|Stephanie Kallos, photo by Sue Doupe|
Stephanie Kallos is the author of the new novel Language Arts. She also has written the novels Broken for You and Sing Them Home. She has worked as a musician, actress, and voice teacher, and she lives in Seattle.
Q: Communication of various kinds plays a big role in this novel. Why did you decide on that as one of the book's themes?
A: Probably because I consider myself to be a lousy communicator, at least as far as intimate relationships go. I don’t think it’s unusual for writers to take on subjects that they’d like to learn more about and/or get better at.
I will say that writing Charles’s and Alison’s fight scenes was very difficult for me; I’m a terrible fighter as well.
Q: One form of communication in the book is handwriting. What interested you about it, and how does it affect your main character, Charles?
A: I’m on a personal mission to combat this prevailing idea that cursive writing is no longer necessary. This saddens me deeply, for so many reasons – not the least of which is that science has proven that significant and unique forms of brain wiring occur through the practice of writing by hand.
Handwriting is something that requires slowing down – another practice that I believe we could all benefit from in these fast-paced, multi-tasking times.
Finally, I love the way that handwriting is such a specific revelation of character and personality – one that lives well beyond the writer, and that – for me at least – constitutes a very real source of delight and solace. Who isn’t comforted by the sight of a beloved’s handwriting after their loss?
Q: Autism is also a theme throughout the book. Why did you opt to make one of your characters autistic?
A: Because the impetus to write this book came entirely from a desire to create a fictional narrative that could include a child I met over 50 years ago – a child who was what was called in those days retarded – it made a kind of sense to have Charles’s present life (and his challenges with Cody) dovetail with his memories of his best friend in 4th grade: Dana McGucken. That Dana is based (in appearance only) on the Dana of my memory.
I’m also a big believer in taking note of the things that drop into one’s life on a regular basis; I think that’s how the universe (or God, or the Good, or whatever you want to call it) gives us hints about what we’re supposed to be doing on the planet.
Since meeting “my” Dana when I was 7, people with developmental disabilities continued to show up in my life. Most notably: I had a particularly close relationship with a little girl I babysat when I was a teenager, and have strong memories of the struggles involved in caring for her.
Like Cody, she did not speak, and she could be very violent. That experience gave me some small sense of what is involved in parenting a child with autism.
Finally, I’m very interested in the wide-ranging and often divisive attitudes toward “special” children: are they the victims of an illness that can be cured? Or are they representatives of a form of neuro-diversity that isn’t yet fully understood? And thus, in no need of “fixing” or “curing.”
Q: The book takes place in a variety of time periods. Did you write the story in the order in which as it appears now, or did you write it more chronologically and move parts of it around?
A: This book definitely involved a lot of scene shuffling! – and I will say that applying a traditional, Aristotelian arc to the story was difficult.
Over the course of the writing, it finally occurred to me that Memory itself is a character in the book – and because of that, I took some liberties with the structure: in my experience, memories don’t adhere to dramatic templates, but arrive, willy-nilly, inserting themselves – with great insistence! – whenever they need attention.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m in the early stages of work on my fourth novel, The Blue Bench. It’s a loose retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story that unfolds over the course of 20 years before, during, and after WWI.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I find it so ironic that – before I was in a band that performs book-themed tunes at book events – my first two novels featured lots of music: Broken for You played out against the sounds of bee-bop and tradition jazz, and Sing Them Home had a soundtrack that included The Nebraska Fight Song, Welsh choral music, and Bruce Springsteen.
Language Arts focuses on a man who has virtually no connection to music whatsoever! – other than what he receives through his next-door neighbor’s radio listening habits: an AM station playing The Best Hits of the '60s, '70s, and '80s.
Thus, at Language Arts events, we perform a cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.” We also do an old Gershwin tune, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (You say potato, I say poTAHto…) and a Sweet Honey in the Rock song based on Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children,” which underlines so many of the book’s themes: Your children are not your children…and though they are with you they belong not to you…You can try to be like them, but you cannot make them just like you.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb