Emotional realism is a necessary element of Katrina Kittle’s writing. She has three books to her name; most recently, The Kindness of Strangers. With the encouragement of her mother and father this Dayton, Ohio resident has spent most of her life writing stories and poems. When she’s not writing or riding horses she can be found at the Miami Valley School teaching English and theatre to 6th and 7th graders. I hope you enjoy the kindness of Katrina Kittle.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you? When did you ‘know’ you were a writer? Were you a good writer as a child? Teenager? Etc.
Katrina Kittle: In my family, reading and books were highly valued. One of my favorite childhood memories is going to the library with a wagon to drag home all the books I’d check out each week. I absolutely loved to read. My dad is a voracious reader and my mom is a teacher, so they encouraged my reading and writing. An early gift was a journal. I have diaries and journals from as far back as third grade. My sister and I would write stories for each other for presents, and everyone in the family received a birthday poem. One year for Christmas, my sister and I wrote a short story called “Prisoners of Pursuit” in which a character (obviously my father, although thinly disguised as a fictional character) kidnapped neighbors and forced them to play Trivial Pursuit with him (because no one in the man’s family would play with him anymore because he always won). I always had excellent grades in English and Language Arts classes and ended up in an Honors Tutorial English program in college. I studied dance and theatre, then English, and only after college did I become interested in writing for publication.
Moe: What inspires you?
Katrina Kittle: Everything! Honestly. My novels all center on a social issue I care greatly about, so I get story ideas from reading the paper and watching the news and from the experiences I gain in my volunteer work. I get huge inspiration from teaching–every single student has a story to tell, after all. I find a great deal of inspiration from reading poetry. I don’t ever write poetry myself but I like to “warm up” each writing day by reading two or three poems. Poets remind me how to play with language, and they always have amazing images. More inspiration comes from being outside, hiking or kayaking, and from being around animals, especially horses.
Moe: On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Katrina Kittle: I make a good cup of coffee and sit down at my desk. I start by reading some poetry. Then I just dive in to wherever I left off the day before. The best time for me to create new work is first thing in the morning (which means rising VERY early before a school day). Mornings are my most productive time. I can revise and proofread in the evenings, but writing new material has to happen in the morning. Good dark chocolate and fresh flowers help, but are not requirements.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Katrina Kittle: It takes me a LONG time before I allow anyone to read my work. I like to have a first draft completed before I ask fellow writers to read and give feedback. I’ve found it can be detrimental to get feedback before I’m certain what will happen in the story. I need to stay open to my own discoveries. The first draft is that process of discovery. I tend not to revise at all in a first draft and I will be well aware I’m writing sloppy and repetitive passages, but I just make myself keep right on going. In the subsequent drafts, I will do major revision all along the way.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you’ll have?
Katrina Kittle: None at all. I’ve found you have to write a story you are passionate about, and worry about marketing questions later.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Katrina Kittle: I don’t plan much of anything in advance. I have tried to, but an outline feels like a strait jacket to me. The real joy in the process for me is in that process of discovery as I figure out the story in a first draft. I may take some wrong turns and missteps, and I may write hundreds of pages I end up unable to use, but, for me, it is the necessary process to unearth the story.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Katrina Kittle: I do a great deal of research before I actually begin laying down a draft. Each of my novels has begun with a social issue I care deeply about. So, I begin my immersing myself in everything I can find to do with that topic–fiction, nonfiction, films, documentaries, etc. Anything that relates to it. I usually won’t even know what I’m looking for, but I know it when I see it–I’ll come across little “nuggets” of great information. As I begin to actually draft, I will then try to find experts willing to talk to me. For The Kindness of Strangers, I talked to doctors, child psychologists, social workers, and police officers. People at The Children’s Medical Center and CARE House in Dayton opened their arms and doors to me and gave me tours, answered countless questions, and checked my facts. Their generosity overwhelmed me…and of course it made it a better book.
Moe: Where do your characters come from? How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do you draw the line?
