This post is Teresa Frohock’s fault. She’s a magnet for “nice” authors, and having performed fascinating interviews with them on her blog, compels you to purchase their fiction. Good thing, too. That’s how I discovered the lyrical voice of the woman you guys get to meet today.
Kathryn Magendie — Kat to her friends — follows many creative paths. She’s a photographer, poet, short-story writer, editor, and co-editor/publisher of the Rose and Thorn Journal. I mostly know her as the author of the two, already-written books of the Graces trilogy, probably best described as literary fiction in the Southern tradition.
She joins us today from her log home, deep in the Smoky Mountains, and though we’re celebrating the release of her third novel, Sweetie, I can’t start there. Sorry, Kat. I have too many questions about Tender Graces and Secret Graces. 😉
Jan: Want to begin by describing the trilogy’s premise?
Kat: The hardest thing for me is the premise talking or synopsis writing. I tend to babble out something incoherently while the person stares at me with a perplexed and slightly bored stare. Dang. But, I’ll try: The Graces Sagas are southern/Appalachian family sagas. Through urging by the spirit of her Grandma Faith, Virginia Kate storytells hers and her family’s lives using letters, journals/diaries, photographs, whispers from ghosts, hopes, dreams, desires. VK sets to write down everything because her Grandma Faith asks her to. There are “themes” of Home, Belonging, Family, Place, and Displacement. I love writing about “home-coming” or “reunion” or being displaced and then finding Place. See? I told you I suck at synopsis/premise talking! *laugh* Double Dang.
I think you just endeared yourself to many of my readers. <g>
Much of the Graces trilogy is told through flashback, and I’m curious about the reasoning behind that decision. Was it an intuitive choice or deliberate? What were the advantages to telling Virginia Kate’s story out of strict chronologic sequence?
I can never deliberately go into a story a certain way, but instead allow the black hole in my brain to open up and provide—this is both a fascinating and frustrating process, for it would be nice to be able to write from plots sometimes without my brain shutting down but it is also wonderful to find out what happens as it happens.
I like the idea of this woman going back home, thinking she’d spill her mother’s ashes, and then hurry away to forget all of it, forget her childhood, her momma she loved so much but couldn’t understand or couldn’t get to know as she wanted to. Instead, she’s goaded by her Grandma Faith’s ghost to go to the attic of her childhood home. Once she does this, she begins to fall backwards in time. But I like bringing her back to the present every so often so people can remember she’s still in the West Virginia holler, she’s still a woman here and now who even though she is a grown woman is still trying to understand her momma and why she didn’t want to keep her kids.
When I’m parted from my work-in-progress for big chunks of time, I struggle to recapture my characters’ voices. You’ve written VK’s books over a period of years, with projects between; her story spans decades, meaning her voice must mature even as you remain true to her character. What tips can you share with the rest of us about maintaining continuity, given those challenges?
I really have to listen. One way could be to read back over the book(s) before I write the next one to hear the character’s rhythms and hear their voices in my head more acutely. But mainly I just begin writing and soon Virginia Kate emerges. She has such a distinct voice that it’s not hard to tap into her language, her way of speaking. I know when I am out of her voice—it’ll be like discordant tones in music.
I suppose there is instinct for this? But if you really pay attention, you can listen to the cadence, or rhythm, or unique way of a character and soon you are lost in the story; you lose yourself and the characters are allowed full reign.
There are a ton of era-dependent cultural cues that contribute to setting in your books: songs, clothing, cars… You’re a complete pantster when it comes to the writing itself, but how did you keep on top of all the data? How long did it take you to research?
Some of these were accidental and I’d notice them only in reading for edits/re-writes. Some, I’d be writing along and some memory would poke at me—like listening to Timmy calling, “Lasssssieeee!” Or, the smell of Dove soap my Maw Maw used (though I ‘gave’ the Dove soap to Momma). Or how my adoptive mother would listen to Elvis on the turntable record-player.
I always want to make sure I have everything correct, so I double and even triple check my references. I can’t stand lazy writing. If I do have something incorrect, it’s not for lack of double/triple checking from different sources, and I can only ask for forgiveness if I fumble it!
But, I do write it first, check it after. I have to spill out the story first. The researching does take some time, but it’s not so bad, and it can lead to interesting nuggets that can be used later. Those things said, I never ever use these things as shoe-horned-in “devices”—if they don’t come naturally to the storytelling, they don’t need to be there.
Do you know when I became putty in your authorial hands? I’d been falling in love with Virginia Kate already, but in the car, when she knows bad news is coming by how her father taps the steering wheel… That told me you had both original detail and psychological accuracy. How do you write with such confidence about children who cope with multigenerational abuse, alcoholism, and abandonment? And do others say the same thing, particularly those from 12-Step programs?
I seem to have a knack for writing from children’s points of view—have their voices grow up or grow stronger as they age chronologically, or even if they don’t age chronologically and only ‘mature’ due to circumstance.
I’ve received heartbreaking emails from readers who said I nailed a lot of things about daughters and mothers, or fathers, or turbulent childhoods, or alcoholism, or abandonment. What made me feel good is how they also said the book/characters somehow helped them—because of Hope. Because Virginia Kate is strong and hopeful.
Maybe some events in my own life led me to be hyper-aware. Or, maybe I’m just a really good writer—laugh—but, whatever I write does come out of me very quickly, and so those details come from something I must know either instinctively or from watching others or from how I perceive my own world or a combination of all those.
Never underestimate those tiny little details that say so very much.
Maybe a young character focuses on the little things as a way of survival when everything else is just too big.
As for professionals’ comments on my work—I have had therapists, including alcoholism therapists, tell me I did a good job; I was glad, for as I said, being authentic, true, real, correct, is important to me.
I used to be a personal trailer and have loved fitness for some time. However, my specialty was weight training—I hated aerobics. So when I began experimenting with running this April, at 53, I couldn’t believe how good it felt; how my body responded so quickly; how strong I am becoming in a way I didn’t expect from running versus weight training. And as well, my heart has responded—both physically and metaphorically. I feel strong; a strong capable woman; a woman who could kick arse if she had to (laugh).
What running has also done is helped with the stress of constantly working. GMR and I walk the dogs most every morning, but I still thought about work. The running helps the stress more because I am not thinking: I have the music going very loud in my ears and I run run run until I’m dripping sweat; work doesn’t bleed through easily.
But what makes me laugh is how my characters in the Graces Sagas never seem to exercise and they eat a lot of food! Always eating eating eating! Lucky them!
Speaking of lucky, peeps, there’s a copy of Tender Graces with your name on it IF you comment in the space below, live in continental North America and have your name drawn by the lucky RNG. Should you wish to have your name entered twice, retweet this post, post a link on your Facebook page, or a link on your blog, then make sure to post the url below. Contest will be open until midnight MST November 7, 2010. Please join us for Part II of the interview and another giveaway next week, when we actually get around to discussing Kat’s latest release, Sweetie.
Many thanks to Kat for an enjoyable part I! If you have a question for her, please ask away. She’s promised to pop in and asuage your morbid curiosity. You do have morbid curiosity, yes? For further enquiries, Kat can be found at her website, her Facebook page, or on Twitter.