An Interview With Daphne Kalotay
In the interview that follows, Daphne Kalotay talks with TMR intern Angela Horina about her story “Heart Scalded” (TMR 44:2). Viv, the story’s protagonist, is a terminally ill cancer patient who attends a Halloween Party and endures a painful encounter with her ex. You can read the story here:
Angela Horina: Every time I read “Heart-Scalded,” I find another layer that I didn’t see before. You’ve managed to blend several themes into a traditional breakup story that touches on many topics: Viv is a terminally ill cancer patient, and she and Aziz broke up over moral divisions. How did you come to balance the different issues and themes in the story?
Daphne Kalotay: For me, the story is about understanding both that things come to an end—including our own lives—and that there are consequences to our actions, including grave ones for our planet and the people and plants and animals trying to survive on it. These themes were naturally entwined for me because the story was inspired by my dear friend, Judy, an environmentalist who was often morally enraged by a lot of what she saw around her (without being outwardly annoying about it) and who lived with terminal cancer for nine years. So the balance of topics occurred organically.
AH: Did you begin with the idea of a terminal illness story or the idea of a breakup story—or were the two intertwined from the start?
DK: They were intertwined from the start. During a summer toward the end of her illness, my friend attended a party (not a Halloween party, or a pig roast) where she knew her ex (the great love of her life) would be with his fiancée, whom she had never seen before. It struck me as incredibly brave. Then, before she died, she told me she hoped I’d write about her and her ex (with whom she was still close and who came to be by her side at the end). I still haven’t figured out how to write about that relationship, but the idea of the party where she faced meeting the fiancée stayed with me. Finally, last year, I was able to sit down and do something with it.
AH: “Heart-Scalded” is an incredibly visual story, and the setting itself acts as a kind of character (the references to color stand out). Why did you place so much emphasis on the visual?
DK: In part, I was simply imagining what the character would notice, since the story is a companion piece to a story I wrote a few years ago from Viv’s friend’s perspective, in which we learn a bit more about Viv’s paintings—so I knew that Viv, as an artist, would think visually and notice colors. And because the story is so internal, it reflects the way she experiences the world around her. As for that green color, green was Judy’s favorite color, and a couple of the walls in her apartment were painted a vivid green. She had many plants growing all around. So I’m not surprised that I seized on that color specifically.
AH: Viv’s vulnerability in the story is poignant: her dealing with shame of being “so Viv,” her facing her own mortality, and her seeing other people get stuck in their own decisions all force the reader to assess their own decisions. Was it part of your intention for the reader to experience Viv’s pain?
DK: As a writer, I want my writing to be true. I don’t mean that the story is a true story; I mean that whoever the character is, I’m being true to how that character would feel in the moment. And I think that when a writer does this, the reader is able to experience, to a certain degree, whatever the character experiences in a way that, as you point out, reverberates, so that we reassess our own experiences and decisions.
AH: There are pointedly political elements to this story. Would you consider, or have you ever considered, working on a political novel or series of stories?
DK: My first novel, Russian Winter, was about the lasting repercussions of totalitarianism, and my most recent novel, Blue Hours, is about white privilege and Western paternalism, with the second half of the book specifically about American intervention in Afghanistan. So it’s possible I’m unable to write a book that doesn’t in some way touch upon the political!
Daphne Kalotay’s books include the award-winning Sight Reading and Russian Winter, the fiction collection Calamity and Other Stories — shortlisted for the Story Prize — and the new novel Blue Hours, a 2020 Massachusetts Book Awards “Must Read.” Published in 20+ languages, her work has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, MacDowell, Yaddo, and Bogliasco, among others, and her story “Relativity” was the 2017 One City One Story Boston pick. She teaches for Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing but makes her home in Somerville, Massachusetts.
An interview with Marin Sardy
Marin Sardy‘s essay “A Shapeless Thief,” about her mother’s schizophrenia, first appeared in the Missouri Review (37:2) and later became part of her new memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia (Pantheon, 2019). You can read Marin’s essay here.
Last month we talked with Marin about the development of the memoir and her new book project.
Evelyn Somers: Initially you saw your book as an essay collection. How and when did you realize you were working on a more cohesive memoir?
