January 27, 2018
JENNY CATLIN, CHRISTOPHER MACCINI, LEONA VANDER MOLEN & CLARE WILSON
A CONVERSATION WITH KIM BARNES
Photo Credit: University of Idaho
"I CAME TO UNDERSTAND that my father was my antagonist," Kim Barnes declared in a 2009 essay for the New York Times, "the one against whom I tested myself every day, the one who had both scarred and shaped me." Barnes's female characters—in her fiction and nonfiction—face two primary obstacles: overbearing men and religious fundamentalism. In the face of these challenges, they do their best to escape and forge their own destinies.
This narrative first appears in Barnes's debut memoir, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country (Doubleday/Anchor, 1996), which was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize. Along with her subsequent memoir, Hungry for the World (Villard, 2000), In the Wilderness tells the story of Barnes's early life, growing up in rural Idaho logging camps, joining the Pentecostal church, and rebelling against her father, only to fall into an abusive relationship with another controlling man.
Following the success of her memoirs, Barnes has published three novels, Finding Caruso (Putnam, 2003), A Country Called Home (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), and most recently, In the Kingdom of Men (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), which leaves the Idaho country of her previous books and takes the reader to an American-owned oil compound in 1960s Saudi Arabia. But the same challenges follow Barnes's young American protagonist, Gin. In a review for the New York Times, Juliet Lapidos notes, "It shouldn't come as a surprise that Gin pays for her recalcitrance—so did Eve. But Gin won't repent, because it dawns on her that whether she's in the compound or outside it, in Saudi Arabia or America, she lives in a 'kingdom of men' where female behavior is strictly regulated. And she comes to embrace defiance as a way to assert her agency." Gin, like Barnes, eventually escapes the rule of men, but not without suffering incredible loss.
In addition to her award-winning books, Kim Barnes's essays, poems, and stories have appeared in The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, Oprah Magazine, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. She teaches creative writing at the University of ldaho.
We met Kimat a cafe in Moscow, Idaho, where we talked about religion, obsession, female tragic heroes, the death of fiction, and more.
You mentioned you're particularly interested in oral histories right now. Is that a personal project?
Honestly, I've been having a hard time writing. Since last year in November. The election just stopped me. I was on sabbatical and all I could do was fixate on, like, Facebook and Pantsuit Nation. I think a lot of us kind of freaked out. I was asking myself what a lot of people are asking. What am I doing? Why aren't I handing out pamphlets and saving lives?
I realized that one thing I was doing was self-isolating. I was holing up in my office. I wasn't really interacting. Because it had gotten painful. So I decided these oral histories were a way to reconnect with people and get back out and hear their stories. People don't remember much about Studs Terkel. But man, when I was in college he was everything. He did all these radio shows and oral histories with workers. I've been thinking a lot about the new working class, what that means in the current system, and have started doing oral interviews. Of course, in the 1970s Terkel was in Chicago and everyone was unionized. They were worried about machines taking over their jobs. And now, my son is worried about
A.I. He said, "What am I going to do? It's all going to be gone."
One of the things that stands out for me most in your work is the incredible specificity of your details. How are you able to render such vivid scenes?
I was brought up in the wilderness. We were very poor. We didn't really have toys. What was out in the world was all we had. So I learned to inspect my world very carefully. And as I grew—and in my father's and uncles' footsteps started fishing and hunting—I learned to hyper-monitor my environment. Everything is sign. A broken leaf can be sign that you follow. This path. And also as a child who grew up with a certain kind of abuse and molestation, I learned to really monitor my environment. You could go in and see something out of place in the living room, and the hair would go up on the back of your neck. Those things together—which are not unrelated if you think about it, predator and prey—I learned early on.
I think as writers and readers, we're naturally given to inventory, inventory, inventory. Because we know stuff matters. Things matter. Without stuff, without inventory, you've got nothing to work with. What I've also learned, and what I tell my own students, is that those are props on my stage. How do you decide what props you are going to put on the stage? You don't just go and grab stuff and throw it out there. Every single thing has to work on more than one level. I want it to work on ten levels. You know, I started out as a poet. And that's never left me.
How does your background in poetry inform the lyricism in your prose?
When I teach lyricism, I talk about how it's not poetic. I think we've started thinking about it like that: "Oh, it reads like poetry." But that's not what lyric means. Lyric comes from the lyre, the musical instrument. The chorus in Greek tragedies had the lyre. Their job was to mourn and lament. "Oh, don't go there. He does not know." Little Shop of Horrors had a ball with the Greek chorus. So it's less about its sounding poetic than tone. The lyric is always lament. That's the tone informing it. You can already feel the loss.
I always say—because I like to break things into impossible dualities that most of us are either writers of lament or writers of celebration. I can go right down through my students and say: lament, celebration. You're Catholic and you left your family home? You've got lament. But I also associate that with a kind of Western European, Christian mythology—which I was raised in-the Old and New Testament. The Old Testament is lament. Oh my god, lament. There goes the Garden. But then after the crucifixion, we left the Old Testament and entered into celebration.
