By Julia Fierro
(This interview was first published by Fiction Writers Review, 1/27,2014)
I first met Kim Triedman at an AWP panel (“Launch Your Debut Novel”) in early 2013. We were two audience members in a lecture room of at least a hundred. We were also both excited, and anxious, about launching our debut novels.
When Kim emailed me months later, seeking advice on the New York City reading series scene, I was happy to help, and when, this fall, I finally read Kim’s novel, The Other Room, I was stunned. Here I was thinking I had done Kim a favor, when, really, it was the literary world that had been struck lucky, for Kim is a fresh, daring, and emotionally intelligent new voice in fiction.
I bring up the topic of emotion because, although there are many aspects of The Other Room I admired and found deeply engaging—the mood, the precise language, the sensory details and the unique epistolary frame—what I found most impressive was the emotional authenticity of the novel’s characters, their relationships, their fears, needs, and losses. When it seems as if some of the literary fiction published today shies away from emotional clarity, playing it safe, stepping back from that sweet spot, the point right before the story plunges into the forbidden canyon of sentimentality, The Other Room is a reminder that a poetic, literary, and “quiet” novel can consist of more than just beautiful language and structural innovation, though there is plenty of both in The Other Room. Engaging a reader is also about experimenting with emotion, finding that pitch perfect balance of psychological revelation through subtle, but also concrete, emotional implications. Kim told me how her new love for writing poetry, which she began first writing after a draft of The Other Room was completed, taught her how to create that fine balance in revisions.
When Kim speaks about the organic emotional experience of a writer’s process, she reminds us that the best writing can be a kind of ultimate redemption, because, as much as it is a cliché, the stories a writer needs to tell come from the heart—if not from the writer’s own, then informed by the heart of the stories their characters are (in Kim’s words) “meant to tell.”
Julia Fierro: I was so impressed with your ability to show a variety of perspectives in The Other Room, especially when you had only a few characters to work with. You created the sense of depth that comes with many perspectives by choosing a structural frame that incorporates past and present, and even an implication of the future—first, through the three main characters’ alternating third person points-of-view, much of which is dramatized in stunning detail; and, second, through the epistolary device of Claudia’s “notebook,” in which passages are dated in the future.
How did this structure reveal itself to you? Did you begin the book knowing this was the frame The Other Room needed?
Kim Triedman: There was no structural frame for The Other Room when I started out because I never set out to write a novel. All I knew at the outset was that I was following this very singular voice that came to me pretty much out of nowhere, and it felt urgent enough that I couldn’t ignore it. So everything about this project felt organic, from the characters that emerged to the plot line as it unfolded to the rather non-traditional narrative structure. I’d never studied fiction writing before—I wasn’t even an English major in college—and here I was waking up in the middle of the night with scenes spinning in my head that had no context and no discernible scaffolding. I really had no clue what I was doing.
So it started with a voice, and that voice turned out to belong to my main character Claudia, the mother of a young child who’s died under uncertain circumstances. These initial scenes all came to me in first person, and they ultimately ended up as the “notebook” sections you mention, which are dated a few years later than the main through-line of the story. I soon found myself writing some of Claudia’s scenes in third person, sometimes by accident, until I realized that this was the way the main narrative was meant to be told. The story was, in essence, telling me how it wanted to write itself.
As other characters began to grow up around Claudia, I began to hear them, too, and I realized that this novel was meant to be told as a kind of pastiche, with each of the three main characters providing a distinct version of the same story. As in the classic Korosawa film, Rashomon, this structure gave the novel tension and depth, a palimpsest borne of layering and uncertainty and conflict.
I agree. So much of novel-writing is about patience, waiting for the “story” to reveal itself to you, informing you of what it needs structurally. I often joke in the novel-writing workshops I teach that the personality of a novelist (and this is a big generalization, of course) is often the least conducive to the patience required to write novels. We are an obsessive, controlling bunch, and this may be what motivates us to create on a grand scale, but a big part of writing a successfully engaging novel is learning how to let go of that control when the organic growth of the novel requires it.
