Conversations with the Bookless: Kelly Barnhill

Jeff VanderMeer • January 20th, 2008 @ 1:23 pm • Culture, Uncategorized

In support of the short story, and specifically those talented writers who are currently “bookless,” which is to say those writers who are at that stage of their career where a collection or novel is a year or more away, I’m doing a new feature called Conversations with the Bookless, of which this is the latest installment. (See also: Paul Jessup, Rachel Swirsky, Nathan Ballingrud, and [conducted by Rick Klaw] Paul O. Miles, Scott A. Cupp, and Chris Nakashima-Brown) The fact is, if you don’t have a book out, it’s harder to get attention and it’s harder for reader attention to crystalize around you. I hope these interviews introduce readers to some of the great talent that, in the coming years, will be amazingly and bountifully bookful.

Kelly Barnhill is another very gifted but bookless writer whose work is emotive without being sentimental, often Romantic in the best possible way, and populated with believable, fascinating characters. I first became aware of her work when she submitted a stunning story to our pirate anthology and am impressed also with her sense of humor, her curiosity about the world, and her stylistic richness. She was kind enough to submit to a Bookless interview recently via email…

Where are you, right now, as you’re writing these answers?
In the attic. In the dark. I don’t always write in the attic. Thanks to the technological miracle that is my laptop, I write most often in the kitchen, somewhere between making breakfast for the children, and lunch, and dinner, and baking bread, and sweets and other momish-type tasks. Besides that, I move restlessly around the house, writing on the couch, at the dining room table, in the children’s room, in my bed during a rather nasty bout of pneumonia this fall, and, when the demands of motherhood refuse to allow me one second to finish my sentence, I go to the only room in the house that has a door that locks–the bathroom. But right now, I am at my desk, which is in the attic, which affords me a view of the winter sun coming up orange and raging over the far off tops of the empty trees. There is something satisfying about writing in the highest room in the house, as though, if I needed to, I could fly away and be back before anyone noticed.

What do you like most about short fiction?
Primarily, I am attracted to the intensity of it – both as a reader and as a writer. Short fiction is more kin to poetry than novels, and since I came to writing as a poet, the short form seems a more natural place for me.

Also, I like short fiction because it reminds me of the malleability of the written word. When I sit down to re-read a story, I am a different person then when I read it the first time (or the second, third, etc.), and therefore the story itself is different too. This, of course, is true of all literature–when I read “Beauty crowds me ‘til I die”, it means something different to me than to, well, you, for example. The work is only partially itself, and the rest is a function of memory and imagination in the reader. We know this, of course, but it’s easy to forget–especially in the long form, simply because we tend to have longer periods of time in between readings, and, quite like Mr. Pan, we are rather forgetful creatures in the end. But a short story can be read and reread in succession, and each time the experience is different. And we remember.

I had an experience teaching Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” to my seventh graders, back when I was a classroom teacher. This was the first time when I realized that the prose itself was only a fraction of the reader’s experience. Each of those kids remembered details–and I mean specific, sensual, concrete details–that were nowhere in the text. And yet they could have sworn that line was in there somewhere! Some of them even quoted nonexistent quotes. What that told me is that I had a classroom full of thirty two “All Summer in a Day’s”. That experience happened before I returned to the daily practice of writing, but I think of it every time I sit down at the page–that I’m engaging in something that has the ability to exist in multitudes. That in the end, all literature is experiential, and all experience is personal.

What do you most value in the fiction you love?
Language, language, language. I am not a visual reader or thinker at all. My sensibilities are entirely aural. I like the weight and texture of words, both in the ear and in the mouth. I like to feel as though the writer is whispering in the dark, their lips close to my skin. I like fiction with an insistent voice, if you understand me: I like a voice that I cannot shake.

