Edited by ANDREA SPOFFORD | BARRY KITTERMAN | AMY WRIGHT
A String Zinging Out Into Infinite Blue
An Interview with Kat Meads
Amy Wright for Zone 3: Is an interview reverie possible? Might we set up sections of Q&A’s akin to your essay, “Beds, A Reverie”? The trouble is, one rarely knows what prompts those dreamy states of mind even in oneself, but as two writers I can guess words themselves might spawn some wild talk—as the dictionary informs me is at the root of “reverie,” from the Old French, rever, to speak wildly. So, what are some words you return to fondle, slip into like worn loafers, squeeze into like glass slippers?
Kat Meads: “Night” is definitely one such word for me—and was even before I embarked on the 2:12 a.m. collection. I like its tough monosyllabic sound in combination with the expansiveness of its meaning/image. I’d say “attempted” and “departure” appear fairly regularly in my work—probably too often in tandem. And I like to use “woods” as opposed to “forest.” Now that I am looking at that list in response to your question (night/woods/attempted/departure), it would seem I’m perpetually writing fairy tales.
AW: I wrote a fairy tale once about a disobedient lady who had a pet goat and made up bedside songs for a friend who had an accident. Who would the protagonist be in a fairy tale called “Night Woods Attempted Departure,” and what would the driving tension be?
KM: What were the lyrics to your bedside song? And I just must know whether or not you had a tune in your head to go along with those words? In “NWAD,” I’m thinking the protagonist would be a tree-resident of some sort, tempted by a series of ground folk to come on down, but he/she resists, then calamity strikes, there’s a fall…
AW: The protagonist and her friend were Appalachian, so you should imagine the lyrics accompanied by a fiddle tune: “The sun is an old man walking the line / where the day meets the bottom fore it turns back around.” When a song starts to come to me, it’s a good indication I still have some of that necessary (for me) playfulness towards writing that I sometimes lose in the discipline of the work. How do you think of those words “work” and “play” regarding writing?
KM: I can hear that fiddle! Interesting, too, that music is more readily associated with playfulness for you. Do you listen to music as you write? I know many writers who do, but it’s beyond my capacity to manage both. Like Vladimir Lenin, I require absolute silence to write. Too easily distracted, I suppose. But I would say the “play” part for me is more apparent at the idea stage—when a line or situation or character pops in my head and I’m figuring out whether or not I can run with it, link it to something old, something new…that kind of toss about.
AW: The beginning is a great time to play. In a workshop I attended, Dinty Moore likened the idea stage to a child who is allowed freedom before being corrected in the more parental editorial phase. But to answer your question, silence reigns for me too. I grew up in the country on a dirt road where you could hear travelers coming for miles. I like to be able to hear prose rhythms slip in and out of tune.
To borrow your language from 2:12 a.m., “remember and reanimate the precise emotional tenor” of an essay you had a memorable conversation with.
KM: Ah, then we share a similar launching: I, too, grew up in the country on a dirt road. (Great for hopscotch!) “The Making of an Insomniac” was a conversation that went on for years, primarily because the structure of that essay is an inquisition of myself and memory as well as a “how did this happen to me?” lament. I kept switching out examples, “clues” to the how and why of my increasing sleeplessness. When I remembered the 4-H camp experience—that early, early bout of sleep interruption, tied to the fear of another camper’s drowning—I gave a yelp and had to pad around my desk for a few minutes to calm down before I was able to write it out. That was the missing piece. Its discovery was exciting and a bit terrifying at the same time.
AW: Do you have any courage mantras for such waits?
KM: “Onward.” And not just for me—my students will attest it’s my go-to phrase of encouragement.
AW: Describe some evolution in your writing process.
