Photo by Noora Al-Meer
PN’s associate editor Christen Leppla: Karen Hays is an emerging essayist whose work has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Normal School, Conjunctions, and Passages North. Hays, who recently won the Rona Jaffe Foundation Award in nonfiction, prefers epistolary communication. So when I contacted her and asked what type of interview she’d like to do for Passages North, she gave me this response: “If it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer e-mail. Plus I won’t have to worry about my narcissistic parakeet punking me that way. He’s competitive, he knows all my secrets, and (egad!) he speaks. (If loose lips sink ships, just think what a loose beak might accomplish!)”
Karen initially got her B.A. in geology and M.S. in hydrogeology, pursuing a career as a scientist before leaving that world in 2001 to raise a family and, lucky for us, write. And not just write, but write essays that blend science and art, humanity and biology, the scientific method with the experience of motherhood. In the midst of loss, sick kids, and a cross-country move, Karen answered my questions with unflinching honesty. But then, when you read her work you know, that’s just the kind of writer she is.
Christen: I read in your bio for the Rona Jaffe Foundation that you left a career in earth science to raise a family. How did that change affect your writing?
Karen: Profoundly. Of course I can never know for sure, but it’s easy to imagine my writing at this point would be mostly academic had my life not taken the unpredictable turns it did. There would be letter-writing and journaling, but I can’t see how or when I would’ve turned to essaying like this. My early parenting years were highly unusual for medical reasons. That’s partly why I bailed on my Ph.D. program (at a time when many women are unknowingly impregnated with their inner fraudulence demons, according to the Boston College thing) and also how writing came to play such a sanity-saving role for me. (Read in dramatic voice:) “It all began with a bit of therapeutic momoir, Christen.” Speaking of genres—is there one more eye-rollingly dismissed than it? Poor momoir. No, my brief stint in the sciences informs my writing hugely. And so does my experience parenting. But evolutionary biology, mineralogy, chemistry, maternal love, etc. are just thematic. Something more fundamental underlies the writing… I just wasted about 30 minutes thumbing through my commonplace books to try to find a quote, the one wherein an author whose name I should really remember talks about the crucial writerly skill/quirk of being able to draw, in real visceral and vivid ways, on memories of childhood. In twenty seconds on the internet, I found a flood of quotes sufficient to make me pee my pants (see the hazards of research, no 6). I didn’t find the one I was looking for, but I did find affirmation and consensus: there is an incredibly associative thing that goes on in the heads of both scientists and literary creatives, and it has to do with the hoarding and cross-linking of memories, with casting a wide, wide mnemonic net and then keeping the treasures it snares quite near to the surface. For easy retrieval. I see this in the way my brain operates. Memories get a lot of airtime. Especially old ones. They’re constantly seeking proof of their continuing relevance. With me the memories are highly textural, they come to me more as sensations than facts. I think this is what makes me a better writer than a scientist. For example, I remember how it felt to read that quote years and years ago, but not its exact words or who penned them. Remembering it is like having a whole wordless experience at the tip of my tongue. I have an itch to limn that fleeting sensation, and to understand its grip, and to carve its name on an evolutionary branch budded out with kindred experiences. The characterizing, sleuthing, and sorting are unequivocally scientific impulses. But my highly subjective manner of indulging those impulses is unquestionably—and I want to say damningly—artistic. I remember looking at thin-sections of rocks in my petrology labs, and rotating the microscope stage, and marveling at the kaleidoscopic affect of the minerals changing colors as I spun the slides under plane light, and then under cross-polarization—the pleochroism, the birefringence—and thinking it was so gorgeous my heart might burst right open, and trying to come up with metaphors or tunes to fit the rocks’ compositions and rhythms, so that someone—anyone!—could share in my ecstasy. Maybe that was a flag of some color, some hint that I wouldn’t last in the sciences. The “me” lens. The swoon factor. Also, my language tended to get a little kaleidoscopic itself, in my reports. A little too…you know…poetic.
Christen: Are you a scientist or a writer first?
Karen: Insomuch as the same mental function underlies the writing and the science, there is no conflict, and I am as fully a scientist as I am a writer. By more conventional definitions, however, and in terms of output and what my days look like, I’m definitely a writer first. Yeah. A writer.
Christen Leppla: When did you first start writing, and when did you know you wanted to begin submitting your work?
Karen Hays: As my great grandmother would’ve said, writing is in my “genies.” By that I mean it’s basically Mendelian for me, like attached earlobes or the capacity for taco tongue. (Neither of which I have, by the way.) I’m talking about nature, not talent here. I’m talking about…you know…needs. For better or worse, I’ve always felt the urge to express myself in writing, even when I was little and the “words” I put down were just unintelligible marks on the page. The text was just the evidence the writing left behind, like scuffmarks after a dance or a vigorous round of ball. Before I knew the letters of my own name, I filled the chalkboard in my bedroom with asemic scribbles that I invested with significance until, in order to keep going, they had to be erased. I still remember the anxiety that set in when I got to the bottom of the board and my chalk began bumping into the rim of chalk tray. I remember how I had to angle my wrist in an awkward way, and how the restricted range of motion pissed me off, and how my frustration built and built and built until eventually I was cool with picking up the eraser and smearing the whole dusty composition out of existence. Then it was: So long, roller coasters! See ya later, Slinky Dog torsos! Purple mountain majesties—auf wiedersehen! I realize this a stupid answer to give: “It all began with the pincer grasp, Christen…” What I mean to say is: things haven’t evolved all that much since then. For me, the act of writing still takes primacy over whatever the hell I’ve written. I still prefer writing in its gerund form. And I still have problems with boundaries. And with stopping. Pressed to define the function writing serves for me (not that you asked exactly, but I’m working towards a confession), I suppose I would parrot what Twyla Tharp said about art in general. I would say that writing is the only way I can “run away without leaving home,” and that I need to run. The corollary to this may be that I’m not a terrific reader. Vicarious away-runnings make the soles of my feet itch. Often I will put a book down in order to lace up my writing shoes and then never pick the book back up again, and then I will harbor guilt about that. The need to go imaginatively AWOL in this way is one of the earliest and most through-going needs I have. I guess you could say I’ve always written. My mom keeps threatening to haul the box of proof up from her basement. I keep wincing and asking her not to.