We're also probably either writers of mercy or grace. Lament, Old Testament, is mercy. Celebration, New Testament, is grace. This is why I love Flannery O'Connor. That's all she ever wrote about. She was like, "Oh yeah? You want the bitchy white lady to die because she's being a terrible bigot against her neighbor and doesn't want the black bull in her pasture? You want her to die, don't you?" And then when she dies, we're like, "I didn't mean it!" It's that whole idea. Are you really existing in a state of grace? Are you Christ-like? Even if it's the Misfit. Mercy is like the kings, right? You are not given the punishment you deserve. It is lifted from you. After Christ dies for our sins, we're in a state of grace, meaning you are given the forgiveness you don't deserve. And then, Hallelujah. I'm free, I'm free, I'm free at last.
And so A Country Called Home is divided into two sections: the first section is the Old Testament, and the second section is the New Testament. And that ending, that's a moment of grace. My father, who was very much an Old Testament guy, spoke in the voice of God, the Old Testament God. That's also what you hear. That lament is already there. We live in a fallen world.
You said people are either writers of celebration or lament, but you're saying A Country Called Home contains both?
Yeah, that's what I'm hoping for. I'm hoping to move toward grace. Because mercy is all about punishment. And the thing is, as a woman writer growing up like I did, if I went against men in any way—father, lover, preacher, stranger, boss—I would be punished. I'd be whipped, I'd be shunned, I'd be raped, I'd be beaten. Those were my choices.
In every one of my books, a woman drowns. It's all about Ophelia. Her choices were to go to the nunnery or die. Have you ever seen Thelma and Louise? I had PTSD from that film. Because Thelma and Louise are basically Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid except it's about rape and then one of them kills the bad guy, and then everybody's after them and the cops are after them. And no one's going to believe them. They're women. They're going down. And it's probably going to be awful before they even make it to prison. Because they're bad girls. And instead, they drive off the cliff. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid went out in a rain of bullets. As heroes. Whereas Thelma and Louise have to sacrifice themselves. Go out as girls. That movie just killed me. Because I think I just realized the truth of it. That's my life. Those are my choices.
So in A Country Called Home, we have that with Helen. She's trapped. She can't get out. Shecalls her mom. Her mom's not going to help. And, you know, I was shunned. I know what that feels like. To be in a terrible situation and not have anyone there to help you at all. But then with her daughter, Elise, we get a chance for redemption and a new way to move forward. Hopefully, that's all in there. I feel like I'm working my way along in each book, kind of pushing. In my most recent novel, In the Kingdom of Men, Gin pushes, but she doesn't die. Wooo!
My editor said, ''Can't you have her find a lover in Italy?" And I said, certainly. So I gave her a lover because they always want "women's books" to have happy endings. This is absolutely a market thing. And if you fight it, it's not going to go well. So I rewrote the ending of In the Kingdom of Men, and Gin had an Italian lover—I did all this research and he smelled like peppercorns. Then my editor read it, and she said, "You're right. It's not going to end like this." And so instead, she's exiled to Italy, but she doesn't die.
The book I'm writing now started out with a man in his 80s who has Alzheimer's and lives way up on the Montana-Idaho border. When he was a logger, he accidentally killed his son and his daughter's never forgiven him, but now he can't remember. My question was—and this has to do with mercy and grace—what do you do? How do you resolve your anger if you can't forgive someone for a mistake he's made and he forgets his sin? How do you live with that? You can never have resolution. And, oh my god, he was a logger who loved multiverse theory and physics—which I love—and it had Hieronymus Bosch and opera. I was just having a ball. Except it wasn't doing anything. I kept backing out of these characters, and then I thought, why is the protagonist a man?
I always identified with my father, not my mother because I thought she was weak. She was silent. She was punished. She was abused. I would take all the punishment if I could be my dad and have free agency, which is what got me in so much trouble, believing that. Stories that are big, dramatic stories are still very male to me. So I have this man who is clearing trail, takes his kid, shouldn't have, incident happens, kills his son. And I got to wondering why he's a man. A woman logger? Why not?
My generation was not allowed to do anything. We couldn't play full-court basketball because it would hurt our wombs. They told us this. Anything like that would make you sterile. Forty degrees below zero. Once we got to wear pants. And so it's hard for me, it's not natural. I've always done things that women I knew didn't do—things like logging—but I watch all these women now working for the forest service and they're coming across the river with their twenty-six-inch Stihl in one hand and their Pulaski in the other. And I'm going, can I have a do-over? And they're not being punished. They're out :fighting fires, they're not being punished. So I thought, I'm going to make her a thirty-something woman who killed her son in a logging accident, living out all by herself in this old hot springs that's defunct and no longer hot called Salvo. Okay, that's interesting.