KM: I seem to have developed into a fan of brief (and briefer) paragraphs. Two sentences, even one, per. I like the look of that slash and break on the page, the way that arrangement can be used as pause and/or emphasis. Maybe because I also write poetry, maybe not. But lately when I write a paragraph as “thick” as that “Comfort from sources high and low” paragraph in the Patty Hearst essay (“What Lies in Closets”), I agonize over the spacing. I probably re-paragraphed that section a dozen times. But, you know, I love to rearrange furniture, too. Restructuring the lair.
AW: Lair stems etymologically from the German leger for bed. Perhaps sleep helps the well-rested to regroup in some way you have to do manually.
KM: What a great connection! My obsession now has a viable excuse. But what about you? Any arranging/rearranging habits? (I sound as if I’m taking a survey—because I am.)
AW: I’ve only recently begun to develop any patience for revision and rearranging. I would have been that student who took your “Onward” a bit too literally, scattering drafts to the wind leaving them behind. Tell me more about your survey—is hunting and gathering information part of your writing process?
KM: Maybe then “circle round” is a better mantra? I’m picturing you surrounded by a swirling cone of possibilities. “Girl Caught in Word Draft”—perhaps the makings of another fairy tale? As to hunting and gathering, with regard to many of the essays in 2:12 a.m., the research actually took longer than the writing and revisions. That was certainly the case with the Sheriff Glenn Brinkley essay, the Marina Oswald essay, the Nevada Test Site piece and a few others. But your question also reminds me that for one of the essays in my first collection, Born Southern and Restless, I sent questionnaires to my first-grade teacher, high school basketball coach, the Baptist preacher… And amazingly (and very kindly) they answered. Although a couple of my novels (Kitty Duncan, When the Dust Finally Settles) are considered “historical novels” since they’re set in the 1960s and earlier, I didn’t do any research per se for those beyond living through that particular time in a particular pocket of the South. However, my most recent novel, the glaringly historical “For You, Madam Lenin,” required lots of research prep and a trip to Russia.
AW: Fascinating. How did your research surprise you or redirect your intentions for the novel? And, will you provide a brief synopsis?
KM: My research introduced me to so many incredible (and under-sung) female radicals, I decided to incorporate their stories in sections throughout the novel called “Interview with History.” Those sections are playlets, really—spirited exchanges between History (the interviewer) and women such as Inessa Armand, Vera Zasulich, the Daughters Marx—in which the women try to “set the record straight” about who they are and what they accomplished. Those sections were terrific fun to write. The novel as a whole centers on the two Krupskayas, Lenin’s wife and mother-in-law. A paragraph in Robert Payne’s biography of Lenin suggested that Elizaveta Krupskaya wasn’t a fan of her son-in-law. That dismissive attitude intrigued me. I thought it was something I could use to advantage in a novel about the Russian Revolution(s), and the project took off from there. My Russian “involvement” shows up in a couple of the essays in 2:12 a.m. as well: “Relativism: the Size of the Tsar in Vegas” and another essay wholly devoted to my St. Petersburg trip.
AW: Tell me more about your relationship to narrative.
KM: I’m very interested in the relationship between the said and unsaid in any piece of writing—poetry or prose. And by “unsaid” what I mean is the knowingly withheld, what authors deliberately leave out in service to the poem or story or novel or essay. That particular aspect of the narrative puzzle escalated when I worked on the short-short stories in Little Pockets of Alarm. That collection was published eight or so years ago, but I see remnants of the approach in the 2:12 a.m. work—“Beds, a Reverie” being one example, “Ruth Paine’s 2 a.m. Letter” another.
AW: How do you decide what to leave out? What were some of the questions that helped you choose what to include and withhold in the essays vs. the collection you mention?
KM: Can a reader get from A to B without any more being said/filled in? If I leave this word, this sentence, this description/explanation out, will its absence serve to open up the piece (or create confusion)? I’ve been told that in my nonfiction I have a very recognizable voice, and I do, I think, count on readers falling in with my way of telling, which has something of a “jump cut” aspect to it. Then again, I may be all wet in this sort of analysis. Basically, in terms of craft, if I’m feeling bored with a piece, the cutting begins. When writing about (and naming) actual people, I’ve learned that if I’m constantly tempted to couch/retract/omit, it’s not a piece I should be writing.