As for making the decision to submit (in the publication not the “uncle”-crying sense, which alternate meaning somehow just occurred to me)… Growing up, I flip-flopped between wanting and not wanting to write publicly, as in “for a living.” It seemed like career aspirations were an awfully weighty burden to place on something so private, especially since writing was serving such an important purpose for me already. It was a survivalist’s tack, really, and instinctiveness made it both precious and boring. I’m imagining an armadillo getting treats in exchange for curling herself into a ball, and the myriad ways being externally rewarded could screw with that armadillo’s instincts. Would the curling reflex, if too long misused, fail to kick in when the time came for the armadillo to protect herself? Would the armadillo wind up with a tooth buried in her soft underbelly as some kind of karmic punishment for commodifying her defense mechanism, for whorishly turning it into a party trick? Might some Andean musician happen upon the armadillo, knock her block off, scoop her guts out, and fashion her shell into a charango for the musician to strum himself silly with? Or would the opposite happen? Would curling into a ball become the only way the armadillo knows to interact with the world? Would she keep safe but miss out on some really valuable life experience type shit because it became her habit to keep her nose so tightly tucked into her own rear end? What if she forgot how to hunt invertebrates? Eek! These are some of the things I struggle with—knowing how to honor my impulses without getting too carried away by them, and balancing my fear of extrinsic rewards with my heart-in-throat desire for them. I have this dumb idea that intrinsic and extrinsic rewards exist along some kind of a continuum, and the more you have of one, the less you have of the other, and the intrinsic end of the scale has a little angel hovering over it, and the extrinsic end has a little foot-tapping devil, and…
No, what happened with me is I took a couple of classes at this place here in Minneapolis called The Loft Literary Center. I was starving in all kinds of ways at the time. I truly was. Anyway, I took this evening course called “Writing the Natural World” with Bonnie J. Rough. I began an essay on a theme that continues to obsess me: I like to imagine there’s a real fine and perhaps even arbitrary line between what makes something a malady and what makes it an adaptation. You know, in terms of evolution. Maybe the strip of tape that divides a gift’s half of the room from a curse’s is only a hair’s breadth wide, and maybe some dog fur or sock lint keeps that tape from adhering to the floor all the way so that the boundary is a little loose and floppy in a few places, and maybe the room is locked from the outside and the door is in the gift’s half of the room and the key is in the curse’s, and maybe… The essay was about heritability and subjectivity—naming versus name-calling, diagnosing versus damning. It was also the first essay I ever felt like I finished. When I did, I sent it to Bonnie and she urged me to enter it in The Iowa Review’s annual nonfiction contest. I had no idea what The Iowa Review was or (for shame!) who John D’Agata, the judge that year, was. I trusted Bonnie and, without thinking too much about it, sent the essay in. By the time winners were announced, my hair had been parted in all kinds of spectacular new ways by D’Agata’s Halls of Fame. (The Henry Darger essay? Deliver me!) Needless to say, I was totally flabbergasted when my essay won. Shortly after that, Bonnie recommended I check out The Normal School, which was still a brand new lit mag back then. So I entered my second essay in the first annual Normal School contest, having no clue (for shame!) who David Shields, the judge that year, was, and won that, too. By the time winners were announced, I was head over heels with Shields’s The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.
…And that’s how the submitting thing happened. Dramatically. And maybe a little too successfully for my comfort. I was terribly confused by all of the affirmation, and the sudden forward momentum—just totally baffled and also thrilled by it. In some ways, it felt like wish-fulfillment, like my great-grandmother was correct on a sparklingly intuitive level when she swapped “genes” for “genies,” like maybe you do yourself the biggest favors in life when you get out of your own fucking way and simply do what comes naturally and easiest. My great grandmother wasn’t educated beyond a handful of grades, but I like to think her mispronunciation suggests she got the gist of genes, the control they exert over our individual futures, and the dumb luck involved. At an age when I was sitting at a desk looking at diagrams of Mendel’s peas flowers—I remember them red and pink and white and evocative of primal things I wasn’t of an age to name, like vulvae, and broadclub cuttlefish, all cross-multiplied and laid out in pyramids on the page—my granny was defying child labor laws in order to help feed her family. Instead of going to school, she worked in a factory bottling vinegar. My great grandmother and her underage friends hid under the tables and tried not to giggle when the inspectors came in. What choices did they have? I’m going to delve headlong into luck in the next question. For now, suffice it to say I was high when I won those awards, and at the same time begging to be humbled. In real conscious and out-loud ways, I was asking for someone to take me down a few pegs. Turns out I needn’t have worried about that. Life has a way of taking care of hubris, whether it is high and blind or j-j-j-jitters-queasy. Especially when you’re hellbent on reminding yourself that your poo stinks. Or when you’re haunted by the vision of your grandmother standing in a noisy factory—a little girl holding the shards of the glass bottle that just broke in her hands, warm vinegar streaming through her wounds, a puddle of trailing statements dampening the soles of her shoes: “I would like…” “I would like…” “I would like…” I’m not describing this well. I’ve always had a hard time naming my own desires, is part of what I’m saying. And I owe a huge debt of thanks not only to Bonnie, but also to the grandmothers I’ve been blessed with, absolutely none of whom would want me feeling so sad and sorry for them like this, especially as they were never inclined to feel so sad and sorry for themselves.
Christen: What is your biggest fear as a writer?
