Interviewed by Kathleen Rohde
KR: How does the theme of nature push you forward as a writer?
GK: The easy answer to that question is this: nature pushes me forward as a person. Since I was a young girl, where I grew up in the flatlands of the Midwest, I have been awestruck by mountains and rivers and oceans, by all sorts of flora and fauna, by everything natural from big skies to tiny seashells. Nature, in all its power and glory, triggers emotion for me, and emotion triggers creative thought and deeper understanding.
In literature, I’m particularly drawn to the way nature influences character. One of my favorite examples is Ivan Doig’s short story, “Winter of ’19.”As the story opens, Angus is portrayed as a sensible (if stubborn) and generally likeable family man who is now facing a brutal snowstorm. His sheep are freezing and starving, and he must embark on a dangerous journey with his brother-in-law, a man with whom he’s shared a conflicted past, to purchase more feed. In the bowels of the storm, with visibility reduced to near-zero and survival seeming unlikely, Angus imagines his brother-in-law vanishing. “The poisoned time that had come between us […] would at last be ended.” It’s the natural landscape that permits, or even forces, Angus to acknowledge his darker, shadow self, which ultimately is what made him such a compelling character.
It took me several drafts of my essay, “Crossing Glaciers,” to achieve that level of self-understanding, wherein I ultimately concluded the glacier evoked, for me, an uncomfortable medley of melancholy, honesty, and vulnerability.
KR: What are the benefits you get from writing nonfiction?
GK: Writing nonfiction forces me to be more mindful. It’s easy to bumble along day-by-day, not paying much attention to the meaning of it all. But the truth is we all have stories cluttering our minds that are just waiting to be dusted off and examined, and when I sit down to write about an experience, that’s exactly what I feel like I’m doing: wiping off all those sticky cobwebs to get to the artifact. And more likely than not this act involves a new discovery for me, the same as when I used to explore the dusty old attic of my childhood home, where I’d find old relics of books and trinkets from the Great Depression. In writing the stories of my life, the discoveries are usually glimmers of something I had glossed over when I was in the heat of the initial moment that now, much later, reveal more about the characters–the real people–in my life than I’d ever anticipated.
KR: How do you prepare to write about the positives and negatives of paradise? What’s your whole writing process?
GK: That’s an interesting combination of questions.
Of course, in my essay, “Crossing Glaciers,” I was writing about a place that’s literally called Paradise, which certainly has positives and negatives. I think true paradise is a place that can only be imagined, and in my mind that place would only have favorable characteristics.
As for writing about paradise–whatever that really means–I think the preparation is the same whether I’m writing about a real or an imagined place. If I’m writing nonfiction, I start with the memory of an experience and let it unfold however it chooses to, trying to recall not only the characters and the conflict and their actions but also the setting. I let my initial emotions take control of my fingers and let the words fly. If it’s fiction, I usually have an imagined half-scene that gets me started. Either way, I don’t start with a sense of positives or negatives; I just allow my mind–my right brain–the freedom to go whatever direction it needs to, which invariably will be skewed one way or the other.
Then, in revision, I open up the left side of my brain and begin to ask myself questions. Was that how it really happened? Were those the only emotions? Is the description clear to an objective reader, or is there a better way to say it? I look at credibility (because fact and credibility are not necessarily the same). And, perhaps most importantly, I ask myself: what’s the point of it all? It’s during the revision process that the positives and negatives of any character or place or experience become clearer and, if appropriate, more balanced or nuanced. And of course I often rely on my writer friends to help me ferret out what it is I’ve been trying to say all along.
KR: How does a glacier compare to writing?
GK: That’s funny. To quote from my essay, glaciers “surge forward, they retreat…they flow smoothly but crack suddenly….they can be slippery and full of surprises. They can easily throw us off balance.”
I think that pretty much sums it up.
KR: Many say nature is therapeutic, but you also teach a therapeutic writing workshop, how is writing therapeutic to you?
GK: I don’t write for catharsis per se, but writing is therapeutic for me in three key ways. First and foremost–and this is true whether I’m writing nonfiction or fiction–it helps me understand the world I live in, which is what good therapy does as well. Second, when I’m in the writing zone, I can block out all the normal irritants and stresses of life. And, finally, writing allows me to be someone else when I’m inside another character–even if it’s just a former version of me–which means I get a break from my present, everyday perspective and can have good fun imagining, remembering, and pretending. I guess it’s like play therapy for my shadow self.
KR: How does your family influence your writing?
GK: My husband and kids support my efforts immensely. They’ve bought me craft books, written inspiring little notes about my work, and granted me a great deal of time and space to write. And they’re smart: they don’t offer critique or advice unless I request it from them, which is almost never.
They also periodically show up in my fiction with a physical feature, a personality trait, or even a life experience. I’ve even had my characters quote them now and then. And of course they show up in my nonfiction all the time. They just don’t know it yet because much of my nonfiction is still unpublished.
You can read Gail’s piece “Crossing Glaciers” here. Gail has also recently published an article in New York Times about her time on a Heavy Metal cruise with her son.