What did this transition from poetry to prose, and novel-length prose at that, feel like? Were you apprehensive about writing fiction? Was it something you’d done before? Did you consider backing away from the challenge? It was clear to me, as I read The Other Room, that your poetic perspective was hard at work, particularly in creating crystal-clear sentences that were both subtle and sharp in their emotional implication, as well as in the carefully chosen language details.
The thing is, I didn’t write poetry before I wrote the novel. I was a medical writer, and, as I said before, had no idea what I was getting myself into. I really hadn’t done any serious creative writing in my life. I only started writing poetry once I’d completed an early draft of The Other Room, a couple years into the project, when I found I needed to get away from it for a while. I needed to do something else—something smaller and more immediate, more economical. So I started writing a little poetry, something I’d never done, and then I took a couple of workshops, and I wound up doing that for maybe four or five years, and I had a few books of poetry come out before the novel ever found a home. In any case, I can’t say I was ever apprehensive about writing fiction, because I didn’t really know or believe I was heading into what gradually became clear was a novel.
Ultimately I was writing both poetry and fiction—alternating for months or sometimes years at a stretch. The novel went through so many iterations, and there were times I just couldn’t look at it anymore. I didn’t have a fiction writing community, so I really didn’t have anyone but a few friends and family members to talk to about it. At times I needed to just put the whole, complicated behemoth of it aside and work on something finer and more distilled. I needed to sit outside, with a blank page and no expectations or precedents. I wanted to focus wholly on language, on rhythm and musicality and phrasing, without worrying about plot or character development or any of these other things that I was gradually learning about with the novel. The thing about writing a poem—or at least the kind of poetry I write—is that it’s all about the moment, about precision, about finding those first few words and letting them deliver you like a strong current to the very last line, like an answer to a problem. When it’s working, writing poetry has always felt like music to me, and it transports me in much the way music does.
As to backing away from the challenge, I guess I’d say no. Even when I walked away from the novel for years at a time, I knew I had something, and I knew I’d want to return to it. I needed it to be right, and I needed closure. Ultimately, it did the rounds with a lot of top agents and editors, and I got incredible feedback from so many of them. Really detailed, constructive, thoughtful feedback. So I knew I was going to keep on keeping on. I knew I just had to find my way there slowly. That’s what you live with, I guess, when you’re figuring it all out as you go along.
There is something to be said about stepping into writing blindly, without apprehension, but I am really interested in the way you found an escape through writing in a different form—poetry. And I can see how the technique you absorbed through writing poetry in your breaks from the novel was then absorbed into The Other Room. That precision you mention—”…about finding those first few words and letting them deliver you like a strong current to the very last line, like an answer to a problem.”
My next question might be breaking a few rules, since I often hear writers complain about readers identifying the characters in their books with the author him or herself. For me, writing fiction is always autobiographical in some sense. Even if my character is as different from me as is possible they share my fears and needs, my secrets, and shades of my perspective. When I read The Other Room, I was immediately struck by the incredibly authentic portrayal of a family in grief, and, as a mother to two young children, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering how you initially decided to (needed to) write about the death of a child, and then, how you summoned the clarity of perspective, and the strength, to write about such an emotionally grueling situation.
Before I answer that, let me first quickly respond to your remark about the poetry/prose connection: there was incredible cross-fertilization! When I began writing The Other Room, I was following a voice and uncovering a story. These were the exigencies, if you will. I’ve always been a fairly lyrical writer, but after taking time out to write poetry for a few years, I brought something back to the novel that was really priceless in the rewriting/editing phase. I’d really learned how to distill—how to strengthen a metaphor by giving it its own space. My early drafts of the novel were over-rich: there was too much “gorgeous.” Metaphor heaped on metaphor. Although the language was lovely at times, there was not enough room to step back and appreciate, and at times it slowed down the forward motion of the story. What I learned from poetry was how to prune—how to cut away the smaller branches so that those chosen few could really take off. Each subsequent iteration of the manuscript came back so much cleaner and lighter, and what remained in it so much sharper, so I knew I was going in the right direction. It was really just about killing your darlings, but not being a fiction writer I didn’t even know what that meant yet!
