Interview with Kelly Cherry

by JIM MINICK

Kelly Cherry’s A Kind of Dream is a collection of linked short stories that examine the interconnections of love and art in the lives of Nina, her family and friends. It’s third in a trilogy of books about this family and place, the first My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers (1990) and the second The Society of Friends (1999). Told mostly in third person, the stories in A Kind of Dream follow these people through their struggles with abandonment and loss, forgiveness and starting over. The language is rich, the images startling; the characters and their voices are distinct and believable; the pain is deeply felt and the humor well-timed. In sum, it is a beautiful book.

JIM MINICK. Since you write in many genres, I’m curious as to how you know what genre a particular idea calls to? How do you decide if an idea is poetry or fiction?

KELLY CHERRY. There was briefly a time when I didn’t always know. A poem I was working on became a story. But now it’s easy to tell how an idea wants to be developed. If it begins as a sentence, it’s a story; if it begins as a line, it’s a poem; if it begins with a paragraph, it’s an essay; if it begins with a scene, it’s a novel. Whether everyone agrees with this, I don’t know, but it works for me.

I believe different ideas are best expressed in different genres. I’ve always had ideas, and I enjoy working in several genres because doing so keeps me busy. When I’m stuck, or when I’ve finished a draft, I set it aside while I work on something else. In the beginning, I worried about not getting back to what I’d set aside but soon discovered that what is set aside is not forgotten; on the contrary, the subconscious continues to work and when I return to the set-aside I see what remains to be improved upon. This means I always have several works in progress. At the moment, I have eight books I’m more or less in the middle of: four of poetry (three are essentially done), one of short-shorts, two of nonfiction, and maybe a novel (at least I started a novel, but my husband hates it, so I may give up on it). The worst thing about this method—which I didn’t intend to develop but which suits my mind—is that it means my desk is always swamped with books and papers and I can never find what I’m looking for. The best thing is I’m never bored. Writing is exciting.

JM. How do you capture character through sentences?

KC. This is an interesting question and one I’ve never thought about as a question. But Character A has speech rhythms and diction and slang that differ from those of Character B. Unfortunately, capturing each character is not easily done, and there have been times when I’ve been criticized for not differentiating characters clearly enough. I take comfort in the sad fact that very few writers are successful in this respect but to do it successfully should be one of the aims of all of us who write. And by “successfully” I mean not resorting to caricature or cartoon. We all consider or discover many of the same ideas, excluding, perhaps, the Theory of Relativity or Niels Bohr’s Principle of Complementarity or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, but we express them in ways that vary from one another. It’s how we express them that gives us away to our listeners.

In A Kind of Dream, I have characters who belong to different generations. That in itself was an advantage in distinguishing them. And their ages played a role, too.

A literary scholar at the University of Wisconsin Madison who worked on Sherwood Anderson corralled a bunch of us writers in the hallway one day to announce that if we wanted to be great writers we had to be able to write men, women, and children. He seemed to be throwing down a gauntlet. I suppose none of us had thought of our writing in those terms because they are so obvious. I think we all took his statement seriously, though one of the writers present that day has seemed contrarily to delight specifically in ignoring his comment.

JM. How did you come to the structure of A Kind of Dream? It follows a fairly straight chronology, but how did you decide which story to create next and where to place it in the whole?

KC. There are parallels with the two previous books in the trilogy that I wanted to continue in the third. I created the stories out of order. Deciding where to place each story was a matter of trying this, then that: such play is an important part of writing anything. Nevertheless I knew “On Familiar Terms” would be the first because many readers would not have read the previous books and needed to be introduced to the characters, and “All the Little Dogs” was destined to be last.

JM. When did you originally envision a trilogy of short story collections? How did you come to this idea?

KC. When I wrote the first collection, My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers, I was playing with the idea of “the child within,” a phrase very commonly used in the eighties and nineties. I thought I was being quite clear about this; for example, the last story in that collection is full of clues suggesting Tavy is “the child within” Nina. But almost no one got it. Alan Cheuse, for one, thought the ending was horribly sentimental because he didn’t get it. But I couldn’t rewrite the book. Eventually, I realized the only avenue open to me was to agree that Tavy was real and write another book that would show that I was not a dreadful sentimentalist.

The first story I wrote for the first book was “War and Peace.” The editor wanted more material up front, fearing that “War and Peace” would be too shocking without some buffering, and so I placed it third and added a prologue.