Karen: Wow, Christen, these are the giant questions! I’ll do my unflinching best… My biggest fear as a writer is probably my biggest fear as a human, which fear hit me full force as I was sitting at my grandmother’s funeral the week before last. (A different grandmother than the one in the first question, but not so different in terms of her sunny disposition… And, yeah, November’s been rough.) She was the type of person who never knew a stranger. I’m not at all like that. I tend to regard my closest intimates as strangers. This is nice in that I’m continually surprised and intrigued by the people around me, but shitty in that the people around me are ever the subjects of my imaginative scrutiny. I wonder if this stranger v. intimate situation is the source of the writing impulse, the result of its satisfaction, or some snowballing combination. Are we as writers more aware of the fluidity and subjectivity of reality? Is this what compels us to try to limn and re-limn our experiences with words? I am continually pained by the notion of our never truly overlapping with one another. What’s more, I’m suspicious of the tools we employ to that end—overlapping—and find words just so irresistibly and devilishly slippery. Also, I despise how I get in the way of my own attempts to know people. There’s the problem of subjectivity, of course, but also the problem of all that alone time being somewhat off-putting. It estranges. Anyway, my grandmother was a sweet and generous, faithful, vibrant person un-plagued by tiresome questions and concerns like these. When it was time for her to move into a nursing home, the man who used to mow her lawn for her bought her kitchen table, not because he needed a kitchen table—far from it—but because he’d sat at hers so many times, drinking the coffee that she’d brewed for him, and eating the cookies or pies that she’d baked, that he just felt he needed to own the darned thing. There were so many stories like that at the funeral. As I sat in total awe of my grandmother’s grace and optimism and openness, qualities in which I fear I am and will always be much, much the poorer, the carpet got kind of meaningfully psychedelic. Staring at my feet, I realized I was wearing the shoes that my husband once referred to as my “CFM boots,” and I became uncomfortably sweaty, and the carpet began to swim, and that’s when it occurred to me: my biggest fear in life is that I didn’t deserve my grandmother’s love, nor do I deserve the love of anyone like her. Oh god. I feared that I am loved for the person others believe me to be, and not for the person I know I am. In other words, I suffered a deep sense of unworthiness. Is that too personal to include here? If so—terrific, let’s shine a light on it. This can be a preview of number 10 in which I answer the question about writing uncomfortably. Here it is: I suffer from a persistent sense of fraudulence. It helps to know I am not alone in this. It’s a bona fide thing. Unfortunately, if I write here that Einstein described himself as “an involuntary swindler,” you might not recognize that I intend the comparison to go no further than the shared imposter syndrome business. (See what I mean?) My biggest fear as a writer is that my writing is fundamentally selfish, masturbatorily indulgent, grossly exhibitionist, and devoid of true value to the world, and that I am therefore unworthy of whatever good things may come my way through it. Because I fully cherish others’ writing and value their work as real contributions to society, and because my writing tends to be so incredibly intimate, this amounts to a deep, all-encompassing sense of personal fraudulence. And, really, I mean let’s be honest—there’s no point in shining a light if the beam is too narrow: there’s Einstein, yes, but there are also gender, minority, and educational biases that go along with feelings of fraudulence. For instance, more women than men suffer from feelings of phoniness. Especially perfectionistic, highly educated women. Especially perfectionistic, highly educated women who received mixed messages re their achievements when they were little kids. Cognitive psychologists have long recognized that men tend to attribute their successes to internal factors and their failures to external ones, and that with women the thinking is reversed. Women are prone to credit their wins to dumb luck, and to illogically believe they earn dumb luck through sacrifice and suffering. In other words, symptoms of fraudulence syndrome include superstition and masochism. We women seek our demons beneath our own skin. Our own skin! So far no clear reason has been called out for the gender divide. To me, it seems rather obvious, but hey I’m no expert. (Get the joke there?) Check this out, though: a survey of Boston College grads revealed that female students tend to graduate with lower self-esteem than they matriculate with, and that, even though the GPAs of male grads are lower on average than women’s, with the dudes the self-esteem arrows run the opposite direction. Men tend to leave college with more spring in their step than they walk in with, presumably because the demons that plague them are on the outside rather than the inside of them. It gets worse for women when they enter graduate school. That seems to be when things progress to the syndrome stage. This might have something to do with the Socratic Paradox, with knowing you know nothing, a surety that solidifies the more educated you get. Perhaps there’s an essay in all of this… Gender and the timelines and assignation of blame. The taxonomies of luck and demonization. The ironies of knowledge. Until then, I’d like to take a moment to express my love for my senator Al Franken in his many and highly varied personae. And to write this little missive here (a preview for the next question): Dear fellow feelings-of-fraudulence sufferers, I promise to dedicate my Stuart Smalley essay, if it ever comes to fruition, to you. Doggone it, I like you. No really, I do. With love, that lucky devil, Karen.
Christen: Can you talk about your writing process and how you know a piece of writing is finished/ready for submission?
Karen: It has to do with the arc of my focus. I can’t listen to music when I’m first embarking on an essay. Starting out, my attention is really fragile. I know the essay has some momentum to it when I can start listening to music while writing. I’m just about done with a piece when I find myself listening to the same song or songs over and over, when the essay and I basically have our own special tune or soundtrack, as dweeby and juvenile as that seems. At that point I read it and read it and read it until I am blind to all of its tempting leads and blazing errors, until I’ve basically memorized the whole damn thing and the words just make a predictable rhythm atop our special little swoon-together playlist, until the sound of the language is akin to the scribbles on my old blackboard. That is to say, until the words are pleasantly asemic. Once I’ve memorized the essay, I can’t make any more changes because a change would create a hiccup in the entire fabric of it. It ceases to matter if the fabric is or isn’t worth a shit because at that point the wording has become irrefutable and highly momentous. Simply put, I memorize my way out of the editing process. If I didn’t, I would probably never finish.