Anyhow, as to your main question, this is what I can tell you: No, I never lost a child, but yes, for a brief but earth-shaking, game-changing period, I thought I had. I’m not going to go into specifics, but I had an experience about a year or more before I started writing The Other Room in which I knew beyond knowing that one of my daughters had died. I was with her—I saw and felt it—and I crossed the line so utterly and completely that I knew in every part of myself that there was no turning back the clock. It was a traumatic enough experience that it led in very short order to an acute post-traumatic clinical depression, which is something that is also part of my main character’s experience.
The thing is, for me the depression turned out to be one of life’s greatest blessings, because it was only coming out of that that I started to write creatively. For the first time in my 40 or so years. It really gave me a creative voice that I’d never had before. And it was pure ecstasy. At first it just took the form of journaling (which, by the way, was the inspiration for the “Blue Notebook” sections of the novel), but then, in very short order, I found myself writing those early scenes of what was to become The Other Room. From there, it all just gained momentum, and then, of course, the poetry kicked in.
One last thing: I agree with you—fiction writing is highly autobiographical, but not necessarily in the way people think. There are pieces of me, and people I know, and places I know all over The Other Room. Each of my characters carries something of me inside them, a lung or a knee or a tendency to snort or rage or curl up into the fetal position. But each character is also so much more than me, and so much more than the people I have known in my life. That is something I wish people in general would understand.
My next question is something I’ve been thinking about since we read together at KGB Bar in November, where I was so impressed with the various excerpts you chose in order to give the audience a sense of the novel as a whole. We talked afterward about choosing excerpts to read, and you mentioned the challenges of reading aloud from a book that does focus, in part, on such a tragic event—the death of a young child. Yet, the death is such an essential part of the story that it must be mentioned. How do you choose excerpts to read that give a concrete sense of the weight of the loss driving the book’s urgency while also including moments that reflect other parts of the narrative? I think this question of what to read in front of an audience is one that many writers fret over, particularly when the material is emotional. We think, Well, I don’t want to depress them? Or, Well, I don’t want them to miss out on the fact that book is about loss? But we do want to choose an excerpt that intrigues them, engages them, while offering an authentic promise of what their experience reading the novel might feel like.
Figuring out what to read has been a tremendous and ongoing challenge for me. The first thing I’ll say is that because of both the intensity of some of my material and the collage-type structure of the narrative, I have kind of broken tradition with most of the advice that I’ve heard or read about reading selection. Rather than choose one continuous excerpt, I’ve chosen to “patchwork” my readings, opting for two or three distinct excerpts from different parts of the book and, at times, different character-perspectives. This approach has allowed me to read some of my most emotionally intense and interior material while tempering that intensity with something more upbeat and plot-driven. Within reason, I also tend to vary the selections according to venue. Geographically, most of my readings thus far have been New York/Boston/Providence, and I’m definitely more inclined to push the envelope in Brooklyn than I might be, say, in a conservative Boston suburb. But for the most part, I’m pretty out there. My very first reading from The Other Room was actually a few weeks pre-launch, at Vica Miller’s Literary Salon in Soho, and the theme was erotica. I was the first reader up, and I actually read a phone-sex scene! Fortunately, there was a wine reception pre-reading, so I actually managed to pull it off.
I’d say that I tend to read at least one of my most challenging scenes, because I think they convey the kind of emotional honesty that’s at the heart of this novel. After all, I’m not trying to pretend that The Other Room is an easy read. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s not for readers that don’t like being challenged by their reading material. There’s certainly more than grief in the book: there’s love and humor and suspense and, ultimately, the emergence from grief. It’s dawned on me gradually that readings are at least partly about sales, but for me they’re more about re-inhabiting my characters and giving my audience a snapshot (or two, or three) of what they’ll find inside.
A big part of being a professional writer, and promoting your work, is reading it aloud, whether that is at reading series, festivals, conferences, etc. And it isn’t something discussed in workshop, or in class at MFA programs. I think writers will find your reasoning very helpful, particularly the use of a “patchwork” of excerpts.
