Kate Southwood’s debut literary novel, Falling to Earth, earned rave reviews in The New York Times and Booklist, which hailed it for its “poignantly penetrating examination of the cost of survival.” In her second novel, Evensong, Southwood delivers another deeply emotional portrait, this time of a woman reflecting on her life and the choices she has made in an attempt to find compassion for her own mistakes. Here, author Holly Robinson (Folly Cove) interviews Southwood and the two discuss writing unusual characters, why literary fiction still matters, and what it’s like to write a novel over the course of twenty years.
Holly Robinson: We don’t often find main characters like Margaret Maguire (widowed, elderly, and unlikable) in novels. How did her voice come to you, and what made you decide to use hers as the primary point of view in the book?
KS: Margaret is loosely based on my own grandmother, and so her voice in the novel is a natural extension of my grandmother’s voice. Having said that, I don’t think my grandmother would recognize herself if she were still around to read this book. When I first had the idea for Evensong, I used Margaret’s adult granddaughter as the narrator, which made sense at the time because she was a close to me in age. Years later, though, when I began the draft that ultimately became Evensong, I had much more life experience and writing experience under my belt and I realized that Margaret, as an old woman looking back at her life, was the better choice as narrator. Every part of her long life was available to me, and we see Margaret in the novel at many different points in her life, from a five-year-old girl to a widow in her 80s.
HR: This is your second novel after your much-heralded debut, Falling to Earth, was published in 2013. How was the process of writing Evensong different from writing Falling to Earth?
KS: Writing Evensong was different in every way. I wrote Falling to Earth over the course of two years, and constructed it from a historic tornado from 1925 and an entirely fictional family who lives through it. Evensong, on the other hand, began life as a short story when I was a beginning MFA student, over twenty years ago, and is based in part on my own family. In its final form, Evensong is actually the third version of the novel that grew out of that short story, and I have been working on it in different forms on and off over the last 20 years. The idea for Evensong—the ways in which personal choices and secrets can shape a family for generations—was simply something I couldn’t let go of and, when the two first versions of the novel didn’t really work, I let it sit for years until I was ready to gut it and begin again, essentially from scratch. I’m very glad I stuck with it, but I don’t recommend that sort of drawn-out creative agony to anyone else.
HR: We have so many ways to tell stories today, from podcasts to Netflix, from blogging to Instagram. What role do you think literary novels like yours play in today’s world, where we’re constantly being bombarded by stories via the internet, streamed television shows, and self-publishing?
KS: Fortunately, there is room out there for many ways of telling stories, even now when there are so many ways available to tell them. I think, though, that one of literature’s most important roles remains a constant: It allows us to experience what it’s like to be somebody else in a unique way. There is research that says that reading literature teaches empathy, and I believe it builds our moral intelligence as well. Apparently, this only works for literature, not TV or nonfiction. If that is true, it probably has to do with the imaginative burden placed on the reader. When you read, you’re given dialogue, descriptions, and plot on the page, but you create the images in your own head and see the characters and action unfold in an individual way. This is utterly different than experiencing a story by seeing it on a screen, when every last detail is thought of and rendered for you.
HR: You take great risks in your fiction, in the sense that yours might be perceived as “literary” novels rather than reads that can easily be shoehorned into a genre category. Is this a deliberate choice on your part? I guess what I’m really asking is whether you chose these stories to write, or the stories chose you, and whether you worried about what might (or might not) happen after they were published in terms of marketing and sales.
KS: I have made a deliberate choice to write literary fiction, perhaps because it’s my favorite genre to read. I think that writers in any genre can be shoehorned into categories, too. I was surprised when my first novel was categorized widely as historical fiction, even as I understood how it happened. I didn’t set out to write a historical novel by any means, but it was set in the past, and putting novels in categories is one way to help readers navigate the many, many choices that are available to them.