For me an essay usually starts out with a snapshot, sensation, or factoid, packaged up in a prose-poem’s amount of text. It’s like the nucleus of a newborn atom. In short order, the little poem pack begins drawing a ton of electron-like material toward itself. Directly related passages cozy up in the inner orbitals. Tangential stuff binds more loosely in the outer ones. The proto-essay struggles toward sphericity and balance. It does this through indiscriminate addition. At some point it becomes clear that too many electrons have piled on. Then the atom is an ion and in imminent danger of becoming a molecule. It needs a whole new atom or group of atoms to spread the charge around. Things get unwieldy because I’m usually going for a single atom and not a molecule. Um. This metaphor has run its course, hasn’t it? I’m saying there comes a real low point mid-way through when even I am on the verge of losing patience with the digressions the essay takes. I light a fuse under the essay at this point and see what re-accretes to the initial nucleus. Sometimes I choose a whole new nucleus. If I’m lucky, some constraining form reveals itself. Then I’m really in business.
From there, writing becomes a lot like the recursive computational problems I was given in entry level geochemistry classes. At least one time each semester, a professor would ask us students to laboriously do in several hours what we knew our computer programs could accomplish in a couple of seconds. Here’s how I remember these recursions going: you start out with a set of conditions and solve your problem through a series of cascading computations, by plugging an educated guess into the first equation, and then plugging the output from the first equation into the second equation, and the output from the second equation into the third, and so on down the line, seemingly ad infinitum. When you’re done with one cascade, you use the final output to narrow down your starting conditions, your educated guess, and then you go through the whole waterfall again until eventually the mess converges on a solid, unwavering mathematical solution. It’s like that. I work an essay from beginning to end to beginning to end until the essay ceases to wiggle. From the first sentence to the next. In waves. Starting over with each cut-and-paste rearrangement. When things begin holding still, bona fide editing gives way to memorization. Loud music begins to play. The essay becomes the one irrefutable solution. Dancing commences.
From beginning to “end,” the whole process takes me months and months. I tend to prefer long-term relationships. A slow burn. I dote and coddle and fuss until all the itches are scratched. Till my curiosity is satisfied and my thirst is slaked. Till I’m exhausted and numb in a good way. Hee—till I’ve massaged the essay into submission. My sweet spot, for whatever pathological reason, is usually around 40 pages. After I submit, I never want to look at the piece again because I know that when I do look at it, when I am forced to, I will be a different person than when I saw it last. I’ll find things that will make me cringe and want to hide or die or at the very least deny authorship. I’m pretty sure that no matter what, I’ll always want to change or obliterate portions of what I’ve written once some time has passed, or once the words have been put out in the open. The very act of putting a thing out in the open changes it. It’s kind of like listening to a recording of your voice; you sound foreign to yourself because the sound is coming from outside of your head, because every time you speak your skull amplifies the sound waves on their way from your larynx to your ears, and you assume that the way you sound in your head is the way you sound to others, too. Ha. And as weird as you may sound to yourself without the familiar interference of your own skull, you sound weirder still when you imagine your way into the back roads of someone else’s dome. Especially a stranger’s. It can be upsetting. That’s where the imaginary dyad comes in. It helps to believe your reader is friendly and likes you to begin with.
In terms of schedule… I mostly write early in the morning. What time I get up has to do with the count of bees in my bonnet, and what all of their names are. It’s not so weird for me to get up at, say, 3 or 4. I don’t have a new schedule yet, or even a decent transitional one, but I used to get up and work a couple of hours until 6:30 when it was time to rouse my youngest kid for school. By the time breakfasts and lunches were prepared and eaten or packed up, and my kids were off on their separate adventures, it was usually about 9:30 or 10:00. If my schedule allowed, I’d keep working from then up until 1ish, usually with more of an emphasis on research as the morning wore on. Regardless of when I rise, I’m pretty worthless by mid-afternoon. Just not sharp at all. There’s a dulling residue that piles up on me as the clock ticks. I like to work fresh out of bed.
Christen: How do you choose the way a piece will look on the page?
Karen: Okay, this is guaranteed to make me sound like a jerk, but you know that Michelangelo quote? The one that goes: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”? Yeah. The essay decides. I wrote a piece for Conjunctions a few years back. It’s about predictability and repeating patterns and hemochromatosis, this genetic disease wherein the body hoards instead of eliminating excess iron. There was really only one way for me to format the essay, and that was after an exercise devised by a nineteenth century mathematician who was hoping to use the exercise to earn himself a glimpse of the fourth dimension. Eventually the practice was appropriated by layfolks who simplified it and turned it into a Ouija-like parlor game. The original version involved getting 27 cubes with uniquely colored sides, stacking the cubes into one big cube, and then trying to visualize the color-on-color combos of all the interior faces. There was a lot of memorization involved. And, perhaps, psychosis. Because the atoms in elemental iron are bound in a cubic lattice, the exercise was an obvious and perfect model to draw from. I resisted for a long time, thinking it would be too hard to write and/or to read, or possibly misconstrued as random, but once I caved to my instinct, it felt right and good. Even the difficulty of it. Especially the difficulty of it. The essay is called “The Cubes,” and I began by assigning themes to 27 immaterial blocks. Then I arranged the thematic cubes in diagram form and painstakingly mapped, face-by-interior-face, all of their interior planes. Instead of using colors, I used words. One hundred words per face. So, for instance, where the fourteenth cube, which occupies the top right corner of the arrangement and whose theme is “sugar,” is adjacent to the “vista” cube, a weather enthusiast uses a kite equipped with a camera to try to figure out who stole his daughter’s ice cream. Sugar meets vista in one hundred words. I drew on my knowledge of mineralogy to label all of the faces, and included a little map at the essay’s end, so anyone who wants to build the damn thing actually has all of the information he or she needs to do it. In the same way that I regret not hand-writing this recent PN essay, I regret never building “The Cubes” and sending it, in model form, to Conjunctions editor Brad Morrow. Maybe I still will. But yeah, psychosis. The essay decides. I don’t always execute it as faithfully as the personified essay might like, but I do try. Plus I really love-hate constraints. Prescribed forms keep me from veering too far astray. I remember having this laid out for me when I was an architecture student back in… I don’t know…the Ice Age: people tend to be at their most creative when working against a prescribed set of restrictions. A big part of me feels like I won’t be satisfied with the results of these little form experiments until the essays are truly mixed material/multi-media. We’ll see…
Christen: Do you ever think about audience or do you have a clear picture of a reader when you write? If so, can you describe how you see your audience?