I also use a “patchwork” of excerpts, and try to include sections from two characters’ points-of-view (often scenes that involve both characters, but are filtered, first, through one character’s eyes, and then, through the other). My hope is that this will create a more complex and nuanced sense of character, relationship, situation, and that I can also create a mini-arc, allowing the audience a sense of beginning, middle and end, of dramatic rise and resolution. Of course, this is done on a very small scale, but I find that if I’m really careful about picking and choosing, I can create an excerpt that gives the listeners a sense of “story.” One of my goals as a writer reading, and, often, performing, my work, is to entertain, after all.
Last question, and it may be a simple one, or a complex one, depending. What are you working on now? Or, what are you working on next? As I start to rev the engine on the pre-publication of Cutting Teeth, I can see clearly how time consuming the process is. What are you working on, or hoping to work on? And how do you find the time to write?
I’ve written a lot about the challenges (and, yes, miseries) of the pre-publication process, so I’m not going to talk (read: whine) about that here. Suffice it to say I found the six-months leading up to my launch to be one of the most difficult and depleting periods of my past decade, requiring a skill set and a mind-set that I (and most writers, I would venture) just don’t have. It brought me as far from creative writing as it possibly could, leaving me a kind of stranger to myself. Add to this the three months or so of intensive reading and travel and interviewing post-publication, and you begin to comprehend just how removed from actual writing the published author can become in this current market.
So here I am, three months post-launch, having actually released not just The Other Room this year but also two full-length poetry collections. I was working on all three manuscripts simultaneously (though for vastly different lengths of time), and they all happened to be picked up by separate presses within a year of one another. So I now have a very large blank page staring me in the face, and I’m not quite sure what to do with it. As of this moment in time, I know how to tweet, I know how to pitch to reviewers, I know how to blog. I know how to cross things off my to-do list. But I’m not actually sure I know how to write anymore—to keep all the other noises at bay and find the quiet that allows it.
The last of the three books to come out—Hadestown (WordTech Communications) — was an experiment in prose poetry, something I’d never tried my hand at before. This book-length prose poem is a kind of bizarre, myth-based, post-apocalyptic travel narrative, and it practically wrote itself. It was fast and furious, and I never felt as though I knew what I was doing. There was a breathlessness to it, and all the rawness that comes out of blind impulse. It was so incredibly freeing for me, working between the lines of fiction and poetry and constrained by neither one. And I’m so happy with the way it came out. So if I were to guess at this point, I’d say I may be headed in the direction of some kind of nontraditional narrative, falling either in the fiction or prose-poetry universe. We’ll have to see. Planning doesn’t seem to be my strong suit.
I know when it’s time to shut up and wait.
(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.
(This post was first published on The Nervous Breakdown, Nov. 7, 2013)
Were you really planning on wearing that?
What – I thought you liked this outfit…
But for your first interview?! I mean, you could have tried, don’t you think? This is when people form their first impressions of you as a writer.
Oh, for God’s sake, does anyone really care if I show up in my Red Sox hat and pajamas? At least I brushed my teeth this morning. And what kind of a feminist are you anyway?? Would you be asking Jonathan Franzen about his fashion choices?
Hey…you could try taking a page out of his book. Anyhow, I just hope you’ll do a little better for your readings. Either that or you’d better have a damn good novel.
I have a damn good novel. And a pair of used red Miz Mooz chunky heels. I’ll knock ’em dead.
So you’re feeling pretty good about all this?
I have to say I’m scared shitless.
But I thought you’d been through this process before? The readings, the press attention?
As a poet. And frankly, nobody reads poetry anymore. A big poetry reading these days is you, your fellow reader, and one or two people who accidentally stumble in on their way to the rest room. As to press attention, you’re lucky if your mom takes a photograph.
So how’s that going for you – the poetry thing?
Is that seriously your question?
Could we please get down to business?
I’d have to change into something a little more professional…
Do you consider yourself a poet or a fiction writer first?