As for the stories, I would say that they choose me. I’m not an idea person in that lightning strikes much less often for me than for many other writers, so it becomes that much more important to me to write literary fiction: It’s the way I tell a story—making it as unique and indelible as possible—and not so much the story itself, that makes it literary. As for marketing, you could say that I’ve made my bed and I’m have to lie in it. I knew that Falling to Earth, for example, would likely have been more of a commercial success if I had given it a traditional happy ending, but that wasn’t the book I wanted to write. The short answer is that the market for literary fiction might be smaller, but it is there, and that’s what I want to aim for.
HR: What I found most fascinating about Evensong was the slow, deliberate unfolding of one woman’s life as she reflects on the choices (and possible mistakes) she has made. You have essentially managed to tell a woman’s entire life story in one novel. How did you decide which anecdotes to pick and choose in order to convey the richness of her story and struggles? Did you outline or just go by feel as you were writing the book?
KS: I don’t outline, as such. When an idea for a chapter occurs to me, I create a separate text for that chapter where I can jot notes, moments, even lines of dialogue, and come back to it when I’m ready. I then rearrange chapters as I need, and really juggle things all through the writing process. When writing Falling to Earth, I wrote the beginning of the story, then immediately wrote the end, and then wrote the rest in order. In that case, it helped me to know where I was going. With Evensong, I knew the chapter arrangement would have to be precise, but because the narration goes back and forth between the present and the past, I didn’t finalize it until I had written all of the chapters. Then, I made separate note cards for each chapter and taped them to a door in my apartment. I stared at them, I color-coded them, and I moved them around until I was satisfied. That’s as close to an outline as I’m likely to come. Similarly, I don’t write drafts, as such. As you suggested, the alternative to outlining is going by feel, and that is essentially what I do. I know what I want each chapter to contain, and I edit very closely as I go, so there really aren’t any re-writes. When a chapter is done, it’s done.
HR: If you had to offer three nuggets of advice to aspiring writers today, what would they be?
KS: First, the advice to “write what you know” does not mean writing thinly-veiled autobiography. Using real events in their correct order is documentary, and rarely makes good fiction. Writers should absolutely use their life experience and things they’ve seen and heard, but real things should be used judiciously as a springboard, and they will almost always need to be altered or adapted in order to make good fiction.
Second, read good writing as a part of your writing time. Read the best writing you can find in the genre you are writing in. Read writing that leaves your jaw on the floor and teaches you something, and it will improve your own writing.
Third, talent is not enough: You have to show up to work, and life will get in the way if you let it. I understood when I was an MFA student that there was not enough room for all of us (plus all of the other MFA students across the country) in publishing, and that if only a handful of us were going to make into print, the problem wouldn’t be lack of talent, it would be getting the work done. You have to show up and do the work, there is no magic pill. There are a lot of people out there with talent and good ideas, but—for a variety of reasons—comparatively few who put in the work.
HR: What are you working on now?
KS: Funny that you ask this after we’ve been talking about genres. I am currently doing research for a novel about Joan of Arc. Joan’s story has been told a million times, but she appealed to me as a strong woman, and I’m hoping that a literary approach will allow me to revisit her story and make it fresh. My chief inspiration here is Hilary Mantel, who managed to breath new, gorgeous, and very literary life into the well-worn story of Henry VIII, in part by telling it from an unexpected point of view.
Kate Southwood is the author of novels Falling to Earth (a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick) and Evensong. Kate received an M.A. in French Medieval Art from the University of Illinois, and an M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts. She has written for The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and the Huffington Post, among others. Born and raised in Chicago, Kate now lives in Oslo, Norway with her husband and their two daughters.
Novelist, journalist, and ghost writer Holly Robinson is the author of The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir and six novels: Sleeping Tigers, The Wishing Hill, Beach Plum Island, Haven Lake, Chance Harbor, and Folly Cove. Her articles and essays have appeared in dozens of national publications. She and her husband have five children and a stubborn Pekingese. They currently divide their time between Massachusetts and Prince Edward Island, and are crazy enough to be fixing up old houses one shingle at a time in both places.