Friday, November 21, 2008

Conversation between Kate and Annie

My spouse/wife/partner/soul mate Annie interviewed me for the Orchard Valley Review:

AN INTERVIEW WITH KATE EVANS by Annie Tobin

Kate Evans is a faculty member in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Jose State. Kate’s stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared in more than 50 literary magazines and anthologies such as the North American Review, Santa Monica Review, Seattle Review, Cream City Review, and ZYZZYVA. Her novel For the May Queen was published in September by Vanilla Heart Publishing of Seattle who will also be releasing her second novel, Complimentary Colors, in Summer 2009. Her previous books include a collection of poems (Like All We Love, Q Press) and a book about lesbian and gay teachers (Negotiating the Self, Routledge).

In 1991 she received an M.A. in English Literature from SJSU. She then went to Yokohama , Japan, where she taught English for a year. When she returned to the Bay Area, she took a poetry class at SJSU from the poet Virginia de Araujo—a class I was also taking. That is where we met, and we’ve been together now for 15 years. During that time, we’ve lived in Santa Cruz and Seattle (where Kate received her Ph.D. in Educational Philosophy at the University of Washington). We now live in San Jose. I’m currently working on my MFA in Poetry and Creative Nonfiction while also teaching Art at Gilroy High School. Kate and I recently married on a boat off the coast of Santa Cruz. When it was suggested I interview Kate it seemed like an interesting angle—being an insider and all.

Annie: How has graduating from San Jose State’s MFA program affected your career as a writer?

Kate: Applying to the program was a great way to signal to myself and others that I was making a commitment to writing. When I decided to apply for the MFA, I was teaching at San Jose State but in a different department, in Education. I was feeling restless, feeling like I wasn’t really doing what I wanted to do in my life. So when I decided to go for it and do the MFA—you were there, you remember because you’re the one who suggested it!—when I made that decision I knew I was veering my life in a new direction, toward what I truly wanted to do. I’d been writing my whole life, starting as a kid. But I’d never fully focused my life on it. So deciding to leave my full-time job and return to part-time teaching while doing the MFA was a huge life decision. That was more than, what—six, seven?—years ago, and I’ve never looked back. So graduating from the MFA has affected my career as a writer by allowing me to devote myself to writing, to say I am a writer, and to truly be one.

How does teaching at San Jose State influence your writing?

I have less time to write! You know how time-consuming teaching is.

And how much energy it takes.

True. After a full day of teaching it’s hard to even think sometimes. And for you, even more so since you teach high school. I don’t know how you do the teenagers thing.

I guess I never grew up myself.

No comment. (We laugh.) But of course there are advantages to teaching English. I’m surrounded by colleagues and students who value the arts. In preparing to teach, in teaching and in reflecting on my teaching, I’m always learning new things about writing and literature. There are so many great literary events happening on campus that I learn from and that keep me fired up.

Why do you write in so many different genres—fiction, non-fiction, poetry? Are you drawn to one genre more than another? Is there a common thread that runs through all of them?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve written stories, poems and essays. Each genre has its own power. I like to read writers like May Sarton, Margaret Atwood, Mark Doty, etcetera who write in multiple genres. I like to see how they treat their obsessions from different directions.
That’s one thing, by the way, that I like about San Jose State’s MFA program is the requirement to focus on two genres. If I could have, I would have done three. When I came out of the program I’d completed a story collection and a poetry collection. Do you like being forced to focus on two genres in the program, Annie?

Actually, yes. I think poetry and memoir are related—at least for me. The autobiographical component of both appeals to me. Sometimes only a poem takes me deep enough to express certain things; I guess that’s why poetry is my primary genre. What inspired you to write your latest release For the May Queen, a novel about a 17-year-old woman’s first year away from home, living in the dorms?

Everyone leaves home at some time and has to make decisions about how to live life away from their family. That’s a meaty topic, filled with lots of built-in personal and social conflict. Also, I’d been wanting to write about the world of the dorms for quite some time. I think it’s a unique culture. It doesn’t hurt that in the dorms there are a lot of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Although people don’t have to live in dorms to experience that life.

Right. You have three projects: your novel Complementary Colors, a memoir about care giving, and a historical novel. Do you normally work on so many projects at once? How do you keep focus on each?

Generally I focus on one project at a time. Complementary Colors is the second novel I wrote. I was working on it while finding an agent to represent my story collection (which was my MFA thesis) and my first novel, For the May Queen. After finishing the second novel, I began on the historical novel. I was in the middle of doing a lot of research and some writing on it when my dad died. As you know, he was sick for a really long time, and we’d been hoping my mom would have a new lease on life once she was released from all the caregiving she did for him. Well, just weeks after he died, she had a series of accidents that led to months in the hospital followed by an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. As you well know, this was on the heels of your mother’s long illness and all the caregiving you gave her.

So I’d been thinking a lot about mortality and caregiving and modern medicine and families—and in fact, a lot of the poetry I’d been writing had focused on these issues. After all that happened, I had a hard time going back to the historical novel. I found myself beginning to write about my dad, my mom, you and your mom—all of us. I wasn’t sure what I what I was writing, I was just writing. Soon, though, it became clear I was writing a book. That was the memoir. Now I’m back to the historical novel.

What compels you to write? What, for you, are the hardest things to write about?

