Thursday, April 13, 2023

Q&A with Karin Cecile Davidson


Photo by Angela Liu



Karin Cecile Davidson is the author of the new story collection The Geography of First Kisses. She also has written the novel Sybelia Drive, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Five Points. She's originally from New Orleans, and she lives in Columbus, Ohio.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your new collection?


A: More than a minute, that’s for sure. Probably over 10 years. I wrote the stories while I was writing my novel, Sybelia Drive, whenever I needed a break from the larger project. You know, some room to breathe and think of other things.


The stories “The Biker and the Girl,” “Gorilla,” and “If You Ask Them Nicely” were written before I started the novel, while all the others were written as the novel began and progressed.


In a way, The Geography of First Kisses is the first book I wrote, but the publishing world loves a novel, so that book kind of skipped a place in line. I don’t think the stories minded in the least, and several of them grew stronger during that time.


Q: How was the book's title (also the title of one of the stories) chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: When writing these stories, I didn’t think of them in terms of a collection. And when it came time to look at them with the collective in mind, I realized they shared themes of loss, love, yearning coupled with growth, strength, and agency.


And they all had female characters that, to me, were dynamic in very different ways—from very young girls learning their place in the world to young women just finding their way through high school or beyond, either single and childless or in the early years of marriage and motherhood.


Most of the stories are narrated by these female characters, and even the ones that aren’t—“We Are Here Because of a Horse,” “Sweet Iowa,” “The Last I Saw Mitsou”—move forward because of the women that the stories are tethered to: Meli, Morgan, Mitsou.


The three male narrators tell these stories because their discrete relationships with these women are fierce, unbelievable, passionate, steady, caring, and complete with love.


Believe it or not, in early iterations of the collection as chapbook or a smaller collection, the title was Skylight. Can you imagine? This was obviously not the collection’s title.


Now The Geography of First Kisses, that’s a title that not only speaks to the collection but is also a title that everyone loves. Every single piece touched on ideas of love, whether familial or romantic, and the burden of emotions that arise when love that doesn’t meet expectations.


There’s a sort of smoldering that occurs beneath the emotions, a slow burn of anger or a feeling of disruption, that most of the characters share. Emotions fly or sit quietly, direction is decided, compass points appear, the wind shifts—and so a kind of mapping also occurred throughout the stories. Geography, first kisses, searching, last kisses.


Q: Do you see any particular family dynamics running through the stories?


A: Absolutely. In the stories and backstories with young children, there exists an absence of parents and the taking on of those roles by other adults—Sam’s parents with Meli, Nicky with Celia, Nana with Lizzy and May, Aunt Belle and Uncle Theo with Carly.

In the last response, I mentioned the emotional territory that lies beneath love, a kind of smoldering after which ashy traces and lingering smoke remain. Sometimes though, the emotion only heightens, like with Meli in “We Are Here Because of a Horse” and Sandra inside her abusive marriage in “Gorilla” and even Lizzy with her raised stick above her floating cousin May.


Intense love, the lack of love, love gone missing—all of these create relationships between parent and child, husband and wife, sisters, cousins, grandmothers and granddaughters. The saying “families are complicated” may be true; these stories attempt to amplify how those complications can create stronger ties or ultimately fray those ties.


Q: In our previous interview, you talked about the importance of setting in your writing—was that also true with these stories?


A: Place is pretty much where I begin with all my writing, where I discover my characters, where I set a story in time. An image may spark a beginning, and usually that image is attached to place, scene, setting, location. Geography in a way.


The rocky coastal beach of Castine, Maine; the brackish water and blue crabs of Bayou Gauche; the call of bobwhite quail through pine woods of Picayune, Mississippi; the #2 swine barn in fictional Dynamo, Iowa; the sand trailed across the floor of a New Smyrna Beach cottage; a winding road along the Mississippi River from a crow’s viewpoint.


Place contains particulars, the concrete details that create the story, define the characters, set their world in motion.


I suppose it all comes back to Eudora Welty and her stories, like “Why I Live at the P.O.” and “No Place for You, My Love.” Right there in the titles, she’s locating us. And it comes back to one line from her “Place in Fiction” essay: “Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction.” I’ll trust Eudora on sense of place every time I begin a story.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Content writing for promoting The Geography of First Kisses! I’m laughing, but seriously, I cannot wait to get back to my novel-in-progress, which at this point has the working title Highway 61.


It’s a road trip of sorts, a quest perhaps, but really, it’s a love story. Wife leaves husband in the middle of the night and then… One might get the picture from that clue, and then one might not.


Structurally, the novel is told in two parts in two separate viewpoints, first the wife and then the husband, and follows Highway 61 from Minnesota’s Lake Superior shores all the way down to New Orleans, Louisiana. No matter what I do in my writing, I somehow end up back in either Florida or Louisiana.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Sure! How about collaboration and community in the literary world, in terms of how a book comes to be?


The progression of a book from beginning to end involves so many more people than just the writer. In all the years it takes to create a story collection, there are friends and fellow writers who are first readers, met in workshops or writing groups or graduate school or residencies, the ones who respond with what’s working and what could be further explored and expanded, or compressed, or even left out.


There are the individual literary reviews that accept a story and the review editors who act as guides to make the story better and place the story in print, in turn sharing it with a wider audience. And there are great gifts called residencies that allow one the time and space to pursue and perhaps finish the larger project.


Eventually, after extensive searches, publication opportunities arise via contests and small presses, the surprise of a literary agent who wishes to represent the writing, then a press says yes to the novel and a literary prize is won by the story collection, complete with press directors and more editors and one amazing graphic designer and a beautifully talented cover artist and all the wheels and cogs, ropes and pulleys of the publication process play out.


So, while solitude accompanies the initial writing, a beautiful crowd of writers, editors, agents, and artists assist in the creation of the book. Not to mention the amazing publicist, reviewers, interviewers, book influencers, and the like who all raise attention for the book. Gratitude for them all!


For curious readers, here’s a little lagniappe, “a little bit more” as we say in Louisiana: The Geography of First Kisses order links: Kallisto Gaia Press & Bookshop!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Karin Cecile Davidson.

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