Suit yourself. I consider myself a poet first. For me, it’s all about language – image and metaphor and the sounds and rhythms of words. I love the mouth-feel of a well-turned phrase. The storytelling aspect of fiction came separately, as kind of a surprise.
Okay, excellent! This is beginning to feel like a real interview! So, are you always writing both poetry and fiction, or do you alternate?
I get easily bored. I alternate. When I started out in my 40s, I’d never written either poetry or fiction. The poetry came after I’d finished an early draft of The Other Room. And I really took to it. After working on such a huge piece, I loved the economy of it, the way you could just capture this one perfect thing in a sitting. Over the next several years I did a lot of back and forth. When I’d come to a standstill in my poetry, I’d go back to the novel and start re-imagining new sections or re-writing old ones. I found this to be helpful in a couple ways. First and most importantly, writing poetry helped me with precision: the more I wrote, the more distilled my prose became. And sometimes I just needed to get away from the huge-sprawling-mess of the novel in order to bring a clear eye back to the narrative.
You do some interesting things with form and timeline: some of your scenes actually “repeat” slightly in that the same bit of action or dialogue is replayed from different character perspectives. Can you talk about that?
I really like that kind of structural disjointedness. The thing about any story is that you ask ten people to tell it after the fact and you get ten (sometimes wildly) different tales. It’s done a fair amount in film – Rashomon’s the classic example – but less commonly in literature. I think what it adds is a sense of texture and depth – of drilling down into the story – so that the narrative feels like it’s growing in multiple ways. You get this kind of three-dimensionality in places you really want to highlight.
The Other Room has a feel of emotional urgency to it: Can you talk about how you generate and sustain that kind of tone?
Well, the book starts with the baby already three years’ dead. Clearly the onus is on the author to create new exigencies. You have to do something to keep people reading. Claudia and Josef are both still grieving, albeit in very different ways, and Claudia’s twin, Yvonne, just wants the whole damn thing to go away. There’s unspoken bad blood between Claudia and her Dad, too, and Stuart, the psychotherapist, is hearing Claudia’s story piece-meal, a sentence and a session at a time. So I think the urgency has a lot to do with the fact that there are all these stakeholders – all these people looking for different outcomes and with different things on the line. And underneath it all is this steady drumbeat: just how did the child die.
Kind of dark, isn’t it?
I just write what I need to write. I think the upside of that is that my work carries a sharp emotional honesty to it, and I think readers will respond to that. Obviously The Other Room traverses some difficult emotional terrain, but there’s also humor in it, and there’s love in it, and I think they’re rendered in all their messy, recognizable human-ness. Because I do think readers gain more from novels that push them to feel…to be their most feeling-selves – not in a manipulative or overly sentimental way, obviously, but simply by saying it like it is. For me, that’s one of the most exquisite things that fiction can offer – that experience of pure emotional resonance when someone describes something we’ve thought or felt without even knowing it. To some extent, the story itself matters less than the emotional authenticity of this exchange.
So, this is great! I think we’ve actually done this thing! Do you have any last thoughts?
Can I borrow your zebra-print pedal pushers dress for the launch?
We can talk about this late—
And maybe that chartreuse Jackie-O pillbox?
I think we really need—
Plus I don’t know if I mentioned it but we’re actually going to have the launch party at your house….
KIM TRIEDMAN is both an award-winning poet and a novelist. Her debut novel, The Other Room, and two full-length poetry collections, Plum(b) and Hadestown, release in 2013. The Other Room was one of four finalists for the 2008 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and Kim’s poetry has garnered many awards, including the 2008 Main Street Rag Chapbook Award and the 2010 Ibbetson Street Poetry Award. Her poetry has been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals including Prairie Schooner, Salamander, WomenArts Quarterly, and Poetry International. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Kim co-organized and co-chaired a collaborative poetry reading at Harvard University to benefit Partners in Health and the people of Haiti. The reading was featured on NPR’s Here and Now with Robin Young and led to the publication of a Poets for Haiti anthology, which Kim developed and edited. A graduate of Brown University, Kim lives in the Boston area.
(This post was first published by TalkingWriting, A Magazine for Creative Writers and Readers, Oct. 1, 2013.)
