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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Kennedy Foster Interview

The Novel Road Interview: Kennedy Foster

All Roads Lead Me Back to You

  Times change, in both date and circumstance. Certain genres are held as emblematic of society or culture and weather with the ages, yet remain a vital link to who we are and in some cases, why we will forever be.

  The American Western is an icon. Those that are talented enough to place an entry into its ranks know, and dream of, the open sky and vast prairie. They know the land.

  Barbed wire is no stranger, just as a horse’s nudge is that of a friend. Ranch and farm life is what drives and reveals them. I know many of them, and have yet to find one without callused hands or twinkle in the eyes.

  My guest today, Kennedy Foster, is a person that knows the land. Her offering, the novel, “All Roads Lead Back To You” is well suited to take its place with the great Western works. It shows a page turned, to that of the modern ranch, and retains the sinews of its Western heritage nobly. It reminds us too, that the Western isn’t solely the purview of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The Great Northwest is as Western as they come, you just get to add four or five feet of snow to the formula.

    "This book will stick with you as you think about all the challenges and changes of contemporary cowboy life, like immigrant issues, pest control, inheritance, breeding practices, water rights, lifestyle choices and the unending labor. Its mild romantic subplot will thrill western lovers. A good book club selection, it includes a readers' guide. " --Romantic Times (4 1/2 Stars)

How about a little background?

    Kennedy Foster was born in Detroit in 1944 and raised in the Army.  Her father was a career officer, so she ‘followed the gun’ to Germany, to Virginia, to California, to Washington DC, to Kansas, to Alaska, back to Kansas, to Pennsylvania, back to DC, and back to Germany.  She attended six elementary schools, three high schools, and two colleges, finishing her BA at Grinnell College in 1966.  She wrote poetry and short stories, which were published in school literary magazines and made her mother proud but did not otherwise attract attention.
  She married a Grinnell professor, who turned out to be the right stuff.  Because academics were extremely peripatetic in those years, the family traveled a lot, from Iowa (where her sons John and James were born), to California, to Maryland, and finally to southeastern Washington state.  During this period, she “rode a lot of borrowed horses, and wrote in borrowed styles,” having developed a transient’s habit of re-inventing herself in each new place. 
  In the Northwest she struck root, a delightful sensation.  She gave up fiction, took writing jobs of various kinds, grants, financial development boilerplate, newsletters.  At 45, she discovered a vocation to teach. She has taught English as a second language, basic writing, and basic college skills at Walla Walla Community College since 1988.
  About the writing of her first novel, she says, “We had a sabbatical in Scotland, up in the north, Aberdeenshire.  Six months in a bed-sit, freezing blast off the North Sea, dawn at nine, dark at three, no job, no acquaintance, and my life’s companion in the library from breakfast to teatime. So I had to write the book.  I felt like the dog in the Faulkner story who knew if she were going to keep on calling herself a hound, she would have to tackle the bear.”
  Kennedy Foster lives in Walla Walla with her husband Edward, an indeterminate number of cats, and not nearly enough horses.

 I'm honored to introduce you to, author Kennedy Foster: 

Me: Give me a two-sentence “hook” describing “All Roads Lead Me Back to You”.

Kennedy: Okay.  It’s a story set in the ranching country of Washington state,   about two people from opposed cultures who instinctively recognize each other’s quality and eventually, through shared work, come to value, support, and love each other.  It’s also about the work itself.  How’s that?

Me: Contemporary Northwest Fiction?  I have to complain about this choice of description on your website.  To my mind, you have written one of the better Westerns (Modern) in recent memory. The level of attachment to your details, as well as their factual base, makes this a remarkable debut novel. Talk about your research.

Kennedy: Well, research. It’s looking and listening, and remembering.  For regional writing, the material is all around us.  You can’t be obvious about collecting, though; if you go around with a notebook and pen at the ready, people around here will think you’re working for the brand inspector or the water-master, they’ll clam up.  Anyway, you’d accumulate too much stuff; it’s what sticks, what resonates that you want:  certain revealing gestures, looks, turns of phrase that twang in your mind.  Numbers, you can always get off the internet, and I suppose every writer cherishes his/her posse of experts for questions like, “Should Standfast invest in a calf-table instead of hiring round-up help?” (To which the answer was, “Not for fewer than seventy animals.”)


Me: You wrote a Western in Scotland.  Your sabbatical took you far from home and  inspired you to write All Roads Lead Me Back To You". Did your trip give you a unique clarity or helpful distance from your subject?