Marin Sardy: Even when I was writing the individual essays, I had a sense that they would be able to collectively tell a larger story. They were each about some slice of my life, and I suspected that if I put enough slices together, some kind of arc would emerge. I didn’t know what that larger story would be, however, until far along in the process. It wasn’t until I started writing the chapters about my brother’s homelessness—which I wrote last—that I saw that much of what had been driving me had always related to questions about how my family’s long history with mental illness came to bear on my brother’s struggles with schizophrenia. I also found I had much more to say about my brother’s story than I had expected, which gave some of those parts more of a flavor of narrative memoir than of the highly selective, tightly constructed essays I had produced first. So it was a lot of letting things happen as the words came out and paying attention to what the words were telling me, and looking for the connections that became visible after everything was down on the page.
ES: Did the early publication of some of the pieces give you more confidence going forward with the book?
MS: Definitely. More confidence and more skill. The practice and the encouragement I got along the way turned out to be integral to the final product. In retrospect, I’m so glad the book developed the way it did, though it took a much more circuitous path than I ever expected. Taking the time to fully shape the essays that later became chapters, stepping back from them and letting them steep for a while before returning to the work—that allowed my ideas to percolate, so that by the time I was thinking in terms of a book, I had really developed my own perspective about mental illness and knew what I wanted to say. And how I wanted to say it!
Also, going through the process of submitting to journals and working with editors helped me understand how my work fit into the larger literary landscape. The people I knew who were getting book contracts weren’t trying any of the weird conceptual and structural approaches I was taking in my essays, but when I sent my pieces to literary journals, I got a lot of positive feedback. So the successes I had in the world of litmags gave me more confidence to take that work into the realm of New York publishing and see if someone would be interested. And someone was.
ES: Can you say a little about the process of turning a group of individual essays into a memoir–for instance, even though The Edge of Every Day is not a traditional chronological narrative, were there gaps in the story that you realized you needed to fill in?
MS: My first reaction to this question is actually to laugh because when I look at the finished book, all I see is gaps! And that was a deliberate choice, and it kind of surprised me when early readers of the manuscript commented on how well it all seemed to flow together. But I never really thought of it as “I’m turning a group of separate essays into a memoir.” To me, the essays were not very separate from one another anyway, and I don’t feel like I’ve entirely transformed it into a memoir either. My editor and I were not aiming for it to be “a memoir” in the typical sense. Here’s an example: When I first sold my book based on having about two-thirds of it written, my editor, Catherine Tung, asked me if I’d be willing to add some “connective tissue.” But she also assured me that, for the most part, it should keep its “highly fragmented” shape. That sounded fine to me. Several months later, when we were talking again about the book in depth and I was saying I had this chapter and that chapter to add, none of which qualified as “connective tissue,” Catherine said, “You know, looking at it now, I really don’t think the book needs more connective tissue. ” And I just thought, “No, it doesn’t need it at all.” So we scrapped that idea and never looked back.
I just focused on telling all the parts of the story that I felt were necessary to include, and on telling them in the ways they needed to be told. I really believe in listening to the material, in letting it tell you what form it should take. And it just became what it wanted to become, which is somewhere in between a memoir and an essay collection. What I did end up changing to make it more memoir-like was so minor it hardly registers to me now. I rearranged a few paragraphs at the beginnings of some chapters that were formerly essays, so that each one opened on me rather than on some other topic. I cut out redundancies and added a few sentences to clarify shifts in time and place. And of course, we were very strategic about the order in which we arranged the chapters—loosely but not strictly chronological. But that’s about it. Now we’ve labeled it a memoir, and that seems to work for people. But I think of it more as, maybe, “memoirs”—or, as my subtitle says, “sketches.”
ES: In your research for the book, you spent some time learning about the neuroscience of schizophrenia. Did that change how you wrote about your mother and brother?
MS: Yes, very much—but largely in ways that it’s now hard to put my finger on. The early research I did, in the first couple of years of writing about schizophrenia, fundamentally shifted my thinking about mental illness. And it wasn’t just neuroscience, but also philosophy—the phenomenology of psychosis. And that change in my perspective pervades the whole book. The biggest thing the research did for me was show me where I had been making unfounded assumptions about what I’d witnessed. I had been personally relating to schizophrenia for decades, so I had a lot of my own ideas about it, most of which were unexamined and some of which were incorrect. Being forced to confront and then question my own perceptions and conclusions opened me up to many new paths of inquiry. And that got me excited about delving deeper into what I had experienced, what those things might mean, things I hadn’t considered before. So I was able to approach the topic, and those relationships, from an open place rather than a restricted place. It proved so creatively fruitful and became a way for me to transform what were deeply traumatic events in my life into something that revealed a broader view of what had happened, a view that could be much more useful to readers.
ES: What was the most important discovery you made in writing the book–either about mental illness or about writing?