Katrina Kittle: I think writers “use” everything they see and experience. It’s nearly impossible not to do that! We are told from the time we’re kids in school to “write what you know,” so of course I write about things I’ve experienced or know well. My characters are always fictional creations, but many aspects of them are composites of people I know. Sarah in The Kindness of Strangers, for example, looks like a friend of mine, is the cook I wish I could be, and keeps family rituals that I have heard about from three other different friends’ families. The bat incident actually happened to me, although it was not my idea to get rid of the bat the way Sarah does. Our life experiences have a way of worming themselves into our fiction. I guess I would draw the line at using anything deeply personal that would be recognizable as anyone I knew. If it would make me feel sheepish or creepy to include something from someone else’s life, then I simply wouldn’t do it.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Katrina Kittle: I used to boast I never had writer’s block–my problem was narrowing down all the ideas I wanted to write about. But when I went through a divorce last winter–which was not my choice and a total, blindside surprise–my writing stopped cold. My mind simply would not be still enough for me to focus. It was a horrible feeling to have “lost” what I once found such comfort in. What got me past it was sticking to what Natalie Goldberg calls “the practice school of writing.” You show up at the desk every day for an appointed amount of time. If you just sit there and stare, fine. If you write absolute drek, fine. But you show up and give your time to writing in whatever way you can. You don’t wait for “inspiration.” I made myself do writing exercises. Much of what I wrote during that awful time was utter crap I will never use. BUT, the important point is when my mind was able to focus and I was able to return to the novel I had in progress, I was still “in shape” for writing. I had adhered to the habit of writing.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Katrina Kittle: First and foremost, I hope they are transported by the story and that the characters embed themselves in the reader’s heart and memory. That’s my goal and aspiration. And, as I’ve said, all my novels center on a social issue, so I hope they take away a newfound understanding of the issue. I firmly believe a novel is not a forum for a message, and I don’t try to tell the reader what to think about the issue. I hope to raise questions, but not necessarily answer them, and to simply get the reader to think about an issue they may not have considered before.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Katrina Kittle: 1.) I learned a writer needs to be very involved and energetic about her own publicity and promotion. With my first book, I very naively sat back and thought the publisher would promote the book like crazy. I have learned to be proactive now, to meet my publicist, to brainstorm ideas, to drum up as many appearances and opportunities for promotion as I possibly can. 2.) I’ve learned the more ideas I come up with for promotion, the more ideas the publisher will back and support. 3.) I’ve learned no matter what happens in your publishing life, someone is going to be more successful. The “goal” always shifts. You start with “I want to be published,” then it turns into “I want to be published well,” and then “I want to sell well” and “I want to be a bestseller” yada yada yada. There will always be something more to aspire to. I have learned to celebrate every single small step along the way. There’s a great quote, from Martina Navratilova: “The moment of victory is far too short to live for that alone.” I have learned if the writing process is not a joyful one for me, I should be doing something else!
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Katrina Kittle: I’m always thrilled to get fan mail and I answer every single one. I usually print the letters that come to my website and keep the letters that come through the real mail. It’s fun to reread them on the days when the writing feels slow or sluggish. I especially love it when readers tell me about how the book affected them, or ways they think or do things differently because of the book’s message. Those are such wonderful gifts to receive! So much of writing happens in solitude, it’s great to get to learn what impact the book had on a reader.
Moe: What’s your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Katrina Kittle: The Kindness of Strangers is about one family’s experience as an emergency foster care placement for a sexually abused boy from their community. The seed of the story came when I met a ten-year-old boy who was HIV+ during one of my school residencies. His birth parents, now in prison, were a white couple from an affluent suburb who had prostituted him for drug money; he had contracted the virus from this abuse. His story devastated me, but his personality, resilience, and great, sly sense of humor inspired me even more. He had been adopted by a wonderful new family. Although this novel is not his story, he was the genesis behind it. I hope the novel captures the strength and triumph of his life. When I started researching this novel, I was horrified to learn his story was not at all unique. I became aware of how common child sexual abuse was, and I was angry I had never heard anyone discuss this or ways to prevent it.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Katrina Kittle: I read all kinds of books! Every genre, every time period. Lots of nonfiction as well as fiction.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Katrina Kittle: I like to spend as much time outside and with horses as possible. Nothing makes me happier. I also cook and love to make big dinners for friends. I dabble in ballroom dance and am currently in a Latin dance class. I love it! I love hiking and kayaking. And I’m a huge movie buff.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Katrina Kittle: To write your book. I don’t mean to be flippant, but there’s a great Isaac Asimov quote: “It’s the writing that teaches you.” Once you have a story actually on paper, you can then begin to edit and revise and learn from it. As long as you’re talking about a story as an abstract idea, you’ve got nothing.
Also, start writing NOW. Don’t wait for some ideal day when you’re going to have a giant chunk of time fall into your lap. If your life is anything like mine, then that’s never going to happen! I wrote the first draft of Traveling Light in two hour slots on Saturdays over the course of two years. I told myself every single Saturday of my life, I could find two hours that were mine I could carve out as writing time. It was difficult, and sometimes those two hours were found in the wee, wee hours, but I did it. A few Saturdays fell on holidays so I “made up” those hours on other days.
Soon, I discovered those two hours a week were not enough and I became more creative and flexible at finding more time. I compare it to being in love. You know when you meet someone new and you’re in that breathless, exhilarating, all-consuming stage of a crush? You will do anything-rearrange schedules, skimp on sleep, overcome impossible logistics-to be with that beloved person? Well, you need to feel that passionate about what you’re writing. If you’re not (if I’m not, anyway), you shouldn’t be writing this particular story.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Katrina Kittle: Well, I’m also a teacher and I love it. I think I’ll always be teaching in some capacity. I often dream about going to culinary school, so who knows…
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Katrina Kittle: Serendipity
- Purchase The Kindness of Strangers from Amazon.com.
- Purchase The Kindness of Strangers from Amazon.ca.
Originally published 4/23/2006 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.