FIVE QUESTIONS FOR KIM KUPPERMAN
by Mira Ptacin
December 22, 2010
Missives from the Other Side of Silence
The author of “I Just Lately Started Buying Wings” opens up.
1. What is your writing routine?
I work a full-time job and teach part-time, and so I write whenever I have time. And on Sundays, I take part in a writing circle at home, with my husband and a friend, both of whom are writers. We sit silently and work, each of us with a laptop or notebook in a chair or on the couch. Our friend brings her collie, who has this aura of calm that spreads to our dog and two cats. It’s very productive.
Often, I take notes during the day or before retiring at night. Most of my work evolves out of observations recorded in my notebook. I find that I do a lot of writing in my head. Driving to work. Or just showering. Traveling. There are times—when I’m really latched onto a project—that I’ll set my alarm for 5:00 a.m., get up, make a cup of tea or coffee, and sit down and write. I like that deep silence of the early morning. But I also need a certain amount of sleep. I tell myself I ought to have a routine, but I’ve never developed one. Writing, for me, is not a routine enterprise; it’s an all-the-time endeavor. I’m always thinking about what I’m writing.
2. What is your definition of “truth” in terms of writing creative nonfiction?
I’m more interested in why “reality” has become so compelling and why the subject of “truth” in a literary genre has become such an enormous preoccupation in a period of history that we’ve come to name the Information Era (sometimes, I like to think of it as the Misinformation or even Disinformation Era since it’s hard to discern what is real, what is artifice, what is unfiltered—just think Colin Powell trying to convince himself and others that America waged war on Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction, or think of Donald Rumsfeld’s astonishing doublespeak). It didn’t take very long for people to discover that James Frey’s memoir contained untruths—what I mean is that it’s much easier these days to obtain information. But perhaps the real issue is that we still haven’t distinguished the truth of journalism from the truth contained in more imaginative forms of nonfiction. That’s not to say that I think you should make things up and brand it as the Truth. However, memoir, which is on one end of the nonfiction continuum,is, generally, an exploration of memory, which is an entirely subjective entity. How I remember an event and how someone else remembers it can result in two completely different narratives. Who is to say which narrative is “more true” or, for that matter, which one is not true? In an essay, an author invents a persona to, literally, mask the narrator, who is a fabricated entity. Does that mean the author isn’t being “true” to his or her self? Or, does it mean that the author is being more true—able to voice opinions and stances about certain issues—than he or she might have been without the protection of a mask? I’m thinking, in particular, of Lamb’s persona called Elia, or any of the nameless yet very distinct personae adopted by E. B. White.
Finally, I believe that what we imagine is also a kind of truth. Put another way, imagination contains truths we might not articulate if we couldn’t imagine them. For example, I recently led a workshop for young adults in a mandatory ninety-day drug-and-alcohol rehab program. I distributed a photo of two hippos in a concrete pen at a zoo. I asked the workshop participants to write about the relationship between the animals in the image. To a person, they all wrote about what it felt like to be in captivity with someone else. Of course it wasn’t hard to see that they were really writing about their own experience of being in a place they didn’t necessarily want to be in, with people they both liked and disliked. I understood them to be narrating their individual truths by using an act of imagination.
3. What is the biggest nemesis to your creative spirit?
Pettiness, discourtesy, uncharitableness, and meanness of spirit. And having to answer too many e-mails!
4. What do you hope people take away from your writing?
One interpretation of what it means to be human. I also hope—don’t we all?—that readers will change the way they think of things, whether it’s secret keeping, violence, or failure.
5. What writers have inspired you the most, and why?
James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf remain my number-one literary heartthrobs. I’ve read everything Baldwin wrote in fiction and nonfiction; he taught me so much about how the personal can become universal.. He had the audacity to write about love—and do it in a way that analyzed complicated relationships, whether they were between a father and son, white and black people, men and women. He was an amazing thinker and because of his training as a preacher, he brought to his work a sense of oratory that is mesmerizing. How can you walk away from an argument like the one contained in “The Fire Next Time” and not be convinced that racism is not only wrong, it is everyone’s responsibility to undo and, moreover, if we don’t undo it, a terrible prophecy will be fulfilled?
I’ve read all of Woolf’s novels, most of her essays, and some of her letters. I never tire of her work and I revisit it often because, as is the case with all written work, its meaning evolves with time. She entwines humor and seriousness in a manner that is sublime. Plus, her credo that writing is a political act, especially for women, feels like a call across time. How can we ignore such an invitation?
The writers whose work I love would fill a book, but here is an abbreviated list of some of the authors whose work I return to again and again to understand how they craft language and narrative: Joan Didion, Loren Eiseley, E. B. White, John Berger, Susan Griffin, Cynthia Ozick, bell hooks, N. Scott Momaday, Eduardo Galeano, David Foster Wallace, Linda Hogan, Aurora Levins Morales, Maxine Hong Kingston, June Jordan.