MS: Most importantly for me, the writing process enabled me to rediscover my brother. To remember who he was as a person, who he always had been, inside his illness. For so many years, my focus was on his schizophrenia—how it affected him, how it harmed him, how I could or couldn’t help him. And I grieved deeply for what was lost when he became ill. But all of that focus and intense emotion, I later realized, had the effect of obscuring his actual presence in the world. After writing the book, I felt very bad that I hadn’t been more cognizant of that while he was alive. The book, and all of the sorting through my memories and feelings that it required, eventually made it possible for me to find him again inside his own story. So in a way, after losing him twice—first to illness, then to death—I got him back as a result of writing the book. It’s sort of the Wizard of Oz effect: searching and searching, only to find that what you’ve been looking for was there all along.
ES: What’s your next writing project or challenge?
MS: I’m pleased to be able to say that I am beginning work on a second book. It’s in the nascent stages still—just a lot of research and notes—but in the last several months I’ve begun to see what I want it to be. Like this first book, it will discuss mental illness. But it will largely focus on an artist whose work I have long admired, who died in 2012: a photographer who lived with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, and whose work in many ways reflected her struggles. I hope to tell parts of her story and include a fair amount of art criticism as well, in which I engage deeply with her images and reflect on them in terms of my own experiences with mental illness.
Unbound Book Festival Podcast: An Interview with José Orduña
This week on The Missouri Review’s Soundbooth Podcast, audio intern Annie Thomas interviews author José Orduña. Orduña
An Interview with Becky Mandelbaum
Lexi Wilkinson: The story is in ways a revenge story; Jackie, the protagonist, ultimately gets the better of her ex-boyfriend, Ellison, and even his dead wife, Gloria. Was there a relationship of yours that inspired the story?
Becky Mandelbaum: Not really, or at least not one relationship specifically. I’ve had my share of heartbreaks, and this story is, for me, an exploration of who and what we become when we’re alone and let our heartbreaks obsess us. The thing I find fascinating about Jackie is that despite how much she beats up on herself, she’s actually pretty good on her own—she finds ways to have fun, to entertain herself. But as soon as you insert anyone else into the situation, she starts to turn on herself. She becomes jealous and malicious, vengeful, self-deprecating. She’s still a touch strange on her own, but she’s kinder to herself. In this way, Jackie and I are similar. I think I’m at my moral highest when I’m alone—maybe this is true for everyone.
LW: The mountain-ranch setting of the piece is very well described: the mountains, the horses, the three-hour trek to Costco. Why did you choose this as the location for your story?
BM: I started writing this story while I was house-sitting for the writer Pam Houston, a close friend and mentor whom I met in grad school at UC Davis. Pam lives on a ranch in Creede, Colorado, which is essentially where I set this story. The ranch is one of the most dreamy, beautiful places I’ve ever been, but I spent a lot of time alone there and had ample time to explore the peculiarities of solitude. Some of Jackie’s behaviors are my own. I didn’t snoop through wedding cards or sleep with the farrier, but I did talk to inanimate objects and find myself ping-ponging between bursts of euphoria and restlessness. When the snow was thigh-high and I had no way to get my wiggles out, I too explored the world of online workout videos.
LW: There is a line where Jackie says, “You might be thinking I was lonely, but this is not the case.” What about this idea of isolation that isn’t loneliness? Is there truly a difference?
BM: There is a huge difference between isolation and loneliness. If isolation is a river then loneliness is a glacier—they’re made of the same element but possess entirely different forms. Loneliness can be a product of isolation (to go back to the water metaphor, it is what happens when we let isolation paralyze us), but it doesn’t have to be. Anyone who has spent extended time alone knows that isolation can induce a range of other emotions, many of them positive: serenity, clarity, joy, bravery, humor, playfulness, curiosity, gratitude, kindness.
I think, as a species, we’ve become afraid of solitude—afraid of the discomfort, the boredom, the task of keeping ourselves company. Social media plays a big part in this. We’re spending less and less time with the discomfort of solitude, a discomfort that can grow into something productive if we let it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve experienced my fair share of loneliness, but it’s usually sharpest when I’m not actually by myself. That’s part of what I wanted to express with this story. We often feel lonely because we have given others permission to make us feel that way. When we avoid solitude altogether, we sacrifice opportunities for personal growth.
LW: In the story, you play with the idea of identity. Can you say more about why and how that became a primary theme of the story?