In this new novel, I've got a second woman and the man—the bad guy. And shit, you know, in Lewiston and Spokane there are more serial killers and serial rapists than anywhere else in the country. These stories are with me all the time. Two of my girlfriends were kidnapped when I was an undergraduate and murdered and left in a ditch. And that's this guy. He's done it before and he's trying to do it again, and she gets away and finds my woman logger.
But this new novel isn't Thelma and Louise; they're not going to drive off a cliff My agent said, "Oh, these two women. They're going to heal each other." And I said, "Oh, hell no!" That's the thing women healing. That's what we expect. They only heal, they can't do violence. If they do violence, they're monsters. Have you seen the movie Monster? With Charlize Theron. If it's The Outlaw Josey Wales and Clint Eastwood, they're heroes. A woman gets abused, goes nuts, starts killing and getting revenge, she's a monster.
Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between women and religion in your books? The impression I got was of things not matching up between women and religion. But you're saying these beautiful things about the Old Testament and the New Testament. And so I'm interested in how that comes across in your books.
Well, when I moved out, the week after I turned eighteen, that was it for me and the church. I've only been back in a church once. I was asked by a friend to deliver a little sermon at a Universal Unitarian. And I thought, I can do U. U. You know, they're singing Beatles songs. But I got up there and I started shaking. I literally cannot go in a church.
I'm a scientific realist. And I need to say that because I'm really working in and out of that and what it means to literature. Because we create story to make sense of what we don't understand. And I do not believe in free will. Number one: you have to believe and I've had enough of that. If free will exists, where does it reside? If you believe in the soul, you can believe in free will. Otherwise, no. But what I also understand is that while I was growing, my brain was being shaped. And trauma literally does shape the brain. Neural pathways. So even things like watching exorcisms, that's still lodged in me. That terror is lodged in me.
When I started writing In the Wilderness, I hadn't been to church. It was so absolute that you were either in or you were out. There was no questing. I absolutely believe in "the quest" and that we need to honor it. And so after I left the church, I was just doomed. I was damned. And I don't think I really ''believed" anymore. But I felt it. It continued to inform my life. The idea, always. And the social structure in my family. That very impoverished patriarchy where the men beat their wives, they beat their kids, they broke their cows' tails. I mean brutal, brutal, brutal. And that is so much about gender. Women in my family, even the ones who weren't Fundamentalists, never talked. You were a child. You were to be seen and not heard. And you better look pretty while you're being seen. I'm still working my way out of that.
One thing I've come to realize, especially writing this new book, which has two female main characters, is that even though I'm a female writer, writing stories that aren't heard, I'm still writing from the male gaze—the idea that the stories we tell and the way we tell them come through the male psyche. And eyes. And it's absolutely true. Even when women are writing stories about women, they're still writing from the male gaze. Because it's all we know.
Do you think that's partly because those are the stories we've all grown up with? You talked about the Bible, which is a very male-centric narrative. And so is every other Western story.
Absolutely. And the fact that women haven't been allowed to tell their stories. And have been punished for their stories. I mean, my god. You know the Me Too campaign scared the shit out of me, even though I was really involved in it. But I thought, we're going to pay. We're going to pay. But we've got to do it. We've got to do it. In other cultures, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which I researched for In the Kingdom of Men, women's names cannot be spoken. So forget their stories. We do not know how many women are in the royal family. We don't know how many daughters, how many wives, how many granddaughters. Because they can't be recorded. See what I mean? We're simply erased. We're not there.
When I wrote In the Wilderness, everybody was like, "We've never seen this kind of story from a woman before." "This is a new voice out of the West." And it felt new, you know. It was new. But eventually I had to really think about the fact that I'm writing through my father's eyes. And that's part of the lament. I see my father as a kind of tragic figure in the Aristotelian sense. Someone who is attempting nobility, but is blind. Hubristic, in fact. Too much pride. And that's a very patriarchal story.
We don't really know what it looks like to have a female tragic hero. And we're not sure if we want it. I'm actually pretty intent on wanting it. Because Aristotle said that women cannot be tragic because they are not noble enough to fall. We don't allow women to be tragic. Because if they're tragic, they have to commit a terrible sin. We don't want Mom and Sis doing that! Not my mother! And when they do it, we can't believe they did it with intent because that's a monster. That's terrifying. And certainly, they cannot bear the penance of realization. We can't let Mom and Sis suffer!
