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2004 Writers' Forum
Kathryn Christman

Kathryn Christman has written both short stories and two novels. Her work has been published in Redbook, Cimarron Review, Primavera, Gulf Stream Magazine, Iowa Woman, and The Mississippi Review. Her recent collection of inter-related stories, The Fifty-Centavo Gringo, was a 2002 finalist in The Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Currently, she is at work on a new novel.
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kathryn christman
Conversation with Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 5, 2004, Kathryn and Belle discuss literature and culture, her commitment to writing, music, genres, voice, and more.
Listen to this Interview (MP3)
34:06 / 13.6MB
BR






I'm here today with Kathryn Christman. She's a writer of fiction mainly, and… Kathy, I recently read part of a story of yours called "Scandalosa", such a wonderful title and wonderful word. And many of the stories that you've written recently that I've read take place in Mexico. I know place is so important to a fiction writer. Do you want to talk about the influence of Mexico on your writing?
KC








Yes… I started traveling in Mexico when I was quite young and it's been an influence on me in surprising ways. It brings me insight into my own culture and my own life; to leave it, and get some distance from it. And I find that one of the powers of Mexico for me is that it seems there's a quality of dualidad, where you've got conflicting or opposing forces that coexist at the same time. And I find that to be one of the complexities of life that we have to deal with is the dualidad. All those shades of gray that occur in our lives.
BR









I know a friend of mine used to say, 'people who have something to fall back on usually do,' and… you're such an existentialist to me, with your choices. We've been friends for many years, probably about twenty years? And I've watched you center your life in writing, even though it gave you no obvious visible means of support, while other writers that we both know have turned to teaching and technical writing and so on. And it seems that you've in such a way -a rather risky way-made your commitment to writing the very center of your life. Is that how you see it?
KC







Absolutely. It's a curse and a blessing both. I didn't take the same path as so many people that I know that are writers. And my struggle has been very difficult because of it. But I do think that, in many ways it's also the blessing part of it, is that my subject matter and the view of the world I've had, by being away from academia or writing for a living, has broadened my view and really nurtured my work in ways that perhaps it wouldn't have been had I gone in another path.
BR









Well that's probably true. You write about people in Mexico, you write about the music industry quite a lot. I mean, in order to write well about these different places, different worlds, you have to immerse yourself in them. And it's true that people who teach in universities end up writing novels about academics. So, you have a lot of different subject matter. Also you're a fiction writer rather than a poet and I think that means you have to spend longer hours at the keyboard or with whatever you use. Poets can do a lot of their work in their head. So, what's your writing day like, I mean do you write every day?
KC














I try to write every day. I pretty much wrote every day for twenty years, and the last couple years I've been pulled away from it by struggling for survival. But every day that I can, I try to write. And for me, it's not self-discipline to write, it's self-discipline not to write, and go have breakfast with my friends. I'm a morning writer. I get up and go immediately into my work, and when I finish my work, then I go about my life. It's always been that pattern, and I'm often taking notes throughout the day that feed into that work, but the actual sitting down and writing occurs for me in the first part of my day. And I believe that that's partially because I feel that I'm closer to my subconscious mind and my creative, inner self at that part, and later in the day I tend to become busier and more filled with the stuff of life. For me that's really key, to get the work done before I go about the rest of my life.
BR





It's that way for me too. I think I don't have to sit there as long, being a poet, sometimes it's only like an hour and a half or something in the morning, but it's a wonderful feeling to have given my attention to that already, and then I feel very free… somehow like no guilt throughout the rest of the day, whereas if I don't do it I'm kind of hounding myself…
KC







Exactly, I feel that's true, absolutely; in that there's something liberating in having fulfilled your purpose for the day. And I've always been very in awe of people that have—their purpose in life occurs in a job, in their framework of 9 to 5, because for me, my purpose in life, my job, is never turned off, really. I mean, I don't ever have a component in which I do what I do and then I'm done. Life is for me writing, and writing is life and the two are really inseparable.
And I have to say also, for me, somehow or other, music has been an enormous liberation, and in some interesting way created a real symbiosis with writing. I love music, I can't play a note myself, but I'm a huge music fan. And, in some interesting way it feeds the part of me that writes. And part of it, I believe, is that writing is a very lonely craft, and what occurs with a person alone in a room, and it's, some of the most exciting times in my entire life have happened in the lonely moments when that something will come together, and it's so much greater than I am. I don't even understand it entirely, how it comes about. But with music, I think one of the things that I'm drawn to is that, not only is it an immediate form of passion, that is very accessible to people, but it also, I consider musical artists kindred spirits in a sense, and they're different from artists in that they know how to band, and they band together and they form units with each other. And it's so much less lonely to me than writing that I'm drawn to that.
BR