BM: In many ways, this story is an exploration of the relationship between identity and solitude. A lot of us grow up thinking our identity depends on the perceptions and judgements of others, that other people make us who we are. When you’re alone, you realize you have an identity that’s completely separate from other people. You learn things about yourself: how you like to spend your time, what you like to think about, what brings you joy or makes you uneasy or restless or sad. You learn how to entertain yourself and enjoy your own company. You can hear yourself better. Jackie’s on her way to understanding who she is, but she’s not quite there. The ranch is trying to teach her, but she’s not listening. She still has one ear pressed to the door of a world in which she finds her value from men. One day she’ll walk away, but not yet.
LW: Finally, what are you working on now?
BM: I’m working on a novel that takes place on an animal sanctuary in western Kansas.
Visiting Hart's Grove
This week, we’re catching up with author Dennis McFadden’s, whose debut fiction-collection, Hart’s Grove, is just out from Colgate University Press. Snag your copy here. Dennis’s story, “The Three-Sided Penny” appeared in The Missouri Review’s Winter 2007 issue, which you can purchase here. He lives and writes in an old farmhouse called Mountjoy on Bliss Road, off Peaceable Street, just up from Harmony Corners, and took a few minutes this month to let us know how it feels to be a debut author. This interview was conducted by one of our summer interns, Andrea Waterfield.
1) You work as a project manager for New York State. Do you ever find yourself bringing experiences from your daily job into your writing?
For the most part, no. Work is work and fiction is fiction and never the twain shall meet. Well, never say never. I did write one story called “Building 8” the protagonist of which is a career bureaucrat, and which takes place in the infamously “sick” title building, a building based, incidentally, on a real state office building here in Albany. The story is a wonderful, laugh-out-loud-funny parody of bureaucracy, but unfortunately I’m the only one it seems to make laugh out loud. It remains, as of this date, unpublished, though full of hope.
2) What have you been reading/spending your time with most lately?
My full-time job, which, as the term “full-time” might imply, occupies at least part of my time. When I’m not there, or writing or sleeping, I’m often reading historical novels. I try to read what I’m writing. For the last decade or so, when I was writing short stories exclusively, I was reading nothing but short stories. I seldom read collections (Alice Munro and George Saunders being the glorious exceptions); on the theory that if you want to write your best you should read the best, I read the prize anthologies for the most part – O. Henry, Pushcart and Best American Short Stories. As a matter of fact, I collect the latter as a hobby; I probably have 75% of all the volumes published since they were inaugurated in 1915, and I’m hoping they’ll rub off. With hard work and perseverance I hope to someday be included in Good American Short Stories, then work my way up to Better American Short Stories. I think Best is probably too much to hope for at my age.
3) You’ve just published your first collection of stories, Hart’s Grove. What did you find to be the most exciting part of the process?
Without question, the most exciting part is the launching of the book after all the hum-drum hard work and tedium is done. Any writer who says otherwise is either lying or a fool. Of course, I suppose he or she could be both, a lying fool. Or a foolish liar. At any rate, after years of laboring in rejection and obscurity, never sure if your little collection of letters and syllables will ever see the light of day, the bright sunshine of the limelight is pretty irresistible, not to mention metaphorically mixed. I could get used to champagne, adoration, and applause if I weren’t so humble.
I’m writing a historical novel right now. The protagonist is a young doctor in the year 1857 in, of all places, Hart’s Grove, Pennsylvania. It’s based on one of my Hart’s Grove stories (which is not included in the collection) and I’ve written over 200 pages. Some wonderful writing there, if I do say so myself, chock full of terrific characters, snappy dialog, beautiful settings. But, it’s beginning to dawn on me that I’m probably going to need a plot as well, so it could be a while yet.
Andrea Waterfield is a summer intern with The Missouri Review.
An Interview with Julia Wendell
Julia Wendell’s work has appeared in TMR vol. 8.2, 12.2, and 19.1. Her new collection The Sorry Flowers was published in November 2009 by WordTech Communications.
Q: The Missouri Review first published your poem Fireside” in 1985. What is the biggest change in your interests as a writer since that time?
A: There have been a lot of joys and disappointments since then, and lots and lots of change. Since I’m a writer who writes from my own experiences, what is happening in my life affects my poems in a singular way. Back in 1985, I was rather freshly out of Iowa, still a publisher and teacher. At 54, I’m an equestrian athlete (specifically a three-day event rider) and am about as far away from the academy as possible. Somehow that seems to suit me. I draw life and energy and purpose from my horses, in much the same way that I do from my poems. Three-day eventing is as much about determination and bravery as poetry is about self-doubt and questioning, and somehow these oxymoronic elements in my life feed each other.
Q: What poets do you read frequently or particularly admire?