One of the epigraphs to the first collection was Dante’s “In the midway of this our mortal life. . .” I used it simply because it deals with Nina in midlife. That book clearly was an “Inferno”; Nina was trying hard to get out of hell. If she made it, she would enter “Purgatorio.” I did not try to draw correspondences between stories and cantos or to fathom the intricacies of Dante’s long poem; I wasn’t writing for his audience, but the broad trajectory of the trilogy was now apparent to me. (I did try to make the number of stories altogether come to 33 or 34, but alas, they come to 35.) There would also have to be a “Paradiso.”

I was walking my little dog, Duncan, around the neighborhood when a sentence slipped into my mind: “At five-thirty I pick up my wife and she says Let’s take home Thai.” So far as I know, it came out of nowhere, but of course sentences and narratives and poetic lines are all over the place; they float around us. All that’s necessary is to listen and choose. The story is “How It Goes” and it comes rather late in the book, but having developed Larry, whose wife is leaving him, I realized that Purgatory was a neighborhood in which the neighbors had problems or difficulties to solve. I even threw in a freelance ethicist. If there’s a town where a freelance ethicist could flourish, it’s Madison, Wisconsin.

The first book was about Nina from her own point of view. The second, The Society of Friends, was a mix: more or less half of the stories are about Nina and the other half is about her neighbors (and her dog). A Kind of Dream is in third person, allowing the reader to see Nina more clearly than she perhaps saw herself.

I waited a long time to write the third book because I wanted to be older than she was when she died. A superstition, maybe, or maybe an instinct that I had to learn about ageing before I tackled the end of her life.

If the books are ever republished as a set or in a single volume—I know how difficult it may be to find a publisher who will do that—the title of the first book will change to “What I Don’t Tell People.” I should have titled it that in the first place but I had ghastly visions of reviewers saying I sure wish you hadn’t told me. The title of the trilogy is “A Divine Comedy,” which is how one of the women at Nina’s brother’s funeral describes his play. The title A Kind of Dream is taken from the last paragraph of the first collection.

JM. Do you talk about a work-in-progress with friends or strangers, or keep it quiet until you think a draft is complete? Why?

KC. I know some writers think it’s a mistake to talk about a piece before it’s finished because the energy you have for writing it will drain away. That’s never been my problem. And friends have always been helpful when I got stuck trying to decide whether to do this or that, change this word or punctuation mark or that. My husband is very helpful about these things too. But it’s probably about time I made my own decisions, although I never just accepted suggestions; I thought about them and tried them out and often came up with another alternative. In any case, talking about a work-in-progress doesn’t alleviate my need to get it down on paper.

My best guess is that on average each of my books takes ten years to write, but the time a particular book takes can be much, much longer or somewhat shorter. The idea for one of the poetry books that’s almost done came to me in 1975, but I couldn’t find funding to take time off. In all my years at UW-Madison I had exactly one sabbatical, and in that era the support for a sabbatical was too limited to do research in the places where I needed to do research. (I’m told things have gotten much better there.) So we can say that book has taken forty years to complete.

JM. What’s your favorite part of the writing process and why?

KC. Revising. I love revising, right up to the part where I have to check copyedited manuscript. That’s my least favorite stage. Too much tension, too much staring at the page, too much double-, triple-. and quadruple-checking. Also, there was a time in my life when I earned my living by copyediting. I’ve done enough of it.

JM. How has your teaching informed your writing? What have you learned about your own writing and about writing in general from teaching?

KC. I’m pretty sure that the answer expected here is that teaching taught me a lot about writing, but I don’t think it did. Teaching is a pleasure because most students are serious about learning, are congenial people, and are interesting in their ambitions and hopes. But writing is something one does away from the classroom, away from students, away from other writers. In fact, writing takes one away from everything. Time vanishes. The world recedes.

I certainly learned some things from my own teachers, and just as, I imagine, every writer, I think I’ve learned some things from writing. I would like to pass that knowledge on. But I no longer teach regularly. That might be another book.

JIM MINICK is the author of The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family, and winner of the SIBA Best Nonfiction Book of the Year Award. Minick has also written a collection of essays, Finding a Clear Path, two books of poetry, Her Secret Song and Burning Heaven. Minick’s work has appeared in many publications including Shenandoah, Oxford American, Orion, San Francisco Chronicle, Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Conversations with Wendell Berry, The Sun, Appalachian Journal, Bay Journal News, and Wind. Currently, he is a core faculty member teaching creative nonfiction in Converse College’s low-residency MFA program. He is also pursuing an MFA in fiction from UNC-Greensboro, where he is The Fred Chappell Fellow and Fiction Editor for The Greensboro Review. www.jim-minick.com.