Tag Archives: War and Peace

Author Interview: Kaylie Jones

I had the pleasure of meeting Kaylie Jones at the Brooklyn Book Festival last September. I attended a panel where she, Terry McMillan and Dennis Lehane discussed their latest books. (You can listen to the discussion here.) I immediately connected with her. As you will see for yourself, she is not only a gifted and brilliant writer, but an intelligent, interesting, lovely and beautiful person. I am blessed, privileged and honored to introduce to you, the extraordinary Kaylie Jones.

1) When did you decide you wanted to write?

When I was eight I started to write a novel in a school notebook. It was about a girl who runs away from home with her talking bear. I showed it to my father, who was very encouraging. He didn’t correct anything or give me advice, he just told me to keep going. I soon gave up, of course. He died when I was sixteen, a blow from which I will never fully recover. Soon after, I went off to college, completely directionless. The literary critics were very hard on my father and I felt I needed to understand where he stood in the canon of American letters, so I started to pursue the study of literature. I had a comp 101 professor, the writer Daniel Stern, who pulled me out of the class and told me he would work with me privately because I showed great promise. I was stunned; I didn’t believe him, but I applied myself to improving my writing. Really, all my stories were memoir in the guise of fiction. It wasn’t until my Junior year, when I was studying Tolstoy’s War and Peace, that I had a moment of enlightenment, a spiritual awakening, you might say. I was reading the death of Prince Andrew and realized that if a writer who’d lived more than one hundred years before me, with whom I shared no cultural experience, could write about the process of death and dying in a way that rescued me from my own grief, I thought – okay, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to try to be a writer.

2) Was there anyone in your life who encouraged you?

While my father was very sick and unable to leave the house in the winter of 1976-77, we read books together. That was one of the highlights of my last year with him. We read Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms. We read Bonjour Tristesseby Francoise Sagan, and The Wanderer, by Alain-Fournier, his favorite French novel. He did not go into explaining the authors’ stylistic choices; he liked to discuss the characters’ choices and actions, as if they were real people who were making the decisions for themselves. We also read the poems of Edna Saint Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson, with whom he was a little in love, I think. These writers helped shaped me not just as a writer, but I believe they shaped my moral backbone and helped me to stay on some kind of moral path after my father was gone and no longer there to advise me.

I had fantastic writing teachers along the way. I often think of them as sages holding up lanterns along a dark path. In college, Daniel Stern was my first mentor. Later, I got into a very small and kind of elite writing workshop with a professor named Jack Paton, who was a veteran of WWII. He took issue with my father’s profanity and overuse of adjectives and adverbs. We would fight about it all the time! But I loved Jack, and he taught me to control my style, how to be precise and get my sentences down to their fighting weight. Later, I went to graduate school at Columbia, where I got my MFA. I studied with Richard Price, Edmund White, and Russell Banks. Can you imagine that good fortune? They were tough as nails, and I learned to listen to their criticism and advice.

Richard Price gave me a thirty book reading list one summer, telling me that I was “too immersed in the classics.” He wanted me to read what he called “down and dirty” modern fiction. So on that list were John Reechy’s City of Night, Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, all of Toni Morrison’s works – many of the books that shaped him as one of our most important modern writers.

3) How did The Anger Meridian come about?

The second time my mother was hospitalized for alcoholism my daughter was starting first grade in a new school. We spent every free minute at New York Hospital. My mother would stare me down and yell at me as if I were somehow to blame for her condition. Everyone on the floor, including my daughter, heard her calling me the most awful names. My mother had a small heart attack while she was there, and they moved her to intensive care. I watched the heart monitor go up and down, up and down, and just kept praying for it to flatline. For her to die now, with no more pain. But she survived, and the horror went on for another four years. I often asked myself, “What would it take, what would be the last straw, that would push a daughter to kill her mother?”

I discussed this, philosophically, with my daughter, the way my father used to discuss characters with me. “I want to write a book about a woman who is pushed so far by her mother that she kills her, but it’s in a moment of passion, of rage.” My daughter, who was about seven at this point, offered advice.

That following February, we were standing on the edge of a veranda of a big house overlooking a cliff in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I was teaching a writing workshop with Beverly Donofrio, when my daughter said, “I know what you’re thinking. This is the perfect place for your character to push her mother off the cliff.” That was exactly what I was thinking and it was the beginning of the novel. But as the novel progressed, I became less and less sure that Merryn, my character, would be capable of pushing her mother off the cliff. So that is what the book is really about. What would be so awful that she’d find herself capable of such an act? Did she do it? Could she? Would she?

4) Bibi is an amazing character, how did she come to you?

Bibi, the mother in the novel, is based on several women I knew growing up, including my own mother. Educated women who grew up in luxury and without a want in the world – beautiful, admired, adored by their husbands, friends, and children. Usually they did not have careers, and perhaps that is where their feelings of insecurity, anger, and restlessness came from. They were women to whom no one ever said no. This is a little bit like being a movie star, where a person becomes so famous that no one will contradict her. In a situation like this, where a person is so insulated by her own family and her money, that the real world is only a vague scrim in the distance, her children often become her hostages. That is what I was aiming to describe: a 40 year old daughter who suddenly finds herself in actual fact stuck, held hostage, penniless, and at her mother’s mercy. That is the dynamic that drives the novel. The added dimension is that Merryn, the daughter, has her own 9 year-old daughter, Tenney, whom she adores, and whom she wants to protect and honor. So it’s a constant battle of wills between feeling like she has to honor her cruel and narcissistic mother, or honor her own child.

