like I wasn’t maintaining the pact with the reader to tell the Truth as it was too easy to cross the border entirely and enter into the world of fiction…

As someone who had never lived in nor even visited the place of my forbearers, my family’s oral migrant history occupied that same space, that same boundary zone. And within that migrant history, this space was, for me, where Rosina existed. The stories I had heard about Rosina were worn by time, while they included some facts: who her husband was, when she died… the stories of her were also shaped by whosever memory she was contained within—they were shaped by the teller of the story.

While I set out to explore the genre of creative non-fiction, the symbiotic relationship between the form and content of this work supported a dual-exploration: an exploration of genre, yes, but also an exploration of the story being told within it—this migrant history. This migrant story built by fact and imagination supplied me with a means to explore the genre of creative non-fiction.

Rosina, lived in a farmhouse in Maione, Calabria with her son, his wife and all of their children. These three generations were separated as over time everyone left for Edmonton. After they left, Rosina had to leave the house she had been in for so many years and she eventually ended up in this house with her niece Sisina in Grimaldi. Standing on this doorstep brought me as close as I would get to crossing that line from imagination to artifact. I could only make it as far as the doorstep—a space between outside and in that I feel is representative of that boundary zone. Even if I had been able to go inside, I would not actually be making it any further into her world—so much time had gone by, and everything had been cleared out, moved out, and someone else now inhabited that house.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Simply, storytelling is culture building. I think that a writer needs to ask this question each time they start a new work; I think the answer will change depending on the project, and that it should. With Rosina, I felt compelled to explore this story because I anticipated that within the Canadian context comprised of so many citizens with immigrant and refuges histories, I was not the only person who felt a disconnect from their forebearers. While I don’t think that my family history could stand in for those distinct migrant experiences from across the globe, I do think it can provide a counter-narrative: writing across time and borders in spite of diaspora. A dominant cultural narrative in a relatively young country is one of histories elsewhere, but in bringing together people, in this case, a line of women, across time and place, it is my hope that that those elsewhere histories can become more central in the story of a multi-cultural Canada and as part of the Canadian literary landscape.

In a more overarching way, storytelling is culture and economy building. At the Words in 3D conference in Edmonton, Kieran LeBlanc, executive director of the Book Publishers Association of Alberta, said that, “books are a different kind of pipeline.” How powerful is that? I read a report on literacy that said that if we were to raise the literacy level in Canada by a mere 1%, we would see a lasting increase of 18 billion in our GDP.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential! I know that certain people, including my editor Linda Goyette (who is brilliant, thoughtful, and someone who I trust completely), helped shape my manuscript. Linda asked me questions that I couldn’t have asked myself after staring at the same pages for so long. Linda showed me how much she cared about Rosina, at times more than I did, and this relationship helped me to try things I may not have otherwise. And, I will always think of Linda’s careful first words about my manuscript, when it was still in need of a lot of revision work, and ensure I use that constructive, thoughtful voice when I’m providing feedback to my students. I can’t say enough about how important I think this writer-editor relationship is.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

There are two pieces of advice that I have been thinking of while working on my novel.

1)    Trust the process.

2)    Take it bird by bird (or, you know, sentence by sentence, page by page).

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (creative non-fiction to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

With creative non-fiction, since I’m working with a true story, there are existing plot points that I can use. I find that comforting. I write to each point. But with fiction, I’ve needed to map things out a little more than I’m used to, and of course, invent a little more. I still find myself writing a lot of real things into my work (for instance, I was out picking rhubarb in my garden and came in and made my main character, Rebecca, have it for lunch). I’m feeling a lot more freedom with fiction, and I’m also less worried about the audience (for now), since my characters are invented and not people in my life.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

It all depends on the time of year, and what else I have going on since I teach full time. I can’t write in little spurts, so I chunk out time to write. I need at least a few hours to shrug off everything else on my mind and get into a writing space. When I don’t have a lot of time, I’ll write scene by scene. Even if I go a while without writing, I am constantly thinking about it, and I’ll keep notes.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

There are two things I need to do when I’m stuck: read more, talk to writing friends.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I start Rosina with a scene at my parents’ house in the fall. Autumn smells, like fallen leaves and cinnamon, remind me of home.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

The main influence for me is silence. I feel like I have a lot of things (that I put into my life) competing for my attention. When I can actually just slow down for a few minutes, and tune out everything else (which is perhaps why I like to write late at night), I can start to listen to that really quite voice that gives me images, words, places to start. I can write once I can hear that voice.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

A book I read again and again, because the writing style makes me want to write, is Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. It’s achingly beautiful.

I read a lot of writing guides: Tell it Slant, Bird-by-Bird, Good Prose. It’s not that I find that every piece of advice works for me, it’s just that often there are one or two things that stick and that’s enough to get me thinking and then writing.

Perl’s Guidelines for Composing is a generative writing exercise that brings me to that silence, that space where I can listen to my voice, and this is so important for my first drafts.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

How much time do I have? Write children’s books (this is a huge goal for me), write a YA novel (which I think I’m doing right now), take some poetry courses, learn Italian and have access to more adjectives…

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I think I would have ended up teaching high school English had I not pursued an MFA. I feel really fortunate to be able to teach and write now.

I’ve been so focused on school and writing/publishing that this summer I decided I needed to expand my skills. I am happy to report, I now offer gardening advice to neighbors (seriously, they ask me for advice because I finally figured out things like the difference between a weed and a flower, and how to prune), baking (three successful pies), and I’m this week I am learning to make jam. I’m sure all of these things will make their way into my writing.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I can’t remember a time that I didn’t write.

It wasn’t ever really a question of will I or won’t I write, but it was a will I or won’t I ever be published.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

My favorite summer read so far has been Theresa Shea’s The Unfinished Child. This book prompted a few serious discussions in my house, and I think a good book does just that. This book continually resists simplifying complicated, emotional topics: abortion, Down Syndrome, infertility.

Instead of film, I am going to say TV show: I watched the entire season of Orange is the New Black in two days. The show is based on a true story (you can read a letter that one of the main characters wrote for The New Yorker online:, and I like that real life element. If I had known there was going to be so much reading going on, I would have jotted down the list of books the prisoners were reading when I started watching. And, like Teresa Shea’s book that offers us complex views of female identities, my friend, and writer, Amanda Jardine wrote an interesting post about Orange is the New Black and its complex identities:

20 - What are you currently working on?
I recently wrote a children’s book that is in search of a home, and I’m knee-deep in a first draft of what I think is a YA novel (though that may change) about a foundling. The novel is set in the present in Alberta.

I’m also currently preparing materials to teach a new course in the fall called Writing and Publishing Prose at MacEwan University. I’m looking forward to having Little Fiction’s editor Troy Palmer, Amanda Leduc author of The Miracles of Ordinary Men, and Diana Davidson author of the forthcoming novel Pilgrimage come to speak to my class.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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