Katie Coles — 2013 Writers@Work Interview
What inspired you to write your first book?
I have always written poems, since I learned to write, so producing the first book was a seamless part of what I have always done. The second book was another matter. When I finished the first collection, I knew I needed to do something different from what I’d been doing. There were indications of a new direction (toward meditations on science, art, and history in particular) but I didn’t know how to make the transition from childhood poems in the confessional mode to what really interested me. So I wrote a novel, and in doing so unwittingly learned how to open my voice to other possibilities.
How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?
After the early books, the impact isn’t so much in autobiographical content as in how my childhood shaped the way I interact with and view the world. My parents were—are—outdoorsy, adventurous, and analytical, and I think all those traits, whether through nature or nurture, came to me and show in my work.
What did you find most useful in learning how to write?
Let’s make the question what DO I find most useful, since the learning never stops, ideally. The essential thing is reading. Every kind of thing that catches my interest.
What are a few pitfalls a new writer would do well to avoid?
Thinking that the work is ultimately about herself and so becoming overly attached to its early versions. Even first-person lyric poems and personal essays, which begin in self-expression, must reach a point where they have the capacity to become about the reader if they are to place a legitimate claim on a stranger’s attention. This requires detachment.
What are some day jobs you have held? How did any of them influence your writing?
Elevator operator. Waitress. Data entry person, copywriter. God help me, telephone solicitor (BRIEFLY). I think they gave me endurance and also compassion, which are important qualities for writers to have. But I am glad I am not doing them now.
What inspires you? What motivates you to write?
A desire to explore the nature of reality and to engage others in that exploration.
Are there any occupational hazards to being a writer?
On the one hand, you might become solipsistic and withdrawn and a little crazy in that way. On the other, you could fall into a crevasse on an Antarctic glacier or be swept overboard during a gale while crossing the Drake Passage. You could become too compassionate or not compassionate enough. Or you could develop carpal tunnel syndrome. The writer’s hazards are all the hazards of life; they depend on who you are, where you go, what you do.
What is it that makes a collection (poems, essays, or stories) hang together?
It depends on the collection. Maybe a narrative. Maybe a strong voice or a singular vision.
How do you know when a book or individual piece is complete?
The first time is when I am so tired of it I never want to see it again. The second and final time is when I’ve done all the rewrites I can before the publication deadline. After that, there’s no point in worrying about it any more.
What books are you reading now?
All of Raymond Chandler, which I have known well by proxy but have somehow missed in person. And various books by Antarctic explorers, especially Edward Wilson’s Antarctic Notebooks, which are full of amazing drawings and paintings. Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. I’ve been rereading May Swenson’s Collected Poems, which was just published, and am about to read Christian Wiman’s latest, My Bright Abyss.
What is a book by another that you wish you had written?
Oh, heavens. There are too many to count. Start with anything by Toni Morrison, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot. Every writer who is most different (or differently situated) than I, whose experience and so whose writing I couldn’t possibly hope to replicate.
Which of your own books is your favorite?
The most recent one, always, but especially now, since The Earth Is Not Flat is about my experience in Antarctica, which was full of bliss.
What did you enjoy most about writing your most recent book?
That I was able to use the writing to examine, perpetuate, hold on to that bliss.
What do you think is the future of writing? How will technology change literature?
It will make all kinds of work more accessible—it already has and this will continue. How that accessibility will change practices I am waiting to find out.
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