5) What is your writing or creative process?

Usually an idea for a book comes to me and I will attempt to plant that kernel. Then I water it and give it light and wait to see if it will grow. I’ve had many ideas for novels that never took root. It takes me about a year of thinking before I open a notebook and start to take notes. Then I start thinking about the idea of sitting down and opening a blank document on my desktop. This is the hardest part. My old friend the author Lucy Rosenthal called this “page fright.”

Then, hopefully, I start to write.

6) What are some of your favorite books or authors?

I still return to Tolstoy over and over again for style and form. No one shows characters’ feelings better, especially characters who are unaware of what they are feeling; at least, the reader becomes aware of their feelings before they do themselves. This is very hard to pull off.

One of my favorite novels is Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter. I wish more people still read her work. I go to her for courage. Often I’ll turn to Flannery O’Connor’s short stories for technique and precision. I especially love O’Connor’s imagery and the way she anthropomorphizes objects in her descriptions. I love that she has such despicable characters that are still fascinating. John Cheever still inspires me and helps me to hone my craft.

I fear our literature has become too obvious – white hat/black hat for the good guy and the bad guy. If only life were so simple!

Recently I took Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder with me to China while I was studying Kung Fu with Shaolin monks. I love her writing. She kept me company as I struggled to keep up with the youngsters in the Shaolin school. I think she is a very important American writer.

7) Is a writer born or made?

My friend Susan Cheever, John Cheever’s daughter, said something to me once that really stayed with me. She said, “Face it, we’re circus folk.” Meaning, if you’re raised in the circus, you learn to be a circus performer. If your mom rode elephants, you learned to ride elephants. I believe this is true for the children of writers.

I’d say most serious writers were children who felt a great loneliness and isolation, and found solace, friends, in books. The next step is giving back, writing to reach out and communicate with others who may feel the same way. This is probably a romantic notion, but I have always thought of literature as my higher power. The thing that pulled me from my own pit of despair and chaos.

8) What did you personally do to perfect your craft?

I never stop reading, studying sentences, studying writers. In an interview John Irving once said that he was never able to read for pleasure again once he became a writer, because he was constantly trying to figure out how the writer did something in the book, something technically spectacular. This made me laugh because I do the same thing.

One of my former students recently discovered Cormac McCarthy. I get texts and emails from him almost daily, quoting Cormac McCarthy and asking my opinion on how in the hell did McCarthy do this or that? Again, I laugh. This is how real writers think. Someone who tries to take the sentences apart to understand how the author did it. Which, of course, takes the element of magic, of unconscious inspiration, out of the equation. And that’s the part we can’t really account for. What my dad used to call the 10% magic part.

9) What do you like the most and the least about writing a book?

I like when I feel a chapter or a short story or essay is finished. I can look back happily and say, “Well, that is good work.”

I hate a blank page. That feeling of heart palpitations and sweaty palms as I sit down to start. What I hate almost as much as that is my inner censor/critic, who tells me I have no right to write, and that I’m a vain and egotistical person to think I have the right to sit down and express myself. It’s taken me years to silence that voice, and bring it to the fore only in the final editing process.

10) Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring author?

I think learning when to silence that inner censor is a crucial part of being able to be creative. When to bring that critic out and when to keep him/her locked away. It is very easy to become discouraged as a writer.

One of the most important aspects of becoming a writer is finding a supportive community. Whether this is in an MFA program or among other like-minded writers, I think a writing community is crucial. I don’t mean a wife, husband, brother, sister, or best friend who says, “This is awesome!” I mean a serious reader who will give you honest and intelligent feedback. Also, if we don’t take criticism personally, it really helps.

I love the term “Literary Citizenship.” I believe it was coined by my friend, writer Lori May. Jim Warner, the poet, often uses it to describe a writer’s willingness to share, and to offer advice without assassinating another person’s work. And doing what we can to support each other without competitive jealousy. Many years ago I made the decision to help other writers whenever I could.

When I was in Soviet Georgia as a student in 1987, we Americans could NOT pay for anything! The Georgian cabbies wouldn’t even take our money. When we tried to pay for pirozhkis at street kiosks, the street vendors would not accept our money. I’d never had this happen to me anywhere in the world. I asked one Georgian cab driver why they would not let us pay. He told me a Georgian fable: “When God was making the world, he walked all over his creation, distributing goods from the Horn of Plenty. But he tripped over the Caucasus Mountains, fell and dropped the Horn on Georgia. That is why we have everything here! But the secret is, the Horn of Plenty only stays full if you give everything away.”

I have tried to live by that rule ever since.

KAYLIE JONES has published seven books, including a memoir, Lies My Mother Never Told Me, and her most recent novel, The Anger Meridian. Her novel A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries was adapted as a Merchant Ivory film in 1998. Jones has been teaching for more than twenty-five years, and is a faculty member in the Stony Brook Southampton MFA in Creative Writing & Literature program and in Wilkes University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. She is the author of Speak Now and the editor of Long Island Noir. Her newest endeavor is her publishing imprint with Akashic Books, Kaylie Jones Books.

You can follow Kaylie Jones on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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