Karen: Mmmm, yeah, number 4 again. The epistolary thing. I definitely have a reader in mind. I mean, for each piece a really specific reader based on a really real person, living or dead, is in my mind as I am writing. We are in an imaginary dyad, and he or she, though pretty quiet throughout, is absolutely invaluable to the whole process. The person is always someone I know just enough about to believably invest with all of my desired characteristics. Sometimes, I’ll admit, it is a composite person. Whoever it is remains remote and inaccessible to me in real life, maybe because he or she is no longer living, maybe because he or she is simply a writer whose work I admire, maybe because he or she is an asshole I’m kind of stuck with, someone who regularly confounds my efforts to better know her or him even though I’m sure we’d truly jive if the two of us were forced to undergo a Vulcan mind meld. Sometimes the reader is just another prescribed set of restrictions. The object of a conquest. Someone I dearly miss. There are all kinds of reasons for human remoteness. In any case, my imaginary audience exhibits a love of words, puzzles, history, music, bodies, art, and science; an appreciation of absurdity as well as mundanity; benevolence; forgiveness; spring-loaded senses of curiosity and awe and wonder, and at the same time a healthy sense of irreverence; a dark sense of humor which falls much closer to the vulgar than the prudish end of the spectrum; a fondness for all of the nerve endings I can’t help protruding through my skin; and the ability to see things in my writing that I am too dense to see myself. Ideally, that is. My ideal audience. I feel like I’m composing a personals ad here. MW/F seeks imaginary ear to curl interior be-deviled self into…
Christen: Can you talk about the research you do for your work?
Karen: Research is all about doing battle with o.c.d. and internet addiction. It’s about remembering how and when to forego electronic search engines in favor of neuronal ones. I’m not copping to some aberrant behavior here. “Google” was accepted as a verb in the OED as long as seven years ago and was runner up for the American Dialect’s Society’s Word of the Year a full twelve years ago. Poignantly, it lost to “weapons of mass destruction.” Online research can be insidious. Permit me this illustration: the ADS’s Words of the Year since “weapons of mass destruction” were, from 2003 to last year, “metrosexual,” “red state, blue state, purple state” (Mendelian?), “truthiness,” “Plutoed,” “subprime,” “bailout,” “tweet,” “app,” “occupy,” “hashtag,” and “because.” Because, come on. Come to think of it, these words, because cool, because “chosen,” could be the vertebrae of a pretty killer essay. I’ll bet 2014’s year will be “right?” There are enticements everywhere, is what I’m saying. They pull at your pants legs. They pull at your hem. You know what I’m talking about. I get over-stimulated and numbed out by research and have to go through actual contortions to get my literal and figurative heart pumping again. Right? To get my focus back on “laser beam.” The advice Bonnie J. Rough gave about this is to pay attention to whatever stories or factoids visit you like flotsam in your bed at night, you know, when you’re drifting off and either berating yourself for failing to floss or patting yourself on the back for doing it, and let sink all of the unnecessary rest. The best advice I have to give on the subject (not that you asked for advice, but I’m working towards another confession) is: get out of your chair and go for a run or a walk. Your soul is in the balance, man, and exercise is a great way to give your brain the defragging it so desperately needs. Crank up your worst favorite song, your very guiltiest sonic pleasure, and dance like you’re fifteen. Or do your best Twyla Tharp impression. Find a good song to sing along with, something that will require lots of foot stomps and big healthy in-sucks of oxygen. (The Skakey Graves and Esme Patterson duet, “Dearly Departed,” is doing it for me today.) Kiss the mirror like my pet parakeet does. Do a backbend. Revolved Crescent Lunge with Prayer Hands leading into Flying Arms leading into a Bound Twist usually does the trick for me—the way I have to torque my whole spine around in order to shine my heart up onto the ceiling. (I’m not a very dedicated yogi, but there are a few poses I can’t resist.) For me, research can be an all-too easy way to avoid doing the harder things—facing scary feelings, articulating scary feelings, grappling to find an appropriate form in which to plug scary feelings, staring down certain failure wrt overcoming scary feelings, etcetera.
Christen: Your work tends to push genre boundaries. Do you think it’s possible for a work to be strictly one genre?
