Faculty Spotlight: Katherine Towler

pexels-photo-2253393.jpeg

Katherine (Katie) Towler is an author and creative writing teacher and currently a faculty member in the Mountainview MFA program. Her first book, Snow Island, was a a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title and her latest book, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth, was named a Best Book of 2016 by Entropy Magazine, Longreads, and Book Riot. She was kind enough to answer some questions about her books and her writing process, as well as give some useful advise for new writers.

—WL

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Like most writers, I was a reader before I was a writer, and it was being a passionate reader that made me want to be a writer.  By the age of eight, I was spending hours on the couch reading.  My younger sister complained throughout our childhood that she couldn’t get me to go outside with her because I never wanted to put down the book I was currently reading.  Books were my refuge and my friends, my transport to other worlds, my window on what was possible in life.  With a good book, I was never alone.  Books made me forget the things that plagued me as a child, like gym class.  When I started writing, I found that writing was a similar experience of leaving common life behind and being absorbed by an act that felt so vital and alive.  I started writing poems when I was 10 and shortly after that began carrying a notebook around with me which was a writing journal of sorts.  When I was 13, I declared I was going to be a poet when I grew up, though I turned out to be more of a prose writer than poet.   

 

Who are some authors who have inspired you?

An early book that completely captivated me as a young reader was Jane Eyre.  I still love the Brontes.  I am inspired by much of what I read, including the work of my students.  It is endlessly fascinating — and challenging and inspiring — to see how other writers create real worlds and compelling characters, and how they use words.  I learn from reading as widely as I can (poetry, fiction, nonfiction) and encourage anyone who wants to write to do this.  You can learn so much from reading different genres and writers whose concerns are far from yours.  To further answer your question, some of the writers whose work has most stayed with me over the years and guided me are Willa Cather, Henry James, Alistair MacLeod, Edna O’Brien, Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Edith Wharton.  And then there are the poets and memoirists, but I’ll stop with this fiction list.  

 

Your debut novel, Snow Island, the first book in a trilogy, tells the story of Alice Daggett, a sixteen-year-old girl struggling with the sudden death of her father. How did the idea come to you? Also, how long did it take to complete?

In the late 1980s, I spent a couple of months one spring living on my own on an island in the center of Narragansett Bay.  The year-round population was 125 people and 300 deer.  It was a strange little isolated community.  I was captivated by the place — how quiet and empty it was, and how nothing ever happened (except the arrival of the ferry and the mail).  I was particularly intrigued by the people who had chosen to live there, many of them clearly drop-outs from life as most Americans know it.  Today things are different.  You can be connected to the world via the internet from almost anywhere.  It’s harder to get lost.  But back then, the isolation on the island was real and profound.

            One of the people who most intrigued me was the woman who ran the island store.  She was also the postmistress and the manager of the water company.  She was a tough character in her seventies who had lived on the island her entire life and had managed to get married and divorced three times without leaving the place.  I wondered what she was like as a girl and what it was like for her to grow up in this insular community.  She became the inspiration for my main character, Alice Daggett, in the first volume of the trilogy.

            I started out writing a short story about Alice as a teenager.  I planned to write a collection of stories that would span the 20th century and have a running theme of the different wars and how the island community was impacted by them.  Alice couldn’t be contained to a short story, though, so I turned her story into a novel and then, having drafts of the other stories still hanging around, turned them into the next two volumes of the trilogy.  It took me eight years to write Snow Island.  I wrote a bit faster with the next two volumes, but the whole project, including publication time, took nearly 20 years.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

 

What are some of the lessons you learned completing that first book?

Probably the biggest lesson I learned was that it takes as long as it takes.  Each book has its own life, each writer her own process.  I revised extensively, often chapter by chapter.  The craft books I read back then all advised writing a complete draft straight through without stopping, but I was unable to do this.  I kept going back and making changes.  I couldn’t go forward until I had revised the first chapters over and over, and then I often had to go back and revise them again.  My writing process was my dirty secret.  I was so obviously, it seemed, writing a novel the wrong way.  What I realized eventually is that there is no “wrong” way, there is only your way.  Whatever it takes to finish your book is what it takes.  I learned plenty of other lessons from writing that first book about pace and voice and dialogue and structure, but the most important thing I ultimately learned was to trust my own process.

 

Tell us more about that writing process. Are you an outliner? Do you have an idea of how the whole story will go or is your writing more open-ended?

