Okay, so this is really, really fun!
You may already have heard me mention (about a hundred times) how happy I am to see my friend and former Columbia College Chicago classmate, Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, out on tour with her newly-published hardcover debut novel, Thirsty.
But here are few things you may not know…I’m being mysterious now.
Kristin and I have known each other for a wicked long time. Like since 1992. That’s seventeen years, people!
Kristin drafted one of the scenes for Thirsty, all those years ago in a class on writing historical fiction we took at CCC taught by Wade Roberts. (That class was a blast by the way. Thanks, Wade.)
I played a role in helping to get Thirsty into print. You can read the story in Kristin’s words over at Editor Unleashed, if you like.
I think Thirsty is a terrific book. In fact, if you examine the cover, you’ll see that I have high praise for the book. But don’t take my word for it (clearly I am biased), check out what Meryl K. Evans has to say about the book instead. She writes a darn good review, too.
Or, you can find recommendations in the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest from Jordan Rosenfeld (on stands now), read the opening line over at Poet’s & Writers, read the first chapter in The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, or watch the book trailer.
And now, without further ado, here’s some of Kristin’s thoughts on the writing process:
What inspired you to write Thirsty?
As a writer, I’m deeply inspired by place so I wasn’t surprised that Thirsty, the town, 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 we watched the demise of the steel industry.
Not long after I clearly saw the town of Thirsty in my head, Klara began to appear. Right away I saw the awful marriage she was in. 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.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing the novel?
I faced two big challenges while writing Thirsty:
1) I started my writing life as a poet so language and rhythm are important to me. I read everything I write (even emails) out loud…over and over again…until the language and rhythm of every sentence feels right. I must have read Thirsty a thousand times out loud before I felt I could let go of it. And even then…even now…given a few minutes to read out loud and rewrite…I’d probably change a few more words.
2) Telling Klara’s story as fully as possible—including the scene in which Drago cuts off her hair—wasn’t easy. But I knew I had to. It was only fair to see the abuse as vividly as Klara lived it. Domestic violence is an experience shared by many, many women. Too many women. And it’s too easy to turn away from it in fear and shame…too easy to gloss over the most crucial, heartbreaking brutality. No woman escapes domestic violence on her own; Klara has Katherine, BenJo, and Old Man Rupert. I believe if we face it together, there’s hope.
How long did it take you to write Thirsty?
A total of about seven years. I started it in 1992 and completed a full draft as my graduate school thesis in 1996. I worked on it off and on for another three years.
How long did it take you to have it accepted for publication?
I took a circuitous, scenic route to publication. It took sixteen years from the day I wrote the first scene to the day I got the email from David Sanders at Swallow Press that said, yep, we want to publish this book. I’m a big believer in right time, right place. I always knew Thirsty would find its home; I just didn’t know when or where.
Describe your writing habits.
I do a lot of work in my head: subconsciously in my dreams and consciously when I’m walking around the world, taking care of the mundane responsibilities of life. When I write, I am very disciplined. Before I became a mom, I got up every morning before dawn and wrote (for hours and hours). Now that I have a little one, I have to be more flexible. I write before my daughter wakes up, when she naps, and after she goes to bed.
You live in Shanghai, China. What is it like promoting your first novel from halfway around the world?
Creatively cool: The fact that I live in China gets people’s attention, and attention when promoting a novel is (almost) always good.
Logistically difficult: Shanghai is twelve hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time in the U.S. (except during Daily Savings Time when it is thirteen hours ahead). In some ways this is good because I work when folks in the U.S. are sleeping. That means that I don’t get a lot of emails during my work hours (they pour in during U.S. daylight hours when I am sleeping), thus often I can write without too much distraction. But it works the other way as well. When I’m ready to Twitter about Thirsty (or anything else), many U.S. Twitterers are asleep. If I need to talk to my publicist or the events coordinator at a bookstore, I have to stay up until ten o’clock or eleven o’clock at night to catch them during their morning hours (and often I have to call them back around my midnight or one o’clock a.m.). Not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
You teach writing. Three things you tell students?
1) Sit your butt down. Write.
2) Writing begets writing.
3) Read your work out loud.
4) Sit your butt down. Write. (Did I say that already?)
Note: Obviously there’s more, but this is a strong first draft.
What advice can you offer to writers?
My mantra: Tell the best story you can…believe in your writing…work your arse off.
Here’s a sampling, though there are many more:
- 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 thinking like me: Dr. Seuss and Amy Krouse Rosenthal
- for keeping me centered: Thich Nhat Han and Pema Chodron
- for writing inspiration: Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott
- for writing craft: Christina Katz, Wendy Burt, Sage Cohen
This list changes and grows all the time, but here are a few I love: Anaïs Nin’s diaries, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Book Thief, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Odyssey, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Sula
A memoir about my path to love, marriage, and mamahood (definitely not the usual path). And a second novel (mum’s the word).