Kennedy: Not as far as you might think. Like everywhere in the USA, Walla Walla is a melting-pot (at one time there were, I think, nineteen nations represented, everybody from Finns to Fijians, all with their own social halls, newspapers, and burial societies), but the bass-note is Scots-Irish-Welsh.  So to go and live among Celts was to return to the source of that practical ingenuity, extreme physical hardiness, and crazy optimism that signalized our pioneers.  And they’re still around, a type of guy (male and female) who will stop and help you change your blown tire in the snow and jury-rig your broken trailer-hitch and convoy you into town and call you ma’am the whole time. And he/she will do it for anybody, even one suspected of being an illegal alien, or a liberal. And so, my first extended stay in Scotland kind of opened my eyes: “Oh, so that’s where that comes from.” Yes:  optimism, cheerfulness.  It goes against the stereotype, doesn’t it? But in my (admittedly limited) experience, Scots are mostly only grim when the English are stealing their real estate.  It’s the weather that’s dour.

Me: The level of “mind’s eye” detail in your writing is extraordinary.  The reader can quite literally feel Alice walking out into the dark and snow on the very first page.  How do you decide on the level of detail to include?

Kennedy: That’s an acute question:  the level.  Obviously, there are the extremes.  Too little and, the reader thinks, “Where the hell are we and what’s going on?” Too much, and he/she yells, “Awright, awready!  Get on with it!” But in between—hmm. 

  First, you wouldn’t want to state your theme, your deep purpose in writing, baldly and straight-out, because then you’d have a polemic, not a novel.  So instead you need to include observations that point the reader in the right direction.  For example, if you think that work is the saving of the world, then you might demonstrate with a lot of small details the good effect of steady work or a certain kind of work on one character and the bad effect of no work or no necessity for work on another.

  Second, in building a character, again you don’t want to come right out and say, “X was a complete stinker.”  That may be your opinion, but the reader would probably rather form his own (one of the delights of reading, after all), and besides it’s too simple to be true; humans aren’t all-one-thing right through, or over time.  But you can kind of “off-shore” your development of a character by letting him interpret details that you would want to put in for narrative purposes anyway.  For instance, if you want to show that your guy who’s seemingly as rough as a cob has a more complex inner life than other characters suppose, you can arrange for his take on an early snow, which is going to be a factor in what happens next, to be kind of meditative or poetic.
  And then it’s the accumulation of such details that gives the character depth and roundness.

  Actually, I think the trick is not to get in the reader’s way.  I don’t want the reader to be conscious of me at all; I want the writing to be transparent; I want the reader to be in the story.  So when, in editing, I come on something that seems to say, “Look how clever I’m being,” I generally take it out.
  "Foster's own experiences as an ESL teacher and resident of the area enhance the authenticity of her debut novel, which is told from both Alice's and Domingo's perspectives with a wealth of descriptive detail and insights into social issues rooted in the realities of immigration, labor, and property law."-Booklist
Me: You get to have lunch with any writer you like, from throughout history or today.  Who would you invite, and why?

Kennedy: And where? In Walla Walla, in New York, in Delhi?  And who’s paying?

  Okay, my two favorite living authors are Jane Smiley and Vikram Seth. 

  Jane Smiley writes the most entertaining domestic essays I’ve ever read.  And among many splendid novels, she’s written the best horse story ever, Horse Heaven.  It’s so crafty, it’s delicious.  There isn’t a weak scene in it, not a line of dialogue that sounds forced or cliché.  I can’t say enough about it; in fact, I can’t say anything else about it except that I wish I’d written it.  Plus, she’s a midwestern girl, my kind, and I’d like to know what she’s doing with her horses right now.

  Vikram Seth wrote A Suitable Boy, which I bought because I’m interested in Indian writing in English.  Then I bought about six more copies and sent them to my nears and dears.  Wow.  First of all, it’s huge, and secondly, it gives you an idea what a truly multicultural society looks like up close.  Though I don’t think that’s the real purpose of the work, just a bonus.  I think A Suitable Boy is about love in its infinite variety, which “age cannot wither nor custom stale.”  It’s just tremendous and I don’t know why it hasn’t been made into a film, unless it’s that a film version could not possibly do it justice.

Me: Tell us about your agent and why you two are a perfect match.

Kennedy: My agent is Janet Reid at FinePrint Literary.  She’s from Bend, Oregon, which is a bit like Walla Walla:  dry-side agriculture, interesting geology, and a lot of whoop-‘em-up history. But she lives in New York now, and I know she misses her horses montones.