That's true and we used to notice that when I worked up at Centrum. They'd have the fiddle festival, and I think the blues festival… and they were so communal and social, you know… and then the poetry workshops would start and right away there would be people needing psychiatric help and, just a lot of neurotic problems with individuals fighting about rooms and, this kind of thing that didn't go on at the music festival time. So, not to create too much of a stereotype, but it seems to be true. You've both written about the world of musicians that you know, and I think at times reviews of musical performances, isn't that right?
KC
















I don't actually write nonfiction about music much at all. Pretty much everything that I've written about music has been within the context of fiction. I'm very in awe of and intimidated by writing nonfiction about music because I don't feel I know enough and that I can only approach it from my own fictional landscape. So, music writers to me are very, they've based their whole life on the knowledge of music, and I've got gaps in my knowledge. I prefer to approach music more through the interior of characters that are driven to create it, because in some way it essentially saves them. And music in some ways has saved me, and it's easy for me to write about characters and people that are saved by music and in that sense yes, it's been very interesting. In fact it's been interesting to write songs through my characters, and lyrics. And even though I wouldn't ever assume to write a song in real life, somehow or other through my fiction I'm able to create that.
BR



That's interesting, I'd like to see some of those, I don't think I ever have. But, you're speaking of music, and I've heard you say that writing is redemptive for you, that art is revelatory. Could you comment on that or expand that a little bit?
KC

























Absolutely. For me, I believe that that character's capability, and sometimes you see what your characters are capable of and it's not pretty, but these same characters embody parts of all of us, and I believe that the best fiction really bears a kind of compassion which is necessary for human beings to… understand and love each other. And, it's a hard thing to look at. My characters' humanity is what drives me. And by humanity, I mean their quest for wholeness. No matter how broken they are. I think the power of fiction and literature is that when we glimpse inside the interiors of others, we have a reason to understand them, and we also have mirrors to parts of ourselves. And I believe that literature is important to culture. It's as important as water and food. It's a form of medicine, really… a curative that can help purge misunderstanding and delusion and clarify vision of people unlike ourselves, and also of ourselves. Whenever another person is fathomed, it seems like a small miracle occurs. And because we live in our own worlds, the worlds of ourselves, to see inside the worlds of others is in its own way redemptive. And I think the best literature goes right down to the bone of that understanding of what characters do and how they struggle. And all those clichés about not having walked in the shoes of someone else are true really, and …don't judge until you've been in those shoes. And I think that, a great writer, Eugene O'Neill, said something once, I believe he said, "we are born broke and we heal by living." And I really like that.
BR













I like that too, and I've never heard it before. It must be at least once a day that I have the thought, how wonderful it would be if just for a moment, or just five minutes or something you could experience somehow being inside of someone else, and be yourself being aware of what that was. Of course that's what writing fiction is about. What do you think is the significance of the popularity of memoir as opposed to fiction in this culture right now? Doesn't it seem as if fiction has lost ground in terms of the seriousness with which people take it? I remember when I was growing up the way a new novel by a major writer would be anticipated and received… and either I'm misremembering, or the culture tends not to take fiction as seriously as it used to. Do you agree with that?
KC
















Well, I believe that there are cycles that occur in the popular mode, and that it's ultimately all a quest for illumination. And people are looking at memoir as a confessional form of illumination, and it serves that purpose. There are some absolutely fantastic people writing in that form these days. I believe though that great fiction and literature provides, as I said before, that bifocal effect, whereby you see different points of view, disparate characters and how they interact and interface and how they misunderstand each other, and there's so much fear that's driving our culture and people today, that I believe fiction will… it's usefulness won't be replaced by memoir because it's a different animal than that. It's important, I think, in fiction, to see the different characters and the different levels to which they collide. And that's a different thing to me than memoir, which is usually written from a protagonist standpoint, inside the experience of the writer in one person.
BR


