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L.T. Suzuki

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Kristin Bair O'Keeffe Interview
8/12/2012 8:13:43 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

Creative writing instructor & author Kristin Bair O'Keeffee discusses her debut novel 'Thirsty' and the writing life!
LTS: Welcome, readers! Although I am a writer of epic fantasy novels for both the adult and YA crowd, and I do tend to feature many other fantasy and sci-fi authors on this blog, I’m going to mix it up today! I’d like to introduce you to the lovely and wildly talented author of literary fiction, Kristin Bair O’Keeffe! Her debut novel, Thirsty has received wonderful praise and you will soon find out why. I’d like to begin by having you share a little information about yourself with our readers, Kristin. What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?

KBO: My daughter is four years old, so I spend a lot of time hanging out with our gaggle of invisible friends, swinging at playgrounds, reading The Lorax, and other cool four-year-old things. In the rare adult moments I have right now, I love to read (currently Haruki Murakami’s IQ84), travel, walk my pup, blog at Writerhead.com, and eat good food with my husband.
Also, as a writing teacher and cultural spelunker, I recently launched #38Write, a monthly series of online writing workshops for place-passionate, culturally curious writers around the world. The July workshop—#38Write | Structure—had 16 writers in 9 countries! Registration for the August workshop just opened. Bring on the stories!

LTS: Very cool, Kristin! You are deeply immersed in the writing world, teaching many how to hone their skills. When did you know you wanted to become a published author and what spurred this dream on?

KBO: I got hooked on writing when I wrote my first poem “The Hummingbird.” I was eight years old, and once I felt the buzz of getting words on the page, I knew that’s what I’d be doing the rest of my life. After “The Hummingbird,” I wrote poems, short stories, and during middle school, a series of parodic plays about my older sister and her friends. While other kids were dallying around at the mall, I was sitting under a tree scribbling in my journal. I majored in English and journalism as an undergrad at Indiana University, and studied poetry there with some amazing poets (including Lynda Hull and Yusef Komunyakaa). I wrote the first draft of Thirsty as my graduate thesis at Columbia College Chicago.

LTS: I had a chance to read an excerpt from, Thirsty and it was beautifully written! It was poetic how the words flowed to conjure up vivid images as I read this story. What was the inspiration behind Thirsty and can you tell us a little bit about your protagonist, Klara Bozic?

KBO: Thank you, Lorna! As a writer, I’m deeply affected by place so it’s not surprising that Thirsty (the steel town where the novel takes place), came to me first. I grew up in Pittsburgh’s steel-making milieu. My maternal grandparents lived in Clairton, Pennsylvania, and my grandfather worked in U.S. Steel’s Clairton Works. This was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and steel was everything in Pittsburgh. We talked about steel over dinner. My sisters and I chanted, “Rotten eggs, rotten eggs,” every time we took the twenty-five-minute drive from our house to our grandparents’ house and got close enough to smell the mills on the Monongahela River. And from my grandparents’ back porch, we watched flames and big puffs of steam rise from the smokestacks. Later, in the 1980s, we witnessed the demise of the steel industry. At that point, the storyteller in me jumped up and said, “Ooohh, there’s something to be told here.”
Not long after I saw the town of Thirsty in my head, Klara—the protagonist—began to appear. Right away I saw the awful marriage she was in. Because there’s a history of domestic violence in my family, I’m especially sensitive to women in abusive situations. When I began to see Klara both as a young girl and an old woman, I knew I was going to be writing a story with a long arc.

LTS: Without giving away too much, can you reveal what’s in store for the readers when they crack open Thirsty?

KBO: Thirsty is the story of one woman’s unusual journey through an abusive marriage, set against the backdrop of a Pittsburgh steel community at the turn of the twentieth century. Klara Bozic marries young, immigrates to America from Croatia, and discovers that her husband is angry and abusive. She is a woman without a voice, a woman constrained by religion, class, gender, and economics, but still she has to figure out if she has the courage to change her path in life (a question we all come up against at one point or another in our lives).

LTS: The road to publication is difficult at the best of times. Was it difficult for you to land an agent? Do you have any advice you’d like to share with the author struggling to find representation?

KBO: I took the circuitous route to publication. I wrote the first scene of Thirsty in 1992 during my first semester in grad school; I finished the novel somewhere around 1999. Once I had a complete, polished manuscript, I tried (and failed) to get an agent for it. Lots of interest, but in the end, no takers.
Thankfully, I have this built-in belief in my work. Never have I faltered from my writing path, never have I seriously considered taking up dentistry, never have I paid one lick of attention to anyone who suggested I might not make it in this business. After failing to get an agent for Thirsty, I put it away for a few years and worked on other projects…all along knowing that when the right time came along, Thirsty would find its home.
And it did. I signed a contract with Swallow Press in 2008…sixteen years after writing the first scene of the book. (Lesson to writers: never give up!)

LTS: Good for you! Can you share that moment when your agent told you he/she sold your story to Swallow Press?