Have you read "A Father's Story" by Andre Dubus? It's a beautiful story, best thing Dubusever wrote.The main character, Luke Ripley, is very Catholic. He's divorced. His daughter is off at school. He takes care of horses. He goes every day to the priest. He's that Catholic. His daughter comes home from college—he loves his daughter and her girlfriends—and they're all girly and they have perfume and they drink beer. He loves it. But then, his daughter goes out driving on the back road, hits a man and kills him. And she's drunk. So she comes home and tells her dad. He goes out, finds the body. And the guy may or may not be dead. And then the father takes the car and runs it into a tree and says he blacked out or something, and takes the blame. He can't even tell the priest because he wants to shield his daughter. He doesn't want her to be punished. At the end, he has an argument with God. And God says, "You did the wrong thing. You shielded her from her punishment. You lied to shield her." And Luke says, "You would have done the same." And God says, ''I gave my only son to be sacrificed on the cross." And Luke Ripley says, "Yes, but if she had been your daughter, you could not have borne her passion." And there you have it. It is amazing. How the fuck do you get away with that? Suddenly talking to God?
You know Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, which I'm very fascinated by and believe in. It's fairly universal. We're always asking, what does it look like if it's the heroine's journey? We're always trying to rewrite the journey as though it's just opposite of the men's, and that's not true. So I've been intent on trying to create a female character who we might see as noble if she were male.
But there's that other idea of tragedy: a man trying to go against his fate, trying to batter the walls of the gods and bring fire. If we told the story of Eve in a different way, she would be a tragic hero. She went against her fate. She dared the gods; she ate from the tree of knowledge and scared them so bad that they had to put an angel to guard the tree of life.If she had eaten the tree of life, she would have been a god. So she falls. How is she not a tragic figure?
Are you able to look back now and see what your stories would've been like if written from the female gaze?
I can. Yeah. There wouldn't be so much lament.
LEONA VANDER MOLEN
You were saying you're trying to work more toward being a writer of celebration, but you also mentioned not really believing in free will. So how do you reconcile those two conflicting notions of wanting to push back when everything is already predestined?
Predestination, of course, is something I grew up with. How do you have free will to accept God or not accept God if you believe everything is predestined? I'm going to go all Carl Sagan on you. There's one idea that during whatever we might call the Big Bang, our paths were set. It's a trajectory. It's energy and physics. My son and I argue about it. He's a physicist, but he said, "I think I love character more than equations," so now he's a filmmaker. So we now know that DNA can be changed even though we thought it couldn't. We now know that trauma—as Native Americans have known forever—can insert itself into a DNA so that even if you yourself are not in the face of being massacred, you have the response of someone who has been traumatized.
My grandma was undoubtedly raped. I think every woman in my family was raped, and even if l were never raped, I could have a rape response because it's epigenetically in me. It's just like seeing a snake, and then next time the snake's not there but the same tree, same light and you're like, why am I nervous? This is in the brain. I'm fascinated by neuroscience too. I think we see variables. They seem infinite, but in fact they're not. If I walk out of here and I see a raccoon, and it comes up and bites me, it's a variable. My son says no, it was always going to happen that way, because it was set into motion.
Free will means we can punish people. And I think that might be even bigger. We can blame people for what they do. I'm unnerved about the idea of not having free will because it doesn't actually change anything.
My daughter, who is a Buddhist, says, "If you believe in free will, free will exists." I get that too. You feel like the decisions you're making are not even in your brain or body but somehow you are making your own decisions. But if there is no free will, that's part of the trajectory. Right? I think you can either enact free will or you can't. Depending on your makeup.
I'm also very interested in addiction studies because my father turned towards Christianity because he was afraid he was going to be an alcoholic like his father. But he was still an addict. He smoked cigarettes every day, even though God didn't want him to. He drank bottles of Robitussin DM. He was an over-the-counter junkie all his life. And religion was like another addiction to him. Do I believe you can get sober? Yup. If you can. See what I mean? And so, if you can survive, you will. If you can get better, you will.
So what happens to literature? If our characters in literature don't have free will, there's no conflict. That's why we don't have characters, except for a couple, who are drunks or addicts, because if they're addicts, they don't have free will. So you don't trust them. They're inherently unreliable. Do I think literature is going to go away? I do.
Because that's what stories are? A character making a choice in a situation?
Exactly. That's the only reason Oedipus matters. He didn't have choice. He was only trying to escape his fate. So, I don't know. We may find another reason for story. The stories we've been telling are artifacts.
The stories we're telling now and the way we're telling them, they have so much to do with digital narratives, podcasts, everything's changing. Have you seen that first Superman movie? Little baby Superman is put in his pod, and his father puts in all these cassettes and sends him off. And all the while he's growing in the pod, he's being infused with the history of humans and the earth and the solar system, and that's what we're doing. I think stories will always exist, but more and more, we're more interested in observing real life. Story as it happens.
It's like that podcast, S-Town. It's real. It's almost like listening to stuff unfold. We're still fascinated by the choices people make. But like David Shields says, he's done with fiction. He feels like the artifice of fiction and storytelling has become too apparent. So he sees us completely moving away. We've moved away from so much, but I think that because I'm an evolutionist as well, even though I don't think it's going to go well. I mean entropy happens. We ain't gonna save the planet. We can try. And that's grace under pressure. I think we're getting ready for the next evolution.
But you think fiction is dead?
I do. I love it, baby.
