Author Q & A
A conversation with Anne Kaier
Q. You write memoir and also poetry about your own life experiences. Some people say that’s self-indulgent.
A. Self-indulgence is eating a whole bag of Doritos. It’s not fighting to find words for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the brutal truth about yourself. In all humility, I compare memoir with self-portraiture. In no way do I pretend to be on a par with van Gogh or Cezanne, but please think of how deeply they looked into their souls when they painted those great pictures of their own faces. Above my computer, I keep a postcard of the Rembrandt self-portrait from the Frick Gallery in New York. When he painted it he was old, broke, and losing his reputation. But in the portrait, he looked at himself with honesty and compassion. That’s what I try to do and to tell you the truth, I don’t find it easy.
Q. You have a new memoirs out. So you must be drawn to the genre. What is the most difficult part about memoir writing?
A. Reliving the past. Going back to the person you were and trying to make that person vivid to a reader. You have to look at yourself objectively, which can be frightening and/or utterly embarrassing. For an essay I wrote a few years ago, I reread letters I had written home from England when I was a student there. Oy, they made me cringe! They were fey and affected.
And some readers can be judgmental–expecting a character to go through formulaic stages of hard times with salvation at the end. The salvation or reformation bit drives me crazy.
Q. How do you keep your vocabulary fresh and new?
A. When I am absorbed and feel passionately about my subject, words often come directly. However, most of the time, I hang over my keyboard, searching and searching. I write many drafts, so on the first few I’m more concerned with the structure of the piece than with individual word choice. In later drafts, I look for strong verbs and descriptions that will startle the reader. Perhaps since I’m also a poet, I pay attention to the rhythms, even the meter, of sentences, using anapests if I want to hurry a sentence up or iambs if I want a sense of resolution. It’s also true that I read a lot, so I am on the outlook for words that can be pilfered.
Q. Have you ever written something and had a family member disagree with you?
A. Although I write about my family of origin–my parents and brother–we are Irish Catholics and don’t talk easily about the past. My twin brother, who is smart and sweet, remembers some incidents differently. For example, I wrote a piece about visiting the Grand Canyon when he and I were ten. I remembered driving to the Canyon, so I set an important scene in the car. When I talked to him, Ed thought we had taken a train from Albuquerque to the Canyon, but no one had kept train tickets. If he had hard evidence, I would have felt compelled to rewrite the scene. I checked to make sure you could rent a car in New Mexico in those days. You could. So I left the scene in the car. It was a good scene and I didn’t want to rewrite it if I didn’t have to.
Q. You teach a memoir workshop and poetry workshops at Rosemont College. You also teach undergrad lit courses at Arcadia. Does this have an influence on your writing?
A. It certainly does. Some of my students are much better writers than I am. They just naturally have more talent in some ways. For example, I am lousy at writing dialogue. I’ve had students who are pitch perfect. All I can do is sit back and admire.
The Renaissance poets I teach—Shakespeare, Milton, John Donne—write rugged verse full of precise metaphors. I aim for their precision of language. For example, in a sonnet, Donne compares God to a magnetic loadstone and ends the poem hoping God will draw Donne’s “iron heart.” The combination of desire, hard-heartedness, and scientific accuracy is brilliant.
Q. Do you write every day?
A. Yes and no. My essays include a lot of research. On an ordinary day, I may type up research notes. That probably doesn’t count as writing. But redrafting scenes in a prose piece counts. How ’bout when I’m standing in the kitchen chopping radishes and I figure out a knotty structural problem and scribble the solution down on a paper towel? I think that counts. I don’t set out to write a certain number of words every day. And I only write poems when I am moved to write them—although I have to write an epithalamion for my nephew’s wedding in three weeks. He’s a lovely young man; so’s his girlfriend. I hope I can do them justice.
Q. Where do you write?
A. Practically everywhere. I write early drafts in longhand, especially of poems, often sitting at my dining room table. It used to be my mother’s table and a lot of family drama went on around it. When it came to my house, I would look at its polished surface and be flooded with complicated memories. So I covered up the surface with a heavy tablecloth. Now it looks like something in a 17th century Dutch painting and doesn’t remind me of my mother so much.
I write later drafts at my computer on my desk, which is actually a wooden door turned on its side and supported by a ledge. And I write in the car. At red lights. I keep scraps of paper in the glove compartment and jot down phrases. There’s something about the movement of the car which engenders new thoughts. This practice isn’t so good for my driving, but I’m a terrible driver anyway. I get good ideas in the car. Why not keep them?
Q. Does your cat help you write?
A. Only when she thinks I’m writing about her. Most of the time, she sleeps in a big, old comfy chair next to my desk. She snores and sometimes grumbles or whimpers in her sleep. So I have to stretch a hand over and stroke her, which calms us both down. Thankfully, she doesn’t walk across the keyboard. My orange stray, Henry, now immortalized, I trust, in Home with Henry, used to stroll across the keyboard all the time.
Q. There’s a lot in Home with Henry about moving to the city. What does city living represent to you?
A. Excitement, creativity. A cool place to live if you’re single. When I moved to the city in 1995, many single friends lived in my neighborhood. The suburbs, I thought, were for families with two-point-five children and dogs. I liked strolling down my block on a Saturday night and seeing other single people also on their way to meet friends at the corner restaurant. Ironically, almost twenty years later, a lot of young families have moved into my neighborhood. Our little park is jammed with strollers. As an older woman, I provide colorful contrast.
Q. In your work, you sometimes write about your skin condition. Is seems very rare. Can you tell us more about it?
A. It’s called lamellar ichthyosis. It makes my skin flaky and red. About 300 babies a year are born with moderate to severe ichthyosis such as mine, which is caused by a genetic abnormality. There’s no cure, so I treat it with a powerful retinoid drug and lots of lotions. The ichthyosis support group, FIRST, offers a lot more information. Check them out: http://www.firstskinfoundation.org/
Q. What would you say to a writer who thinks her life story isn’t “interesting” enough to tell?
A. Even the most exciting life stories can be made dull with bad writing. But writing that’s clear, sensuous, and well-constructed brings readers into the life you are describing. One of the main reasons people read memoir, I think, is to feel they are not alone in the world, to feel that other people have lived lives as ordinary and as complicated and exhilarating as their own. So even the most ordinary life, well-told, can be mesmerizing.