Faculty Spotlight: Katherine Towler

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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 SPOTLIGHT: Justin Taylor

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Recently, Morgan Green interviewed Mountainview MFA faculty member and author of Flings, The Gospel of Anarchy, and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, Justin Taylor, about his latest project, as well as his new role as the Teppola Distinguished Visiting Professor.

What is your current book about?
My last book was a story collection called Flings. It came out in 2014. The stories weren’t connected, though a few characters popped up in multiple pieces. Right now, I’m working on a memoir, which still feels bizarre to me to say. I don’t want to get into too many details, because it isn’t finished yet, but it’s a book about my relationship with my father, who was an amazing but also difficult man. It’s also about my relationship to Judaism, which turns out to be equally complicated.

Credit: David Benhaim

Credit: David Benhaim

What’s your writing routine?
I don’t have one. I’m bad with schedules. But when I’m trying to really dig in on a project, I do find it’s good to write every day, or to write one day and edit the next, make sure the fire in the hearth doesn’t burn out, you know? I like to write in the mornings when I can, preferably before I’ve seen email or my phone or the internet, because my head is still clear. The best is when I’ve got like half a day to myself, say between three and six hours, and I can turn all the devices off, relax and read some poetry or something, let the urge to write build up a bit instead of having to scramble, and then I start when I’m ready and go until I wear myself out. That’s a best-case scenario, obviously, not the norm.

What authors do you admire most?
Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, and Don DeLillo are three big ones for me. Virginia Woolf, especially The Waves and To the Lighthouse. Saul Bellow. There are other authors who I have admired very much but no longer return to very often. Though I still remember what it felt like to read them and be blown away. I think it’s possible to love a particular writer, or a particular book, but then to hit the limit of what you can take from them and so you move on. Like a relationship that doesn’t end badly, it just—ends. So that’s one answer. Also, In the past couple of years, I’ve written critically on Percival Everett, Thomas McGuane, and Mary Robison, which meant I got to know their work extremely well. I spent between six months and a year with each body of work, and developed all kinds of ideas about how each writer works and what their strengths are. I’m a huge advocate now for Robison’s Subtraction, for McGaune’s novel Ninety-two in the Shade, and for Everett’s Erasure, Watershed, and God’s Country, just to name a few since he has written so many. I could go on but I probably shouldn’t.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student? The worst?
The best was probably learning to line edit. I had one professor whose aesthetic was severely minimalist, and who had also been a magazine editor for most of his career. He had no patience for redundancy, cliche, or self-indulgence. Every sentence had to earn its place, and it turned out that most of them hadn’t. There was a set of values and aesthetic biases behind what he was doing that are not necessarily universally shared, but they were worth understanding, and the practical skills he taught me, in terms of editing and self-editing and also in terms of not settling for the quick fix, have been invaluable ever since. Conversely, the worst workshop experience I think I ever had was with a different professor at that same school. Nice guy, smart guy, but he was lazy, so he smothered us in easy praise to mask the fact he wasn’t reading us closely or challenging us to be better. So you wound up with a genial workshop, and all these stories you thought were ready for the big leagues, and then you had to find out the hard way later that they weren’t even close. It was a lot of wasted time.

What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?
I’m not sure who told me these things, or what was told to me and what I figured out for myself, but here’s my handy three-step process for revision:
    1) Write the first draft by hand
    2) After you type up that draft, print it out and do the next edit in hard copy again. Shifting between the physical and digital space helps keep your critical eye fresh, plus it forces you to type up every set of notes into the document, which effectively becomes another round of editing. (It also helps to read your work out loud.) Repeat this process as many times as necessary. 
    2a) Invest in a laser printer. It’ll save you money in the long run. 
    3) Never type up your edits the same day you make them. Leave a night’s sleep between marking up your printed manuscript and inputting those mark-ups into the computer file. This is how you avoid accidentally butchering your work because you were in a bad mood or the coffee was too strong.

So you’re a visiting professor at Williamette University, how did that come about?
I was nominated for a position that they have there, the Teppola Distinguished Visiting Professor, which is a one-year appointment that rotates among the various departments at the school. So the English department made a case to bring me in, and I guess we beat out the other departments and whoever they had nominated. This is a slightly more academic title than I usually end up with, but the work is about the same. Last school year I was the Artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Mississippi Ph.D. program (home, by the way, of the wonderful Mississippi Review) and before that I was the Writer-in-residence at the Butler University M.F.A. program in Indianapolis. So in one sense it’s pretty familiar territory, but it’s very exciting for me because I get to live at home in Portland instead of some random city, and because Willamette is a very special school. It’s the oldest school in Oregon, I believe, and it sits in the heart of downtown Salem, across the street from the State Capitol. It’s a gorgeous campus, and I’m optimistic about the upcoming school year.