  The writer Craig Lesley brought us together. She liked my first book; that’s one thing that makes us a good match. Another is that she’s extremely well-read and very articulate, so if there’s something in a draft that she thinks should be changed, she can say exactly why. This is excellent because, although I don’t object to changing things, even quite major things, I need a rationale.  ‘Cause a reason indicates a direction.

Me: Talk about editing your work.  How did you know when to stop?

Kennedy: I used to think that editing would go from big to small, like in a school essay where first you read for logic and the most persuasive arrangement of ideas, and then for grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  Not at all.  Grammar-spelling-punctuation goes on all the time, every time I read the piece, or any part of it, for any reason, and I read it a lot.  For one thing, when I start work on it each day, I read back what I wrote the two days before.  For another, I think of other stuff to put in, so the right place has to be found and its effect there compared with other possible locations.  For a third, I sometimes sit bolt-upright in the middle of the night thinking, Holy Toledo!  I’ve got So-and-so burgling a house on Monday and getting arrested for it the previous Tuesday!  Or I write a phrase that sounds familiar, check back, and find I’ve used it six times already.

  But that’s easy stuff, really.  It’s when somebody else, like Agent Janet or the editor at Pocket Books, has a problem with something I feel is integral or central or just plain swell that I have to get right down and lay right to, as the pulling-horse people say.  For example, in the first draft of All Roads Lead Me Back to You, I wanted to demonstrate the ceremonious quality of Mexican Spanish, so I translated the tú-form, the informal “you,” as the old English informal “you” which was “thou.” So, for example, Domingo would say in Spanish to Socorro, “Art thou scared, Coco?” Well, Janet and Abby Z at Pocket Books both said, “We get it.  But after a while it gets in the way of the story.”  Which I couldn’t quarrel with, and besides, I realized that it wasn’t a good device because when Spanish-speakers use “tú”, it doesn’t sound odd and archaic to them like “thou” does to us. But it was all through the novel, so fixing it was quite a job. Thank you, Bill Gates, for the Edit function.

  I guess the short answer is that I know to stop editing when the book goes to press.

Me: Tell us about your next novel? When can your fans expect it?

Kennedy: I can say a little bit about it.  It’s about seven-eighths done.  The story follows some of the characters from All Roads and introduces some new ones.  It contains a couple of cameos of real-life people. The horses come through okay.

  Janet hasn’t seen it yet. 

Me: Life-experience in the writing process:  what advice can you give writers on its importance?

Kennedy: Life-experience is the raw clay, but what you make of it is something else.  If it isn’t, you’re writing autobiography. Between actual history on the one hand and self-indulgent wish fulfillment on the other lies the territory where readers trust the writer to know the way. So in matters of fact, you’d better be sure, or make sure; otherwise, you look like a schmoo. 

   But life-experience doesn’t get imported whole into fiction very often, I’m betting; in fact, it’s kind of like a stew, with every spoonful a recombination.  My friend the short-story writer M. M. Liberman told me that he once saw a cashmere overcoat left on a seat in the subway, and then later had an encounter with the Argentine Nobelist Jorge Luis Borges.  The two things happened six or seven years apart, but they came together in his imagination like puzzle pieces as the crux of his wonderful story “Posala’s Coat.” 

   I don’t know what else to say about this except, “Never throw anything away.” I mean experiences, not notes.  Well, notes either, come to think of it.
For example, my sweetheart and I eating Chinese one night last week, a slightly tipsy lady in the next booth declared, “I have this dog Emily.  She’s a Chihuahua. When she was born, the vet gave up on her.  I said, ‘Oh, that dog will live.’ That was three years ago.”  I’m keeping this.  I know it means something, but I don’t know what. I’m waiting for the next piece of the puzzle.

Me: I became quite attached to the tenor of your writing style. What authors have influenced your writing voice? 

Kennedy: Sadly, everybody. The last author I read, always.  I have to guard against this.  In the course of my writing life, I’ve done bad Kipling, bad Faulkner, bad Hemingway, really terrible Katherine Anne Porter, bad David Foster Wallace, most recently bad Patrick O’Brian. A chameleon, and not a very skillful one. ( I even did a spell as Ayn Rand, which brought me out in hives; I think it was the politics more than the prose, though.)  I suppose it comes of traveling around as an Army brat and needing to fit in.  Explanation, not excuse.

  Some voices are so attractive that you just wonder, “How does he do that?” and want to give it a try.  But I emphatically do not want to write like anybody; no writer does.  On the other hand, an extremely individual style calls attention to itself in a way that distracts the reader from the story:  also not good.  There must be a happy medium in there somewhere.

           Interesting questions, Mr Morrison.  Nice talking with you! 
                                          - Kennedy Foster

Walla Walla, Washington

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