Interview by Kathleen Rohde

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Read “All You Really Need is a Light Jacket”

The Interview

KR: How does the animal kingdom inspire you and your writing?

MT: I’ve always been drawn to the animal kingdom. I love learning about different animals, and I stockpile the information that I find most compelling, knowing I might use it in the future. I’ve been known to drag my husband to festivals for pollination. The brochures available at these types of events are a great way to gather lingo. Knowledge like that, so focused, can make a piece of writing informed and poetic. I just read about opossums, commonly misunderstood animals, and learned they cannot carry rabies since their body temperature is too low to support the virus. I like a piece of information such as that, at once boring yet (to me) important, especially since many people don’t think very highly of opossums. I guess you could say I’m most drawn to the animal that have never been favored, though all facts are interesting to me, whether it concerns a kitten or a muskrat. I also find factual information very musical: Squids have three hearts, horseshoe crabs have blue blood. I love that kind of stuff, and am always looking for ways to incorporate it into my writing. It can provide you with a bright image or a really solid metaphor. Even the names of animals are enticing: Nurse shark, pistol shrimp, Weimaraner.

KR: What is your goal with this piece?

MT: In one of the classes I took in college, we had a discussion about recycling. Someone said he didn’t recycle because he didn’t feel like it. He didn’t want to have to think about it. While I admired his honesty, I also kind of wanted to punch him. I don’t expect anyone to finish reading my piece and then sign up for a class on making your own rain barrel, but I would like for people to examine the outside world closely, if they don’t already. We share a lot of similarities with marine iguanas and naked mole rats, amongst others, and I think that is something we can take comfort in.

KR: What did you learn about yourself by writing this piece?

MT: I learned how easily impacted I am by place. I didn’t know anyone when I moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, the city that inspired this piece, so I would just go on mindless walks or drives, paying attention to the details that make a city unique. I liked living in Missouri because it was in the middle of the country; I felt like I could drive anywhere. Some days I would wake up and drive to Omaha, just because I could. It is important for me that I am able to explore. I know that now.

KR: How does organization and style affect your story? A story?

MT: I am so organized I annoy myself. I like to print out my piece and place each page on the floor then stare at if for awhile. This helps me organize it better, since I can see things more clearly this way. I can pick out rhythms and errors. In the beginning stages, though, I have no sense of organization. I write blindly, shirking responsibility, making my job much harder in the end. The writing is stronger this way. It takes a long time, but eventually a piece emerges from the muck of rambling documents I have stored (neatly) away. In school, when we had to write outlines for essays, I wrote the essay first and then the outline, but that’s because I don’t know how to pay attention to structure when an idea first forms in my mind. I am easily distracted, which is a strength and a weakness. While I am always planning my next project, I also have to keep the doors to every room in my apartment closed when I pace around, thinking, or else I wander into them and start doing something else, like organizing my closet.

My background in poetry is clear in my love for white space, images, meditations. I have to hold myself back from over-describing. Purposeful description, my first love. I admire it more than anything else when I read. I’ll never forget a striking image, ever.

KR: How does travel affect your works?

MT: Just as I am drawn to the underdogs of the natural world, I am also most likely to visit landscapes that are unpopular, stereotypically ugly, or perhaps a touch desolate. Every forgotten township, rock quarry, and tundra has something to offer, and I like giving them voices when I write. When I was dwelling in a bit of dry spell, writing-wise, I drove through Oklahoma and just like that I was back writing again. Actually, whenever I get stuck writing, I think about Oklahoma. The landscape is so isolating at times, if forces me to think differently. Really this is all a reaction to my growing up in a small town, on a farm, in the type of place that gets dismissed. That said, I love Osaka and Berlin. I lived in Seoul for a year and savored the drama and gleam that comes with city life. There is nothing like dropping in on a culture different from your own and trying to figure it out: how to open a checking account, where to take an old mattress. Everyone should do it, if possible. For the way I write, it’s non-negotiable. I need to feel at odds with myself every once in awhile so I don’t rewrite the same ideas, again and again. I am in the midst of writing a series of essays based on South Korea. My next destination: Mongolia.

KR: What do you practice when you write?

MT: Patience. That’s number one. I used to lack this, but that’s because I didn’t know what I was doing. It takes a long time to develop your own set of rules of writing, rules that make sense and work for you. In order for me to be most successful, I have to keep several dozen projects going. I don’t fret about finishing them, knowing that I will eventually, or I won’t. Whatever. I know now not to rush or force something that isn’t there. That doesn’t mean I don’t push myself, or try to dig down deep for what I might be hiding, because I do, just not every time I sit down to revise. Simply put, I listen to my gut.

All You Really Need is a Light Jacket

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