Monday, November 15, 2010
Joan talks with Kim
Next in our series of getting to know the women of What Women Write, I chat with Kim. Kim and I met each other first, long before we knew we'd be part of such a great group. Even so, I still learned something new!
Joan: Tell our readers a little about your background.
Kim: I dread being asked where I’m from. Saying “nowhere” sounds evasive, even if it feels true. If I say “everywhere” people assume I’m an army brat or the child of missionaries. Mentioning that my father builds golf courses is a conversation starter, but it inevitably leads to talk of golf, a subject I know shamefully little about.
I was born in Fargo, North Dakota, but lived in nine different places by age three, including two foreign countries (Mexico and the Philippines). Much of my later childhood was spent in the backwoods of Maine, where my Dad temporarily took a job with the ski resort at Sugarloaf, but I never felt like I fit in there. Dad returned to the golf course business when I was sixteen and we moved to Finland for seven months. This would have been wonderful had we lived in Helsinki, where I could have attended the International School, but home was a small town where I had no opportunity to make friends. Having nothing better to do, I finished the last two and a half years of high school through the mail and started college early. My parents moved to Bangkok, Thailand, and I often went there for holidays. Being a fair-skinned blond with a quite prominent nose, I stood out in Bangkok. I got used to the stares though it was disconcerting when small children screamed as if I were their worst nightmare come to life. Despite that, I loved Thailand, and still miss the food.
The place I feel most at home, though I have never actually lived there, is Georgian Bay in Ontario. Perhaps it’s genetic memory.
I have a BA in composition and English literature from Truman State University in Missouri and an MA in English from Iowa State. I’ve been married for almost thirteen years and have two daughters. I live in Dallas, though I don’t feel Texan in the least.
Joan: How did your unique childhood prepare you to become a writer?
Kim: First off, writing is in my blood. My mother’s a writer. My paternal grandmother composed children’s stories for her own kids, likely because they couldn’t afford many books. I have the manuscripts and they are quite good, though a bit dated. My great-grandparents, Carl and Madonna Ahrens, the protagonists in The Oak Lovers, both wrote as well. Madonna had several published newspaper and magazine articles and was a copyeditor at the Metropolitan Magazine back in 1905. Carl dabbled in poetry and short stories.
My genes may have provided me with the ability to put words onto paper, but my background certainly shaped my desire to do so. Living at a remote resort in the Philippines when I was three, there were no other children to play with. My mother spent many hours reading to me to keep me entertained. By four I could read alone. I spent half of Kindergarten sitting off by myself with chapter books while my classmates were learning letters. Academically this was a gift. Socially it was a curse.
I had difficulty relating to kids whose worlds consisted of nothing beyond the county where they were born, and so I spent most of my school years observing my peers rather than interacting. Summers on Sugarloaf were wonderful because the pressure to socialize was off and I could just go off in the woods alone and live inside my own head. Eventually I started writing down my daydreams since they were far more interesting than real life.
Joan: When did you know you’d become a writer?
Kim: I can give you an exact date: July 21st, 1982.
The idea that I was meant to be a writer came to me as a jolt – literally. I was eight years old when my parents located my grandmother’s childhood home, an old stone farmhouse in Galt, Ontario, Canada. Listening to the owner reminisce about his boyhood encounters with a poor starving artist (my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens) and his pretty daughters (my grandmother and great-aunt), I learned that much of the art my parents owned had been created in that very room. With threadbare carpeting and ugly faux-wood paneling on the walls, it hardly looked like a space to inspire a painter. I fought the urge to blurt out, “Why did you ruin a perfectly good studio?” The words not only would have landed me in a great deal of trouble, but they made no sense. I had no idea what Carl’s studio had looked like.
I had other strange urges as well; to pull up a corner of carpeting to see if the wood floors were still there underneath, to run outside and hug a gangly looking elm tree that waved at me through the window, to seek out my grandmother’s old bedroom. One impulse I could not resist: As I left I touched the outside stone walls.
I felt an electric current course from the stones into my hand – a feeling I’ve never forgotten. At that moment I knew two things: I was going to write a book about Carl someday, and my grandmother was with me. We later learned she had passed away while we were at her old house.
Joan: What do you think your great-grandfather Carl Ahrens would say if he read THE OAK LOVERS? (I suspect he might!)
Kim: At the risk of sounding slightly crazy, I believe Carl and Madonna are both well aware of every word I write. I’ve dedicated several blog posts to this subject, such as the dream that still haunts me, being led to their old home in Meadowvale and my vision quest with the Ojibwa.