And that must be what drives you to writing novels as well as short stories, but a novel is such a vast undertaking… what are you working on now, a novel or a short story or…?
KC






















Well I've just completed a collection of short stories which are a genre that I haven't worked in before, which is interrelated stories, in the sense that they share a sense of place and a sensibility and a tone; a few peripheral characters… but pretty much each one is an individual story and yet there's this connection between them. And that collection includes thirteen stories and a novella. I've never written a novella before, which is an interesting length when you've written two novels, full-length novels and then short stories; the novella has a nice arc to it. It's longer than a story, and yet it's not like swimming the ocean, which is what writing a novel is like, where you're in the middle of the ocean for months and months and months and you're sure you're going to drown and then finally, one day, you get through it. And every revision is like that too. I have just returned to a novel that I started a year ago. And, I am actually working on another novel which is a nice change from having written stories. I like both forms. Both forms to me are powerful, and different from each other. And I think I've learned from every single piece that I've written, when I go on to the next one. So, having written two novels and now embarking on a third one, I feel that it's a foundation that I've built on for this piece that I'm working on now.
BR









When you begin, do you know how your novel is going to end? To what extent is it outlined in your mind, or… You know, poets I think-you know Robert Frost says 'if you know how a poem is gonna end when you start it that, it's a fake, it's not a even poem.' So for us a lot of it is discovered in reciprocity with the language as we write it. But, you know, I've never had any success, I've set out to write a novel and tried pretty hard, and that didn't seem to work with the novel. It seemed that it needed more of a plan. What do you think about that? Do you know how your novel is going to end?
KC




































Well, it's interesting, to talk about this, because, every story for me, and every novel, has really been different. Often, with stories, I will start them and …they're written in a completely organic manner, they emerge, they seem to unfold, almost in real time, as if they were unfolding to me. And I've pushed myself hard on writing days to find out what happens, because I don't know. And I think that that's the truest thing I can really say about a consistent process for me is that the story is contained almost like a germ, from the very first word in an organic sense. And once you have a voice and a vision of a story, it unfolds. And it often doesn't unfold in a way that you might expect. Sometimes there'll be a glancing ahead, whereas if you're walking on a road and there's a turn ahead, you might see a glimmer of something that might be around that turn, sometimes yes, sometimes not. But that is… somewhat the process that I've used for writing stories. Not always, sometimes there'll be a piece of dialogue or an image, or I'll even know an ending and not know how it's going to get there. But generally, the first part of the story, or even the title suggests the story in an uncanny way. Now, with the novel that I'm working on now, it's occurring in a different fashion, it's bursting through in different sections from the belly of the novel, and I had the beginning from last winter, and I'm writing it in a different manner. And only parts of it are really clear to me. My last novel, Belltown, also occurred in this way, these are these disparate characters, and these voices, this symphony of voices, and I had no idea how these people would ultimately impact each other's lives and how this story would unfold. And at times when something would seem to be there from the beginning but I would have no idea what it was about; and discover it 400 pages later, it would seriously put a chill down me, because I just couldn't believe the process. So I would have to say that, with my second novel, it definitely was less… it was linear, but it was not something that I ever could foresee or plan. And, I think that structurally a plan is a good thing to have in place, but it's often completely knocked out of the way.
BR The characters take over?
KC

















The story and the characters and the language and the vision, and the deeper truths of the story start to take over. And if truths were that easy to see, we'd have them from the get-go. We wouldn't even need to read. But it's by reading we discover what really lies hidden deeply in life, that perhaps literature can teach us and nourish us, and enlighten us. And it's those deeper truths I think, that knock out anything you can see. In other words, you can fly over a landscape and look down on the gridwork, and it looks like it's there, but once you're on the ground and you're foraging through it, it's a different animal. And I really believe that writing for me is an organic process, going through the work and through the characters and really almost being in a trancelike state when I'm writing, not aware of time, so deeply involved in concentration that there really ceases to be an outside reality. And as that inside reality is revealed, that's how I learn what's going on in the story, word by word. And, the characters learn about themselves too.
BR





