TW Author Interview by Rebecca Meacham
Kelcey Ervick Parker is our featured fiction writer for September 2010. Kelcey teaches at Indiana University South Bend, and her collection of short stories, For Sale by Owner, is forthcoming from Kore Press.
Rebecca Meacham, TW’s Fiction Editor, interviewed Kelcey recently by email. The “chat” covers what it means to have a doctorate in creative writing, the background for Kelcey’s Liliane’s Balcony: A Novella of Fallingwater, and this month’s theme: “Why We Blog.” As Kelcey says of blogging:
It also makes me think about writing for an audience in a new way. Unlike a story, which remains hidden throughout much of the writing and submitting process, a blog post is automatically available to the public. And the public might be my mother, my department chair, an editor considering my work, a fellow soccer mom, a student, or a stranger.”
TW: You keep a blog, ph.d. in creative writing (& other stories). Why do you do so? Who do you imagine—or hope—is reading?
KP: Well, the blog is new. I began it earlier this year on the Ides of March, my favorite holiday. Before I began, I resisted, on all sorts of grounds: blogs are icky, too personal; blogs are solipsistic; blogs are boring. Except they’re not. They can be, but they’ve evolved into an amazing public forum for ideas and insights, and I especially love reading debates about art and the creative process. These are the things I think about but so rarely get to talk about on the sidelines of my daughter’s soccer game or at the dinner table, or even with my English Department colleagues because we’re too busy having meetings about what to talk about at the next meeting.
In general our lives are so busy that it can feel impossible to finish a thought, not to mention a paragraph that articulates it clearly. Blogging gives me an excuse to stop, drop, and roll out a concrete idea, to figure out what I think about a particular topic. I even get to pick the topic!
It also makes me think about writing for an audience in a new way. Unlike a story, which remains hidden throughout much of the writing and submitting process, a blog post is automatically available to the public. And the public might be my mother, my department chair, an editor considering my work, a fellow soccer mom, a student, or a stranger. This freaks me out. But it also excites me because it raises the stakes. The fact that it’s public and it’s written holds me accountable to what I say. I’m getting dangerously close to invoking Derrida on speech versus writing and so shall stop here.
TW: How do you decide what subjects are best suited—or not at all suited—for your blog?
KP: Settling on a blog title was key. “Ph.D. in Creative Writing” seemed like the right choice because I have one and I am one, and because my relationship to writing is, for better or worse, directly connected to my relationship to academia.
But I’m also committed to the idea that the blog is not just about me and my thoughts, no matter how profound they might be. To get back to the idea of audience, I want my blog to be useful to aspiring writers, whom I encounter every day as a professor. One of the defining features of my blog is a series titled “How to Be a Writer,” which is not about how to write better or faster or get published. Rather, it insists that “being a writer” is actually a vocation and a lifestyle choice that will necessarily subsume other aspects of your life. If you subscribe to that idea, then my series offers activities you can do to get involved in the contemporary literary moment. (Things like going to readings, writing fan letters, reading blogs, etc. This is what writers do!) A friend suggested that I do a series on getting in to grad school (writing cover letters, choosing where to apply, selecting writing samples), so I’m likely to expand in that direction as well.
I’ve written a few reviews and book recommendations, which I want to continue doing. It’s hugely important to promote substantive ideas and content in a world where Drew Barrymore’s dress is the lead “news” story on Yahoo. (Which is why I’m so excited about the debut of Talking Writing!)
TW: How would you describe the relationship between your writing and technology? Does technology ever impede or inspire your imagination? As a modern, wired writer in 2010, do you find it difficult to enter the minds of characters from earlier eras, like Liliane?
KP: Oh, technology. I’m a total dork for vintage machines and appliances, with their gorgeous design and impressive heft. I have four vintage typewriters (which I sometimes but rarely use for writing), several old cameras, a fifties turntable stereo cabinet, a twenties movie projector, and a banana yellow formica dining table. Our land line is a bakelite 1940s rotary phone that rings with an actual bell and makes you want to wear pearls and light up a really long cigarette when you talk into it. All of which surely contributes to my interest in Liliane’s era.
As a “modern, wired” writer with clear nostalgia issues, I’m particularly drawn in by the tensions between the book as object, as a primitive reading machine, and the transition to digital reading machines. Even as digital and online readerships expand, books and chapbooks are becoming increasingly easy to publish, whether at home or at Kinko’s or through a self-publishing site. It’s easy to manipulate fonts and images, cheap to copy and print, simple to buy and bind a folio of paper. This disrupts the publishing world in all sorts of interesting ways.
At my university, I teach two aesthetics classes that exploit these tensions. In Narrative Collage, students compose and self-publish a book of narrative that combines image and text. In The Work of Literary Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, students design handmade chapbooks of their poetry and create one-of-a-kind, three-dimensional textual sculptures. In each class, we consider things like the “aura” of a unique art object and the advantages of mass production and other forms of technology. This DIY mentality feels akin to pamphleteers of yore or writers of samizdat, and reduces the sense that the writing is precious while increasing the sense of its power.
TW:How did you discover Liliane Kaufmann and her story? What made you want to pursue the story, or stories, of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater?
KP: Do you ever just get the sense that something’s fishy, that you’re not getting the straight scoop? That’s how I felt when I took a tour of Fallingwater and was presented with prepackaged anecdotes of the Kaufmann family, who commissioned the house as a weekend residence. I knew that when I got home I would don my Velma glasses and do some sleuthing…
But first, my God, there was Fallingwater itself. Tucked back in the woods, anchored in place by a large rock, hanging precariously over a waterfall, straining under the weight of gravity and time. Inside, Wright leads you through space and sounds and organic substances that you’ve never experienced in a house. (And isn’t that akin to what writers aspire to with fiction: leading readers through narrative space?)
When I got home and began to read about Fallingwater, the stories and history were focused on (surprise!) the men: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and his son, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. There were a few references to Liliane Kaufmann, but no sustained treatment of her biography. I pieced together a story of a woman who married her first cousin to combine shares in the family’s department store; who endured his public infidelities; who collected art by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Victor Hammer, and Pablo Picasso; and who overdosed on sleeping pills in her bedroom at Fallingwater.
That’s when I knew I had—to use an architectural term from Fallingwater—the vertical core of a novella. From there I added four characters on a modern-day tour, whose alternating perspectives are designed to jut out from Liliane’s like Wright’s cantilevered balconies.
TW: What question would you most like to ask another writer?
KP: Well, I’d go for the heart of things: “Why do you write? Not where or how or when or with what technological device, but why?”
If that’s too open-ended, I offer this as an alternate: “Where do you stand on the subject of Gertrude Stein?”
Stoops handles her husband’s pain. “Where does it hurt, Mr. K? Here? Is that better?” Liliane hears Stoops nursing her husband, hears her husband say, “Yes, Grace, there, yes.” Liliane hears the first time Stoops calls him by his first name, hears the silence that follows, hears the knowing smiles.”
— Kelcey Parker, Liliane’s Balcony: A Novella of Fallingwater