 My writing tends to be more open-ended.  I don’t outline.  I carry the idea for a story around in my mind for a long time.  The shape of it keeps morphing and changing.  I have a plot of sorts, though mostly what I have are a setting and characters.  These come first for me.  My writing has always been strongly rooted in place.  I need a sense of place to anchor me imaginatively and a compelling cast of characters.  I need to know my characters as real and complete and believable before I can get them to act.  Plot tends to be the last thing I think about.  

            With nonfiction, it’s different, of course.  If you are writing a memoir, you have the outline of the story given to you, but you still need to uncover the real story.  Developing voice and character (your own and those you may portray in the memoir) is significant work that must be done with a memoir as it must be done in fiction.   

Your latest book, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth: A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship, is about your friendship with the late poet Robert Dunn, as well as a meditation on an artist’s connection to a place. What led you to write this book?

Robert Dunn was an unusual character who lived most of his life in Portsmouth, NH.  He rented a room in a house close to downtown from an elderly woman and did not own a car, telephone, television, or, when they came along, computer.  He was a brilliant thinker, a wonderful poet, and a voracious reader.  He sold his little hand sewn books of poems on the street for a penny.  I got to know Robert, to the extent that anyone got to know him (he was a very private and somewhat solitary person), when I moved to Portsmouth in 1991, living by chance in the house next door to his.  I admired Robert tremendously for existing so completely outside the system.  His life was performance art of a sort.  He was one of the most principled people I have ever met.  He owned next to nothing and chose to live largely without money.  This freed him to devote his time to writing and reading and thinking. 

            At the end of Robert’s life, when he was critically ill, I became involved in helping to care for him.  The choices he had made, which I had so admired in the past, looked different now.  He was isolated and had no resources.  He was forced to rely on others when he didn’t want to.  For some reason, he relied on me more than anyone else and essentially appointed me his next of kin in Portsmouth.  I went through an intense experience of being with him when he was close to death, thrust into the role of a family member.  After his death, I needed to write about this experience in order to process it and understand it.

            As the book evolved, it became a book about me as much as it was a book about Robert and our friendship.  I ended up writing about the choices I have made as a writer and how Robert challenged me in my thinking about those choices.  I wanted, too, to write about Portsmouth, a city that has changed so much since the early 1990s.  Robert was emblematic of the “old” Portsmouth, a rough around the edges port town that embraced characters like him.  I wanted to capture that Portsmouth, the place I so loved before money and gentrification took over in a big way.           

 

As a writing teacher, is there any advice you would like to give students, something that they should always keep in mind while writing?

Don’t be in a hurry.  Let the writing take the time it needs to take.  Build in time for the work to evolve.  This may mean writing a draft of a novel, then letting it sit for a year before looking at it again.  Time spent thinking about a piece of writing, or not thinking about it at all, just letting it quietly percolate somewhere in the back of your mind, can be as important as the actual hours at the desk.  Not writing can be just as important as writing.  You want your imagination to remain nimble, capable of going to unexpected places.  You want to be able to surprise yourself and the reader.  If you force the writing, if you push yourself to finish that draft because it simply has to be finished by tomorrow, you can become too cramped in your thinking and, hence, in your writing.  Do everything you can to free yourself.  Maybe this means taking frequent walks, meditating, doing yoga.  Maybe it means taking trips.  Maybe it means having other passions that completely absorb you, so for days or weeks you forget the writing entirely.  Whatever it is, pay attention to giving yourself and your writing the freedom to grow and change, to go anywhere, to be fluid, to emerge.  Allow yourself to be anyone on the page.   

 

K. Towler [credit: JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF]

K. Towler [credit: JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF]

Last thing: Anyone who knows you, knows you to be a dedicated birdwatcher. How did you get into birdwatching and what do you love most about it?

I started paying more attention to birds when I went to Florida for the first time about 20 years ago.  My husband and I signed up for a bird walk at a wildlife refuge, thinking, sure, we like birds.  The guide put her two thousand dollar binoculars around my neck and said, “I want you to use these.”  Smart guide.  She knew that if I saw the birds through those brilliant lenses, I would be hooked.  I was.