KBO: I didn’t even have an agent when I made the deal with Swallow Press, although ironically I got one within weeks of the deal for another project I was working on. I had submitted Thirsty directly to the editors (you can do that at most university presses…following their submission guidelines, of course) so the offer came via an email from David Saunders—the then-director of Swallow Press. Because I was living in Shanghai, China, at the time, and David and I were twelve hours apart, I received the “yep, we want to publish this book” email at around 10:00 p.m., Shanghai time. Needless to say, after a sixteen-year journey with Thirsty, I was over the moon. I don’t think I slept for three days.

LTS: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned on the road to publication?

KBO: I’ve learned a number of important lessons (e.g., don’t give up, arse in chair, writing begets writing), but perhaps the most important is that when you find your voice, go with it. I was around nineteen years old when I heard my voice for the first time, a freshman or sophomore at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. I was taking a creative writing course taught by a grad student named Kitsey Ellman. God, I was the shyest person in class (probably in the entire university), but also, I think, the most determined to follow the writing life. Like a lot of my fellow classmates, I started out the semester writing flat, boring, young stories about people who get divorced…no voice, no understanding of structure, etc. But then one day I let loose and wrote this story—a wacky story, probably a very bad story, but the first story in which I heard my voice. One (very politically incorrect) line was repeated throughout: “The fat, fat food server wants my potato.” Somehow it all worked.
The cool thing? Kitsey heard my voice in it, too. She called me out on it and convinced me to read it to a bunch of visiting English professors. They loved it, too…and god, did they laugh.
I think about that moment when I’m either hitting the high notes of my storytelling voice or straying too far from it. I don’t know whatever became of Kitsey, but that moment when she heard what I heard changed me.

LTS: Still on the subject of writing styles, are you a plotter or pantser? The readers would like to know if you tend to plot out your story line in great detail or if your writing is more organic with the characters and events unfolding as you write.

KBO: First couple of drafts, pantser. All drafts to follow, plotter.

LTS: Some authors meditate, others need to fuel up on coffee or listen to music. Do you have any rituals, ones that can be shared with the readers, that you must do before you hunker down for a writing session?

KBO: Here’s my ideal writing morning: It’s 5:00 a.m. A bit of fuzzy light squeezes through the curtains. My husband doesn’t wake as I roll out of bed, still carrying the morning’s dream with me. I stumble to the kitchen, brew a pot of coffee, and stumble back to my office. I sit down at my desk, content to be in the creative state I call “writerhead.” (For more on writerhead, visit my blog at www.writerhead.com.) I open my journal, write by hand for a while, then turn on my computer and start clicking away at the keys. A few hours later with a few thousand words under my belt, I open my office door and join the rest of the world. (Of course, as a mom to a four-year-old, my ideal writing morning happens much less frequently than it used to, but I do okay.)

LTS: At one time or another, most writers hit the wall and their work stalls because of the dreaded writer’s block. What do you do to get around or over this mental wall to resume writing?

KBO: Honestly, I don’t believe in writer’s block. Whenever I get to a point when I can’t get anything on the page, I recognize that I’m subconsciously working on a particular aspect of a story and I value this part of the creative process. Sure, it’s uncomfortable. I suffer an unbearable welling of tension and angst that turns me into an insomniac and a complete nutball. (Sounds terrible, I know, but it’s even worse for my husband.) It goes on like this for a while, and then, one morning, I sit down at my desk and all that has been welling up in me bursts out. I love it.

LTS: Who is your favourite author and how has he/she inspired you to write or influenced your writing style or choice of genre?

KBO: I get inspiration from a number of writers. Here are a few:
• for language, rhythm, and soul: Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez
• for writing about women’s lives in significant ways: Alice Walker and Toni Morrison
• for pure story and that “what’s going to happen next?” urge: Haruki Murakami
• for keeping me centered: Thich Nhat Han and Pema Chodron
• for writing inspiration: Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott

LTS: What do you foresee in your future over the next five years and do you hope to branch out from literary fiction into other genres? Can your fans expect a sequel to Thirsty in the near future?

KBO: My second novel is with my agent now (up for sale, so keep your fingers crossed!). While it’s definitely literary, it also dips a big toe in commercial. A good thing, my agent assures me.
My third novel takes place in China, where I lived for nearly five years. And again, while it probably will get shelved in the literary section of the bookstore, it has time travel in it…so again, some happy crossover.

LTS: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your hectic life to share in your wisdom and writing experiences, Kristin! I’ll catch you on Twitter! For more information about Kristin and her novel, check out:
Website & Writerhead Blog: kristinbairokeeffe.com
Thirsty Website: thirstythenovel.com
#38Write Workshop Info & Registration: kristinbairokeeffe.com/classes
Follow Kristin on Twitter: .kbairokeeffe
Follow Kristin on Pinterest: pinterest.com/kbairokeeffe
Where to buy the book: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Swallow Press, your local independent bookstore (Kindle & Nook editions are available, too!)




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Chimney Bluffs by David Seaburn

When their four-year-old son, Danny, dies suddenly, Mitch and Kate’s grief overwhelms them. Conflicted about going on with their lives, Mitch and Kate decide to leap from a cliff a..  
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