(This interview was originally published by Dead Darlings, December 3, 2013)
Kim Triedman’s debut novel, “The Other Room,” explores the aftermath of a young girl’s death from multiple points of view – the child’s parents and aunt, most notably. Kim took time out from her launch to speak with Dead Darlings about the book’s unique structure, her parallel career as a poet, and the process of getting her novel to market.
In your choice of subject matter, the death of a young child, you’ve ventured where few writers dare to tread. What finally gave you the courage to tackle such a difficult topic?
It wasn’t a matter of courage, or at least it never felt that way. I never made a conscious decision to write this novel about this subject matter. I literally just woke up one night with a voice in my head and I followed it upstairs to my computer. The words really just insisted themselves onto the page. That night I wrote a scene, without any idea of what it was meant to be or why I was writing it. For many nights thereafter the same thing happened, again with the same clear, urgent voice in my head. I didn’t realize for some time that what I was doing was writing a story in fragments and that the voice was that of [what was to become] my main character. At that point, there was no recognizable timeline, and if there was a narrative arc I didn’t know it. Gradually, other characters started growing up around this voice, and I continued to go along with it, writing from different perspectives at different times. There was nothing pre-ordained about any of this. I’d never written creatively before, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Once I started realizing what I was taking on I was far enough in I couldn’t back out! I was already hooked.
Can you describe the choices Claudia and Josef have made in coping with their predicament?
One of the things about these two characters is that the aftermath of their child’s death has left them reaching out for different things in different ways – Claudia for a kind of intimacy Josef has never really known how to give; Josef for a connection of the body, the only kind of intimacy he’s ever really allowed. In Claudia’s case, it’s the only way back to life; in Josef’s, the only way to obliterate it. Their needs are just too different, and too similar, and their timing is off. They mourn differently, and they can’t hear each other because the pain is just too loud. To fill the hole of her loss, Claudia turns to her psychotherapist, Stuart, who seems to hear her in a way that Josef cannot (and about whom she begins to imagine another kind of relationship). She needs to process her daughter’s death over and over again, circling it like a kettle of vultures. Josef, on the other hand, turns to a young surgical nurse named Kiera, who helps to distract him from the wife – and the life – he has lost. His choice is to move on, something Claudia seems utterly incapable of. In a way, theirs was a good-enough marriage. It wasn’t until tragedy struck that they recognized the underlying cracks and weaknesses that were there all along.
The title of your novel seems to refer to many rooms, not just one. What role does physical space play in this story?
Great question. Yes, the title “The Other Room” does refer to several places, most prominently the child’s nursery, where numerous climactic events take place, and the therapist’s office, which serves as a kind of refuge – a place where Claudia can finally begin to recreate herself and step out into her future. Both of these spaces are crucibles of sorts: much is at stake in each, and in the end much is revealed there. They are deliberately used to suggest how essential physicality is to our understanding and acceptance of love; the uncertainties and dramatic tension regarding both the manner of the child’s death and the evolving nature of the therapeutic relationship only underscore this truth.
You’ve chosen a modular rather than linear structure, with multiple points of view and shifting time frames. How did this structure emerge, and how does it serve the interests of the novel?
The novel sort of chose its own form. I remember I was reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible around that time, and I was very taken with how effectively she managed to tell her story through shifting points of view. So in retrospect that may have played a part, but mostly what I responded to at the time was her voice. From the very first words of that novel (“Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened…”), I remember feeling an urgency to write. It was that voice more than anything that inspired the earliest scenes. Some time later, the other characters that emerged just began claiming their own points of view, and I trusted enough to allow it. The story seemed to need to layer itself, Rashomon-like, so that in the end the reader is forced to make his or her own decisions of how and why things happen and where his/her sympathies lie. I really like this kind of structural disjointedness and the palimpsest it creates. It adds a sense of texture and depth, of drilling down, so that the narrative feels like it is growing in three dimensions at the same time.
Claudia’s complex relationship with her sister Yvonne takes on added weight as the story progresses. Can you discuss how Yvonne’s character emerged during the revision process?
