Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Q&A with writer Kelly Cherry

Kelly Cherry's most recent book is a story collection, A Kind of Dream. Her many other books include My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers, Augusta Played, The Society of Friends, and We Can Still Be Friends. She has served as Poet Laureate of Virginia, and is the Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives in Virginia.

Q: A Kind of Dream is the third in a trilogy. Did you know when you started writing about your character Nina that you'd write more books about her and her friends and family?

A: I didn't, Deborah. I wrote the second book because many readers did not understand that Tavy, the child Nina adopts, was meant to be "the child within" Nina. ("The child within" was a common notion and phrase in the eighties and nineties.) Since everyone thought she was real, I decided to proceed as if she were. Next thing I knew, she had a daughter herself.

Q: Did your feelings about these characters change as you wrote about them over a period of many years?

A: Yes and no. I wanted to treat all the characters with respect and--clarity. Each has his or her ambitions, likes and dislikes, problems, ways of expressing himself or herself. Each is, I trust, distinct. If my feelings about them changed, it was because they changed--they grew up, they learned, they experienced, they traveled, they faced death. It was not easy to let them go. For a little while I thought about continuing the stories with Callie's life and BB's new child, but it really was time to let them go.  

Q: Why did you choose to write A Kind of Dream as linked stories rather than as a novel?

A: Linked stories allow the writer to focus on the characters and themes and dismiss transitions. The writer Joyce Cary, who wrote two trilogies of novels, used to write his scenes for each book and put them in manila envelopes; then he'd go back and stick in the transitions. It's also the case that linked stories offer a simple way to show various points of view, which can get quite complicated within a single novel.

Q: You've written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Do you have a preference?

A: I love them all! They offer different satisfactions. Fiction can take a writer way, way, away from herself. It involves her in a world similar to but importantly different from her own. That is exciting. Conversations occur that she never expected to hear. She goes to places she's never been, like Mongolia. She gets to know people she's never met. She discovers what they feel, what they think. That's a joy.

Nonfiction offers the writer an opportunity to approach the world logically. She writes a paragraph, then another paragraph, and the progression is straightforward and sensible. Even the strangest nonfiction proceeds step by step. As someone who did grad work in philosophy, I find nonfiction calming, no matter how personal or fantastic the material may be, because the process is always clarifying.

As for poetry, well, it's the conjunction of music and meaning, which means it is sublime. Poetry is what the world remembers, regardless of how many or how few people read it. Poetry is what we turn to when we can find no other words. It is hard, hard work but it takes one inside itself; to concentrate on a poem is to exist outside of time. There are no clocks, no calendars, no anything except the poem. Self is lost--or shall we say, self is free. To be free of one's self is a kind of heaven.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've always worked on several manuscripts at a time; this permits me to put some on the back burner, where they can crystallize in the subconscious, while others are nearing completion. At the moment I am completing a book-length poem. Two other poetry manuscripts are more or less finished, and I have begun yet another. A Kelly Cherry Reader is forthcoming, perhaps this fall; it includes stories, excerpts from novels, essays, and poems. And a collection of (unlinked) stories, titled Twelve Women in a Country Called America, is due out from Press 53 in March 2015.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For years I have had in mind a list of books I wanted to write. I hope I'll be able to get to all of them. Good, bad, or mediocre, they are my ideas, and I am obligated to realize them. It's a bonus that writing is so much fun.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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