Life compels me to write. I’ve always been compelled to write, ever since I was a kid. So it’s kind of a mystery to me, actually. I do think it’s connected to reading. My mom used to read with me every night before bed. I felt extra alive then. Perhaps I’m always trying to achieve that feeling as a writer.

The hardest things to write about? Perhaps things that are pure imagination and not so much rooted in my experience. Then I have to find the emotional connection and the voice so that the story will take off.

Do you have people read your work as you write, or do you wait until a project is complete? What would you say are the benefits to either approach?

You are my number one reader. Whether you like it or not. (We both laugh.) I know I am for you too, so I know we’re lucky in that way.

It’s good to have another writer living with you. A lot of our relationship is built on our love for literature, writing, the arts.

And dogs. . . . I began writing For the May Queen in a writing workshop headed by the Santa Cruz poet Ellen Bass. I’d come each week and read a chapter aloud and was spurred on by the group’s feedback, and especially their laughter. I enjoyed writing each chapter with them as an audience in mind. I also read each chapter to you as I wrote it.

I had something to look forward to every couple of weeks. Kind of like you were serializing the book.

Exactly. That was fun. However, I didn’t want too much critique too early on. I just wanted to hear what you liked and what questions the chapters raised. It wasn’t until I’d finished the first draft that I asked for full-on critique from several people, including you. For me, too much criticism too soon can stunt my progress.

Which authors do you read? Is your writing influenced by other writers?

I’m an eclectic reader. And definitely, my writing is influenced by everything I read. I’m always reading on two levels: for the power or enjoyment of the piece, as well as for an awareness of the writer’s craft. All writers are my teachers. I read poetry, stories, novels, memoir. I have a huge list of writers I admire, including Emily Dickinson, Jeffrey Eugenedies, Virginia Woolf, Isabelle Allende, Marilyn Hacker, Toni Morrison, Monique Troung … I could go on and on.

What are some of the things you do to improve on your craft? Do you attend conferences? Take workshops? What works best for you to improve how and what you write?

Mainly I read a lot. And write a lot. Those, to me, are the best ways to improve as a writer. As I mentioned previously, I was in a workshop with Ellen Bass for a few months. Since I finished the MFA, I’ve taken a few weekend courses and attended the Foothill Writers Conference. I also teach and present at writers conferences. I’m not sure these are the best ways to learn to write. Your time might be better served just reading and writing. They are great ways, though, to meet other writers.

What do you look for in a prospective publisher? How did you get a publisher?

I look for someone who likes my writing! I got my publisher when I saw a book they’d published, didn’t recognize their name, and looked them up. I saw they were accepting manuscripts and that they specifically liked coming-of-age stories. It turned out to be a good match.

What were your best and worst experiences with an editor? What is the role of the editor?

One of the best was when one of my stories was accepted into the Bellevue Literary Review. The editor made some suggestions that were small and elegant, and they helped the story shine. Another good experience was recently when something happened to me that had never happened before. The editor of ZYZZYVA, Howard Junker, had read on my blog that I was working on my memoir, and he emailed me asking to see it. I sent him the manuscript, and he pulled out two sections to put in the next issue.

A bad experience I had was when my agent was sending out For the May Queen to some of the big publishers. An editor wanted the book. She’d told my agent she loved it. She took it to her group, and she was shot down. The decisions for what gets published at the New York houses are made by committees of editors and PR people. One of their concerns was that the novel was a cross-over between an adult novel and a young adult novel. Soon after, Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Prep was published to rave reviews. It was on the New York Times bestseller list. And it was considered a cross-over sensation between, yes, an adult novel and a young adult novel. In fact, it’s shelved in both areas in most bookstores and libraries. It was disheartening to have my novel rejected for what turned out to be a strength.

I witnessed that whole process firsthand. How do you not get discouraged when things like that happen?

I do get discouraged, but I try not to let that feeling overwhelm me. The best way to do that is to keep writing.

What, from your perspective, are some of the most common mistakes first-time authors make when starting out in the business?

Perhaps focusing too much on the business and not enough on the art. Perhaps forgetting what they love about writing in the first place. Listening too much to what other people say they “should” do and should write as opposed to following their hearts.

What do you think are some of the most effective things an author can do to advertise her or himself?

An online presence is always a good thing: a blog, Facebook, MySpace, all that stuff that can bring you free PR. An excellent site for connecting to other readers and writers is Goodreads. Because of my online presence, I’ve had a number of requests for print and radio interviews. Of course the problem is all of this can suck time and energy that could otherwise be used for writing.

Right, which is why we’ve unplugged the internet at our house.

I’m still having some withdrawals!

How much time do you spend on publicity and marketing? Does this aspect of being a writer hinder or enhance your writing process?

I’ve been spending a lot of time on this stuff lately since my novel just came out. I just got back from five days in Atlanta where I was featured at a literary festival, and I have about ten readings and other events scheduled over the next couple of months. It’s fun to an extent but it’s also absolutely time consuming and has kept me away from writing. I just keep realizing that the marketing intensity is high now because the novel was just released and that things will calm down soon.

Lastly, what’s your favorite thing about being a writer? And what do you totally hate?

I love the solitude of writing, the way I can lose myself in a world of my making. What I hate about it is that at times it can be really hard. Sometimes just pushing the words out is hard. I crave those days, which don’t happen as often as I’d like, when writing is complete fun and flow. At those times I feel that writing is the most difficult thing I’ve ever loved—other than you. Ha!
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