Karen: I think my way of dealing with the whole imposter syndrome is to tell myself that I’m an outsider artist. Like Darger but significantly less obsessive. I’ll allow the possibility that I’m adopting an outsider affiliation as an excuse to tune out the entire “genre” conversation. “I’m sorry, what? Speak up, I didn’t…” The bottom line is I just don’t get it. Do the players in other artistic disciplines consume themselves this much with labels and boundaries? Do visual artists? Do musicians? Do choreographers and dancers? I don’t know, but I want to think not. My experience in the natural sciences wasn’t at all like this. Things were interdisciplinary without all the label-driven brow-furrowing. We piled on the prefixes (my field was biogeochemistry) and affiliated with the department to which our mail came, or from which we drew a paycheck, for formal reasons. Maybe it’s inappropriate of me to even try to draw that parallel. Maybe I’m being too simplistic. How’s this: I believe readers deserve to know if they’re reading straight reportage or full-on fiction. But I also believe that reportage approaches truth asymptotically. The same way fiction approaches pure invention. And that everything else falls between these two. We know that the way the human brain naturally functions—the way it creates memories and associations—is to merge reportage with imagination, to fictionalize through emotions, to hyperbolize, to make patterns, and to scaffold and conflate experiences. (Oliver Sacks writes—and I love this, “memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.”) I am blown away when nonfiction can stand on reportage alone, when the story is that fucking fantastic. I just read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family and was in awe of how unnecessary it was for LeBlanc to insert herself at any point along the way, and how brilliant her restraint was with that. That’s not what I do and I think the fact that so many of my sentences begin with the letter “I” may be disclaimer and color-coding enough. My category is: I use words in whatever way I can to express what I feel is important. Sometimes the rhythm of the words takes precedence over their semantic content. The sound and feel of them. My mom used to say, her own voice like a waggling finger, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Sometimes I like the content to undermine the tone or the tone to undermine the content. It all depends on the subject. The bottom line here is I write to limn my truth with as much integrity as the “I” can muster. Integrity is important. On a piece by piece level, form is. But the short answer for me is just “no.” To me “genre” feels like an impediment and a contrivance. Maybe it’s just a little too academic for me. Maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe my slip is showing. Maybe I’m out of my element and my slip is showing and along the hem the word “duncebucket” has been stitched in some fuddy-duddy color in antiquated cursive. ‘Cause I really, truly just don’t get what all of the calipers and straight faces are about. I hope this answer doesn’t make me come off like too much of an asshole.
Christen: Are there any subjects you wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about?
Karen: Again, the short answer I want to give is “no.” I feel comfortable writing about just about everything. And my boundaries around what I’m willing to share, content-wise, are only slightly tighter. I suppose I’ve ducked between the rubber cones demarking TMI territory a time or two. But I kind of like it in there. I don’t mean to be shocking or gratuitous; I just mean to map the full depth and breadth of the human experience, and to combat shame through exposure, and to alloy the gross and the boring and the depraved with a little grace and some humor—other things our world is blessedly rife with. Sometimes beauty lurks in the lowliest and least predictable places. I tend to feel most human in the checkout line at the 24-hour discount grocery store when the hour is late, the shoppers are conspicuously inebriated, and as many of my fingertips are intact as are bleeding through raw cracks incurred by manual labor. Or while plunging the goddamned toilet. Or while losing my cool with my kids. Or while waiting in the exam room for the doctor to come in and part my waffle-weave paper towel gown. I feel most human then, and most in need of psychological accompaniment. I despise the idea that any brand of lust, terror, ugliness, weakness, turmoil, drudgery, or hatred should be hidden out of pride or propriety. Keeping precious things sacrosanct is one thing. Hiding things out of shame is different and unequivocally damaging. Maybe putting my damage on display is my way of cultivating empathy, since sometimes we forgive ourselves in order to forgive others, and vice versa. My courage might not be 100% up to the task of backing my principles on this one just yet, but it’s something I’m game to work on. Absolution seems worth it. Healing does. Love. Look: I am ridiculous, flawed, and fallible. And a tad too sentimental, I suppose. But the possibility of charting new landscapes where we overlap as individuals, and of vanquishing some pernicious brand of loneliness in the process, is worth the cost of overcoming my convoluted interior dramas to strum a few heartfelt chords in public. I suppose at my most ambitious, I aim to provide the reader—whether it is the somewhat imaginary, hybridized, epistolary reader or a member of the larger unknown audience—with the sense that he or she is accompanied in the world, and that we are laughing and weeping at the divine tragicomedy of it together. Maybe, at my most optimistic, I believe that this is exactly the kind of shit that keeps people from jumping off bridges, or from converting minor guilts into full-blown addictions. I want this kind of forgiveness for myself and I want it for my kids. For everyone I love. Oh man, do I. I prefer an “oh my god, me too!” moment to anything in my doctor’s arsenal. I need to believe in the healing power of words. They’re kind of all I’ve got.
(Of course, there are other things at play here too. Sometimes I write to regain equilibrium because I feel wronged. Who doesn’t? I can be petty, stubborn, truculent, and dumb. While retaliatory gerund-form writing can lead to some pretty fantastic noun-form writing, clearly you can’t put hostile words about loved ones out into the world. And of course there are all kinds of privacy issues, too, and the matter of others’ pride. At this point of my life, I feel like my every act of love is flawed, especially as it pertains to parenting. As my kids get older, I have to work harder to keep that feeling of “my” in check. “My” kids are starting to need more privacy, and I have to find a way to continue telling my story without compromising theirs or them. I’d like to believe that I’m raising kids who will feel like the benefit of sharing true things is worth the cost of a little lovingly executed exposure. But in the end, that’s not something I have a whole lot of control over. And, like I said, I’m increasingly confident that my every act of love is flawed. Not my love. Just its execution. This is surely universal. None of us can be certain how our best intentions will land.
Christen: What is your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
Karen: Because of all of that stuff I laid on you in number 2, of all the sentences I’ve written, my favorite ones are buried in my personal correspondence. The unpublished things. Lines I wrote when I felt, rightly or wrongly, like I was making some real headway in the whole knowing and being known business. When I believed I was, you know, mining that sense of connection. I’ve been an avid letter-writer ever since I was a little kid. Starting out I wrote to my grandparents. They were snowbirds and therefore mysteriously missing from my life half of every calendar year. Then, when I was ten, the kids in my class were each assigned pen-pals from a school in far-away Texas. My pal dumped me when we exchanged pictures and she realized I was a white kid. There are always hazards involved with pen-pal-ship. Still, I love the through-going aspect, and the shorthand and inside jokes a lively exchange of letters can be so rife with. Hands down, the epistolary form is my favorite. I’ve said this before and it really is true: I’d far rather write a friend than write a publication. Plus in missive form, I’m blissfully immune to all of that fraudulence bullshit. Maybe that’s partly why I prefer it. When I’m writing a letter, I have some basic faith that whomever I’m writing already likes me and so I let my guard down and the writing feels effortless. I feel like I’m my best writing self then. All of my essays begin as letters, contain letters, or are letters in some level of disguise ranging from thin to elaborate. Also, I just want to say I know I swear too much. It’s kind of a problem. There’s an essay in progress on that, too. I just read PN’s interview with fiction editor Tim Johnston and it—the essay on swearing—violates at least two of Tim’s keep-reading criteria. Sorry, man.