AW: It sounds like you use omissions to maintain a certain momentum or energy, which fits with an “onward” progression. Who or what are some of your structural models for composing an essay?
KM: In her preface to Rock Water Wild, Nancy Lord tells readers the chapters ahead are “essays in the original meaning of the word—that is, attempts to learn, to discover, to wander around in ideas as I try to reach some understandings.” (The italics are hers.) I feel similarly. Particularly with regard to the “wander around” aspect.
AW: Your St. Petersburg essay, “Four Days and Four White Nights,” offers a picturesque fairy tale setting—with lights strung around the central column in the Palace Square to celebrate the beginning of summer. But it would be a dark fairy tale considering you spent the afternoon touring hidden murder rooms in Prince Felix’s castle. I find this level of contrast recurring in your work, as if you write on a Beckettian hinge between noon and darkness so that a reader might round any corner to find a wax model of the murdered mystic Rasputin in a peach silk shirt, under whose “hypnotic gaze” a wax Felix sits. Perhaps such surprises are why you’re drawn to jump-cuts?
KM: Quite possibly. Also useful (jump cuts) in terms of pacing, economy and more calculated interruptions to the narrative. But in terms of that contrast you mention, I think most writers are ultra aware of an “under” story or “other” story constantly competing with the one they’re attempting to fix on the page, don’t you? How much of that competition gets revealed seems to me intricately connected to a writer’s style.
AW: Probably the underlying story or stories wanting to surface provide writing with a current. Whether a writer flails or fights or swims would be a good indicator of the options available to her at any given time. Is that competition where power gets exerted in your work, or would you say there is another source?
KM: I’d certainly agree that those under/other stories provide a lot of juice during the initial composition phase, yes.
AW: What do you see when you think of the word “story”? Is there an arc or a fish with a great white belly? Are you in the deep end swimming toward the ladder, or standing over an abandoned mine? Perhaps, given your words, you are leaving woods, or headed into them, departing from a world where something is not possible…
KM: A string zinging out into infinite blue. What to do with that string—that’s the question.
AW: In “Ode to Sleep,” Anne Carson begins: “Think of your life without it.” Considering you devoted a collection of essays to insomnia, I doubt you have to reach far to picture that life. What thought is more of a stretch to picture going without?
KM: Oh, that’s an easy one. Insomniacs (of course) experience any number of middle of the night dreads, but my biggest fear night and day is suddenly finding myself unable to write—whether that be caused by issues of time, money, health—or worse: a sudden lack of gusto/material. My waking nightmare is going to my desk and finding I simply have nothing else to say. I can’t imagine a life without writing—although clearly I can imagine that loss well enough to hope it never happens.
AW: The things I imagine easily never seem to happen. It is the things I cannot imagine that life seems to reveal to me.
KM: And is that a comfort, or….?
AW: Well, I would love if my observation broke the spell of your nightmare, but anything coming from outside will just be incorporated into that dream like a faucet running or an alarm going off. But this fear does remind me of what Bob Hicok calls “The Mystery of Initial Conditions” in an essay on why he writes. To sit down daily before a page, he says, requires that something generate while “you wait around for something that excites you to show up.” He goes on to add that there is “something spiritual about the endeavor…in that it requires faith that this something [excitement, interest] will show up day after day.” Since you zinged that terrific line into the infinite, I assume you’re comfortable enough with the big emptiness, but what about the string in relation to it? Do you have to conjure the kite? Or hold on, not knowing what is on the other end?
KM: That infinite blue is chock full of stories is my presumption. And I’m just one storyteller granted single-string access. So far that string of mine has proved dependable, reliable. But who is to say that will continue? Which leads back to that waking nightmare…