Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Q&A with Maggie Kast

Maggie Kast is the author of the new book Side by Side but Never Face to Face, a novella and stories. She also has written the memoir The Crack Between the Worlds and the novel A Free, Unsullied Land, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including America and Image. She lives in Chicago.

Q: You write, "I have made much use of my own life in Side by Side but Never Face to Face." What did you see as the right blend between your own life and that of your fictional character, Greta?

A: I don’t see the relationship so much as a blend, like sugar and tea, but more like a tree with roots and branches. The roots are the life lived over many years, and I can dip into the roots for memories.

Then the memories suggest alternate outcomes, ways of branching or leafing out, even flowering. Some might be likely or logical outcomes from the roots, others might be surprising, daring or dangerous, mind-enlarging or joyful. All the alternate outcomes are interesting.

In my collection there are stories that took place in times I never experienced, like the one of Maria’s childhood in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, late 19th century, or the one of Manfred’s adolescence in 1930s Vienna. Others are based on my experience, often colored by later discoveries or understanding.

Every writer makes use of memory and imagination in different ways, whether in fiction or nonfiction. I don’t think there is an ideal proportion.

Q: The book includes a novella and stories. Over how long a period did you write them, and how did you decide on the structure of the book?

A: The oldest stories in the book, “Cry of the Patoo” and “Joyful Noise,” come from when I was at Vermont College of Fine Arts in their M.F.A. —Writing program, 20 years ago. The newest, “To March With” is brand new.

At least one, “Maria in the Heart of Empire,” I started in my M.F.A. days, revised many times, and brought it to its present form just recently. The novella is all new.

My approach to the structure was instinctual — it just felt right. But I took the complete manuscript to the Manuscript Boot Camp offered by Writing by Writers. There I worked with a small group led by Garth Greenwell. He read this collections as though it were a novel, helping me strengthen connections, follow characters throughout.

This did not change the order but  made the book into a whole — and in the process I very willingly dropped two stories.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title was suggested by Orison Press’ fiction editor, Kevin McIlvoy, and I immediately felt it was right. I had been using it as the title of one of the sections of the novella, and he proposed it as the title of the novella and then of the entire book.

To me the book is about relationships with the “other,” people different from oneself as people always are. These others may be those we live with and love most dearly or people from other lands, cultures, or times.

By reaching a hand across that sea of difference, we discover our common humanity, but the otherness always remains, charming and challenging. We can live side by side but will never know each other fully, face to face.

Q: You also have had a career in modern dance. How do dance and writing complement each other for you?

A: Dancing faded for me as my body aged, and I discovered that I could no longer “think movement.” I couldn’t go into the studio and improvise until I found  a phrase that interested me, that challenged me to develop it, to see where it could go.

So when I couldn’t “write dances” (= choreo-graph, etymologically), I began arranging words on paper. Around the same time, the late ‘80s, my husband died, and I lost the listener with whom I’d shared every aspect of every day. The page became my listener —that’s the personal, psychological answer.

On a broader level, I like to make all kinds of things, whether babies or bread, dances or stories, and in each case I keep learning as I go, revising, improving and then remembering —especially with babies — that outcomes can’t be foreseen or determined, that the process of making is all.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Speaking of bread, for the last year, I’ve been working on food essays. I’ve always cooked for family and groups and I’ve always been an avid food reader. My food essays are a combination of memoir, research and cultural criticism.

I’ve always used food in my fiction and memoir, and now I hope to make it a subject itself. I’m still exploring the form. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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