Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Conversation with Jessica Kluthe

Jessica Kluthe, author of Rosina, the Midwife, stopped by the blog to answer some questions about her new book, traveling to her ancestral home in Italy, and what she's working on now.

Jessica Kluthe is the author of Rosina, the Midwife, a wonderful work of creative non-fiction that I wrote about in my last blog post. She's an up-and-coming writer and instructor from Edmonton, Alberta, whose prose is also featured in 40 Below: Edmonton's Winter Anthology, and Eat It: Food, Sex, and Women's Writing. Edmonton's Avenue recently featured her in their issue of Top 40 Edmontonians under 40, which is particularly notable as she's only 28 years old. 

In addition, she is the creator of Snap Scene, a unique venue that allows writers to pair their work up with images on Instagram. (She even featured one of my works there.) Follow Snap Scene on Instagram, and if you have something you would like to share with her or would like to find something new and wonderful to read, visit the Snap Scene website

And now to the questions:

Was there a moment in your life that you realized that it was up to you to tell the story of Rosina, your great-great grandmother? Did you feel a certain calling to write this book?

I've always been a storyteller and loved writing. I'd heard so many stories--tiny, disconnected things--about Rosina while I was growing up. As a storyteller, I knew I wanted to try to trace her life story and see what I could learn.  When I started writing, I could never have anticipated the lifestory that I ended up discovering, nor the heart-wrenching secret about Rosina that is revealed at the end of the book. I think that discovery speaks to the importance of telling those other histories--the ones that may not be at the fore of historical texts about migration. This is what I've learned: even the most seemingly ordinary women, whose personal experiences are sometimes placed outside of history, have stories that demand recording.

I feel very privileged to have been able to go to Calabria and see where she lived, worked, died... In a way, I also felt like that research trip underscored some kind of guilt: my Nanni had never been back, had never seen Rosina's resting spot, and here I was standing in the hillside cemetery in this knotty southern Italian village. There's an order to things in a family, and I feel like I bypassed some of that as a storyteller. I hope that I've honoured Rosina. I hope my kids and their kids are able to connect with her through story. And, even bigger, I hope that readers that identify with this need to connect with their histories do so. Stories connect us to each other and to the places that we belong.  

Your book is a combination of family history, 20th century history, personal narrative, and creative non-fiction in which you had to use your imagination to fill in missing details. What was the most difficult or interesting part of this process?  

Part of non-fiction writing is, of course, making meaning out of events... rather than just making records, taking those otherwise bare-bone documents and turning them into story. Of course, the challenge is establishing and upholding the contract with the reader to be honest; it's important to make sure that you're always cueing the reader, and exploring the story in full-view of the audience. When I slip in to imagination, into making meaning out of bare bone story or isolated facts, I am careful to let the reader know that. The most interesting part was realizing the power of imagination to really bring me face to face with history, in a way that even standing--feet to the ground--in Calabria did not (and I talk about this in the book).

Is there a favorite work of creative non-fiction that you would point readers to? 

For those interested in telling their own stories through creative non-ficiton, I highly recommend reading Patricia Hampl's I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. There are so many great creative non-fiction books... a really good book on grief is Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. I'm organizing a creative non-fiction course for next semester, and I've put Craig Thompson's authobiographical graphic novel Blankets--a beautiful, aching, often silent coming-of-age story--on my reading list. 

Did you ever consider fictionalizing this work and turning it into a novel?

I started writing Rosina with a deep interest in the boundary zone between fiction and non-fiction and seeing where these two genres met. I explore this border all the way through my book. I think it works because this is also a book about crossing borders--geographical ones and temporal ones. Creative non-fiction seemed like the right fit. That being said, I'm working on a novel right now and while it has its own constraints, finding some freedom in being able to purely invent: characters, life stories, backstories... 

Are you surprised by the reaction you have received for Rosina?

Yes, absolutely. The support and engagement has been tremendous. I think the reception speaks to the power of the creative. Rather than reporting straight facts, the creative writer can create a scene and bring the reader into the moment, thereby engaging the reader with the past in a way that is compelling and elevates those sometimes untold histories. 

I love when people share their stories with me because they found threads of their own story woven in to mine. 

What is your writing routine? What is your advice to struggling writers?

I teach full-time at MacEwan University, so my writing time during certain weeks during the term is really non-existant. Since I am teaching a Writing & Publishing class though, I'm still engaged with writing: talking about scenes, talking about how to bring in detail, dialogue, develop characters... and reading student work is all part of that pre-writing process for me.

I think the best advice for any writer is just to give yourself permission to write. No matter what is going on in your life, or what pressures you're feeling, give yourself that space. Put your fingers to the keys, or pen to the paper, and start writing. As Anne Lamott would say, from there, just take it Bird by Bird (or sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page...). For those feeling stuck, Sarah Selekcy has excellent daily writing prompts on her website. And I love generative writing exercises (that help overcome the fear of the blank page) like Perl's Guidelines for Composing.

What are you working on now?

 I've been chipping away at what I think will be a young adult novel. It is set in Alberta and about a homeless 17 year old girl named Rebecca who is surviving in a shed on a farm just outside of Edmonton. I've also been working on shorter pieces. I just had my short story "Cephus" that takes place on Christmas Eve and is about rhythm, ritual, and a connection to and through the cold, published in an anthology called 40 Below: Edmonton's Winter Anthology. And a non-fiction piece about becoming a vegetarian called "Recipe for a Vegetarian" in an anthology called Eat It: Food, Sex & Women's Writing.

Keep up with Jessica Kluthe at Follow her on Twitter at @jessicakluthe, and be sure to check out Snap Scene on Instagram. 

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