            Bird watching is very meditative.  You walk slowly and must train your senses to be acutely aware of what is around you.  You must listen for the songs and watch for the slightest signs of movement in leafed-out trees.  When I go bird watching, I forget myself entirely.  It sometimes feels miraculous.  My petty complaints are gone, my stupid preoccupations, my doubts and regrets.  The endless clock of life, the list of things to be done, disappears.  Birding is similar to writing in many ways.  It’s entirely absorbing, a “flow” state at its best.  But birding takes me outdoors, something I find increasingly essential for my sanity these days.  It’s an antidote to all that time spent in my head writing.  For me a perfect day contains both — a morning at the desk and an afternoon out walking and looking for birds.  This makes me something of a renegade birder, since the best birding is often at dawn, and birders pride themselves on being out by first light, but I can get out early on the weekends when I take a break from writing.  Spring migration is currently under way, and I am watching a Baltimore Oriole through my kitchen window.  What a creature of exquisite beauty.  The number and variety of bird species is staggering. There are over 10,000 species worldwide.  I will never get to them all, but I want to see as many as I can. 

Faculty Pick

Birds, Art, Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear

“Was it possible that my focus on making art, on creating tellable stories, was intercepting my ability to see broadly and tenderly and without gain?” Kyo MacLear asks in her brilliant book Birds, Art, Life: A Year of Observation. “What would it be like to give my expansive attention to the world, to the present moment, without expectations or promise of an obvious payoff?”

A novelist, essayist, and children’s author, Maclear was impelled to find answers to these questions by an existential crisis of sorts. When her father suffered two strokes, and she became consumed with caring for him and worrying about whether he would survive, she no longer had the uninterrupted blocks of time for writing she counted on, or the concentration to go with them. Burdened by a new awareness of mortality, she found herself wondering about the purpose of art and questioning the constricted vision writing seemed to demand of her. In an effort to find another way of thinking about her creative life, of thinking about life itself, she apprenticed herself to a birdwatcher and followed him around for a year of urban birdwatching in her native Toronto.

51VHIB5gsBL.jpg

Maclear’s guide is a musician in his thirties who shares his own anxieties about performing and cultivating a public persona as an artist. For him, the birds are a way back to an authentic, unmediated experience and an authentic self, and they become this for Maclear as well. 

I will admit that I was drawn to this book because I am completely obsessed with birdwatching myself and go out to look for birds in every kind of weather, in places that might strike the uninitiated as odd (waste water treatment plants are a favorite). But looking for birds is simply the vehicle in this book, a way to see through new eyes and to explore what makes life worthwhile. Although Maclear educates herself and the reader about birds and beautifully conveys the joy of spending time with them, Birds, Art, Life: A Year of Observation is ultimately a breathtaking series of meditations on mortality, ambition, creativity, and meaning. 

  By her own admission, Maclear “aims tiny” in this book, as she claims in one of my favorite chapters, “Smallness,” which is subtitled: “On the satisfaction of small birds and small art and the audacity of aiming tiny in an age of big ambitions.” But don’t be deceived. By focusing on the birds, she and her musician friend could find in one North American city, and by being a true observer of herself, Maclear has created a guide to the art of living a richer, more centered life.    

— Katherine Towler

 

Faculty Picks: Thrasher and Silber

Richard Adams Carey-- Sometimes a book comes way out of nowhere to knock you breathless. This is what I wrote in the annotated bibliography accompanying my first book, Raven’s Children: “A harrowing memoir by an Inupiaq Eskimo who is an alcoholic is to be found in Anthony Apakark Thrasher’s Thrasher: Skid Row Eskimo (Toronto: Griffin House, 1976).”

I found it somewhere on a bookstore’s table of publishers’ remainders. I was then still in the process of writing about a Yupik Eskimo family under siege from alcoholism, and I took a four-dollar chance on this obscure memoir of a solitary life eclipsed by the bottle.

But what a life and what a story. One of 21 children raised in a caribou-skin tent in the Canadian Arctic village of Tuktoyaktuk, and taken in 1943 at age six to a distant Catholic boarding school, Tony Thrasher was among those generations of Native American children whose original sin was their language, their culture, their parentage, their skin color.

No, this is not the inspirational story of someone who finds a way to rise above abuse and mistreatment. Instead Thrasher wanders through Canada from job to job, from woman to woman, frequently drunk. He was convicted of murdering a man in an alcoholic blackout and imprisoned for seven years. The story ends with Thrasher heading back to prison, this one for the criminally insane. There he disappears from history.

But his memoir crackles with storytelling verve, its byways lit by dream sequences, folktales, childhood memories, ancestral myths, as befits a man fathered by a shaman.

