Wednesday, November 17, 2010

interview with kathleen maher

i discovered kathleen maher's fiction in the spring of 09, shortly after i starting using blogger. i remember she popped up as a "follower" on one of my blogger blogs and when i tried to "follow" her back i had to join networked blogs - and to join networked blogs i had to join facebook. a polite correspondence ensued - "thanks for following, etc," and then a more enthusiastic one - on my part - as i started reading the serialized novels and the very short stories on her blog "diary of a heretic" . her short fiction also appeared in the professionally produced webzine "the view from here". i thought the short "flash" fictions, especially, were the best original things i had seen on the web.

rhoda penmarq interviewing Kathleen Maher
1) Is there any one writer that caused you to want to become one? A small group?

When I first learned made-up stories existed, I wanted to write my own. Since then, of course, hundreds of writers have inspired me. Among my earliest memories is my father reading Edgar Allen Poe and Hans Christian Andersen to me and my sisters.
While I was growing up, adults often praised my writing, any kind of writing. As I remember it, various adults in authority suggested, seriously or not, that when I grew up, I might “be a writer.” They also commented on how much I read and wondered if I wasn’t reading over my head, which I certainly was. They probably never expected me to write fiction for its own reward, which is how it’s turned out. But my guess is that with or without outside influence, I would have ended up writing fiction.

2. Was there ever an influence you felt was too strong—that you had to get out from under?

Yes, and it’s an ongoing struggle, although much easier now that I’ve been writing creatively most of my life. At first, I relied too much on my personal history for inspiration. I consciously created characters based on people or types of people I knew in real life. I imagined alternate versions of various situations that had confused, frightened, or elated me. Some writers excel at roman a clef; I do not. One of the great joys and motivators for me as a fiction writer is that it takes me out of myself.

2a. Do you feel you learned anything in school about either writing or reading?

I attended a small parochial school. My teachers were either ex-nuns, nuns preparing to join great causes on other continents, or else really old nuns. Catholic education, perhaps because so much doctrine comes from Latin, leans hard on grammar, syntax, vocabulary, spelling, and in my day handwriting. Every other subject, at least where I attended K-8, revolved around Catholic Doctrine, which can be a fertile landscape for stories, parables, and ventures into what’s real and unreal.
Then I attended a huge public school, lost among thousands of kids pouring in from a dozen expensive suburban schools.

This was not a happy phase for me. I excelled in English, though, and did take a special Creative Writing class there. I read some terrific classic novels, and garnered praise for my writing with nary a suggestion as to why it was being praised or how I might improve it.
You had a question I skipped without meaning to—about creative writing classes. For me to say I never took a creative writing class is, as you guessed, untrue. But I’ve had minimal experience with anything approaching a college-level literature class or writing class, let alone anything comparable to MFA programs. I engaged in two casual, short-lived writers’ groups, which is partly where I learned that I can’t tell whether what I write is worth keeping or not.

3. have you ever considered genre fiction—mystery, science fiction, romance, etc? either for their own sake or as a way to get published?

I might have except I’ve only managed to read one or two books from each genre, and it was always a labor of labor, not love. Mystery and crime novels annoy me almost immediately: I see the word “detective” and run.

Probably I simply haven’t applied myself. It’s my impression that within any genre’s broad range, a great novel appears every decade or so. If someday I wake up with a terrific appetite for genre novels, I might likewise wake up with a great desire to write one.

4) I first knew you through your flash fiction stories, which you seem to have abandoned or at least suspended. Was this a conscious decision on your part, or something that just happened?

I began writing flash fiction when Mike French from The View from Here asked me to write for an on-line literary zine he was starting. I work awfully hard on my own blog (though that may change) and have too little free time. But I said all right, providing I write fiction, thinking that’ll put him off—nobody wants fiction. But he said, fine; whatever I liked. I proposed flash fiction pieces, fewer than 500 words, figuring they wouldn’t take up too much of my time. These turned out to be very difficult for me and highly corrective. (Notice how wordy I am.)
At first I was writing one flash fiction a week, which seems impossible in retrospect: flash fiction appears impossible until I’ve written something and have cut, cut, cut whatever it takes to bring the word count down. But I devoted Wednesdays to it and went with whatever I had by midnight. Then I got more particular, because some were distinctly better than others, and while overall I’m blind to what makes my fiction better or worse; flash fiction shouted the answer. It depends on the idea. After all, there’s not much else to go on. For me the right idea cannot include anything too jokey or snide or mean; nothing that smacks of being a writing exercise or a prompt, although they all do more or less. What can you do week after week in fewer than 500 words?