Christen: What are your upcoming projects?
Karen: I have to confess that my most immediate project is all-consuming and inelegant and not at all literary. It is: to pack up and move a houseful of shit all the way across the country, and to sell my current house here in Minneapolis, and to mitigate the attendant emotional trauma my children are experiencing. We’re in the process of a big geographical move. Deep in. The moving truck comes in two weeks. These days I’m just throwing things in my notebook cum icebox and hoping nothing gets too freezer-burned in the time it takes for me to get back to them. There are essays in the works, yes, but I’m afraid if I write too much about them now, they’ll be so radically different by the time I… Ugh. Thaw them. It feels like bad luck to talk about them right now. I’m at my best when relaxed and right now I’m just not at all. Relaxed. No. And anxiety makes me superstitious. I can tell you that it is 23 degrees in Minneapolis right now and 65 at my soon-to-be new home. I can tell you that there is a huge patio in the backyard of my new place and I will sit there and write at the weird pink marble table I’ve had longer than I’ve had my pet bird or either of my two children. (Naked cherubs adorn its base and my son once busted his eyelid open on the marble, which is beautifully if garishly serpentine-flecked and also flower-shaped.) A gigantic red-berried holly tree will be my roof (I have seen it!), and a red-bloomed bottlebrush tree will be my privacy fence (ditto!), and the bottlebrush bristles will invite the bills of whole shimmers of nectaring hummingbirds (yes!), and the sound of my fingers on the keyboard will mingle with roar of all those little figure-8 wing movements, and with the unmistakable barking of seals and sea lions (I have it on good authority, yes!). I am moving to the town where all of the Monarch butterflies west of the Rockies overwinter. It’s the same town where Joseph Campbell and John Steinbeck and citizen scientist/marine biologist Ed Ricketts used to get drunk, collect sea creatures at low tide, occasionally sleep with and fight over each others’ wives, and exchange game-changing ideas re mythology and the similarity of communal humans to tide pool invertebrates. I feel optimistic about where I’m going and what I’ll do when I get there. When I get to my new place, I’ll come out of cryogenic mode and get back to the work I prefer. Until then, I’m storing scraps of ideas, sentences, and research, and doing my best to guard a few of my more writerly nerve-endings. Everything around me will be different, and it’s very tempting and exciting to believe the way I write will change also.
Christen: What’s on your current reading list?
Karen: I always feel a bit like Sarah Palin whenever someone asks me what’s on my reading list. You know, “all of ‘em, any of ‘em that have been in front of me over all these years.” It’s a fraudulence thing. Here it is: I recently bought Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast and I look forward to reading that very soon. Vicarious bereavement doesn’t make the soles of my feet itch like other nonfiction does; on the contrary, it makes me feel like I’m exercising some of the muscles I’ll need when it’s my turn to pay love’s true and highest price. Like Braxton Hicks contractions, kind of. That sounds silly, I suppose, and naïve. It’s true, though—I feel like a part of me is always in preparedness training. I get a little weepy just thinking about it. My parents are still alive. My sister. My husband. Ugh. My kids. I just… I need more practice first. Heaven’s Coast is the one book that I’ve been leaving sitting out during all of these confounded house-showings, like a promise for when, one blessed day, this transition will all be over with. That’s when I’ll open it. It’s one of the carrots I’ve been dangling in front of myself this last month. I have a lot of carrots. I’m like a cartoon of a cartoon rabbit. Besides Doty’s book, there’s the latest issue of Zygote Quarterly. That just came out and I can’t wait to spend some time drooling over it. So far I’ve only looked at the photos and skimmed “The Utility of Awe” article closely enough to know that I absolutely have to get my hands on a copy of David James Duncan’s My Story as Told by Water. Zygote Quarterly is just about the most gorgeous bundling of science- and art-infused electronic pages I could ever dream of. It kills me—it kills me!—that it is strictly an online publication and I cannot hold its beauty in my hands. Oh my god—I want to sniff its ink and fondle its gloss, smudge it all up with my greasy fingerprints! Yes! What else? I am behind on my Zoetrope: All-Storys—that’s primarily where I get my fix of short fiction. (I love it when a lit mag’s dose of visual art is hefty.) Bradford Morrow’s The Forgers will be out soon, and I am eager to read that. An exploration of the theme of fakery sounds like a phony-syndrome-sufferer’s delight! The Death and Life of Monterey Bay by Stephen R. Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka is waiting for me for obvious reasons. I never read Cannery Row, which is also, in light of where I’m moving in a couple of weeks, an imminent must. I wish I didn’t get so danged carsick, because I’m facing, with planned detours to see sights and loved ones, about 40 gnarly hours on the road with my family and pet parakeet. I’m usually the one behind the wheel. I’m not complaining; I like it that way. A literal away-running, you know? A running-toward, too.
Christen: What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever read?