I don't know where to go after that.
Your writing has a lot of strong women characters who are pushing against this patriarchal world. Do you feel like your writing is explicitly political? Do you think of it as feminist?
Here's my hierarchy of how and why I write: First and foremost, to serve the art. Nothing else. Second, to bear witness to my story, or the characters in my stories, in order to bear witness to the stories of others. Third, fourth, fifth after that, it's all gravy. You can't do any of those things well, politics, gender awareness, if you're not writing well. If you write it well enough, it does all those things.
When I wrote In the Wilderness, I didn't let my parents read it until after I finished it. I talked to them about it a lot. But if you start trying to talk about something like this with your family, they're like, "Oh no, that didn't happen." So I'm trying to get at not just the facts of a story—that's less important than the why. Not the what, but the why. And I'm going to be really looking from a woman's perspective. I'm really going to be trying to find the women in the stories that I wasn't given.
What am I going to do with that memory of my mother crying in the kitchen, reading a letter? Her friend Joanne had written her this plea because she was being literally demonized. My mom, of course, couldn't go against the men. Not my father. Mom's never been able to do that. She's lost her friends, and everyone, because she can't say no to the men and is terrified. Just telling a story like Hungry far the World is an act of resistance.
I challenge myself, like on the male gaze. Once I became aware of that, I thought, I don't even know how to write from the female gaze? How can that be? So I started exploring that because it doesn't just mean we're healing everybody and being happy with our bodies.
I've never been a girly girl. I always wanted Tonka Trucks, not Barbie Dolls. I hated their creepy little feet. So the world as I see it is probably more masculine. Because I really don't know how to write girls. And probably a lot of that is they were just never around. I was isolated. Women in my church, you know, we all looked like Hutterites. Mennonites. Amish. There was no "shopping." Maybe it would have been different. I did love the mall in Lewiston.
But once again, you've heard this before, and I believe it: politics should serve art, but art should never serve politics. I think there are times when art can serve politics, but it probably takes it out of the realm of art. It's still art, but it's got an agenda. There's a lot of that anyway. And I think it's fabulous.
I had a professor who was a lech. I think about that now in this context. The #Me Too list is really long. Really long! I don't even . . . I can't even begin. He loved that I wore cowboy boots. And he was a student of Derrida. He would catch me out in the hallway and whisper, "I love your boots." And you didn't want him to get mad at you because he might give you a bad grade, and so you just nodded, "Mm, thank you."
So when The Color Purple came out, black men boycotted the movie because of the way men, black men, were depicted. They felt like it was further marginalizing them. And demonizing them. We talked about that in class when I was a student. And we talked about "The Colonel" by Carolyn Forché—about how it makes something ugly aesthetically lovely through the art of poetry. The subject matter's horrible. The poem's beautiful. And my professor argued that to use art to make something ugly and political and brutal into some thing beautiful was immoral. And I said, "Art can't be about morality." It can't be relative to morality. Whose morality? Your morality? My morality? It can't serve that.
Patti-Ann Rogers, this fabulous poet, she and I got in a huge debate. It was over a Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. She hates Cormac McCarthy. And she hated Blood Meridian because, she said, if there had been women characters—which there aren’t, I can’t even remember one—if he had put women characters in there, the men would have been redeemed. I'm kind of tired of that talk, this redeeming thing. Is that part of the requirement? We have to have so many female characters, and they have to be saving everybody, and redeeming, and showing the men what brutes they are?
I think literature can be redemptive and have amazing outcomes. Uncle Tom's Cabin changed everything. Our awareness of slavery. But it was a piece of propaganda. And it was inherently racist.
I love transgressive literature by the way, which is terrifying. I taught a transgressive lit class two years ago. And my chair said, "Why are you doing this?" I had to do all these trigger warnings and everything. But it was amazing. We got at something, socially, that we couldn't have gotten at otherwise. But that morality has a strange underlying social commentary. Even when it seems to be normalizing, like, children being brutally abused, it's actually commentary on that. But you have to be willing to go there, and you have to be willing to tolerate awful, awful stuff.
But so, this Professor Flores, after I said, "I just don't believe art should be attached to morality"—he said, "You are the most amoral person I've ever met in my life." Well, it was seduction. Later, after my time, he got canned for sexual harassment.
Anyway, it's a fascinating question. I think each of us has to make our own decisions.
Bill Kittredge's family owned the largest cattle ranch in Oregon. And he walked away from it and disinherited himself. Legally disinherited himself because he felt so guilty about what they were doing to the land and the agri-business it had turned into. He wanted nothing of it. And he wrote about what we're doing to the land again and again. He always said—and I still believe this, even if it's transgressive fiction, actually—he said, "Stories teach us how to behave." I do believe that. They do that. But I don't think that's what they should set out to do. They should set out to tell a story.
It's interesting that your first novel, Finding Caruso, was from a male point of view. It's the only one. Everything else is from a female perspective.
