Q&A: Katrina Kenison

There are a lot of wonderful writers living in our state. As the Director of the NH Center for the Book  I get the opportunity to talk to many of them. This interview series of Q&As with New Hampshire authors here on Book Notes lets me share that experience a bit with my blog readers. 

Katrina Kenison
If someone hasn't read your work yet, where should they start?
That depends on what stage of life you’re in. When my two sons were small, I constantly had to remind myself: if I raced through my life, I’d miss it. I wanted time to enjoy my children as children, time to play games on the floor, daydream, and read aloud at bedtime. Writing Mitten Strings for God, my first book, was a way for me, as a young mother, to stay in touch with my wiser self. These brief reflections on parenting were really about learning to pause each day and make sure I was appreciating life as we were living it. 
Ten years later, as the mother of two teenagers, I was in a very different stage of life, fumbling through the complicated dance of holding on and letting go.  I wrote The Gift of an Ordinary Day in an attempt to capture some of the conflicting feelings of those adolescent years.  Living with teenagers is a challenge, but we can’t quite imagine life without them, either. 
And then, as all children must do, my sons grew up.  Magical Journey was written from that raw and tender place of parting, of acknowledging that a long and significant chapter of my life as a mother and as a woman had come to an end.  I definitely took risks in this book, risks that I wouldn’t have dared take before.  It is more personal, more searching, and more revealing of my own self-doubts and questions.  I think I’ve felt safe opening up to that extent in part because I’ve learned I can trust my readers, knowing we truly ARE on this journey of growth and transformation together, and that I’m not alone in these feelings of loss and confusion, uncomfortable as they are to acknowledge.

When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
I wrote all the time as a child and right up through college.  And then I spent years working as an editor in New York and Boston, bringing other people’s work into the world.  I never thought of myself as a writer during that time, except for catalog and jacket flap copy, which I always loved doing.  It wasn’t until I had children of my own and began to reflect deeply on what it meant to be a mother, and on the values I wanted my own life to uphold, that I began to write, in part as a way of reminding myself to do what I said.  Certainly my writing has shaped the person I’ve become, just as motherhood has given me my subject.

How did you end up living in NH?
I grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from high school in Milford in 1976, eager to escape small-town life and get out into the world.  All through college and beyond, I was pretty certain that my goal was to flee my provincial past and create a bigger, more impressive life than the one I’d left behind.  So, it was a bit ironic that when our older son was ready for high school, all he wanted was to escape from the high-pressured Boston suburb where my husband and I had lived for thirteen years and where our children had been born.  We went looking for an alternative and wound up falling in love with High Mowing School in Wilton and with a piece of property in Peterborough.  By then, my husband was running his own small business from home, and I could do my editorial work from anywhere.  We decided to take a leap and make a change – a change that brought me full circle, right back to the area where I’d started from.  (In fact, we moved in with my parents for three years, while we sold our house in Massachusetts and built our new house – so I literally returned, with two teenagers, a husband, and a dog, to my family’s home.) Coming back to live in the state I was so eager to leave as a teenager, I saw it in a whole new light, as a wonderful place to raise a family and write and sink deep roots.

Where do you like to write?
In bed.  I wrote most of Magical Journey upstairs in Henry’s bedroom, which looks pretty much the same as it did on the day he went to college.  I could leave my stuff spread out all over his bed, and then just close the door on it and leave it at the end of the day.  And working in my son’s room was a way to feel close to him even though he was half-way across the country, completing his senior year of school. 

How important is place in your writing?
Since we moved back to New Hampshire, place has become increasingly important in my writing.  Sometimes, when I’m having trouble getting a piece started, I look out the window and just begin writing about what I see – the mountains that are different at every hour of the day, the great expanse of sky, the pristine sweep of snow across the field.  I don’t always end up using those descriptions, but they never fail to get my creative juices flowing.  I love where I live, and so it gives me great pleasure to translate that love into words.

What do you do when you aren't writing?
Answer email! Because my books are so personal and intimate in tone, they do seem to have the effect of freeing others to share their stories, just as I’ve shared mine. I get lots of letters from readers, and each one is a special honor; it means a great deal to know that someone was moved enough by one of my books to take the time to write to me. And so I always write back. When I’m not at my laptop, I love to cook, to practice yoga, to hike in the woods. And reading is, as always, my greatest passion.

What books do you love and what about them speaks to you?
I love the work of my friend and neighbor in Peterborough, Thomas Moore, who wrote Care of the Soul and The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life, and many other extraordinarily wise books.  I was a huge fan long before I ever met him, and it was one of those curious and wonderful twists of fate that brought both of our families to live within a mile of one another, after I’d been reading and admiring and quoting from his work for years.  I adore Donald Hall, another New Hampshire icon, and I had the joy of being his editor years ago at Houghton Mifflin.  I was in my twenties and living in New York City at the time, and reading his passionate evocations of life in rural New Hampshire made me look at my home state through fresh eyes.  Suddenly, it seemed like a special and desirable place.  I remember reading a piece he wrote about winter in New Hampshire while riding a bus down Broadway in Manhattan, and it made me intensely homesick for the silence of a snowfall in the woods, the reassuring sound of the snowplow churning slowly up the road in the dark, frost on windowpanes.   

What's the best piece of advice (writing or otherwise) you were ever given?
It came from an artist, a friend who is mainly a painter.  She told me that even when she has filled a canvas with work she thinks is terrible, she forces herself to keep on painting.  Instead of throwing in the towel and starting a fresh piece, she paints until what she began is truly finished.  She calls it “painting through the uglies.”  And she said that learning to paint through the uglies is what made her a real painter.  My own inner critic is pretty loud and insistent; I tend to think that whatever I’m working on is awful, which always feels like a good reason to stop and try something else.  Instead, I now make myself “write through the uglies.”  It’s a way of reserving judgment until later, rather than criticizing every word as I put it down.

What are you working on now?
Mostly these days I’m visiting bookstores and libraries and doing talks and readings and book signings.  Magical Journey was published in January, and that means that my real job, for at least the next few months, is to get out of the house and spread the word about it.  Fortunately, I have a lot of help – it is definitely a word-of-mouth book, and there seem to be many women, from all walks of life, who are reading it and then saying to a friend, “Here, I think you’ll like this, too.”  They are buying multiple copies.  That, to me, is the highest compliment a writer could ever hope for.


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