I was never that kid on the rollercoaster. As a child, even the Ferris wheel felt like a push, including as it did that stomach-lurching moment when you surmount the peak and drop headlong through the night’s trap door. When my siblings made a beeline for the haunted house, my father stayed behind with me, dutifully tossing beanbags into holes for the promise of a pink stuffed poodle.
It’s possible I was born this way, with a furrowed brow and a high index of risk aversion. What I do remember about those early days is the way I withheld—the way I knew there were lines I shouldn’t cross—as though something inside was always keeping an eye on what I could and couldn’t handle. In school, I raised my hand only when I knew I had the right answer—6 x 6?; the capital of Utah?—and in college, I steered clear of anything creative, preferring the safety of science over nuance. I lived my life with one finger on my own pulse.
This kind of self-insulation carries with it its own weight, like a cocoon that must ultimately be broken in order for something fully realized to emerge.
My life broke when I was 37 years old, sitting out on my front stoop one day while my kids played their make-believe games in the downstairs playroom. I called my husband and told him I couldn’t breathe and found myself, two terrifying days later, on the receiving end of a prescription pad, wondering if and when I would ever get my life back.
It turns out that wasn’t the question at all. I had no choice but to move forward, into this new place where the old one had dropped me. I suddenly found myself in a world that I’d never inhabited before, and I needed to find new legs and eyes with which to negotiate it. My mom, in her quiet wisdom, gave me the wings.
“Write it down,” she told me. So I did.
During that strange and telescoped time, I filled simple college-ruled notebooks so fast my hands couldn’t keep up with my words. It was an unprecedented kind of recklessness, unconstrained, but it tethered and calmed me in a way that nothing else could. The writing allowed me to take risks—a critical touchstone in my healing—and the more I wrote, the more I seemed to have to say. It became a way of processing my world.
In the years since, I’ve discovered just what stories I have to tell. When I begin a poem, with a phrase or an image, I rarely know where it’s going to lead. The whole process of believing in the process, of closing my eyes and careening down the words without a safety net, is what gives the poem its lift. Only through this kind of letting go do I discover where I need to end up: the very last line, like an answer to a problem.
My novel began with a voice, not an idea. One cold winter night, sleep-thick and bleary, I followed it up to my third-floor office. I had just started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible (which begins with its own incredible seduction: “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened”), and I fell asleep with that dark and disembodied voice in my head.
That night, I wrote a few pages, a scene of sorts, but I had no idea what it was or where it was coming from. This continued for many nights, waking and writing, the gradual accretion of scenes with no real context. At some point, I looked at what I’d accumulated and realized I was writing a story in fragments, with no discernible scaffolding, from the voice of what was to become the novel’s main character. It was telling itself to me, on its own timetable and in its own way, but it was a slow reveal: I needed to write it in order to understand why I needed to write it.
What I learned over the years to come was that the story I was telling was a story of voice—of losing one and finding one—and of the deep emotional strictures that can keep people from fully inhabiting their own. In my younger years, the more layers of protection I laid down, the more something inside had bucked and reared and clamored to get out.
In the end, my breaking open, as I like to think of it, was an unmitigated blessing. I started receiving my world in quieter and subtler ways, examining it, relishing the experience of not knowing what was coming next. It became a wider and more colorful place, and I took pains to capture it in words, precisely, as though the very act of pinning it down became its own greatest reward.
I came to love my forties. I woke up most days humming with purpose and questions and words buzzing around my head. I finished both my novel and three collections of poetry in a ridiculously short period of time, as though something inside was bursting at the seams with all it had been meaning to say.
These days, I still find myself balking at certain things. When I recently saw photographs of my brother bungie jumping in New Zealand, I knew that wasn’t in my future. Ditto for the next Quentin Tarantino movie. I’m not so carefree as to relinquish all personal and emotional safeguards, but I am living a life that feels much more what it was meant to be. I’m following its lead, its own messy logic, because I know that it brings me where I need to be. And I’m not settling for that pink poodle anymore. I’ve got my eyes on the flying trapeze, high overhead.
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.