But mostly, I value the fact that the writers I love show me how to be better at what I do. Some writers take their readers by the hand and lead them blindly where the writer wants them to go. Others seem to whisper to the reader: Psst! Over here! See what I’m doing here? Ain’t it cool? There was period in my life when I thought that I would be done with writing forever. In many ways I was. Then, shortly after my middle child was born, I read Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich. Immediately after finishing, I read it again. I felt like Ms. Erdrich was trying to tell me something–that there was something just beyond the film of the page that I could grasp if only I knew how. After reading it for the third time, I woke up early the next morning when it was still dark. I had no idea what I was doing–just wandering around my quiet house, bumping up against the counter, feeling the grit of my un-swept floor under my feet. Finally, I picked up a pen, and on the back of an envelope, I wrote this: “When I was nine years old, I watched a green girl step across the sand into the water. She raised her chin to the darkening sky and sang a song that I did not know. She laid her green hands upon the waves, and, with a sigh, transformed herself into a fish. I watched her slip under the surface, give one last, shrugging splash, and swim away.” I never used it for anything, but I’ve written every day since, so in that way, the line was useful.

You are bookless in the adult fiction world, but you have just finished work on some books. Can you tell me more about them? What did you learn from doing them?
I have been writing science books for fourth graders for a small schools-and-libraries operation not too far away. They are short, high-interest, and heavy on the oh-cool, or eww-gross factors. They are challenging to write in that they need to be heavily researched, they need to fall under strict guidelines of graded readability (which means: limited vocabulary choices; no sentences over twenty words; average sentence length at twelve words) and they need to be funny. Fortunately for me, since I am that mom (you know, that mom) whose back yard is lousy with neighborhood kids because my cookies are vastly superior to all other moms in the neighborhood, I’ve learned quite a bit about what goes on in the heads of the under eleven set, and they, in turn, think I’m freakin’ hilarious.

But mostly, for me, these books have been an extremely helpful writing exercise. They’re like nonfiction haiku. I have learned to be ruthlessly economical with my language, highly visual and utterly willing to see the humor in everything. Like ghost lizards. And invisible squid. And the yearly volume of, well you know, in the Parisian sewer system. And what have you.

Where can we read your fiction online right now, and where is work forthcoming? (online or off)
I have an inter-genre piece that is appearing in the final print issue of Fantasy Magazine called “The Confessions of Prince Charming” and a short story that will appear on Fantasy’s web magazine in January called “Notes on the Untimely Death of Ronia Drake”. My story, “The Stone Hearted Queen”, will appear in Weird Tales (can I tell you how good it makes me feel to write that?). In my non-genre body of work, “In Broad Daylight” was published by The Rake , and “That Night” appeared on Stone Writings in June. Also, my poems, “Poem for those two guys I saw having sex under a tree in south Minneapolis”, “What it’s like to run naked” and “Don’t Marry a Man Before You Try Him”, are all on Minnesota artists. Additionally, I’ve published memoiry-type essays in The Sun and Common Ties. Currently, I’ve got nine stories out on submission, so I, of course, obsessively check my email and mailbox. I feel like Myrtle McCree (who makes her own clothes) waiting for Biff Huggins (captain of the football team) to ask her to the prom. Poor Myrtle.

How do you plan to rectify your booklessness?
Well, we’ll see. I just finished a young adult novel that I’m mostly pretty happy with, so we’ll see if anyone else is too. It’s funny, I keep thinking I’m done, but before I can send it anywhere, forty-two glaring errors appear out of nowhere and prevent me from doing so. I’m starting to think there are word elves living in my computer (and printer, and paper, and notebooks) that muck things up when I’m not looking. Also, I’ve been working on a piece that takes place on the north shore of Lake Superior called “November Come Screaming”, that I originally thought would be a short story, it seems to have plans of its own. So I’ll play along until I can pin down its true intentions. In addition to that, there is another novel that I started and finished before I had the talent or the skills to do either. But the characters still haunt my dreams, so I may have to rewrite the darn thing to see if it’s worth keeping around.

One Response to “Conversations with the Bookless: Kelly Barnhill”

  1. sefinew birhan says:

    Awonderfull mam and gifted,You know why gifted?look you can write /say what you feel and what you look.

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