The two white reporters who helped assemble this manuscript were skeptical of some of Thrasher’s personal stories. But the tales and their evocative details all could be verified. “Right down to the name of the aircraft which is in Thrasher’s script but not in Jane’s ‘All the World’s Aircraft,’” they wrote. “De Havilland said there had been such a plane, just one, and that it had operated where and when Thrasher had specified.”

This really is Thrasher’s story, not theirs, dredged honestly from hell, and it’s both terrible and beautiful.

Improvement.jpg

Katherine Towler-- Joan Silber’s Improvement, her eighth book, won the 2018 Pen/Faulkner Award in Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. The fact that these accolades have come when Silber is 72, after years of steadily working and publishing and being known by a small band of followers, many of them fellow writers, is something to celebrate.

Silber has created a unique hybrid in this book that is equal parts novel and linked story collection. Her focus moves from a single mother living with her young son in Harlem to the woman's ex-boyfriend and his involvement in a scheme to make money by smuggling cigarettes across state lines. Improvement initially appears to be a composite portrait of a close circle of characters living in Harlem, but then it moves farther afield, to Turkey and Europe, and jumps back in time forty years. Only a thin thread at first connects these narratives. As the chapters unfold, however, a large canvas becomes apparent, with a series of startling links revealed. Silber creates a sweeping narrative that is rooted in small moments and a close rendering of character. She accomplishes this feat of storytelling by allowing one character’s story to rest beside another’s without commentary or overt nods to their connections.

Her natural, easy style makes a highly plotted book feel completely unforced. Silber renders her characters with a light but deft touch and a bemused distance. Her quick insights into their inner states come as moments of divine revelation, but just as quickly, she’s back to the business of daily life. Silber’s nimble handling of both structure and character, and her wonderfully wry and effortless voice, make this book a pleasure to read and one to study for its masterful technique.

Faculty picks: Oliver and Sedaris

Upstream.jpg

Katherine Towler-- I am writing fiction these days so I have been reading mostly nonfiction. Sometimes (but not always) it’s helpful to read in other genres besides the one you are wrestling with. Upstream, Selected Essays by Mary Oliver (Penguin Press, 2016) is the sort of book that calls for slow, careful reading and asks you to become as still and observant as the author. Most of the essays collected in this volume, published when Oliver was 81, have been previously published. As a selection of the best from previous books, Upstream is a gorgeous introduction to her prose and the subjects that merit her unflinching attention. These include astute pieces on the work of Emerson, Poe, Whitman, and Wordsworth. Other essays chronicle Oliver’s construction of a small writing studio in the back yard from materials salvaged at the dump, and her rescue and care of an injured black-backed gull who takes up residence in the bathtub. Oliver’s devotion to nature, a theme in her poetry, is given even more room in these essays, short and compact as they may be. The natural world is the subject she returns to most consistently, rendering her encounters with the animals and plants she meets on her daily walks in language so taut and revelatory, sentence after sentence take the breath away. Here’s a sample: 

“Through these woods I have walked thousands of times. For many years I felt more at home here than anywhere else, including our own house. . . .  Eventually I began to appreciate – I don’t say this lightly – that the great black oaks knew me. I don’t mean they knew me as myself and not another –that kind of individualism was not in the air – but that they recognized and responded to my presence, and to my mood. They began to offer, or I began to feel them offer, their serene greeting.”

Engulfed in Flames.jpg

Craig Childs-- After having assigned the same David Sedaris book, Naked, enough times, I decided to move on. This time I went for When You Are Engulfed in Flames, his 2008 book of essays recounting awkward moments of his life, turning anguish into snickering laughter and gut bomb roars. The subject revolves around his midlife crisis. He writes, “How had 9,125 relatively uneventful days passed so quickly, and how can I keep it from happening again?”

Yes on all counts, he’s a master humorist, his word-by-word articulation is as smooth as butter, his playfulness with grotesqueries of humanity is outstanding. But I’m not here to review the thing. I’m here to tell you that in the end, all I could think was, that was easy.

Easy to write, I mean. The book seemed manageable, clearly defined. I could see the outline, the number of subjects, how many points needed to be hit in each essay, how many live moments and conversations versus backstories. I know it wasn’t easy. Unless Sedaris is super-human, he sweated over the thing until he couldn’t see straight. Reading how neurotic he is, this would be unavoidable. Yet the final result was…easy. He succeeded with the magic trick. Crazy but wholly capable. Read it with structure in mind, you’ll see what I’m talking about, and enjoy those succinct and biting passages of his: “mess with me, and I'll stick my foot so far up your ass I'll lose my shoe.”