A: In a pinch, I’d say, Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, Mark Strand, Wordsworth, Keats, T.S. Eliot, and Milton are my favorite poets. They’re the ones whose poems I can read a thousand times and still find something illuminating and delightful on the 1001.
Q: In the last poem of your new collection, you wrote, “I want to fly on my new wings / I want to leave the barn and its longings.” Does that sentiment apply to you as a poet?
A: In much of The Sorry Flowers, the poet is hemmed in by sickness, depression, loss of her parents, conflicts in family life and life in general. There’s almost a claustrophobic feel as she confronts these issues, but I like to think that the poems open up a bit at the book’s end, offering resolutions and [an] escape from the self-consuming earlier poems. Life is change, and if we can change with it, then we can escape our boundaries and limitations as poets and as people and even identify with the natural world, [becoming] the young bird in the rafters.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: After finishing a memoir about my life as a three-day event rider called Finding my Distance, I’ve gone back to writing some poems and am enjoying a new narrative element that is infiltrating them, probably because I’ve spent the last five years writing all the way to the edge of the page. I would love to write more prose in the near future, and am waiting for the right spark.
An Interview with Todd James Pierce
Currently, Pierce is working on his non-fiction book, The Artifical Matterhorn and was glad to give us the inside look into his upcoming work.
INTERVIEWER: How long have you been working on your unpublished non-fiction book, “The Artificial Matterhorn?” What kind of research actually went into creating this project?
PIERCE: I’ve been working on it now for five years. Well, five years and a bit. In terms of research, I’ve completed a tremendous amount of research for the book. I spent a good deal of 2005-2007 in the air, traveling to the locations where these parks once stood and talking to the people who designed and built them. I know that I’ve conducted over 150 interviews for the book, most in person. And actually, I think the number now is closer to 175. But there’s something incredibly cool about spending a day with a person who is 80 or 90 or (in two cases) 97 and talking about his or her life experiences. Some of the Disney people, sure, have been previously interviewed about their work in outdoor amusements. But aside from them, most of these people have never been interviewed. So, from this perspective, I find the work rewarding, as I feel that I’m preserving something that would not otherwise be preserved.
INTERVIEWER: Theme parks have shown up before in your fiction. What draws you to this topic?
PIERCE: Two answers:
(1) My grandmother, whom I was very close to, worked in theme park operations for most of her life, up until the time she was 80. She started at Knott’s Berry Farm (here, in California) and then later worked for Disney. Even after she retired, she used to attend the “alumni” meeting each month at the park.
(2) I’m interested in the idea of themed space and our cultural attachment to entertainment. (You can probably see that in my last book, Newsworld.) The concept of themed space, in its barest form, is to create an artificial environment, landscape and architecture that is divorced from its surrounding geography. The particular type of themed space that was developed in the 1950s were these parks that allowed visitors to spend time in cinematic environments. The early theme parks resemble movie sets–the western set, the jungle set, the space port, etc. And so, back in the 1950s, the allure of the theme park was obvious: visitors wanted to spend time inside of an environment that resembled a movie or a TV show. It’s really the start of interactivity, the point at which the audience is allowed to participate in the film. From there, cinematic themed space expanded into restaurants and shopping malls, eventually into planned communities. In most American cities now, there are many places that resemble, to some extent, the type of environment found on a movie set.
I’m a professor. And I think most of the people I work with are disturbed by the artificiality of theme parks. I’m fascinated by it.
But also, I’m not writing a cultural studies book. I’m writing a narrative history–the story of the men and women who designed and built these parks, their elaborate struggles, the lawsuits, the crimes, the ambition, the greed. You know, the story is about the people more than anything else.
INTERVIEWER: How does “The Artificial Matterhorn” differ from your previously published work?
PIERCE: Most everything I’ve published up until this point has been fiction. At least in terms of book. This story is nonfiction. I’m using the writing stance of a novelist to create narration and construct scenes. But I’ve spent years now, talking with dozens and dozens of individuals, visiting archives, reviewing oral histories, reading every book and magazine article on the subject, so that hopefully I get the details right.
Look for Pierce’s The Artificial Matterhorn coming soon!
Lisa Hartman is a summer intern at The Missouri Review
Call for Interviews
TMR needs good, fresh author interviews for Volume 31 (2008). Recent past issues include engaging conversations with such writers and poets as Sven Birkerts, Jeffrey Eugenides, Terrance Hayes, A.M. Homes, Jonathan Lethem. Interviewers interested in publishing their work in TMR or in querying about interview subjects should contact us at email@example.com.