I believe very strongly in the importance of literary community and literary citizenship; that belief is one of the reasons I run these interviews. So I’m especially thrilled to share the words and work of Chrissy Kolaya today, a woman who knows what it is to support other writers. Give her a bit of your support by reading her words and checking our her publications, if you would please.
I’m working on two projects right now. One is a book of poems called We Didn’t Come to Have a Good Time, We Came to See You, which I’m revising and sending around to publishers. The opening section explores the effect of the narrative technique of foreknowledge on a series of poems, so it asks readers to think about what a love story looks like when we know in advance that it’s going to fail.
The second is a novel project I’m finishing up called The Second Voyage of Audley Worthington. It’s a literary novel about a Victorian-era naturalist and cryptozoology (the study of mythical or legendary animals) that borrows techniques from genre fiction, especially mystery and 19th Century adventure fiction.
My book of poems, Any Anxious Body came out in the spring of last year with a fantastic small publisher called Broadstone Books. My first novel, Charmed Particles, is due out in Spring 2016 with Dzanc Books, an independent press I’ve long admired and am so excited to be working with!
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
They were so important! I devoured books as a kid. On weekends, my poor parents had to force me to “Put down that book and go get some fresh air!” Books were how I learned about the world. Especially important to me was a book discussion group I was part of in junior high, led by our public library’s children’s librarian, where I felt for the first time connected to other kids who were as in love with books and reading as I was. It was one of those first “oh, these are my people!” moments that are so important throughout a life.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
My writing routine isn’t much of a routine as such. At this time of my life, I’m in one of those “catch a few minutes when you can” periods of writing. I try to pay careful attention to the type of energy I have when those moments come along and then work on what feels right at the moment, which may be writing something new, revising something in progress, or attending to the many “business of writing” tasks that accrue.
4. Who are you reading now?
A cool book about literary citizenship called The Write Crowd by Lori A. May. Also T. H. Huxley’s Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake and the Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake by John MacGillivray, both of which I’m reading for research on The Second Voyage of Audley Worthington project.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
- I suppose I’m fudging a bit here on numbers, but L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon series. She wrote such strong women. I admired them. For a long time, I thought of these books as a kind of guilty pleasure, but I was excited, at this year’s MLA (Modern Language Association) Conference, to see that there are now scholars doing academic work on Montgomery.
- I’m in love with Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell series, and am eagerly awaiting the release of the next one. Her sentence-level prose in those books is just gorgeous, and then she somehow manages to get readers anxiously turning pages on a story whose outcome we already know! How does she do this? It’s incredible!
- I also love David Mitchell’s work, especially Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Cloud Atlas is such an ambitious experiment in trying on and playing with the conventions of other genres, and I love de Zoet for how seamlessly Mitchell works his research into the narrative.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
This is such a good question, and something writers are always struggling to get right. I think some days you’re going to have energy to do one, and other days you’ll have energy to do the other. For me, it makes sense to do whatever kind of work I have the energy for at that moment. Practically, though, this often means that during the academic year, I get more “business of writing” work done, and during the summer, I have more time to focus on my writing projects in a sustained way.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
This is kind of a tricky question to answer because for me, it differs depending on whether it’s a teaching day or not. My husband and I both teach at a university, and we have a fantastic department that schedules us to teach on opposite days, so whoever’s not teaching usually handles the child management duties. But, typically, I’m woken up by my children, who are early risers (much to my dismay). Whoever’s on kid duty that day gets them breakfast, packs lunches, gets them off to school, and walks the dog. If it’s a teaching day, I head to campus to teach. Most of my non-teaching days are a mix of grading, writing, class prep, student meetings, and that business of writing stuff. After school, again, whichever one of us is on kid duty, picks up the boys, walks the dog again, gives the kids a snack and makes sure their homework gets done. Then, we’re usually off to one of the boys’ extracurricular activities. Ideally, I get some time at the gym somewhere in here, though I’m often multi-tasking, so doing something utterly ridiculous like grading papers while pedaling on a stationary bike. Then dinner, baths for the kids, corralling them into bed. We read a lot (as my boys are getting older, that’s often the only way I can trick them into snuggling with me!). Then my husband and I have some down time. He’s a writer and literature professor, and I’d like to say that we spend this time talking to each other about our writing and important, high-minded literary topics, but it’s more likely the case that we collapse into bed and watch an hour of some television series we’re binge-watching on Netflix before falling asleep. Lather, rinse, repeat.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
Somewhere uncluttered, comfortable, and without distractions. That’s ideal, but these days, I’m not picky—any old place or moment will do!
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
I guess this isn’t a critique exactly, but the process of searching for an agent, and then later, searching for a publisher for my first novel was really difficult. As you’re doing it, you’re getting feedback on your writing from so many different readers. Emotionally, it’s hard to feel like you’re getting really close to accomplishing this goal of seeing your book into print and then to have it not pan out. I guess the lesson that comes out of this for me and for other writers is that while this is a tough period, full of frustrating near-misses, all you can do is keep your head down, make the best work you can, and do your best to move the ball forward.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
Be tenacious and be kind. I wrote about this in detail for a piece I did for the book blog Sophisticated Dorkiness:
Regarding tenacity, I like to share with my students the story of my most well-published story, one that Crazyhorse picked up and that made its way from there into an anthology called New Sudden Fiction. That story, though it eventually found two fantastic homes that brought it to the attention of more readers than I ever imagined, was rejected 15 times. I share this with students not to discourage them, but to give them an idea of the kind of tough skin you have to develop as a writer sending your work out into the world.
Regarding kindness, novelist Sandra Benitez once gave me and a group of writers some fantastically simple advice—just be a nice person. It’s pretty good advice for life in general, but especially in a field that can be so full of frustration and heartbreak. A few semesters ago, I taught from an outstanding Lance Olson book called Architectures of Possibility, and in it, he reminds us that just as important as the work we make is the work we support as, what he calls, ‘literary activists.’ I love this idea of being aware of the many small ways we can support one another, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve been bowled over by the kindness and generosity of other writers.
Chrissy Kolaya is a poet, fiction writer, and one of the co-founders of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival. Her first book of poems, Any Anxious Body, was published in spring 2014 by Broadstone Books. Her first novel is due out in Spring 2016 with Dzanc Books. You can learn more at www.chrissykolaya.com.