That book, when I started writing it, was multiple-points-of view. Third person. And I took it to my writing group—we've been meeting for thirty years every summer. They've read everything I've written. I've read everything they've written and published, and they asked, "Who's your main character?"
And I said, "I don't know." It's devastating to not know who your main character is. I thought, who is my main character? I went back and forth, back and forth. And it dawned on me that I was trying to retell Shane. Do you remember Shane? It was a book, and then it was a movie. Farmers and cattle-ranchers are fighting, and the gun fighter rides in on his black horse. And he puts down his guns; he doesn't want to fight anymore. But that's his fate, and he can't escape his fate. There's a little boy, whose point of view it's from. Shane ends up having to take up his guns to defend the family against the ranchers and then rides off. And the little boy's going, "Shane, come back! Shane!" I thought, what would that look like if Shane were a woman?
Okay, she rides in in a black car. She's "Stranger Comes to Town." She's trying to escape her fate, which is the abuse of her sexuality. That book is just a retelling of Shane. She has to become a sin-eater and take the blame, and then she has to leave and take the sin with her.
And I thought, okay, whose point of view would it be? The little boy's. It's an observational story, like Moby Dick, where the main character isn't Ishmael. He never changes. What? He gets better? He gets smarter? No. The main character is Ahab, who's changed. So your narrator isn't always your most interesting character. In Finding Caruso, Irene is more interesting to me, but Buddy is the one who has to tell the story.
I was reading up in Spokane at Auntie's, and I read from that book, Finding Caruso, and this woman starts sobbing. I turned to look at her, and she jumped up and said, "How could you do this to us? You have abandoned women! You have written from a male voice. You have betrayed us!" and then ran out of the room.
Everybody's like. . .
And I can't remember who it was—it may have been Jess Walter— he said, "I think it's a personal issue."
I thought so too. It kind of wrecked the evening.
But that's how invested we can get in who the story belongs to. You're writing for me, and how dare you put it into a male voice. That's why you've got to serve the art.
So was Irene your first attempt to write a tragic woman?
Yeah, she absolutely is. She tries to escape her fate, she can't do it. She just has to stay on that road. She never can leave that road. And that's absolutely how I saw her. It's sad. And it's almost like she has to take up her guns. Except her guns are her sexuality.
Your second memoir, Hungry for the World, has a lot of incredibly painful moments. You have that one scene that is written as if it's a movie. Are there techniques like this that you use and recommend to other writers of nonfiction?
When I started writing In the Wilderness and Hungry for the World, we didn't have "trauma narratives." We were just starting to see that kind of memoir. It really broke when Kathryn Harrison wrote The Kiss about her incestuous relationship with her father as an adult. Oh my god, the men in New York lost their minds and swore they would never review another memoir again. They made these big public posts. Frank McCourt, which I will never forgive him for, said, “I didn't need to hear that."
But there was no talk about how to write trauma. And I'd been teaching at Lewiston for ten years. I had three children, a stepson and my two little ones, when my husband, Bob, got an offer to be the Richard Hugo chair in Montana, and I thought, this is my only chance to get an MFA.
So I applied to the program, but I already had my contract because I sold In the Wilderness on proposal, thirty pages. And so I went to the program—a year with two little kids and teaching. I don't even remember. I remember throwing a new bar of soap at the kids. It was crazy, I don't know how I did it. I finished writing In the Wilderness in December. It was due January 1st. My editor had one word he wanted changed. He didn't want the word "innate." And I just said, no.
But then I was so exhausted. And I thought, oh my god, give me fiction, give me poetry. So I started writing a novel called Hungry for the World. Bill Kittredge was my teacher then, at the MFA program at University of Montana. An old sage, an enlightened redneck—very much patriarchal. But also trying to learn how to be more than that. He's always questing after enlightenment. He would let anyone into workshop. It's an MFA program, one of the best in the country but he'd go to the bar and be like, "You've got a story, come on in!" He'd go to the gym, and he'd say, "Come and join the workshop!" And so here we are, MFA candidates, and we've got thirty drunks in the classroom. It was insane. I think about that now and I think it was either wonderful or just weird.
I brought the first chapter which starts out like, "The yellow Corvette drives up to the bank teller window. . .” It has that kind of noir tone to it. Everybody loved it, even the women from the bar. You know how it is in workshop. I was just so happy. I wrote some thing that everybody liked. And there was no blood on the table. And Kittredge looked up at me and said, “This is great. You can sell this novel right now based on this chapter. But the question is, why would you write it as fiction?" Boy, class got quiet.
He really shouldn't have done that, I know that now, but he didn't know anything about ''trauma narratives." We weren't saying, "Don't trigger here." I just sat there. I had a lot of emotions. One was a kind of embarrassment and shame because that's a shame story to me. And I went home and got angry. I always go through these emotions. First, I get angry. And then I get a little weepy. And then I go to work. So I got up the next day and started writing it as nonfiction, and I just couldn't do it. Instead, I started writing poetry.