Yvonne’s character emerged pretty early on. The three main voices in the story are those of Claudia; her husband Josef; and her twin sister Yvonne. I saw Yvonne developing as a kind of alter-ego to Claudia, someone with whom Claudia was deeply connected but had struggled for most of her life. The presence of Yvonne allowed me to purposely blur the edges of the story. She and Claudia have different takes on just about everything, often retelling the same scene from totally different points of view. In addition to the direct scene-by-scene tensions that play out between them, these conflicting perspectives create a kind of overarching uncertainty regarding the veracity of narrative itself. I used this technique to allow the boundaries of the story to shift and to flesh out each of the main characters in three dimensions, to render them as recognizably human and flawed and sympathetic.
Given the emotional intensity of some scenes in “The Other Room,” how did you negotiate a balance between over- and under-dramatization?
I never really think about how I’m doing something as I’m doing it. I trust my internal ear a lot. I hear the words as I’m writing them, and then I hear them again as I read them over the next day. Sometimes a scene comes tumbling out fully fleshed, and I barely have time to take a breath. Generally in these cases my instincts are pretty true. At other times, however, I have to sort out the kinks after the fact, and that almost always comes pretty easily given a day away from it. I almost always try to read things out loud, to hear if they sound right coming out of my mouth.
How did your parallel career as a poet inform the drafting and revision of “The Other Room?”
I started writing poetry when the first or second draft of The Other Room was complete, in my early-to-mid forties. At that point, I had a sense that the novel still required more work, but I just wasn’t up to it. I started writing some poems and found that that suited me at that juncture: it was something I could do in an hour or an afternoon and come out with something fully formed. I loved the economy of it, the sense of capturing something in time perfectly. I loved the satisfaction of tripping over the beginning of a poem, and then finding out where it was going to take me and why I needed to write it. I loved that each one felt jewel-like and complete when I’d finished. So I spent a few years doing that, and then went back and forth for awhile. What I found was that through the poetry writing I’d learned the value of distilling things down to their essence, and this was invaluable in going back to The Other Room as a critical reader. I also found that my love of language – sound, rhythm, musicality – was greatly expanded by reading a much wider variety of poets than I’d ever been exposed to before. I learned to play with language, take risks with it, and this of course is invaluable in all kinds of creative writing.
How can fiction writers make best use of techniques from poetry?
When I write poetry, I’m completely tuned in to the sounds and the music of language. For me, in any kind of writing, so much is about pacing and rhythm. I don’t write formal verse, but my own poetry is very much driven by the same forces that drive formal poetry. My internal ear determines where specifically it wants some sounds emphasized over other sounds, or when it requires a pause rather than a full stop, or whether it is more suited to a meandering or more rapid-fire pace. Moreover, many specific techniques used in poetry – repetition, alliteration, rhyme or especially slant rhyme – also figure themselves into my prose writing. In a sense, I do not so much apply them as hear them in the sentences or phrases or paragraphs that unspool themselves in my mind. Whether for a poem or a piece of prose, when I find myself looking for a word, I often know not just the meaning but also what type of sound(s) it should have, how many syllables it needs to be, and where the emphasis should fall.
Can you talk about the process of getting “The Other Room” to market? What obstacles and opportunities did you encounter along the way?
Well, it’s not for the faint of heart. I had no experience whatsoever in finding either an agent or a publisher, so I just did my research and set myself to the task in a very methodical way. From beginning to end – with many years out for writing poetry – this novel took something like 14 years to complete and bring to market. I’m not sure how much of that was devoted to marketing, as I tended to shelve it for long periods along the way. But it was an EFFORT. I’ve long since lost count of the number of drafts I wrote. The manuscript went through two literary agents and did two rounds with the big-six publishers, then another round un-agented with the small independent presses. I got incredible feedback from many amazing agents and editors at major houses (all of which I took to heart in the redrafting process) and established a great dialogue with some of these folks along the way. A couple agents actually read the novel not once but two or three times, and always came back with intelligent feedback. Some of things I learned along the way:
* Nobody’s going to do the initial legwork for you, so you’ve got to put in the time and do your homework. There are some great online websites and resources available (e.g. querytracker.net) which can be very helpful in both identifying contacts and streamlining the submission process.
* Write an un-f*cking-believable query letter. Mine must have been pretty strong, because I got a lot of submission requests right out of the gate. This will be your one and only chance with a particular agent; best not to waste it. No typos. No grammatical mistakes. Nothing cutesy.
* Do your research on specific agents before asking them to consider your manuscript. There are a lot of people out there, and not all of them are going to be right for your particular project. Focus your energies on those who have a specific affinity for your type of book, and let them know you’ve done your homework.