I really appreciate your saying that, about the deeper truths emerging and taking over… you know, occasionally you've referred to the 'voice,' but some people give 'voice' so much importance, this idea of whether or not a writer has found their voice. Is that an idea that resonates with you or not, or what about voice?
KC




















I think that the discussion of voice is a very important one for writers because it's an ongoing discovery process that's a lifetime challenge. I think that influences are interesting because they resonate with the writer, and the writer internalizes the influences and, somehow or other, emerges with a voice that's unique, hopefully, to himself. And I think it's interesting to remember that García Márquez was reading Faulkner when he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude. Created a different form, "magical realism," by reading one of our great masters. So I think that the process of finding your voice as a writer is ongoing. And, Tom McGuane said something interesting to me once. He said, "The good stuff isn't necessarily difficult." And I think that that's an important thing to recognize for writers, that sometimes the right stuff for them comes out of them in a natural form like it does with songwriters too, whereby they hear it. And it's not something that they have to think too much about, but it comes through them, and it refines over time, and keeping at it, and I believe that ultimately the strength of the writer's originality emerges as the music of their internal world through language becomes stronger.
BR


Well your voice is certainly coming through loud and clear now. Our time is drawing to a close, I'm sorry to say. I expected maybe you might want to talk more about Mexico?
KC








I can talk about Mexico. I feel that Mexico really nurtures my spirit in a very essential way. I keep being drawn back there. And I didn't realize that I would be drawn back there my whole life when I first traveled there when I was nineteen. And I think that, the thing that Mexico does for me is, it liberates… I find it liberating because there's an innocent quality to the people that I find very refreshing and very down to earth, and I find that I… that there's a sense of homeland there that I don't always have elsewhere.
BR

I know that, you speak Spanish very fluently I think, I wonder if you every find yourself thinking in Spanish?
KC
































Well, yeah, I do think in Spanish when I'm talking to my friends, my Spanish speaking friends. It's a process over time of learning to hear your thoughts in a different way, and I do. Mexico has this absolutely fabulous wealth of idioms and words that we don't have a parallel to exactly in our language. And there'll be moments where I'll just come up with their word for what I'm feeling or thinking, even when I'm up here, and it fits perfectly. And, we of course have slang that is funny to try to interpret to them also. It works both ways. But I find it to be a very rich culture that has a lot to teach Americans and gringos, because one thing about the Mexican people that I find magical, is that they… even during times of adversity stay real-very much rooted in a sense of resilience and hopefulness and even humor. I've seen devastation in people and even families there, and yet, they find a way to deal with it in a present-tense strength that I think we could learn a great deal from in our culture. We tend to be very much a driven people and have goals that we have our sight on, and I find that one of the beautiful things about Mexico is that it tends to somehow remind me that life occurs in the moment, real life. It doesn't occur tomorrow, and yesterday's gone. But, right now's happening, and that is something that I find very present in their culture, and refreshing, and nourishing to me, because when I'm writing it's a very immediate feeling. It's happening, it's unfolding. And I believe that with music too, that's probably what I like about rock music is that it places me very deeply in the moment and I can't journey outside of that and intellectualize and deflect. It's a passionate thing, and to me it's the essence and the fire of being alive. That is, staying with the moment and mining it for all it's worth, and the hell with tomorrow and the hell with yesterday. I think there's a lot to be learned about that, to embrace life.
BR






Well, it reminds me, as I said before, of the way that you've always been an example to me, of putting your work in writing in the center of your life, and that value, which you seem to radiate a sense of its being there regardless of how you're received in the world. It's nice to have recognition, but I feel that you believe in the value of your work in a way that doesn't depend on that. Is that right?
KC









Absolutely. Well, I have always felt that my purpose in life was to write. And when I've gotten away from that I've gotten away from my purpose. And I have no problem with spending my life writing, and somehow or other the business side doesn't work out, or it's not the right time. It seems to me like a noble way to spend one's life. And I've had a—almost a fanatical belief in writing itself as a valuable exercise for me. It's what I believe I'm supposed to do. And I've been fanatical with staying with it, despite exterior cliff-hanging, and enormous fear in my friends, who worry about me.
BR


You're like a candle in the wind. Thank you so much Kathy, and thank you for your conviction and your talent and your beauty, thank you.
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