You know, poetry is the most intimate genre. It just is. But you have that veil you can pull. So I was protected. I started writing some poems and sort of bridged into it. Then I called Carol Houck Smith, who was this famous editor at Norton. She was Pam Houston's editor, Brady Udall's editor. The number of poets she edited, it was amazing.
She'd helped me out on In the Wilderness when she saw the first thirty pages. My agent said, ''Carol Houck Smith's going to call you."
And I was like, "Oh my god, she's interested. Oh my god." So the telephone rings, and she said, ''Kim? This is Carol Houck Smith. And she said, "What is up with all this poetic shit?"
I was stunned. What do you say? I mean when you're this logging camp girl.
She said, "Honey, you're not writing poems."
It was very lyrical. I thought it was lovely. It was very spatial. And she says, ''This is not a poem. You've got to start at the beginning and go to the end." And I got off, got mad. Fumed around. And cried because I was so mad. And then I got up in the middle of the night, and I turned on the light, got those thirty pages, and got scissors and tape. And I cut up all those pages and I set them on the bed and I taped them back together again. And I started filling in the narrative from the beginning to the end. If l could have been on Adderall, I could have written In the Wilderness in one sitting. It just came to me. Not so with the next book.
I think In the Wilderness was easier because I'm just a girl and I'm not responsible for my fate. That second book, Hungry for the World, about killed me. I mean, it put me on my knees, that book, literally. I'd be on the floor. Because I was going back and looking at stuff I hadn't allowed myself to look at. I never forgot it, but I just hadn't told anybody. I hadn't told my husband.
I was struggling. I couldn't go there. And so this time, I called Carol. And I said, "Carol, I don't want to be that girl again. I'm married. I have children. I'm teaching. I can't be that girl again." Because when you write like that, you become that person. She said, ''Kim, you have to lie down with that girl."
I didn't want to. And literally, on the phone with her, I fell down on the floor. And when I got up, I couldn't sit at the computer be cause I just couldn't bear it. I couldn't face it. But I could kneel. Isn't that weird?
It's like when I was in the church. You'd quest for the spirit to follow you and kneel all night. And you'd quest for the spirit and pray for the gift of healing or the gift of tongues or the gift of interpretations. Sometimes you never got it, but you still prayed; you still quested. That's what I was doing.
So I get to the point of the rape, and I was like, I can't write it. I could not write it. Now I know, so I can help my students talk about writing trauma and what to expect. I can tell them what's going to happen. I can tell them, if someone forced you into fellatio, you might lose your voice. It's weird how the body keeps the story. Or they can get so sick they have to be hospitalized. It's weird how the body remembers. So anyway, I thought, okay I'm going to write it in third person, like a movie because that's how it keeps coming back to me. That's the thing about PTSD, you're stuck in the moment. Frozen inside it. You're like a rabbit. If you can't fight and you can't flee, you freeze inside of it. And that would happen. I'd get catatonic. I mean literally catatonic while writing this for three days, sitting in the chair, not moving. Not eating or talking or anything. So I wrote it in persona and I sent it to my editor and he said, "Leave it." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Because it's protecting the reader."
But I think he's wrong. I think seeing it replayed like a movie—"the man comes to the door and the girl lets him in"—actually heightens the tension. Because it's so terrible you can't face it. I've read that section in readings. People have asked me to read it, trauma survivors, and I've had different responses. I've had the response that I'm re-traumatizing. Women have come up furious at me, crying. "Don't do that to me!"
The idea is that I take you there.
And I still had a hard time. I had the manuscript, and I tied it with twine. I had to go buy twine, which I think is so weird when I look back. I went and bought twine and I tied it up in a nice little packet and I put it in the trunk of my car and held it hostage for weeks in the trunk of my car. And my editor called—he was a lovely gay man from New York who'd been with me through the first two books—and he said, "Kim . . . where's the manuscript, honey?"
"In my trunk!" So I finally had to let it go, but it scared me so bad. Even though it had been twenty-some years, I felt like I was calling him back to me. This is typical, I know now, of someone who's been treated in this way and abused in this way. You become enmeshed. You feel like they know what you're thinking.
All of these narratives are dysfunctional, are dysfunctional narratives. And in order to own them or to have power over them, you have to impose a narrative meaning. And in nonfiction you're imposing that narrative meaning on your own life and memory. Memory knows nothing about chronology. We remember spatially, and we create narratives that are inherently not true. We start writing memoir and all those places open up, and sometimes they're just holes you have to open up. I remember being in Aunt Mary's wedding, but I wasn't yet born? What? Huh? Sometimes, it's like the rug gets pulled out from underneath you. You find out things you didn't know or remember by trying to fill in those spaces. And sometimes you make other discoveries. Sometimes, all you can say is, I don't know. I don't know where my father was that night. And that, writing in the negative, is very powerful in memoir. I don't remember what my father smelled like when he tucked me in bed at night. It's very poignant. It's another tool.