* Listen to what they tell you!!! Not every agent/editor will have earth-shattering feedback, but if you’re lucky enough to hear from a lot of them, pay attention to those themes and criticisms that keep reoccurring in their feedback. These are some of the most astute readers you are ever going to have, so be open to what they’re trying to say. A lot of the rejections I got along the way were actually the most helpful pieces of feedback I received, so once you’re done moping, go back and make a better book.
Where is your fiction writing likely to take you now?
So that’s the big question. I published three books this year – two poetry collections and a novel. That leaves a very big blank page out there waiting for me. The bottom line is that I’ve never really planned anything I’ve done. It’s all kind of just walked up and announced itself. And in every case, I haven’t known where I was going until I was well into the writing. I expect that I’ll start by going back to poetry for a while, as that’s always been a good and satisfying place for me to re-engage with my writing. But I’m definitely not ruling out another novel. I even have the shadings of an idea forming in the back of my head.
Earlier this week I was asked by poet Donna Johnson if I wanted to answer ten questions about my forthcoming novel, The Other Room. It was part of an interview chain known as “The Next Big Thing,” an intriguing new way for fellow writers to connect and spread the word about their future books and projects. Donna asked me to be the next link in this chain. Her own extraordinary new poetry collection, Selvage, was just released by Carnegie Mellon Press. Check it out at http://djohnsonpoet.wordpress.com.
Donna wanted me to be the next link, so below are my answers to the ten questions…
What is your working title of your book?
“The Other Room”
Where did the idea come from for the book?
The book began with a voice, not an idea. It was a middle-of-the-night kind of voice, urgent and compelling; it summoned me to my frigid third-floor office like a siren song. For some period of time that night, wrapped in an enormous Hudson Bay blanket, I wrote a few pages, but I had no idea what they were all about. The words just kind of insisted themselves onto the page. It continued this way for many nights, to the point where I was spinning scenes for which I had no real context. And getting very little sleep in the process. At some point, maybe a month later, maybe two, I looked at what I’d accumulated and realized that I was writing a story in fragments – with no discernible scaffolding – from the voice and POV of what was to become the lead character.
I should mention that up until that point I had almost no experience with creative writing. I was a medical writer. I knew how to put sentences together, and I loved to read, but I’d always been terrified to try my hand at anything creative. I’d never taken a creative writing class. I had no formal training whatsoever.
What genre does your book fall under?
My publicist likes to say it straddles the literary fiction/women’s fiction divide. I can live with that.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I love this! Main parts: Jennifer Connelly for Claudia, Christian Bale for Josef, Amy Adams for Yvonne, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Stuart.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
It’s a novel about death’s trickle-down – the complex web of emotions that traps an extended family in the wake of a child’s mysterious death.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be published by Owl Canyon Press, a small independent press which focuses on literary fiction and translation.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Maybe two or three years for a first draft, maybe more. I did a fair amount of rewriting before I ever wrote the conclusion. I didn’t really know how to write a novel, so it was a bit of trial and error.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Jane Hamilton’s “A Map of the World.” Maybe David Grossman’s “To the End of the Land.” “We Sinners,” by Hanna Pylväinen, a fabulous new book. Plus a little extra turbo à la “Gone Girl.”
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Inspired may not be the right word, but several things certainly conspired: I had just started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, which begins with this incredible narrator voice that absolutely seduced me. She had me from word-go. So I have no doubt that that thread was twining in my sleep that night. To this I could add a number of significant events: a frightening episode in my own life, which had occurred a year or two before, and a kind of post-traumatic depression six months later. All these things certainly folded into the mix.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I am a published poet, and I think I bring a certain poetic sensibility to all of my writing. In fact, I identify myself as poet first, fiction-writer second. I’ve always been deeply aware of the musicality of language, the rhythms, the rhymes and repetitions. I just know when the music is wrong and when it is right, I am acutely sensitive to the power of phrasing. I love being seduced by words, in both my reading and my writing. If it doesn’t “sound” right to my internal ear, it doesn’t stay on the page. I love the sounds of language, and I love the feel of it in my mouth. I have three collections of poetry (both published and forthcoming), and I believe that what you see in my poetry you will see in my fiction-writing and vice verse. They come from one and the same place.