One has to wonder how a married mother of three who works as the editor of a literary website and teaches creative writing at two universities in Toronto still finds the time (and energy) to write. It may have taken some excellent time management but Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer has managed to get two books; the first, a collection of short stories (Way Up) followed by a novel (The Nettle Spinner), under her belt. And she has a new release set for next year. Please enjoy reading more about Kathryn’s perspective on writing and the writing life.
Moe: Looking back, did you choose the writing profession or did the profession choose you? When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I would say there was a convergence of intention and happenstance. I do not recall being taught to read and write, and, in school, already at five I was being asked to mentor older children in the writing of stories. I had teachers along the way support this idea but really I didn’t know how one became a writer; I didn’t have a clue how to do that until I started meeting other writers about twelve years ago.
You know, the ‘writing profession’ is a funny way of putting it. Most Canadian literary writers can’t fully support themselves with a book out every three to five years. Writing is never a singular pursuit. It is that which you do because for whatever reason you need to do it. It is ingrained, for me, part of my identity.
Moe: What inspires you?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I am inspired often by things that others find ugly: a clear-cut, war rugs, a car wreck, broken people, rust and decay. I don’t know why I search out beauty there. Maybe, it’s the perfectionist in me trying against the odds to make perfect what can’t be.
Moe: Every writer has a method to his or her writing. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I don’t have a typical day. The writing process always changes for me and always has. Sometimes I work better in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. I don’t have a routine except that I try to write everyday for at least an hour. With children, it has often been a challenge to write at all, and so I have become adept at writing in my head toward such a time as I can sit down and put it to paper. So, it can be argued that I am always writing, even when I am not. This gives me a great deal of freedom as I can always claim to working!
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?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I revise compulsively throughout the writing of a book. My current manuscript has been in the works for about seven years. The Nettle Spinner took me about three years to write. The collection of stories, Way Up, took ten. There doesn’t seem to be a recipe.
Moe: When you sit down to write is any thought given to the genre or type of readers?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: My ideal reader is curious, and willing to work; my writing requires the reader to come part way to make the thing work. I want to engage people, not entertain them.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: It is impossible to plan everything in advance. The writing process belies all best laid intentions there, in my experience. You set out to do such and such and your writing brain brings you somewhere wonderfully better! I wouldn’t trade that in for a static outline. Having said that, though, I do have a clear idea of character, setting, plot, theme etc, before I begin. So I have a direction, and a purpose, but lots of freedom to play inside that.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I love research and so will do all sorts of it, sometimes as a complete distraction from the work. With The Nettle Spinner a lot of the research was easy to access locally, online and through libraries. The book is partly set in a northern Ontario treeplanting camp and, as I treeplanted quite a bit though my early twenties, I drew on experience for those scenes. My new novel is set largely in New Mexico, and so I traveled there to verify aspects of my research and to gain access to an oilfield, research that was necessary to fully apprehending the place. I might have gotten away without this trip, but it did give me a feeling that the foundation of the book was solid, which I hope translates into a feeling of verisimilitude for the reader.
Moe: Where do your characters come from? How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: There is a notion in the oral tradition of storytelling (fairytales and legends) that all the characters in a story are aspects of the individual. I like to expand that notion to suggest that every character I write is me, in some truth, or some fantastical projection, else how could I imagine him or her. This gives me a level of commitment to the characters, in that they are always investigations of my own humanity, what I am capable of, what seduces me, what darkness and what light, and shades thereof, I can achieve.
Moe: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If yes, what measures do you take to get past it?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I don’t suffer from writer’s block but there are times when I do not write. Ideas are forming in these times, whether I can recognize that or not.
Moe: What do you hope readers gain, feel or experience when they read one of your books for the first time?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I would like readers to have questions when they finish my books, questions they might go in search of answers for, and questions they might ask themselves about their own humanity. I want to direct readers to themselves and to the world in ways they hadn’t before imagined. I want to help people open their minds, and keep their minds open. It is a beautiful thing, to have an open mind.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I have learned everything I always knew but may have forgotten from the publishing world: writing is about writing, writing is art, writing is an intellectual pursuit.
Moe: What is your latest release about?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: The Nettle Spinner is about how stories are transformed by whoever is telling them. It is about a young woman who becomes fixated on the rendering of an old folktale into a weaving only to find that her own life magically begins to parallel the original story. The book is like those Russian nesting dolls in that it retells a real Flemish folktale, then it retells that folktale within the weaving, then it retells that story in the main character’s parallel modern story. The story has, in fact, then lived on in various retellings inside reviews. I am playing with the notion of orality, how women’s stories have traditionally been transmitted, and how transformative these transmissions can be.
The idea came slowly over a number of years as I searched for a way to tell a story set in the north. I wanted the story to be a dystopian about the earth, about our regard for nature, about storytelling.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I like to read intelligent novels, well-written non-fiction, graphic novels, children’s literature, books about writing.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I read. I also like reading. Oh, and going to readings!
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I suggest taking a course or two at a reputable university. I think a great deal can be accomplished by having the right sort of guidance early on, and a group of people who like to do this crazy thing, and who will respect your interest in doing this thing, too.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I used to have fantasies about being a fireman or a baker. But in reality I’d likely be an academic, which amounts to being a writer of sorts, I suppose. I’m cheating you out of an answer.
Moe: What is your favorite word?
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: Oh, there are so many. I like words that fill the mouth: Helvetica, conundrum, widdershins, and words that don’t look how they sound, so there is an implied secret to them: plumbing, segue, knife.
- Purchase a copy of The Nettle Spinner from Amazon.com.
- Purchase a copy of The Nettle Spinner from Amazon.ca.
My interview with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer was first published on 1/17/2008 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.