Saturday, June 12, 2010

Interview: Katherine Shonk

Every now and again, an expat makes something of their experiences abroad and publishes a book. In Katherine Shonk’s case, the collection of short stories The Red Passport stemmed from a post-collegiate patch living in Russia in the ‘90s. It has been a long time since she moved back to the US, but the book remains a closely observed, insightful testament to that unique period in history. Though I have yet to successfully negotiate a Shonk story for Pilvax, I was able to catch up with her over email, regarding her recently published novel Happy Now?.

Word Pill: How much did getting an MFA help you in your writing?

KS: My MFA (technically, it was an MA, from the University of Texas at Austin) was most valuable in terms of giving me a solid two years to focus primarily on my writing. I went at a good time, right after I got back from a year in Moscow and had lots of experiences to digest. I had some excellent, dedicated teachers and was with a great group of fellow students, but having the time to write was more important than anything else, and not having much of a social life helped too. For many years before my MA, I had studied fiction writing intensively in classes led by a great teacher in the Chicago area, Fred Shafer. That background has informed my writing practice—specifically, the importance of revision—more than anything else.

Word Pill: When living in Moscow, did you feel that residing outside the USA alienated you as a writer?

KS: I wouldn’t say that I had much of a self-identity, let alone a real identity, as a writer when I was living in Moscow. I was still learning to write stories, and in fact, I hardly did any writing while I was in Moscow. The awkwardness and lack of confidence I felt simply living day to day in Moscow probably translated into an overall lack of confidence in myself as a writer, which may have been why I didn’t write while there. I also felt as if I needed to get some distance on the place before I could absorb the experience of living there and write about it. Actually, it wasn’t until I returned home that I felt alienated from U.S. culture, which motivated me to start writing about Russia, a place that I suddenly missed very much.

Word Pill: Can you tell us a little about the experience of having your novel edited, once it was accepted by your publisher?

KS: I’m lucky to have a wonderfully sharp editor, Gena Hamshaw at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who felt passionately about my book. The editing process began with Gena writing me a long letter that suggested four fairly significant changes (as well as a list of smaller ones) to the book. Initially, I resisted each of Gena’s major suggestions, but the more I thought about them, the more I realized they were all spot-on. Most notably, she thought that I should have my main character, Claire, read her husband’s suicide note near the middle of the book rather than at the end, where I had originally placed it. Moving the note to the middle of the book ended up giving Claire more time to react to it and, I believe, deepens the mystery of her husband’s death.
After that first round of editing with Gena, we cleared up some loose ends, and then the book was copyedited and proofread a total of three or four times. It’s an exhaustive process that leaves you feeling pretty confident about not finding typos in the published version.

Word Pill: Are there aspects of autobiography in your novel Happy Now?

KS: I adapted a lot of incidents from my own life to Claire’s, such as dealing with a cat who eats a poisonous flower, driving on Lake Shore Drive in a blizzard, and Internet dating in my mid-thirties. Writing the novel was a little like building a nest, with some of the twigs taken from my own life and others imagined. Some of Claire’s personal struggles mirror my own, though I imagined her more traumatic experiences, such as her parents’ divorce and, obviously, the loss of her husband.

Word Pill: Any advice for beginning writers?

KS: Read a lot. Cultivate the practice of revision, and learn to enjoy it: Don’t be satisfied with your first draft or even your tenth. Find a community of writers who you trust to give honest, thoughtful feedback. Grow a thick skin, because you’ll probably deal with a lot of rejection. Find a day job that gives you time to write. Teaching isn’t always the best job for a writer because it can be so time consuming and exhausting, especially for introverts. Editing has worked much better for me.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.