You’re teaching a multi-genre introduction to creative writing, and a 19th century lit seminar on monsters. Tell us more about that. Also, what’s your favorite book from the reading list you assigned?
Yes, two classes I don’t usually teach, so it’ll be a real treat to workshop poetry and nonfiction as well. We’re reading eight or nine books in that class, including Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, Asali Solomon’s Get Down, and Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, but I might be most excited about Terrence Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. It just came out and I think it will yield a lot of strong opinions and good discussions. The Monsters class was challenging to put together, and I’m a little worried I’m trying to pack too much in, but we’ll see how it goes. We’re doing a lot of Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Gothic Tales. I found this great anthology that Italo Calvino edited called Fantastic Tales—it’s got Balzac, Dickens, Hawthorne, Le Fanu, and much more. Oh and we’re reading this wild little Swiss novel called The Black Spider, recently translated by Susan Bernofsky for NYRB Classics. I might name that as the favorite only because I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen when I teach it.

How do you balance teaching with writing? Do you feel as though teaching slows down the process at all?
I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, sure, spending time doing anything other than writing is lost writing time. And sure, after a full day of teaching (or line-editing student fiction) you’re not going to be able to give your best energy to your own work. So on a day when a lot of teaching-work has to get done, it’s pretty likely that not much writing-work is going to get done. On the other hand, I find that working with students is intellectually stimulating and a lot of fun. You get to meet people at the moment when they’re finally getting the chance to focus on their life-long passion, and you get to help them on their way. It’s awesome to see students have breakthroughs, figure out how to finish a story, get published for the first time. So I guess the answer to your question is: Short term, yes, teaching can slow you down, but long term, it gives a lot more than it takes. And I haven’t even mentioned money. We’ve all got to earn a living somehow, and if I wasn’t doing this I would be something else, probably with longer hours and worse colleagues.

What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?
Neither is all that valuable. Praise is always nice to hear, and it can be very useful for an aspiring writer to hear what is working. And of course we all need to learn how to take (and how to give) criticism. The piece wouldn’t be in the workshop if it was already perfect. But I think that “praise and criticism” is too often code for “good and bad,” which is just such an impoverished language for talking about stories. This isn’t like scanning Yelp reviews deciding where to go for pizza—oh it says the breadsticks were soggy, but the drink refills are free… Forget all that. More than anything else, what I want a workshop to do is tell the writer of the piece what we see in her piece—not what we feel about what we see, but literally: What is on the page? You can get a great argument going about a story just by asking the workshop, What did you think this was about? Or even, What happened in this story? You will get 10 different answers. When people summarize, paraphrase, or describe, they immediately reveal what they as readers thought was important. They reveal what they as readers forgot about or didn’t understand. So the writer comes away with a lot of hard data on the way she is actually being read, which tells her something about the distance between what she was trying to do and what she actually did. How she uses this information is up to her, but it’s a lot more useful than “I really liked the part with the ferris wheel but I was sad when the dog died.” Or worst, worst, worst of all: “I really related to this because it reminded me of myself.”

What are the top myths people have about the publishing industry?
I don’t know, maybe that it’s a strict meritocracy, which it isn’t? Or that there’s any kind of consensus on what constitutes “merit,” which there also isn’t? Every time you ask yourself the question, “How did [Bad Book X or Bad Story Y] get published?” the answer is really simple: Someone was able to convince someone else that it was actually good, and/or that a lot of people would want to buy it. Most editors do want to publish smart, challenging plotless novels and beautiful heartbreaking books of poetry that will sell 300 copies, but that desire is not the only thing, or even the main thing, on their minds. They can’t afford for it to be. And with magazines it can be even more complicated, because the editor there is probably also thinking about things like the news cycle, or how this piece fits in with the 12 other pieces in the issue, or what the other magazines in their competitive tier are also working on. None of this, by the way, is good news or bad news (though it is of course very annoying that Bad Book X got published, or that your story got rejected), it’s just true. So the best thing for a new writer to do is to try and understand this whole ecosystem, and imagine what that same world looks like from the POV of some of its other players: the agent, the editor, the assistant editor, the marketing team, and so on. Then you have to go and repress all that shit or you'll be too depressed to write anything—which is its own kind of challenge—but sooner or later the day will come when you’ll want to have access to all the information. It won’t make the process seem more fair, necessarily, but it will make it seem less random and insane.

Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?
No. It is one hundred percent, without exception, a waste of time and energy for this simple reason: you’re trying to imagine something that doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as “publication,” there are only publications—magazines, journals, websites, publishing houses—each with its own sense of identity, its own sense of what is important, or what kind of work it would like to be publishing. You might submit your story or your book to twenty places before it lands somewhere, and it’s impossible to write something that’s equally “for” all of them. At that point you’re writing the TV Guide. You don’t know who those editors are, or what they’re looking for, or how your piece might or might not fit into the particular issue of the magazine they’re putting together right now, or how your book might fit in with the two dozen other books currently on their publishing schedule. The only thing to do is do the best work that you possibly can, put it out there, and see who wants to give it a home.


Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.