Carl was the hero of my childhood fairy tales thanks to my grandmother, whom we called Tutu. I inhaled the stories deep into my lungs, allowed them to linger there and take root, until The Painter's adventures flowed through my veins along with his blood.
At first they were just stories to me; I suspected Tutu made up the exciting bits about Carl meeting Calamity Jane and running off to live with the Indians. The old man in the photographs in my living room couldn't walk, much less throw a lariat, travel the American west by covered wagon, or paint trees that leap out of a canvas at the viewer. It wasn't until after Tutu died that I saw a picture of Carl as a young man, dressed in cowboy clothes, with the confident stance and chiseled features of a movie star. I knew then that Tutu had not tried to sell me a myth, or simply entertain me. She had handed me the gift of her father’s legacy.
My childhood mirrored Carl’s in some aspects. We were only children who grew up in small towns with no respect for artistic aspirations. We were both isolated from our peers; him due to illness, me to circumstance. The forest was, for each of us, a source of endless delight, a magical world filled with friendly spirits. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that when I looked at Carl’s paintings, even as a child, I understood that they were of far more than trunks and branches. His trees were portraits in disguise; they had souls, personalities, human emotions and desires.
Though I don’t paint, it is simple for me to get inside the mind of a painter. My method for constructing a narrative is strikingly similar to the way my great-grandfather created oil paintings. I start with a sketch, the skeleton of a scene, flesh it out with layer upon layer of editing until the colors evoke just the right emotion, and then abandon it.
Joan: You changed the focus from non-fiction to fiction. How has this change freed you to massage the truth, even while sticking pretty close to actual events?
Kim: It has freed me tremendously. For one, I no longer feel like I’m crossing an ethical boundary by including dialogue, even if I know “something like that” must have been said at some point. I can also give certain characters, such as Carl’s first wife, Emily, a voice. The ‘facts’ about her are pretty slim. I know her name, what she looked like, that they had three children, and that her marriage to Carl was eighteen years of hell (his words). That’s not a lot to go on. Now I can portray her as she likely was: a woman who married a man she barely knew only to find out that he was completely unsuitable for her. She’s not a villain any more than he’s a saint. I have no interest in drawing a rose-colored portrait of my ancestor. He had paint under his nails and he was not above using Watman’s drawing paper to cover up a faded shirt for a formal event. In other words, he had flaws, and I show them unflinchingly. Hopefully, readers will love him anyway.
Switching formats has also allowed me to condense the book down to the most interesting bits of his life, to not bog down the text with facts and dates that the reader doesn’t really need to know, and to move the plot along with a great deal of dialogue.
I take full advantage of all the raw material I have. Carl and Madonna’s story is compelling enough that there is little need to embellish in The Oak Lovers. Each character in the book, from Carl down to his one-legged rooster, Joffre, existed. All main events happened. I work in direct quotes where I can. I tell the truth whenever possible and I never put anything into the novel that I know to be untrue.
Joan: Because your book is so personal, how will this affect your expectations during the publishing process?
Kim: Rejections will certainly be tougher to take, but I know that I will get them at every stage in the game. I understand that publishing is a business, and I’m willing to make concessions to get my book out there. Knowing many agents are hesitant to take on books longer than 100,000 words by debut authors, I recently cut nearly 15,000 words to ensure the book ends close to that number. My critique partners are all well aware I have no problem with making revisions. I hope that when I start sending queries, an agent will not only see a book they love, but an author who has already worked for years to promote its protagonist through a website, articles, speeches and extensive networking. Hopefully my passion will be contagious.
Joan: What’s the best advice you’ve received?
Kim: Yikes, I’m going to cheat and give two answers here.
The first was when Melanie Benjamin, author of Alice I Have Been, said that authors have to be artists and love the creative process but we also have to learn to let our work go, and understand that everyone else will look at it as a product that needs to be bought and sold. She’s the reason I cut so much from my manuscript. I had to decide if including everything I wanted was worth the risk of having agents reject me before reading a word simply because of the book’s length. I saved everything I cut just in case I change my mind later, but I doubt any of it ever makes it back into the book.
The second was not so much advice, as confirmation that I’m not completely shooting myself in the foot by being such a compulsive re-writer. New York Times bestselling author Cathy Marie Buchanan wrote The Day the Falls Stood Still roughly the same way I’m writing The Oak Lovers, and it took her nearly as long as it’s taking me, even though her children were a bit older than mine. I can’t tell you what a boost of confidence it was for me when she responded to my fan letter to her with a compliment of my own writing skills. I hope that some day my book will touch her as deeply as her book touched me.
Joan: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you?
Kim: There is more than one book in me. As passionate as I am about The Oak Lovers, I have three more novel ideas ready to go after I type The End. All are historical fiction, of course.