How I Write—Kim Barnes
Interview by Buddy Levy
Kim Barnes’s debut book, the memoir In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country (Doubleday, 1996) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, affirming her as a major new voice. She has since published another memoir and two novels. Her most recent novel, A Country Called Home, was named a best book of 2008 by The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, and The Oregonian. She has received the PEN/Jerard Award for an emerging woman writer of nonfiction. Barnes writes with lyric power and grace, her sentences infused with music, intonation, and incantation, her characters weaving their difficult ways toward redemption. Barnes received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana and is a faculty member of the University of Idaho’s MFA program in Moscow, Idaho. Her forthcoming novel, called American Mecca (Knopf, 2011), is set in 1960’s Saudi Arabia.
I’m fascinated by how story informs and defines our lives. I believe in archetypal narratives, and I love to explore how my characters’ journeys might fit into the classical arc of tragedy or take the shape of a quest narrative. The process of writing—of discovering and imposing a narrative of meaning on the chaos of my characters’ lives--fills me with a deep sense of wonder and purpose.
Often my ideas come out of some rich piece of family mythology, but I could just as easily write a novel off a sentence found in a newspaper ad. It’s the possibility of hope and the probability of loss that I find most compelling. I never know where the idea for a book is going to come from, but I’m always “listening” for words and phrases that resonate not at the level of story necessarily, but at the level of music. I often begin with sound versus narrative and begin to develop the story from a lyrical grouping of words that has caught my ear. For me, story is all about discovery.
In Hemingway, I recognize the kind of classic struggle against one’s fate that has defined my family’s mythology and informs the lives of my characters. In Toni Morrison, I see someone who takes archetypal narratives, reassembles them into stories we’ve never seen before, and places them in a setting so detailed and animate that we can feel its intent, whether malevolent or benign. Cormac McCarthy uses language to create new worlds out of some of the most ancient of story lines. Each of these authors represents a level of mythological realism and mystical language that I strive to attain.
When and Where:
When our children were very young, I wrote whenever, wherever, and however I could: standing at the kitchen counter, nursing my son as I scratched out a few words on a paper towel. Later I developed a defined routine: I saw the children to the bus, sat down at my desk, and wrote until they returned late that afternoon. I chose time over money and taught two days a week at a local college. Three days a week, I wrote. I’ve written in motel rooms, parks, and bars, and I now have my own office, but this remains my ideal schedule. I cherish writing all day Monday, reading my new pages that evening, and going to bed knowing that I’ll be back at it Wednesday and Friday. I strive to keep my writing time separate and sacred. If you don’t protect your writing time, who will?
Revision is particular to the individual. I thrive on revision, yet another part of the journey of discovery. By the time I finish a book, I’ve gone over every word, phrase, and sentence hundreds of times. By page 300, I practically know the pages by heart. This is especially helpful when I discover, as I always do, that I need to rearrange a scene or give my main character’s early words to her antagonist later in the book. What I’m looking for—listening for—is harmony, echoing, and unity. I want my language to evolve, my images to resonate, my characters to progress, and my action to resolve.
Most budding writers know what they want to write—they just don’t know how. The simplest advice I can offer is the advice that respected editor Carol Houck Smith once gave me: start at the beginning and go to the end. Sometimes, we fuss with the story’s presentation—we mess with the chronology or add interesting little flourishes that speak more of our facility with words than of our deep and abiding interest in the plight of our characters. Describe the setting, get your characters on the stage, and set them into action—this is what scene is made up of. Now do that again, and again. Just tell the story.