So yes, I ran out of ideas.
If I go back to it, I’d like to take a different approach than writing a straight but tiny story. As soon as this “new approach” or style comes to me, I’ll return to them.
Just now, I thought it might be fun to write flash fiction as a semi-series where someone or something binds them together: a capsule history of everyone who drove a particular city bus; everyone who played tennis with a particular old-fashioned racquet… A gimmick, yes, but if I were careful and didn’t carry it too far, it might be nice.
I have to admit: People actually read my flash fiction and pass it around. I love that and would like to write more for that reason.

5) Do you think the online format changes/determines the structure of writing—by making it more compact/less detailed—or any other way.

It certainly changed my writing and it took me some time to get what I think is the hang of it. That’s my impression and you should remember that my writing is far from what I’d call “successful.” The big benefit, however, is that a blog forces me to focus on plot.
I tend to start with a definite character and a vague idea of a plot, but writing a blog serial requires that a comprehensible plot kick in after a few posts. After that, I make sure every post furthers the plot.
When I finally finish the bedeviling serial I’m writing now—and I will finish it, only much later than I’d hoped—I’m planning a total overhaul of my blog. Part of that will involve rewriting my serials as novels or novellas. I’ll need to write new beginnings, usually with a different pace than what I put up on the blog. Blog posts are like sprints. Whenever I finally get them rewritten as novels or novellas the pace will still be fast, thanks to their blog roots. But I’ll open each story a little more leisurely. But only a little: I’m not a writer who can afford the digressions that are so tempting to write. Great writers, say Tolstoy, had the luxury of writing 50 pages where the main character goes off to make hay with his serfs and has a great time.

I used to work very hard to keep my posts about 600 words, then 700, and now 800. (You can see I’m moving away from blog-style). But I don’t intend to abandon blog-writing altogether. It’s helped me in so many ways: having even one reader or the possibility of one immediate reader is thrilling. And while the serials still need extensive work, they’re fun at the time. They are in the moment, although I write eight or more drafts and read them out loud until my husband starts screaming.

5a) Is this good, bad, or indifferent?

For me, as I said, it’s good. For another writer it might not be suitable. Everyone’s different. Many fiction blogs read as if they were literally “phoned in.” Others are written by beginning writers or by someone going through a slippery patch in his or her creative life: a lot of blog fiction isn’t good work. It’s difficult to find fiction on personal blogs where you really want to know what happens next.
My guess, and this may be just because it corrects some of my bad tendencies, is that in the long run the on-line format will be good for fiction. I love the great classics but am equally glad that most contemporary novels aren’t stuffed with 50 pages on haying or how to harpoon a whale or political rants.

6) the immediate feedback you get from writing online—even if it is only from a few people—do you think this has much effect on the writing itself?

The first comment anyone made was immensely instructive. Intellectually, I knew what I was writing was available to anyone who happened to find it, but I wasn’t used to anyone reading what I wrote until I had it completed in manuscript form—if then. So when I started blogging, I wrote directly onto the blog, not even bothering to polish the draft form. A man wrote, asking if I realized people could see all my unfinished sentences, trial placement of paragraphs, and reminders to myself? I think he was surprised when I wrote back full of thanks—that I hadn’t entirely realized the obvious: no matter how obscure I was, a few people just might read my first naked stabs.
Now, however, I’m so hungry for readers that I undoubtedly give any comment that’s not, “Good for you; keep going,” (comments I’m very happy to get, btw) far too much weight. Usually I get one or two comments, although there are exceptions. But if there’s one comment, it stands as an uncontested judgment. I don’t see my work clearly. So if someone’s dismissive, which is about as harsh as any comment gets, I’m certain that what I’ve written is not worth anyone’s time. Of course, if I had more readers, I might not be so insecure. Or no, I’ll always be insecure.

7. would you have preferred to write in an earlier age—before the internet, when you either got published or not.

Well, truth is, I did live and write before the internet and it was more difficult to research anything; more difficult even to print the story. Certainly, I wouldn’t want to live in an earlier time if the transformation kept me a woman. Don’t ask why.
So: Another advantage of the internet is that I don’t lose as much material. If I’m so frustrated that I trash a long work, it invariably pops up in some hidden file or backup system. Whereas in the old days, if the recycling truck had picked up our bin, my manuscript was gone for good.

8. would you ever consider self-publishing, either with something like lulu or just going to a printer yourself?

Yes. First I’d try the established routes, because just writing takes everything out of me. I don’t have it in me to get up from the desk and sell my books on the street. I know people who are good at that, and once knew a few people who had a real gift for it. If someone like that is at all interested in selling my fiction, they can take 60% of the profits, or more. I’d be happy as long as more people were reading my work.


Dan Leo said...

Hey, that was fun!

And I love the nun.

(Please excuse the unintentional rhyme.)

By the way, Rhoda, I still haven't figured out this "following" thing...

Peter Greene said...

Yeah, that was fun. Good interview, good illustrations. thanks for it.

Anonymous said...

Nice getting to know you a bit. Inspires me to read your blog and more of your fiction. --Jon