How do you reconcile this idea of what you do or don't remember in terms of your sensory memory and what may or may not have actually happened?
I'm a real stickler in the factual debate. It's a lack of imagination. That's all it is. If you can't write it, that's your problem. Because it's all about craft. There's no reason to make up a scene. That is a missed opportunity in nonfiction. Because what you should do is write the scene and then say, "But that never happened." In nonfiction you can talk so much. You can say, "But that never happened. Some part of me wishes it had."
And so the whole discussion about ''What is truth with a capital T?" is just intentional ignorance. I can't bear it. At like AWP, "If I want to read truth, I'll read the newspaper." And I went, what? What? I stopped going to AWP. It was a ridiculous argument. There's no reason to make stuff up. With nonfiction, you start out with your inventory, but the more you try to remember, the more you remember. If I don't remember if my mom's dress was red or blue, I just don't say its color. And even if I did, maybe it was red and maybe it was blue, who gives a shit? But she was always in a dress. I remember that.
So when I do things like the landscape, what I'm doing is a composite of memory. I remember that May when we left the woods—it was one of the big snow years, and I have pictures of my birthday, May 22, the snow was eight feet high behind us. So I can detail that and remember things around it.
One thing that really bothered me in In the Wilderness was my dad praying in the bomb shelter. Which was surreal anyway. I mean, how do you remember? It's weird how your memory messes with stuff like that. So I acknowledged that, too. I remembered lying in bed kind of scared and worried. And I remember it was spring. And I remember seeing this bird flying by that looked like a robin. I remember that because it was kind of low in the window. But I added one more detail. I said, "With a piece of bread in his beak," because my dad was eating bread. It didn't have bread. But that was my fic tion writer: ''Hell, yeah, I can tie this together." I don't think I even realized I was doing it. And someone said to me after a reading, "Kim, robins don't eat bread." I was like, damn!
But I do try really hard. I'll never forget Tony Earley—fiction writer but he wrote a fabulous collection of essays called Somehow Form a Family. Oh man, it's so good. In one of the essays, he's writing about looking through a telescope when they landed on the moon. And he remembers it as a full moon. And so he wrote it as a full moon. Well, guess what? It wasn't a full moon. And he has never gotten over it. He's traumatized. He seriously is.
He will never write nonfiction again because he says, "How can I get that wrong? How can memory be wrong?"
And I said, ''Tony, it would have been so interesting if you'd just said, 'But the moon wasn't full.’”
I always say in memoir—literary memoir—that the story isn't what happened, it's why you remember it the way you do. It's not wrestling with what happened. You already know what happened, for the most part. It's wrestling with memory. That's what memoir means. And that's where the story is. That's where the tension is. How do you make sense of your life? Memory's a narrative. Bill Kittredge says, "We wake up every morning and we look in the mirror and we tell ourselves the story of who we are. And if that story fractures, we fall into chaos."
So if you find out, as my students have, that your uncle's really your father, or you were adopted, or your wife's been having an affair for fifteen years, everything you believed, everything you thought was true, every memory you thought you had, was just gone. If what you believed isn't true, how is anything true? It could all be fabricated. That idea of testing memory for truth is not about what you find, it's about the act of the testing. And talking to us about it. There's no resolution. The thing about memoir is there's no resolution. Carol Houck Smith said, "Kim, you don't have to come to resolutions. But your book sure does."
And it's true. How do you bring it to resolution? In Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar—which is cast as fiction, but which is really memoir— she just walks out of the office, and into the day, into the light. You can't do that in memoir. But when I'm reading, especially from that book, I think we should be able to do it with detail.
John Gardner talks about "the uninterrupted dream." And now we know that the brain backs him up. His idea is that you create a world that is so real we lose our ability to exist outside of it, and we have the "willing suspension of disbelief." We know what it's like, how you fall into a book and you lose yourself. And in brain studies now, we know that when we enter into that world in a book, we can get to a point where the brain doesn't know the difference. It thinks we're actually living that reality.
And so the details matter. I hope, and this is my goal, when people read Hungry for the World, they get worried about me.
I ask you, your dad left when you were four, what do you remember about him? Nothing. Okay. Did he smoke? Yes. What did he smoke? Camel Lights. How do you know that? You remember, or you've seen photographs, or your mother's told you.
So it's just a matter of creating a reality that we can fall into. I remember when I wrote In the Wilderness, and my editor in New York, his husband, who was a Jewish man who spent all his life in Manhattan and his family was from New York, he wrote me and he said, ''Kim, when I read In the Wilderness, I felt like I was reading about myself."
And I thought, "Wow, that's what I want."
The other thing Bill Kittridge said to me was, "Kim, when I read your story, I should come away knowing more about myself than I do about you."
And that's why I write. That's why I write. To bear witness. And not just to myself.