Faculty Picks: Habash, Alexie, Yuknavitch

Habash_StephenFlorida_9781566894647-682x1024.jpg

Marcus Burke--  In high school the wrestling team practiced on the other end of the field house and it was a regular occurrence to glance down the gym and see a wrestler hugging a trash can throwing up or to see a sign on the gym door warning us to stay away from the wrestling mats because of an outbreak of MRSA or Impetigo. Being slightly horrified of these skin conditions, I headed those warnings and stayed away, but Gabe Habash gives readers a convincing glimpse into the head of a hardnosed obsessive athlete. As a former division three college basketball player I’m often asked about writing and how it compares to basketball and my first thought is that in both endeavors you’ll need to be pretty obsessed with what you’re doing and also be okay with spending a lot of time alone and be able to deal with all the strange habits developed in that alone time, and these three things are captured incredibly well in Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash.  Division three athletes know that for the most part they’re not going to be pro’s and are mostly playing for the love of the game, though, there’s always an exception to the rule. There’s always that extreme guy on the team that hasn’t considered many other facets of his/her life besides being an athlete and Stephen Florida would be that teammate.

We follow Stephen through his senior year of college as he quests after his last opportunity to win a division four championship and his take no prisoners approach in doing so. In Stephen’s pursuit of championship glory, he pushes away the few people that care for him as he’s must accustom to caring about wrestling.  As I read this book I felt like I’d met several Stephen Florida’s while I was still in my playing days. What I most enjoy about this book is seeing Stephen blindsided by the reality that he would have to find something else to do with his life the following year, regardless of the outcome of his wrestling season. There’s a fine line between being crazy and the pursuit of being great and Stephen Florida walks this line well.

31420708.jpg

Katherine Towler-- Sherman Alexie’s powerful memoir You Dont Have to Say You Love Me (Little, Brown, 2017) is as much a record of excavation as it is a narrative. Alexie circles again and again around the death of his mother from lung cancer, each time looking for new understanding, each time exploring another facet of his grief and culpability in their failed relationship. “This mourning has become a relentless production/And I’ve got seventy-eight roles to play” he writes in one of the poems that make up almost half the book. Alexie is brutally honest about the love and hate he feels simultaneously for his mother as he struggles toward a clearer view of her and himself. A powerful woman who was one of the last speakers of Salish, the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribe’s language, she was also neglectful and abusive. Like Alexie, she was a product of the systematic racism practiced against generations of Native Americans, something he reports not as an excuse but as simple fact. He chronicles this inheritance in unflinching terms, revealing the extreme poverty of life on the reservation, the alcoholism of both his parents, and his mother’s untreated bipolar disorder, from which he also suffers. The unorthodox structure of this book – short, episodic chapters interspersed with poetry – becomes hypnotic, an incantation that reflects the inability of those whose cultures and families have been destroyed to create a coherent narrative of their lives. In the end, though, this is not a book that rests on blame, and that is Alexie’s triumph. It is a searing confrontation of hard truths and a celebration of survival.

u34+1F!EVWH7ngw7NLVXIcKIKW2pmYA+Gl!w8rbMsYH!BRIAG5OUet9tcq9F2XjffXkZsjELHH1dotzfe59AzyGvF052d2UykJBErmXhkayWsW1OYzkgsRAdZgmVYczu.png

Amy Irvine-- After a summer of reading for research (Eurasian burial mounds preserved in permafrost) and reading with my middle school daughter (Judy Blume, on bras and wet dreams), I tumbled into The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch. This is dystopia at its best—the eco-fem dirge of The Handmaid’s Tale meets the visceral requiem of The Road. Chelsea Gain calls Joan “transgressive and badass and nervy and transformational… a Katniss Everdeen for grown-ups,” and I agree, except you could hate science-fiction and still fall in love with this book, purely for the prose that is exquisitely, fiercely, poetically carnal. This is also a book that—while looking ahead to a time when both earth and humans are hopelessly neutered and our skin is the last place to carve out, literally, a story—has the rearview mirror trained on a Saint who wielded both sword and faith in a way that still sets souls ablaze. Meaning the passion of mystics persists—even when all other human traits dry up and blow into a sky that has become a swansong. When future students say, “I wanna write sci-fi” this is what I’ll point to and say “Pastiche this!”