Karen: I suppose it will sound like a copout if I say that my very favorite lines to read are also buried in missives? And that I just can’t answer the absolute version of your question, because it’s too hard? Sorry. Let me name some of my biggest loves, instead. There are a couple of books that I assume a real reverent tone when I open, that I won’t even take out if there’s a chance I’ll be interrupted, like if my kids are within a hundred mile radius. There’s…you know…staging involved. These are Anne Carson’s Nox and Eleni Sikelianos’s The Book of Jon. Oh lord. In these, bereavement combines so beautifully with dogged and doomed-to-fail attempts to overlap, with human remoteness, with so much more, and with images…which I always appreciate. Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index—I love it, too. Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Bernard Cooper’s The Bill from My Father. I think in some ways Moby-Dick may even fit in this category. I’m a big fan. Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page occupies a permanent place on my coffee table. Seeing it there makes me feel good about picking up a dust rag now and then. I’m also bananas for Dan Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary, a copy of which enjoys the benefits of directly underlying Kish’s Melville in my living room—dusting. In it, Beachy-Quick goes after Moby-Dick in almost the same way I see Carson seeking her brother and by proxy the mourning impulse in Nox, in almost the same way I see Sikelianos seeking her father and by proxy herself in The Book of Jon—with that much heart, and that much courage, as if the authors’ lives depended on it. Other works are special to me because I read them at a really ripe time, and I feel like they helped galvanize my desire to try this writing thing in earnest. These are: David Means’s Assorted Fire Events, Michael Martone’s Racing in Place, Lawrence Sutin’s A Postcard Memoir, Albert Goldbarth’s “Delft: An Essay-Poem,” the D’Agata and Shields books I mentioned above, and more. (I’m basically looking at my bookshelf now, at the titles that have survived the first few waves of packing. The Empathy Exams is there—long overdue from the library. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is. Lauren Slater’s Lying. MGF’s Preparing the Ghost. Sylvia Wright’s Get Away from Me with Those Christmas Gifts. Stephen Jay Gould’s Book of Life. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. The Love Letters of Ernst Haeckel. A treatise on the evolution of feathers. A geomorphology textbook…) Then there are all of the brilliant things that I have a hard time finishing because my admiration for them catalyzes me and forces me to get to work myself, things I get so excited and emotional about I can only read them in small, sporadic doses. Dillard and Ackerman leap to mind. Goldbarth again. Then there are the books I feel like I’m supposed to love because they are smart or hip or whatever, but I just really don’t. Love them. For me to persist with a text, cleverness needs to be the means of conveyance, not the substance conveyed. I prefer the writer’s brain to be the helicopter that Life-Flights his or her viscera to me, something to keep the organs viable in the time it takes for them to come alive inside my own skin. When my mind is activated by a piece of text, but my heart is not, or my loins or guts or senses are not—that feels like depression to me and I don’t like it. In order to see a book through, I need to feel more alive reading it than when I reached for it.
Christen: If you could live the rest of your life as any animal, what animal would you want to be?
Karen: Hmmmm. Do I have to have that animal’s life expectancy? Do I get to retain human thoughts and emotions? Do I have to eat what that animal eats? Do I have to engage in that animal’s style of mating, or can I maybe choose something else’s? Clearly I am just too exasperatingly literal to come up with anything other than some gross Frankenstein-stitched hybrid for this. I for sure don’t want to be an armadillo. As a kid I always wanted to be one of the seals that swam around the donut-shaped pool at the zoo. When I was little I thought the seals looked so happy because all I ever wanted to do was swim, myself. I’ve changed my mind about the poor zoo seals. These days I project quite different things onto them. I so admire the vision and appearance and bad-assery of the peacock mantis shrimp, but thinking about its life makes me feel terribly claustrophobic. I’ve always imagined myself as some kind of bird, to be honest. I do love a vista! These are the kinds of polls we take over family meals at our house, by the way. My kids always have a response at the ready and I am unfailingly stumped. “Bird” is not a satisfactory answer. One time I asked everyone what kind of bird they thought I would be. My husband unhesitatingly announced that I’d be a “blue-footed booby.” I’ll tell you the truth, Christen, this stung a little. I mean, come on—a booby!? Really? Boobies are such clowns and so clumsy and so dumbly, overly trusting of humans. (Waaaaait a minute.) I began to wonder if, on top of all the other obvious insults, my husband was criticizing my perennially cold feet, or making some kind of sexist statement about my anatomy or what, in his mind, I bring to the marriage. But then I got to thinking… Not only are boobies fast, dive-bombing flyers, but they’re also quite elegant swimmers. Who wouldn’t want sky and water and land, even if it meant you were a little goofy on the latter? Plus, boobies are formidable hunters. I’d miss fruit, but otherwise I’m cool with the seafood diet. And blue is my favorite color. Heck, a single Youtube video convinced me in fewer than three minutes that I’m already powerless to resist the slow, high, hot-potato-stepping of a male booby’s mating dance. Have you seen it? The webby blue foot displays? The beaky stare interrupted by the sudden backward neck thrusting? The wings lifted and arced like a invitation into a lover’s warm jacket? Dear heavens. In my mind, the smuttiest of Portishead songs plays. And lastly, as my husband pointed out, possibly to save his ass when he saw my eyes had gone ferociously narrow, blue-footed boobies are really cute. Of course cuteness only contributes to the overall clownishness. Damnit. The biggest problem with me and boobies is that I’m really more of a solitary bird. In the end, I think I’d just like to be a taller human. With 20/20 vision. And a room of my own. And a wetsuit. And plenty of blue toenail polish. (You don’t think some nine-year-old will google “boobies” and find this interview, do you? Shit.)
Christen: If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?
Karen: Can you imagine a superhero with imposter syndrome? I could spin off on that disaster all the livelong. Instead, I’ll just cut to the chase for once and tell you that I’m fresh off a My Brightest Diamond concert. Shara Worden did a skin-melting cover of “Fever,” Peggy Lee-style, at the end. I wish I could do that. I wish I could sing. And play guitar like a super badass. And leave the crowd desperate for more. My most desired superpower is definitely musical talent. That’s a superpower, it is. What a lovely way to burn. Forsooth. Oh, forsooth.